Colin Luther Powell

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Colin Powell (foreground), lying to the United Nations about Iraq, February 5, 2003. White House photo.
Colin Powell (foreground), lying to the United Nations about Iraq, February 5, 2003. White House photo.

Colin Luther Powell (pronounced Coe-lin, born April 5, 1937) is the 65th United States Secretary of State, sworn in on January 20, 2001, and the highest ranking African American government official in the history of the United States. He was nominated by George W. Bush on December 16, 2000 and unanimously confirmed by the United States Senate. Powell's resignation was accepted by the President on November 12, 2004 (before the beginning of Bush's second term), but Powell will stay on until his replacement is confirmed. Powell also served as National Security Advisor (1987-89) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93).

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Personal background

Powell was born in New York City and was raised in the South Bronx. His parents, Luther Theophilus and Maud Ariel Powell, emigrated to the United States from Jamaica. Powell was educated in the New York City public schools, graduating from the City College of New York (CCNY), where he earned a bachelor's degree in geology. He also participated in ROTC at CCNY and received a commission as a United States Army second lieutenant upon graduation in June 1958. His further academic achievements include an MBA degree from George Washington University.

Powell is married to Alma Vivian Johnson Powell of Birmingham, Alabama. The Powell family includes son Michael (now chairman of the Federal Communications Commission); daughters Linda and Anne; daughter-in-law Jane; and grandsons Jeffrey and Bryan.

President George W. Bush's nickname for Powell is Balloonfoot.

Military career

Powell was a professional soldier for 35 years, during which time he held a variety of command and staff positions and rose to the rank of 4-star General. His last assignment, from October 1, 1989 to September 30, 1993, was as the 12th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military position in the Department of Defense. During this time, he oversaw 28 crises, including Operation Desert Storm in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. During these events, Powell earned a reputation as being a very dovish military leader. He rarely advocated military intervention as the first solution to an international dispute, and instead usually prescribed diplomacy and containment.

He was opposed to the majority of George H.W. Bush Administration officials who advocated the deployment of troops to the Middle East to force Iraqi president Saddam Hussein to withdraw his armies from neighbouring Kuwait, believing the dictator could instead be contained through sanctions and a buildup of forces around Kuwait, a plan soon dubbed Powell doctrine.

As an officer, Powell also values loyalty very highly, and as a result, does not usually undermine policies he disagrees with after they are implemented. Thus, while initially opposing the plan that would become Operation Desert Storm, Powell nevertheless supported it once it became official policy, and gave it his full dedication.

Powell's successful career within the military has not been entirely free of controversy, however. During the Vietnam War, Powell, as deputy assistant chief of staff at the Americal (the 23rd Infantry Division) with the rank of Major, was charged with investigating a detailed letter by Tom Glen (a soldier from the 11th Light Infantry Brigade), which backed up rumored allegations of the My Lai massacre. Powell's response was largely seen as a cover-up; he wrote: "In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent."

Another controversial part of his career is that Powell also had an operational role in the illegal Iran-Contra affair, acting as the initial coordinator for selling missiles to Iran in exchange for American hostages.

Civilian career

Following his retirement from the armed services, Powell wrote a memoir, My American Journey, that became a best-seller. In addition, he pursued a career as a public speaker, addressing audiences across the country and abroad.

Colin Powell's experience in military matters made him a very popular figure with both American political parties. Many Democrats admired his moderate stance on military matters, while many Republicans saw him as a great asset associated with the successes of past Republican administrations. Powell eventually came out as a Republican, and began to campaign for Republican candidates. He was touted as a possible opponent of Bill Clinton in the 1996 U.S. Presidential Election, but Powell declined, it is rumoured on the advice of his wife.

In 1997 Powell founded America's Promise with the objective of helping children from all socioeconomic sectors. Powell often wears the logo of the organization in the form of a red wagon pin on his lapel.

Colin Powell was serving on the board of America Online when it announced its intention to merge with Time Warner in January, 2000. Powell's son, Michael, was a member of the Federal Communications Commission at the time, and he was the only commissioner who advocated letting the AOL-Time Warner deal go through without scrutiny. Powell's stock in the company reportedly increased in value by US$4 million. The affair caused some controversy as it called into question the Powells' impartiality in the matter.

In the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election Powell campaigned for Texas Governor George W. Bush, serving as a key foreign policy advisor to the campaign. At the same time however, it was often hinted that Powell might be appointed to a position within a Democratic administration, should Al Gore win. Bush eventually won after intercession by the Supreme Court, and Colin Powell was appointed as the first African-American Secretary of State.

Secretary of State

As Secretary of State in the Bush administration, Powell is perceived as moderate, his pragmatism serving as a balance to more ideology-driven hawks, such as the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld and his colleagues Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle. Powell's great asset has been his tremendous popularity among the American people. However, he traveled less than any U.S. secretary of state in 30 years, which may have contributed to falling U.S. image abroad during his tenure.

After September 11, Powell's job became of critical importance in managing America's relationships with foreign countries in order to secure a stable coalition in the war on terror. However, some of the subsequent events related to the war on terror have since made Powell quite a bit more controversial than many would have probably anticipated.

In April 2002, he visited the site of the alleged Jenin Massacre, in the occupied West Bank and later testified to Congress saying "I've seen no evidence that would suggest a massacre took place." Recalling the My Lai episode, critics condemned Powell as a company man who is never willing to confront uncomfortable realities or rock the boat. The critical comments came at a time when details of the events at Jenin were still unclear. Later investigations by human rights organisations and the United Nations confirmed the overall Israeli estimate for the number of Palestinians dead in the fighting, placing the figure at 52, including militants.

More recently, Powell has come under fire for his role in building the case for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In a press statement on February 24, 2001 he said that sanctions against Iraq had prevented the development of any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction by Saddam Hussein. As was the case in the days leading up to the Persian Gulf War, Powell was initially opposed to a forcible overthrow of Hussein, preferring to continue a policy of containment. However, Powell eventually agreed to go along with the Bush administration's determination to remove Hussein. He had often clashed with the hawks in the administration who were reportedly planning an Iraq invasion even before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks--an insight supported by testimony by former terorrism czar, Richard Clarke, in front of the 9/11 Commission. The main concession Powell wanted before offering his full support of the Iraq War was the involvement of the international community in the invasion, as opposed to a unilateral approach, as some hawks were advocating. He was also successful in persuading Mr. Bush to take the case of Iraq to the United Nations, and in moderating other initiatives. Powell was placed at the forefront of this diplomatic campaign.

Powell's chief role was to garner international support for a multi-national coalition to mount the invasion. As part of this, Powell addressed a plenary session of the United Nations on February 5, 2003 to argue in favor of the action. While his oratorical skills and personal conviction were acknowledged, there was an overall rejection of the evidence Powell offered that the regime of Saddam Hussein possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). A Senate report on intelligence failures would later detail the intense debate that went on behind the scenes on what to include in the speech. State Department analysts had found dozens of factual problems in drafts of the speech. Some of the claims were taken out, but still others were left in, for example claims based on the Yellowcake Forgery. [1] Currently, the administration is under fire for having acted on faulty intelligence. Reports have indicated that Powell himself was skeptical of the evidence presented to him. Because Powell is seen as more moderate than much of the administration, he has been spared many of the attacks that have been leveled at more controversial figures such as Donald Rumsfeld or Paul Wolfowitz by administration opponents. At times, infighting between the Powell-led State Department, the Rumsfeld-led Defense Department, and Vice-President Dick Cheney's office had the effect of paralyzing the administration on crucial issues, such as Iran and North Korea.

Since Saddam Hussein had been deposed, Powell's new role was to once again establish a working international coalition, this time to assist in the rebuilding of post-war Iraq. On September 13, 2004, Powell testified before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee [2], acknowledging that the sources who provided much of the information in Powell's February 2003 UN presentation were "wrong" and that it was "unlikely" that any stockpiles of WMDs would be found. Citing that he was unaware that some intelligence officials questioned the information prior to his presentation, Powell pushed for reform in the intelligence community, including the creation of a national intelligence director who would assure that "what one person knew, everyone else knew."

Colin Powell announced his resignation on Monday, November 15th, 2004. He announced that he would stay on until his replacement is confirmed by Congress. The following day, President George W. Bush nominated current National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, as Powell's successor. News of his resignation spurred mixed reactions from politicians around the world—some upset at the loss of a statesman seen as a moderating factor within the Bush administration, but others hoping for Powell's successor to wield more influence within the cabinet, and thus be a more credible negotiator.

In mid-november, Colin Powell stated that he had information indicating that Iran was adapting missiles for a nuclear delivery system. The New York Times indicated that the accusation was founded on a single, unreliable source. The accusation came at the same time as an agreement was settled between the IAEA, the European Union and Iran.

Opposing Torture

Powell wrote a letter to Sen. John McCain, saying "The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism. Te redefine Common Article 3 (of the Geneva Conventions) would add to those doubts. Furthermore, it would put our own troops at risk." He wrote in support of McCain's bill that would prohibit the use of coerced testimony in military tribunals. (Source: Think Progress Sept. 14, 2006)

2008 Update

On the October 19, 2008 broadcast of Meet The Press, Powell endorses Barack Obama for President.

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