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Jarrett Murphy

Jarrett Murphy

Posted: September 10, 2009 09:32 AM

Colin Powell Endorses Bloomberg. Honest!

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The news yesterday was that "Yankees power couple" Jorge and Laura Posada have endorsed Mayor Michael Bloomberg for re-election. It's unclear whether the rest of the Bombers' lineup will weigh in on the race. (Joba Chamberlain makes his endorsements in the fifth inning, and who knows when he'll see that again?) But hopefully the nod from the Yankees backstop marks the end of the silly season of dueling endorsements between Bloomberg and his likely Democratic opponent, Bill Thompson.

It's not obvious why any individuals' political endorsements matter. But it's a complete mystery why we should care that Dr. Steve Gounardes, the former head of the New York State Dental Association, has thrown his support behind Comptroller Thompson, or that Bloomberg has in his corner Jose Feliciano, the guitar legend whom Ed Sullivan once cringingly introduced with the words: "He's blind—and he's Puerto Rican!" The mayor's campaign has hyped endorsements of questionable significance for months, apparently in an effort to suggest that a groundswell of support is building for their man—a groundswell populated by major unions but also the "Panamanian and Ethnic American Voters Political Action Committee," which does not appear to be a registered political committee at the local, state or federal level. For his part, Thompson actually publicizes the backing he has from Kendall Stewart and Maria Baez, two City Council members with records so troubled they might actually lose their seats despite the advantage of incumbency.

But Monday we learned that former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell had endorsed Bloomberg. The mayor said: "Colin Powell is a man of ability, he is a man of integrity, and he's a man of independence." It's been said before, and it will be said again, regardless of what Powell's record actually suggests.

When he was a young staff officer in Vietnam, Powell was the first to investigate reports of a massacre in a village called My Lai. He dismissed the claims of atrocity. His evidence? "In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent."

Powell was a top Pentagon staffer during the Reagan administration. "As [Defense Secretary Caspar] Weinberger's senior military assistant from 1983 until March 1986, General Powell was one of the handful of senior DoD officials who were privy to detailed information regarding arms shipments to Iran during 1985 and 1986," read the final report by Iran-Contra Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh. Powell was cleared of wrongdoing in the report. He was just a guy who happened to be in the room when wrongdoing was contemplated, as Weinberger's diary indicated with several entries like: "Met with Colin Powell + Rich Armitage—re NSC Plan to let Israelis give Iranians 50 Hawks + 3300 TOWs in return for 5 hostages."

In the administration that followed, under the elder Bush, Powell rose to be Joint Chiefs chairman, a position which lacks any operational command over U.S. forces but plays an advisory role to the president. To his credit, Powell apparently prevented the U.S. from intervening militarily in the Philippines during a brief period of unrest there. Powell was also the media point man for the first war in Iraq. After the war, reports emerged that General Barry McCaffrey had ordered armored forces under his command to launch a ferocious attack on retreating Iraqi forces after the ceasefire had been declared, killing an unknown number of troops and civilians. Some of McCaffrey's own men doubted that the American assault had been provoked. Asked about the incident, Powell told the press: "[The Iraqis] fired on us. It was their mistake," neglecting the twin pillars of the law of war—that an armed response is supposed to discriminate between aggressors and bystanders and be proportionate to the aggression (if any) that prompts it.

In the mid-1990s, Powell retired to civilian life, founded an organization to advocate for America's youth and joined the board of AOL, picking up millions of dollars' worth of AOL stock. His son Michael Powell then became head of the Federal Communications Commission. When Time Warner and AOL in 2000 proposed a merger that would result in a massive concentration of media power, the FCC had to sign off on it. Michael Powell didn't bother with the trouble of recusing himself and cast a hearty "yes" vote.

Later that year, Powell endorsed George W. Bush for president. At the Republican National Convention, Powell told delegates: "Whether it's economic policy or military strategy or seeing what we can do to make our American family more inclusive, [Bush] will always try to do what is good and right for America." A few months later, Powell became Bush's secretary of state. That put Powell in the chair in the U.N. Security Council chamber on February 5, 2003, to deliver a lengthy argument for military intervention in Iraq—an argument based on flawed intelligence and bad foreign policy. Powell supposedly received CIA assurances that the information he was to present was sound. But Powell's own intelligence advisers stripped out at least 30 CIA claims from early drafts of the speech because they were unfounded. That might have made Powell suspicious about the quality of the rest of his talk. But he kept any suspicions to himself, and lent his remarkably durable credibility to perhaps the nation's gravest military blunder, saying: "Indeed, the facts and Iraq's behavior show that Saddam Hussein and his regime are concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction."

Powell's fans have dismissed his errors by portraying him as "the good soldier"—always loyal, always following orders. But his military reticence vanished when Bill Clinton became president and sought to eliminate the military's ban on gays and lesbians. Powell said the move "would be prejudicial to good order and discipline," and his opposition, despite breaching the etiquette that has military officers are subordinate to civilian control, helped torpedo the proposed change and politically wounded a young president. Instead of repeal, the military got "don't ask, don't tell" which continued to maintain good order and discipline by preventing gays and lesbians from serving their country or at least doing so outside the closet. Powell now says that policy ought to be "reviewed."

These days, Powell makes a living giving speeches. His fee is reported to be in the low six figures. He recently headlined a "Get Motivated" seminar in Hartford that also featured Rudy Giuliani, Laura Bush, Steve Forbes and Joe Montana. He and Bloomberg sometimes move in the same social circles: Both were at buyout big-shot Stephen Schwarzman's 2007 birthday bash. Last year when Powell endorsed Barack Obama, it was as if the Desert Storm-era image of Powell, erect and impressive in his four-star dress greens as he coolly talked America through its self-esteem building victory over Saddam, was the only scene in the Colin Powell movie. The vial of anthrax? Eh…

Now Powell is supporting Mayor Bloomberg. To many people who backed the Iraq war, Powell's debacle at the U.N. was no big deal. Bloomberg in 2004 said of the Iraq affair: "Don't forget that the war started not very many blocks from here," referring to Ground Zero, which—don't forget—had absolutely nothing to do with Iraq. The mayor's position on the war since then has not been clear. What is clear is that the fighting in Iraq is not as disconnected from city policy and politics as one might think.

Hundreds of billions of dollars that might have gone to Bloomberg's infrastructure, environmental or anti-poverty crusades have instead been spent in Iraq. Sixty-three New York City residents have died there. When tens of thousands of New Yorkers came to the city to protest the war on its eve in 2003, the Bloomberg administration prevented a march, blocking thousands from attending the demonstration because there wasn't room for them. When tens of thousands more came during the Republican National Convention in 2004, the Bloomberg administration denied them access to Central Park and arrested 1,800 who marched elsewhere.

The Bloomberg campaign apparently did not solicit Powell's endorsement. But he gave it anyway. "Endorsements are important, but New Yorkers should also look at the record of the individual," Powell said in a statement released by the Bloomberg campaign. "They should look at Mike's performance in the years that he has been mayor, and then they should vote on that performance and also on the potential of what he can do for the next four years. I endorse him, and I hope he'll win."