Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book, “Abraham Joshua Heschel: A life of Radical Amazement.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
General Colin Powell, former US Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who died Monday at age 84 of complications from Covid-19, was one of the most fascinating figures in America’s contemporary political history.
Representing a kind of voice which has faded from his party, Powell described himself as “a Republican of a more moderate mold,” one of the voices who urged the Party of Lincoln not to become the Party of Trump.
Yet, like many prominent leaders, Powell also learned you can’t escape the weight of history when you are tied to the problematic legacy of a president you served.
Regardless of the contributions and record of an individual, being at the center of disastrous decisions for the nation forever shapes the way that person will be remembered. And this is true of Powell.
Raised by Jamaican immigrant parents in the South Bronx, he graduated from City College of New York. Powell was a star in the post-Vietnam military, blazing a trail for Black leaders (military and otherwise) in Washington.
After serving in that problematic war during the 1960s, he went on to become the first Black national security adviser under President Ronald Reagan and the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush, serving in the role when the US launched and won the first Gulf War.
Powell was also an important player in the negotiations which culminated with a major arms agreement with the Soviet Union in 1987, the beginning of the end of the Cold War. He also promoted the “Powell Doctrine” which stipulated the US should only use military force when necessary. When the US government took that step, it should only do it with a clear objective and popular support – and only when it was possible to use overwhelming force and decisive troop strength.
In the 1990s, there was continuous speculation he might run for president as a Republican. He remained one of the popular potential candidates who many felt could strengthen and broaden Reagan’s coalition, including moving away from the sort of racial backlash politics and climate change denialism that had become so prevalent in the GOP. “It is striking that a guy with views this moderate seems to be so popular with Republicans,” one prominent pollster said.
He almost ran in 1996 but decided against it, saying he did not feel the “passion and commitment” to undertake the challenge. Under President George W. Bush, Powell became the first Black person to be named Secretary of State.
But then came his most difficult moment, one certain to be a centerpiece of discussion as the nation mourns his passing. Powell had opposed going to war against Iraq. He was a lone voice in the administration pushing back against the hawks who wanted to broaden the war against terrorism to include rogue states like Iraq and North Korea. “You break it, you own it,” he famously warned the president. But in the end, Powell decided it was his duty to be loyal to the administration for which he worked. As Secretary of State for George W. Bush, Powell appeared on February 5, 2003, before the United Nations to speak in favor of going to war against Iraq.
At a moment when the administration was eager to obtain international support for a war most thought had little to do with the horrific attacks of 9/11, Powell’s 75-minute presentation was extremely important. Because of his clout as a military leader and trusted public official, his saying on the public stage Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and had ties to al-Qaeda terrorists greatly boosted the president’s case.
What the public did not know was the intelligence used was faulty and the case for war extremely slim. But it worked to lay the groundwork for the US invasion of Iraq. Soon after, the nation entered a war that would last until 2011.
Powell called the testimony a “blot” on his record. But it was much more than that. As the war turned into a military disaster for the United States and it became clear Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction, Powell’s own political standing took a devastating hit. His ability to speak within the party with the same level of gravitas suffered, and his name quickly faded from discussions about presidential runs.
It also hurt the Republican Party. As the pace of radicalization was accelerating within the GOP, as most leaders came to embrace a rightward policy agenda and destructive approach to partisan politics, one of the most influential voices pushing against these currents had fallen from grace.
Powell nonetheless remained a voice of reason in the political sphere. He still urged his party to deal with climate change, to endorse gun controls and abortion rights, to support immigrants and policies that helped achieve racial equality. He respected the traditional processes of governance, including relying on talented expertise, and believed the US had to work with its allies.
As his party veered further to the right, Powell started to come out in favor of Democrats. In 2008, he endorsed Barack Obama for president over John McCain. More recently, in 2020, he said he was voting for Joe Biden because Trump had “drifted away” from the Constitution.
In January 2021, following the January 6 insurrection, Powell told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, “I can no longer call myself a fellow Republican. I’m not a fellow of anything right now.”
Powell’s fate is not unlike others in the GOP who wanted to project a more centrist vision for the party, one which championed more limited government and a reliance on the market, without gutting the social safety net and embracing the world of White reactionary politics.
He was a conservative who still believed Washington mattered and the processes of government—the basic rules of the game—were important so reasoned decisions could be made.
The tragedy of Powell is he was one of the few figures in American politics with the kind of gravitas and political standing that might have really made a difference to the trajectory of history. As a Black American with an extraordinarily distinguished record in the military as well as in the executive branch, he really did have the potential to win at the highest levels of power.
But at a key moment, he went all in with an administration using disinformation to sell an unnecessary war, one that would have huge human and budgetary costs as well as weaken our nation’s standing overseas. Powell’s testimony was a massive misstep which had huge ramifications for the Republican Party—as well as our democracy.
In the past 20 years, though, he did much to speak out on behalf of America’s democratic values – and did his nation and his former party a service.