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A life remembered: Colin Powell

William Inboden | The great soldier-statesman defended America and American exceptionalism

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell speaks at the 2004 World Economic Forum in Jordan. Associated Press/Photo by Hussein Malla

A life remembered: Colin Powell
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In February 2002, just a few months after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a snarky young European steeped in anti-Americanism posed a question to Secretary of State Colin Powell: “How do you feel about representing a country commonly perceived as the Satan of contemporary politics?”

Powell, his dander up, responded first with an eloquent defense of the American system of democratic capitalism, ordered liberty, and international leadership. Then he said this:

Far from being the Great Satan, I would say that we are the Great Protector … We defeated Fascism. We defeated Communism. We saved Europe in World War I and World War II … And when all those conflicts were over, what did we do? … Did we say “Okay, we defeated Germany. Now Germany belongs to us? We defeated Japan, so Japan belongs to us”? No … We built them up. We gave them democratic systems which they have embraced totally to their soul. And did we ask for any land? No, the only land we ever asked for was enough land to bury our dead.”

This was Powell at his best: fiercely defending our nation and our values, rebuking his sanctimonious interrogator, and reminding the world that American exceptionalism includes magnanimity in victory. Unlike the custom of plunder and conquest, when the United States wins a war, we claim no soil other than for the graves of our fallen. The American military cemeteries across Europe, at Omaha Beach and elsewhere, bear solemn witness to this history.

Powell’s defense of American honor was bolstered by his own decorated combat record in the Vietnam War and his multiple Cold War deployments to West Germany. He commanded U.S. Army forces standing sentinel at the Fulda Gap to deter a Soviet invasion. He lived what he believed.

Colin Powell died this week. As our nation mourns this old soldier, we do well to reflect on his remarkable life, the classic embodiment of the American dream. Born in Harlem to Jamaican immigrant parents of modest means, he joined ROTC as a City College of New York student, commissioning as an Army officer on graduation. His intelligence, discipline, and drive fueled a rapid rise through the ranks, then a series of policy roles that culminated in his becoming the only American in history to serve as national security advisor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and secretary of state. Perhaps even more notable, he was the first black American in each of those positions and was appointed to all by Republican presidents: Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush.

Powell’s policy achievements included helping implement Reagan’s strategy of pressure and diplomacy to bring the Soviet Union to its knees and the Cold War to a peaceful end; overseeing the military strategy that decimated the Iraqi Army and liberated Kuwait in the 1991 Persian Gulf War; and forging the international coalition that joined the United States in toppling the Taliban and pulverizing al Qaeda following the 9/11 attacks.

Part of Powell’s record did not age well and irked me and my fellow conservatives, including his unbecoming streak of vainglory, his social liberalism, and an unfortunate habit in his later years of endorsing Democrats. But on this occasion of his death, I suggest that—while not overlooking his flaws—we weigh his American life in full and celebrate his virtues.

In that spirit, I close with the following. I served at the State Department under Powell for two years. For much of this time, I worked in the International Religious Freedom office. Among the many issues we addressed, one of the most vexing was Saudi Arabia: at once the most important global producer of hydrocarbons, a key American security partner—and a horrific persecutor of religious minorities, especially Christians.

I traveled twice to Riyadh to negotiate with Saudi authorities over their reprehensible torment of Christians and other non-Wahhabi religious believers. This included moments I shall never forget: worshipping at 3:00 am with intrepid Filipino believers in a hidden basement with mattresses nailed to the walls for sound-proofing to evade the Saudi secret police and covert meetings with Bible smugglers operating under cover of multinational petroleum companies. Sadly, our negotiations with Saudi leaders availed not. They remained intransigent in their insistence on persecuting Christians.

On returning to Washington, I joined my boss, Ambassador John Hanford, in recommending to Secretary Powell that the United States sanction Saudi Arabia as a “Country of Particular Concern” for its egregious religious intolerance. The Near East Affairs Bureau and career bureaucracy vehemently disagreed. To his everlasting credit and with Bush’s approval, Powell overruled these objections and sanctioned the Saudis, putting them in ignominious company with other oppressor states such as North Korea, Iran, China, and Sudan. On this occasion, he stood fast with the people of God.

Nations are built upon common memories. Gen. Colin Powell deserves his place in the American memory.

William Inboden

William Inboden is executive director and William Powers, Jr. Chair at the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for National Security at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and editor-in-chief of the Texas National Security Review. Previously he served as senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council at the White House. Inboden also worked at the Department of State as a member of the Policy Planning Staff and a special advisor in the Office of International Religious Freedom.


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"Unlike the custom of plunder and conquest, when the United States wins a war, we claim no soil other than for the graves of our fallen." Really? Tell that to multiple Native American tribes.


Well stated!


Very good. Thanks

Kristopher Alden

Thanks for the perspective, Will.