October 18, 2021
Sep. 17, 2001: Secretary of Stae Colin Powell speaks during a news conerence at the State Department in Washington, discussing the diplomatic aspects of the previous week’s terrorist attacks. (Hillery Smith Garrison / Associated Press
By Tracy Wilkinson | Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON – Colin Powell, who rose from modest origins to break racial barriers at the highest levels of U.S. government, but whose stellar reputation at those senior echelons was eventually tarnished by his decision to lead his country into a disastrous war in Iraq, has died. He was 84.
Powell died Monday of complications from COVID-19 exacerbated by an acute blood cancer from which he had long suffered, his family said.
His death was met with an outpouring of sympathy and tribute worldwide and especially in the U.S. from officials and lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle who praised his integrity, character and accessibility. For some, his death was seen as the knell of an era of civility and respect in the sphere of political discourse, which has dissipated in recent years.
Although Powell belonged to the Republican Party, praise came from Democrats, at least as much as members of the GOP.
Powell, the son of immigrant Jamaicans who grew up in the Bronx and attended public schools, where he received mediocre grades, found his calling in the ROTC and worked his way up through the U.S. Army to eventually become the first Black national security advisor to presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
He then became the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — the highest military post in the nation.
One legacy of that ascension, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, paid homage to a man he described as a mentor. “We have lost one of the greatest leaders we have ever witnessed,” he said. He added that the loss of Powell left “a hole in my heart.”
President George W. Bush named Powell secretary of State in 2001, the first Black American to hold that post.
His successors in that last job Monday were full of admiration — for the barriers he breached and the standards he set.
“Today our nation mourns the passing of a truly great man.” former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a statement. “Colin Powell spent the entirety of his life in service to his country. He was a trusted colleague and a dear friend through some very challenging times.”
The current secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken, recounted stories of how Powell treated everyone at the State Department as equals, that he’d willingly ride the elevator with whoever happened to be waiting in line, and that he wanted to hear the opinions of even the most low-level desk officers.
Unlike more recent Republican secretaries of State, Powell engendered respect and loyalty, Blinken said.
“His people would walk through walls for him,” Blinken said.
President Biden also saluted Powell, whom he described as a friend.
“Colin embodied the highest ideals of both warrior and diplomat,” Biden said. “Time and again, he put country before self, before party, before all else — in uniform and out — and it earned him the universal respect of the American people.”
“America has lost a trail-blazing leader,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said.
Powell’s manner and his accomplishments led to widespread talk he should run for president.
But, among other things, his reputation suffered a perhaps irreparable setback in his defense of going to war to overthrow Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
In 2003, Powell appeared before the United Nations Security Council to make the case for a U.S. war against Iraq. He cited faulty information claiming Iraqi dictator Hussein had secretly stashed away weapons of mass destruction. U.S. troops who scoured the Iraqi countryside for months never found such weapons.
Earlier, Powell was the first U.S. official to publicly — and accurately — lay the blame for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network and made a lightning trip to Pakistan in October 2001 to demand that then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf cooperate with Washington in going after the Afghanistan-based group. That led to the just-ended 20-year war in Afghanistan.
But Iraq was an even more problematic operation.
A veteran of the Vietnam War, Powell rose to the rank of four-star general and in 1989 oversaw the U.S. invasion of Panama and later the U.S. invasion of Kuwait to oust the Iraqi army in 1991.
Powell joined the Army and in 1962 was one of more than 16,000 “advisors” sent to South Vietnam by President Kennedy. A series of promotions led to the Pentagon and an assignment as a military assistant to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, who became his unofficial sponsor. He later became commander of the Army’s 5th Corps in Germany and was national security assistant to President Reagan.
During his term as Joint Chiefs chairman, his approach to war became known as the Powell Doctrine, which held that the United States should commit forces in a conflict only if it has clear and achievable objectives with public support, sufficient firepower and a strategy for ending the war.
Powell ultimately moved away from his party. He endorsed Democrats in the last four presidential elections, starting with former President Obama. He emerged as a vocal critic of former President Trump in recent years, describing him as “a national disgrace” who should have been removed from office through impeachment. Following the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol, Powell said he no longer considered himself a Republican.
Tracy Wilkinson covers foreign affairs from the Los Angeles Times’ Washington, D.C., bureau.