New emails from Colin Powell show the former secretary of state offering pessimistic views about the state of U.S. foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration, and the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency.
Powell, a retired four-star general who served under three Republican presidents, most as secretary of state, offered a blunt assessment of US policy past and present, showing more candid views than he’s expressed publicly.
Most of Powell’s most revealing conversations took place with Democratic mega-donor Jeffrey Leeds. In one August 2014 email, Powell expressed anxiety over the US slipping into long-term military action against ISIS.
“What worries me is the [president] slipping into a war the American people care nothing about and we don’t have a good enough understanding,” Powell wrote. “He need to have Kerry, Hagel, Dempsey, Susan and others shut up until he has decided on a policy. Their statements have been loose, undisciplined, hyperbolic and confused. For us to think we are at a high risk because a few of these clowns may get here is absurd. We spent $100m on 100 air missions blowing up maybe 100 trucks and tanks that were ours. ISIS is still there.”
The website DCLeaks.com — which has reported, but not confirmed, ties to Russian intelligence services — obtained Powell’s emails. It may be the latest example of a Russian entity potentially trying to influence the US presidential election — in July, the FBI said it believed Russia was behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee’s internal emails right before they party’s convention.
A spokesperson for Trump said, “We have no comment. These are private, stolen emails. “
In January of 2015, Powell wrote Leeds saying it was “nuts” to send American forces back to Iraq. He added he was not convinced that leaving a residual force in Iraq would have prevented the rise of ISIS.
“So, the surge reduced violence, but we did not ‘win,’” Powell wrote. “We gave the Iraqis a chance and they blew it. And day before yesterday Shia militia killed dozens of Sunnis. And ISIS occupies ⅓ of country. We are celebrating the ‘liberation’ of Kobane. Watch BBC and you’ll see that Kobane has been blown to crap. ISIS still control the surrounding territory and have gone on to attack Kirkuk. These are movements’ not fixed enemies and we’d be nuts to send in the American army again in strength. The Iraqis and the Afghans need to get their acts together. And I am not persuaded that leaving 10 or 20k in Iraq would have prevented this.”
In October 2014, Powell sent Leeds a link to a Fareed Zakaria column in the Washington Post. In the piece, Zakaria criticized the Obama administration's plan to "degrade and ultimately destroy" ISIS, saying that the US should not escalate its presence in Syria because non-governmental and non-jihadi forces in the country were weak. Zakaria argued that the US should instead pursue a policy of containment.
“It is dead on,” wrote Powell. “Administration is just pumping out bullshit.”
In August of 2014, Obama national security advisor Susan Rice emailed Powell asking for advice on the administration’s ISIS policy. President Obama had authorized operations to protect Yazidis who fled into the Sinjar Mountains to escape from ISIS.
“Your problem is how to get them off the mountain,” Powell wrote to Rice. “You may slip into a bigger mission. (Think mini-Somalia.) On air strikes, the question is are we going after just the forces around the mountain or ISIS in general? How good will our targeting be without ground recon. We’ll pick off some vehicles and buildings, but I don’t know if that will be enough to change the balance, however impressive it looks on TV…ISIS is clever and there are lots of ways to disperse and hide. I can’t understand what the devil the Iraqi forces are doing or not doing. Getting a Prime Minister is important but won’t immediately have a political impact or motivate the Army.”
And a January 2016 email to Leeds showed Powell’s sense of resignation at the state of US operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“We are fighting one kind of war,” said Powell. “ISIS and the Taliban are fighting another. They plan to win, we are just trying to get to the next administration.”
In an exchange with his former chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, in May of this year, Powell said he didn’t know what policies Clinton would put in place and expressed a lack of faith in Trump.
“Trump would reduce the requirements while funding stuff we don't need,” wrote Powell. “God only knows what Hillary would really do. She is called hawkish, but she is smart enough to see what happened during the Obam and Bush years. Her hubby mostly stayed out except for some Balkans stuff, a screwup in Somalia by nation-building and a two-day bombing in Iraq.”
In an April conversation with former aide Emily Miller, Powell discussed how he briefed the president on nuclear plans and then expressed dismay at the idea of Trump in the White House.
“I think of my days as [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] and every few months I have to review out nuclear plans and keep the President up to date,” Powell wrote. “The very thought of putting Donald (Trump) in this system is unbelievable.”
Other exchanges show Powell’s deep cynicism about the state of the Republican Party. Powell expressed his belief in a June 2016 email with Charles Powell — no relation — the former chief of staff to Tony Blair, that the Republican Party was beginning to crash and burn.
“We all need to start voting for America and not our parties,” wrote Powell. “Trump is taking on water. He doesn't have a GOP philosophy or even a Conservative philosophy. We need a revolution and it will begin with the GOP crashing and burning up its current form.”
Powell also wrote of his disapproval of some Bush administration decisions during his tenure. In an exchange about torture with his executive assistant in June 2016, Powell calls it “a moral failing of America.” I
In a January 2016 email with Georgetown professor and journalist John Walcott, Powell called Pentagon’s May 2003 decision to disband the Iraqi army “a strategic disaster,” and said he was caught off-guard by the decision.
“On about 23 May the order is issued,” Powell wrote. “I read about it the newspaper the next morning. [The Joint Chiefs of Staff] were surprised, CIA surprised, Condi and President surprised. Centcom surprised. Jerry ended up having to hand out money to all these dismissed soldiers who went off pissed, trained and armed. Rummy in his memoir closed the story by saying: on reflection the NSC should have given it greater consideration.’ WE HAD. It may be that in those four days the decision was mentioned in passing at an NSC meeting, but there was never a study or analysis. A strategic disaster.”
Andrew Kaczynski is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Andrew Kaczynski at email@example.com.
Christopher Massie is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Christopher Massie at Christopher.Massie@buzzfeed.com.
Nathan McDermott is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Nathan McDermott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nathaniel Meyersohn is a political reporting intern and is based in New York.
Contact Nathaniel Meyersohn at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.