General Colin Powell, America’s first black Secretary of State, whose career was overshadowed by his 2003 speech on Iraq to the United Nations – obituary

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General Colin Powell in 1993 - Bachrach photographers
General Colin Powell in 1993 - Bachrach photographers

General Colin Powell, who has died aged 84 of complications from Covid-19, rose from modest origins to be America’s top soldier, top diplomat, and, before the election of Barack Obama to the White House, the most successful black man in American political history; for many, however, his reputation was fatally tarnished by the speech he gave to the UN in early 2003 accusing the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein of “concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction” – a claim that gave a veneer of respectability to the invasion of Iraq, but turned out to be based on faulty evidence.

Powell served as President Reagan’s national security adviser and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff under President George HW Bush, finally becoming Secretary of State under President George W Bush in 2001; he was the first black man to hold the post.

Successive polls found Powell to be the most popular man in America. His modesty and obvious decency charmed the media, and his relaxed attitude to questions of race seemed to offer the hope that America’s racial problems could one day be solved.

Yet he was a complex icon – a military man who strongly resisted military involvement, black but of the establishment; and his popularity with the public was not always echoed by those he worked alongside or by his natural allies among leaders of the black population. General Norman Schwarzkopf, the Gulf War commander, observed that among his army comrades his “reputation was mixed”. Many in the African-American civil rights movement saw him as an “Uncle Tom” figure, collaborating with the white establishment, and viewed his Republicanism as treachery.

In fact Powell’s politics remained something of a mystery. Before he came out as a Republican in 1996, his only known political statement had been to put an “All the Way With LBJ” sticker on the bumper of his car during the presidential campaign of 1964. To lifelong Republican loyalists, including many in George W Bush’s team, Powell was not only not “one of us”, they feared he might even be “one of them”. He held liberal views on key issues such as abortion and was a regular guest at the Georgetown home of Ben Bradlee, the former editor of the Washington Post, whose parties were a magnet for the Left intelligentsia.

Powell’s credentials as a military strategist, too, sat uneasily with the instincts of the hawkish Right. Temperamentally cautious, he did all he could to prevent American troops exposing themselves to unnecessary risk, promulgating the so-called “Powell doctrine” that no hostilities should be initiated unless American interests were threatened, until the goals of the mission were clear and until the American military was in a position to deliver overwhelming force to achieve them.

With Ronald Reagan at the White House in 1987 following his appointment as National Security Adviser - CHRIS WILKINS/AFP/Getty Images
With Ronald Reagan at the White House in 1987 following his appointment as National Security Adviser - CHRIS WILKINS/AFP/Getty Images

“Of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses men most,” he would say, quoting Thucydides; but many believed that Powell’s caution was excessive and potentially inimical to America’s long-term interests.

In 1991, following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, he initially opposed the use of force, preferring economic sanctions, to the outrage of the then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who saw the invasion as a direct threat to American interests and had to order him to draw up military plans.

As the campaign got under way, Powell was adamant that the Iraqi forces should not be destroyed. Powell’s critics, including Donald Rumsfeld, Defense Secretary under George W Bush, argued that it was Powell’s caution which enabled Saddam Hussein to survive unscathed; Powell on the other hand pointed out that the goal of the mission had been to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait, not to march to Baghdad.

The controversy did Powell no harm, however, and as Norman Schwarzkopf acidly remarked, Powell “was the only one who didn’t want to fight the Gulf war and the only one to come out an unqualified winner.”

Powell’s caution was in evidence again in 1992 when he did all he could to prevent American troops being sent to Bosnia, where, as he saw it, America had no strategic interests at stake. His reluctance prompted Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to demand angrily “what’s the point in having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” – to which Powell retorted, “American GIs are not toy soldiers to be moved around on some global game board.” According to his critics, Powell’s resistance to US involvement delayed intervention for three and a half years of bloodshed.

In the aftermath of the atrocities of September 11 2001 it seemed that the Powell doctrine might be eclipsed as the American public rallied behind the President’s call for an all-out war against terrorism. His initial suggestion that the government should seek to work with moderate elements in the Taliban was swiftly brushed aside, and it seemed that he had become isolated.

With his family in 1987 - Diana Walker/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
With his family in 1987 - Diana Walker/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Yet Powell’s skill as a coalition builder proved indispensable in rallying international support for the war. It was he who persuaded General Musharraf of Pakistan to ditch his former allies in the Taliban; and his excellent relations with his Russian opposite number Igor Ivanov were thought to have helped to persuade President Putin to brush aside objections from the Russian military and weigh in behind the American-led campaign.

Powell argued that America needed to corral a worldwide alliance in a war on terrorism, in which military action would be just one of many battle fronts – others being international banking, policing, public security, espionage and surveillance. But in the early stages of the war, with the Taliban on the run, hawks in the administration, led by Rumsfeld, began to send out conflicting messages both about the timescale for ending the war in Afghanistan and the likelihood of America going it alone and widening the conflict to other states which sponsored terrorism – notably Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

When Bush issued a series of tough warnings to Saddam to re-admit UN weapons inspectors, Powell moved quickly to deny suggestions that America was about to take military action against Iraq. And although Powell advised Bush to give the UN inspectors time to do their work, he ultimately failed to rein in the hawkish vice-president Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and their allies, who were determined to link Saddam with 9/11, and al-Qaeda with Iraq.

While Powell was wary of a military solution, he always maintained that he supported the decision to invade Iraq after the Bush administration concluded that diplomatic efforts had failed, and in February 2003 he was dispatched to the UN to sell the case for military action.

In his fateful speech to the security council on February 5 he referred to “first-hand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails … The source was an eyewitness who supervised one of these facilities.” He asserted that “there can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more,” adding that there was “no doubt” in his mind that Saddam was “working to obtain key components to produce nuclear weapons”.

The invasion began on March 19; Baghdad fell in April and hostilities formally ended at the beginning of May. But no nuclear, chemical or biological weapons were found by coalition forces, and two suspect trucks at the centre of Powell’s brief to the UN were later discovered to have only been used to produce hydrogen for artillery weather balloons.

With Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2001 - CLARE KENDALL
With Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2001 - CLARE KENDALL

By April 2004 it had become obvious that most of what Powell had told the Security Council was groundless, based on the testimony of a source who later admitted that he had made up the story. In a humiliating session with the US press corps Powell admitted: “It appears not to be the case that [the intelligence] was that solid but, at the time I was preparing that presentation, it was presented to me as solid.”

In fact doubts about the credibility of the source had circulated in US intelligence circles before the war, and as it later transpired, intelligence chiefs had not shared these doubts with Powell. But it was Powell, who later described the UN speech as a “painful and lasting blot” on his career, who found himself the fall guy.

From the moment he was forced to admit he had misled the UN, Powell’s departure was inevitable. The fact that it was delayed until November 15 2004, shortly after Bush was re-elected, was probably a reflection of his insistence on playing the good soldier to the bitter end.

Colin Luther Powell was born in Harlem on April 5 1937, moving as an infant to the south Bronx, where he was brought up.

Tony Blair once cited Powell as an example of a black American born into poverty who had risen to the top. In fact, Powell’s family owned a successful bakery business in Jamaica and was comfortably off by black American standards.

His parents had emigrated from Jamaica in the 1920s and Powell always felt that his origins had made all the difference to his prospects: “Blacks in the West Indies were slaves too, but the British abolished slavery earlier,” he once observed. “In the Caribbean they were more than an indentured people, But in the US, blacks were oppressed, totally oppressed.”

Powell makes his fateful speech to the UN Security Council in 2003: he described it as 'a painful and lasting blot' on his career - Mario Tama/Getty Images
Powell makes his fateful speech to the UN Security Council in 2003: he described it as 'a painful and lasting blot' on his career - Mario Tama/Getty Images

Young Colin attended elementary school and secondary school in the South Bronx, but his mother’s hopes that her only son would become a minister were disappointed. He entered the City College of New York to study Geology; by his own admission he was not a good student and did not really find his feet until he joined the CCNY Reserve Officers Training Corps, of which he soon became commander. When he graduated aged 21, he received a commission as Army second lieutenant, beginning a military career that would last 35 years.

In the 1960s Powell completed two tours of duty in Vietnam, first as a military adviser to the South Vietnamese Army and second as a battalion commander.

During his second tour, a helicopter in which he was travelling crashed, killing several of his comrades and wounding him and several others. Forgetting his own wounds, Powell fought to rescue his troops from the blazing wreckage. For his bravery he was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star, two of America’s highest honours. But some detected a darker side: when in 1968, troops from his division slaughtered more than 300 civilians at My Lai, Powell was asked to investigate, but in his report declared: “Relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.” There were suggestions that he had been party to a cover-up.

Picked for promotion, on return from Vietnam Powell studied for a Master of Business Administration degree at George Washington University, then after a stint in Korea went on to occupy a succession of high-level posts in and out of the military.

In 1976-77 he commanded the 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), then after stints at the Department of Energy and as senior military assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense, he served as assistant divisional commander of the 4th infantry division at Fort Carson from 1981 to 1983.

He then became senior military assistant to the Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, cutting his teeth on the invasion of Grenada and the bombing of Libya. After a further year as commander of US V Corps in Europe, in 1987 he was appointed National Security Adviser to President Reagan.

With Condoleezza Rice and President Bush in 2003 - Shawn Thew/EPA
With Condoleezza Rice and President Bush in 2003 - Shawn Thew/EPA

The late 1980s were a controversial time as the administration became involved in a succession of “dirty wars” in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala. In his memoir My American Journey (1995), Powell admitted to being the “chief administration advocate” for the Contras, the Right-wing Nicaraguan paramilitaries. Though he was never directly involved, he was also familiar with the sanctions-busting arms sales to Iran that financed that support, and his testimony to a Senate inquiry into what became known as the “Iran-Contra” scandal was found to be “misleading”.

In 1989 Reagan’s successor as president, George HW Bush, named him chairman of his joint chiefs of staff – the youngest man, and the first black man, to hold the post. In 1991 he was given charge of Operation Desert Storm as supreme commander of all US air and land forces during the Gulf War.

He remained in post under President Clinton and, following the triumph of the Gulf War, his name was touted around Washington as an ideal candidate for senior office, if not the White House. But Powell stayed on at the Pentagon, presiding over America’s disastrous military intervention in Somalia and its refusal to intervene in Bosnia.

When he retired from the Pentagon in 1993, the pressure to stand for office became acute. The Democrat power broker Vernon Jordan approached him to see if he would run with Bill Clinton in 1996, but Powell admitted “I don’t even know what I am politically”. Instead he made a fortune on the lecture circuit and published his memoirs, which sold more than 1.5 million copies and earned him an estimated $6.5 million advance.

But he never dispelled the notion that he might one day take a political role and his foundation of an organisation called America’s Promise, dedicated to the advancement of young people, did nothing to quell speculation.

In 1996, after finally declaring himself a Republican, he stood up at the San Diego convention and made a speech calling for compassionate conservatism that left some delegates in a state of shock. But even though his liberal views on abortion (pro-choice) and positive discrimination for minorities (in favour) were at odds with those of the vast majority of his colleagues, his credibility in a Republican Party almost totally dominated by whites was thought to be crucial to the party’s electoral chances, so it came as no surprise when Bush made it clear that he was assured of a major job in a new Republican administration.

On December 16 2000, Powell was nominated by the incoming Republican President as Secretary of State. After being unanimously confirmed by the US Senate, he was sworn in as the 65th Secretary of State on January 20 2001.

Colin Powell in 2012 - Stephen Voss/Redux
Colin Powell in 2012 - Stephen Voss/Redux

On his first day at work in the State Department, staff were said to have formed an honour guard to welcome him and shake hands, some crying with relief after eight years of Clinton. “Don’t get me wrong,” Powell told them, “I’m still a general. If you perform well, you’ll be fine. But if you don’t, you’ll be doing push-ups.”

Though he was seen as an outsider in a Right-wing administration, Powell’s emollient approach helped to rescue Bush from some early foreign-policy scrapes. When China impounded a US spy plane and its crew which had strayed into Chinese air space, it was Powell who put together the formulation that secured the crew’s release. It was also Powell who persuaded Ariel Sharon to pull out of Gaza in April 2001, giving, so it was believed at the time, a new lease of life to the Middle East peace process.

But he never established a close relationship with Bush who, when prompted by the journalist Bob Woodward to say something nice about his Secretary of State, could only come up with: “Powell is a diplomat and you’ve got to have a diplomat.”

Powell often spoke of his role in Washington in terms of conflict, once (according to a diplomat’s account of the conversation) joking to Britain’s then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw that he did not have to go abroad to face a jihad: “There’s a jihad against me right here at home.”

As soon as he took up his job at the state department, it was clear that he had a struggle on his hands. The vice-president Dick Cheney’s office was swollen with foreign policy staff who second-guessed almost every element of foreign policy. When Powell suggested that the US would pick up on talks with North Korea where the Clinton administration left off, he was immediately contradicted by the White House and forced into retracting his remarks.

The announcement by Condoleezza Rice in March 2001 that the US would walk away from the Kyoto treaty on climate change was another a slap in his face.

When he was on a tour of central Asia in December 2001, Cheney and Rumsfeld tried to stage a policy coup and cut off ties with Yasser Arafat, declaring him a sponsor of terrorism. Powell had to fly home and fight a rearguard action to reverse the policy. A few months later, when he was in the Middle East attempting to restart Israel-Palestinian talks, orders came from the White House to dump a speech he had planned about an international peace conference.

Indeed, his influence was so diminished that in September 2001, a week before the al-Qaida attacks on the twin towers and Pentagon, Time magazine ran a cover story on him asking: “Where have you gone, Colin Powell?”

In fact, when the two hijacked aeroplanes hit the World Trade Towers in New York, Powell was in Lima, Peru, attending a conference of the Organization of American States. When he heard the news, he left immediately for Washington, but not before persuading conference delegates to pass a resolution affirming their faith in democracy.

After retiring from the State Department, Powell mostly returned to private life, picking up a few directorships and joining the motivational speaker circuit.

Though he remained a member of the Republican Party until early this year, he became increasingly disenchanted as the party moved further and further to the Right. He was touted as a possible running mate for Republican nominee John McCain’s bid during the 2008 US presidential election, but when the Democrats nominated Barack Obama, Powell announced his endorsement of the black candidate as a “transformational figure” and went on to question McCain’s judgment in appointing Sarah Palin as his running mate.

In 2016, though there was little love lost between Powell and Hillary Clinton, he endorsed her candidacy over that of the Republican contender Donald Trump, whom he regarded as a “national disgrace”. In August 2020 he delivered a speech in support of the candidacy of Joe Biden at the Democratic National Convention. He became an independent following the storming of the US Capitol by Trump supporters.

In 2012 he published a second volume of memoirs It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership.

Powell was the recipient of numerous military decorations, including the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart. His civilian awards included the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, and in 1993 an honorary knighthood from the Queen.

Colin Powell married, in 1962, Alma Johnson, with whom he had two daughters, and a son, Michael, who served as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 2001 to 2005.

General Colin Powell, born April 5 1937, died October 18 2021

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