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.
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).