Politics & Policy

General Blind Spots

Questioning Powell's judgment and global perception.

Colin Powell is the current darling of the media, for crossing party lines on Meet the Press to endorse Barack Obama for “ability to inspire …steadiness…intellectual curiosity…depth of knowledge…intellectual vigor…a definitive way of doing business…reaching out all across America…exceptional,” and numerous other virtues, too many to list here. In sum, Powell embraced Obama as a “transformational figure.”

But transformation to what?

On this vital matter, Powell was short on specifics. He spent most of his remaining time on camera slamming John McCain and lamenting the “narrowing” of the Republican party. One need not love the Republicans to notice that Powell seems strangely blind to the failings of a Democratic party which has gone so overboard in its broadening that its Obama ticket is attracting the endorsement not only of Powell, but of the terrorist group, Hamas.

But Powell has had his blind spots before. Here I am not referring narrowly to his famous United Nations presentation in 2003, in which he argued the case for invading Iraq, based on intelligence at the time about weapons of mass destruction. (Though one might well wonder: Had Powell had endorsed John McCain instead of Obama, would the mainstream media now be writing off the same Colin Powell as a washed-up former Bush loyalist, who misled the world about Saddam Hussein?)

No, there was a more troubling dimension to Powell’s Iraq argument in that vital year, 2003. It entailed an enormous omission of highly relevant information, which Powell had at his command, but apparently either missed, or chose to ignore. There has been a considerable lack of intellectual curiosity about it since, not least on the part of Powell himself.

Recall that in early 2003, at the time of the heated debate over toppling Saddam Hussein, Powell was secretary of State. He held that post from 2001-2004. In that job, he was boss of the U.S. Mission to the U.N. in New York, and his Department of State manned the Bush administration’s frontlines in dealing with the U.N. and its various programs and resolutions — notably, those involving the center-stage issue of Iraq.

Those U.N. activities included the massive Oil-for-Food relief program for Iraq, which ran from 1996-2003, and was wound down after the overthrow of Saddam. During its last three years, which overlapped with Powell’s watch at State, Oil-for-Food swelled to become a cover for billions worth of smuggling, kickbacks, illicit graft income, and dirty global networks for Saddam. Outside observers of the U.N. and its conclaves had only highly limited and erratic access to details of this corruption. But the State Department, whose diplomats sat on the U.N. sanctions committee, haggled at the Security Council meetings, and watched the crooked contracts flow through, was certainly aware of this cess pool. As detailed in congressional hearings in 2004 and 2005, State even made various quiet protests and attempts to curb the rot. But these were mostly off-stage, a muffled struggle behind the scenes. They didn’t gain much traction.

Nor was it ever likely that they could have. Saddam Hussein, with U.N. approval, had systematically tipped huge business toward three members of the U.N.’s own Security Council — Russia, China, and France. Out of more than $110 billion worth of Saddam’s oil sales and relief purchases approved under Oil-for-Food, Russia and France were, respectively the number one and number two business partners of Saddam, both for buying lucrative Iraqi oil contracts and selling goods. China ranked in the top ten.

In other words, Russia and France, chief veto-wielding wranglers with the U.S. and U.K. during the U.N. debate, were also among the chief profiteers under a corrupt UN program shepherding massive business with Saddam’s U.N.-sanctioned regime. Between them, by 2003, Russia and France had obtained more than $30 billion worth of Oil-for-Food deals, or almost one third of the total program. China accounted for another $4.3 billion.

The details needed to document this staggering tilt toward select members of the Security Council were not publicly available at the time. The U.N. kept confidential almost all the relevant details of the contracts, such as the names of the contractors, quantities of goods and size of the deals.

But Colin Powell had access to this information. The State Department knew such details as the size of the contracts, the sum of the business, and the names of the contractors. State knew that Oil-for-Food had come to include companies and characters with close ties to the Kremlin and the French and Chinese governments. State was aware of such oddities as Russian oil companies and Chinese arms manufacturers selling “milk” to Saddam. State knew that these contracts under UN rules were forwarded for approval by the governments of the respective countries. Powell also had long experience with Iraq, and the ways of Saddam, going back to Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the 1991 first Gulf War.

Powell had more than enough documentation at his command to challenge — credibly — the motives of Security Council members Russia and France, for blocking U.S. efforts to try to enforce 17 Security Council resolutions against Saddam.

Yet Powell, when it came to that showdown on the world stage of the U.N., apparently either missed or dismissed as irrelevant the abundant signs — to which he had privileged access — that the U.N. Security Council itself had been corrupted by the same Iraqi regime whose fate they were debating. Powell raised no public alarm; he made no visible mention of this pivotal problem. If anyone was going to raise hell about this matter at the time, call it to the attention of President Bush, and pursue it as the highly germane matter that is surely was, it should have been Powell, secretary of State. Did he not notice? Did he not care? Was his own vision so narrow that he simply did not understand?

Now, here we are, with Powell hailing Obama as a man of “style and substance,” while giving a dismissive shrug to Obama’s record of poor judgment and troubling connections — from Tony Rezko, to Bill Ayers, to Rev. Wright, to ACORN. Nor does Powell seem to have thought through just what it might mean for America’s future power and prosperity, should Obama, with all his vigor and transformational talents, follow through on his promises to turn America into a cradle-to-grave welfare state.

There’s no call here to question Powell’s integrity; he may be a fine general, and an upstanding man. It is his judgment in matters of politics, his perception of how the wider world actually works, that is at issue. In 2003, when he was in the spotlight and entrusted with crucial matters of diplomacy and judgment, he appears to have suffered from an enormous blind spot. That worked to the gross detriment of the United States. With Powell arguing the case, but omitting central facts about Oil-for-Food, America was cast ultimately as the rogue of a rule-abiding U.N. community. Not until the following year, after the U.N. die was cast, did the truth about Oil-for-Food, in all its horrifying and dirty magnitude, begin to spill out. Powell at a critical moment had every reason to recognize that the U.N. Security Council debate was effectively corrupted and rigged against America from the start. He either never realized this, or never told us.

Now Powell is giving his full-throated endorsement to the candidate who promises to bargain with Iran’s mullahs, remake America’s economy in the socialist mold, and change the world — but how? Is it possible that once again, there are highly germane factors that Powell has missed?

 – Claudia Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, heads its Investigative Reporting Project, and writes a weekly column on foreign affairs for Forbes.com


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