Obituary: Four-star general from Harlem broke glass ceiling but was haunted by support for Iraq invasion
Having been appointed the nation’s first black chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989, two years later he oversaw Operation Desert Storm, which successfully forced Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait, and drove it halfway back to Baghdad.
A decade later, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and as George W Bush sought to depose Hussein, even though Iraq played no role in the al-Qaeda assaults on New York and Washington, Powell warned the president of the dangers of such an operation.
“You understand the consequences,” he is said to have told Bush in the Oval Office. “You know you’re going to be owning this place.”
Previously, he had spoken to him about what became known as the Pottery Barn rules. “You break it, you’re going to own it,” he said.
Powell had other reasons to try and deter Bush.
In February 2001, then in his role as secretary of state, having broken another racial glass ceiling, Powell discussed the Iraqi leader with the Egyptian foreign minister, Amr Moussa, in Cairo, and said: “[Saddam Hussein] has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbours.”
As it was, two years later, on no less a stage than the United Nations Security Council, he argued the opposite, claiming “there can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more”. He also alleged, falsely, the Iraqis were developing nuclear weapons.
“Clearly, Saddam Hussein and his regime will stop at nothing until something stops him,” he added.
Powell, who died from complications from Covid-19, even though he had been vaccinated – friends said Powell had multiple myeloma, a cancer that suppresses the body’s immune response – would later claim the intelligence he had been given to make his address, had been deeply flawed.
Yet, he knew in the eyes of many, that he – and not Bush or Dick Cheney, or CIA director George Tenet or the CIA analysts – would forever be held responsible.
He told ABC News his speech to the UN had been “painful” for him personally and a blot on his record. “I’m the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world,” he said. “It will always be a part of my record.”
Indeed, after Powell’s family announced he had died in New York and tributes poured in from around the world, there was also reflection on the significance of that speech, and what may have happened had he refused to give it. What might have happened, if, for once, Powell had refused to follow orders?
“I was in Iraq when he gave that speech,” veteran peace activist Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the group Code Pink, told The Independent. “We were at the ministry of information with all the journalists, and there was a sense of incredulity. They were saying ‘We’ve been to all those places and there’s nothing there’.”
She said that among Iraqis there had been a sense of dread, because they knew it meant war. The chamber maids at her hotel were crying, asking how they could protect their children, she said.
She added: “I will never forgive Colin Powell for that and the death and destruction for all those years afterwards. He can be painted by people as the nice guy who got duped, but he was the one who went before the world community and told lies.”
Colin Luther Powell was born in New York City’s traditionally black Harlem neighborhood in 1937. His mother and father, Luther and Maud Powell, had moved to the US from Jamaica, and Powell grew up in the South Bronx.
While he was attending college, Powell joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and would later say he quickly enjoyed the way of life it pointed to.
It was the start of a military career that spread over four decades, and would include serving as both an advisor and an active combat officer in Vietnam, where he was wounded. He was also tasked with writing an official report on the 1968 Mai Lai massacre, something that critics described as a “white wash”.
In April 1989, Powell was promoted to a four-star general under President George HW Bush after serving as a liaison with the White House national security council. Later that year, he was made the first black chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a position held until 1993.
After leaving the military, Powell, a political moderate, was sought by both parties.
There had been speculation about him running for the Democrats, but after after declaring himself a Republican, there was talk of him challenging Bill Clinton in his 1996 bid for reelection, something he decided against.
“Such a life requires a calling that I do not yet hear,” he told a news conference of his decision against pursuing a political life. It was reported that concerns raised by Powell’s wife, Alma, as to the security risk he would face, was also a major factor.
In his 1995 autobiography, My American Journey, one of two memoirs he would publish, the other being 2012’s It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership, he suggested he was not a political hardliner.
“Some people have rushed to hang a Republican label around my neck,” he wrote. “I am not, however, knee-jerk anti-government. I was born a New Deal, Depression-era kid. Franklin Roosevelt was a hero in my boyhood home.”
If Powell had decided a life of pure politics was not for him, it was easy to see others would seek to tap his talents. In 2001, George W Bush asked the former 4-star general to be his secretary of state.
Bush, now aged 75, was among those to pay tribute to Powell. “Many presidents relied on General Powell’s counsel and experience,” he said. “He was such a favourite of presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom – twice.”
In 2003, Bush was accused of cynicism for dispatching Powell to make for a war he did not believe in. Powell declined to serve a second term as secretary of state – though controversially, he did not announce this until Bush had won reelection. (Powell would be replaced by Condoleezza Rice, who became the first black woman to serve as the US’s top diplomat.)
Powell’s move was seen as a snub to Bush, who he accused of having misled him over Iraq. He also enacted some sort of revenge by being one of the sources for Bob Woodward’s 2004 book, Plan of Attack, in which he and General Tommy Franks, were among those in Bush’s circle opposed to the war.
“For the first 16 months of the administration, Powell had been “in the refrigerator”, as he called his frequent isolation,” Woodward wrote.
“[Finally, in Aug 2002, Powell presented his case without Cheney present] and Bush asked, “What else can I do?” Powell offered, “You can still make a pitch for a coalition or UN action to do what needs to be done”.”
After leaving the White House, Powell was mentioned as a possible running mate for Republican candidate John McCain in 2008.
Powell not only made clear he was not interested, but announced he was endorsing Barack Obama. “I think we need a transformational figure. I think we need a president who is a generational change,” he said.
Obama was not the only Democrat that Powell would support. In 2016, he backed Hillary Clinton in her bid to defeat Donald Trump.
And in 2020, he announced he was supporting Joe Biden, and described Trump as someone who had “drifted away” from the US Constitution.
The then president blasted back on Twitter.
“Colin Powell, a real stiff who was very responsible for getting us into the disastrous Middle East Wars, just announced he will be voting for another stiff, Sleepy Joe Biden,” he wrote.
“Didn’t Powell say that Iraq had ‘weapons of mass destruction?’ They didn’t, but off we went to WAR!.”
Joe Biden also also among those who paid tribute to Powell.
“Colin Powell was a good man,” he said. “He will be remembered as one of our great Americans.”
In its statement, Powell’s family thanked the staff of the Walter Reed Medical Centre near Washington, where he had been treated.
It added: “We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American.”
Colin Luther Powell, born New York City 5 April 1937, died Bethesda, Maryland, 18 October 2021. Survived by wife, Alma Vivian Johnson, who he married in 1962, and children Michael, Linda and Annemarie.