How Colin Powell was the nexus of America’s ‘momentous’ decisions

Judy Woodruff discusses Colin Powell's legacy with two men who knew him well: Richard Haass was the director of policy planning at the State Department when Powell was secretary of state during the George W. Bush administration. He's now president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Michael Gordon reports on the Defense Department, and has authored several books about the U.S. military.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For more on the legacy of Colin Powell, we talk to two men who knew him well.

    Richard Haass has known him since the Carter administration. Haass was the director of policy planning at the State Department when Powell was secretary of state during the George W. Bush administration. He's now president of the Council on Foreign Relations. And Michael Gordon is a longtime reporter covering the Defense Department and author of several books about U.S. military operations in the Middle East. He is now a reporter for The Wall Street Journal.

    Welcome to both of you.

    Richard, I want to start with you.

    As we said, you knew Colin Powell going back to the 1970s. What made him who he was? What made him so successful?

    Richard Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, he began with a tremendous advantage, which was extraordinary intelligence.

    He also had great curiosity and open-mindedness. He would spend time every day just absorbing information, integrating it with the information he already had, and putting together a new understanding of things. And then, on top of that, he had people skills that most of us could only dream of. And he would invest in relationships.

    And, again, I remember, when he worked at the Pentagon, he would reach out to dozens of people regularly, not because he necessarily had something to say or ask for, but because he didn't. And it was his way of making sure these relationships were good, that if and when he needed to call on them, he could. And, in the meantime, it was a great source of information for him.

    So he worked the system better than anybody else I knew.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Worked the system.

    And, Michael Gordon, he was the first, as we have been reporting, the first Black to serve as national security adviser, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, secretary of state.

    What was it about his approach to the military? How did you see him from that perspective?

  • Michael Gordon, The Wall Street Journal:

    He was really among the most powerful chairmans of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

    He came to the position at a time when they had just done Goldwater-Nichols and done reforms which enhanced the stature of that position. He was a very charismatic personality who knew how to maneuver in Washington, including with the media.

    And he also took office at a time when there were momentous events, the Persian Gulf War, when the U.S. reversed Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, the U.S. invasion of Panama, the beginnings of the operation in Somalia, the end of the Cold War.

    So, he was at the nexus of all these events. And he was really the face of the Pentagon for a lot of the reporters like me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The face of the Pentagon.

    And then, Richard Haass, as we said, you served with him at the State Department when he was secretary of state. I mean, there aren't many individuals we can think of who would serve both of the highest levels of the military, then go on to be secretary of state.

    What was it about his approach to foreign policy?

  • Richard Haass:

    Well, it's a very short list.

    You have people — the soldier statesman list in modern American history are people like George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower. It's a very short list.

    Part of it, though, is, like lots of military people, he had a caution about the use of military force. He understood that it was not an abstraction, Judy. It was all too real in terms of its consequences on people's lives. And he also had a real appreciation of diplomacy. And he saw these two tools, the military and the diplomatic, not in tension, not juxtaposed against one another, but rather to be used in tandem.

    And I have already mentioned that Powell was someone who had people skills, was comfortable in conversation, was comfortable trying to persuade people, was comfortable rethinking his own positions. So, in that sense, he was very natural with diplomacy.

    And the fact that he had a military uniform on for so much of his life actually lent him great credibility. If he was going to argue for compromise, it was hard to say about this combat veteran, this person who had risen to the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that somehow he was soft, because he was anything but.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Michael Gordon, you were talking to us about what came to be known as the Powell Doctrine.

    What was that?

  • Michael Gordon:

    Powell, a formidable figure that he was, Powell's views were not without some controversy and debate even in military circles.

    But he became known very much for the Powell Doctrine, which was the view that — it really grew out of the war in Vietnam, and basically a determination not to go to war in that way again. And it was essentially held that, if the U.S. were to use military force in the future in a conflict, it had to have very clear goals. It had — the force needed to be decisive. Very often, that was interpreted as overwhelming, but, at a minimum, it had to be decisive and have public support.

    So it was a very good model for the Persian Gulf War, where you're fighting Saddam Hussein's troops and trying to roll back their invasion of Kuwait, or for the Panama invasion. But it proved to really be a less useful device when the U.S. had to approach what to do in Bosnia and the Balkans, and where, really, the choice was not between using overwhelming or decisive force, but in trying to send a signal to avert ethnic cleansing.

    And that engendered a rather broad debate about the utility of the Powell Doctrine in the post-Cold War world.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Richard Haass, you are speaking to us about how effective he was at communicating, at being a leader.

    And yet, when you serve with him at the State Department in the George W. Bush administration, he was, I think, what is generally agreed as the odd man out when it came to not being on board with the rest of the team, in terms of the decision to go into Iraq.

    How did he handle that situation?

  • Richard Haass:

    I think, in some ways, being secretary of state was his most difficult position. He was more comfortable in some ways as chairman. He was more comfortable as national security adviser, because there he was integrating the inputs from other people. He was more of a coordinating role.

    As secretary of state, you have got to be more of an independent advocate. And what he was advocating, most of the other senior people in the administration didn't want to hear. He was not enthusiastic about the war with Iraq. He was not enthusiastic about acting unilaterally.

    He, in general, was much more enthusiastic about using diplomacy. He had doubts about our ability to transform the world. He was against going to Baghdad during the Gulf War. So, he was not naturally inclined to do a second war, where, by definition, we would be going to Baghdad.

    So it was a difficult four years for him.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    To sum it up, if that's possible, Michael, what was Colin — what would you say his legacy is?

  • Michael Gordon:

    The way I think he would like to see his legacy is a person who sought to transcend ideological prescriptions for how to go about the world, who tried to secure a kind of internationalist agenda.

    He was very much in the mainstream. He was a general who became a diplomat and an admirable figure who I think Republicans and Democrats all respected, even when they had differences with him.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Richard Haass, would you add anything about his legacy?

  • Richard Haass:

    It's the legacy of example.

    He was a moderate man, he was a man of the center in a time now where such people are increasingly an endangered species. And that might be, in some ways, his most important legacy, a kind of decency that he brought to public service and to what he did both in government and after — and after leaving government, the idea of making the American dream a reality for a greater number of Americans.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Remembering Colin Powell.

    Thank you so much to both of you, Richard Haass, Michael Gordon. We appreciate it.

Listen to this Segment