Michael KreponColin Powell

Blessing of the week:

“May God bless you and keep you. May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May God turn His face toward you and give you peace.” — Numbers 6:24-26

Tribute of the week:

“The time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” — Timothy, Chapter 4, verses 6-7.

Some stains are not removable, but why dwell on them in a full life, well-lived? Colin Powell will be forever remembered for his speech at the United Nations making the case for Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, and hence a preventive war to separate him from his presumed instruments of evildoing. As events unfolded, the Powell Doctrine of fighting to win — as exemplified in the quick defeat of Saddam’s forces after his delusional invasion of Kuwait — got swallowed up in a Pottery Barn war.

There are more fitting ways to remember Colin Powell’s life. In my view, his most long-lasting, significant achievement lies in the world of nuclear arms control, where I ask you to give the man his due.

As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Powell could have been a drag on progressive thinking relating to arms control during the George H.W. Bush administration. Instead, he was out in front of his civilian colleagues. Powell recognized that Mikhail Gorbachev was “for real” long before Bush, his National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, other Cabinet officers, and Soviet expert Robert Gates, Scowcroft’s deputy, figured this out. Since it wasn’t his place as the senior-most military leader to advance new policy initiatives, Powell waited for them to catch up to his thinking.

Bush and his team of advisors were very wary of Gorbachev and his wiles. They wanted to apply the brakes after the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. They succeeded in blocking George Shultz from moving on quickly to finalize a strategic arms reduction treaty, the outline of which became apparent at Reykjavik.

Bush, Scowcroft, and Gates viewed Reagan as being too swept up by Gorbachev and dangerously inclined toward abolition. As President-elect, Bush was wary that, by accompanying Reagan to meet with Gorbachev at Governors Island in New York, he might be subject to entrapment. Powell provided the necessary reassurance. He knew intuitively, as he put it in an oral history, that the game was already over.

Upon taking office, Bush, Scowcroft, and Secretary of State James Baker took a time out to review the bidding. The administration’s strategic pause was, by all accounts, a dud. Gorbachev kept peppering the new administration with bold announcements and initiatives. It was obvious that he was an authentic reformer and not a drugstore cowboy. Soon enough, Bush understood that his prudence was working against him, and Baker’s inclination toward activism kicked in.

I tell this story in my book, Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control. After temporizing with tests of trusts, Team Bush 41 began to complete one major arms control achievement after another. These extraordinary accomplishments were both enabled and threatened by the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union.

In a deep crisis, the most senior administration officials become action officers. Bush and Scowcroft drove initiatives after it was clear that the Soviet Union was about to drown in a sea of nuclear warheads and fissile material. They turned to Powell to make things happen, not to the civilians at the State Department and Pentagon.

The need of the hour was to take presidential initiatives to remove the least safe and secure nuclear weapons from the field. Bush would lead by example, knowing by this time that Gorbachev (and later Boris Yeltsin) would respond favorably to his initiatives. For chapter and verse about these presidential nuclear initiatives, I strongly recommend Susan Koch’s writing.

Powell knew a thing or two about ground warfare. One of the things he knew was that tactical nuclear weapons were, to put it mildly, unhelpful for seizing and holding territory. Powell wanted to denuclearize the U.S. Army and made a run at this early in the Bush administration, when he was met with resistance by some of the Chiefs and by Bush’s Cabinet officers. So, he bided his time.

When Bush asked him for a list of actions to be included in his presidential nuclear initiatives, Powell seized the moment. In addition to freeing up the U.S. Army from having to deal with its own tactical nuclear weapons, Powell and the Navy’s leadership were perfectly OK with turning all the surface Navy into non-nuclear weapon platforms.

Bush’s second batch of initiatives related primarily to strategic forces. The most important, by far, was seeking the abolition of land-based missiles carrying multiple warheads. This was later codified in the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty completed just before Bush 41 left office.

START II was never implemented, however, just as some of the presidential nuclear initiatives were not fully implemented on the Russian side. Vladimir Putin ditched START II when George W. Bush withdrew from the ABM Treaty. Powell thought Bush’s decision was unwise, but ever the good soldier, he swallowed his reservations for the first but not the last time.

After the decisions to discard the ABM Treaty and START II, conditions for long-lasting strategic stability were on borrowed time. We’ve been living with the consequences ever since.

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