Iraq will not define General Colin Powell, one of the truly great men of our timesTuesday, October 19, 2021
General Colin Powell would have caught our attention even if he had not ascended to the dizzying heights of United States secretary of state, national security adviser, or chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — the first black to do so in all three cases.
As the son of Jamaican immigrants from humble origins he wore his Caribbean heritage on his sleeves and endeared himself to the Diaspora communities in the United States, often assisting from behind the scenes.
When he visited Jamaica in 1997, as part of the Carter Center delegation observing the 1997 General Election, at the invitation of then Prime Minister P J Patterson, it was a coming home of sorts.
General Powell was a special man who was well served by the innate Jamaican audacity handed to him by his parents as he grew up in Bronx, New York, with the values of hard-working rural West Indians leaving their mark on him.
In his book My American Dream, General Powell wrote: “I look at my aunts and uncles, their children, and their children's children, and I see three generations of constructive, productive, self-reliant members of society.”
Coming from countries where blacks are the majority has given Caribbean immigrants greater self-confidence about getting ahead through hard work, said Trinidadian Selwyn Ryan, a political science professor. He was speaking of people like Colin Powell.
There will always be a question mark over his decision not to contest the US presidential elections at a time when his party of choice, Republican, was clamouring for him and saw him as their best chance of winning the White House at the end of the Clinton presidency.
But it was that same ability to act decisively that caused him to support Senator Barack Obama to become the first black president of the United States and later Senator Joe Biden when he felt the US was going off the rails. History will judge him on that score.
As the Jamaica Observer pointed out in this space several years ago, “General Powell's background and Jamaican roots may cause him to view the world through different prisms than the mainstream of the Republican Party.”
Critics often point to possibly his toughest assignment — persuading the world that the US should go to war with Iraq after the 9/11 terrorist attack on his beloved country. His impassioned plea at the United Nations, in which he charged that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear arms, is frequently cited.
Yet, what is routinely left out is the critical back story not understood by those unexposed to the complexity of collective decision-making and the workings of someone who had become the top soldier of his country's military.
As he said in a 2007 interview: “Let others judge me. All I want to do is judge myself as a successful soldier who served his best.”
General Powell, as all good soldiers, had carried out the orders of his commander-in-chief, President George W Bush, even though opposing wars himself.
That Iraq war, devastating as it was, will not define General Powell. History will remember him as nothing less than one of the truly great men of our times.
Rest in peace, General.