WASHINGTON (AP) – The child of working-class Jamaican immigrants in the Bronx, Colin Powell has grown from a neighborhood store clerk to a warehouse floor washer at the highest levels of the U.S. government. It was a pioneering journey into the American Dream that earned him international fame and confidence.
It was this credibility that he brought into play in 2003 when, appearing before the United Nations as Secretary of State, he pleaded for the war against Iraq. When it turned out that the intelligence he cited was flawed and the war in Iraq turned into a bloody and chaotic nightmare, Powell’s stellar reputation was damaged.
Yet it was not destroyed. After leaving government, he became an elderly statesman on the world stage and the founder of an organization aimed at helping underprivileged young Americans. Republicans wanted him to run for president. After being disappointed with his party, he ended up supporting the last three Democratic presidential candidates, who praised his support.
For many Iraqis and others, Powell will be forever associated with that 2003 speech and the bloodshed that followed. But with Powell’s death on Monday at 84 from complications from COVID-19, Republicans and Democrats have remembered him as a historical figure, a revolutionary soldier turned statesman, the first black Secretary of State and the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Powell rejected comparisons between him and previous icons like George Marshall, the WWII general who went on to become America’s top diplomat. But he embraced a local, child-friendly story of good that reflected his humble roots.
He loved to remember his youth in the Bronx, working first as a clerk in a neighborhood store, then as a sweeper in the huge Pepsi-Cola factory located just across the East River from the Nations Headquarters. United Nations, a work he often referred to in meetings at the United Nations. A geology student at New York City College, Powell made it clear that he found his calling in the Reserve Officer Training Corps, or ROTC, which would launch his 35-year career in the military.
Powell toured Vietnam twice and rose through the ranks with various stays in Cold War-era Europe before President Ronald Reagan appointed him National Security Advisor. President George HW Bush then appointed him chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where he oversaw Iraq’s ouster of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991.
It was then that the “Powell Doctrine” emerged; it was a strategy for the use of US military power that rested on the deployment of overwhelming force and a clear and defined exit strategy from the conflict.
Powell served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Clinton administration, where he recalled arguments with Cabinet members about a military intervention in the Balkans, which Powell believed was unwise.
“I thought I would have an aneurysm,” Powell wrote in a memoir about a White House incident in which then US Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright asked what the military was for if they were never used. Powell eventually succeeded Albright as Secretary of State in 2001.
And while his military career had taken him from the minefields of Vietnam to the strategic Fulda Gap fault in West Germany, it was his wartime role as Secretary of State that almost broke him down. .
Powell was the first of President George W. Bush’s Cabinet to publicly blame Osama bin Laden for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the first of Bush’s top national security aides to visit Pakistan, just a month away. later, to make the Pakistanis understand that they must join the US-led coalition or be labeled as enemies.
Amid major security concerns in the aftermath of 9/11, Powell flew to Islamabad, his plane collapsed as it corkscrewed down to avoid possible rocket strikes, to tell the Pakistani President at the time, Pervez Musharraf, that his support for the operation to avenge the attacks was not negotiable. It worked, at least in the short term.
Powell was personally skeptical of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and warned against the war in private. But he dutifully presented the administration’s case for an invasion not only in diplomatic meetings with his counterparts, but also in the now infamous speech to the UN Security Council in February 2003.
Faced with widespread doubts about the accuracy of the US and UK assessment of Saddam’s capabilities and intentions, many have compared the stakes of Powell’s speech to those of the electrifying 1962 presentation of the former United Nations ambassador. Adlai Stevenson at the council on the placement of the Soviet Union missiles in Cuba.
In Powell’s speech – which he would later call a “stain” on his record – he holds up a vial he says may have contained anthrax which intelligence agencies insisted Saddam was producing in. large quantity.
“Less than a teaspoon of dry anthrax, a little – about that amount,” he told the council, shaking the vial. “That’s about the amount of a teaspoon. Less than a teaspoon of dry anthrax in an envelope closed the United States Senate in the fall of 2001.”
Some, including several critics of the Bush administration, believed Powell had hit the nail on the head, but unlike Stevenson 41 years earlier, everything he had managed to convince was quickly erased.
No anthrax or indeed weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq after the end of the war, leading to a prolonged U.S. military occupation of the country which many argue resulted in wider destabilization of the country. Middle East, including the rise of the Islamic State, which persists to this day.
While he will always be associated with the war in Iraq, Powell was not an incompetent diplomat. He oversaw the resolution of the Bush administration’s first foreign policy crisis, the forced downing by China of a Navy spy plane and the detention of its crew, and spoke with self-deprecation of successes in the resolution of a feud with Moscow over a Russian ban on imports of American chicken and an armed dispute between Morocco and Spain over a small Mediterranean island.
Powell also played a critical role in shaping an impasse between Israel and then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat who had been stranded in his Ramallah headquarters by Israeli troops during the second “Intifada” or Palestinian uprising. And he was the first senior US official to visit Afghanistan after the Taliban was ousted, arriving in Kabul aboard a military plane in January 2002, to meet then-President Hamid Karzai.
Nonetheless, Powell’s greatest State Department legacy may be bureaucratic rather than diplomatic. A natural handyman who loved to collect and repair old Volvos and was a fan of the new Chrysler PT Cruiser, Powell pushed to bring the department’s aging computer and communications systems into the age of email and interoperability.
He waged budget battles to increase diplomatic spending and hiring and also waged a successful campaign to prevent the new Department of Homeland Security from fully taking over the visa issuance process, which had been recommended to the sequel to September 11.
Unlike his predecessors and several successors as Secretary of State, Powell was not enamored with overseas travel and has spent less time overseas than nearly all of America’s top diplomats since dawn. of the jet era, a dislike perhaps exacerbated by its failure behind the scenes. attempts in Washington to blunt the push by colleagues in the Bush administration for war with Iraq.
Customizable and often approachable, Powell sought to assure his new hires that he would not be a burden to them in some of his first remarks to the diplomatic corps.
“I will be there to see you in due course,” he said during his first town hall meeting. “I am an easy visitor. We will try to make the visit very easy for me. Just to save a lot of cable traffic, I have no food preferences, no drink preferences. A cheeseburger will do. I like the Holiday Inn, I have no illusions.