Colin Powell, the reluctant warrior who grappled with conservative hawks

​Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation. He recently penned an opinion article that first appeared in the Business Day: 25 October 2021

Jamaican-American four-star general, Colin Powell, who died last Monday of complications relating to COVID/19 at the age of 84, was one of America’s most well-known public figures. Powell was born on 5 April 1937 to working-class Jamaican immigrants who moved to New York in search of opportunities. He studied geology at City College, and found his passion in the college’s Reserves Officer Training Corps through which he joined a recently desegregated US army. Powell married Alma Johnson in 1962, and they raised a son and two daughters together.

He served two stints in Vietnam in 1962 and 1968. This experience scarred him, and he developed a life-long aversion to what he regarded as trigger-happy, deceitful politicians playing around with the lives of soldiers without a clear political strategy or public support. But Powell was also accused, as head of an investigation, of a cover-up of the US military’s My Lai massacre in 1968. After receiving a master’s degree in business administration from Georgetown University in Washington D.C. in 1971, the Jamaican-American rose rapidly, becoming a one-star general at the age of 42.

Powell was involved in planning the 1983 military invasion of Grenada, preparing him for the role of national security adviser in the reactionary Ronald Reagan’s Republican administration, in which he championed “constructive engagement” with South Africa’s destructive apartheid regime. He was deeply involved in American support for murderous regimes in “Dirty Wars” in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, only narrowly escaping sanction for his role in the “Iran-Contra” scandal.

As the Berlin Wall fell, he became the youngest holder of the military’s most powerful position: chairing the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He masterminded the invasion of Panama in 1989, and led the Gulf War that expelled Iraq from Kuwait two years later. Powell had been a reluctant warrior who advocated economic sanctions against Saddam Hussein, until forced by defence secretary, Dick Cheney, to draw up military plans.

Appointed George W. Bush’s secretary of state in 2001, the moderate Powell had to contend with powerful conservative “hawks” like vice-president Dick Cheney, and defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, who masterminded the disastrous Iraq war of 2003-2011. Powell’s presentation of flawed intelligence on non-existent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to the UN Security Council in February 2003 was, by his own admission, a permanent “blot” on his record. African-American civil rights activist, Harry Belafonte’s stinging condemnation of the general as a “house slave,” in retrospect, appears to have understood the dynamics of a white-dominated Washington policy establishment. Powell eventually resigned as secretary of state in 2004.

He had earlier left the military to spend time on the lucrative lecture circuit and running the Alliance for Youth charity. He was the most popular political figure in the US with a 64% favourability rating, and had flirted with a presidential run in 1996, but bowed to his wife’s fear of assassination. The notoriously cautious Powell, who often downplayed depictions of him as a symbol of black achievement, eventually spoke out for African-American rights and child welfare issues. He became so disenchanted with the Republican party that he voted for Democrats in the last four presidential elections. His contempt for Donald Trump’s racist rabble-rousing was so strong, that he left the Republican party after Trump’s storm troopers attacked the Capitol building in January 2021.

Powell was a dyed-in-the-wool soldier who preferred to lead by example than become embroiled in controversial policy battles. He was a cautious bureaucrat who operated best behind the scenes, protected by powerful politicians. Pragmatism thus often trumped principles. As former defence secretary, Caspar Weinberger, noted: “Colin is quintessentially a good soldier who does his duty and carries out orders.” When exposed to the full glare of political responsibility as secretary of state, Powell faltered, and tragically besmirched a career built up over 40 years of public service.

The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

Related: Africa’s standing amid the jostling and jousting in the UN Security Council


Professor Adekeye Adebajo

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