Colin Powell, who has died aged 84 from complications of Covid-19, rose higher in public office than any previous black American, the youngest chair of the joint chiefs of staff. Then, when the second Bush administration emerged from the controversial election of 2000, the new president chose Powell as the first black secretary of state.
To outsiders it might have seemed a dream come true. For Powell it gradually turned into a nightmare. When he resigned after Bush’s re-election in 2004, he left as one of America’s least successful diplomats. His mistake lay in trying to bring a voice of reason to an administration that had no wish to hear it. The opening days of the Bush presidency demonstrated how ideology and nationalism would play a far greater role in US foreign policy. The White House quickly repudiated its predecessor’s commitments to policies ranging from global warming to international trade.
As the effects of these initial pronouncements rippled out there was a palpable silence from the new man running the state department, provoking a bristling cover story in Time magazine headlined “Where Have You Gone, Colin Powell?” But Powell had been acting with his characteristic discretion. He had not come to the State Department with any grand view of a redrawn foreign policy for new century. His principal concern was to maintain the traditional alliances with western Europe, to calm down the Middle East, and to strengthen his country’s difficult relationship with China and the rest of Asia. In the end none of it really came to fruition.
His most successful period came early in his diplomatic stint, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. The international community accepted the US’s retaliatory attack on the Taliban regime, which had been sheltering Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. But there was less agreement when the White House increased its rhetoric against Saddam Hussein, with allegations that he was secretly amassing weapons of mass destruction.
Powell privately called for caution. Though not opposed in principle to a change of regime in Iraq, he warned his cabinet colleagues that, under stipulations written into the UN’s founding charter by the Truman administration, military action must first be sanctioned by the security council. He therefore started to negotiate a resolution warning Hussein that, should he not allow UN inspectors to examine suspect weapons sites, he would run the risk of an international response “by all necessary means”.
This belligerent wording, combined with the increasing transfer of American forces to the Middle East, seriously alarmed the French and Germans, who insisted on a more moderate text. Eventually the reworded resolution, passed by a vote of 15-0, declared the Iraqis would be “in material breach” should they fail to re-admit the UN inspectors and to yield up any weapons they might discover.
Within days, Powell’s differences with his hardline cabinet colleagues were made public when Dick Cheney, the vice-president, told an ex-servicemen’s convention that: “Saddam has perfected the art of cheat and retreat ... A return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of his compliance with UN resolutions.”
Since the new wording did not authorise military action, Powell set about securing a second resolution that would permit an attack. In an echo of Adlai Stevenson’s presentation to the UN during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, in February 2003 Powell displayed what he claimed were damning photographs and intercept transcripts assembled in Iraq by the CIA. But they did little to persuade European and other council members.
At this point one of Powell’s principal domestic opponents, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, intervened. He publicly disparaged France and Germany as “old Europe”, no longer in tune with their dynamic eastern neighbours, who were silently siding with the US. Simultaneously, by belittling Britain’s planned military co-operation, he successfully torpedoed Powell’s delicate negotiations. He and his British counterpart had to abandon their efforts and see the coalition go to war in March without UN backing.
The hostile ripples across the Muslim world, and the administration’s obvious reluctance to re-engage in the Middle East peace process, raised considerable uncertainties about Powell’s influence in Washington. Based partly on the lessons he had absorbed in the military build-up to the Gulf war, Powell had earlier convinced a specially convened meeting of Bush’s national security council to make a public commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state, a decision eventually introduced into the UN and unanimously accepted by its security council.
But he was now obliged to reduce the US rhetoric against Iran and China and to downplay the significance of Bush’s commitment to advanced anti-missile defences, which had badly upset the Russians. He also had to reverse America’s view of Pakistan, which had been placed on the administration’s list of rogue states. It had continued to support the Taliban after the US had decided that the CIA’s costly backing had been a mistake. Powell’s standing never recovered.
His departure from office after Bush’s re-election in 2004 marked a sad end to his previous string of achievements – his prior triumphs had always come in apolitical appointed posts. Powell had always refused to seek elective office though, as his popularity grew in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf war, he came under pressure from both Democrats and Republicans to join their presidential ticket. Neither party seemed clear about his personal politics and each was apparently prepared to see him either lead its team or serve as the running mate.
He declined both without offering a clear explanation, though many attributed his decision to family concerns about the racist passions that still ran high in parts of the country. Powell’s wife, Alma (nee Johnson), whom he married in 1962, feared that a nationwide campaign could carry the risk of physical assault or even assassination by the small extreme fringe in US politics.
There may also have been more complex inner reasons for Powell’s avoidance of elective office. Though his autobiography, My American Journey (1995), stressed the need for leadership, he repeatedly showed that he took the narrow military view of that quality as the ability to set an admirable example. Looking sideways at an issue or establishing new first principles was not his style. So his reputation was as a highly competent administrator rather than as someone to count on for radical policy shifts. The limitations of this approach became evident when he hit choppy political waters.
As secretary of state, Powell was working with colleagues who had a far more ideological approach than his own. Cheney, backed by Rumsfeld, had established the abrasive tone of the administration’s early months. Another hardliner, Rumsfeld’s deputy Paul Wolfowitz, privately said that his only reason for accepting his job was “to keep an eye on Powell”.
In part, the uncertainties about Powell’s cabinet influence arose from a judgment by one of his old bosses, the former defence secretary Caspar Weinberger: “Colin is quintessentially a good soldier,” Weinberger said, “who does his duty and carries out orders.” It was not an inspiring endorsement for a man running the remaining superpower’s relations with the rest of the world.
The Middle East crisis that followed Ariel Sharon’s accession as prime minister of Israel in 2001 awakened memories in Washington of the destructive turf wars that had preoccupied Cyrus Vance and Zbigniew Brzezinski during the Carter administration and then been repeated by Alexander Haig and William Clark in the Reagan years.
Powell’s commitment to a Palestinian state did not sit at all well with his conservative colleagues. They not only saw the intifada as part of the international terrorist movement that they had vowed to crush, but were strongly influenced by the political muscle of the Christian right, a potent factor in George W Bush’s narrow election victory.
The fundamentalist movement, which donated huge sums in campaign funds, fervently supported Jewish settlement of the Holy Land on the ground that it had been promised by God. This lobby’s powerful influence, allied to the existing political split within the cabinet, seriously undermined Powell’s attempts to revitalise the peace process. There were the inevitable rumours that he was on the point of resignation.
It was a serious point in a career that had so far advanced with extraordinary smoothness. Powell’s parents, Maud (nee McKoy), a seamstress, and Luther Powell, a shipping-room foreman in the clothing industry, emigrated to the US from Jamaica just after the first world war and settled in modest prosperity in Harlem, the black area of New York. From Morris high school, Colin went to City College to study geology. Far more formative than his studies was his decision to join the college’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, in which he excelled. He left college holding the rank of colonel, the highest available to an ROTC cadet.
Military life appealed to him, not only temperamentally but because the armed forces were one of the few desegregated American institutions, a step enforced on them by President Truman in 1948. Powell’s uniform did not wholly protect him from the persisting racism of the civilian world, but the colour of his skin could no longer impede his career.
As a second lieutenant in 1962 he was assigned to South Vietnam as one of the 16,000 military advisers sent there by the Kennedy administration. On patrol with a local infantry battalion he received a serious wound when he stepped on a sharpened-stake booby-trap. On his second tour in Vietnam six years later he was decorated for his rescue efforts after the crash of the helicopter in which he and other troops were travelling.
He emerged from that second stint as a major and took advantage of a military further education scheme to study for a master’s degree in business administration (1971) at Georgetown University, Washington. Among its unexpected benefits was the offer of a White House fellowship, a scheme that gave potential high-flyers their first experience of the workings of government. Sent to serve in the Office of Management and Budget, he attracted the notice of two of the most powerful figures in the Nixon administration, Caspar Weinberger and Frank Carlucci.
Powell resumed his military career as commander of a battalion in Korea, but was brought back to Washington within a year to join the Pentagon bureaucracy as a colonel. To prepare for the post he enrolled in a further education course at the National War College, but, before he could finish his studies, in 1976 he was promoted to a command position in the 101st Airborne Division. There then followed a constant tussle between his military and bureaucratic careers.
The Jimmy Carter administration used him as a senior military adviser in the defence department and then as an executive assistant in the energy department (which controls America’s nuclear production). With the advent of the Reagan administration in 1981, Weinberger and Carlucci took over the Pentagon and called on Powell to help them with the transition. After that stint, and by now a major-general, he went back to the military as an infantry commander. In 1983 Weinberger yanked him back to Washington to serve as his senior military assistant.
Powell kept his finger firmly in the military pie, playing a leading role in staging the US invasion of Grenada in 1983 and in preparing the 1986 bombing raid on Libya. But he also got caught up in the messy military politics of the Reagan White House, most notably in the Iran-Contra scandal. He emerged unscathed from the ensuing Congressional inquiries on the basis that he had simply carried out the president’s orders.
In the middle of 1986 he was promoted to lieutenant-general and took command of the 5th Corps, stationed in Germany.
His principal initial assignment as deputy national security adviser in 1987 was to reorganise the NSC on lines recommended by the commission of inquiry into the illegalities of the Iran-Contra affair. He established far clearer lines of control and communication.
Carlucci regularly used Powell to give the president his daily intelligence briefings so there was little surprise after Carlucci was promoted to defence secretary later in the year that Powell succeeded him as national security adviser.
His early months were spent in a strenuous but unsuccessful effort to persuade Congress to resume military aid to the Nicaraguan contras. After that he became immersed in the nitpicking details of arms control and the arrangements for the unprecedented inspection arrangements agreed between the US and Moscow in the treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces.
With the arrival of the first President Bush in 1989, Powell stayed on as national security adviser for the early months of the administration. He was then selected for America’s highest military post, chair of the joint chiefs of staff, the youngest and the first black person to be put in charge of the vast US military machine.
He took office in October 1989 and, within a month, was confronted with the most significant change in superpower relations since the end of the second world war. The collapse of the East German regime and the consequent demolition of the Berlin Wall had plainly caught the CIA and the Pentagon wholly unprepared and the Bush administration’s response was strangely muted.
In part this was due to its absorption in the simmering political crisis in Panama, caused by Washington’s repeated efforts to unseat President Manuel Noriega. When Noriega threatened to retaliate against Panama’s 35,000 American residents Powell recommended immediate military intervention. Just before Christmas 1989, 23,000 US troops with massive air support attacked key installations in the canal zone. They met considerable Panamanian resistance but Noriega eventually gave himself up and was later jailed in the US for drug trafficking.
This episode offered a classic example of Powell’s consistent military doctrine, that America should involve itself in overseas military action only when its vital interests were threatened and its forces had clear and achievable aims. Since that was plainly the case when Iraq invaded Kuwait, Powell was adamant about the need for a massive allied response.
Once Hussein’s forces had been overwhelmed and expelled, however, he saw no point in pursuing them to Baghdad and getting sucked into an inevitably open-ended military and political tangle. He recommended that Bush simply declare the war at an end.
Later he strongly opposed the idea of a multinational force to intervene in the humanitarian crisis in Somalia. He was over-ruled by the newly arrived President Bill Clinton, anxious to display his concern for the plight of the starving inhabitants and to replace warlord rule with democratic institutions. But, faced with Somalia’s unabated political chaos, Powell eventually persuaded the White House to withdraw most of the troops the US had committed.
Clinton’s policy wobbled constantly in the ensuing months until the gruesome death of 18 American soldiers brought massively hostile public and Congressional reaction. Clinton reversed his stance and Powell’s cautionary approach was seen to have been justified. He maintained it once again as the Yugoslav crisis engulfed Bosnia, when he argued strongly against the involvement of any US ground forces.
It may have made short-term military sense but it proved a serious historical blunder which pushed the situation into a far greater crisis than might have developed had there been an earlier and powerful American commitment. By now, however, Powell was near the end of his four-year term. After his retirement in September 1993, Washington gradually shifted its stance to the point of assigning 20,000 troops to help supervise the US-brokered peace agreement.
Powell’s period away from the international fray was devoted to his hobby of rebuilding old Volvo cars, reaping the rewards of the highly paid American lecture circuit, fending off suggestions of a presidential campaign, and running an educational charity, the Alliance for Youth.
Amid all these activities, however, he carefully left the door open for the cabinet appointment that he was eventually given, only to see his hard-learned military caution arbitrarily and disastrously overturned by Rumsfeld. But it was Powell the uncertain diplomat who had to pay the political price.
He is survived by Alma, a son and two daughters.
• Colin Luther Powell, soldier and diplomat, born April 5 1937, died 18 October 2021
• Harold Jackson died in June 2021