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Reflecting on Colin Powell's legacy


We're getting perspectives all morning long on the death of Colin Powell. He was the son of immigrants who rose to become the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff and, later, the first Black secretary of state. We heard earlier this hour how Powell broke barriers for many who followed throughout his life. Let's talk next about the legacy of his work in the top jobs where he served.

Anthony Cordesman is an expert on U.S. foreign policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Mr. Cordesman, welcome back to the program.


INSKEEP: Powell played roles in two different wars in Iraq. What was his role in each?

CORDESMAN: Well, his key role in the first Gulf War, which was the war to liberate Kuwait, was as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. And there he played a critical role in ensuring there was adequate force, that you had created coordination between the services, that you had a clear plan of operations. So in that case, his role was very successful.

INSKEEP: That was one war. But as we think about this, I'm thinking that there was a phrase effectively - really clear thinking that was associated with Powell, ultimately, in both wars in the Persian Gulf. In that first Gulf War, he was the man who said, if you're going to go in at all, go in with overwhelming force, as you say. Overwhelming force was the phrase. In the other one, his phrase was a private warning to President George W. Bush that was said to be the Pottery Barn doctrine. You break it; you bought it. How did he end up not applying that doctrine in public?

CORDESMAN: Well, he came under intense pressure, basically, to make a public speech justifying the war to the United Nations. Now, it's important to note that he also had put intense pressure on the Bush administration to actually go to the United Nations to seek allied support to make this an international effort. The problem that he was faced with was that the intelligence that he was given - and, in fact, the world was given - basically was based on people who had strong political motives to go to war, did not reflect an accurate picture of what was happening in Iraq. And these same people sharply understated the risks of what would happen after Saddam fell. But Powell came under pressure from the president and from the secretary of defense and others in the administration. And while he did his best to review the intelligence data, he had very limited time to check it out. So in many ways, he's blamed for something that was the fault of other people.

INSKEEP: The kind of motivated reasoning in the intelligence there - in the few seconds we have left, what do you think his legacy will be of his long service to the United States from Vietnam all the way through to recent years?

CORDESMAN: I think he will be respected as what he was - a professional soldier that put his mission first and who looked beyond partisan issues and focused on the national interest.

INSKEEP: Mr. Cordesman, thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

CORDESMAN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Anthony Cordesman is at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.