He shared Bush’s reluctance to project military strength across the globe, a view that was quickly displaced by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
As Bush’s top diplomat, he was tasked with building international support for the War on Terror, including the Afghanistan War, but it was his involvement in the administration’s push for intervention in Iraq, over the concerns of many of America’s longtime allies, for which his tenure at State would become best known.
In February 2003, Powell delivered a speech
before the United Nations in which he presented evidence that the US intelligence community said proved Iraq had misled inspectors and hid weapons of mass destruction.
“There can be no doubt,” Powell warned
, “that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more.”
Inspectors, however, later found no such weaponry in Iraq, and two years after Powell’s UN speech, a government report said the intelligence community was “dead wrong” in its assessments of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities before the US invasion.
But the damage was already done — to both Iraq, which the US went to war with just six weeks after Powell’s speech, and to the reputation of the once highly popular statesman, who was reportedly
told by then-Vice President Dick Cheney before the UN speech: “You’ve got high poll ratings; you can afford to lose a few points.”
Powell, who left the State Department in early 2005 after submitting his resignation to Bush the previous year, later called his UN speech a “blot” that will forever be on his record.
“I regret it now because the information was wrong — of course I do,” he told
CNN’s Larry King in 2010. “But I will always be seen as the one who made the case before the international community.”
“I swayed public opinion, there’s no question about it,” he added, referring to how influential his speech was on public support for the invasion.
In his 2012 memoir, “It Worked for Me,” Powell again acknowledged the speech, writing that his account of it in the book would likely be the last he publicly made.
“I am mad mostly at myself for not having smelled the problem. My instincts failed me,” he wrote, referring to the report he used that contained faulty evidence of supposed Iraqi WMDs. “It was by no means my first, but it was one of my most momentous failures, the one with the widest-ranging impact.”
“The event will earn a prominent paragraph in my obituary,” Powell wrote.
After leaving the Bush administration, Powell returned to private life. He joined the renowned venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins in 2005, where he worked as a strategic adviser until his death. For a time, he gave speeches at “Get Motivated!” business seminars, and he authored the 2012 memoir.
Though the large majority of Powell’s time as a public servant was spent in Republican administrations, the later years of his life saw him supporting Democratic presidential candidates and harshly criticizing top Republican leaders.
By 2008, the longtime Republican’s coveted presidential endorsement
went to another party when he announced his support for Obama’s White House bid. At the time, he touted Obama’s “ability to inspire” and the “inclusive nature of his campaign,” while criticizing attacks on the Illinois senator by Republican presidential nominee John McCain’s campaign as “inappropriate.” He was later named an honorary co-chair of Obama’s inauguration and endorsed him again in 2012.
Powell went on to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 over Donald Trump, whom he had strongly condemned as a “national disgrace and an international pariah.”
In an extraordinary move that year, three presidential electors in Washington state cast votes
for Powell rather than Clinton, resulting in state fines that were later upheld by the Supreme Court.
He again snubbed Trump in 2020 during the President’s second campaign, announcing
his support for Joe Biden in June of that year while blasting Trump’s presidency.
“We have a Constitution. And we have to follow that Constitution. And the President has drifted away from it,” he told CNN
, adding that he “certainly cannot in any way support President Trump this year.” The retired general later delivered an address in support of Biden during the Democratic National Convention.
And after Trump incited a deadly insurrection at the US Capitol in early January 2021, Powell told CNN that he no longer considered himself a Republican, with the longtime grandee of the GOP saying he was now simply watching events unfold in a country he long served.
“I can no longer call myself a fellow Republican. I’m not a fellow of anything right now,” he told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on “GPS.” “I’m just a citizen who has voted Republican, voted Democrat throughout my entire career. And right now, I’m just watching my country and not concerned with parties.” – CNN