Biden leads outpouring of tributes for former US secretary of state Colin Powell

(FILES) In this file photo taken on January 7, 2005, former US Secretary of State Colin Powell addresses a press conference at Katunayake Military Airport in Colombo. – Colin Powell, a US war hero and the first Black secretary of state, has died from complications from Covid-19, his family said on October 18, 2021. He was 84. (Photo by Indranil MUKHERJEE / AFP)

by Frankie TAGGART

Agence France Presse

WASHINGTON, United States (AFP) — Colin Powell, a US war hero and the first Black secretary of state who saw his trailblazing legacy tarnished when he made the case for war in Iraq in 2003, died Monday from complications from Covid-19.

The 84-year-old retired four-star general was fully vaccinated, his family said in a statement, making him one of the most high-profile US public figures to die of a breakthrough infection.

President Joe Biden led an outpouring of tributes from home and abroad, describing the officer-turned-statesman, who had battled cancer and was reportedly immunocompromised, as a breaker of racial barriers who believed in “the promise of America.”

WASHINGTON, DC – OCTOBER 18: President Joe Biden speaks to the media on the passing of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, as he leaves the State and National Teachers of the Year awards ceremony at the White House on October 18, 2021 in Washington, DC. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images/AFP (Photo by Kevin Dietsch / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

“Colin embodied the highest ideals of both warrior and diplomat,” said Biden, who ordered flags flown at half-staff at federal government properties.

“He was committed to our nation’s strength and security above all.”

After engineering military victory in the 1991 Gulf War, Powell was so widely popular and respected that he was considered a strong candidate to become the first Black US president.

He ultimately decided against running for the White House, although he later broke with his Republican Party to endorse Barack Obama.

A son of Jamaican immigrants, Powell frequently shattered glass ceilings in a career that took him from combat in Vietnam to becoming America’s first Black national security advisor under Ronald Reagan.

He was also the youngest and first African American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush.

Serving four presidents, Powell made his reputation as a man of honor distant from the political fray — an asset in the corridors of power.

There were glowing tributes from all living ex-presidents except Donald Trump — the pair had a public falling out — with Barack Obama calling Powell “an exemplary patriot.”

George W. Bush, who made Powell the highest-ranking Black US public official ever when he chose him as secretary of state in 2000, mourned a “family man and a friend.”

(FILES) In this file photo taken on November 6, 2003, former US President George W .Bush (C) makes a few remarks as former Secretary of State Colin Powell (L) and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (R) look on before signing H.R. 3289, the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act for Defense and for the Reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC. – Colin Powell, a US war hero and the first Black secretary of state, has died from complications from Covid-19, his family said on October 18, 2021. He was 84. (Photo by Tim SLOAN / AFP)

– ‘Man of ideas’ –

Powell had a reputation for bipartisanship, straight talk and integrity, and was praised for his officer’s instincts of duty and honor.

Israeli former leader Benjamin Netanyahu led the international tributes alongside British current and ex-prime ministers Boris Johnson and Tony Blair, noting Powell’s leadership example and dedication to public service.

US cabinet secretaries paying their respect included Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who said Powell was among the “greatest leaders that we have ever witnessed,” and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who recalled how his predecessor had modernized the agency.

“He was a man of ideas but he wasn’t ideological. He was constantly listening, learning, adapting. He could admit mistakes,” Blinken said.

There were very few glaring missteps in public life, but Powell found it hard to live down his infamous February 2003 speech to the United Nations Security Council about the alleged existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — evidence which was later proven to be false.

“It’s a blot… and will always be a part of my record. It was painful. It’s painful now,” Powell said in a 2005 interview with ABC News.

The statesman’s reputation never fully recovered, and ordinary Iraqis interviewed by AFP reacted indifferently or bitterly to the news of his death.

“His failed policy led to the destruction of Iraq and all the destruction that befell Iraq, and we went back to the past because of it, unfortunately,” Amin Ahmed, 53, told AFP in Baghdad.

– Liberal social views –

Born April 5, 1937 in Harlem, Colin Luther Powell’s “American Journey” — the title of his autobiography — started in New York, where he grew up and earned a degree in geology.

He received a commission as a second lieutenant in the US Army, and was posted in what was then West Germany.

Powell completed two tours of duty in Vietnam — in 1962-63 as one of John F. Kennedy’s thousands of military advisors, and again in 1968-69 to investigate the My Lai massacre.

He earned a Purple Heart, but also faced questions about the tone of his report into the hundreds of deaths at My Lai, which to some seemed to dismiss any claims of wrongdoing.

Back in Washington, he quickly rose through the ranks to the pinnacle of the national security establishment, serving Reagan as national security advisor, and both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton as Joint Chiefs chairman from 1989 to 1993.

Powell freely admitted his liberal social views made him a strange bedfellow for many Republicans, though the party was often happy to hold him up as an example of its inclusivity.

But from 2008, he endorsed Democrats for the presidency, twice backing Obama, and then Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on December 1, 2010, former US President Barack Obama speaks with former US Secretary of State General Colin Powell (L) during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, where they discussed a wide range of issues including education and the passage of the New START Treaty. – Colin Powell, a US war hero and the first Black secretary of state, has died from complications from Covid-19, his family said on October 18, 2021. He was 84. (Photo by Saul LOEB / AFP)

Powell earned a number of civilian honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom twice — from Bush Senior and Clinton.

He was immunocompromised, according to multiple US media outlets citing a long-time aide. He underwent surgery for prostate cancer in 2005 and had reportedly been treated for a form of blood cancer that suppresses the body’s ability to fight infection.

He married his wife Alma in 1962. They had three children: Michael, Linda and Annemarie.

“We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American,” the family said in a statement.

© Agence France-Presse