In the decade and a half since then, Powell’s world and Bush’s have intersected only at the margins. The secretary takes pains not to speak ill of the president he once served, even when he announced in 2008 that he would be supporting Barack Obama as Bush’s successor. He was on hand for the opening of Bush’s presidential library in 2013. But he has not attended the administration’s annual alumni gatherings, and since leaving office he has refused to defend Bush’s legacy-defining decision to invade Iraq.
On the one other occasion I interviewed Powell, while gathering material for a book about Bush’s presidency in 2006, he was wary and did not wish to speak on the record; it was a time of chaos in Iraq, and of score-settling memoirs in Washington. A dozen years later, however, that caginess had mostly fallen away. Some of the core mysteries that still hung over the most consequential American foreign-policy decision in a half-century, I found, remained mysteries even to Powell. At one point during our first conversation in 2018, he paraphrased a line about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction from the intelligence assessment that had informed his U.N. speech, which intelligence officials had assured him was rock solid: “ ‘We judge that they have 100 to 500 metric tons of chemical weapons, all produced within the last year.’ How could they have known that?” he said with caustic disbelief.
I told Powell I intended to track down the authors of that assessment. Smirking, he replied, “You might tell them I’m curious about it.”
Not long after meeting Powell, I did manage to speak to several analysts who helped produce the classified assessment of Iraq’s supposed weapons program and who had not previously talked with reporters. In fact, I learned, there was exactly zero proof that Hussein had a chemical-weapons stockpile. The C.I.A. analysts knew only that he once had such a stockpile, before the 1991 Persian Gulf war, and that it was thought to be as much as 500 metric tons before the weapons were destroyed. The analysts had noted what seemed to be recent suspicious movement of vehicles around suspected chemical-weapons plants. There also seemed to be signs — though again, no hard proof — that Iraq had an active biological-weapons program, so, they reasoned, the country was probably manufacturing chemical weapons as well. This was, I learned, typical of the prewar intelligence estimates: They amounted to semi-educated guesses built on previous and seldom-challenged guesses that always assumed the worst and imagined deceptiveness in everything the Iraqi regime did. The analysts knew not to present these judgments as facts. But that distinction had become lost by the time Powell spoke before the U.N.
Moreover, a circular reasoning guided the intelligence community’s prewar estimates. As an intelligence official — one of many who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity — said: “We knew where we were headed, and that was war. Which ironically made it that much more difficult to change the analytic line that we’d stuck with for 10 years. For 10 years, it was our pretty strong judgment that Saddam had chemical capability.” Whether or not this was still true, “with American soldiers about to go in, we weren’t going to change our mind and say, ‘Never mind.’”
“I am capable of self-pity,” Powell wrote in “My American Journey,” his 1995 memoir. “But not for long.” In his ascent to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush, the Harlem-born son of Jamaican immigrants had prevailed over racism, hard-ass generals in the Army and right-wingers who found him insufficiently hawkish. His appointment by Bush and Cheney, then the secretary of defense, also turned out to be a stroke of political genius. During the gulf war, his poise and resolve on television rallied Americans leery of foreign entanglements after the horror of Vietnam. It was thoroughly unsurprising when Bush’s son appointed Powell his secretary of state.
But their relationship was fraught from the start. Bush was not at all like his father, whom Powell had greatly admired. The new president was far more conservative, far less reverential of international alliances. Bush also understood the power that Powell’s popularity conferred on him, and he knew that Powell, who had once considered and decided against running for president, could change his mind anytime he wished.