REFUND THIS: Like about 2,025 other people, I wedged my soggy
self into a seat at the Arlington Theatre last Friday night to see
former secretary of state Colin Powell. He was there, ostensibly,
to talk about leadership. I harbored some delusions that he might
talk about some other things, too. Like how he’d been totally
punked by the Bush White House. Or how he sold the War on Iraq to
the United Nations Security Council under false pretenses by
repeating some serious whoppers known at the time to be
false — like that Saddam Hussein was pursuing a nuclear weapons
program. Or how the Butcher of Baghdad was somehow responsible for
carnage at the World Trade Center by supporting Al Qaeda. Tickets
for the Powell show went for 50 bucks. I know that’s cheap compared
to the old-fogy revival rock bands now clogging our local music
venues, but to me, it seemed like a lot. Then I got
lucky — somebody gave me a free ticket. But after listening to
Powell for about 90 minutes, I was sure of one thing: I wanted my
money back. It wasn’t so much what he didn’t say. It was more how
he didn’t say it.

Let’s dispense with the niceties. The guy looked fabulous. Few
men wear a suit so well. And as he noted, he’d been profiled by
Time magazine as one of the five most gracefully aging men in
America, sandwiched between the likes of Paul Newman and Robert
Redford. You could see why. He was perfectly likeable, charming,
and funny. He did a better-than-average impersonation of Ronald
Reagan — whom he advised. And his running “Yes, dear” gags about
his long-suffering wife was guaranteed to raise a chuckle.
Likewise, the meat of Powell’s chat was as fluffy as a barn full of
cotton candy. The world today is a better, safer, more democratic
place than when he first put starch to his military collar 40 years
ago. And America is a warm, generous nation even if some of us make
fun of foreigners who put ketchup on their pizza.

But things threatened to get interesting when Powell finally got
around to the question of leadership — the subject of his new book,
The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell. He explained that good
leaders stand for something definite, they inspire the trust of
their followers, and they exhibit moral courage. Given how Powell
failed utterly on all three counts when he helped Bush win world
approval for a war about which Powell himself had serious
reservations, I wondered if this was rhetorical foreplay for the
big mea culpa that was to come. After all, only Powell enjoyed the
deep respect, admiration, and affection of the world community
necessary to persuade the UN Security Council that the United
States had no choice but to attack Iraq. It was Powell’s speech
before the United Nations that secured the international approval
the White House so desperately needed to wage what any fool knew
was the wrong war at the wrong time against the wrong enemy. How
did he do it? By telling fibs. He trotted out the old one about
Saddam looking to buy a couple hundred tons of yellow cake from the
impoverished West African nation of Niger. The charge was based on
documents peddled to an Italian journalist and then disseminated to
every intelligence agency in the Western world. Upon investigation,
it was the opinion of all but a very few that the charge was a
hoax: The documents were obvious forgeries incompetently rendered.
(Besides, Iraq already had tons of yellow cake, but lacked the
technical means to convert them into weapons-grade uranium.
Acquiring more yellow cake would have added nothing to their war
machine.) In addition, Powell warned the UN about Hussein’s weapons
of mass destruction, and all but accused the Iraqi dictator of
hosting Al Qaeda terrorists. Even excusing Powell for overstating
the WMD threat, there was no credible intelligence supporting a
link between Al Qaeda and Hussein. There was, however, considerable
evidence contradicting this link — and disputing the yellow cake
story — and it was available at the time, as former high-ranking
Middle East CIA operative Paul Pillar wrote in the most recent
issue of Foreign Affairs. Pillar noted that intelligence operatives
who provided information contrary to what the administration wanted
to hear were accused of sabotaging the president. (Pillar also
revealed that nobody in the administration ever sought the CIA’s
assessment of Iraq — and the postwar challenges the U.S. might
face — until one year after the invasion.)

Some of these issues were politely raised in a few of the
written questions submitted to Powell after his talk. When asked
what kind of leadership he exhibited, Powell did as all great
leaders do: He blamed the help. He was given bad info by the head
of the CIA and his No. 2 man. Then he blamed Hussein for
“intending” to have weapons of mass destruction. Even more striking
was the bland manner in which Powell dismissed the matter. You
might have thought he was explaining how he returned some DVDs to
the wrong video shop. You would never have guessed he was talking
about a war that has claimed the lives of 2,274 American soldiers
and left another 16,500 wounded. That’s in stark contrast to his
second-in-command — and close personal friend — retired Army
Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson. In recent interviews, Wilkerson said,
“I participated in a hoax on the American people, the international
community, and the United Nations Security Council. How do you
think that makes me feel? Thirty-one years in the United States
Army and I more or less end my career with that kind of blot on my
record?” To my knowledge Wilkerson is not selling any books. I
doubt he’ll be selling out the Arlington Theatre any time soon. But
should he come, I’d be happy to pay the price of admission. In the
meantime: General Powell, I want a refund.


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