- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 13, 2007


By Karen DeYoung

Knopf, $28.95, 610 pages, illus.


Gen. Colin Powell, the New York City-born son of Jamaican immigrants, determined on an Army career while in ROTC at the College of the City of New York. In the fullness of time he became the highest-ranking black officer to serve in the U.S. Army and one of the most admired men in America. He is now the subject of a splendid biography by Washington Post reporter Karen DeYoung, “Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell.”

Mr. Powell’s early career saw the usual rotation between field assignments and Army schools. Wherever he went he stood out; in 1968, for instance, he graduated second in a class of more than 1,200 in the Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Between postings, however, he encountered the harassment most blacks encountered when traveling in the South. Mr. Powell recalls, “I regarded military installations in the South as healthy cells in an otherwise sick body.”

Mr. Powell served two tours in Vietnam, and his experiences there would heavily influence his later strategic perspective. He was twice wounded, once by a punji stick and once when he escaped from a crashed helicopter but returned to the burning aircraft to rescue other passengers.

Mr. Powell was a brigadier general in 1983 when he was assigned to the staff of Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. Promotion came almost immediately, and within the Army Mr. Powell was seen as on a fast track. In 1987, at the age of 49, he was appointed national security adviser by President Ronald Reagan, and official Washington began to hear about a “Powell Doctrine,” which grew out of the debacle in Vietnam. Under the Powell Doctrine the United States must make no military commitment without decisive force, a clear objective and popular support.

At the same time, Mr. Powell never doubted his country’s moral rectitude, noting that America had repeatedly put wonderful young men and women at risk abroad, many of whom had lost their lives. “We’ve asked for nothing but enough land to bury them in.”

In 1989 Mr. Powell reached the peak of his profession when the first President Bush made him chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — the youngest man (at age 52), the first ROTC graduate and the first African American to hold that position. He recognized that luck had played a role. “First,” he once remarked, “I don’t bring any stereotypes or threatening visage [to whites].” Second, “I can overcome any stereotypes or reservations they have, because I perform well. Third thing is, I ain’t that black.”

The most important operation of Mr. Powell’s tenure as chairman was the 1991 Gulf War in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Although the deployment of some 250,000 U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia would appear to have met the requirements of the Powell Doctrine, the chairman was a reluctant warrior. He sought to exert political and economic pressure even after the consensus among Mr. Bush’s senior advisers was that war was unavoidable.

According to Ms. DeYoung, only after Iraqi forces began systematically looting Kuwait did Mr. Powell conclude that sanctions alone would not work. And when it became clear in February 1991 that the U.S.-led coalition had achieved an overwhelming victory, Mr. Powell supported the president’s decision to suspend hostilities without occupying Baghdad.

Continuing as chairman under President Bill Clinton, Mr. Powell endorsed the use of U.S. air assets to contain the crisis in the Balkans, but opposed the commitment of ground forces. He successfully advocated, in opposition to the Clinton White House, the policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” with respect to homosexuals in the armed services.

Mr. Powell’s high profile during the Gulf War, his articulate presentations on TV, and his remarkable resume combined to make him a familiar and admired figure to most Americans without regard to race. He eventually declared himself a Republican, and briefly considered a campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996. The very thought unnerved Mr. Clinton. According to Ms. DeYoung, when an aide insisted that the press would go after Mr. Powell if he became a candidate, Mr. Clinton shouted, “You’re wrong! You’re wrong! … They’re just going to give him a free ride.”

Mr. Clinton need not have worried; Mr. Powell chose not to run, reportedly on the urging of his wife, Alma. But he campaigned for the younger Mr. Bush, and to no one’s surprise was appointed secretary of state in 2001. It was a popular choice; Mr. Powell radiated an unflappable confidence, and seemed to control whatever situation he encountered.

But Mr. Powell’s appointment came at a time when the president’s inner circle, led by Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, was committed to regime change in Iraq. Mr. Powell’s opposition to the use of force there without strong international backing led to the marginalization of the State Department in key policy matters. And Mr. Powell was acutely embarrassed when it became known that his speech to the United Nations in February 2003 — in which he charged that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction — had been based on faulty intelligence.

In time, it became clear to Mr. Powell that Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld were taking over foreign affairs in many areas. Accustomed to following orders, Mr. Powell resisted suggestions from associates that he resign. In January 2005, however, Mr. Bush asked for and received Mr. Powell’s resignation.

Ms. DeYoung’s book is a model of contemporary biography, a better read than the general’s dry autobiography, “My American Journey” (1995). She leads the reader through the byzantine maze of Washington politics with a sure hand. She admires her subject but knows that his place in history is not yet determined.

One suspects that it will be a conspicuous and honorable place. Meanwhile the general is free to reflect on the old Pentagon aphorism, “Nothing in life is ever complete, either victory or defeat.”

John M. Taylor’s books include a biography of his father, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, one of Mr. Powell’s predecessors as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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