Colin Powell, who blasted through racial barriers to become the US’ first African American Secretary of State, National Security Adviser, and the top military officer and was a one-time favourite for President, died at the age of 84 on Monday from COVID-19-related complications despite being vaccinated, according to his family.
The son of Jamaican immigrants, he showcased America’s opportunities for immigrant families.
Growing up in the impoverished Harlem section of New York City, he attended a local college where he excelled in the Reserve Officers Training Corps — the equivalent of the NCC — leading to a distinguished army career that led him to the military’s highest position of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
He served two tours of duty as a young military officer in Vietnam winning several military honours.
Powell made several visits to India as the National Security Adviser, when he conferred with his then-counterpart Brajesh Mishra, and as Secretary of State when he met then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee many times.
In a trip in 2003 to both India and Pakistan, he sought to keep the situation in the subcontinent spinning out of control after a massive suicide attack in Srinagar by the Islamabad-backed Jaish-e-Mohammad.
George W Bush, who appointed his Secretary of State, said in his tribute: “Many Presidents relied on General Powell’s counsel and experience.”
The African American leader’s career reached its heights during the terms of Presidents belonging to the Republican Party.
He did a stint as a White House Fellow when Richard Nixon was President.
Ronald Reagan appointed him National Security Adviser in 1987 as the Cold War was winding down and had him help negotiate the transition as the Soviet Union disintegrated.
George H.W. Bush appointed him to the top Pentagon position.
As the Joint Chiefs Chairman, he developed what came to be known as the “Powell Doctrine” learning from the US debacle in Vietnam, the makings of which he had witnessed first hand.
Its three elements were that military force should be used only when diplomacy and politics had failed, the force should be the maximum in order to quickly defeat the enemy with minimal US casualties, and the action should have wide public support.
The doctrine was effective as he led the 1989 invasion of Panama to overthrow President Manuel Noriega — a small operation — and in repelling the 1990 Kuwait invasion by Iraq under Saddam Hussain with an overwhelming deployment of force against Baghdad’s forces.
“First we’re going to cut it off. Then we’re going to kill it,” he said of his strategy against the Iraqi military.
But he also knew the limitations of military power, advising Bush against pushing onward to Baghdad as many had wanted.
That lesson was lost on Bush’s son who mired the US in an unwinnable war by invading Iraq in 2003.
He left the military in 1993 amid differences with the administration of Democratic President Bill Clinton, including over the US military role in the Balkans.
As the acknowledged hero of the Kuwait war where he led the US to a swift decisive victory, there was a clamour for him to run for President as the Republican candidate in 1996 against Clinton, but he declined saying that he had no passion for politics and did not hear a “calling” to seek the office.
He spoke at the 2000 Republican National Convention endorsing George W. Bush for President.
After his election, the younger Bush appointed Powell as the Secretary of State.
Although Powell had made his mark leading the US and allies vanquishing Iraq in 1990, that country also marked his lowest point, as he himself has acknowledged.
As Secretary of State, he made a persuasive case at the United Nations in 2003 for invading Iraq based on intelligence that proved to be false and in his autobiography he called that “one of my most momentous failures” and predicted that it “will earn a prominent paragraph in my obituary”.
The Iraq invasion under the younger Bush was in fact a negation of the Powell Doctrine and the US paid a colossal price for it.
It cost the US and world a huge human toll that could total in over a hundred thousand people dead in Iraq and from its reverberations in the region, and a loss of possibly more than a trillion dollars.
Powell broke with the Republican Party when Donald Trump became its candidate for President in 2016.
He called Trump a “national disgrace” and backed Hillary Clinton.
Powell endorsed President Joe Biden last year saying that he “will be a President we will all be proud to salute”.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the first African American to hold the post, called Powell “one of the greatest leaders that we have ever witnessed”.
(Arul Louis can be reached at email@example.com and followed @arulouis)