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Colin Powell, Who Shaped U.S. National Security, Dies at 84

A former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, secretary of state and national security adviser, Mr. Powell died on Monday of complications of Covid-19, his family said.

Colin L. Powell, who in four decades of public life served as the nation’s top soldier, diplomat and national security adviser, and whose speech at the United Nations in 2003 helped pave the way for the United States to go to war in Iraq, died on Monday. He was 84.

He died of complications of Covid-19, his family said in a statement, adding that he had been vaccinated and was treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md., where he died. Mr. Powell had undergone treatment for multiple myeloma, which compromised his immune system, a spokeswoman said.

Mr. Powell was a pathbreaker, serving as the country’s first Black national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state. Beginning with his 35 years in the Army, Mr. Powell was emblematic of the ability of minorities to use the military as a ladder of opportunity.

His was a classic American success story. Born in Harlem of Jamaican parents, Mr. Powell grew up in the South Bronx and graduated from City College of New York, joining the Army through ROTC. Starting as a young second lieutenant commissioned in the dawn of a newly desegregated Army, Mr. Powell served two decorated combat tours in Vietnam. He later was national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan at the end of the Cold War, helping negotiate arms treaties and an era of cooperation with the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev.

As chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he was the architect of the invasion of Panama in 1989 and of the Persian Gulf war in 1991, which ousted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait but left him in power in Iraq. Along with then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, Mr. Powell reshaped the American Cold War military that stood ready at the Iron Curtain for half a century. In doing so, he stamped the Powell Doctrine on military operations — identifyh clear political objectives and public support, use decisive and overwhelming force to defeat enemy forces.

When briefing reporters at the Pentagon at the beginning of the gulf war, Mr. Powell succinctly summed up the military’s strategy to defeat Saddam Hussein’s army: “Our strategy in going after this army is very simple,” he said. “First, we’re going to cut it off, and then we’re going to kill it.”

It was a concept that seemed less well-suited to the messy conflicts in the Balkans that came later in the 1990s and in combating terrorism in a world transformed after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

By the time he retired from the military in 1993, Mr. Powell was the most popular public figure in America because of his straightforwardness, his leadership qualities and his ability to speak in blunt tones that Americans appreciated.

In an interview with The New York Times in 2007, Mr. Powell analyzed himself: “Powell is a problem-solver. He was taught as a soldier to solve problems. So he has views, but he’s not an ideologue. He has passion, but he’s not a fanatic. He’s first and foremost a problem-solver.”

Once retired, Mr. Powell, a lifelong independent while in uniform, was courted as a presidential contender by both Republicans and Democrats, and became America’s most political general since Dwight D. Eisenhower. He wrote a best-selling memoir, “My American Journey,” and flirted with a run for the presidency before deciding in 1995 that campaigning for office wasn’t for him.

He returned to public service in 2001 as secretary of state to President George W. Bush, whose father Mr. Powell had served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs a decade earlier. In taking the job, Mr. Powell followed the footsteps of one of his heroes, Gen. George Marshall, who served as secretary of state to Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. But in the Bush administration, Mr. Powell was the odd man out, fighting internally with Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for the ear of President Bush and for foreign policy dominance.

He left at the end of Mr. Bush’s first term under the cloud of an ever-worsening war in Iraq, and growing questions about whether he could have and should have done more to object to it.

He kept a low profile for the next few years, but with just over two weeks left in the 2008 presidential campaign, Mr. Powell, by now a declared Republican, gave a forceful endorsement to Senator Barack Obama, calling him a “transformational figure.” Mr. Powell’s backing was criticized by conservative Republicans. But it eased the doubts among some independents, moderates and even some moderates in his own party, and largely neutralized concerns about Mr. Obama’s lack of experience to be commander in chief.

When it came time to elect Mr. Obama’s successor, Mr. Powell continued his support of Democrats, saying he would vote for Hillary Clinton over Donald J. Trump. Before the election, he expressed disgust for Mr. Trump in a batch of leaked emails that a Powell spokesman confirmed as authentic.

“Trump is a national disgrace and an international pariah,” Mr. Powell wrote in one email. Mr. Trump’s attacks on the issue of Mr. Obama’s birth also troubled him, the emails made clear. “Yup, the whole birther movement was racist,” he said.

The Powell Doctrine

The promise of peace after the Cold War was stopped short when Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait in August 1990. Mr. Powell urged caution and advocated imposing sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s regime rather than using military might. After President George H.W. Bush ordered the attack to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait, Mr. Powell oversaw the military’s buildup of more than 500,000 troops in the Saudi desert.

The Powell doctrine was born out of the American military’s longstanding frustrations in the war, where the United States gradually escalated the use of force and declared periodic pauses in its bombing campaign. If American force is to be used, proponents of the doctrine said, it should be overpowering and decisive.

The purest examples of the Powell doctrine were the 1991 war with Iraq and the 1989 invasion of Panama, when the United States military stormed the country in a several-day blitz and captured its leader, Manuel Noriega.

Mr. Powell’s relationship with Mr. Cheney was professional but distant. “He and I had never, in nearly four years, spent a single purely social hour together,” Mr. Powell wrote. (Years later, that prickly relationship years resurfaced when Mr. Powell and Mr. Cheney clashed in the White House of President George W. Bush. After Mr. Cheney, in a 2011 memoir, wrote that Mr. Powell had felt more comfortable expressing his views about Iraq to the public than to President Bush, Mr. Powell criticized him for taking “cheap shots.”)

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