The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Iraq War role was a stain on Powell’s record — one he openly said he regretted

Placeholder while article actions load

Colin Powell knew his name would be forever tied to the ill-fated U.S. 2003 invasion of Iraq, and that the lending of his reputation and personal prestige to the faulty intelligence used to justify the ensuing war was an indelible stain.

“I didn’t lie. I didn’t know it was not true. I was secretary of state, not the director of intelligence,” he said in a 2005 interview, just months after he was asked to resign from the administration of President George W. Bush.

But “I don’t spend a lot of time looking in rear view mirrors, because you can’t change anything,” he said. “I’ve seen people eat themselves alive wondering what should have been done differently.”

True to his word, Powell, who died Monday at age 84 of complications from covid-19 after cancer treatment, did not dwell on Iraq. He spent most of the rest of his life giving speeches about leadership and American values.

At many stops, he visited the Boys & Girls Clubs of America or some other local institution to help troubled youth. He started a policy institute at his alma mater, City College of New York, to bring young people — especially minorities and immigrants and their children — into the world of public service.

He carefully, and largely successfully, rebuilt his reputation as one of the most trusted figures in America.

But despite his determination to put fully behind him his role in cementing the launch of the costly — and ongoing — U.S. involvement in Iraq, the stain never really disappeared. If asked, and he often was, he always answered and took his lumps. “It was painful,” he often said. “It’s painful now.”

More than 4,000 Americans and potentially hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians died in the insurgent conflict the Iraq invasion unleashed. Although Iraq had long been a simmering cauldron, it was the entry of U.S. troops, and the subsequent conduct of the war, that blew the lid off and kept the nation mired in violence and economic crisis, and created lasting challenges for the United States in Afghanistan, Syria and beyond.

Obituary: Colin Powell, soldier and statesman, dies at age 84

It was an earlier U.S. war against Iraq that first brought Powell a full measure of admiration and fame. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — the youngest in history and the first Black general to hold the job — it was Powell who advised President George H.W. Bush in late 1990 to go big in using U.S. troops to reverse Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

That recommendation was the first visible manifestation of what would become known, among journalists writing about the 1991 Persian Gulf War, as the Powell Doctrine.

Among its other tenets were clarity of mission: Decide what you want to accomplish, do it and get out. Hundreds of thousands of troops participated in the highly successful operation in early 1991. To the dismay of some war hawks, it ended within weeks, when Hussein’s forces were sent scampering back to Baghdad.

Another tenet, a lesson learned during his two tours in Vietnam: Don’t do it unless the American people understand and fully support it.

It was Powell — tall, robust, dressed in his desert fatigues — who captivated the cameras when he went to visit U.S. troops massing in Saudi Arabia for the counterattack, to the occasional dismay of then-defense secretary Richard B. Cheney, who stood beside him, shorter, stouter and in slacks and a leather jacket.

It was Powell, with easel-mounted maps and a masterful style he had learned in military briefing school, who went on television most days to explain what was happening and what it all meant.

But nearly 12 years later, when a new administration came to office determined to be rid of Hussein for good, Powell was in a starkly different position.

The four-star general served under three Republican presidents and was also the youngest and first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Video: Monica Rodman, Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Powell was treated for a cancer that severely impairs the immune system, making vaccine less effective

He had spoken at the Republican convention that nominated George W. Bush in 2000 and made some campaign appearances for him as Bush moved to reassure an electorate concerned about his lack of foreign-policy experience. Powell became Bush’s first Cabinet announcement, a month before the inauguration. As secretary of state following the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda terrorist attacks, he traveled the world building diplomatic support for U.S. military action.

But by the summer of 2002, times had changed. As then-Vice President Cheney and Donald H. Rumsfeld, Bush’s defense secretary, began to shift attention to Iraq, Powell tried to caution the president. They needed to finish the job in Afghanistan, he argued. The military’s plan was too small, and public and international support were not where they needed to be. Powell was essentially told to stay in his diplomatic lane.

When it came to convincing the world of the threat Hussein posed, however, the White House and Pentagon decided that Powell — who consistently polled far higher in public opinion than the president or anyone else in the administration — was the man for the job.

After months of gaining little traction on their insistence that Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, the White House turned to Powell to sell the invasion.

In February 2003, with the nation still gripped by fear about the possibility of further terrorist attacks, his credibility as a military leader and security strategist gave his presentation before the U.N. Security Council added strength. While he ditched much of the alarmist rhetoric and charges in a script supplied to him by Cheney aides, the core allegations, and alleged proof of weapons manufacture, remained.

“Every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources,” Powell said in his address, which occurred just weeks before the invasion began. “These are not assertions. What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.”

The speech was a hit, lifting public skepticism about an invasion virtually overnight. If Powell said it, editorials across the country reported, it must be true.

Robin Givhan: Remembering where Colin Powell came from

Later, after U.N. investigators and military personnel had entered and occupied Iraq and uncovered no evidence of nuclear or biological weapons, Powell blamed defects in the U.S. intelligence process rather than deception by those who favored invasion.

Speaking to television journalist Barbara Walters after stepping down, he said he was “devastated” when he learned that some within the intelligence community had harbored earlier doubts about the sources cited in his presentation.

Subsequent investigations suggested that intelligence officials had cautioned then-CIA Director George Tenet before Powell’s speech about concerns surrounding much of the evidence, including the main source behind the claim that Hussein was using mobile laboratories to advance the country’s biological weapons development, a man code-named Curveball.

The investigation found that Tenet did not tell Powell of those warnings.

Tenet himself has said he did not learn of the concerns about the source until later, but Powell remained furious at him.

“So that’s it,” Powell said in the 2005 interview. “It’s the blot on my record.”

If he had known then what he found out after it was too late, he said, “I don’t think we would have had the basis to go to war.”

On Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken made reference to Powell’s legacy in remarks praising him at the State Department. “He could admit mistakes,” Blinken said. “It was just another example of his integrity.”

John Hudson and Alice Crites contributed to this report.