The storied, complicated legacy of Colin Powell's diplomatic and military career - including his WMDs regret

  • In Business
  • 2021-10-18 14:46:46Z

WASHINGTON - Colin Powell, one of the leading national security figures of his generation and the most persuasive voice in the Bush administration case for war in Iraq, has died at 84 from COVID-19 complications.

Powell's career was marked by firsts: the first and only Black officer to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the first Black man to become Secretary of State. His prestige lent credibility to the faulty case for the war to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, a cause that he was reluctant to push and for which he later expressed regret.

The September 11 terror attacks defined his tenure at the State Department. He advocated a swift attack on al-Qaida targets in Afghanistan and pressing neighboring Pakistan for help corralling the militants.


But soon the Bush administration would shift its attention to Iraq and warn that Saddam Hussein was manufacturing weapons of mass destruction. Powell pressed for United Nations inspectors to investigate. Powell also advised caution in attacking Iraq, famously warning Bush White House officials, "You break it, you own it."

It was Powell's speech in February 2003 to the UN, citing intelligence community assessments that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and could produce more that helped swing public opinion. He warned about the cost of inaction.

"Force should always be a last resort," Powell told the UN. "I have preached this for most of my professional life, as a soldier and as a diplomat, but it must be a resort. We cannot allow this process to be endlessly strung out as Iraq is trying to do right now -string it out long enough and the world will start looking in other directions, the Security Council will move on, we'll get away with it again."

A month later, the U.S. launched airstrikes against Iraq, starting a war that would rage for nearly a decade and continues to require U.S. troop presence in the country and neighboring Syria.

In 2004, some of the intelligence that Powell had brought before the United Nations in 2003 was found to be erroneous, according to his official State Department biography.

In 2010, Powell acknowledged in an interview with CNN that his UN testimony was critical to making the case for war. He stressed, however, that the points he made in his speech had been vetted by the intelligence community.

"I regret it now because the information was wrong, of course I do," Powell said.

The war in Iraq, its spillover into Syria, will have cost the United States more than $2 trillion through fiscal year 2022, according to Brown University's Watson Institute. The war left more than 4,400 Americans dead and nearly 32,000 wounded, according to the Pentagon.

As soldier, Powell returned to burning helicopter to save others. As Pentagon nominee, he won unanimous confirmation

Born and raised in New York, Powell graduated from City College of New York where he joined ROTC, attracted the by "panache" of the Pershing Rifle Team, according to his Pentagon biography. He commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army and served tours in Vietnam. He received the Soldier's Medal for repeatedly returning to a burning helicopter to rescue others despite being injured himself.

He steadily rose through the Army's ranks, and served for a time as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan. By 1989, Powell received his fourth star, and President George H.W. Bush nominated him as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the military's top officer. Powell became the first African-American, the first ROTC graduate, and the youngest officer to serve in the position.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the first Black Pentagon chief, said upon his death, "It will be impossible to replace Gen. Colin Powell. He was a tremendous personal friend and mentor to me."

During his four years as chairman, Powell helped steer the military in the first Gulf War, a broad international effort that evicted Iraq from Kuwait. He retired in 1993 from the military and founded America's Promise, an organization which helps at-risk children.

President George W. Bush brought Powell back to government, nominating Powell to be his Secretary of State. After being unanimously confirmed by the Senate, he was sworn in as the 65th Secretary of State on January 20, 2001.

Powell's civilian awards included two Presidential Medals of Freedom, the President's Citizens Medal, the Congressional Gold Medal, the Secretary of State Distinguished Service Medal, and the Secretary of Energy Distinguished Service Medal.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The military legacy of Colin Powell and his UN speech on WMDs in Iraq


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