'It Worked For Me': Life Lessons From Colin Powell

May 22, 2012
Originally published on May 22, 2012 5:50 pm

If you're looking for advice on leadership, it's good to start with a four-star general. Colin Powell's new memoir, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership, is a collection of lessons learned and anecdotes drawn from his childhood in the Bronx, his military training and career, and his work under four presidential administrations. The memoir also includes Powell's candid reflections on the most controversial time in his career: the lead-up to the war in Iraq in 2003.

If there's a theme that runs throughout the book, it's Powell's love for the U.S. Army — from his days in ROTC, right through to becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell says that back when he was a lost 17-year-old at City College of New York, ROTC "saved" him and kept him in school.

"I found my place. I found discipline, I found structure, I found people that were like me and I liked, and I fell in love with the Army those first few months in ROTC, and it lasted for the next 40-odd years," Powell tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "People have asked me, 'What would you have done if you hadn't gone into the Army?' I'd say I'd probably be a bus driver, I don't know."

'I'll Never Leave It Behind'

But he didn't become a bus driver — Powell went on to become U.S. secretary of state under President George W. Bush. In 2003, he gave a now-famous presentation to the U.N. Security Council on evidence of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction — which turned out not to exist. Powell addresses that presentation in his book — in what he says will be his first and last account of the affair.

"I'll never leave it behind," Powell says. "It was the most vivid presentation of the intelligence information that we had, and it was designed to be the most vivid presentation — that's why we did it at the U.N., and I spent a great deal of time getting that information ready."

The case for war had been made over the course of several months, and Powell says it had been accepted by the president, other world leaders, and most of the U.S. Congress. But he will always be remembered as "the one" who presented the information to the U.N. "When I presented it to the U.N., I had every assurance from the intelligence community that the information I had was correct," Powell says. "Turned out not to be."

Powell writes that he now knows that the draft that he and then-CIA Director George Tenet were presented with hadn't actually come through the National Security Council at the White House, but rather from Vice President Dick Cheney's office.

"But I didn't know that at the time," Powell says. "I knew when the president asked me to make the presentation — I knew that the NSC was supposed to have been working on it, and therefore I would get something that was a near-finished document."

He wasn't aware, he says, that Scooter Libby, counsel to the vice president, was working on the document and that "it was not connected to the intelligence material, and so I couldn't use it as it was given to me."

CIA officials later wrote memoirs remarking on how bad the evidence was, and Powell says that he wonders: Where were they when the national intelligence estimate was being assembled?

"Some of them say that they tried to get it up to the top levels of the CIA, that those sources should not be used," Powell says.

But he found it disturbing that after some of the intelligence information fell apart, CIA officials said: Well, we know they never should have been used by Powell.

"Well, then it shouldn't have been used by the president, and shouldn't have been used by the Congress, shouldn't have been available to anybody," Powell says.

'Lessons Learned' In Iraq

After nearly eight years of war, the U.S. withdrew its last troops from Iraq in December. "The Army will take its lessons learned," Powell says. "They're excellent at looking into themselves and reflecting on what did we do right, what did we do wrong."

On the whole, Powell says the Army "did quite well," but that there were command issues that should have been handled differently. "A junior general should not have been suddenly given command of all of Iraq at that time," Powell says. "Some of the more senior commanders were sent home, and the central commander Gen. [Tommy] Franks essentially left and went into retirement."

There were also expectations about the course of the war that didn't turn out to be true.

"There was an assumption ... that this was all going to snap back in place, it would be easy once Baghdad fell," Powell says. "But it became obvious early on that was not going to be the case."

Gen. Franks and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld thought they had a sufficient number of troops — but greatly underestimated the force they would ultimately need. But Powell doesn't believe that the legacy of the Iraq war will be that the U.S. will always need more and more troops. And he doesn't think that's the right answer, either.

In one chapter, he refers to "The Powell Doctrine," which states: "Once you've decided what the political objective is and that you have to go to war, put in enough troops to be decisive," Powell says. "In this instance, the decisive point that they focused on was the fall of Baghdad, but ... that wasn't the end of the conflict; it was the beginning of a new phase of the conflict. Military planners should always be thinking about what happens after you accomplish that first thing, what else you're going to have to do."

Another Vote For Obama?

Powell was a star in Republican administrations, but in 2008, he announced that he would be voting for Barack Obama for president. Now, four years later, he's not prepared to say whether he'll be voting for Obama again.

"I'm proud of the vote I cast for him in 2008, I think he was absolutely the right choice," Powell says. "I think he's done some very, very positive things to stabilize our financial system, save the auto industry, to bring some regulation into the mix, and we've ended one war — the one in Iraq — we're working on phasing out Afghanistan, and we haven't gotten into any new ones."

But he has plenty of critiques of the Obama administration as well. "We didn't close Guantanamo as I would have hoped, and we still have an unemployment rate that's too high, and the economy has not quite recovered." Powell says. "Whether that's all the fault of the president or not will be up to the people to decide."

Powell has known Romney for many years and says he's a "very distinguished gentleman." Powell is looking forward to hearing what Romney has to say in the coming months.

"You're not just voting for an individual," Powell says. "In my judgment, you're voting for an agenda, you're voting for a platform, you're voting for a political philosophy. And I want to really hear what Mr. Romney has to say about that now that he's gotten through the primaries where he had to act in a somewhat different manner."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Colin Powell has a new book out. It's called "It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership." It's a mix of lessons learned, anecdotes, tales from the life of the professional public speaker - right down to what's wrong with the modern business hotel - and it also includes some candid reflection on the most controversial moments in General Powell's career, the lead up to the war in Iraq and his presentation to the U.N. Security Council an evidence of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

Secretary of State Powell, welcome.

COLIN POWELL: Thank you very much, Robert.

SIEGEL: First, there is a theme throughout your stories - from your days in ROTC at City College of New York right up to becoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - you love the United States Army.

POWELL: I loved the United States Army. I entered the City College of New York just short of my 17th birthday, a kid not sure where he was going. His mother said, take engineering. That's what you need. Engineering didn't take to me. And what saved me and kept me in college was I ran into ROTC cadets who were in a fraternity called The Persian Rifles.

And I found my place. I found discipline, I found structure, I found people that were like me and I liked. And I fell in love with the Army that first few months in ROTC, and it lasted for the next 40-odd years.

SIEGEL: You never fell out of love.

POWELL: Never fell out of love. No. People have asked me: what would you have done if you hadn't gone into the Army? I'd say I'd probably be a bus driver. I don't know.

SIEGEL: In this book, you write what you describe as your first and last account of the famous presentation to the U.N. Security Council on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, weapons that turned out not to exist. First of all, it's pretty clear from your writing about this, this still rankles. I mean, this episode is something that you haven't been able to completely leave behind.

POWELL: Oh, I'll never leave it behind, because it was the most vivid presentation of the intelligence information that we had. And it was designed to be the most vivid presentation. That's why we did it at the U.N., and I spent a great deal of time getting that presentation ready. And so everybody sort of remembers that.

But the case for war was being made over a period of months and had been accepted by the president, by all the world leaders, and certainly by an overwhelming vote of the Congress. But nevertheless, I will always be the one that saw to, hey, he presented it to the U.N.

And when I presented it to the U.N., I had every assurance from the intelligence community that the information I had was correct. Turned out not to be. Some of it turned out not to be.

SIEGEL: You write that the draft that you and then-CIA Director Tenet were presented with hadn't actually come through the National Security Council at the White House. It came through - it came from Vice President Cheney's office.

POWELL: That's right. But I didn't know that at the time. I knew when the president asked me to make the presentation, I knew that the NSC was supposed to have been working on it, and therefore I would get something that was a near-finished document. And when I got it and talked to Scooter about it...

SIEGEL: Scooter Libby...

POWELL: Yes, Scooter Libby...

SIEGEL: ...who was counselor to the vice president.

POWELL: ...is an old friend of mine. He said he had wrote it up as a lawyer's draft. And I wasn't aware that he was the person who was working on it within the White House. And so it was not connected to the intelligence material. And so I couldn't use it as it was given to me. And that's when we went into a four-day, intensive preparation to get the intelligence information.

And I was shocked when I asked George Tenet, hey, why isn't this stuff connected? He said, we had nothing to do with it. It went into the White House and we never saw it again. And it was only a couple of years later that Condi - Condi Rice - now Secretary of State and National Security advisor, but she mentioned to me: Oh, by the way, you know, it was - Mr. Cheney asked the president if Scootie could do it because he thought it ought to be done as a legal brief, and not the way I would have preferred to have seen it.

SIEGEL: You remark that when CIA officials later wrote their accounts of this and remarked on how bad the intelligence had actually been, you say, where were those guys when the national intelligence estimate was being assembled...

POWELL: Yeah. And some of them say that they tried to get it up to the top levels of the CIA, that those sources should not be used. But it was a little disturbing after, you know, my presentation and then the intelligence information - some of it, not all of it - the intelligence information fell apart, these folks who were in the system were saying, well, we know they never should have been used by Powell. Well then, it shouldn't have been used by the president and shouldn't have been used by the Congress. Shouldn't have been available to anybody.

SIEGEL: Now that I think we're at the end of the war in Iraq, and we can see some arc of what happened there, for you - both as former Secretary of State, but also as someone who loves the Army as you do - what's the take away from that experience, and what do you think the legacy for the U.S. Army is?

POWELL: The Army will take its lessons learned. They're excellent at looking into themselves and reflecting on what did we do right, what did we do wrong. I think they did quite well. I think there were some command issues that were not done well. A junior general should not have been suddenly given command of all of Iraq at that time. And some of the more senior commanders were sent home. And the central command, Commander General Franks, essentially left and went into retirement.

There was an assumption and thinking that this was all just going to snap right back in place. It was going to be easy once Baghdad fell.

SIEGEL: It would be easy, yeah.

POWELL: But it became obvious early on that was not going to be the case. And even before then, I had spoken to General Franks about do you really have enough troops in the Army to really handle this? And he felt strongly that he did, and so did Mr. Rumsfeld. And they are the ones who are in charge of military planning and execution, and they said to the president that it was adequate.

SIEGEL: But, General Powell, does that mean that the legacy for the Army is that likely no one will ever do anything without having three times as many troops, as you could possibly imagine doing that (unintelligible).

POWELL: I can't predict that will be the legacy, nor would I say that the answer is always three times as many troops. You know, there's a chapter in the book called "The Powell Doctrine," where I say once you've decided what the political objective is and that you have to go to war, put in enough troops to be decisive.

In this instance, the decisive point that they focused on was the fall of Baghdad and the elimination of the regime. But as I cover in the book, that wasn't the end of the conflict. It was the beginning of a new phase of the conflict. And military planners should always be thinking about what happens? After you accomplish that first thing, what else are you going to have to do?

And we were not prepared to do that or think about it - mission accomplished - and start thinking about bringing the troops home, whereas we should have been surging them at that point, and we ended up having to surge them years later.

SIEGEL: Four years ago, despite your having spoken to two Republican National Conventions and being very closely identified with Republican presidents, you said in October of 2008 that you would vote for President Obama. He's up for re-election, I think you're aware.

POWELL: I've noted.

SIEGEL: Do you think you'd vote for him again?

POWELL: I'm not prepared to say. I'm proud of the vote that I cast for him in 2008. I think he was absolutely the right choice. I think he's done some very, very positive things to stabilize our financial system, to save the auto industry, to bring some regulation into the mix. And we've ended one war, the one in Iraq. We're working on phasing out Afghanistan, and we haven't gotten into any new ones.

But I always that as a private citizen and not a, really a political player, I want to hear what the other side has to say.

SIEGEL: That's a pretty positive account you've just given, though, for the administration.

POWELL: Yes. But there are some things that are not so positive. We didn't close Guantanamo as I would have hoped, and we still have an unemployment rate that's too high, and the economy has not quite recovered. Whether that's all the fault of the president or not will be up to the people to decide.

But I've known Mr. Romney for many years. I think he's a very distinguished gentleman, and I want to hear what he has to say. I want to see what kind of policies. You're not just voting for an individual, in my judgment, you're voting for an agenda. You're voting for a platform. You're voting for a political philosophy.

And I want to really hear what Mr. Romney has to say about that now that he's gotten through the primaries where he had to act in a somewhat different manner.

SIEGEL: You're waiting for the, as someone once said, for the Etch A Sketch to be shaken up a little bit, no?

POWELL: Oh, I'm not going to talk about Etch A Sketches. I haven't seen one in 40 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Former Secretary of State General Colin Powell, thank you very much for talking with us today.

POWELL: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: And Colin Powell's new book is called "It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.