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Colin Powell did not want the Iraq War to define his legacy – but it will

The late US secretary of state himself described his 2003 speech to the UN on WMDs as a “blot” on his record.

By Emily Tamkin

Colin Powell, who has died aged 84, undoubtedly accomplished much in his life. He was the US’s first black national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and secretary of state. He was also the person who, as the representative of the US government, went before the United Nations in 2003 and said that the US intelligence community had evidence that proved Iraq had hidden weapons of mass destruction. It is this duality that will define his legacy.

“There can be no doubt,” Powell said, “that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more.” The US went to war in Iraq mere weeks later. We do not know exactly how many civilians were killed because of that decision, but we do know that between the invasion and October 2019, at least 184,382 civilians and perhaps as many as 207,156 died directly from the violence of the war.

Powell’s speech is seen as having helped bring US public opinion behind the war. He was, after all, a trusted, popular figure – so much so that, before he spoke, US vice-president Dick Cheney reportedly told him: “You’ve got high poll ratings, you can afford to lose a few points.”

Two years later, in 2005, a US government report called the intelligence community “dead wrong” in its assessment. Powell left the State Department later that year. He subsequently described the speech as a “blot” in his record. It was a “momentous” failure, he wrote in his 2012 book It Worked for Me, acknowledging that he was unavoidably tasked with making the case to the international community. “The event will earn a prominent paragraph in my obituary.” He was right.

The 2003 speech was not the sum of his achievements, of course. The child of Jamaican parents, Powell rose through the ranks of the army, still newly desegregated at the end of the 1950s. He completed two tours in Vietnam; advised US President Ronald Reagan toward the end of the Cold War; and crafted the invasions of Panama and the Gulf War in George HW Bush’s administration.

He shaped what came to be known as the “Powell Doctrine”, which stated that, before using military force, leaders should exhaust non-violent options and make sure that they have clear, identifiable and achievable objectives – and that, if force was decided upon, it should be decisively used to win. Outside of government, in 1997, he founded a non-profit organisation, America’s Promise, dedicated to helping children at risk.

“Very sad news. He broke lots of barriers that I was fortunate enough to walk through – from the Joint Staff to the White House Fellowship,” Ted Johnson, a retired Navy commander and a fellow African-American veteran, tweeted. “May he rest well.”

“As a Black man just trying to figure out the world, Colin Powell was an inspiration,” tweeted Jamaal Bowman, a congressman from New York. “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.”

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Although he served three Republican administrations, Powell differentiated himself by speaking out against Republicans in his later years. He twice endorsed Barack Obama for president. After supporters of Donald Trump stormed the US Capitol in January of this year, Powell said that members of the Republican Party were responsible, and that he no longer considered himself a Republican. 

But in 2003, for 76 minutes, Colin Powell addressed the UN and made the case to go to war in Iraq. Powell called the speech painful as well as a “blot”, and said that he wanted to judge himself as “a successful soldier who served his best”. Powell said and did things that were not that speech. But he also delivered the speech.

We do not get to choose which of our choices are remembered. We get to choose our choices, and that is all.

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