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WASHINGTON – Colin Powell's life was marked by firsts: the first and only Black officer to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the first Black man to become Secretary of State, a man respected by those in and out of uniform. It was his prestige that lent credibility to the faulty case for the war to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, a cause that he was reluctant to push and for which he later expressed regret.
The September 11 terror attacks defined Powell's tenure at the State Department. But the February 2003 speech to the United Nations may have defined his legacy, some say, reflecting on his death at age 84.
The Bush administration had shifted its attention from Afghanistan to Iraq and warned that Saddam Hussein was manufacturing weapons of mass destruction. Powell pressed for U.N. inspectors to investigate. It was Powell's speech, citing intelligence community assessments that Iraq had WMDs and could produce more, that helped swing public opinion. He warned about the cost of inaction.
"Force should always be a last resort," Powell told the U.N. "I have preached this for most of my professional life, as a soldier and as a diplomat, but it must be a resort. We cannot allow this process to be endlessly strung out as Iraq is trying to do right now – string it out long enough and the world will start looking in other directions, the Security Council will move on, we'll get away with it again."
A month later, the U.S. launched airstrikes against Iraq, starting a war that would rage for nearly a decade and continues to require U.S. troop presence in the country and neighboring Syria.
In 2004, some of the intelligence that Powell had brought before the United Nations in 2003 was found to be erroneous, according to his official State Department biography.
In 2010, Powell acknowledged in an interview with CNN that his U.N. testimony was critical to making the case for war. He stressed, however, that the points he made in his speech had been vetted by the intelligence community.
"I regret it now because the information was wrong, of course, I do," Powell said.
He went further in a Harvard Gazette interview five years later.
“I will always regret it," Powell said. "It was a terrible mistake on all our parts and on the intelligence community … I wish it had been different, I wish I had more time. Maybe if I had another week or two my instincts would have seen through this or been able to do double-checking, but I didn’t have more time. But I’m not looking for an excuse. I gave that presentation. I gave it believing that everything I had said had been double-sourced, triple-sourced, and was accurate, but it was not.”
The speech will be part of his legacy, but shouldn't define him, said Chuck Hagel, the former Defense secretary and personal friend of Powell's.
"The way we've got to look at Colin Powell is the cumulative over his entire life and career," Hagel said. "That speech is part of it. And I think he didn't want anybody to whitewash that. No, it was a decision he made, and it was a wrong decision. But you've got to look at the cumulative, what did you do with all your years? I think he comes out pretty damn good."
The war in Iraq, its spillover into Syria, will have cost the United States more than $2 trillion through fiscal year 2022, according to Brown University's Watson Institute. The war left more than 4,400 Americans dead and nearly 32,000 wounded, according to the Pentagon.
Powell had famously warned Bush White House officials on Iraq: "You break it, you own it."
During the Clinton administration, Powell's opposition to opening the military to gays and lesbians and its strategy in the Balkans were among his more controversial stands, said Peter Feaver, a political science professor and expert on the military at Duke University. Yet nothing caused greater furor than his briefing to the U.N. Security Council found to "rely on dodgy intelligence."
"He was the quintessential 'man in the arena' and, as such, his steps and occasional missteps were more vigorously scrutinized and criticized than many other policymakers before or since," said Feaver, who also advised the White House on national security. "However, there are few leaders who have left a bigger legacy in national security across both Republican and Democratic administrations. His passing is a great loss to the country and a reminder of what an exceptionally capable person can accomplish in a lifetime of public service.”
As a soldier, Powell returned to burning helicopter to save others. As a leader, he made history for generations of troops, Black and white
Born and raised in New York, Powell graduated from City College of New York where he joined ROTC, attracted by the "panache" of the Pershing Rifle Team, according to his Pentagon biography. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army and served tours in Vietnam. He received the Soldier’s Medal for repeatedly returning to a burning helicopter to rescue others despite being injured himself.
He steadily rose through the Army's ranks and served for a time as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan. By 1989, Powell received his fourth star, and President George H.W. Bush nominated him as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the military's top officer. Powell became the first African American, the first ROTC graduate and the youngest officer to serve in the position.
Powell was "the most consequential chairman of the modern era," Feaver said.
"No chairman before or since had quite the level of political clout Powell enjoyed at his apex," Feaver said. "He was the most popular military officer of his era and might have been the first general since Eisenhower to win the presidency, had he pursued that office in 1996 as the Clinton Administration feared he would."
Powell helped steer the Pentagon through its Cold War transition, maintaining U.S. commitments abroad and helping lead the victory over Iraq during Desert Storm, he said.
"As the first and so-far only African-American to reach the top-most military rank, and later the first African-American Secretary of State, he was an inspiration to countless in the rank and file," Feaver said. "He played a critical role in helping rebuild public confidence in the military after the trauma of the Vietnam War and the end of the draft."
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the first Black Pentagon chief, said upon his death, "It will be impossible to replace Gen. Colin Powell. He was a tremendous personal friend and mentor to me."
Hagel, himself a wounded veteran of Vietnam, called Powell's legacy unsurpassed.
"First Black national security adviser. The first Black Secretary of State. He came from a very humble background, one of the most decent people I've ever known," Hagel said. "And he never, ever forgot where he came from. He always paid attention to the little guy."
During his four years as chairman, Powell helped steer the military in the first Gulf War, a broad international effort that evicted Iraq from Kuwait. He retired in 1993 from the military and founded America's Promise, an organization that helps at-risk children.
President George W. Bush brought Powell back to government, nominating Powell to be his Secretary of State. After being unanimously confirmed by the Senate, he was sworn in as the 65th Secretary of State on Jan. 20, 2001.
Powell’s civilian awards included two Presidential Medals of Freedom, the President’s Citizens Medal, the Congressional Gold Medal, the Secretary of State Distinguished Service Medal, and the Secretary of Energy Distinguished Service Medal.
"His stalwart counsel and keen advice was sought by Presidents, members of Congress, military leaders, and the American public," Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley said Monday. "He was a Soldier, a Statesman, and a lifelong public servant. He was a personal friend and mentor to me and he inspired others throughout his life as an example to all of us in uniform – one of the greatest leaders who has ever worn the cloth of our Nation."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Colin Powell's UN speech on WMDs in Iraq became big moment, regret