The obituaries for former Secretary of State and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell justifiably led with his appearance before the United Nations in 2003. It was a defining moment — or more accurately, a redefining moment. Powell made the faulty case for the international community to support going to war in Iraq, which the Associated Press said “forever stained” his reputation.
There’s no disputing Powell’s reputation was severely damaged when he made the case, since debunked, that Iraq was harboring weapons of mass destruction, including biological and chemical weapons. There is also little dispute that among American leaders 18 years ago, Powell, for good or ill, uniquely possessed the moral weight necessary to sway the opinion of nations to join the United States on the warpath.
Powell died Monday at age 84 from complications of COVID-19. He had been vaccinated, but he also had been treated over the years for multiple myeloma. Studies show those cancer patients get less protection from COVID vaccines.
Like all towering figures on the world stage, Powell’s legacy is complicated. History will judge him for his role in misleading the United Nations on Iraq, but history also will account for what gave Powell such remarkable global standing and respect in the first place.
Powell served Republican and Democratic presidents in numerous capacities, rising to become the first African-American to serve as chairman of the joint chiefs and secretary of state. The son of Jamaican immigrants, he joined the ROTC in his youth and served two tours of duty as an Army officer in Vietnam. He was appointed deputy national security adviser by President Ronald Reagan in 1987 and continued to move up at the Pentagon.
Powell’s star rose during the go-go 1980s period of renewed American swagger, and he was emblematic of the era. It’s easy to forget just how popular Powell had been even a couple of decades ago. A Gallup Poll in September 2002 found 88 percent of Americans had a favorable view of him, and just 6 percent had an unfavorable view. Those are among the highest approval numbers Gallup ever recorded for anyone.
Powell was viewed as a genuine, common-sense, straight-talking man of service and devotion to duty and nation. He walked the walk, and his popularity led some to beg him to run for president.
The Powell Doctrine — his strategy for use of U.S. military force — held that the United States should only commit forces in a conflict if it has clear and achievable objectives with public support, sufficient firepower and a strategy for ending the war.
How far we have drifted from that mind-set of not so long ago, which seemed so logical, and somehow, so American.
“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,” Powell wrote in his 1995 autobiography “My American Journey.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was inspired by Powell. Austin remembered Powell, saying, “The world lost one of the greatest leaders that we have ever witnessed. Alma lost a great husband and the family lost a tremendous father and I lost a tremendous personal friend and mentor.”
With Powell’s passing, we lost an American giant.