Colin Powell Called Home – Reactions from All Quarters
by Maitefa Angaza
Colin Powell, former, (and first Black) secretary of state and retired four-star general in the U.S. Army, died on Monday, October 18th at the age of 84 from complications of COVID-19 and underlying comorbidities. A Harlem-born son of Jamaican immigrants, Powell grew up in the South Bronx and went on to serve as national security advisor for President Ronald Reagan, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff under President George H. W. Bush and as President George W. Bush’s secretary of state from 2001 to 2005.
Condolences, commentary, and some criticism came swiftly from around the world. Several news reports also featured words from Powell himself in previous interviews, representing the man he strove to be, his priorities and his regrets. We begin, however, with tributes on his passing.
President Biden counted Powell as a close longtime friend and said he’ll miss their laughs and racecar-driving. He praised him for his commitment to national service. “Colin embodied the highest ideals of both warrior and diplomat,” Biden said. “He was committed to our nation’s strength and security above all. Having fought in wars, he understood better than anyone that military might alone was not enough to maintain our peace and prosperity.”
President Barack Obama said, “Everyone who worked with General Powell appreciated his clarity of thought, insistence on seeing all sides, and ability to execute. And although he’d be the first to acknowledge that he didn’t get every call right, his actions reflected what he believed was best for America and the people he served,”
Former President George W. Bush said of him, “Many Presidents relied on General Powell’s counsel and experience. He was such a favorite of Presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom — twice.”
Vice President Kamala Harris said, “Secretary Colin Powell dedicated his life to defending our nation. As National Security Advisor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State, he was an independent thinker and a barrier-breaker who inspired leaders in our military and throughout our nation.”
“Colin Powell spent the entirety of his life in service to his country,” said former Bush national security adviser and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “He was a trusted colleague and a dear friend through some very challenging times.”
But Powell’s death was met with conflicting reactions in some arenas of public opinion, among some consumers of independent media, and among some champions of social issues. There are those, for example, who bitterly recall his opposition to non-binary people serving in the military. On the other side of the aisle, some Republicans still held a grudge against Powell for backing first Hillary Clinton over John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, then endorsing Barack Obama over Donald Trump four years later.
In Iraq people blame him for what they feel was his unforgivable role in using what proved to be false information to promote the United States invasion of their nation in 2003. For many Iraqis, his was the face of the misguided war that caused an estimated 200,000 Iraqi deaths, devastated the landscape, obliterated the economy and destabilized the region to disastrous effect.
Reporter Jon Schwarz, in a Feb 2018 article in The Intercept, stated that although Powell’s supporters point to his claims of being blindsided by faulty intelligence, he was playing along, despite his doubts, in order to please Bush.
“Powell,” Schwarz says, “who was secretary of state under President George W. Bush, was much more than just horribly mistaken: He fabricated ‘evidence’ and ignored repeated warnings that what he was saying was false.”
Powell himself is widely quoted as having told Bush in the days leading up to the declaration of war: “You break it, you own it.” And in an interview on the PBS show “Frontline” in May of 2016, he said, “[We] created a massive vacuum with respect to security and stability and bureaucracy. And that vacuum was filled by the insurgency. I think it was a major, massive strategic error.”
“America made Iraq worse because they destroyed the entire country, and they were the reason people from outside Iraq came to control Iraq,” said Khaled Jamal, a resident of the city [of Mosul] … “He was an important part of this, because he was the main liar who gave unreliable reasons for America to attack Iraq.”
While there are citizens and leaders in other parts of the world who also questioned or outright condemned the invasion of Iraq and Powell’s role in it, his legacy is likely safe from significant damage due to his popularity across much of the country, the esteem in which he was held by his peers, and his admission of wrong and regret in making the infamous UN speech.
Susan Rice, former national security advisor for President Bill Clinton recalled her admiration for Powell when first meeting to brief him as incoming secretary of state for the new Bush Administration. In a Nov. 2020 New York Times op-ed she wrote: “I was struck immediately by Secretary-designate Powell’s unique style. He came alone to the State Department — cool, confident, casually dressed and without staff members, bag-carriers or pretense of any sort. He asked to meet with me and the Africa bureau first, presumably to send the message that he would treat this sometimes-under-appreciated region of the world with the seriousness it deserves.”
“He was an outstanding soldier and diplomat,” said former Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller. She called Powell, born in the U.S. to Jamaican parents, a “son of Jamaica.”
Andrew Rich, dean of the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at the City College of New York, was somber in his reflections. “No words seem adequate at this moment,” he said. “This school is his. He was our leader and our friend. His pride in this place gave all of us strength, and we are heartbroken.”
Malcolm Nance, pundit, former Navy senior chief petty officer and intelligence analyst, said, “Farewell soldier. You served us well. Rest easy. We have the watch.”
Colin Powell’s loved ones shared a simple message with the public:
“We want to thank the medical staff at Walter Reed National Medical Center for their caring treatment. We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather, and a great American. The Powell Family.”