Colin Powell predicted that his 2003 United Nations speech making the case for war with Iraq would dominate his obituaries. And so it should.
Powell’s death from Covid-19 complications was announced on Monday 18 October. He was 84, a retired four-star general, with a ‘distinguished’ list of senior government positions to his name.
He was chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the early 1990s, overseeing America’s Desert Storm operations in the first Gulf War which led to the deaths of between 100,000 and 200,000 civilians.
In 2001 he became the first Black Secretary of State under George W Bush. Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, he supported a swift military response against al-Qaeda. But he is best remembered for the 75 minute speech he gave at the UN in which he presented the case for war with Iraq.
Born in Harlem to Jamaican immigrant parents, Powell embodied the American dream, climbing through the ranks of the military then into powerful government roles. He prevailed over the racism of army generals and the Republican right. He was thought by many in the media and by some in both political parties as a lone voice of reason on the President’s war council. It was because of this image that his UN speech justifying the Iraq war was so crucial.
Powell had warned Bush against war, but he became the war’s most successful salesman on February 5, 2003 at the UN General Assembly. He began his speech “My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.” But nothing could have been further from the truth.
He provided a litany of intelligence findings on Iraq’s WMD programme, so demonstrating that the only way to end this dangerous amassing of chemical and biological weapons was by invasion. But nearly all the intelligence was false.
The story he told was persuasive, and was different and more sober than the usual evocations of Saddam’s evil that came from the White House. He informed the watching world of “key sources” and “eyewitnesses”, including an Iraqi chemical engineer and an Iraqi major. Months earlier, the intelligence services had classed both these witnesses unreliable and deemed the evidence as fabricated.
During the speech, Powell displayed photographs of trucks filing into a suspected WMD bunker hours before the UN inspection team, implying the bunker had been emptied in preparation for the inspection. Members of the inspection team watching were horrified – the layers of dust and pigeon dung they found in the bunker made it clear the site had not been used for a very long time but this was not in the pictures. The photographs were evidently designed to mislead.
He spoke of aluminium tubes that “most experts think” were for uranium enrichment, and ignored his own department’s experts, who did not. The director of Intelligence and Research (INR) within the State Department resigned as a result within a few months.
Powell’s speech was a defining moment in the build-up to war in 2003. It paved the way for legitimising the attack and subsequent invasion of Iraq, leading to the death of a million Iraqis, thousands of US and UK soldiers and a global refugees crisis. It destabilised the entire region and 18 years later we still live with the consequences. It was the defining moment in Powell’s long career, a moment he later referred to as a “blot”. The Iraqis may have a different word for it.
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