Colin Powell, former US secretary of state, dies at 84 of Covid complications

  • In Politics
  • 2021-10-18 16:40:22Z
  • By The Guardian
Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters  

Colin Powell, the former US secretary of state who played a pivotal role in attempting to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq, has died from complications from Covid-19 aged 84, it was announced on Monday.

Powell, a retired four-star general who served as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in the early 1990s, had been treated for Covid at Walter Reed national medical center in Bethesda, Maryland, where he died. He was fully vaccinated against coronavirus but had a compromised immune system having been treated for blood cancer.

Announcing his death, his family said they had lost a "remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American".

Powell was America's first Black secretary of state, serving in that role under George W Bush from 2001 to 2005. He rose to the heights of military and diplomatic service from relatively disadvantaged beginnings, having been born in New York City to Jamaican parents and raised in the South Bronx where he was educated through public schools before he entered the army via a college officer training program.

A statement from Joe Biden and the first lady, Jill Biden, said they were "deeply saddened by the passing of our dear friend and a patriot of unmatched honor and dignity" and referred to Powell having "repeatedly broken racial barriers [and] blazing a trail for others".

Biden further said of Powell: "Over our many years working together - even in disagreement - Colin was always someone who gave you his best and treated you with respect. Colin embodied the highest ideals of both warrior and diplomat …having fought in wars, he understood better than anyone that military might alone was not enough to maintain our peace and prosperity … Colin led with his personal commitment to the democratic values that make our country strong … Above all, Colin was my friend."

He rose to occupy the top military position in the US government as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff between 1989 and 1993. In that role he presided over military crises including the invasion of Panama in 1989 and the first Gulf war in 1990-91.

But it was in the buildup to the contentious invasion of Iraq in 2003 that Powell became a household name. He was the face of the Bush administration's aggressive attempt to get the world community to back the invasion, based on false claims of Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction.

In February 2003, as secretary of state, Powell appeared before the UN security council and made categoric claims that the then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had biological weapons and was developing nuclear weapons. He said his intelligence was based in part on accounts of unidentified Iraqi defectors.

The invasion went ahead without UN authorisation. The following year the CIA's own Iraq Study Group released a report that concluded that Hussein had destroyed the last of the country's weapons of mass destruction a decade previously.

Powell stepped down as secretary of state in November 2004, following Bush's re-election. He later insisted to reporters that he had tried to warn Bush of the consequences of invading Iraq, but had supported the president when the decision to proceed was taken.

In a statement on Monday, Bush called Powell "a great public servant. He was such a favorite of presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom - twice. He was highly respected at home and abroad."

Dick Cheney, Bush's vice-president who was a leading hawk on Iraq, did not specifically refer to the 2003 invasion in a statement on Monday. Instead, he said that working with Powell during the first Gulf war had shown him "Powell's dedication to the United States and his commitment to the brave and selfless men and women who serve our country in uniform. Colin was a trailblazer and role model for so many."

Tony Blair, who as British prime minister also backed the Iraq invasion, called Powell a "towering figure in American military and political leadership over many years. He inspired loyalty and respect … his life stands as a testament not only to dedicated public service but also a strong belief in willingness to work across partisan division in the interests of his country."

After his time in government Powell remained a hugely influential commentator on US politics and public life. Over the years he grew increasingly distanced from his own Republican party, disillusioned by its rightward drift.

In 2008, despite party rivalries, he endorsed Barack Obama for president. When Donald Trump launched his bid for the White House, Powell became one of his leading critics.

He voted against Trump in both 2016 and 2020 and was scathing about leading Republicans who remained silent or actively embraced Trump's lies. His excoriating criticism of Trump continued until months before he died - in January he said he was so disgusted by the insurrection of Trump supporters at the US Capitol that he no longer considered himself to be a Republican.

Powell, a prostate cancer survivor, was undergoing treatment for multiple myeloma when he contracted Covid-19.

Multiple myeloma is a cancer of plasma cells, the very cells that create antibodies to viruses such as Covid.

This type of blood cancer makes it extremely hard to fight infections, and it also makes patients less likely to respond to vaccines. Patients are at risk of severe Covid even when fully vaccinated because of the immune-suppressing effects of both the disease itself and its treatments.

In 2019, Powell spoke about the pressing need for a cure for multiple myeloma, "an uncommon and incurable disease".

The freshman progressive Democratic New York congressman Jamaal Bowman crossed the proverbial aisle to pay tribute on Twitter, posting: "As a Black man just trying to figure out the world, Colin Powell was an inspiration. He was from NYC, went to City College, and rose to the highest ranks of our nation. Sending love, strength and prayer to the family and friends of Secretary Powell. Rest in power, Sir."

  • Melody Schreiber contributed reporting


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