Colin Powell dead at 84: former US military chief and secretary of state dies of Covid-19

Retired four-star general who served under both Bush presidents was fully vaccinated, family says

Retired general Colin Powell, the former US secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who served under both Bush presidents, has died of complications from Covid-19, his family said on Monday. He was 84.

“He was fully vaccinated. We want to thank the medical staff at Walter Reed National Medical Centre for their caring treatment,” a family message on his Facebook page said.

“We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American.”

US media reported that Powell had multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells that reduces the body's ability to fight infection.

"Time and again, he put country before self, before party, before all else—in uniform and out—and it earned him the universal respect of the American people," President Joe Biden said as tributes from world leaders poured in.

As a four-star army general, Powell — who leaves behind a widow, Alma Powell — was chairman of the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George HW Bush during the 1991 Gulf War in which US-led forces expelled Iraqi troops from neighbouring Kuwait.

Powell, a moderate Republican and a pragmatist, later served as secretary of state under President George W Bush.

In a statement, Mr Bush said he and former first lady Laura Bush were “deeply saddened” by Powell’s death. Mr Bush said he was “a great public servant” and was “widely respected at home and abroad”.

A decorated soldier who started as a second lieutenant, a rank earned as a Reserve Officer Training Corps student at City College of New York, Powell served in Vietnam, West Germany and South Korea before being put in charge of the Gulf War.

In the allied effort to help Saudi Arabia defend Kuwait against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, he developed the so-called Powell Doctrine.

It called for using overwhelming force, such as “shock-and-awe” battle tactics, to assure victory and minimise casualties once diplomatic solutions prove unworkable. He styled himself the “reluctant warrior”.

“Many of my generation, the career captains, majors, and lieutenant colonels seasoned in [Vietnam], vowed that when our turn came to call the shots, we would not quietly acquiesce in half-hearted warfare for half-baked reasons that the American people could not understand,” he wrote in My American Journey, published in 1995.

Such idealism proved elusive, however, in the 2003 Iraq War to oust Hussein.

As secretary of state, Powell was given the task of justifying an allied invasion. In a speech to the United Nations that included pictures he said were of mobile arms laboratories, he asserted there was “no doubt” that Hussein had hidden chemical and biological weapons.

But the following year, Powell told Congress that the evidence he had been given was “wrong,” and the speech “a blot” on his record.

“It was painful,” he told interviewer Barbara Walters in 2006. “It is painful now.”

British former prime minister Tony Blair, whose unflinching support of George W Bush provided the Iraq invasion with vital international backing, remembered Powell as a "towering figure in American military and political leadership".

"He was wonderful to work with, he inspired loyalty and respect and was one of those leaders who always treated those under them with kindness and concern," Mr Blair said.

Powell had two other blots on an otherwise lauded record. In the first, he was assigned to investigate the 1968 US massacre at My Lai in Vietnam and found no wrongdoing.

And as former president Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser, he was part of an administration that illegally traded arms for hostages in what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal. He was not personally implicated in either case.

After his retirement, Powell leaned in a more liberal direction, quietly campaigning against the nomination of John Bolton to be ambassador to the UN.

Born in New York in 1937 to Jamaican immigrant parents, Powell was for decades one of America's most prominent black figures.

He supported affirmative action and criticised the Bush administration on its treatment of detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and its handling of impoverished victims of Hurricane Katrina. In 2008 and 2012, he endorsed Barack Obama, a Democrat, for president.

In 2008, he spoke out against Islamophobia after Republican critics of Mr Obama falsely said he was Muslim.

“Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is no. That's not America," Powell said.

Illustrating his deep misgivings about the evolution of the Republican Party as it lurched rightward in recent years, Powell endorsed Democrats Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election and Joe Biden last year against Donald Trump.

Powell called Mr Trump a liar who presented a danger to the United States.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken paid tribute to Powell in a televised address, calling him "simply and completely a leader".

"He treated people the way he expected them to treat each other and he made sure they knew he would always have their back. His people would walk through walls for him," Mr Blinken said.

Secretary of defence Lloyd Austin said there will "never be another Colin Powell".

"Generations of young leaders will continue to look to his example and his character as the foundation for their own success," he said in a statement.

Updated: October 19th 2021, 5:15 PM
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