Colin Powell, the son and great-grandson of Jamaican immigrants, rose to become the first Black U.S. secretary state and top military officer. However, his reputation was marred in 2003 when he presented spurious intelligence to UN to support the war with Iraq despite deep doubts. He died Monday at the age 84.
His family claimed that he died from complications of COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated.
For decades, Powell was a prominent Black figure in America. Three Republican presidents named him to high-ranking posts and he rose to the top of America’s military during its recovery from the Vietnam War trauma.
Powell was wounded in Vietnam and served as the U.S. national safety adviser from 1987 to 1989. He was a four-star Army General and chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, under President George H.W. Bush during the 1991 Gulf War, when U.S. forces expelled Iraqi troops based in neighboring Kuwait.
Powell was a moderate Republican and pragmaticist who considered running for the presidency in 1996. However, Alma, his wife’s concerns about Powell’s safety led him to abandon that idea. He voted for Barack Obama in 2008, the first Black person to be elected to the White House.
Powell will forever be associated with his controversial presentation on Feb. 5, 2003, to the U.N. Security Council, making President George W. Bush’s case that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein constituted an imminent danger to the world because of its stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.
Later, he admitted that the presentation contained inaccuracies as well as twisted intelligence from others in the Bush administration. He said that it was “a blot” and would “always remain a part my record.”
Bush had chosen Powell, the U.S. top military officer under his father’s presidency as his secretary of state in 2001.
Powell endured four stormy years as the top U.S. diplomat, often outmaneuvered by Vice President Dick Cheney – with whom he had served closely under the first President Bush – and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
With U.S. troops already fighting a war in Afghanistan launched after Afghan-based al Qaeda leaders plotted the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, hawks within the Bush administration began to advocate war with Iraq.
Powell argued within the administration to let diplomacy run its course on Iraq. He held grave reservations about a war, as well as the veracity of intelligence about Iraqi weapons, and the Pentagon’s insistence on a relatively small invasion force.
‘YOU BREAK IT, YOU OWN IT’
Powell privately warned Bush about all the difficulties involved in invading and occupying Iraq. He invoked the Pottery Barn rule, “You break it, it’s yours.”
Powell, the most revered member of Bush’s cabinet worldwide, agreed to publicize the case for war to gain international support.
He displayed diagrams and photographs purporting detail on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in the Security Council chamber. Also, translations from U.S intelligence intercepts.
At one point, Powell brandished a small vial containing a teaspoon of simulated anthrax, warning that Iraq had not accounted for “tens upon tens upon tens of thousands of teaspoons” of the deadly pathogen.
The invasion came six weeks later but no such weapons were found, undermining American credibility for years. U.S. forces fought in Iraq from 2003 to 2011, with nearly 4,500 American troops killed and 32,000 wounded.
Powell told the author of a 2006 book that he spent five days ahead of the U.N. presentation “trimming the garbage” that Cheney’s staff had provided as evidence of Saddam’s weapons programs and alleged links to al Qaeda.
“There were some people in the intelligence community who knew at that time that some of these sources were not good, and shouldn’t be relied upon, and they didn’t speak up. That devastated me,” Powell told interviewer Barbara Walters in 2005.
At the time, Powell remained the loyal soldier – a reluctant warrior who did not threaten to quit in protest or voice his concerns to the world.
“Well, loyalty is a trait that I value, and yes, I am loyal,” Powell said in the 2005 interview. “And there are some who say, ‘Well, you shouldn’t have supported it, you should have resigned.’ But I’m glad that Saddam Hussein is gone.”
Powell announced his resignation in “mutual agreement” with Bush after the president’s November 2004 re-election. Bush called Powell “one of the great public servants of our time.”
One of his chief military accomplishments was his development of the “Powell Doctrine” on the use of U.S. force, which arose out of the ambiguous objectives and erratic troop build-up of the Vietnam War era.
The doctrine states: war should be a last resort; force, when used, should be overwhelming; there must be strong public support for it and a clear exit strategy.
Powell was born in New York City on April 5, 1937, and raised in the South Bronx neighborhood, the son of a shipping clerk and a seamstress from Jamaica who arrived in America in 1920 aboard a “banana boat” – a United Fruit Company steamer.
Powell’s own ticket to success was the military’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), a program for university students that engaged his energies when he was, by his own admission, an otherwise uninspired student at the City College of New York.
In 1958, he was commissioned as a U.S. Army Second Lieutenant.
He served 35 years in the Army, including two combat tours in Vietnam and postings in West Germany and South Korea. In Vietnam, he was wounded by a “Punji stick” booby trap near Vietnam’s border with Laos and injured in a helicopter crash.
He earned a White House fellowship while in the Army during Richard Nixon’s presidency and won the respect of officials who later would serve in senior posts under Reagan. He served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993.
Powell was a star during the 1991 Gulf War. His crisp, televised briefings made him a celebrity.
As the top U.S. military officer, he opposed allowing gays to serve openly in the military, but reversed his view in 2010 after Obama became the first president to endorse gay marriage.
Powell, after deciding not to run in 1996 for president, gave a speech at the Republican convention that year endorsing Bob Dole over Democrat Bill Clinton. Dole was President during Powell’s last months as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
When Powell stated that he supports abortion rights and affirmative actions to assist minorities, there were boos in San Diego.
Powell became more isolated within his party as a result of its shift to the left. He said that he was still a Republican, despite having endorsed Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Alma Powell, Powell’s wife, was married to him in 1962. Powell and Alma had three children. Michael Powell was the chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission under George W. Bush.