Colin Powell


Former US military leader and politician Colin Powell has died aged 84, after a battle with blood cancer was complicated by covid. Powell, who was refused service under segregation in Georgia while an active soldier, rose from cadet level to the rank of four-star General, and saw action in Vietnam. It was in this increasing role that he was to become advisor to a series of Republican Presidents, and became National Security Advisor under Ronald Reagan, after his successor was downed in the Iran-Contra Affair. It was perhaps a sign of Powell’s knack for self-protection that he made sure his signature was all over the documents that said the weapons sale was likely illegal and shouldn’t happen!

During the first Bush administration, Colin Powell was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs, where, despite personal involvement in 28 different skirmishes in 4 years, he had a reputation in Republican circles as being more of a dove than a hawk! For example, he engaged in the removal of Noriega in 1989. He was also a big backer of the first Gulf War, but in fairness, so was most of the Western world after Saddam Hussein’s troops invaded Kuwait.

It was while the first Iraq War was ongoing that Powell came up with his rules for engagement which became known as the Powell Doctrine, a plan which was at first used to praise Powell and later used to dethrone him by Rumsfeld. The Doctrine basically says the US should only go to war if the US is personally threatened by another nation, if it has a clear road map for what to do before, during and after the war, if diplomatic means have been exhausted, and if the American people and all of the Americans many international allies support the action. And it is worth noting, both the first Gulf War, and the Bosnian actions fulfilled all the above criteria. Colin Powell’s international reputation was now founded on the idea that American couldn’t just go to war if it felt like it.

Politics was now Colin Powell’s main arena, and both parties sought him for their tickets in 1992. In 1995, he declared he was a Republican, and the party immediately wanted him to take on Bill Clinton in 1996 but he declined to stand. Having worked for the elder Bush, Powell was an early supporter of George W Bush’s campaign for the Presidency, and as such became the Secretary of State early on in Bush Jr’s 8 year reign of error. Still hugely popular, Powell’s candidancy passed the Senate unanimously, and he was viewed as a widely respected man who could be a voice of reason in the White House.

And then, the September 11 attacks happened. And the Bush government wanted revenge. And that guy who was known for the Powell Doctrine was a useful ally to use. Before 2001, Powell’s international reputation was for fairness and respect. After 2003, his reputation was being that guy who sat in front of the UN and claimed Iraq had massive weapons of destruction hidden ready to destroy the world at any second. Despite having said Iraq couldn’t have any such weapons due to US sanctions 2 years earlier, Powell either believed (or led others to believe he believed) in the intelligence that Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney had produced like a rabbit from a hat in a Penn and Teller act. Powell was set up (Cheney later said he’d hoped Powell would fall on his sword) but he went out there and trashed his hard earned reputation for the sake of an intelligence dossier plagiarised off a failed student’s report.

Now, it is fair to say that Powell was utterly stitched over by the Rumsfeld/Cheney double act here. They didn’t like him, they hated his Doctrine, they used his genuine and somewhat blinding patriotism as a weapon to kill his credibility. However, it is worth comparing the actions of Powell to the actions of his closest UK counterpart, the late Robin Cook. Like Powell, Cook also favoured the use of war only with the support of the international community and with a genuine and overwhelming reason. Like Powell, he was left with an unconvincing case for war in Iraq. Robin Cook resigned from his role in government. Powell, on the other hand, carried on.

The Iraq War happened, and continues to be a blot on the 21st Century. As early as 2005 (the same year Robin Cook died, fact fans), Powell bemoaned that he’d been taken for a fool, that there was no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and this was his legacy now: a comedy routine no one laughed at. By that point, his usefulness had been declared over by the Bush government, who were re-elected and promptly told Powell he had been resigned. This overshadowed any other achievements he had at the State department, such as increasing funding on the international fight against HIV.

After leaving the state department, Powell was an infrequent commentator on national events, usually to attack his long time nemesis John Bolton, and by the time of his death, had left the Republican Party over his dislike for their modern Trump style politics. At one point, Colin Powell was the most respected politician in America, and had his hand on some of the genuinely great decisions made by US governments in the last 40 years. Unfortunately, he was also, willingly or not, part of the team which ripped up some of those very achievements he held so dear, and so, like a Shakespearean character undone by that singular fatal flaw in their makeup, it is this which Colin Powell will be remembered for.

He was a unique pick for Lt Colonel Kilgiore’s Ultimate Surf Party.

Colin Powell
5 April 1937 – 18 October 2021