In this February 15, 2001 photo, Secretary of State Colin Powell looks on as President Bush addresses State Department employees in Washington, DC. Powell died of COVID-19, his family said on October 18, 2021 [File: Kenneth Lambert/AP Photo]
Colin Powell has died, and the hagiographic obituaries are upon us.
The New York Times hails him as a “pathbreaker”: the United States’ first Black national security adviser, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, and secretary of state.
The rest of the US mainstream media have taken a similar line, erupting in characteristic American self-adulation at the idea that a once-discriminated-against Black man was able to make it so far in life.
CNN proudly quotes Powell’s words at his 2001 Senate confirmation hearing for secretary of state, which he claimed “shows to the world that: Follow our model, and over a period of time from our beginning, if you believe in the values that espouse [sic], you can see things as miraculous as me sitting before you to receive your approval”.
After all, there is pretty much nothing as miraculously post-racial as a guy who was born in Harlem – and who as a youthful US army officer was prohibited from entering certain restaurants and motels in the country he was serving – going on to orchestrate the obliteration of countless brown people abroad, not to mention folks of other colours.
MSNBC took the hagiography a step further by showcasing an assessment from Richard Haass, president of the US Council on Foreign Relations, according to which Powell was “one of the most intellectually honest people I ever met”.
It is anyone’s guess, of course, how the term “honest” might apply to the person whose 76-minute lie in front of the United Nations Security Council in 2003 directly set the stage for the George W Bush administration’s pulverisation of Iraq – which did not prevent MSNBC from titling its posthumous Powell segment: “Richard Haass: Colin Powell was grounded in reality”.
If Powell’s reality included non-existent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and other threats, what does “reality” even mean in the end?
At the moment, at least, it means that the US political-media establishment is tripping over itself to eulogise at length a single human who died after helping to cause the deaths of literally hundreds of thousands of human beings across the globe – who have themselves not been deemed worthy of more than a scant mention in any mainstream Powell tribute.
The Washington Post, for example, manages to squeeze in a reference to “more than 100,000 Iraqi deaths” on account of the “US-led war and occupation” – a figure that, in addition to being an obscene underestimate, appears only after the obviously more important “thousands of American deaths” in Iraq.
So much for Powell’s prediction that his 2003 UN speech would “earn a prominent paragraph in my obituary” – or that backing the Iraq war was a “blot” on his record.
Unbeknownst to Powell, perhaps, the Iraq lies were not the only “blot” on his record, at least objectively speaking.
As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under George HW Bush, Powell oversaw Operation Desert Storm in 1991 – or what former University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen has referred to as the “massacre we call the Gulf War”.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times in May of 2000 – nearly three years before the blot to beat all blots – Jensen observed that the massacre in question had thus far been “one of the most concentrated attacks on an entire society in modern warfare”, comprising targeted as well as indiscriminate bombing of civilians.
In both cases, Jensen emphasised, the bombing constituted “war crimes under the Geneva Conventions”.
In 1989, too, Powell presided over all manner of bomb-based devastation in the Central American nation of Panama, where an untold number of mainly impoverished Panamanian civilians were slaughtered by the US military as it carried out “Operation Just Cause” against longtime US ally and CIA asset Manuel Noriega.
This operation, which served as a test run for the Gulf War, was – surprise, surprise – predicated on a fabricated and sensational narrative, which only got better when the US army triumphantly announced that it had discovered a stash of cocaine in a house Noriega was known to visit.
Never mind that the “cocaine” was subsequently revealed to be tamales wrapped in banana leaves.
Anyway, it was all apparently in a day’s work of “intellectual honesty” and “grounding in reality”.
Over the course of his decades-long service on behalf of the US empire, Powell was also indirectly linked to such noble US endeavours as the infamous My Lai massacre in Vietnam and the Iran-Contra scandal.
In her Powell obituary for Jacobin magazine – titled “Colin Powell, Politely Anguished War Criminal, Dead at 84” – Liza Featherstone recalls that the man was “so popular” that people in both US political parties had “begged him to run for president for decades”.
But even in his lesser posts, he still did a swell job of rallying and maintaining bipartisan support for imperial killing – and putting as “polite” a face as possible on it.
Speaking on CNN’s State of the Union programme last year, incidentally, Powell criticised then-US President Donald Trump as being someone who “lies about things, and he gets away with it because people will not hold him accountable”.
But if the current hagiographic outpouring is any indication, accountability in US politics would be nothing short of miraculous.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.
Belen Fernandez is the author of Checkpoint Zipolite: Quarantine in a Small Place (OR Books, 2021), Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World (OR Books, 2019), Martyrs Never Die: Travels through South Lebanon (Warscapes, 2016), and The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work (Verso, 2011). She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine, and has written for the New York Times, the London Review of Books blog, Current Affairs, and Middle East Eye, among numerous other publications.