Colin Powell, the decorated military general and ex-Secretary of State who lent his reputation as an even-handed conservative and “most trusted man in America” to justify the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, has died of Covid. He was 84.
Powell’s family broke the news on Facebook early Monday morning, calling him a “dominant presence in American politics.” One of the main things he dommed was a critical speech, delivered just six weeks before the 2003 invasion, to the United Nations Security Council, in which he, per the Washington Post, “single-handedly convinced many skeptical Americans that the threat posed by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was real.”
Powell and Saddam went way back. Though he dined out on a policy of hesitant intervention, dubbed the Powell Doctrine, he led the first Bush administration’s involvement in the Gulf War as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “First we are going to cut it off,” the self-described “reluctant warrior” said at a news conference in 1991 about Hussein’s army, “Then we are going to kill it."
Twelve years later, Powell attempted a similar performance in front of the U.N., this time for Bush 2.0. Tasked by Dick Cheney to “go up there and sell it,” Powell presented the government’s case for military intervention in Iraq in a speech riddled with factual inaccuracies that he himself later called “wrong” and “deliberately misleading.” Among them: that Iraq was stockpiling chemical weapons, that its government had been using human subjects for biological experiments since the 1980s, that Saddam Hussein had attempted to buy yellowcake uranium powder from Niger with the intent to build nuclear weapons, and that “there can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more.”
These errors were pointed out days before Powell delivered the speech in a review of the draft by analysts at the State Department — a place so sympathetic to Powell the staff had “literally cheered” upon hearing news of his appointment. Nevertheless, he persisted.
Numbers of Iraq War casualties are hotly contested, but even the most conservative estimates put the death toll at around 151,000 excess deaths by June of 2006; other studies have ballparked closer to 400,000 by 2011 or 1 million by 2007.
“Powell is a man of independent stature,” said then-U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden in an early aughts profile of Powell, while he was serving chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “He has built a reputation based on the force of his personality. He has what the military folks call a 'command presence.’” Last year, Powell delivered a speech in support of Biden at the 2020 Democratic National Convention.
According to his family, Powell was fully vaccinated. He is survived by his wife, two daughters, and grand-nephew, Bronx Mowgli Wentz.