Noted Critic of Defense Department Thrilled at Hagel Pick to Lead Defense Department

Noted Critic of Defense Department Thrilled at Hagel Pick to Lead Defense Department

Former Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell (Ret.), who clashed frequently with the Department of Defense throughout the first term of President George W. Bush, appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday and backed President Barack Obama’s nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) as Secretary of Defense. Hagel “says what he believes and sticks with it,” Powell noted, while dismissing those who have criticized Hagel’s beliefs about a “Jewish lobby” as “disgraceful.” He predicted that Hagel would be confirmed by the Senate.

Powell also took time to bash Republicans: “There’s a dark vein of intolerance in some parts of the party,” he said. He did criticize President Obama’s handling of the candidacy of UN Ambassador Susan Rice for his former post of Secretary of State–not for nominating Rice, but for the way Obama dealt with the controversy.

During the first Bush term, Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were frequently at odds. In his recent memoir, Known and Unknown, Rumsfeld chided Powell for leaks to the press that were critical of reforms at the Department of Defense:

Senior State Department officials initially raised no objections to our review. Secretary of State Powell received periodic updates and seemed content with our analysis. But whatever Powell thought about the defense posture review, others in his department anonymously voiced reservations in the press that echoed the concerns and questions of some of our allies that opposed challenging the status quo. (303-4)

Rumsfeld also noted wryly that Powell was cast by the media as something of a “maverick” within the Bush adminsitration both during and after his service, rarely made any vocal objections to the President or the National Security Council, nor any concrete policy recommendations.

Douglas Feith, who served under Rumsfeld as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, noted in his book War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism that Powell showed little will to change the State Department to meet the challenges of the age: “When Powell left the Administration in early 2005, one could hardly tell from the State Department’s structure that 9/11 had occurred in 2001–or even that the Cold War had ended in 1991.” (61) 

Feith also criticized Powell’s lack of interest in putting his thoughts down on paper, and noted that Powell “made cutting remarks about the stream of Department of Defense memos.” At one point, he notes, Rumsfeld stopped sending memos to Powell’s staff out of suspicion that they were leaking to the press; the leaks stopped. (61) 

On Meet the Press, Powell defended the decision to go to war in Iraq over suspicions that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Powell may have resented the administration’s decision to make him the chief spokesperson for that decision, famously presenting “proof” about weapons of mass destruction to the United Nations Security Council. It is often thought that Powell’s later leftward drift was in response to public criticism of his role–or resentment towards his Bush administration colleagues.

The roots of Powell’s support for Hagel’s nomination might have similar origins in Powell’s apparent conflict with so-called “neoconservatives” at the Department of Defense and elsewhere in the Bush administration, who favored intervention in terrorist-supporting states and made common cause with Israel against terror. 

Powell, who chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the administration of George H.W. Bush, led a military coalition that sidelined Israel during the Gulf War, preventing the Israeli military from striking back after Iraq launched Scud missile attacks against Israeli population centers, lest an Israeli strike cause Arab states to leave the coalition. In the war’s aftermath in 1991, the administration dragged the Israeli government to peace talks in Madrid–talks that led indirectly to the well-intentioned but failed Oslo Peace Process of 1993-2000.

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