On October 18, Gen. Colin Powell’s Facebook page announced he passed away due to complications from COVID-19. The 35-year veteran of the U.S. Army, former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff leaves behind a legacy that breaks barriers and is tied to controversy.
Dr. Kurt B. Young, an associate professor of political science at Clark Atlanta University, described Powell as coming of age at a critical point in American foreign policy for the Republican Party.
Powell was born and raised in the Bronx in New York by Jamaican immigrant parents. He began his decorated career in the U.S. Army in 1958, served in Vietnam in the late 1960s, and eventually found himself working in the Pentagon.
Powell worked closely with national security officials and by the 1970s and 1980s he was adviser for Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations in areas of national security.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, the U.S. found itself in a series of conflicts with other countries. Young says Colin Powell was at the center of these conflicts.
“Colin Powell is a part of an American empire-building push that has a number of important components,” Young explained.
“One component is it’s connected to America’s economic interests across the planet, so it’s a military force and an economic force matched to it.
So the role that Colin Powell play in that kind of space will lead to in many ways a constructing of this empire status that I’m talking about. He’s had his fingerprint on so much that’s happened with us especially on domestic and foreign policy over the last few decades.”
In 1989, Powell became a 4-star general, and in 1991, he was nominated by President George H.W. Bush as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first Black officer to assume the position.
He led the Joint Chiefs during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and led the State Department when the “War on Terror” began during the George W. Bush Administration.
Feb. 5, 2003, was a day that would have lasting implications for Powell’s legacy. In a speech before the United Nations Security Council, then-Secretary of State Powell falsely claimed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and was a state sponsor of terrorism as he laid out a rationale for the invasion of Iraq.
The war on Saddam Hussein’s regime that the United States launched under false pretenses the following month left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead and has destabilized the region to this day.
In 2004, Powell would acknowledge that there were no weapons of mass destruction, and by 2011 he would call his U.N. speech a “blot” on his record.
“There were extreme levels of distrust built up towards the Bush administration and the front-facing Republican Party. For Colin Powell to be kind of at the core, this hurts his legacy for sure,” said Dr. Jonathan Collins, assistant professor of international and public affairs at Brown University.
After leaving the Bush administration in 2004, Powell stepped away from public office. He would break tradition in 2008 and 2012 by supporting Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama over his Republican opponents John McCain and Mitt Romney.
Powell also supported 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, whom he was very critical toward.
Young says part of Powell’s complex legacy will be his willingness as a Republican to outwardly detach from the Republican Party in its current form.
Colin Powell was a man of complex legacies, as he broke racial barriers but was also embroiled in controversial military and political decisions throughout his career.
While his lasting legacy will live on, the answer to whether he is perceived as a hero or another contentious political figure rests in the hearts and minds of people around the globe.