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December 22, 2000
Behind Colin Powell's Legend

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As the Iran-contra scandal faded in the summer and fall 1987, Powell turned his attention to another touchy assignment: winning renewed CIA aid for the Nicaraguan contras, a difficult task in the wake of the Iran-contra debacle.

According to Powell's NSC calendars, which we obtained from the National Archives, the politically astute general devoted large amounts of time to this assignment.

In My American Journey, Powell recounted a meeting with contra leaders in Miami. While admitting they were "a mixed bag," Powell wrote that the contra military commander, Col. Enrique Bermudez "impressed me as a true fighter ready to die for his cause. Others were just unregenerate veterans of the corrupt regime of Anastasio Somoza. ... But in the old days of East-West polarization, we worked with what we had."

Powell’s records at the Pentagon and at the NSC revealed no information about -- or apparent interest in -- long-standing allegations that the contras engaged in cocaine trafficking and committed atrocities against Nicaraguan civilians.

[Recent CIA and Justice Department reports have linked Bermudez to Nicaraguan drug traffickers who smuggled cocaine into the United States during the contra war, although Bermudez's precise role remained unclear. See Robert Parry's Lost History.]

Despite his belief in a Cold War rationale, Powell confronted a Congress that favored pressing for a regional peace settlement, rather than continuing contra military aid. Powell was determined to reverse that judgment.

Although still an active-duty military officer, Powell twisted the arms of leading congressmen. On Nov. 16, 1987, in the Oval Office, Powell joined in dressing down House Speaker Jim Wright, who was pushing for peace negotiations with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.

In his book Worth It All, Wright said Reagan, Carlucci and Powell portrayed Wright essentially as gullible for giving Ortega any credit. Wright paraphrased Powell and Carlucci as saying “you couldn’t count on anything [Ortega] said or did unless you had him at the end of a bayonet.”

Powell replaced Carlucci as national security adviser in November 1987 and assumed an even more prominent role in the contra battle. In January 1988, Powell carried that fight to the reluctant countries of Central America.

There, Powell joined assistant secretary of state Elliott Abrams in threatening leaders of four Central American nations who questioned Reagan's pro-contra policies. Powell and Abrams warned the leaders that their countries could face a cut-off of U.S. economic aid if they did not back the contras.

"These people [Powell and Abrams] are trying every weapon in their arsenal to break up the peace process," complained Rep. Bill Alexander, D-Ark.

But the Central American leaders and the Democratic-controlled Congress resisted the pressure. The contras received no more CIA military funding and negotiations did achieve a peace settlement in Nicaragua, as well as in nearby El Salvador and eventually in Guatemala.

But Powell had proved himself a good soldier again.

War & Politics

From Vietnam and Iran-contra, Colin Powell came to understand that combat was only a part of the mix in modern warfare. Large doses of politics and P.R. were equally important, if not more so.

"Once you've got all the forces moving and everything's being taken care of by the commanders," Powell advised other senior officers at the National Defense University in 1989, "turn your attention to television because you can win the battle [and] lose the war if you don't handle the story right."

Powell explained that the fickle political mood of Washington could alter the outcome of conflicts and damage careers. So he saw it as a military imperative to cultivate the opinions of the media elite.

"A great deal of my time is spent sensing that political environment," Powell said.

In the last years of Ronald Reagan's presidency, Powell earned his spurs as an expert spinner. He could wow reporters in White House background briefings or schmoose their bureau chiefs over an elegant lunch at the nearby Maison Blanche restaurant.

Yet, at the start of George Bush's presidency in 1989, Powell wanted a respite from Washington and got it by assuming command of Forces Command at Fort McPherson in Georgia. That posting also earned the general his fourth star.

But his sojourn into the regular Army would be brief, again. Behind the scenes, the Bush presidency was hurtling toward another confrontation with a Third World country, this time Panama.

Next: Part Four -- War & Reputation

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