Society

How weapons of mass destruction claim blasted Powell’s glittering career

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Then US Secretary of State Colin Powell speaks in October 22, 2003, at a press briefing in Naivasha, while Sudan People's Liberation Movement Chairman John Garang (right) and Kenya Prime Minister Kalonzo Musyoka (left) are listening. AFP PHOTO

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Summary

  • His last military assignment, from October 1989 to September 1993, was as the 12th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military rank in the Department of Defense.
  • During this time, Powell oversaw 28 crises, including the invasion of Panama in 1989 and Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf War against Iraq in 1990-1991.
  • He formulated the Powell Doctrine which limits American military action unless it satisfies criteria regarding American national security interests, overwhelming force, and enjoys widespread public support.

This week Colin Powell, the decorated military leader and the first Black chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the first Black US Secretary of State died from Covid-19 complications amid a battle against cancer.

In December 2000, President George W. Bush described Powell as “an American hero, an American example, and a great American story. It’s a great day when a son of the South Bronx succeeds to the office first held by Thomas Jefferson.”

Colin Luther Powell was born 5 April 1937 and grew up in the ethnically mixed Hunts Point section of the South Bronx. His parents Luther Powell, a shipping-room foreman in Manhattan’s garment district, and Maud Ariel McKoy, a seamstress, were immigrants from Jamaica.

After graduating from Morris High School in the Bronx, the young Powell proceeded to the City College of New York where, by his own admission he was a mediocre student scoring a C average.

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US Secretary of State Colin Powell (left) and Kenyan President, Daniel Arap Moi, answer questions at the State House in Nairobi, 26 May 2001. Powell is in Kenya for a two-day visit. AFP PHOTO

But it was here that an early turning point came when he enrolled in the college’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), inspired by the camaraderie it fostered, the discipline it imposed, and its well-defined goals.

Cadet Powell joined the Pershing Rifles, a drill team started by General John J. Pershing, a top American commander in World War I.

During a summer ROTC training tour in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1957, he got a pronounced taste of racism when he was forced to use segregated washrooms at gas stations in the South on the drive home to New York.

After graduating from City College in June 1958, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army, the beginning of a 35-year career during which he held many command and staff positions rising to the rank of four-star general. In 1989, he was the Commander of US Forces Command.

His last military assignment, from October 1989 to September 1993, was as the 12th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military rank in the Department of Defense.

During this time, Powell oversaw 28 crises, including the invasion of Panama in 1989 and Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf War against Iraq in 1990-1991.

He formulated the Powell Doctrine which limits American military action unless it satisfies criteria regarding American national security interests, overwhelming force, and enjoys widespread public support.

After his retirement from the military, Powell pursued a career in public speaking, addressing audiences across the country and abroad. In 1995, he published his autobiography, My American Journey. He won numerous US and foreign military awards and decorations.

As secretary of state (2001-2005), Powell came under fire for his role in building the case for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Citing numerous anonymous Iraqi defectors, Powell asserted that “there can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to produce more, many more.” Powell also stated that there was no doubt in his mind that “Saddam was working to obtain key components to produce nuclear weapons”, the so-called Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs).

A 2004 report by the Iraq Survey Group concluded that the evidence Powell relied on to support the allegation that the Iraq government possessed WMDs was inaccurate. In September 2005, Powell was asked about the speech during an interview with Barbara Walters and responded that it was a “blot” on his record.

He went on to say “It will always be part of my record. It was painful. It is painful now.” He was forced to resign on 15th November 2004 and was replaced by Condoleezza Rice.

Notwithstanding this “blot” on Powell’s record, he was openly critical of other aspects of US policy such as its support of the 1973 Chilean coup d’état, the Bosnian crisis, and the Darfur genocide.

Powell was a moderate Republican from 1995 but he was highly critical of neoconservative Republicans whom he claimed had moved too far to the right.

In early 2004, his name was listed as a possible running mate for Republican presidential nominee John McCain but Powell announced his endorsement of the Democratic nominee Barack Obama citing “his ability to inspire, because of the inclusive nature of his campaign, because he is reaching out to all across America, because of who he is and his rhetorical abilities, in addition to his style and substance.”

He referred to Obama as a “transformational figure.”

In 2012, he published another book It Worked for Me, Lessons in Life and Leadership.

During the 2016 presidential election, Powell described Donald Trump as a “national disgrace” with “no sense of shame.” He endorsed Hilary Clinton “because I think she is qualified, and the other gentleman is not qualified.” In June 2020, Powell announced that he would be voting for Joe Biden.

Colin Powell knew well where he fit in American history. But more profoundly, his life speaks to what it means to be an American and the tensions that he as a patriot and a black man faced throughout his life and career.

In 1897, W.E. DuBois wrote of the “double-consciousness” of the African-American experience, “an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

This concept profoundly describes Powell as a soldier, a career military man and a politician. For Powell to have reached the heights he did required dogged strength and perhaps far greater effort to hold it together than his white predecessors.

Coilin Powell was his own man and he did not hesitate to express his views openly even where it meant going against his own government or party. On the other hand, when he made mistakes, he admitted them.

Farewell Colin Powell. You were indeed an officer and a gentleman.