Colin Powell is coming to Santa Barbara to give a talk on “Leadership: Taking Charge.” His presence in the community and his topic provide an opportunity to consider what it means to be a leader.

In the military model, with which Mr. Powell is most familiar, leaders give orders and followers obey. It is a hierarchical structure in which one must be an obedient follower as well as an order giver or relayer of orders from above. In this model, leadership is based principally upon the authority of one’s role. Generals give orders to colonels; colonels to majors; and so on. In the hierarchical chain of command, the commander-in-chief is at the top of the ladder, and the young recruits at the bottom of the ladder. The private who efficiently follows orders will move up the ladder. Military leadership places a premium on obedience and loyalty: doing what one is told to do. Armies run on obedience to orders.

In the US military, as with most militaries, soldiers are, however, also subject to the law. They are informed in military handbooks that they have a duty to refuse to obey illegal orders. Examples of such orders might be to kill prisoners of war, commit torture or to bomb civilian populations. What is a soldier to do when confronted with such illegal orders? Obey or disobey? Remain silent and carry out the order, or speak out and inform the world of the illegal orders?

A tension is created between the hierarchical following of orders and the duty to break the chain of command when it comes to illegal orders. It is easier to build a career within the military by going along and not challenging orders from above. To speak out and challenge orders, on any grounds, runs the risk of ending one’s career within a hierarchical system. One cannot be both a “good soldier” who follows orders, regardless of their legality, and also one who does his duty to refuse illegal orders.

Colin Powell has always been a good soldier. He impressed his superiors in the military and in the upper reaches of government sufficiently to become the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and was then appointed Secretary of State by George W. Bush. He was also well regarded by the public as a man who was both reasonable and responsible. When Mr. Bush initially took his case for war against Iraq to the United Nations, the Security Council balked at giving Mr. Bush the authority to go to war against Iraq, and chose instead to “remain seized” of the matter. Despite the Bush administration’s claims that Iraq was engaged in programs developing weapons of mass destruction, the United Nations inspectors were not finding such weapons or related programs on the ground in Iraq.

To Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State who was widely regarded by the general public as the most trustworthy member of Bush’s cabinet, fell the task of making the case for war against Iraq at the UN Security Council. On February 6, 2003, Powell went before the Security Council and presented the members with false and misleading evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Relying upon the clearly faulty intelligence about aluminum tubing for a uranium enrichment program, Powell told the Council, for example, “We have no indication that Saddam Hussein has ever abandoned his nuclear weapons program. On the contrary, we have more than a decade of proof that he remains determined to acquire nuclear weapons.”

There are times when being a leader means doing what is right, regardless of the consequences. Powell could, perhaps, have stopped a needless and illegal war. He chose, instead, to use his goodwill as a messenger presenting the Bush administration’s case for war to the United Nations Security Council and, at the same time, to the American people. He chose obedience to authority and loyalty to his “chain of command” over respect for truth, human life and international law.

In the end, Powell must carry a heavy weight on his shoulders, for he might well have prevented the invasion of Iraq by taking the bold and courageous step of resigning his office. He could have then told the truth to the American people, rather than making a false case for war, even if it meant simply reflecting the ambiguity and doubts of the intelligence on which he drew. Ironically, Powell’s assertions at the UN met with strong rebuttals by UN inspectors, but his prestige and the public’s confidence in him seemed to reassure the American people and the Congress.

The American people should be highly skeptical of General Powell. He had a critical moment to be a leader and he chose instead to be a follower. Rather than leadership for peace, he joined in promoting misrepresentations that led the United States into a war that has now resulted in the deaths of over 2,000 American troops and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians. Sadly, Mr. Powell has proven that he is not a man to look to for leadership, nor one to pontificate about it. He owes the country an apology, which would require self-reflection and courage, two other traits of a good leader.

Mr. Powell is now free from the constraints of military hierarchy and enjoys the rights and responsibilities associated with being a US citizen. Even if he had been in some way convinced of the truthfulness of his statements about Iraq at the time they were made, he must by now surely have serious doubts about their veracity. With these doubts arises a solemn responsibility (and opportunity) to express them publicly, thereby breaking his silent assent to the continuing tragedy of the Iraq war and reasserting his claim to leadership.


David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation ( He is the author of many studies of peace in the Nuclear Age, and has been a leader in the global effort to abolish nuclear weapons. This article was published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on February 12, 2006.