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Colin Powell Dies of COVID-19 Complications

October 18, 2021 by Dan McCue
In this Feb. 15, 2001 photo, Secretary of State Colin Powell looks on as President Bush addresses State Department employees at the State Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Kenneth Lambert)

Colin Powell, former Joint Chiefs chairman and secretary of state, has died from COVID-19 complications, his family said Monday. He was 84.

In an announcement on social media, the family said Powell had been fully vaccinated and was treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. 

“We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father and grandfather and a great American,” the family said. 

President Joe Biden ordered that in honor of Powell, the American flag be flown at falf-staff at the White House and other federal and military buildings and embassies through sunset on Oct. 22.

In a statement former President George W. Bush, for whom Powell served as secretary of state, said, “Laura and I are deeply saddened by the death of Colin Powell. He was a great public servant, starting with his time as a soldier during Vietnam.

“Many presidents relied on Powell’s counsel and experience. He was national security adviser under President Reagan, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under my father and President Clinton, and secretary of state during my administration.

“He was such a favorite of presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom — twice. He was highly respected at home and abroad. And most important, Colin was a family man and a friend. Laura and I send Alma and their children our sincere condolences as they remember the life of a great man.”

Born in Harlem of Jamaican parents, Powell grew up in the South Bronx and graduated from City College of New York, where he joined the R.O.T.C.

He then joined the Army and served two combat tours in Vietnam and was decorated for his bravery and heroism.

Later, he applied his knowledge and memory of armed conflict to help president’s Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush bring an end to the cold war with the then-Soviet Union.

President Biden said in a statement that Powell “believed in the promise of America because he lived it,” adding “he devoted much of his life to making that promise a reality for so many others.”

“Colin embodied the highest ideals of both warrior and diplomat. He was committed to our nation’s strength and security above all,” Biden continued in a lengthy statement. “Having fought in wars, he understood better than anyone that military might alone was not enough to maintain our peace and prosperity. 

“From his front-seat view of history, advising presidents and shaping our nation’s policies, Colin led with his personal commitment to the democratic values that make our country strong. Time and again, he put country before self, before party, before all else—in uniform and out—and it earned him the universal respect of the American people.

“Having repeatedly broken racial barriers, blazing a trail for others to follow in Federal Government service, Colin was committed throughout his life to investing in the next generation of leadership,” Biden said. “Whether through his care for the women and men serving under his command and the diplomats he led, or through the work he shared with his wife Alma at the America’s Promise Alliance to lift up young people, or through his years leading the Eisenhower Fellowships, Colin’s leadership always included a focus on future.

“Above all, Colin was my friend. Easy to share a laugh with,” the president said. “A trusted confidant in good and hard times. He could drive his Corvette Stingray like nobody’s business—something I learned firsthand on the race track when I was Vice President. And I am forever grateful for his support of my candidacy for president and for our shared battle for the soul of the nation. I will miss being able to call on his wisdom in the future. …  Colin Powell was a good man.”

As chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Powell was the architect of the Persian Gulf War in 1991 that ousted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait but left him in power in Iraq.

During the war, Powell’s televised briefings with reporters made him one of the stars of the conflict in America’s living rooms, perhaps second in popularity only to General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr., who led the coalition forces in the Gulf War.

Memorably, Powell developed what reporters quickly came to call the “Powell Doctrine” for military operations.

The doctrine poses questions emphasizing national security interests, overwhelming strike capabilities with an emphasis on ground forces, and widespread public support, all of which have to be answered affirmatively before military action is taken.

The Powell Doctrine’s questions are:

  1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
  2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
  3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
  4. Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
  5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
  6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
  7. Is the action supported by the American people?
  8. Do we have genuine broad international support?

But it was a much more direct quote at the beginning of the gulf war that lent a bit of swagger to Powell’s public image.

Asked during a press conference to sum up the U.S. strategy against Saddam Hussein’s army, Powell said it was very simple: “First, we’re going to cut it off, and then we’re going to kill it.”

By the time he retired from the military in 1993, and in the wake of America’s success in the Gulf War, Powell was one of the most popular public figures in the country, and by the time the 1996 presidential election cycle rolled around, he was being courted heavily by both Republicans and Democrats for a run at the White House.

On Monday, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani recalled in a Tweet that he was “one of a small, but determined group that urged him to run for president in 1996.”

“What if?” Giuliani asked.

In the end, the lifelong Independent decided electoral office just wasn’t for him. That decision allowed him to return. to public service under President George W. Bush — and make history.

When Powell was sworn in as Bush’s secretary of state in 2001, he became the highest-ranking Black public official up to that time in the country — fourth in the presidential line of succession.

Asked about the historical significance of his selection during his Senate confirmation hearing, Powell said, “I think it shows to the world what is possible in this country.”

Powell embraced the opportunity to serve the new president because he believed they shared the view that America should only reluctantly engage in armed conflicts. Bush’s view quickly changed, however, with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Bush turned to Powell to build international support for the administration’s global war on terror, including an intervention in Iraq.

In February 2003, Powell delivered a speech before the United Nations in which he presented evidence that the US intelligence community said proved Iraq had misled inspectors and hid weapons of mass destruction.

“There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more,” Powell warned.

UN weapons inspectors, however, later found no such weaponry in Iraq, and two years later a government report said the intelligence community was “dead wrong” in its assessments of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities.

Powell, disillusioned, left the State Department in early 2005. He later said he considered his UN speech a “blot” that would forever stain his record of public service.

Former vice president Dick Cheney, with whom Powell sometimes clashed during the George W. Bush years, said in a statement Monday that he was deeply saddened to learn that America has lost a leader and statesman.

“General Powell had a remarkably distinguished career, and I was fortunate to work with him He was a man who loved his country and served her long and well,” Cheney said.

“Working with him during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, I saw first-hand General Powell’s dedication to the United States and his commitment to the brave and selfless men and women who serve our country in uniform,” the former vice president continued. “Colin was a trailblazer and role model for so many: the son of immigrants who rose to become National Security Advisor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Secretary of State … His legacy and unparalleled record of service will never be forgotten.”

U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., remembered Powell as “a trailblazing leader” whose life was a “quintessentially American story.”

“A son of Jamaican immigrants who learned Yiddish from his boyhood neighbors in the Bronx becomes a four-star General in the United States Army and serves four presidential administrations, including as National Security Advisor, the youngest-ever Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the first Black Secretary of State,” McConnell said.

“As a young officer, General Powell rendered brave and distinguished service on the front lines. As a senior leader, he helped four presidents protect our nation, represent us on the world stage, and chart our course through uncertain and turbulent times that included the dawn of a new century and the beginning of our global war on terrorists who will not leave America alone even if we leave them alone. Today we remember and honor a man who truly dedicated his entire life to serving his country,” he added.

After leaving the Bush administration, Powell returned to private life. He joined the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins in 2005, where he worked as a strategic adviser until his death.

Powell also experienced some late-in-life notoriety in 2016 when his personal email account was hacked and its contents released by an organization called DC Leaks, which was alleged to have ties to Russian intelligence.

The Powell revealed by the emails, which he confirmed were indeed his, was kind of a humble everyman who very much disliked Donald Trump, thought Hillary Clinton was blowing it on the campaign trail, and who loved to talk with former aides about the TV shows they liked. He also occassionally grumpled about aspects of his post-public life he didn’t much care for, like having to pose for an official bust and other wholly ceremonial and sometimes tedious tasks expected of an elder statesman.

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue.

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