Dick Cheney and Colin Powell: The Odd Couple

Dick Cheney and Colin Powell: The Odd Couple

Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and the Broken Friendship That Defined an Era
By James Mann

They served separately at an ebb tide of postwar American power in the early 1970s, witnesses to defeat abroad and malaise at home. They served again as partners when American power peaked anew two decades later. “We could finish each other’s sentences,” one fondly recalled. Entrusted with shepherding American power a third time, in the early 2000s, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell oversaw its erosion instead, leaving as their legacy a more divided, indebted and globally unpopular country than the one they’d inherited. Cheney’s certainty ensured America’s unraveling, especially when enabled by Powell’s reluctance.

Their friendship eroded as well, which is the subject of James Mann’s “The Great Rift,” his latest exploration of the personalities that shaped American national security policy over the past half-century. Cheney rose from reckless youth to White House power broker, first among equals (alongside Donald Rumsfeld) in Gerald Ford’s administration. He later served, to the suspicion of some, as the true authority within George W. Bush’s. Always more conservative than he let on (and he let on very little), Cheney executed others’ visions with a cold confidence exceeded only by his bureaucratic acumen.

Powell’s career coupled similar bureaucratic prowess with personal warmth. Witness to the Army’s defeat in Vietnam, he scaled its ranks guided by a string of increasingly powerful mentors. Along the way, he helped articulate the lesson drawn by the Pentagon from the Southeast Asia debacle — namely, that the United States should never again send its youth to war without three things: a clear objective, overwhelming force and political backing at home. Powell was less its author than its most eloquent advocate, but this “Powell Doctrine” guided American military thinking by the 1980s.

Their relationship blossomed during the first gulf war, under George H. W. Bush, when Cheney ran the Pentagon and Powell led the Joint Chiefs of Staff, together orchestrating a textbook implementation of the doctrine’s required trinity. Cheney was certain America would win. Reluctant to deploy without sufficient material and political support from their civilian masters, Powell made sure it would.

If only Powell had more forcefully expressed his reluctance when he was secretary of state a decade later, as the ill-fated 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq brought the American military as low as he had found it in the Vietnam era. Dubiously justified and poorly planned, the Iraq invasion abjectly failed the Powell Doctrine, though Vice President Cheney (yet again with Rumsfeld) knew for certain how it would turn out. “We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators,” Cheney promised. Hard power was all that mattered.

Powell knew better. Iraq was “going to shatter,” he warned Bush during their infrequent private moments. “If you break it, you own it.”

“The Great Rift” depicts in depressingly vivid detail Powell’s inability to summon the political and moral courage necessary to check Cheney’s foolhardy plans. Knowing that resignation was not an option for such a career insider, Mann wonders instead why Powell didn’t do more to deter his inexperienced president from such a predictable fiasco. “Because it wouldn’t have worked,” Powell confessed. The president’s mind was already set. By his second term, Bush had another Vietnam on his hands and had largely stopped listening to his perpetually confident yet rarely correct vice president.

Pick up this engaging book for its insights into Cheney and Powell, but take away the two visions for American leadership they embodied. Should the United States try to dominate by might or by right, through the unilateral martial force Cheney prescribed, or through the peaceful international consensus that Powell preferred? Sadly neither man truly understood that these were the wrong questions. They should have thought harder about addressing their nation’s long-term industrial, educational and political decline. Instead, they spent their time trying desperately to squeeze every last drop out of the political and military investments they’d inherited, and the United States is globally weaker and more internally fractured as a result.

At least Powell had an excuse. Although described by one of his closest aides as “probably the most prepared individual for crisis and circumstance that I’ve ever met in my life,” he was said to be “not much of a strategist.” Unfortunately, Cheney wasn’t either. But he was damn certain. His strategic vision prevailed, ensuring American power did not.

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