Colin Powell is likely to be remembered by historians as an inspirational, successful, compelling, but also a tragic American military and political leader. The child of Jamaican immigrants, Powell was an indifferent student at City College of New York. Then he joined the college’s Reserve Officers Training Corps program and became committed to, and transformed by, the U.S. Army. He rose steadily through the ranks over more than three decades. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he oversaw successful U.S. military operations in Panama in 1989 and Iraq in 1991. He retired from the Army in 1993 as a four star general and an American icon. Many analysts believed he could have been elected president of the United States in 1996.
Powell served as National Security Advisor under President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State during the first term of President George W. Bush. During the Bush Administration’s internal debates about a possible U.S. invasion to depose Saddam Hussein, Powell was far more skeptical than were President Bush, Vice President Richard Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. He famously warned Bush about the long-term consequences of an American war in Iraq. “You break it, you’re going to own it,” he said.
Given his sterling national and global reputation, Powell was selected to make the U.S.’s case against Saddam Hussein to the UN Security Council. With much of the world watching on TV, Powell told the UN on February 5, 2003 that Saddam Hussein harbored weapons of mass destruction that he was likely to share with terrorist groups. He warned these weapons could be used against the United States. “Leaving Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few more months or years is not an option, not in a post-September 11th world,” Powell declared.
After American troops invaded Iraq in March of 2003, it became clear that the evidence and arguments deployed by Powell were based on faulty intelligence. His reputation was seriously damaged by his UN presentation. Powell took responsibility and expressed remorse. “I’m the one who presented it on behalf of the United States and the world,” he said in a TV interview, adding that his UN presentation “will always be a part of my record.”
But historians are likely to view it as only part of a fuller record that includes successful and inspirational public service and major civic contributions.
When I interviewed General Powell in his office Alexandria in the fall of 2010, he was warm, gracious and expansive. He was eager to talk about the challenges facing the world and the potential of technology to transform our lives. He smiled easily, told scores of stories, and recommended books and articles for me to read to better understand how technology can shape public affairs. Our interview was scheduled for 45 minutes and extended for nearly an hour and a half. I could have stayed all day.
I believe Colin Powell will be remembered as a good public servant.