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Commentary: Colin Powell Is No Hero

By Walter Simpson

Buffalo, NY – A hundred protestors stood outside Alumni Arena when distinguished speaker Colin Powell came to UB last month. Thousands walked past, entered the arena, and gave him a standing ovation. How perceptions can differ.

Colin Powell remains one of the most popular political figures in the United States. This four star general was National Security Advisor for President Ronald Reagan and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for President George Bush Senior. As Secretary of State during the first term of the current Bush Administration, Colin Powell became the highest ranking African American in government service in U.S. history.

By many he is viewed as a hero -- the embodiment of leadership and integrity, and a political moderate who, for four years, stood up to Bush's right-wing hardliners. Powell is often portrayed as a dove holding off the hawks but in reality he directly contributed to the prosecution of what many believe is an illegal and unnecessary war in Iraq.

Powell originally opposed invading Iraq but on February 5, 2003, he put his prestige on the line and appeared before the UN Security Council as Bush Administration flunky, rationalizing the pending war with phony evidence about Hussein's non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

I remember watching Powell on TV and thinking, this is so transparent, so unconvincing that they won't get away with it. But they did in large part because the press immediately declared Powell persuasive and convincing. As usual, they gave him a pass. Instead of showing skepticism, which I thought was required of journalists, the news commentators and talking heads swallowed Powell's performance hook line and sinker. Misinformation or lies, take your pick, went unchallenged.

Powell recently said he regrets what he did and described it as a blot on his record. But that would hardly seem enough. He reduced his credibility to zero and helped launch an awful war.

While allegedly a straight shooter, Powell says little about how foreign policy was really conducted by the Bush Administration. But his former chief of staff, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, has broken the silence. Wilkerson recently said that there was a cabal between Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and a small group of others to secretly hijack U.S. foreign policy.

One might think that public servant Colin Powell would have discussed this critical development in his speech. But he didn't, and Wilkerson admits that his breach has cost him his relationship with Powell. Powell is a good soldier. He follows orders and shuts up. He remain loyal to the Bush war machine.

Powell deserves some bloody credit for this war which he supported. 2,000 Americans dead. As many as a hundred thousand Iraqis dead. With no end in sight, this war has cost the citizens of Erie County alone over $750 million. Imagine the good that money could have done had it not been siphoned off to support bloodshed halfway around the globe.

Reviewing Colin Powell's career is chilling. In 1968, during the Vietnam War, when asked to investigate the My Lai massacre where hundreds of innocent men, women, and children were brutally slaughtered by American soldiers, Powell down played the incident and reported back to his superiors that "relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent."

During the mid to late 1980s, when the United States was supporting dictatorships and death squads in Latin America, Powell was a key player. In 1989, he commanded the invasion of Panama to capture former U.S. ally General Manuel Noriega. Thousands of civilians were killed in that assault. He also played a role in the Iran-Contra Affair, arranging an illegal arms sale to Iran to provide funding for the murderous Nicaraguan Contras.

In 1991, Powell and his subordinate, General Normal Schwarzkopf, presided over unbelievable carnage in Desert Storm, the first Gulf oil war. 200,000 Iraqis were killed without a fight and many while retreating. On what became called the "highway of death" they were just mowed down. Many in sand trenches were buried alive by tanks wielding ploughs. There was nothing heroic about this massacre but Powell and Schwarzkopf were deemed heroes for conducting it.

Powell also played a key role in redefining news coverage of war. While Americans at home were treated to TV images of smart bombs surgically hitting their targets during Desert Storm, Powell and his colleagues knew that the vast majority of bombs did not have this kind of accuracy and that surely many civilians were being killed by napalm and indiscriminant cluster bombs which kill and maim by spewing shrapnel.

On March 23, 1991, in a New York Times article, Powell was asked how many Iraqi civilians had been killed in Desert Storm He replied "It's really not a number I'm terribly interested in." Colin, we appreciate your honesty. Now can we take back that standing ovation?

"Reality Check" with Commentator Walter Simpson is a monthly feature of WBFO News.