Colin Powell died this Monday due to COVID-19 related complications, his family announced. Powell had been suffering from multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer, which significantly compromised his immune system, making him more susceptible to COVID-related complications despite him being fully vaccinated. During his long career as a public official, Powell—a son of Jamaican immigrants—became a well-known figure due to his roles as Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War and as Secretary of State of the Bush Administration during the Iraq War.
Powell was a critical figure in the foreign policy of the United States from the late 1990s and early 2000s and his career illustrates both the rise and fall of the United States of America as the undisputed global hegemony.
Political figures across the political spectrum have lamented his death. President Biden called him “one of our greatest Americans”, former Vice-President Mike Pence tweeted that Powell was a “true American Patriot who served our nation with distinction”, and former President George W. Bush issued a statement calling him a “great public servant”.
Colin Powell, the successful military officer
Powell served in the army during the Vietnam War, being injured by a bamboo booby trap and surviving a helicopter attack, while also having a role in investigating the My Lai massacre. He then continued to serve in the military advising President Reagan as National Security Adviser in the last year of his administration.
President George H.W Bush appointed him as chairman of the joints chiefs of staff in 1989, making Powell both the youngest and first African-American officer to reach this position. During his tenure, Powell oversaw the successful invasions of Panama in 1989 and the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. The swift and decisive military victory in 1991 was the first major military action of the U.S. since Vietnam, and it was a clear sign of the United States’ role as the sole remaining superpower of the world after the end of the Cold War.
During his years at the helm of the national security apparatus of the United States, Colin Powell developed the so-called “Powell Doctrine”, which posed eight questions that needed to be answered before any potential American military intervention. The aim of the doctrine was to avoid the use of military forces in conflicts with no end in sight and where the costs far outweighed the benefits. Paradoxically, Powell then served under an administration that arguably failed to pass his test in justifying the 10-year controversial war in Iraq.
Powell, the reluctant salesman of the Iraq War
Colin Powell served as the first Secretary of State of George W. Bush, leading the administration’s international response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the ensuing global War On Terror. Powell, just like the vast majority of the American public and the International Community, supported the 2001 Invasion of Afghanistan to dislodge the Al-Qaeda-friendly Taliban regime.
However, his image became tied to his infamous speech at the Security Council of the United Nations, where he argued that there was overwhelming evidence that Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destructions (WMD), paving the way for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the subsequent Iraq occupation. Years later, Powell himself called the speech a “blot” in his record.
The intelligence that Powell and the rest of the U.S government had was deeply flawed. Saddam Hussein did not have WMDs and the war on Iraq raged for many years, crucially debilitating the popularity of the Bush administration and the image of his entire Cabinet. Although Powell was one of the few Cabinet members who advised Bush against the Iraqi War, by making the most memorable pitch for invasion in that UN speech, Powell’s fate was tied with a war that he was hesitant and that it did not pass his own eight-question doctrine.
After Bush’s reelection in 2004 Powell resigned from his post as Secretary of State in 2005 and became a private citizen. Although he was a registered Republican until 2021, he endorsed and voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 and was a fierce critic of Donald Trump, voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020.
The two most important acts of Collin Powell’s career are a perfect illustration of America’s reign as sole superpower, from the well-executed victory in the Gulf War to the Iraqi quagmire after 2003. Had the latter not happened, history would probably remember Powell as a competent general who executed two well-though, well-carried military operations. Some may even say he was in the road to the White House. However, Iraq happened, and whether Powell will be remembered as the young general in uniform in the deserts of Saudi Arabia or as the suited diplomat who convinced Americans of supporting an ultimately disastrous war that Powell himself was trying to avoid is up for history.
What no one will deny is that Powell’s history also represents the best of America, a son of Jamaican immigrants who risked his life in Vietnam and blazed through the military establishment to become its highest-ranking officer at a record age, where he served with distinction, to then become the country’s top diplomat.
Powell is survived by his wife Alma and his three children Michael, Linda, and Anne Marie.