Hagiography Instead of The Hague

The Man Who Sold The War

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell is dead at the age of 84. His enduring legacy will always be his role in pushing the Iraq War. 42 days before the invasion, Powell held up a vial to symbolize anthrax in front of the U.N. and lied:

The facts on Iraqis’ behavior–Iraq’s behavior demonstrate that Saddam Hussein and his regime have made no effort–no effort–to disarm as required by the international community. Indeed, the facts and Iraq’s behavior show that Saddam Hussein and his regime are concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction.

Mondoweiss Podcast Episode 23: A conversation with Sam Bahour

It’s hard to overstate the impact of Powell’s remarks. He was a retired four-star general and probably the most respected member of the Bush administration. Here’s Lawrence Wilkerson, who was Powell’s chief of staff at the time, in an op-ed from 2018:

Following Mr. Powell’s presentation on that cold day, I considered what we had done. At the moment, I thought all our work was for naught — and despite his efforts we did not gain substantial international buy-in. But polls later that day and week demonstrated he did convince many Americans. I knew that was why he was chosen to make the presentation in the first place: his standing with the American people was more solid than that of any other member of the Bush administration.

President George W. Bush would have ordered the war even without the United Nations presentation, or if Secretary Powell had failed miserably in giving it. But the secretary’s gravitas was a significant part of the two-year-long effort by the Bush administration to get Americans on the war wagon.

That effort led to a war of choice with Iraq — one that resulted in catastrophic losses for the region and the United States-led coalition, and that destabilized the entire Middle East.

Powell wasn’t part of Bush’s second term. Two years into the brutal war, he told Barbara Walters that the U.N. speech was “painful” for him and a permanent “blot” on his record. He went onto endorse Barack Obama’s presidential run and condemn Trump. Obviously no member of the Bush administration was ever held accountable for their war crimes, but this was enough for Powell to remain the most respected member of the bunch. The New York Times obituary of Powell doesn’t even mention the anthrax vial. Here’s how it categorizes his Bush years:

He returned to public service in 2001 as secretary of state to President George W. Bush, whose father Mr. Powell had served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs a decade earlier.

But in the Bush administration Mr. Powell was the odd man out, fighting internally with Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for the ear of President Bush and for foreign policy dominance.

He left at the end of Mr. Bush’s first term under the cloud of the ever-worsening war in Iraq begun after Sept. 11 and growing questions about whether he could, and should, have done more to object to it. Those questions swirled in part around his U.N. speech, which was based on false intelligence, and which became the source of lifelong regret.

An NYT article about Powell’s connection to the Iraq War published shortly after his death refers to him as a “reluctant warrior.” This vision of Powell as a courageous man temporarily hoodwinked by Bush only makes sense if you know very little about his military career.

The NYT obituary also doesn’t mention the My Lai massacre. Back in 1968 Powell was a young Army major serving as an assistant chief of staff of operations for the Americal Division. He was tasked with investigating a letter written by Tom Glen, a solider in the 11th Light Infantry Brigade. Glen didn’t mention My Lai specifically, but he detailed how the barbaric treatment of Vietnamese civilians had shocked him.

“It would indeed be terrible to find it necessary to believe that an American soldier that harbors such racial intolerance and disregard for justice and human feeling is a prototype of all American national character; yet the frequency of such soldiers lends credulity to such beliefs,” wrote Glen. “What has been outlined here I have seen not only in my own unit, but also in others we have worked with, and I fear it is universal. If this is indeed the case, it is a problem which cannot be overlooked, but can through a more firm implementation of the codes of MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) and the Geneva Conventions, perhaps be eradicated.”

If you want to read a brilliant (and maddening) book about the reality that Glen described, I can’t recommend Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves highly enough. If you want some insight into how atrocities like My Lai were whitewashed, you could do worse than Colin Powell’s report on Glen’s letter.

“There may be isolated cases of mistreatment of civilians and POWs,” concluded Powell, “but this by no means reflects the general attitude throughout the Division..in direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.”

Here’s Norman Solomon and the late Robert Parry writing about Powell’s report in 1996:

Powell’s findings, of course, were false. But it would take another American hero, an infantryman named Ron Ridenhour, to piece together the truth about the atrocity at My Lai. After returning to the United States, Ridenhour interviewed American comrades who had participated in the massacre.

On his own, Ridenhour compiled this shocking information into a report and forwarded it to the Army inspector general. The IG’s office conducted an aggressive official investigation and the Army finally faced the horrible truth. Courts martial were held against officers and enlisted men implicated in the murder of the My Lai civilians.

But Powell’s peripheral role in the My Lai cover-up did not slow his climb up the Army’s ladder. Powell pleaded ignorance about the actual My Lai massacre, which pre-dated his arrival at the American. Glen’s letter disappeared into the National Archives — to be unearthed only years later by British journalists Michael Bilton and Kevin Sims for their book Four Hours in My Lai. In his best-selling memoirs, Powell did not mention his brush-off of Tom Glen’s complaint.

On Israel/Palestine Powell was basically as awful as everyone else. He annoyed some in the pro-Israel crowd by talking about an eventual Palestinian state, but he certainly didn’t do anything to upset the apple cart. This stayed the same long after he left office. In a 2017 speech to the World Jewish Congress he praised the IDF: “I came to know and admire fellow soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces. I came to understand the commitment of blood we had with Israel. I was a student of the wars of 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973. And an American professional soldier, I marvel at the professionalism and successes of the Israel Defense Forces.”

In that same talk he championed the Zionist cause: “The vision and prophecy of Theodor Herzl has become real so many years after his death. And America’s dedication, America’s alliance and America’s support of the democratic State of Israel has never wavered and never will.”

Powell was obviously a very intelligent person and maybe there’s reason to believe he was simply going through the motions with some of this stuff. An email leak from 2016 revealed his true feelings about Iran’s nuclear program. He knew that the fear mongering around the country mirrored the Iraq narrative he helped sell. He also acknowledged something U.S. lawmakers can’t reference in public: the existence of Israel’s nuclear weapons.

Powell wrote those emails to Democratic Party donor Jeffrey Leeds about Benjamin Netanyahu, after the former Israeli prime minister blasted the nuclear deal in a 2015 congressional speech.

“Negotiators can’t get what he wants,” Powell told Leeds. “Anyway, Iranians can’t use (a nuclear weapon) if they finally make one. The boys in Tehran know Israel has 200, all targeted on Tehran, and we have thousands.”

“Can’t get enough sanctions to break (Iran),” he wrote later. “Lots of BS around about their progress. Bibi likes to say ‘a year away,’ as do our intel guys. … (It) ain’t that easy to do.”

Rereading Powell’s actual thoughts on this stuff, I was reminded of a story from Andrew Cockburn’s Donald Rumsfeld book where George W. Bush asks his dad what a neoconservative is:

Though he refused to read newspapers, he was aware of criticism that his administration had been excessively beholden to a particular clique, and wanted to know more about them. One day during that holiday, according to friends of the family, 43 asked his father, “What’s a neocon?” “Do you want names, or a description?” answered 41 “Description.” “Well,” said the former president of the United States, “I’ll give it to you in one word: Israel.”

There were a number of questionable Powell tributes this week, but the most telling might belong to Joy Reid. The MSNBC host is a consistent critic of most Republicans, but not Powell. Emphasis mine:

“General Colin Powell’s death is so shocking and heartbreaking,” she tweeted. “He had some tough moments around our wars, but was a fundamentally good and decent man and a great American we could all be proud of. I know my Caribbean-American fam certainly are. Wishing peace to his soul & family.”

I’ve seen a lot of strained euphemisms implemented in the service of our imperial project, but this one is certainly up there.

Aqeel Al-Rubai is a 42-year-old cosmetics shop owner in Baghdad. His cousin was killed in the war and he blames his dad’s fatal heart attack on the invasion. “What does that remorse do for us?,” he asked Al Jazeera after Powell died, referring to the late statesman’s public regrets. “A whole country was destroyed, and we continue to pay the price. But I say may God have mercy on him.”

People like Aqeel constitute the painful blot in Powell’s career. There’s millions of stories like his, but they don’t add up to much more than some tough moments for a reluctant warrior.

Victory in San Francisco

You might recall that Zoom, Facebook, and YouTube denied their services for an event featuring Leila Khaled at San Francisco State University (SFSU) last fall. The tech giants took action in response to a campaign waged by pro-Israel groups, who insisted that the companies were providing a platform for terrorism.

“This is a dangerous attack on free speech and academic freedom from Big Tech: Zoom cannot claim veto power over the content of our nation’s classrooms and public events,” said Palestine Legal director Dima Khalidi in a statement at the time. “The threat to democracy is elevated by the fact that Zoom’s decision to stamp out discussion of Palestinian freedom comes in response to a systematic repression campaign driven by the Israeli government and its allies.”

The university didn’t exactly sit this one out. Here’s David Spero writing about the situation at our website recently:

Instead of providing an alternative platform, SFSU posted defamatory articles about the open classroom on their websites and falsely warned Professors Abdulhadi and Kinukawa that they could themselves be criminally liable for holding this virtual open classroom. The University is bound by contract, law, and AAUP policy to protect academic freedom; and by allowing outside tech corporations to shut down a for-credit class, SFSU has jeopardized academic freedom for any teacher with a counter-narrative.

This all led to a probe from a campus faculty rights panel. Late last month that panel ruled that the school failed to protect the professors from censorship. “This is a huge victory not only for us, but for everybody speaking about Palestine and for our ability to teach about Palestine as part of the indivisibility of justice,” Abdulhadi told The Electronic Intifada’s Nora Barrows-Friedman. “After the pain and the anguish for over a year that we have suffered, by being vilified by character assassinations, by being chased by Zionists, by the hate mail, by all the nastiness that has happened, by the fact that our university did not have our backs, we were vindicated.”

If SFSU president Lynn Mahoney ends up vetoing the decision, the complaint will go to legal arbitration.

Odds & Ends

🇮🇱 This week the Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced the nomination of Thomas Nides to serve as the next ambassador to Israel.

🇮🇱 Alex Kane profiles Ritchie Torres at Jewish Currents:

Torres’s alignment with the Israel lobby proved strategic. Though the real estate industry poured the most funding into his campaign—$290,000, an investment in a district where the industry saw opportunity for development—“pro-Israel” groups were responsible for a chunk of his budget. Torres won the backing of groups—including NORPAC, To Protect Our Heritage PAC, Pro-Israel America PAC, City PAC, and DMFI’s PAC—that together gave him about $34,000 in donations, according to a Jewish Currents analysis of federal election records. DMFI also spent over $50,000 in independent advertising on Torres’s behalf.

🇺🇸 “The Abraham Accords” are embraced by both Republicans and Democrats. At Responsible Statecraft, Jonathan Hoffman shows how repressive Arab leaders are using the policy permeate Israel’s DC network:

Examples of these newfound influence campaigns are not difficult to find. The UAE has engaged in outreach and established relationships with well-known organizations and think tanks connected to Israel’s network such as the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, WINEP, AEI, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and others. The UAE’s leadership has been praised by AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations for “committing to fight terrorism and extremism in every form” and being “tolerant” and “pluralistic.” 

🇮🇱 The Wall Street Journal reported Politico’s new owner, Axel Springer CEO Mathias Doepfner, plans to put the website behind a paywall. The article also says employees will be expected to adopt Axel Springer’s “guiding principles.” These include “support for a united Europe, Israel’s right to exist and a free-market economy, among others.”

📰 In the last newsletter I mentioned that Omari Hardy is the one candidate running in Florida’s 20th district who has expressed support for the BDS movement. The local Sun-Sentinel actually endorsed Hardy, but now the editorial team has run an op-ed declaring that Hardy is “misguided and misinformed.”

The paper also published a letter from local Rabbi Alan Sherman on its website, attacking Hardy and referring to him as “the Hitler of South Florida” in its title. A day after it ran, it disappeared from the internet. If you think the paper thought better of it, think again. It was back again soon with a new title. Here’s Jewish Insider’s Matthew Kassel from a Twitter thread about the whole fiasco:

The “Hitler” piece is now back up on the Sun-Sentinel website with an amended headline. The offending comment likening Hardy to “the Hitler of South Florida” has also been removed.

The piece was published by the Florida Jewish Journal, which is owned by Sun Sentinel Media Group. Alan Goch, the editor, pulled it down this morning after the Sun Sentinel’s editorial board started getting calls and texts. It will run in print next Wednesday, he told me.

“I like strong, conservative pieces, dont get me wrong, but the Hitler reference raised some red flags, so I slightly changed the headline, have taken out the Hitler reference and then the one line in the article itself,” he told me.

“But everything else I’m comfortable with,” Goch said. The piece, written by a local rabbi, still includes another Hitler reference: “Hitler’s attack on the Jews was also solely based on hate and Omari Hardy is no different.”

🌅 Sunrise DC declined to participate in a voting rights rally after learning that a number of Zionist groups were being included .

“Israel, in its occupation of the land of Palestine and its people, has and continues to engage in violent oppressive tactics that go against the values we advocate for as a hub,” reads a statement put out by the group.

Stay safe out there,


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