Two highly regarded generals serving two very different U.S. presidents faced their own crises. One stepped down and the other helped launch the war in Iraq.
Jim Mattis’ resignation as President Donald Trump’s Defense Secretary has been lauded as an exemplar of professional integrity. Even White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders praised the act as “the right and honorable thing.” The retired Marine general made clear in his resignation letter that he could no longer serve an administration whose defense policies were so divergent from his own priorities.
Fifteen years ago, another prominent retired general, Colin Powell, was pilloried for not resigning over the George W. Bush administration’s plan to invade Iraq. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, for example, derided the secretary of state’s decision to remain in Bush’s cabinet as a “profile in cravenness.”
The Powell controversy emerged after Bob Woodward’s 2004 book “Plan of Attack” portrayed him as the single senior adviser who had warned the president about the consequences of toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime. Powell reportedly cautioned the president, “You will become the government …. You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people. You will own all their hopes, aspirations and problems.” At the same time, Powell also made the administration’s most powerful case for war in his Feb. 5, 2003, speech to the United Nations Security Council.
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How could Powell, the trusted hero of the Persian Gulf War, privately oppose a second war with Iraq and also publicly — and vigorously — support it? To this day, many people believe that Powell lost his moral compass and failed the country by not resigning in the principled manner that Secretary Mattis has done.
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This line of criticism, however, remains unwarranted; it mistakenly presumes that Powell opposed the Iraq war. The secretary did oppose an impulsive, premature rush to war, one without congressional authorization and a new U.N. resolution, but that is far from opposing the war altogether. “The dissent” within the administration, Powell later clarified, “was over the pace at which to approach the problem and how to take it to the international community.”
Powell’s actual failure in the lead up to the war was not a matter of ethics but rather a failure of discernment. In short, Powell and other government leaders suffered from a classic — indeed, catastrophic — case of confirmation bias, whereby they dismissed information that conflicted with what they believed to be true about Iraq and amplified intelligence that seemed to confirm their dire and erroneous beliefs.
The secretary’s U.N. presentation relied extensively on the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) regarding “Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction,” and Powell presented his case with categorical certitude. “Every statement I make today,” he declared, “is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid evidence.”
Despite Powell’s assurances, a close examination of the 93-page NIE, which was made public just three years ago, reveals gaping holes in the intelligence regarding Iraq’s WMD stockpiles and programs and its relationship with al-Qaida. When comparing the NIE to Powell’s U.N. address, one can see that the secretary chose to embrace assertions that incriminated Saddam Hussein. He also depreciated or ignored numerous qualifications about the scarceness of reliable information and the NIE’s conclusion that Saddam Hussein was disinclined to deploy WMD or share them with terrorists. Three quick examples:
- In his Feb. 5, 2003 U.N. speech, the secretary proclaimed that there was absolutely “no doubt” about Iraq’s possession of biological weapons, which could “cause massive death and destruction.” But the NIE also reported that Iraq’s biological weapons program “continues to be difficult to penetrate and access, and we do not have specific information on the types of weapons, agent, or stockpiles Baghdad has at its disposal,” and “Our understanding of Iraq’s current BW delivery systems is limited.”
- “Equally chilling,” Powell continued, were Iraq’s “vast amounts” of chemical weaponry. However, the NIE acknowledged, “We have little specific information” on Iraq’s chemical weapons and “the paucity of detailed intelligence” makes determining the location of suspected stockpiles and production facilities “extremely difficult.”
- As for Iraq’s nuclear program, Powell stated, “There is no doubt in my mind” that Saddam Hussein was “very much focused” on developing weapons and “already possesses two out of three key components needed to build a bomb.” But the NIE also stated, “Today we have less direct access and know even less about the current status of Iraq’s nuclear program than we did before the Gulf War when [there were] significant collection gaps [in the intelligence].” The State Department’s own intelligence agency concluded that there was no “compelling reason” to believe that Saddam Hussein would possess nuclear weapons in the coming decade.
In brief, 16 years ago the Bush administration, relying on bad and incomplete intelligence, saw peril in Iraq where peril did not exist. Today, the Trump administration, despite having good incontrovertible intelligence, discounts the peril presented by Russia. To his credit, Colin Powell eventually assumed some responsibility for promoting an ill-conceived war with Iraq, and because he had been acting in good faith, there had been no reason for a principled resignation. Unlike James Mattis, Powell wittingly supported his president’s disastrous defense policy.