What Colin Powell Learned From Iraq

The former top soldier and diplomat also discusses Iran, Syria, and leadership secrets of Ronald Reagan.


Should you have spoken out about your doubts earlier?

No, I don't think I've ever said I had doubts about what I was presenting. What I had doubts about were some of the things that were not properly sourced. In other words, I wasn't convinced that we had enough sourcing for them and so I didn't use them. But the information I used, I had no doubts about it. A lot of that information turned out to be quite accurate, but the most essential part of the presentation was the existence of weapons of mass destruction, and that turned out not to be the case. And I

was as surprised as anybody as slowly but surely the sources unraveled.

[Check out our collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

What's the lesson to learn from Iraq?

This really goes to the chapter called "The Powell Doctrine." Anytime a nation is faced with the possibility of a conflict, my view of looking at a situation like that is see if it can be solved through diplomatic means or economic means or political means. At the same time, make sure that you never take the military option off the table because it reenforces the diplomatic options. But if you have to use the military, make sure you have a clear objectives as to what you're trying to achieve and put decisive force behind. And also think through the conflict. In Iraq, the second Gulf War, we didn't think through the potential consequences well enough and prepare for them. We were not supposed to have an insurgency, they were not supposed to blow up the U.N. headquarters. We did not expect the kind of war that broke out between Shia and Sunni, who had been suppressed from having that kind of conflict under the thumb of Saddam Hussein. And so, always give thought to where you're going to end up. And always remember that if you decide to take out a government, you become the new government and you have to act like it. In this case, we didn't send enough troops, in my humble judgment. We didn't preserve the integrity of the Iraqi army so that we could immediately rebuild it and make it a force for good rather than a force for evil. And so I think mistakes were made so that the initial success of the fall of Baghdad was not subsequently followed by the success we hoped for in stabilizing the country and giving it back to the Iraqis. That took years and it only started to work when President Bush realized that what we needed was not more electricity or more oil coming out. We needed security and that's when he decided on the surge that took place in 2006. The surge should have been at the front.

Do you worry about hawkish talk when it comes to Iran?

Yes. Well, I worry about hawkish talk. When people think that a bomb is the first solution or they get frustrated and annoyed--"We've got to do something"--without thinking through what the something is or what the consequences of doing the something may be. In the case of Iran, I think there's been some hawkish talk, but I think people are thinking it through. Would the military action that's being thought about, that's to say bombing, actually accomplish the purpose of destroying their nuclear program, which is what we want to do. Or should we continue to try diplomatic means? And so never take the military option off the table. But I think that what's going on now with the application of economic sanctions and other things is the way to go. A day may come when somebody feels like that is not enough. But right now I think that's the best way to pursue this problem.

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When is it acceptable to use the military to intervene in humanitarian crises, like Syria?

Syria is becoming a humanitarian crisis but first and foremost it's a horrible conflict between the Syrian army and President [Bashar al-] Assad, who I have absolutely no use for, and armed opposition. I haven't sensed that the humanitarian problem has reached the level where people are going to start intervening militarily. It does not reach the crisis level of, say, Somalia in President Bush 41's administration. The United States armed forces is uniquely suited to fighting wars, but also to dealing with humanitarian crises. We have the ability to move logistics, we can move things like no other armed force in the world, and we've done it repeatedly over the years. But you have to make sure you have sized the problem. In the case of Somalia, we went in to feed a starving population who was being terrorized by their own citizens, and we succeeded in that within a few weeks. But then the decision was made to move into nation building by the Clinton administration that replaced us. And that turned out to be a very, very difficult thing to do. And after the loss of those brave soldiers in October 1993, President Clinton decided to phase out our effort.