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From the Bronx, Powell rose to top soldier and diplomat before Iraq invasion downfall

General Colin Powell (April 5 1937 – October 18 2021)


General Colin Powell died aged 84 of complications from Covid-19. Photo: AP

General Colin Powell died aged 84 of complications from Covid-19. Photo: AP

General Colin Powell died aged 84 of complications from Covid-19. Photo: AP

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 H W Bush, finally becoming secretary of state under President George W Bush in 2001 – he was the first black person 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.

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. In 1991, following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, he initially opposed the use of force, preferring economic sanctions, to the outrage of the then defence secretary Dick Cheney.

Powell’s caution was in evidence again in 1992 when he did all he could to prevent American troops being sent to Bosnia.

In the aftermath of September 11, 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.

Yet Powell’s skill as a coalition builder proved indispensable in rallying international support for the war.

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Powell argued that America needed to corral a worldwide alliance in a war on terrorism.

But in the early stages of the war, with the Taliban on the run, hawks in the administration, led by Donald Rumsfeld, began to send out conflicting messages about widening the conflict to other states which sponsored terrorism – notably Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Powell 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-Qaida with Iraq.

He always maintained that he supported the decision to invade Iraq, 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”.

But no nuclear, chemical or biological weapons were found by coalition forces.

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 he had made up the story.

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.

Powell’s family owned a successful bakery business in Jamaica and was comfortably off by black American standards.

Young Colin attended elementary school and secondary school in the South Bronx. At age 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.

He later became senior military assistant to the secretary of defence, Caspar Weinberger, cutting his teeth on the invasion of Grenada and the bombing of Libya.

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.

In 1989, Reagan’s successor as president, George Bush, named Powell 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.

When he retired from the Pentagon in 1993, the pressure to stand for office became acute and he never dispelled the notion that he might one day take a political role.

On December 16, 2000, Powell was nominated by the incoming Republican president as secretary of state. But he never established a close relationship with Bush.

After retiring from the State Department, Powell became increasingly disenchanted as the Republican 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. This year he became an independent following the storming of the US Capitol by Trump supporters.

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2021]

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