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Colin Powell: The ‘War Criminal’ – OpEd

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A 96-year-old former Nazi concentration camp secretary who had absconded before her trial finally appeared in court in Germany on Tuesday (October 19, 2021).Irmgard Furchneris the first woman to be prosecuted for Nazi-era crimes in decades. She is charged with complicity in the killing or attempted killing of more than 11,000 people at the Stutthof camp in occupied Poland.

If a camp secretary, who was merely a teenager in Hitler’s Germany, can be tried today for her alleged war crimes, how about the ‘real’ criminals who planned and executed the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and destroyed an entire country? What excuse does our civilized world have for its impotence to prosecute the mass murderers of our time?

Colin Powell,  the former United States secretary of state (2001-2005) died from complications of COVID-19 on October 18, 2021. 

Born in 1937 in New York City, Powell was the son of immigrants from Jamaica and was raised in South Bronx. Despite being a straight C-average student, he became one of the most successful and recognizable African American figures in the USA. He was the first African American secretary of state. He served as the 16th United States national security advisor from 1987 to 1989. He was the 12th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993 during which time he oversaw 28 crises, including the invasion of Panama in 1989 and Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf War against Iraq in 1990–1991. 

In his book, My American Journey, Powell described his ascent in these words, “Mine is the story of a black kid of no early promise from an immigrant family of limited means who was raised in the South Bronx.”

Powell formulated the so-called Powell Doctrine, which limits American military action unless it satisfies criteria regarding American national security interests, overwhelming force, and widespread public support. The Doctrine earned Powell the moniker of ‘reluctant warrior,’ but in reality, he was not nearly reluctant enough.  He refrained from opposing the Iraq war. In fact, Powell would later comment, “I think we had a lot of successes in Iraq. Iraq’s terrible dictator is gone.” 

As secretary of state, serving under Republican President George W. Bush, Powell lied before the United Nations justifying the rationale for the Iraq War. He later admitted that the speech contained substantial inaccuracies. He was forced to resign after Bush was reelected in 2004.

Considered a war hero inside the USA, Powell will always be remembered as a war criminal by his victims. His war crimes, however, did not start with the massacre of civilians in Iraq but dates back to the 1960s when he served in Vietnam as a South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) advisor from 1962 to 1963. While on patrol in a Viet Cong-held area, he was wounded by stepping on a punji stake. Powell later returned to Vietnam as a major in 1968, serving as assistant chief of staff of operations for the 23rd (American) Infantry Division. During the second tour in Vietnam he was decorated with the Soldier’s Medal for bravery after he survived a helicopter crash and single-handedly rescued three others, including division commander Major General Charles M. Gettys, from the burning wreckage. 

Powell was assigned to investigate the 1968 Mai Lai Massacre in which U.S. soldiers actively hunted, herded, and killed elderly people, children, infants, and raped women while other soldiers looked on and did nothing to stop the massacre. An estimated 350 to 500 unarmed civilians died in My Lai. In his investigation. Powell was unable to uncover either wide-spread unnecessary killings, war crimes, or any facts related to My Lai, exonerating the culprits of this atrocity. He incredibly concluded that “relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.”

Powell’s assessment of the Mai Lai Massacre was nothing but whitewashing  the massacre. In May 2004, Powell said to television and radio host Larry King, “I was in a unit that was responsible for My Lai. I got there after My Lai happened. So, in war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they are still to be deplored.”

Powell’s whitewashing of the Mai Lai Massacre boosted his military career greatly, and he soon came to be identified as a Republican. During the Reagan administration, Powell became senior military assistant to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, whom he assisted during the 1983 invasion of Grenada and the 1986 airstrike on Libya. He was also involved in the unlawful transfer of US-made TOW anti-tank missiles and Hawk anti-aircraft missiles from Israel to Iran as part of the criminal conspiracy that would later become known as the Iran–Contra affair

After 9/11, when the Bush administration was all agog to invade and occupy Iraq, it needed a familiar, reliable individual to garner public support both inside and outside the US for its colossal criminal and illegal act. As the top US diplomat, Powell became the public face to sell it. 

Addressing a plenary session of the United Nations Security Council on February 5, 2003, to argue in favor of military action, Powell asserted: “My second purpose today is … to share with you what the United States knows about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction … Iraq’s behavior demonstrate that Saddam Hussein and his regime have made 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 … every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.”

To drive home the point, Powell played a recording of an intercepted conversation between Iraq army officers about a UN weapons inspection and displayed illustrations of the alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) equipment to press home the urgency of the threat. But the description of the recorded conversation had been embellished to make it seem more incriminating, and the illustrations had sprung from the imaginations of Iraqi defectors telling the Bush administration what they wanted to hear.

A 2004 report by the Iraq Survey Group later concluded that the evidence that Powell offered to support the allegation that the Iraqi government possessed WMDs was inaccurate. More problematically, he knew prior to his UN speech that there was no evidence for the WMDs. Yet, he made the decision to believe the CIA over the state department’s own office of intelligence and research (INR), which submitted two intelligence reports before the speech questioning the solidity of the evidence. But as a Bush-loyalist, he felt duty-bound as ‘a soldier’ to  support Bush (his commander-in-chief, the president of the United States) and build the strongest possible case for arguing, albeit by lying, that there was no alternative to the use of military force.

As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell oversaw the Persian Gulf war to oust the Iraqi army in 1991 after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. But Iraqis will always remember Powell more for his U.N. presentation justifying the invasion of their country more than a decade later by casting Saddam as a major global threat who possessed WMDs, even displaying a vial of what he said could have been a biological weapon. 

“He lied, lied and lied,” said Maryam, a 51-year-old Iraqi writer and mother of two in northern Iraq who spoke recently to Al Jazeera about her reaction to Powell’s death. 

It is true though that Powell’s speech at the UN did not directly lead to the invasion of Iraq because George W Bush and his neo-conservative partners-in-crime in and around the White House were going to invade anyway, and the presentation did not succeed in its goal of persuading the UNSC to pass a second resolution backing military action against Iraq. 

Two years later, out of government, Powell described his UN speech as “a blot” on his career.  “I’m the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world, and [it] will always be a part of my record,” Powell told ABC News. “It was painful. It’s painful now.”     

Powell never apologized to his victims for his role in war crimes – the ‘trillion-dollar’ lies that he delivered at the UN that bolstered the case for Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld’s Global War on Terror – which resulted in the deaths and sufferings of millions of Iraqis, amongst many others. In the diplomatic circle though, the damage was colossal. Since the days of Colin Powell, no one in the international community would trust the US any more. 

According to the Guardian newspaper of the UK, “Powell’s speech marked a decisive moment in undermining US credibility on the world stage – all the more because of the then secretary of state’s repeated insistence that his claims were based on hard intelligence.” “Powell’s speech on Iraq marked a turning point in US relations with the UN. I don’t think that Washington’s credibility at the UN has ever entirely recovered from the Iraq war and the false claims on WMDs,” Richard Gowan, UN director at the International Crisis Group, said.

In one section of his UN speech, Powell referred to a Jordanian-born terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, 21 times, in an effort to prove a link between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. According to an investigation by the PBS program Frontline, it helped raise Zarqawi’s profile and helped give this previously obscure militant a mass following, paving the way for the organization that would become ISIS (or Daesh). The rest is history!

As we all now know, WMDs were never there in Iraq. The illegal invasion of Iraq has bred more problems and made our world less secure and peaceful today.

It is never too late, however, to prosecute criminals and punish them for their crimes. 

Donald Rumsfeld, one of the major architects of the Iraqi invasion, died last June. And now Colin Powell is dead. 

As I see it, President George W. Bush bears ultimate accountability for the Iraq War and its aftermath, let alone the horrendous crimes perpetrated at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay prisons; the members of Congress who voted for the invasion are also responsible. But Vice President Dick Cheney’s role in the run-up to war was uniquely irresponsible and mendacious. 

Both Dick Cheney and George W. Bush are still alive. And so is Tony Blair of the UK. It is high time that these surviving and unrepentant mass murderers be tried in the Hague for their war crimes that orphaned and widowed so many innocent civilians for no crimes of their own. The sooner the better for our humanity! Our failure to prosecute the hard-core criminals like Bush, Blair and Cheney would only embolden the war criminals of the present and the future. That is simply undesirable and bad for all. 

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Dr. Habib Siddiqui

Dr. Habib Siddiqui has a long history as a peaceful activist in an effort towards improving human rights and creating a just and equitable world. He has written extensively in the arena of humanity, global politics, social conscience and human rights since 1980, many of which have appeared in newspapers, magazines, journals and the Internet. He has tirelessly championed the cause of the disadvantaged, the poor and the forgotten here in Americas and abroad. Commenting on his articles, others have said, "His meticulously researched essays and articles combined with real human dimensions on the plight of the displaced peoples of Rohingya in Myanmar, Chechnya, Bosnia, Kosovo and Palestine, and American Muslims in the post-9/11 era have made him a singular important intellectual offering a sane voice with counterpoints to the shrill threats of the oppressors and the powerful. He offers a fresh and insightful perspective on a whole generation of a misunderstood and displaced people with little or no voice of their own." He has authored 11 books, five of which are now available through Amazon.com. His latest book - Devotional Stories is published by A.S. Noordeen, Malaysia.

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