Since Colin Powell passed away earlier this month, obituaries and other considerations of his life have tended to focus on two aspects of his legacy, one generally praised and the other generally criticized. Most commentators have hailed Powell as a pathbreaker in race relations: the first African American to be national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and secretary of state. In these roles, Powell inspired countless people at home and around the world.

Most commentators have also noted his role as a reluctant but unfortunately effective salesman for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Despite his misgivings about some aspects of the policy, Powell accepted the consensus of most of the world’s intelligence services about the nature of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, and he mostly agreed with his colleagues in the George W. Bush administration that they represented a threat to be confronted. When he made the case for this confrontation in a memorable speech before the United Nations, and then subsequently learned that most of the intelligence assessments on which that case rested were faulty, it left what he called “a blot” on his record that even he predicted would end up being “item number one” in his obituary.

Yet few commentators have emphasized a third important aspect of his legacy: his role in setting the tone for post–Cold War civil-military relations in the United States. As with the rest of his legacy, it is a record of considerable consequence: much to be praised and some to be viewed more ambivalently.

AN OFFICER AND AN OPERATOR

Powell headed the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993, and he was the most consequential chairman of the modern era. He was the first to make full use of the power and prestige that the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 had bestowed upon the position. He converted the Joint Staff from a backwater that was largely ignored during the interservice rivalry of Cold War defense policymaking into a dominant player in the national security interagency process. And he relied on the superior staff work that this organization could produce—as well as his own mastery of bureaucratic politics—to eclipse all other military voices and quite a few civilian voices, too. No chairman before or since has had quite the amount of political clout Powell enjoyed at his apex. He was the most popular military officer of his era and might have been the first general since Dwight Eisenhower to win the presidency, had he pursued that office in 1996—as many in the Clinton administration feared he would. 

Powell helped the country transition from the Cold War to a more confusing era without committing the mistakes that previous generations made by demobilizing and withdrawing from global commitments too extensively. He also helped lead a decisive military victory over Iraq during the Gulf War of 1990–91, an operation that many look back on wistfully for its restraint and swift execution. As the first and so far only African American to reach the topmost military rank, he personified a renewal of military prestige and inspired the rank and file. He played a critical role in helping rebuild public confidence in the military after the trauma of the Vietnam War and the end of the draft.

Yet he was also a controversial figure who did not hesitate to use his political acumen to greatly enhance the military’s voice in debates over policy—and constrain the choices of civilian leaders. Powell’s efforts at shaping the post–Cold War defense drawdown centered on what he called “the Base Force,” a defense planning construct that was designed deliberately to head off what he knew to be a strong desire among many in Congress and within the Clinton administration to make deep cuts in the Pentagon’s budget. Whatever one might think of Powell’s preferred policy, there is no denying that he sought to hem in his civilian superiors and prevent them from making choices they were tempted to make.

No chairman before or since has had quite the amount of political clout Powell enjoyed at his apex.

Similarly, Powell and the service chiefs during his chairmanship opposed the changes that President Bill Clinton proposed to allow gays and lesbians to serve in the military, resulting in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” compromise that stood from 1993 until its repeal in 2011. During an interview in 2010, Clinton claimed that the DADT policy Powell had “sold” him was very different from what ended up being implemented, making the situation for gays and lesbians in the military “worse than it had been before.” In justifying DADT, both Clinton and Powell cited congressional support for an outright ban on gays, but it is hard not to see Powell’s opposition to them serving openly as a pivotal factor. In 2009, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, stated that the main reason he supported DADT was that Powell strongly recommended it.

Powell was also influential in shaping the debate over the use of force, which became increasingly important as the so-called Vietnam syndrome receded and the end of the Cold War opened the door to more U.S. military engagements. For many scholars of civil-military relations, Powell’s op-ed in The New York Times titled “Why Generals Get Nervous,” published less than four weeks before the 1992 presidential election, remains a textbook example of the ways that a military leader can get caught in the crossfire of a political campaign. In the op-ed, Powell outlined his opposition to Clinton’s proposed uses of the military in Bosnia. He then reiterated his preferred strategy of military restraint in a Foreign Affairs article that ran just prior to Clinton’s inauguration. His opposition once again proved critical in shaping the policies that were eventually adopted, prompting one former Clinton aide to note, “So long as Powell didn’t want to bomb, we weren’t going to bomb.” Powell defended his op-ed on the grounds that it had been cleared by the White House while George H. W. Bush was still president and thus still Powell’s civilian commander in chief. But many civil-military specialists have flagged it as the kind of political engagement that the military should avoid, especially during a contentious partisan campaign.

The ideas he put forward in his Foreign Affairs article, as well as in the 1992 National Military Strategy and later in his autobiography, My American Journey, became known as “the Powell Doctrine.” The doctrine rests primarily on a strict test for determining whether military action is the correct course: it must have a clear political objective, be undertaken only if the national interest is at stake, always be a last resort—and, once initiated, employ decisive force.

Critics argue that these conditions amount to an unrealistic ideal. The real problem with the Powell Doctrine, however, isn’t its impractical checklist but the fact that it was offered by a general as a way to constrain civilian leaders. As we recently argued in these pages, control of the armed forces should not be seen as a binary condition but should be measured in degrees. The Powell Doctrine demonstrates how military judgment—especially when broadcast to the public and not provided to policymakers behind closed doors—can limit and ultimately degrade civilian control.

ONE OF A KIND?

The power that Powell wielded as chairman raises a question that has not been sufficiently answered in the three decades since he retired: Can a senior military leader have the extraordinary political skill that Powell mastered but not overstep by using his acumen to advance the military’s interests over civilian preferences? One answer to this question may be that the country simply hasn’t yet seen the likes of another Powell, so it is hard to be sure.

In many ways, Powell’s military career was an anomaly and one that his successors as chairman did not emulate. Powell spent 19 of his final 24 years in uniform in Washington, D.C. His military career path, which included numerous command tours cut short in order to position him for senior positions inside the Beltway, would be unheard of in today’s U.S. Army, which incentivizes service at the tactical level and in which assignments in Washington are viewed with suspicion. As today’s three- and four-star generals watch the tumult that has marked the chairmanship of General Mark Milley, many may conclude that avoiding politics at all costs remains infinitely preferable to trying to navigate it. In that regard, Powell remains a figure whom many senior officers idolize but whom few appear willing or able to imitate.

Still, every chairman since Powell has enjoyed more influence within the interagency process than any Cold War chairman experienced because of the toolkit Powell assembled and left to his successors. Although none has matched him in political clout, each has been asked at some point to speak to the moment in a way that Powell frequently did. Aspects of Powell’s record can be criticized, but one critique that cannot be leveled at him is that he did not matter. He mattered as much as any chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before or since, and today’s generation of military leaders continue to operate if not in his shadow, then at least in his debt.

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