Colin Powell’s Legacy
Colin L. Powell, who died Monday at the age of 84 of COVID-19 complications, leaves behind a legacy that experts in politics and international affairs describe as celebrated, and at the same time, complicated.
Powell broke racial barriers, serving as the country’s first Black national security advisor, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state. A four-star general who began his career with 35 years in the Army, Powell joined the George W. Bush Administration in 2001. Two years later, he made the case before the United Nations Security Council for the invasion of Iraq, based on faulty information that Saddam Hussein was in possession of weapons of mass destruction.
In interviews with Texas A&M Today, faculty members from Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service and College of Liberal Arts reflected on Powell’s life, his role in the United States’ invasion of Iraq, and how he’ll ultimately be remembered.
Gen. (Ret.) Mark Welsh, dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service
Colin Powell was a great man. He was a great soldier. He was a great leader. I think he was a great role model for everybody in this country.
While it was noted at the time, nobody really remembers that he was the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was just a great chairman, and nobody ever questioned whether he was capable of doing the job. He has been remarkable at every step of his career in the Army, and everybody was excited to see his success. I think people who worked for him in the military, people who worked for him later in government in the State Department, they all saw why he was so well thought of. He was just a really impressive guy.
I worked on the Joint Staff while he was the chairman. I was the division chief there, and I met him on a couple of issues that we had to go fill the chairman in on. He was exactly what you would expect him to be. Very smart, very engaging, very well read, very well informed and very committed to getting the right answer. He was a real presence both personally and intellectually.
One of the things that he did when he retired – some gave him a hard time about it in the press at the time – was schedule photo sessions for anybody on the Joint Staff who wanted to have their photo taken with him. I remember there was an article insinuating that it was an ego thing because he wanted people to line up to have their pictures taken with him. But the reality was almost all of us had asked if he would do it because we all wanted our pictures taken with him. We all lined up in the hallways and he spent hours giving everybody the chance. I’ve still got mine. I treasure it. I think people kind of forget as the years have gone by just how significant of an impact he had on our military and on our nation. Just a remarkable American.
Several years after he was Secretary of State, I ran into him in D.C. and asked him, “So why didn’t you run for president? We were all hoping you would.” And he said, “It’s just not me.” He said, “You have to know where your skill set fits, and mine didn’t fit in the White House. That’s not the way I could contribute best.”
He was a very introspective, smart man, very honest both with himself and others. I think all of the things that happened around the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the fact that he was the spokesperson convincing the country there was a problem we had to go take care of, will, rightly or wrongly, color history’s view of him. But he was a great, great success long before any of that happened and remains one in my mind.
Gregory Gause, department head and professor, Department of International Affairs
It was President George H.W. Bush who appointed Gen. Powell to being chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and it was really in some ways during the Gulf War that he became the very prominent public figure that he was. The Gulf War highlighted his ability to organize a major military operation, and his political and communication skills in pulling it off and explaining it to the American public. So it was really under President Bush that Colin Powell became the public figure that he would be for the rest of his career. I think President Bush had a great eye for talent, and in many ways I think his foreign policy team was among the most talented we’ve seen since World War II and the Roosevelt and Truman Administrations. Colin Powell was a major part of that.
Just because of who he was, he’s a first. First Black national security advisor, first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, first Black secretary of state. And in that sense he’s a trailblazer. I think his overall career is a testament to the way that our military has worked to get beyond the consequences of institutional racism, to promote based on merit. Colin Powell was a trailblazer in that regard.
I think when he’s evaluated in terms of his overall career, he can’t escape the problems of the Iraq War. He was secretary of state when the U.S. invaded Iraq. He made the case, most publicly at the United Nations, for the United States going into Iraq militarily. He made it based on suspected weapons of mass destruction there. When it became clear that there were no such weapons, it certainly was a low point in what had been a very successful career up until then. We know from the subsequent accounts of decision making about the Iraq War that in many cases he urged a more measured and diplomatic response toward Iraq, and he lost out on these internal bureaucratic fights. Being a good soldier in more ways than one, both literally and figuratively, he fell in line and supported the decision and made the case for going to war that turned out not to be accurate. That was his last major public action in his government life. As successful as he was as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Gulf War, I think the Iraq War is seen as a big failure, and he is implicated in it without a doubt.
It’s interesting how many people on the other side of the aisle, Democrats, have spoken very highly of him. He obviously was someone who saw the military and the foreign policy world as an area where you had to reach across the aisle. He seemed to be a person who was extremely decent and open and didn’t bear grudges.
Kirby Goidel, professor, Department of Political Science
Colin Powell transcended partisan politics, remained uniquely independent and contributed significantly to Democratic and Republican presidential administrations. In an age of polarized politics, this loss feels even larger. How many statesmen are there left in contemporary politics? If Colin Powell can be criticized for some of his policy decisions, no one ever questioned his integrity or his consistent desire to put the safety and security of his country ahead of partisan politics.
At one point, it looked as though he might run for president. Like another famous general, Dwight Eisenhower, it was possible that he could have run as a Democrat or a Republican and had a realistic chance of winning either way.
John Schuessler, associate professor, Department of International Affairs, Albritton Center for Grand Strategy co-director
One of Colin Powell’s great regrets was his role in the process leading up to the Iraq War, and I think that captures part of his legacy. I think he considered himself a public servant first, and so in that period I think he felt honor-bound or duty-bound to support the policy of his administration. In this case that meant making some rather weak arguments in front of the UN Security Council about the threat that Iraq posed. He knew they were weak, he did his best to sharpen the case when he worked through the intelligence, but I think there’s a reason he regrets that part of his career and why people continue to fixate on it. I think he felt like he was doing the right thing, but the result was ultimately bad.
For some of us, the Iraq War is the cardinal failure of the post-Cold War period, an unnecessary war of choice that had very damaging consequences, especially in Iraq and for the people in the region and more broadly for American foreign policy. So in that respect, he bears some culpability, although he was not the leading decision maker. By the same token, this is someone who did serve honorably in multiple roles across a long career. So should that be the only thing he’s remembered for? Of course not.
He could be a bit aggressive at pushing back against the administrations he was serving. This is someone who unavoidably had to navigate, how do you be a military officer and wade properly into very political issues? Which is something our chairs of the Joint Chiefs have struggled with for some time. He provided a model in some ways for staking out a military position in these debates while ultimately respecting higher authority.
The thing I really appreciated about him was his willingness to go against his party to support Barack Obama. I think this was a highly noble person, but he was associated with some highly problematic policies.
Dwight Roblyer, senior lecturer, Department of Political Science
There are some people who never attended A&M, but who we know must be Aggies at heart because they share our core values. Colin Powell was definitely one of those individuals.
I was serving as an Air Force officer during his tenures as chairman of the Joint Chiefs and then as secretary of state, and I watched with great interest and admiration as he navigated the challenges we as a military and a nation faced during those times. When I think of an ideal example of a senior military officer or a statesman, Gen. Powell always comes to mind. We owe him a debt of gratitude that we must now pay forward by living out the standards of political decency and selfless service that he held.
Jasen Castillo, associate professor and co-director, Albritton Center for Grand Strategy
I think overall, his legacy is going to be extremely positive. When I heard he had died, the first thing I remembered was he was not just the first African American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but he was the first African American national security advisor to President Ronald Reagan.
He came in in the wake of the Iran Contra affair and represented a return to normalcy on the National Security Council. Then of course we all know Colin Powell and his role in the Gulf War and the Powell Doctrine, which is interesting because the Powell Doctrine states you should use overwhelming force to fight and win wars. His view was that we should try to be effective as opposed to efficient in war. I think that reflected his experience in the Vietnam War. In the ’80s before the Gulf War there wasn’t much confidence in the U.S. military, and Powell was part of that team along with George H.W. Bush that helped Americans shake off the “Vietnam syndrome.” The way they fought that war was much better than the way we fought the subsequent war, Operation Iraqi Freedom.
There is the one big blight on his record, and even he admitted that in his interview with Barbara Walters in 2005, that he was devastated that he had gone in front of the UN and relayed information that was shoddy at best. To his credit he admitted that, and in an era when no one admit mistakes, that goes a long way.
His endorsement of President Barack Obama was really important because it created a permission structure for people to gravitate toward the first African American president. Powell represented this force for moderation, middle of the road, so a lot of people took their cues from him. In later years his criticism of the Republican Party becoming highly radicalized, very populous, helped many of us understand what was going on.
Fritz Bartel, assistant professor, Department of International Affairs
He lived a life that reflects the ideals of the Bush School. He was committed to nonpartisan and bipartisan public service, so as a role model for our students at the Bush School his life epitomized many of the ideals that we try to instill in our students.
He also had a complicated legacy in terms of American foreign policy and America’s role in the world. His appearance before the United Nations in 2003 in the buildup to the Iraq War still remains one of the most controversial appearances by a U.S. official, and he was conflicted about it for the rest of his life.
He’s famous for the Powell Doctrine, which is the idea that the U.S. military shouldn’t begin a military engagement unless it meets a certain set of criteria: massive public support, clear and definite objectives to be achieved, a clear exit strategy, and then you should go in with overwhelming military force. This was at the end of the 20th century, at the height of the United States’ power in the world. It was viewed as a way to keep the us out of military conflicts that we wouldn’t otherwise want to be in. He was reacting to his own service in the Vietnam War. The ironic, tragic thing is he dies 20 years into what many people now refer to as the “forever war” of the United States. We’ve lost the sense that the Powell Doctrine tried to instill, of having short military conflicts that achieve their goals very quickly and we then extract ourselves from that conflict relatively quickly.
His own service in the Bush Administration failed to live up to that standard because he was part of the administration that launched these wars in the first place. It’s a complicated legacy.
Media contact: Caitlin Clark, firstname.lastname@example.org