Colin Luther Powell, who died on Monday at the age of 84 from complications related to Covid-19, was a trailblazing US military leader and national security official who served as America’s first black secretary of state at the start of the 2003 Iraq war.
Powell was a longtime Republican tapped for top positions in the administrations of presidents ranging from Ronald Reagan to George HW Bush and finally George W Bush — but would cross party lines to endorse the Democrats Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in presidential races.
Over his decades-long career at the pinnacle of America’s defence establishment, Powell earned a reputation for being both honourable and effective — a level of respect in Washington that often caused him to be thought of as a possible presidential candidate.
But his association with the 2003 Iraq invasion, in particular his defence of the intelligence that was later proven wrong about Saddam Hussein’s development of weapons of mass destruction, blotched his record in a way that he openly acknowledged.
“I’m the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world,” Powell told Barbara Walters in a 2005 interview after leaving government. “It was painful. It’s painful now”.
Powell followed a tradition of sorts — that soldiers could serve the nation out of uniform. George Washington, Ulysses Grant, and Dwight Eisenhower, victorious commanders in America’s most important wars, all became presidents. General George Marshall, architect of the plan that revitalised Europe after the second world war, was like Powell tapped to be secretary of state.
Powell was born on April 5, 1937, in Harlem, New York, the second child of Luther and Maud Ariel Powell, who had immigrated from Jamaica in the 1920s. His father was a foreman in the shipping department of a garment trade company. Powell was educated at a local high school in the Bronx and at the City College of New York, which he chose over New York University because tuition cost only $10 a year.
After college, where he had served in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, he enlisted in the US Army as a commissioned lieutenant, initially for a three-year tour which included two in Germany. He signed up again in 1961, recalling in his memoirs that for “a black, no other avenue in American society offered so much opportunity”. While based in Fort Devens, Massachusetts, he met Alma Johnson of Birmingham, Alabama, then an audiologist in Boston. They were married in her home town in August, 1962 and had two daughters and a son.
By the end of that year he was in Vietnam and soon after, as an infantry captain, in combat, he took a wound in the foot while heading a patrol column. Five years later, having completed staff college, he was back in Vietnam as a major, a battalion executive officer somewhat removed from the fighting but close enough to break an ankle when his helicopter crashed on a mission to the front lines.
Vietnam left its mark on Powell in more ways than one. He was indirectly associated with the My Lai massacre of 1968 when US troops, commanded by a captain who had reported to him at divisional headquarters, slaughtered over 100 civilians. He later wrote that “My Lai was an appalling example of much that had gone wrong in Vietnam”, marked by breakdowns in morale, discipline and professional judgment.
But his record in Vietnam also helped confirm him as a military high-flyer. To that end, in 1969 he became a graduate student in government and business administration at George Washington University. Even more important to his later life, in 1972 he became a White House Fellow for a year under Richard Nixon, assigned to the Office of Management and Budget, which happened to be run at the time by Caspar Weinberger and Frank Carlucci, useful mentors since both were acknowledged master practitioners of Washington bureaucratic intrigue. In the 1970s and 1980s Powell switched back and forth between civilian and military roles. He got his first large command, over three battalions of the 101st Airborne Division, based in Fort Campbell, Kentucky — and moved to the Pentagon during Jimmy Carter’s administration as an adviser to Charles Duncan, the deputy defence secretary, giving him full exposure to the topmost reaches of strategic policymaking.
He was still in the Pentagon, with the rank of brigadier general, when the Reagan administration swept into power in 1980, and in the summer of 1983 he became military assistant to the secretary of defence. Within the span of his first three months, he witnessed the shooting down of a Korean civil aircraft by Soviet jets, the bombing of a US marines barracks in Beirut, with the loss of 241 lives, and the US invasion of Grenada in the Caribbean.
But, from his Pentagon vantage point, he was spared implication in the great disaster of the Reagan administration’s foreign policy — the Iran-Contra affair — and even benefited from it when the full details became public.
The White House National Security Council conceived the scheme of selling arms secretly to Iran, notionally to secure the release of American hostages in the Middle East but also to use the proceeds covertly to fund the rightwing Contra rebels in Nicaragua, even though acts of Congress had specifically prohibited assistance to the Contras. But Weinberger, then defence secretary, opposed the operation from the outset, and Powell kept him apprised of some of its details with intelligence intercepts.
When the Iran-Contra story finally broke late in 1986, Powell had been in Germany for less than six months, now with three stars and in command of the 75,000 strong V corps, having skipped the normal intermediary step for a general of running a division. Carlucci, who had been made National Security Adviser on the resignation of the disgraced Admiral John Poindexter, then called Powell as his deputy in the White House to help in straightening out the mess, and eventually, in November 1987, Powell was asked to take over as head of Reagan’s NSC, just ahead of the landmark 1988 summit with Mikhail Gorbachev which produced a historic arms reduction agreement.
Once George HW Bush became president and Powell was now a four-star general, he was asked to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the country’s highest military position.
He did not enjoy the most auspicious start. The Bush administration had concluded that General Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian dictator widely assumed to be a narcotics trafficker, had to go. A planned coup was badly aborted, and Powell, at short notice, was ordered to arrange a military invasion. The operation was ultimately successful, in that Noriega was captured and taken back to the US for trial, but it did not go entirely smoothly.
But everything changed on August 2, 1990, when Iraqi troops occupied neighbouring Kuwait, immediately posing a threat to Saudi Arabia and its oil riches. It fell to Powell and General Norman Schwarzkopf, the field commander, to assemble the multinational military force, largely based in Saudi Arabia, that the US formed to evict Iraq. As Powell recalled in his memoirs, countries involved in the Gulf were sovereign and wanted assurances as to how their forces would be used. The ensuing Gulf war, which began in January 1991, also was to prove a test of what had already become known as the Powell Doctrine.
Rooted in the experience of Vietnam, this held that US forces should only be committed overseas in sufficient strength as to ensure victory. It also stipulated that the US should have an exit strategy. But Powell also argued, in the run-up to the war, that all other options — diplomacy and economic sanctions — should be explored and given the maximum opportunity to work. He was thus seen in some quarters, as a cautious warrior, an impression reinforced by his disinclination to verbally demonise Saddam.
The brief war itself vindicated the Powell Doctrine, but its conclusion remained controversial. President George HW Bush took the view that the mandate of the multinational force was to liberate Kuwait, not to march on to Baghdad and unseat Saddam. But the consequence was that Saddam remained in power, a thorn in American flesh for years to come.
Powell was now a national figure of impressive proportions and often cited as a possible contender for the White House. At the time, Powell’s political beliefs were closely held. He had been brought up a Democrat — his parents were Roosevelt New Dealers — and was known to have voted for John Kennedy in 1960 and Jimmy Carter in 1976. He had subsequently cast his ballot for Republican tickets but his background and support for civil rights delineated him as a moderate in a party that was becoming progressively more conservative.
When the offer came from George W Bush to be secretary of state, the temptation was irresistible. His experience in the wider world, in addition to his untouchability as a national icon, also offered a reassuring component to compensate for clear gaps in the new president’s knowledge of foreign policy. Working again with vice-president Dick Cheney augured well, given their harmonious relationship in the Pentagon during the Gulf war.
A multilateralist by inclination, Powell found himself at odds with the strong unilateralist strain in the White House which seemed intent on shunning, wherever possible, international accords that did not reflect America’s narrower interests. The president’s ideological advisers even saddled the secretary of state with some departmental appointments he did not want.
But the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001 and the subsequent declaration of war on terrorism completely reordered the administration’s priorities. They also thrust the secretary of state back into the foreground not merely as its most confident and articulate spokesman but as the man most able to build a new international coalition to conduct a very different kind of war.
It was Powell who immediately saw the importance of co-opting Pakistan, and, more discreetly, Iran, in the effort against Afghanistan-based Osama bin Laden.
Yet by 2003, Powell seemed to defy his own advice on America’s cautious use of military force, and the importance of alliance-building, as he went along with George W Bush’s drive to invade Iraq. Powell’s legacy will forever be linked to a presentation he delivered to the United Nations Security Council on February 5, 2003, in which he offered evidence of Baghdad’s development of weapons of mass destruction that was ultimately debunked, and famously held up a vial to show how destructive even small amounts of anthrax could be.
“I cannot tell you everything that we know. But what I can share with you, when combined with what all of us have learned over the years, is deeply troubling,” Powell said on that day. “The facts and Iraq’s behaviour show that Saddam Hussein and his regime are concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction,” he added.
In his book It Worked for Me, Powell wrote that he was “annoyed” that his speech presented false information about Iraq’s WMD capabilities, but that the administration had not lied.
“And yes, I get mad when bloggers accuse me of lying — of knowing the information was false. I didn’t. And yes, a blot, a failure, will always be attached to me and my UN presentation,” he wrote.
In a 1995 autobiography, Powell explained why he had not sought elective public office, inveighing equally against the ideological right and patronising liberals and regretting the lack of civility in public discourse. He described himself as a “fiscal conservative with a social conscience”, which would put him in the majority with most Americans, but worried most that America had lost its “sense of shame” as a society. In 2020, as he backed Biden over Donald Trump for president, Powell was expressing similar concerns about America’s political landscape.
“Today, we are a country divided, and we have a president [Trump] doing everything in his power to make it that way and keep us that way,” Powell said during last year’s Democratic national convention.
After the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, Powell had firmly disavowed the Republican party. “I can no longer call myself a fellow Republican,” he said, adding that its party leaders had a role in encouraging “this wildness to grow and grow”.
But after learning of his death on Wednesday, the tributes came pouring in from across the political spectrum, a rare consensus about the loss of one of America’s leading public servants.
“He embodied the highest ideals of both warrior and diplomat. He led with his personal commitment to the democratic values that make our country strong. He repeatedly broke racial barriers, blazing a trail for others to follow, and was committed throughout his life to investing in the next generation of leadership,” Biden said on Monday.