Colin Powell and Political Opportunism

Jennifer Rubin accuses Colin Powell of political opportunism for hedging on whether to renew his endorsement of Barack Obama.

Keith Urbahn flags to my attention Jennifer Rubin‘s post charging that Colin Powell with “rank political opportunism” for declining to renew his 2008 endorsement of Barack Obama.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell declined Tuesday to renew the presidential endorsement he gave Barack Obama four years ago, saying he wasn’t ready “to throw my weight behind someone” at this time.

The former chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff and Cabinet member under President George W. Bush demurred when asked if he was backing Obama again this time around. Four years ago, Powell caused a stir in Republican political circles when the longtime GOP figure endorsed Obama over war hero Sen. John McCain, calling Obama a “transformational figure.”

Not so this time, Powell said in an appearance on NBC’s “Today” show. At least, not yet.

Pressed to say why he was holding back on giving Obama his blessing a second time, Powell told anchor Matt Lauer, “I always keep my powder dry, as they say in the military.”He said that Obama had “stabilized the financial system” in the wake of the deep recession of 2008-2009 and “fixed the auto industry.” Powell also said he thought the country was on the right path toward winding down the war in Afghanistan.

But he also said he thought Obama needed to work still more on the shaky economy and said he thought that he owed it to the Republican Party to listen to the proposals that presumptive nominee Mitt Romney will be offering, particularly on the economy. Powell said he’s “still listening” to Republican ideas and that he wasn’t ready to make a commitment to Obama.

In response, Rubin chortles,

Conservative foreign-policy gurus will have a hearty guffaw over that one. To be blunt, Powell has no real weight to throw around; it’s hard to fathom that voters are hanging on his decision.

It’s true that Powell’s public profile is dramatically less than it once was. He’s 75 years old now and he expended a lot of his political capital over the Iraq War, earning enmity from both sides. Democrats point to his UN speech as a key milestone leading us into that war, while Republicans think he was disloyal in not backing the war more enthusiastically early and for turning against the war once it became an obvious debacle. Similarly, Republicans consider him a traitor for backing Obama while Democrats give him no credit for the political courage it took to do so.

Rubin continues,

More to the point, Powell has acquired quite the reputation on the right for suck-uppery to the Beltway establishment and the Davos-hopping, Aspen Institute-blathering, “Charlie Rose”-admired set.

This line of attack has been a favorite of the Right for years and continues to baffle me. I’ve never been invited to Davos, Aspen, or the Charlie Rose show and likely never will. Davos, in particular, is slightly outside my budget. But what the hell is wrong with aspiring to be part of a crowd of intellectuals and influentials? Or being admired by them?

Surely, Powell’s life story is one that should be admired by conservatives? He was born in Harlem to parents of modest means, worked his way through school, and joined the military where he served with heroism and distinction, making it all the way to the top. And, while he’s been somewhat to the left on social issues since he started publicly talking about them, he’s identified himself as a Republican—one of the few truly prominent blacks to do so.

He is less than (ok, entirely un-) beloved by those offended by his gross moral failure in the Scooter Libby case and those who went to bat for the surge in Iraq. When he came out to endorse the entirely under-prepared Barack Obama in 2008, heaping scorn on his longtime colleague Sen. John McCain, the universal reaction among hawks (aside from the involuntary retch) was that this was yet one more play to the Georgetown cocktail circuit.

Sigh. It’s amusing, indeed, for a criticism that Powell is too inside-the-Beltway to be followed in the very next paragraph with a criticism that only those inside the Beltway could possibly care about. I wrote dozens of blog posts over the years about the Valerie Plame scandal and even attended a few days of the Scooter Libby trial and have only vague recollections of Powell’s role. Perhaps that’s because his role was almost non-existent; even in Rubin’s telling, it consisted of not being sufficiently forthcoming about Richard Armitage being the man who inadvertently revealed Plame’s cover to Bob Novak. Regardless, I doubt more than a dozen people on the planet–none of whom didn’t already have very strong feelings about Powell one way or the other–have any strong opinion about it.

As to the Iraq Surge, Powell’s position was hardly unreasonable. By that point in the war, it was an obvious debacle. Even though I’d supported the war, I’d long since acknowledged that. Unlike Powell, I thought that the least bad option was to continue muddling through–including engaging in the Surge–for a variety of reasons, not least of which were our promises to Iraqis who bet their lives on American resolve. But deciding that it wasn’t worth more American lives at that point would hardly have been an unpatriotic stance. And Powell wasn’t even all that adamant on the issue.

And, seriously, the “Georgetown cocktail circuit” trope? Directed at a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Secretary of State? Not only has the man attended enough parties to last several lifetimes, but he’s almost certainly going to be welcome at any party he cares to attend for the rest of his days.

That Powell is now contemplating withholding his support for the once-“transformational” Obama says nothing about Mitt Romney, and everything about which way the wind is blowing in Washington. No one who fancies themselves as a wise elder and who hopes ever to serve again in government (especially on a well paid and lightly attended board or commission) has the nerve to defend Obama’s record robustly.

Oh, c’mon. Powell is a wealthy man with no remaining political ambition. At 75, he’s not going to be Romney’s vice president. He’s already been Secretary of State. And he’s not some mid-level bureaucrat or political appointee; he can make more money giving a 45-minute lecture somewhere than for a year of service on any government commission. He’s not angling for any job here; rather, he’s engaged in the one he’s had since leaving Foggy Bottom: elder statesman.

Look, Powell didn’t get to the top by being imprudent. He weighs his words carefully. And my hunch is that he enjoys stringing these things out, since it’s more fun to be courted for one’s endorsement than to deliver it early.

Now, if I were forced to bet, I’d do so on the side of Powell re-endorsing Obama, albeit with less enthusiasm than in 2008. Expectations were sky high then, and even seasoned hands like Powell were drawn in. Despite Obama’s charisma and the historic nature of being the first black president, he hasn’t been a “transformational figure.”  I don’t think a John Kennedy or Ronald Reagan–or, hell, a George Washington–could achieve that in the current poisoned atmosphere.

Powell, like a lot of us–especially those who aren’t doctrinaire religious conservatives–has been frustrated with the Republican Party for some time. He flirted with endorsing Obama for months before finally doing so. Mostly, like a lot of other prominent elder statesmen whose loyalty to the GOP was forged under the likes of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush, he was turned off by both neoconservative adventurism and the increasing stridency of the party on social issues. Further, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that Powell likely sees a lot of himself in Obama, another black man who started with very little and achieved very much. The fact that he’s still hedging actually says quite a lot in that context.

James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Chad S says:

    Rubin(and even Palin) go to these mythical parties which they rail against. As does everyone in the political world.

  2. Moosebreath says:

    I heard Powell’s interview on NPR yesterday, which largely echoed what I’ve seen written about his Today interview. Since he was clearly impressed with what Obama actually accomplished, it sounds like the choices were endorsing Obama or waiting to hear from Romney on what his plans if he became president are.

    And it’s telling that Rubin thinks he should make a decision without hearing what Romney intends to do. Blind loyalty is what she thinks the Republican Party deserves.

  3. Scott says:

    In the run-up to the Iraq War, I was very dubious about the whole proposition mainly because I didn’t see the need of it as we had Hussein on a virtual lockdown with an air cap over 2/3rds of the country. I remember distinctly telling my neighbor at the time that, when Colin Powell went before the UN and made his speech, that I trust his knowledge and judgement but that if he was wrong I would never listen to him again. Well, he was wrong (intentionally or not) and so his opinion is not worth anything to me anymore.

  4. Franklin says:

    My opinion of him is still pretty high. Yup, he should have resigned rather than give that horrible U.N. speech, but that would have taken an extraordinary amount of courage. And it would have been against his instincts of being a good soldier.

    So one really bad mistake, a few other lesser mistakes vs. a very impressive rags-to-riches story and career. And his viewpoints align with mine quite a bit more than most out there.

    All that said, does *anybody* care about endorsements? Whose vote does that sway? It’s nothing but a way to get the candidate’s name in the news some more.

  5. Ron Beasley says:

    Now, if I were forced to bet, I’d do so on the side of Powell re-endorsing Obama, albeit with less enthusiasm than in 2008.

    I agree, Powell realizes the dangers of having the neocons in charge of foreign policy again. More unpaid for wars and a ballooning deficit.

  6. Ron Beasley says:

    More indications here:
    Colin Powell Condemns Romney’s Foreign Policy: ‘Come On Mitt, Think’

    Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who endorsed President Obama in 2008 and is currently unaligned, accused Mitt Romney of harboring dangerously wrongheaded views on foreign policy on Wednesday.
    “There is no pure competitor of the United States of America,” Powell said. “All the problems we talk about in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran … they count about 700 million people in a world of seven billion. What are the rest of them doing? They’re increasing their economies, they’re building wealth, they’re educating their kids, they’re building their infrastructure. That’s what we need to be doing.”

  7. al-Ameda says:

    Similarly, Republicans consider him a traitor for backing Obama while Democrats give him no credit for the political courage it took to do so.

    Looks like I owe everyone here on OTB an apology, there actually are centrists.

  8. legion says:

    But what the hell is wrong with aspiring to be part of a crowd of intellectuals and influentials?

    Aspiring? Nothing wrong with that. But Powell willingly sacrificed his integrity and core values to defend policies and actions he knew damn well were wrong, just to avoid having to confront his own colleagues & superiors. _That’s_ his ultimate failure.

    I agree that he almost certainly doesn’t have any further political ambitions; this sounds much more like someone just trying to tweak the way history will remember him. Unfortunately, it just further underlines his status as “the one person in the Bush administration who _could_have_ made a difference, but _didn’t_”.

  9. Franklin says:

    @Ron Beasley: Heh. “Come On Mitt, Think” is a great line. I hope Obama uses it during the debates.

  10. Loviatar says:


    So one really bad mistake,

    I’m sorry when approximately 5,000 Americans and over 100,000 Iraqis die for your one bad mistake instead of worrying about being listened to you should be committing Seppuku.

    The man was a political solider from his time as a junior office and his actions during the My Lai Massacre called his honor into question for those of us not blinded by the uniform and “back story”.

    Colin Powell, then a 31-year-old Army major, was charged with investigating the letter, which did not specifically reference Mỹ Lai (Glen had limited knowledge of the events there). In his report, Powell wrote, “In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between Americal Division soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.” Powell’s handling of the assignment was later characterized by some observers as “whitewashing” the atrocities of Mỹ Lai. In May 2004, Powell, then United States Secretary of State, told CNN’s Larry King, “I mean, 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

    Depending on Powell for guidance was always a chancy thing, but at least in the past he attempted to protect the soldiers who depended on him for guidance, however with his one bad decision he placed his career over the lives of his fellow Americans.

    The man is scum.

  11. Franklin says:


    I’m sorry when approximately 5,000 Americans and over 100,000 Iraqis die for your one bad mistake

    Well, we would have gone to war regardless of what Powell did. As you probably know, he was the only adviser expressing any reservations at all, and he did so directly to Bush.

    I’ve briefly read about his My Lai report before, but my recollection and the quote you provide don’t seem nearly as damning as you seem to think it is. He dismissed a letter that didn’t even mention My Lai? Well, geez, yeah, obviously a reason to call him scum.

  12. Loviatar says:


    As you made clear in your earlier comment your viewpoints and his align, so I understand your willingness to give him a pass on his bad advice that got 5,000 Americans and over 100,000 Iraqis killed. Thats what Republicans/Conservatives do, they cover for their own tribe no matter what, unfortunately alot of times this is to the detriment of the American people (Valerie Plame).

    However there is a big problem with your statement; many people whose positions don’t align with Colin Powell were not convinced for the need for war until he made his presentation. A lot of Americans and Iraqis died because of that presentation, but I guess in your opinion a tsk, tsk, bad job Colin is sufficient condemnation.

    I’m going to take a deep breath before discussing the Mai Lai Massacre. Your dismissal of Colin Powell’s’ report as no big deal has made me angry to an extent I haven’t been since the Abu Ghraib atrocities and the cover up surrounding those crimes. But I guess in your world those also weren’t a big deal.

    He put his career over the lives of American soldiers. In my book that makes him scum.

  13. Hey Norm says:

    Rubin is a hack.
    When Powell speaks I listen. I don’t always agree. But the man has some gravitas in spite of being hoodwinked by Bush and Cheney in their Neo-Con Con Job.