Colin Powell believed in leadership — and he was a smart, popular leader

Maj. Gen. Colin Powell was Caspar Weinberger’s recently appointed military assistant when I met him in the fall of 1983. He had succeeded Maj. Gen. Carl Smith as Secretary of Defense Weinberger’s military assistant. But the Pentagon’s E-ring was familiar territory for him; he had served briefly as Frank Carlucci’s assistant when Carlucci became Weinberger’s deputy in 1981. All three men had worked together before. Powell was a White House Fellow in the Nixon administration’s Office of Management and Budget when Weinberger was its director and Carlucci his deputy.

When Powell took office, I had only a passing acquaintance with Weinberger, having been his action officer in the Pentagon’s support of the United Kingdom during the Falklands War. By all rights, Powell could have ignored me — after all, I was a very junior staffer in the policy office. Yet he was both friendly and supportive. I came to know him well when we flew together to Quebec on a small military jet. The occasion was Ronald Reagan’s 1985 summit meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. It was called the “Shamrock Summit” because both men had Irish roots.

During the flight, Powell regaled me with stories of his youth in a Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx. He talked about his childhood with a wry sense of humor, entertaining me with his knowledge of Yiddish, which may well have been his second language. 

Powell went on to earn his degree from City College, which had a very competitive admissions policy. He joined the Army after having been ROTC at college and served with distinction as he moved up the ranks. Subsequent to his supporting Weinberger as his confidential military aide, he served as a Corps commander and as deputy to national security adviser Carlucci, and then succeeded his friend Carlucci as Reagan’s national security adviser when Carlucci returned to the Pentagon as Weinberger’s successor.

As national security adviser, Powell believed in leadership, not merely management. His staff was lean but talented. Though he had joined the Army during the height of the Cold War, Powell continued Reagan’s push to bring it to an end. He retained his rank as lieutenant general (as did H.R. McMaster years later when he, too, served as national security adviser) and then quickly earned his fourth star, moving back to the Army as head of its Forces Command in the first years of the George H.W. Bush presidency. 

Everyone who knew Powell recognized that it was a short-term job. He simply was too talented. Many expected him to become Army Chief of Staff — but he did one better. When Bush named Powell to be the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (and its first and only Yiddish-speaking chairman) it was an inspired choice. Powell presided over the post-Cold War reduction of the armed forces, which he termed “the Base Force.” He developed the Powell Doctrine, built upon Weinberger’s stringent conditions for going to war. He took full advantage of the powers that the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act had granted the chairman and served as Bush’s top adviser as the United States smashed Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces in the 1990-91 Gulf War. His war briefings wowed television audiences. 

Powell’s popularity reached stratospheric levels and there was talk of his running for president on the Republican ticket. He declined to do so, reportedly because his wife Alma worried for his safety. He remained an exceedingly popular figure and his appointment to Secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration was widely hailed. He chose his close friend, the tough-talking Rich Armitage, as his deputy and the two men were popular with the State Department’s foreign service officers and civilian staff.

Powell did not get along with my boss, Don Rumsfeld, however. When the other leading Bush administration national security officials pressed for attacking Iraq shortly after having launched the war in Afghanistan, Powell reluctantly supported doing so but conditioned it on Washington’s winning international backing. In February 2003 he asserted to the United Nations Security Council, shortly before the attack on Iraq, that Saddam possessed biological weapons and was proceeding with a nuclear weapons program. His instincts were sound, underscored by America’s subsequent travails as the war dragged on.

But the speech about weapons damaged his credibility and overshadowed his previously stellar career. It also aggravated the difficult relations between the departments of State and Defense. Indeed, the friction between the two agencies seemed to know few bounds. It appeared to me, as one who actually did get along with my State counterparts, that the two agencies sometimes were virtually at war with each other. 

I was fortunate to remain in touch with Powell after his retirement. He stayed active, starting a program to encourage and support the careers of young Black Americans and establishing The Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at his alma mater, City College. 

Powell was a longtime Republican but was not really a “party man.” His primary concern at all times was what was best for the country that he had served so long and loved so well.

May the memory of this heroic and exceedingly decent American be a blessing, especially in these troubled times.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Afghanistan and Iraq wars Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell Frank Carlucci George Bush Powell Doctrine secretary of State

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