Best Defense
Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Was Powell an ‘affirmative action’ general, as a conservative blogger charges?

That’s the accusation being made by some unhappy with Powell’s endorsement of Obama. Look, I have been critical of General Powell. I think he was overrated as a general. No one could be as good as people held him out to be. He bears part (but not most) of the responsibility for the botched ending ...

By , a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy.
Wikimedia
Wikimedia
Wikimedia

That's the accusation being made by some unhappy with Powell's endorsement of Obama.

That’s the accusation being made by some unhappy with Powell’s endorsement of Obama.

Look, I have been critical of General Powell. I think he was overrated as a general. No one could be as good as people held him out to be. He bears part (but not most) of the responsibility for the botched ending of the 1991 Gulf War. We didn’t need to go to Baghdad, but we certainly should not have given Saddam Hussein the victory he thought he won by taking on the Americans and their allies and surviving. Also, I think Powell was a disaster as a secretary of State, because he paved the way for the invasion of Iraq with a speech at the U.N. that we know to be almost entirely wrong in its assertions. He will spend the rest of his life apologizing for that.

But it is a calumny to call him an affirmative action general. I have looked closely at Powell’s career, and I think he was a very clever, energetic, ambitious man, much like Eisenhower. But I don’t think presidents choose their national security advisors or Joint Chiefs chairmen as affirmative action moves.

What is most striking to me is the similarity between Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf. Both were from the New York area, both were commissioned in the late 1950s, and both served two tours in Vietnam, one as an advisor, and then one with the Americal (cq) Division. The difference between the two is not their skin color, but that Powell understood better how Washington works. 

So, a Washington general? Certainly. But an affirmative action general? Unfair and inaccurate.      

Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1

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