Obama, Colin Powell, and Guantanamo Tortures: 3 Portraits of Leadership This Week


It has been difficult this week to avoid the dull roar surrounding the first anniversary of the Osama Bin Laden raid. As usual, the media saturation has made an otherwise profound event into something of a sideshow, but it got me to thinking about decision and leadership and how some decisions have the unintended consequence of imprisoning us.

For all of President Obama’s accomplishments these last three years, the Bin Laden raid remains the undisputed victory for his administration. As for the ad this week praising Obama’s decision to launch the raid one year ago, it was refreshingly tough, which many of us Obama admirers were happy to see at long last. A Republican administration has and would have released a similar feature.

The Bin Laden raid, however decisive an action, ought not to become the hallmark of Obama’s presidency. And yet it is the keystone to Obama’s leadership, and the image of him has become as a “warrior in chief,” when in fact he came to office on a decidedly pro-peace platform, which earned him a Nobel Peace Prize.

There were two other episodes this week that spoke to this idea of action and consequence. One, which was underreported, is Colin Powell’s forthcoming book, It Worked for Me, in which the former secretary of state reflects over the course of events that have defined his career. He reportedly tackles the issue of his erroneous presentation to the United Nations on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, saying that “a blot, a failure will always be attached to me and my UN presentation.”

The book is meant as something of a manual to business leaders, who he encourages to stay “skeptical” and to espouse “kindness” in their dealings with colleagues and employees. The few pre-released excerpts are beyond refreshing. Powell’s admission that “I am mostly mad at myself for not having smelled the problem. My instincts failed me,” with regard to Iraqi WMD is exactly the kind of reflection one relishes in a good leader. His distinguished record of service is no doubt besmirched by the sordid details that went into selling the Iraq War. But this latest thoughtful narrative goes a long way in helping the public to maybe not divorce him from that regrettable decision, but at least to forgive him for it.

The second episode was a 60 Minutes interview with Jose Rodriguez, the former head of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Clandestine Service and the man behind the CIA program of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” He too has a new book, Hard Measures, and if his pigheaded interview with Leslie Stahl is any indication of the views expressed therein, it is an unremorseful account of the way the U.S. treated suspected Al-Qaeda prisoners.

I do have sympathy for Rodriguez and other analysts at the CIA who were “flooded with intelligence about [another] imminent attack” after September 11. Few of us can imagine the pressure put on our intelligence community, who bore the brunt of the blame for September 11, to get the intelligence, by any means necessary, to stave off another attack. But it’s just not a good enough excuse for torture. His subsequent destruction of 92 tapes depicting these shameful interrogations has yet to earn him some kind of serious reprimand beyond public disapproval.

It was the tone of the interview, however, that was perhaps most infuriating. In Rodriguez’s mind it is still clearly September 12, 2001. Even after a decade has passed he maintains, quite obstinately, that his decision to use torture was perfectly acceptable, even if it meant subsequently dragging the country down a perverse, embarrassing, and illicit path. Rodriguez is proud of the action he took to “safeguard” the country, even though there is ample evidence none of those techniques ever helped in gleaning valuable intel (Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side is a must read on this). He remains oblivious to the fact that his decisions have imprisoned us as a country in a particularly dark and unforgiving part of history.

Deborah Shapley ends her biography of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, one of the most vilified men in his day, saying that he “shaped much in today’s world -- and imprisoned himself.” There needs to be a greater reflection on the actions we and our leaders take, even the good ones, because as Shapley adds, “we make our decisions. And then our decisions turn around and make us.”