The U.S. assembled an international coalition to free Kuwait and launched an air war in January 1991. The subsequent ground war was lightning-fast, ending in 100 hours. Powell and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf were widely praised for the victory; for once, it seemed, a war had gone as planned.
A ticker-tape parade in June brought out more than 4 million people in Powell’s hometown. “It’s a great day to be back home in New York,” he exulted.
“The best part from my perspective,” he told the Military Times in 2017, “is the way in which the American people saw this operation. And they had been told that tens of thousands might be killed. They were worried about this volunteer army that had never been in this level of combat before. And they were absolutely joyful at the results. And they threw parades for our troops.”
Powell retired from the military in the fall of 1993. That year, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll put his favorability rating at 64 percent, compared with 6 percent unfavorable.
“Colin Powell is a special case,” Joe Klein wrote in Newsweek in 1994. “He stands, at 57, as the most respected figure in American public life. He is an African-American who transcends race; a public man who transcends politics.”
Buoyed by the sales of his autobiography, “My American Journey” — his book tour drew huge crowds — and the success of a mission to Haiti with former President Jimmy Carter and then-Sen. Sam Nunn that averted a war there, Powell was widely seen as the strongest challenger to President Bill Clinton in 1996.
But Powell opted not to run for president. On Nov. 8, 1995, he announced he was indeed a Republican — and then immediately bowed out.
“I never found inside of me the internal passion that you’ve got to have to run for elected office,” Powell told CNN in 2009, adding: “It just wasn’t me, and you’ve got to be true to yourself.”
In September 1996, Republican nominee Bob Dole — on his way to a defeat at the hands of Clinton — told ABC’s Barbara Walters that Powell could have any job he wanted in his Cabinet. “I’d almost give him mine,“ he quipped.
At the end of Clinton’s second term, Powell returned to public service. Still wildly popular, he accepted George W. Bush’s offer to lead the State Department. Powell’s selection was seen as evidence that Bush wished to heal the nation’s wounds after the divisive 2000 presidential election. One day after Bush’s inauguration, Powell was confirmed unanimously.
“The old world map as we knew it, of a red side and blue side that competed for something called the Third World, is gone,” Powell said at the time of his selection. “And the new map is a mosaic, a mosaic of many different pieces and many different colors spreading around the world.”
That world changed with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The Bush administration responded by fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and then turned its sights toward Iraq, where Hussein remained in power a decade after the Gulf War. The problem was that the case for toppling him — which Bush and others were eager to do — was nowhere near as strong as the one that linked the Taliban to the 9/11 attacks.
Counting on his popularity, Bush tasked Powell with making the case against Iraq to the world.
“Inherently cautious, Powell sought to draw incontrovertible conclusions,” Matthews wrote.
In February 2003, Powell went to the United Nations to plead the Bush administration’s case. “Every statement I make today,” he said, “is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid evidence.”
Weeks later, U.S. forces invaded Iraq. As the war progressed, it became clear that Powell’s facts were nowhere near as solid as he had made them out to be. The invasion of Iraq yielded no weapons of mass destruction. A and B had not added up to C.
Of course, Powell’s career to that point had not been totally without blemish. He had played a peripheral role in the cover-up of the 1968 massacre in the Vietnamese village of My Lai. During the Reagan years, he participated in the illegal sale of arms to Iran. If Weinberger had not been pardoned before his trial, Powell would have had to testify against his former boss about those sales. In 1992-93, an intervention in Somalia had gotten complicated and bloody.
But this time, Powell’s reputation took a hit.
“After leaving office,” Thomas Ricks wrote in “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq,” “Powell would spin his record, talking about how he had won victories within the Bush administration and with allies. Yet, sadly, he also would seem to recognize that his term as secretary of state is likely to be remembered for making the false case at the United Nations.”
After Bush was reelected in 2004, Powell stepped down. “It has always been my intention that I would serve one term,” he said. Still, amid tensions in the White House over foreign policy, there was little doubt that the decision was mutual.
Powell had influenced the president on some matters, such as combating HIV/AIDS worldwide, but he clashed with Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and others on North Korea, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other global hot spots. He had also found himself at odds with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about Iraq’s rocky transition to democracy.
“It was clear by 2004 that the team was not functioning as a team,” Powell said in 2011. “And we had different views, and not just views, not views that could be reconciled.”
Powell would subsequently be disparaged by Bush loyalists. Cheney, in particular, was critical of his comments on the war in Iraq.
The retired general remained much in demand as a speaker and expert on national security matters. Charitable causes sought his assistance, schools were named for him, and the City College of New York honored its famous graduate by launching the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership.
Powell also accumulated awards, including two Presidential Medals of Freedom, the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP, the Liberty Medal, the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award and a Congressional Gold Medal. Sixteen times, he was listed as one of the Gallup Poll’s most admired men in the world.
Through it all, he never ran for office, though in 2016, three faithless electors in the Electoral College voted for him instead of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. “It was charming,” Powell said in 2020 discussing his surprise third-place finish.
In October 2008, he endorsed Barack Obama as he was weeks away from being elected the nation’s first African-American president. “I think he is a transformational figure,” Powell said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Powell added: “I can’t deny that it will be a historic event when an African-American becomes president. And should that happen, all Americans should be proud — not just African-Americans.”