Tributes poured in for former Republican secretary of state Colin Powell after the announcement of his death on Monday morning at the age of 84.
Leading praise from the US and around the world, Joe Biden hailed “a dear friend and patriot of unmatched honor and dignity” on behalf of himself and the first lady, Jill Biden.
In a statement issued by the White House, the US president, formerly Democratic US senator for Delaware before he was vice-president, continued: “As a Senator, I worked closely with him when he served as National Security Advisor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and as Secretary of State. Over our many years working together – even in disagreement – Colin was always someone who gave you his best and treated you with respect.
“Colin embodied the highest ideals of both warrior and diplomat. He was committed to our nation’s strength and security above all. Having fought in wars, he understood better than anyone that military might alone was not enough to maintain our peace and prosperity. From his front-seat view of history, advising presidents and shaping our nation’s policies, Colin led with his personal commitment to the democratic values that make our country strong.”
Biden went on to talk about Powell’s milestone as the first Black US secretary of state.
“Having repeatedly broken racial barriers, blazing a trail for others to follow in Federal Government service, Colin was committed throughout his life to investing in the next generation of leadership,” he said.
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said the world had lost an “extraordinary leader and a great man” in Powell, the retired four-star general who preceded him as America’s top diplomat, as the public learned on Monday morning of Powell’s unexpected death, from complications related to Covid-19, which he contracted while being treated for cancer.
Blinken added that Powell had been beloved at the state department because he had trusted officials and empowered them.
“He didn’t bother with formalities or hierarchy, he wanted to hear from everyone,” he said.
Blinken predicted that his predecessor’s ideas would be studied by future diplomatic and military thinkers alike.
“He believed that America could and should lead with confidence and humility. That the world was safer when the United States was engaged and its allies and partners united.”
Kamala Harris, the first female and first Black and south Asian US vice-president, said Powell was “an incredible American” who “served with dignity and grace”.
She praised Powell as an inspiration, as the first Black man in the US to rise to the high positions he achieved. She also said he was very supportive of Biden.
The US defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, also gave an impassioned response to Powell’s death, while travelling in Tbilisi, Georgia. Speaking to reporters he said: “I feel as if I have a hole in my heart this morning.”
Austin, the first African American to serve as secretary of defense, said that Powell had acted as his mentor. “He has been my mentor for a number of years. He always made time for me.”
He added that in his view the world had lost “one of the greatest leaders we have ever witnessed”.
Austin’s comments echoed similar expressions of gratitude from Black politicians around the country.
Jamaal Bowman, a Democratic first-term progressive congressman representing parts of the Bronx in New York, said that: “As a Black man just trying to figure out the world, Colin Powell was an inspiration. He was from NYC, went to City College, and rose to the highest ranks of our nation. Sending love, strength and prayer to the family and friends of Secretary Powell. Rest in power, sir.”
Other public figures gave a more nuanced appreciation. Stacey Abrams, the Democratic voting rights activist in Georgia, commented that Powell had “led with integrity” and “defended democracy”.
But she also noted that the former secretary of state had “admitted fallibility”. In his most heavily criticized action, Powell argued before the UN security council in February 2003 that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in a move that was seen as a seminal step towards the invasion of that country.
The following year Powell admitted that the intelligence on which he based his assessment may have been wrong, as was later proven to be the case.
In 2011, he told the Guardian that he wanted the CIA and Pentagon to explain why they had failed to alert him to the unreliability of one of the key Iraqi sources who gave rise to the flawed claims.
Tony Blair, who as British prime minister also backed the Iraq invasion, called Powell a “towering figure in American military and political leadership over many years. He inspired loyalty and respect … his life stands as a testament not only to dedicated public service but also a strong belief in willingness to work across partisan division in the interests of his country.”
Despite Powell’s role in amplifying faulty intelligence before the Iraq war, several prominent figures praised his integrity.
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations who worked alongside Powell through three successive presidential administrations starting with that of Ronald Reagan, said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe that he was “the most intellectually honest person I ever met. He was anti-ideology, he was open-minded. He didn’t spend his time on theory, he was grounded in reality.”
Dick Cheney, Bush’s vice-president who was a leading hawk on Iraq, simply said that working with Powell during the first Gulf war had shown him “Powell’s dedication to the United States and his commitment to the brave and selfless men and women who serve our country in uniform. Colin was a trailblazer and role model for so many.”