Obituary

Colin Powell, ‘Reluctant Warrior’ Who Made the Case for the Iraq War, Dead at 84

The first Black secretary of state and the youngest chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell died of complications from COVID-19.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy, and , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Colin Powell
Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State Colin Powell attends a panel discussion in College Station, Texas, on Jan. 20, 2011. Ben Sklar/Getty Images

​​Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who played a pivotal role in shaping U.S. foreign and national security policy as the first African American to hold a number of senior positions in the government and military, has died at the age of 84 due to complications from COVID-19.

Powell, who was fully vaccinated, died on Monday morning after receiving treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, his family announced in a post on Facebook. “We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American,” the Powell family wrote. Powell also had multiple myeloma, a blood cell cancer that can suppress immunity, at the time of his death.

During his five decades in public service, which began in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), Powell rose to become a four-star general and served as national security advisor to U.S. President Ronald Reagan in the late 1980s before becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs during the George H.W. Bush administration, the youngest officer ever appointed to the role. His rise served as an inspiration to other Black officers. “Quite frankly, it’s not possible to replace Colin Powell,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the first Black man to hold the Pentagon’s top job, told reporters Monday while traveling overseas in Georgia.

​​Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who played a pivotal role in shaping U.S. foreign and national security policy as the first African American to hold a number of senior positions in the government and military, has died at the age of 84 due to complications from COVID-19.

Powell, who was fully vaccinated, died on Monday morning after receiving treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, his family announced in a post on Facebook. “We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American,” the Powell family wrote. Powell also had multiple myeloma, a blood cell cancer that can suppress immunity, at the time of his death.

During his five decades in public service, which began in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), Powell rose to become a four-star general and served as national security advisor to U.S. President Ronald Reagan in the late 1980s before becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs during the George H.W. Bush administration, the youngest officer ever appointed to the role. His rise served as an inspiration to other Black officers. “Quite frankly, it’s not possible to replace Colin Powell,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the first Black man to hold the Pentagon’s top job, told reporters Monday while traveling overseas in Georgia.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken described Powell as an unpretentious but “extraordinary leader” with an unmatched understanding of world events in remarks on Monday. “Secretary Powell was, simply and completely, a leader,” Blinken said. “His people would walk through walls for him.”

Powell leaves behind a complicated legacy as the “reluctant warrior” known for his reservations about wielding U.S. military might who nevertheless became the face of the Bush administration’s efforts to sell the world on the Iraq War in his 2003 speech to the United Nations, which was based on faulty and distorted intelligence.

Haunted by the specter of American leadership failures in the Vietnam War, where he served two tours and was wounded by a booby trap and survived a helicopter crash as a young officer, Powell sought to nudge U.S. foreign policy in the early 1990s away from costly ground wars. “I had gone off to Vietnam in 1962 standing on a bedrock of principle and conviction. And I had watched that foundation eroded by euphemisms, lies, and self-deception,” Powell wrote in his 1995 memoir, My American Journey. In Vietnam, Powell served in the unit that was responsible for the My Lai massacre, the 1968 slaughter of over 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians, one of the most brutal episodes in the war. Powell joined the unit after the massacre and was never accused of any wrongdoing.

As chairman, he formulated the eponymous Powell Doctrine, a series of questions about military support based on holding overwhelming U.S. strike capabilities and strong public approval before going to war. That doctrine served as the bedrock of Operation Desert Storm, a 100-hour campaign that saw the United States drive Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s invading forces out of Kuwait in early 1991.

He continued to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs into the Clinton administration, where his caution delayed U.S. military intervention to stop the bloodshed in Bosnia. In his memoir, Powell recalled that his “unwelcome” message within the administration was that American troops could not be dispatched to the region until the U.S. political objective was clear. “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Madeleine Albright, who was then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, asked Powell. “I thought I would have an aneurysm,” Powell recalled in his memoir. “American GIs were not toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global game board,” he said.

After retiring from the military in 1993, Powell briefly flirted with the idea of running for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996. He was later named secretary of state by George W. Bush in 2000, becoming the first Black man to be the top U.S. diplomat. He became one of the chief internal dissenters within the Bush administration against the Iraq War, fearing that a U.S. invasion would be disastrous, and privately citing the “Pottery Barn rule,” warning of the challenges of holding the country after the fall of Saddam Hussein. “You break it, you bought it,” the rule went.

Despite his dissent, Powell became the face of the Bush administration’s push to go to war, giving a presentation to the United Nations in 2003 making the case for invasion. Powell’s skepticism of military intervention made him one of the most credible messengers of the Bush administration. Powell told the Security Council that his presentation was based on “facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence” as he made the case that Saddam still possessed chemical and biological weapons, but the presentation, which lasted for over an hour, was later revealed to have been based on cherry-picked and faulty intelligence.

While Powell had given Bush his blessing for military action, his fears that the United States would struggle to hold the country with a limited military footprint became prophetic, as the Iraqi insurgency began to blossom after the American president declared “Mission Accomplished” aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier. “The troops had done a great job. But then we failed to understand that the war really was not over, that a new phase of the war was beginning,” Powell told CNN in 2008. “And we weren’t ready for it and we didn’t respond to it well enough, and things went very, very, very, very south, very bad.”

Powell would later describe the U.N. presentation as a “blot” on his record and a “great intelligence failure.” According to a New York Times profile in 2020, Powell predicted that his U.N. speech would be mentioned in the first paragraph of his obituary. The experience would also change him politically. He was asked to resign after Bush was elected to a second term in 2004, and though he remained a Republican, he became troubled by the party’s rightward shift. In 2008, he endorsed Democratic candidate Barack Obama, and he later became a high-profile endorser of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. After the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol building, Powell said that he could no longer call himself a Republican and called for the resignation of then-President Donald Trump.

Powell was born in New York’s Harlem neighborhood in 1937 to Jamaican parents. Raised in the South Bronx, Powell learned Yiddish while working in a Jewish-owned baby supplies store as a teenager and would later surprise Prime Minister of Israel Yitzhak Shamir by greeting him in the language during a trip to Jerusalem as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1993.

Powell attended the City College of New York, where he received a bachelor’s degree in geology in 1958. While in college, Powell joined the ROTC and was commissioned as an Army second lieutenant, which marked the beginning of a 35-year career in the military. He is survived by his wife, Alma Powell, who also had a breakthrough case of COVID-19 despite being vaccinated, and three children.

Update, Oct. 18, 2021: This article has been updated to expand on Powell’s life and career.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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