Colin Powell remembered as 'a great public servant'

Colin Powell, who died on Monday, had a distinguished career in the military – marked by becoming the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As secretary of state under George W. Bush, however, many feel he falsely led the U.S. into war with Iraq in 2003.

Marcy Nighswander/AP/File
Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, at a House Armed Services subcommittee on Sept. 25, 1991. Mr. Powell, who died Monday from COVID-19 complications, was 84.

Colin Powell, who died Monday of COVID-19 complications, served Democratic and Republican presidents in war and peace. A veteran of the Vietnam War, Mr. Powell rose to the rank of four-star general and in 1989 became the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In that role he oversaw the U.S. invasion of Panama and later the U.S. invasion of Kuwait to oust the Iraqi army in 1991.

Mr. Powell was the first American official to publicly 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 the United States in going after the Afghanistan-based group, which also had a presence in Pakistan, where bin Laden was later killed.

But his legacy was marred when, in 2003, he went before the U.N. Security Council as secretary of state and made the case for U.S. war against Iraq. He cited faulty information claiming Saddam Hussein had secretly stashed away weapons of mass destruction. Iraq’s claims that it had no such weapons represented “a web of lies,” he told the world body.

As President George W. Bush’s first secretary of state, Mr. Powell led a State Department that was dubious of the military and intelligence communities’ conviction that Saddam possessed or was developing weapons of mass destruction. And yet, despite his reservations, he presented the administration’s case that Saddam indeed posed a major regional and global threat in a speech to the U.N. Security Council in the run-up to the war.

That speech, replete with his display of a vial of what he said could have been a biological weapon, was later derided as a low-point in Mr. Powell’s career, although he had removed some elements that he deemed to have been based on poor intelligence assessments.

Mr. Bush said Monday that he and former first lady Laura Bush were “deeply saddened” by Mr. Powell’s death.

“He was a great public servant” and “widely respected at home and abroad,” Mr. Bush said. “And most important, Colin was a family man and a friend. Laura and I send Alma and their children our sincere condolences as they remember the life of a great man.”

Mr. Powell rose from a childhood in a fraying New York neighborhood to become the nation’s chief diplomat. “Mine is the story of a black kid of no early promise from an immigrant family of limited means who was raised in the South Bronx,” he wrote in his 1995 autobiography “My American Journey.”

At City College, Mr. Powell discovered the ROTC. When he put on his first uniform, “I liked what I saw,” he wrote.

He joined the Army and in 1962 he was one of more than 16,000 “advisers” sent to South Vietnam by President John F. Kennedy. A series of promotions led to the Pentagon and 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 later was national security assistant to President Ronald Reagan.

Mr. Powell’s appearances at the U.N. as secretary of state, including his Iraq speech, were often accompanied by fond reminiscing of his childhood in the city, where he grew up the child of Jamaican immigrants who got one of his first jobs at the Pepsi-Cola bottling plant directly across the East River from the U.N. headquarters.

A fan of calypso music, Mr. Powell was the subject of criticism from, among others, singing legend Harry Belafonte, who likened Mr. Powell to a “house slave” for going along with the decision to invade Iraq. Mr. Powell declined to get into a public spat with Mr. Belafonte, but made it known that he was not a fan and much preferred the Trinidadian calypso star the “Mighty Sparrow.”

Mr. Powell maintained, in a 2012 interview with The Associated Press, that on balance, U.S. succeeded in Iraq.

“I think we had a lot of successes,” Mr. Powell said. “Iraq’s terrible dictator is gone.”

In an announcement on social media, Mr. Powell’s family said he had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

“We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, and grandfather and a great American,” the family said. Mr. Powell had been treated at Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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