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Powell's Secret Coup | The Nation

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Powell's Secret Coup

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The coronation of Colin Powell will probably not be interrupted by any of the specific questions about his mediocre and sometimes sinister past that were so well phrased by David Corn ["Questions for Powell," January 8/15]. The political correctness of the nomination, in both its "rainbow" and "bipartisan" aspects, will see to that. Powell has often defined himself as "a fiscal conservative and a social liberal," which also happens to be the core identity of the Washington press corps. Set against this, what is the odd war crime, or cover-up of same, or deception of a gullible Congress? Time to move on.

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Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens, longtime contributor to The Nation, wrote a wide-ranging, biweekly column for the magazine...

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To move on, to be exact, to the militarization of the State Department and the triumph of the military over civilian control. The most important moment in Powell's career as a Republican came in the first months of the first Clinton Administration, when he organized and led a political mutiny against the Commander in Chief and saw the mutiny succeed. It's "legacy" time, so everybody feels entitled to be stupidly lenient, but no consideration of Clinton as a President is complete until we take the full measure of his surrender on this critical point.

He was elected, you may remember, having promised to lift the ban on homosexuals serving in the military and having promised to lift the embargo on the supply of arms to Bosnia. Nor were these mere "fine print" promises: The first had been front and center in his fundraising and campaigning, and the second had involved comparisons with the Final Solution, of the sort that can't easily be taken back. Within a few months of his swearing the oath that he was to break in so many ways, Clinton receded from both these pledges. In both instances, he caved in to a political revolt orchestrated by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Could I put you to the trouble of rereading that brief last sentence? The first cold war presidency began with Harry Truman putting the military in its constitutional place on matters foreign and domestic, firing Gen. Douglas MacArthur for trying to run a private war in Korea and telling the armed forces to desegregate and to do it right away. The first post-cold war presidency began with an abject surrender to the brass, on the treatment of an unpopular minority and on an important foreign policy question. The comparison is even more appalling when you remember that Truman did not base his two best decisions on election pledges.

Colin Powell would not have been able to enjoy his long career as a butt-kisser and timeserver had Truman not told the Joint Chiefs to obey orders and desegregate. However, weeks after Clinton was elected and eight days before he was inaugurated, Powell appeared before the Naval Academy and enjoined his audience to consider resigning if they opposed an end to the ban on gays in the military. Not long before that, he had written and signed an Op-Ed in the New York Times flatly opposing military intervention in the Balkans (at least on the Bosnian side; the existing arms embargo already favored Milosevic and Tudjman).

Clinton, of course, could not buckle fast enough. He allowed himself--and his pathetic Defense Secretary, Les Aspin--to be humiliated in public on visits to United States warships [see "Minority Report," April 12, 1993]. He left the Bosnians at the mercy of Milosevic for two crucial years. He allowed the USS Harlan County to be scared away from Haiti by a handful of CIA-financed goons. And he came up with the contemptible policy of "don't ask, don't tell," where the police questioning and invigilation and intimidation still went on--even increased--and where volunteer servicemen and -women were told their only hope lay in lying.

Not even this was enough to satisfy Powell. On the day of his retirement as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he was humbly asked by Clinton what he thought of Aspin, and Powell replied that the poor sap had forfeited the confidence of the armed forces. The President, Powell calmly said, might want to consider replacing him. No sooner suggested than done. This would qualify as gross insubordination in any self-respecting democracy (Powell should not have been asked; neither should he have told), but remember who the President was. It was a little afterward that Clinton decided to ignore all reports of what was impending in Rwanda and to employ the US veto at the UN to forestall any pre-emptive action. This, too, was done to gratify the reactionary and military noninterventionists. (The disgrace was compounded by Clinton's diplomatic support for the later French intervention, on the side of their client Rwandan murderers.)

Now we enter upon a moment when a gigantic decision has to be made about the building of a suicidally dangerous and stupid "National Missile Defense" system. And the State Department, which has the job of overseeing the numerous arms-control treaties to which the United States is a signatory, has been annexed by a former professional military man with a long record of shady politicization of the armed forces and their role. The selling of Star Wars will be a great deal easier with such a man at Foggy Bottom and with the press and Congress already predisposed to eat out of his "inclusive" palm and lick his highly polished "inclusive" boots. This is actually the continuation of Clintonism by other means, a banana republic garnished with identity politics. (If Toni Morrison and Arthur Miller could be induced to fawn and coo about "our first black President," what can they say about our first black Caesar?)

This is the last column of mine that will appear in the Clinton era. Eight years ago, I concluded that the man was a pathological liar, filthy about women, corrupt about money, desperate to please authority, a serf alike to powerful interests and to opinion polls. His legacy is "managed competition," "don't ask, don't tell" and "faith-based" care for the losers. He didn't mean it about the era of big government being "over," as Powell and others are about to demonstrate, using his same selective principles. It's been a nasty interlude between the Bushes. The incurables among you can now set to work, to make Bush seem a dismal interlude between two wonderful Clintons.

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