Colin Powell, exemplary general stained by Iraq claims, dies

Robert Burns, Eric Tucker and Eileen Putman
Associated Press

Washington — Colin Powell, who served Democratic and Republican presidents in war and peace but whose sterling reputation was forever stained when he went before the U.N. and made faulty claims to justify the U.S. war in Iraq, has died of COVID-19 complications. He was 84.

A veteran of the Vietnam War, 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.

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 at a moment of great international skepticism. 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.

In announcing his death on social media, Powell’s family said he had been fully vaccinated.

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

Colin Powell

Michigan lawmakers Monday released their own remembrances of Powell and his public service.

"It's particularly hard to hear of Colin Powell’s passing today because he embodies the type of leadership that is in such short supply: thoughtful, deeply patriotic, and willing to put his country over his politics and his own reputation," U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, wrote on Twitter.

"When he was the public face of the case to invade Iraq based on bad intel, he owned it & spoke publicly about that mistake. I can’t remember the last time I heard a senior leader admit they were wrong.

"We can all learn so much from his life, his experience, and most importantly, his character. He was statesman whose love for our country was only ever surpassed by love for his family."

"I had the opportunity to listen and learn from one of our greatest and most accomplished generals in American history on numerous occasions," said U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph. "The respect he earned from his troops and his deep dedication to their wellbeing was unparalleled. I join all Americans in mourning his loss."

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, called Powell and his wife, Alma, longtime close friends.

“Colin Powell was a statesman who loved this country fiercely. He was a trailblazer – serving this country with love and pride. He believed that public service was the most important job in the world, and he did it right.

“I know he would have a message today: Get your vaccines. He was vaccinated and still passed away from COVID complications. 

“Until his dying day, he opposed the fear and hatred dividing this country. He believed in the American Promise and left that as his legacy. He stood on principle and believed in the good of life – he was one of the most decent men I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. When I would be down, he would tell me to stand tall and fight with everything I have. Colin always had the right words to say, and I am heartbroken about his passing.”

More:Reaction to Colin Powell’s death from US and world figures

Michigan Republican Party chair Ron Weiser cited his connection to the former general: "On a personal note, he swore me in when I became the U.S. ambassador to Slovakia. Over the course of my time in that position, I witnessed firsthand Secretary Powell's immense devotion to our nation and his commitment to public service as well has his incredible leadership of the State Department."

Powell was the first American official to publicly lay the blame for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida 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.

In this Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2001 file photo, from left, Secretary of State Colin Powell, President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Henry Shelton attend a meeting with the National Security Council in the Cabinet Room of the White House.

As President George W. Bush’s first secretary of state, Powell led a State Department that was dubious of the military and intelligence communities’ conviction that Saddam Hussein 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 UN 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 Powell’s career, although he had removed some elements that he deemed to have been based on poor intelligence assessments.

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

“He was a great public servant” and “widely respected at home and abroad,” 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.”

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, 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 5h Corps in Germany and later was national security assistant to President Ronald Reagan.

In this December 20, 1989 file photo, General Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, briefs newsmen at the Pentagon on the predawn invasion designed to oust General Manuel Antonio Noriega and bring him to the United States to face drug-trafficking charges.

During his term as Joint Chiefs chairman, his approach to war became known as the Powell Doctrine, which 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.

Powell’s appearances at the United Nations 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 UN headquarters.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his wife Alma arrives at the U.S. Capitol prior to the arrival of the body of former President George H. W. Bush in Washington, Monday, Dec. 3, 2018.

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

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,” Powell said. “Iraq’s terrible dictator is gone.” Saddam was captured by U.S. forces while hiding out in northern Iraq in December 2003 and later executed by the Iraqi government. But the insurgency grew, and the war dragged on far longer than had been foreseen. President Barack Obama pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011, but he sent advisers back in 2014 after the Islamic State group swept into the country from Syria and captured large swaths of Iraqi territory.