Colin Powell, who served Democratic and Republican presidents in war and peace but whose sterling reputation was forever stained when he went before the U.N. and made faulty claims to justify the U.S. war in Iraq, died Monday of COVID-19 complications. He was 84.
A veteran of the Vietnam War, Powell rose to the rank of four-star general and in 1989 became the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In that role he oversaw the U.S. invasion of Panama and later the U.S. invasion of Kuwait to oust the Iraqi army in 1991.
But his legacy was marred when, in 2003, he went before the U.N. Security Council as secretary of state and made the case for U.S. war against Iraq at a moment of great international skepticism. He cited faulty information claiming Saddam Hussein had secretly stashed away weapons of mass destruction. Iraq’s claims that it had no such weapons represented “a web of lies,” he told the world body.
In announcing his death on social media, Powell’s family said he had been fully vaccinated.
“We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father and grandfather and a great American,” the family said. Powell had been treated at Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
Powell was the first American official to publicly lay the blame for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network and made a lightning trip to Pakistan in October, 2001 to demand that then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf cooperate with the United States in going after the Afghanistan-based group, which also had a presence in Pakistan, where bin Laden was later killed.
As President George W. Bush’s first secretary of state, Powell led a State Department that was dubious of the military and intelligence communities’ conviction that Saddam Hussein possessed or was developing weapons of mass destruction. And yet, despite his reservations, he presented the administration’s case that Saddam indeed posed a major regional and global threat in a speech to the UN Security Council in the run-up to the war.
That speech, replete with his display of a vial of what he said could have been a biological weapon, was later derided as a low-point in Powell’s career, although he had removed some elements that he deemed to have been based on poor intelligence assessments.
Bush said Monday that he and former first lady Laura Bush were “deeply saddened” by Powell’s death.
“He was a great public servant” and “widely respected at home and abroad,” Bush said. “And most important, Colin was a family man and a friend. Laura and I send Alma and their children our sincere condolences as they remember the life of a great man.”
Powell rose to national prominence under Republican presidents and considered a presidential bid of his own, but ultimately moved away from the party. He endorsed Democrats in the last four presidential elections, starting with former President Barack Obama. He emerged as a vocal Donald Trump critic in recent years, describing Trump as “a national disgrace” who should have been removed from office through impeachment. Following the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol, Powell said he no longer considers himself a Republican.
Powell rose from a childhood in a fraying New York neighborhood to become the nation’s chief diplomat. “Mine is the story of a black kid of no early promise from an immigrant family of limited means who was raised in the South Bronx,” he wrote in his 1995 autobiography “My American Journey.”
At City College, Powell discovered the ROTC. When he put on his first uniform, “I liked what I saw,” he wrote.
He joined the Army and in 1962 he was one of more than 16,000 military advisers sent to South Vietnam by President John F. Kennedy. A series of promotions led to the Pentagon and assignment as a military assistant to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, who became his unofficial sponsor. He later became commander of the Army’s 5th Corps in Germany and later was national security assistant to President Ronald Reagan.
During his term as Joint Chiefs chairman, his approach to war became known as the Powell Doctrine, which held that the United States should only commit forces in a conflict if it has clear and achievable objectives with public support, sufficient firepower and a strategy for ending the war.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a retired Army general, said the news of Powell's death left “a hole in my heart.”
“The world lost one of the greatest leaders that we have ever witnessed,” Austin said while traveling in Europe. “Alma lost a great husband and the family lost a tremendous father and I lost a tremendous personal friend and mentor. He has been my mentor for a number of years. He always made time for me and I can always go to him with tough issues, he always had great counsel.”
Powell’s appearances at the United Nations as secretary of state, including his Iraq speech, were often accompanied by fond reminiscing of his childhood in the city, where he grew up the child of Jamaican immigrants who got one of his first jobs at the Pepsi-Cola bottling plant directly across the East River from the UN headquarters.
A fan of calypso music, Powell was the subject of criticism from, among others, singing legend Harry Belafonte, who likened Powell to a “house slave” for going along with the decision to invade Iraq. Powell declined to get into a public spat with Belafonte, but made it known that he was not a fan and much preferred the Trinidadian calypso star the “Mighty Sparrow.”
Powell maintained, in a 2012 interview with The Associated Press, that on balance, U.S. succeeded in Iraq.
“I think we had a lot of successes,” Powell said. “Iraq’s terrible dictator is gone." Saddam was captured by U.S. forces while hiding out in northern Iraq in December 2003 and later executed by the Iraqi government. But the insurgency grew, and the war dragged on far longer than had been foreseen. Obama pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011, but he sent advisers back in 2014 after the Islamic State group swept into the country from Syria and captured large swaths of Iraqi territory.