Powell was the first Black secretary of state, but his legacy was tarnished in 2003 when he justified the war on Iraq.
Colin Powell, the former United States secretary of state and the first Black person in the country’s history to fill the position, has died due to complications from COVID-19, his family has said.
Powell, a four-star general who last held public office in 2005, died on Monday, the family said in a statement on Facebook. He was 84.
“He was fully vaccinated. 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 said.
Known as a moderate and pragmatist, Powell was instrumental in shaping the foreign policy of Republican presidential administrations for decades. He was in top posts during the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 1989 US invasion of Panama, the 1991 Gulf War, the September 11 attacks, and the resulting US invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.
He served as national security adviser to former President Ronald Reagan from 1987 to 1989 and was the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under former Republican President George HW Bush and former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, from 1989 to 1993.
When he was confirmed as former President George W Bush’s secretary of state in 2001, he became the first Black person in US history to fill that role.
At the time, he also became the highest-ranking Black official in US history, later equalled by former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and surpassed by former President Barack Obama.
Iraq war controversy
While initially opposing the military operation, Powell has been accused of misleading the public in the lead up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 as the Bush administration sought to build international support.
In a controversial presentation on February 5, 2003, to the United Nations Security Council, Powell made the administration’s case that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein constituted an imminent danger to the world because of Iraq’s stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.
Powell admitted later that the presentation was rife with inaccuracies and twisted intelligence provided by others in the Bush administration, telling Al Jazeera it represented “a blot” that will “always be a part of my record”.
In a statement on Monday, former President Bush called Powell a “great public servant”, adding that he was “such a favorite of Presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom, twice”.
Powell, a Republican, had previously considered a bid to become the first Black president in 1996, but his wife Alma’s worries about his safety were among the reasons he ultimately decided not to run.
In 2008, he broke with his party to endorse then-candidate Obama, a Democrat.
Powell served two tours in Vietnam in the 1960s, first as an adviser to the South Vietnamese army and later as an operations chief with a US infantry division.
On his first tour, Powell witnessed almost daily ambushes by the Viet Cong and wrote in his autobiography he had become disillusioned by the Army’s “flabby thinking” and “nonsense” claims the US was winning.
The Vietnam experience guided Powell’s articulation decades later of “the Powell doctrine”, which posed that, once a decision is made to go to war, a nation should not engage in “limited war”, but instead deploy maximum force.
Powell’s approach was later replaced under Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld with the “light footprint” approach that guided US deployments in Afghanistan and the second Iraq war.
Powell was the son of Jamaican immigrants and grew up in the South Bronx neighbourhood of New York City. He attended City College of New York and earned an officer’s commission through the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) in 1958.