Colin Powell: A trailblazing legacy that was ruined by the Iraq war

Colin Powell was born to working-class Jamaican immigrants in Bronx. He rose from a neighborhood clerk to a warehouse floor-mopper to reach the top echelons U.S. government. He was an American dreamer whose vision won him trust and international acclaim.

Colin Powell: A trailblazing legacy that was ruined by the Iraq war

He used that credibility to argue for war against Iraq in 2003, when he appeared before the United Nations as secretary-of-state. Powell's reputation for being a stellar leader was destroyed when it became clear that the intelligence he had cited was flawed and the Iraq War was a bloody, chaotic disaster.

It wasn't destroyed. He left government to become an older statesman on the international stage. He also founded an organization that aims to help young Americans who are disadvantaged. Republicans wanted him running for president. He became disillusioned in his party and voted for the Democratic presidential candidates.

Many Iraqis, as well as others, will always associate Powell with the 2003 speech and subsequent bloodshed. But with Powell's death Monday at age 84 of COVID-19 complications, Republicans and Democrats remembered him as a historic figure, a groundbreaking soldier-turned-statesman, the first Black secretary of state and first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Powell refused to make comparisons with George Marshall, the World War II General who was America's top diplomat. He embraced a local-kids-does good narrative that reflected his humble roots.

He fondly remembered his childhood in Bronx. He worked first as a clerk at a local store, then as a sweeper at the huge Pepsi-Cola facility across the East River from United Nations headquarters. This job was something he often referred back to during meetings at the United Nations. Powell, a geology student at City College of New York was clear that he found his calling with the Reserve Officer Training Corps, or ROTC. This would launch his 35-year Army career.

Powell was a Vietnam veteran and rose up the ranks after serving two tours. He also served in Europe during Cold War-era Europe, before Ronald Reagan appointed him his national security advisor. President George H.W. Bush appointed him Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He oversaw Saddam Hussein’s expulsion from Iraq in 1991.

The "Powell Doctrine" was born. It was a strategy to use American military power, which relied on the deployment and control of overwhelming force as well as a clearly defined exit strategy.

Powell was the Joint Chiefs of Staff member during the Clinton administration. Powell recalled fighting with Cabinet members about military intervention in Balkans. Powell thought this unwise.

Powell said that she thought she would suffer an aneurysm in a memoir about an incident at the White House in which the then-U.S. Madeleine Albright, Ambassador to the United Nations, asked about the value of the armed forces if they weren't used. In 2001, Powell succeeded Albright as secretary-of-state.

His military career took him from Vietnam's minefields to West Germany’s Fulda Gap. But it was his role in wartime as secretary of state that nearly cost him his life.

Powell was the first member of President George W. Bush’s Cabinet to publicly blame Osama Bin Laden for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He also became the first Bush's top national security advisers to visit Pakistan a month later to tell the Pakistanis they must either join the U.S.-led alliance or be labeled an enemy.

Powell flew to Islamabad amid security concerns following 9/11. His plane was blacked out as it made a corkscrew landing in order to avoid possible rocket strikes. Powell wanted to inform Pervez Musharraf, then the President of Pakistan, that he would not be supporting the operation to avenge those attacks. It worked for the short-term.

Powell was skeptical about the 2003 invasion of Iraq and warned against war in private. He nevertheless presented the case for invasion to his counterparts in diplomatic meetings and in the now-infamous speech before U.N. Security Council on February 3, 2003.

Many were skeptical about the accuracy and reliability of the British and American assessments of Saddam's intentions and capabilities. They compared Powell's speech to Adlai Stevenson, the former Ambassador to the United Nations, who made a stirring 1962 presentation to council members about the Soviet Union's missile-placing in Cuba.

Powell made a speech that he later called a "blot" to his record. He referred to a vial that could have contained anthrax, which intelligence agencies claimed Saddam was producing in large quantities.

He said, waving the vial, "Less that a teaspoon of dried anthrax," to the council. "This is about the same amount as a teaspoon. In an envelope, less than one teaspoonful of dry Anthrax was contained. This envelope was used to shut down the United States Senate in fall 2001.

Many, including some critics of Bush's administration, believed Powell had achieved the mark. But unlike Stevenson 41-years earlier, any convincing he did was quickly lost.

After the war ended, no anthrax nor any weapons of mass destruction were discovered in Iraq. This led to a prolonged U.S. military occupation that left many believing that it contributed to the wider destabilization of Middle East, including the rise and persistence of the Islamic State.

Powell will be remembered for his role in the Iraq War. However, he was a highly accomplished diplomat. He was responsible for the resolution of the Bush administration’s first foreign policy crisis. This included China's downing of a Navy spy aircraft and the arrest of its crew. Self-deprecatingly, he also referred to his successes in resolving disputes with Moscow about a Russian ban against U.S. chicken imports.

Powell played a crucial role in bringing an end to the standoff between Israel and Yasser Alafat, who was being held hostage in Ramallah by Israeli troops during the second intifada or Palestinian uprising. He was also the first U.S. official who visited Afghanistan after the Taliban were defeated. In Jan 2002, he flew on a military aircraft to Kabul to meet then-President Hamid Karzai.

Powell's greatest legacy at the State Department is likely to be more bureaucratic than diplomatic. Powell was a natural tinkerer, who loved old Volvos and the Chrysler PT Cruiser. He pushed for the modernization of the department's outdated computer and communications systems to the age of interoperability and email.

He led the successful fight to stop the Department of Homeland Security, which was being established to take over visa issuing. This was something that was recommended after 9/11.

Powell, unlike his predecessors and many successors as secretary-of-state, was not attracted to foreign travel. He spent far less time abroad than any American diplomat since the dawning of the jet age. This may have been due to his failed behind-the scenes attempts in Washington, perhaps to stop his Bush administration colleagues from pushing for war with Iraq.

Powell is approachable and personable. He wanted to assure his new staff that he wouldn't be a burden in his first remarks to diplomatic corps.

He said, "I will be there to see you in the due course", at his first town hall meeting. "I am an easy-going visitor. We will make it easy for me to visit. To save cable traffic, I don't have any food or drink preferences. It will work fine with a cheeseburger. Holiday Inns are a great place to stay.

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