Behind Colin Powell's Legend: Part Four
 Robert Parry & Norman Solomon in Consortium News, December 26, 2000

The Commander

On June 21, 1989, in secret, the Justice Department promulgated an extraordinary legal
opinion, asserting the president's right to order the capture of fugitives from U.S. laws
even if they were living in foreign countries, even if the arrest meant ignoring extradition
treaties and international law.

The opinion had specific relevance to U.S.-Panamanian relations because a federal
grand jury in Florida had indicted Panama's military leader, Gen. Manuel Noriega, on
drug-trafficking charges.

The legal opinion also would influence the course of Colin Powell's career. The four-star
general had left Washington at the start of Bush's presidency in 1989. He had taken
charge of Forces Command at Fort McPherson in Georgia.

By August 1989, however, President George H.W. Bush and his defense secretary,
Richard Cheney, were urging Powell to return to Washington where he would become the
first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell accepted the new assignment.

His first day on the new job was Oct. 2, 1989 -- and Powell immediately joined debates
about whether to intervene in support of a home-grown Panamanian coup attempt led by
Maj. Moises Giroldi against Noriega.

"The whole affair sounded like amateur night," Powell wrote in My American Journey.
"Cheney, [Gen. Max] Thurman and I ... agreed that the United States should not get involved."

Bush accepted the advice of his military advisers. With only minimal U.S. help, the coup
failed. Noriega promptly executed Giroldi.

In the wake of the coup attempt, Bush came under fierce criticism in the news media and in Congress.
TV's armchair-warrior pundits had a field day mocking Bush's supposed timidity.

On The McLaughlin Group, conservative Ben Wattenberg charged that Bush’ only policy
was "prudence, prudence, prudence. Prudence is not a policy."

The New Republic’ Fred Barnes chimed in that Bush’ policy "is ‘when in doubt, do nothing.’
It was a massive failure of nerve. And then they come up with these whiny excuses. ... If this
were a baseball game, the fans would be going -- the choke sign."

Another pundit, Morton Kondracke, offered a joke line about the president. "Most of what
comes from George Bush’ bully pulpit is bull."

In Congress, Bush did not fare much better. Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., taunted
him as the "Revlon president" for offering only cosmetic solutions. Rep. David McCurdy,
D-Okla, declared: "There's a resurgence of the wimp factor."

According to Bob Woodward's book, The Commanders, Powell was stunned. He had
never seen "piling on of this intensity, and across the whole political spectrum. It was as if
there was a lynch mob out there."

Even more unsettling, Powell saw his own leadership at the JCS jeopardized by
Washington's super-macho political environment of the late 1980s.

Neither Bush nor Powell would make the same mistake again. They quickly built up U.S.
forces in Panama, and the administration began spoiling for a fight. "We have to put a
shingle outside our door saying, 'Superpower Lives Here'," declared Powell.

An Incident

In mid-December, the tensions between the United States and Panama exploded when
four American officers in a car ran a roadblock near the headquarters of the Panamanian
Defense Forces. PDF troops opened fire, killing one American.

Another American officer and his wife were held for questioning. After their release, the
officer alleged that he had been kicked in the groin and that his wife had been threatened with rape.

When word of this humiliation reached Washington, Bush saw American honor and his
own manhood challenged. He certainly could imagine, too, the pundits hooting about his
cowardice if he didn't act.

Powell also saw the need for decisive action. On Dec. 17, he recommended to Bush that a
large-scale U.S. military operation capture Noriega and destroy the PDF, even though the assault
might result in many civilian casualties and violate international law. The authorization for the attack
was found in the Justice Department legal opinion from almost six months earlier.

On Bush's orders, the invasion began on Dec. 20, with Powell and Cheney monitoring
developments at the Pentagon. The high-tech American assault force, using the F-117 Stealth
aircraft for the first time, incinerated the PDF headquarters and the surrounding civilian neighborhoods.

Hundreds of civilians -- possibly thousands, according to some human rights observers --
perished in the first few hours of the attack. An estimated 315 Panamanian soldiers also
died, as did 23 Americans. But Noriega eluded capture.

Best Spin

Despite the temporary setback, Powell followed his dictum of putting the best spin on a
story. Stepping before cameras at the Pentagon, Powell declared victory and played
down the disappointment over Noriega's disappearance. "This reign of terror is over,"
Powell declared. "We have now decapitated [Noriega] from the dictatorship of his country."

In the following days, as U.S. forces hunted for the little dictator, an edgy Powell
demonized Noriega over the supposed discovery of drugs and voodoo artifacts in his
safehouse. Powell started calling Noriega "a dope-sniffing, voodoo-loving thug." [The
white powder would turn out to be tamale flour, however.]

When asked once too often about the failure to capture Noriega, Powell told a reporter to "stick it."

The tragedies on the ground in Panama could sometimes be worse. On Dec. 24, shortly after midnight,
a nine-months-pregnant Panamanian woman, Ortila Lopez de Perea, went into labor.

She was helped into the family Volkswagen which was marked by a white flag. With her
husband, her mother-in-law and a neighbor, she headed to the hospital.

At a U.S. military roadblock on the Transisthmian Highway, the car stopped. The four
Panamanians requested an escort, but were told that wasn't necessary. After being
waved through, they drove another 500 yards to a second checkpoint.

But at this spot, young American troops mistook the speeding Volkswagen for a hostile vehicle.
The soldiers opened up with a 10-second barrage of automatic rifle fire.

When the shooting ended, Lopez de Perea and her 25-year-old husband Ismael were
dead. The neighbor was wounded in the stomach. The mother-in-law, though unhurt, was
hysterical. The unborn baby was dead, too.

The U.S. government would acknowledge the facts, but refuse any compensation to the
family. The Southern Command concluded that its investigation had found that the incident
"although tragic in nature, indicate[s] that the U.S. personnel acted within the parameters
of the rules of engagement in effect at that time."

On the same day as the tragic shooting, Manuel Noriega finally re-emerged. He entered
the papal nuncio's residence and sought asylum.

The United States demanded his surrender and bombarded the house with loud rock
music. On Jan. 3, 1990, in full military uniform, Noriega surrendered to U.S. Delta Forces
and was flown in shackles to Miami for prosecution on the drug charges.

With Noriega's surrender, the Panamanian carnage was over. Two days later, the
victorious Powell flew to Panama to announce that "we gave the country back to its people."


In his memoirs, Powell noted as downsides to the invasion the fact that the United Nations
and Organization of American States both censured the United States. There were also
the hundreds of civilian dead. They had been, in effect, innocent bystanders in the arrest of
Manuel Noriega.

"The loss of innocent lives was tragic," Powell wrote, "but we had made every effort to
hold down casualties on all sides." Some human rights organizations would disagree,
however, condemning the application of indiscriminate force in civilian areas.

"Under the Geneva Accords, the attacking party has the obligation to minimize harm to
civilians," one official at Americas Watch told us. Instead, the Pentagon had shown "a
great preoccupation with minimizing American casualties because it would not go over
politically here to have a large number of U.S. military deaths."

But for Inside-the-Beltway "players," there was no political price to pay for excessive
violence against Panamanians. The pundits had nothing but praise for the effective use of
military force. Powell’ star was rising, again.

Persian Gulf War

An enduring image from the Persian Gulf War is the picture of the two generals -- Colin
Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf -- celebrating the 1991 military victory in ticker-tape parades.

They seemed the perfect teammates, a politically smooth chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff (Powell) and the gruff field commander (Schwarzkopf).

But the behind-the-scenes reality often was different. Time and again in the march toward
a ground war in Kuwait and Iraq, Powell wavered between siding with Schwarzkopf, who
was willing to accept a peaceful Iraqi withdrawal, and lining up with President Bush, who
hungered for a clear military victory.

The tension peaked in the days before the ground war was scheduled to begin. Iraqi
forces already had been pummeled by weeks of devastating allied air attacks both
against targets in Iraq and Kuwait.

As the clocked toward a decision on launching a ground offensive, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev
tried to hammer out a cease-fire and a withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. President Bush and
his political leadership desperately wanted a ground war to crown the American victory.

Schwarzkopf and some of his generals in the field felt U.S. goals could be achieved through
a negotiated Iraqi withdrawal that would end the slaughter and spare the lives of U.S. troops.
With a deadline for a decision looming, Powell briefly joined the Schwarzkopf camp.

On Feb. 21, 1991, the two generals hammered out a cease-fire proposal for presentation
to the National Security Council. That last-minute peace deal would have given Iraqi forces
one week to march out of Kuwait while leaving their armor and heavy equipment behind.
Schwarzkopf thought he had Powell's commitment to pitch the plan at the White House.

But Bush was fixated on a ground war. According to insiders, he saw the war as
advancing two goals: to inflict severe damage on Saddam Hussein's army and to erase
the painful memories of America's defeat in Vietnam.

At the NSC meeting, Powell reportedly did reiterate his and Schwarzkopf's support for a
peaceful settlement, if possible. But sensing Bush's mood, Powell substituted a different
plan, shortening the one-week timetable to an unrealistic two days and, thus, making the
ground war inevitable.

Set on a Ground War

Though secret from the American people at that time, Bush had long determined that a
peaceful Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait would not be tolerated. Indeed, U.S. peace
initiatives in early 1991 had amounted to window-dressing, with Bush privately fearful that
the Iraqis might capitulate before the United States could attack.

To Bush, exorcising the "Vietnam Syndrome" demons had become an important priority
of the Persian Gulf War, almost as central to his thinking as ousting Saddam's army from Kuwait.

Conservative columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak were among the few who
described Bush's obsession publicly at the time. On Feb. 25, 1991, they wrote that the
Gorbachev initiative brokering Iraq's surrender of Kuwait "stirred fears" among Bush's
advisers that the Vietnam Syndrome might survive the Gulf War.

"There was considerable relief, therefore, when the President ... made clear he was
having nothing to do with the deal that would enable Saddam Hussein to bring his troops
out of Kuwait with flags flying," Evans and Novak wrote.

"Fear of a peace deal at the Bush White House had less to do with oil, Israel or Iraqi
expansionism than with the bitter legacy of a lost war. 'This is the chance to get rid of the
Vietnam Syndrome,' one senior aide told us."

In the book, Shadow, author Bob Woodward confirmed that Bush was adamant about
fighting a war, even as the White House pretended that it would be satisfied with an
unconditional Iraqi withdrawal.

"We have to have a war," Bush told his inner circle of Secretary of State James
Baker, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and Powell, according to Woodward.

"Scowcroft was aware that this understanding could never be stated publicly or be
permitted to leak out. An American president who declared the necessity of war would
probably be thrown out of office. Americans were peacemakers, not warmongers,"
Woodward wrote.

On Jan. 9, 1991, when Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz rebuffed an ultimatum from Baker
in Geneva, "Bush was jubilant because it was the best news possible, although he
would have to conceal it publicly," Woodward wrote.

The Air War

On Jan. 15, U.S. and allied forces launched a punishing air war, hitting targets in Baghdad
and other Iraqi cities as well as Iraqi forces in Kuwait. Weeks of devastating bombing left
tens of thousands of Iraqis dead, according to estimates.

The Iraqi forces soon seemed ready to crack. Soviet diplomats were meeting with Iraqi
leaders who let it be known that they were prepared to withdraw their troops from Kuwait.

Still, Bush recognized the military and psychological value of a smashing ground
offensive. A ground war could annihilate the Iraqi forces as they retreated while proving
America's war-fighting mettle once again.

But Schwarzkopf saw little reason for U.S. soldiers to die if the Iraqis were prepared to
withdraw and leave their heavy weapons behind. There was also the prospect of chemical
warfare that might be used by the Iraqis against advancing American troops. Schwarzkopf
saw the possibility of heavy U.S. casualties.

Powell found himself in the middle. He wanted to please Bush while still representing the
concerns of the field commanders. Stationed at the front in Saudi Arabia, Schwarzkopf
thought Powell was an ally.

"Neither Powell nor I wanted a ground war," Schwarzkopf wrote in his memoirs, 'It Doesn't Take a Hero.'

At key moments in White House meetings, however, Powell sided with Bush and his
hunger for outright victory. "I cannot believe the lift that this crisis and our response to it
have given to our country," Powell told Schwarzkopf as American air sorties pummeled Iraq.

In mid-February 1991, Powell also bristled when Schwarzkopf acceded to a Marine
commander's request for a three-day delay to reposition his troops.

"I hate to wait that long," Powell fumed. "The President wants to get on with this." Powell
explained that Bush was worried about the pending Soviet peace plan which sought to
engineer an Iraqi withdrawal with no more killing.

"President Bush was in a bind," Powell wrote in My American Journey. "After the
expenditure of $60 billion and transporting half a million troops 8,000 miles, Bush wanted
to deliver a knock-out punch to the Iraqi invaders in Kuwait. He did not want to win by a
TKO that would allow Saddam to withdraw with his army unpunished and intact."

On Feb. 18, Powell relayed a demand to Schwarzkopf from Bush's NSC for an immediate
attack date. Powell "spoke in the terse tone that signaled he was under pressure from the
hawks," Schwarzkopf wrote. But one field commanders still protested that a rushed attack
could mean "a whole lot more casualties," a risk that Schwarzkopf considered unacceptable.

"The increasing pressure to launch the ground war early was making me crazy,"
Schwarzkopf wrote. "I could guess what was going on. ... There had to be a contingent of
hawks in Washington who did not want to stop until we'd punished Saddam.

"We'd been bombing Iraq for more than a month, but that wasn't good enough. There were
guys who had seen John Wayne in 'The Green Berets,' they'd seen 'Rambo,' they'd seen
'Patton,' and it was very easy for them to pound their desks and say, 'By God, we've got to
go in there and kick ass! Got to punish that son of a bitch!"

"Of course, none of them was going to get shot at. None of them would have to answer to
the mothers and fathers of dead soldiers and Marines."

Dodging Peace

On Feb. 20, Schwarzkopf sought a two-day delay because of bad weather. Powell
exploded. "I've got a President and a Secretary of Defense on my back," Powell shouted.
"They've got a bad Russian peace proposal they're trying to dodge. ... I don't think you
understand the pressure I'm under."

Schwarzkopf yelled back that Powell appeared to have "political reasons" for favoring a
timetable that was "militarily unsound." Powell snapped back, "Don't patronize me with
talk about human lives."

By the evening of Feb. 21, however, Schwarzkopf thought he and Powell were again
reading from the same page, looking for ways to avert the ground war. Powell had faxed
Schwarzkopf a copy of the Russian cease-fire plan in which Gorbachev had proposed a
six-week period for Iraqi withdrawal.

Recognizing that six weeks would give Saddam time to salvage his military hardware,
Schwarzkopf and Powell devised a counter-proposal. It would give Iraq only a one-week
cease-fire, time to flee from Kuwait but without any heavy weapons.

"The National Security Council was about to meet," Schwarzkopf wrote, "and Powell and I
hammered out a recommendation. We suggested the United States offer a cease-fire of
one week: enough time for Saddam to withdraw his soldiers but not his supplies or the
bulk of his equipment. ...

"As the Iraqis withdrew, we proposed, our forces would pull right into Kuwait behind them.
... At bottom, neither Powell nor I wanted a ground war. We agreed that if the United
States could get a rapid withdrawal we would urge our leaders to take it."

An Angry President

But when Powell arrived at the White House late that evening, he found Bush angry about
the Soviet peace initiative. Still, according to Woodward's Shadow, Powell reiterated that
he and Schwarzkopf "would rather see the Iraqis walk out than be driven out."

Powell said the ground war carried serious risks of significant U.S. casualties and
“a high probability of a chemical attack." But Bush was set: "If they crack under
force, it is better than withdrawal," the president said.

In My American Journey, Powell expressed sympathy for Bush's predicament. "The
President's problem was how to say no to Gorbachev without appearing to throw away a
chance for peace," Powell wrote.

"I could hear the President's growing distress in his voice. 'I don't want to take this deal,'
he said. 'But I don't want to stiff Gorbachev, not after he's come this far with us. We've got
to find a way out'."

Powell sought Bush's attention. "I raised a finger," Powell wrote. "The President turned to
me. 'Got something, Colin?'," Bush asked. But Powell did not outline Schwarzkopf's
one-week cease-fire plan. Instead, Powell offered a different idea intended to make the
ground offensive inevitable.

"We don't stiff Gorbachev," Powell explained. "Let's put a deadline on Gorby's proposal.
We say, great idea, as long as they're completely on their way out by, say, noon
Saturday," Feb. 23, less than two days away.

Powell understood that the two-day deadline would not give the Iraqis enough time to act,
especially with their command-and-control systems severely damaged by the air war. The
plan was a public-relations strategy to guarantee that the White House got its ground war.

"If, as I suspect, they don't move, then the flogging begins," Powell told a gratified president.

The next day, at 10:30 a.m., a Friday, Bush announced his ultimatum. There would be a
Saturday noon deadline for the Iraqi withdrawal, as Powell had recommended.

Schwarzkopf and his field commanders in Saudi Arabia watched Bush on television and
immediately grasped its meaning. "We all knew by then which it would be," Schwarzkopf
wrote. "We were marching toward a Sunday morning attack."

When the Iraqis predictably missed the deadline, American and allied forces launched the
ground offensive at 0400 on Feb. 24, Persian Gulf time.

Though Iraqi forces were soon in full retreat, the allies pursued and slaughtered tens of
thousands of Iraqi soldiers in the 100-hour war. U.S. casualties were light, 147 killed in
combat and another 236 killed in accidents or from other causes.

"Small losses as military statistics go," wrote Powell, "but a tragedy for each family."

On Feb. 28, the day the war ended, Bush celebrated the victory. "By God, we've kicked
the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all," the president exulted.

Next: Part Five -- A National Icon

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