Commentary Magazine


Is Colin Powell a War Criminal?

The answer to the question in the headline is, of course, no. Whatever Americans may think about Colin Powell’s politics, his decision to let Saddam Hussein remain in power in 1991, and his diplomacy while secretary of state, differences of opinion are not illegal: The simple fact of the matter is that Powell served honorably and was a brilliant military commander.

When Powell’s legacy is written, chief among it will be a series of principles relating to the use of military force which he articulated while chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This so-called “Powell Doctrine” prioritized restraint and demanded a clear exit strategy when force was used. However, when military action became necessary, then Powell called for a decisive edge and overwhelming force.

Hence, in Operation Desert Storm, Americans went in with overwhelming force, and Powell did not hesitate until he reached his objective: the liberation of Kuwait and the surrender of Iraqi forces. Americans celebrated that military victory, and Kuwaitis still do. The overwhelming victory led directly to the 1991 Madrid Conference which brought Israel and Arab states like Syria together in an unprecedented way, as well as to a renewed peace process on the Korean peninsula.

Fast forward to the present day: Journalists, human-rights activists, diplomats, and foreign officials all castigate Israel for its use of disproportionate military force. Israel, however, has adhered closely to the Powell Doctrine. It deferred the current military operation for years despite multiple provocations by Hamas, which had fired hundreds of rockets and missiles into Israel. Rather than resort to military force loosely, it sought to utilize diplomatic pressure to force closure of the tunnels which Hamas has constructed to smuggle weaponry, explosives, and other contraband into Gaza. However, with the kidnapping and murder of three Israelis, one of them also an American citizen, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided he had no option but to utilize military force.

Has Israel committed war crimes? Only in the fevered imagination of the political left and those whose moral barometer has become so dangerously miscalibrated. Is Israel acting with disproportionate force? Absolutely. And should it? Well, that’s the celebrated lesson of the Powell Doctrine.

Just as the United States leveraged its industrial might and used overwhelming force in World War II against both Japan and Germany, and more recently used disproportionate force in Panama, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and again in Iraq; and just as France more recently has used disproportionate force in Libya and against al-Qaeda in Mali; so Israel now uses disproportionate force against Hamas in pursuit of aims of destroying Hamas’s tunnels, eradicating the Hamas missile threat, and rendering for a short time at least Hamas impotent. In each case, civilians died, often in numbers far greater than have been killed in Gaza.

How ironic it is that CNN and other media networks which once celebrated the wisdom of Colin Powell now condemn it when it is pursued by others. Perhaps, though, when it comes to accusations of lack of impropriety, the fact that it is Israel that is fighting terrorists is no coincidence.

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3 Responses to “Is Colin Powell a War Criminal?”

  1. KENT LYON says:

    Can one go so far back as Gen. Sherman? He sat out part of the Civil War in a state of paralysis, unable to get his mind around the idea of a Civil War because he so loved the South (He had just been appointed to head a military school in Louisiana, that ultimately became LSU, at the outbreak of the War). He finally got his mind around the idea, and settled on the notion that overwhelming force needed to be applied, and to the civilian infrastucture, to get the South of surrender. Hence his burning of Atlanta and the amazing logistic feat of his march to the sea, destroying a huge swath of infrastructure as he went. Once the war was clearly won, he proposed to Lincoln terms of surrender so generous that even Lincoln, in his conciliatory state of mind, could not brook the generosity of Sherman’s conditions for Southern surrender. So generous were they it appeared that the North was the one surrendering, almost. Sherman’s intent was to so devastate the South that it would never again dream of secession, and the Union would be perpetually preserved. The Powell doctrine is the Sherman doctrine recalled. It is the most humane approach possible to war. Thus, Israel. Of course, this point will only incite the left to vilify Sherman anew as a monster who drove old Dixie down, and extend the epithet to the IDF.

  2. JOE MAHONEY says:

    It seems the rules of little league sports are being applied to war and not a war of choice but one in which rockets are fired at Israel and borders tunneled under. One wishes that those who propose such “theater of the absurd” rules had to live by them rather than be snug, smug and secure in the Hamptons.


    Just remember, all of our allies’ force was used far beyond their borders, as well. You may recall that patriot RAF chief, “Bomber” Harris who initiated the policy of intentionally targeting German civilians, firebombing Hamburg and Dresden, all with American participation. 100,000 in just 2 days.

    While that was going on, the US was firebombing Tokyo, and later, Hiroshima and Nagasaki—more civilians.

    The object lesson: “Israel has the right to defend itself, so long as it is ineffective and kills no one”

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