Former Secretary of State Colin Powell gestures during a lecture about business management and leadership in Madrid, Spain

In the post-Cold War era, Colin Powell became the most 'popular and influential' US military leader, biographer says

Jeffrey Matthews has looked carefully at Powell's role on the world stage. He's the author of "Colin Powell: Imperfect Patriot." He joined The World's host Marco Werman to discuss Powell's life and military and career.

The World

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell gestures during a lecture about business management and leadership in Madrid, Spain, May 24, 2006.

Daniel Ochoa de Olza/AP/File photo

Political and military leaders from around the world are paying tribute on Monday to Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and secretary of state, who has died at the age of 84.

Powell had been battling multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer that made him more susceptible to complications from COVID-19.

Powell served both Democratic and Republican presidents and became one of the most popular public figures in the US. Powell's biggest failure, by his own admission, was the faulty claims he made before the UN to justify the 2003 Iraq War.

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"I turned the dial, is no question about it, and that's what the president wanted me to do and what I was supposed to do. I regret it now because the information was wrong, of course, I do. But I will always be seen as the one who made the case before the international community," Powell said in a 2010 CNN interview, talking about the role President George W. Bush asked him to play before the invasion of Iraq.

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During his speech at the UN Security Council ahead of the US-led invasion of Iraq, he said: "The gravity of this moment is matched by the gravity of the threat that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction pose to the world," a claim that turned out to be untrue.

Jeffrey Matthews has looked carefully at Powell's role on the world stage. He's the author of "Colin Powell: Imperfect Patriot." He joined The World's host Marco Werman to discuss Powell's life and military and career.

Marco Werman: We obviously want to get to that moment at the UN, but let's start with the very beginnings of Colin Powell's military career. He served two tours of duty in Vietnam in his 20s and early 30s. How did that help shape his worldview?
Well, certainly I think it hardened his commitment to the country and to the Army, in particular. And over time, as was common for people who stayed in the military after Vietnam, it was this idea that would eventually evolve into what was known as the Powell Doctrine. And so, there's a direct line between his Vietnam experience and this idea that if the country is going to go to war, that it must have a clear vision, that it must have the support of the American people, and that we must use decisive, or what's often said, overwhelming force, and there must be a plan to exit the war. And so, I think, even though he was relatively young at the time, there is that direct connection from when he becomes a four-star general and can really implement that vision.
So, let's talk about the My Lai massacre. That was in 1968 — the mass murder of unarmed South Vietnamese civilians. Colin Powell was not in Vietnam at the time of that massacre, but he did investigate early reports of it. Those came back to haunt him. Can you explain what happened?
Yes. So, this comes during Powell's second tour of Vietnam. The first time he went, he was one of President John F. Kennedy's early advisers, but about 90 days after the My Lai massacre had happened, Powell was coincidentally assigned to that very unit as a staff officer. And in that position, there were reports going around that a massacre had happened, and he was one of the officers in this Americal Division, as it was known, asked to investigate. And there really was not much of an investigation. And Powell essentially mimicked some senior officers and their reporting in saying that there was no evidence of one and that, in fact, relations between the US forces and South Vietnamese civilians was actually an excellent one. And so, I think it was dealt with pretty quickly. And in hindsight, we can see that Powell, even as a junior officer, he was part of, indirectly, the army's cover-up of the My Lai massacre, which of course doesn't get exposed until several years later.
So, let's focus now on Powell's years as secretary of state that began in 2001. In the weeks after 9/11, many in President George W. Bush's White House were pushing for a rapid bombing campaign in Iraq. Powell did not join them. Why not?
In the week after 9/11, it was Powell who was kind of the bulwark against a rush to war against Iraq. Immediately after 9/11, people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz were advising the president to launch an attack against Iraq. And Powell, from the very beginning, was insisting that this made no sense because there was no evidence that Iraq had anything to do with 9/11. President Bush accepted Powell's advice, and, I think, Powell deserves a lot of credit for the influence that he had in those first days.
In February of 2003, Powell appeared before the UN advocating for war in Iraq. During this presentation, Secretary Powell is holding a vial, a test tube with material that represents what a sample of anthrax might look like. It wasn't anthrax. It was really dramatic, though. He went on to say this about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction: "This is evidence, not conjecture. This is true. This is all well-documented." Well, as we know, it was not well-documented. Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction. And Colin Powell called this moment the biggest blot on his record. Did Secretary Powell, in fact, know there were no weapons of mass destruction? What do the documents tell us?
Indeed, it was a huge mistake he made, but I really think what it's an example of what psychologists call confirmation bias. Powell believed 100% that there were weapons of mass destruction. And so, when he went to the CIA with his staff for 3 1/2 days to, essentially, rewrite a speech from scratch, they relied on the national intelligence estimate from the CIA, not a political document, and what they chose to do, essentially, was emphasize any piece of evidence that they thought confirmed weapons of mass destruction, and they dismissed or ignored a lot of evidence or questions that suggested, "Well, we really don't know what they have." And so, I think when Powell went to give that speech, one of the reasons he was so convincing is because, for the most part, he believed it himself.
So, Powell's own people at the State Department's intelligence bureau had called many of the claims about weapons of mass destruction weak, not credible, highly questionable. Was Powell cherry-picking intelligence to fit his own bias, or was he so deep in that narrative that he didn't think twice?
When his State Department analysts came out and saw a draft of the report, I think they identified something like 32 things they disagreed with, and Powell, in the end, changed about 28 of those. And one of the big issues was these, kind of, aluminum tubes where the State Department said they were used for conventional weapons, not nuclear weapons, and Powell overrode the department. And he really shouldn't have because if you read the intelligence itself, and you can read this online now, you can see clearly there were doubts, including from the Department of Energy, that this had anything to do with a nuclear program. And so, I think Powell, in the end, you know, he told me in my interview with him that he was afraid that his obituary would lead with the speech. As a matter of fact, he tried to talk me out of leading my book with the story of the speech, but it was emblematic in many ways of Powell's career, because a big theme of Powell's life is intense loyalty, and the UN speech, like so many other big decisions, good and bad that he made, he made out of intense loyalty to his superiors.
And here we are talking about that speech today. I mean, is that how Colin Powell will be remembered?
It certainly shouldn't be. I mean, in the post-Cold War era, I don't think there's a single military person who became as popular and influential as Powell did. And we have to take both his military career and his civilian career and assess them independently and emphasize both the good and the bad.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.