Colin Powell was a statesman and reluctant warrior. The former U.S. Secretary of State died on Tuesday at the age of eighty-five, after decades as one of America’s most respected public figures—a soldier turned diplomat who helped shepherd the country through the first Gulf War, a shrewd negotiator with North Korea, and an advocate for human rights around the world. “I hope that his life will serve as an example—one that says you can be somebody who can contribute to your country, no matter where you come from, President Barack Obama said in a statement . “We send our prayers and heartfelt condolences to the Powell family.
But for all his accomplishments, it is likely that history will remember Colin Powell most for one singular moment. In February 2003, a month before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he went before the United Nations to make George W. Bush’s case for war—and nearly derailed it himself by making an unsubstantiated claim about Saddam Hussein’s supposed stockpile of weapons of mass destruction.
My colleagues, Powell said , 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.
Those words proved to be the undoing of his career—and his public credibility—as Americans came to realize that, far from presenting a slam-dunk case for war, the speech had relied on faulty information.
The moment haunts Powell to this day, as he acknowledged in his memoirs I will always regret that I passed on flawed intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, he wrote , adding that, because of it, I am sorry that I was not able to convey the uncertainty…that I felt about what was apparently a harsh policy of urgent action.
Even though the U.S. didn’t find any of the feared weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Powell had little choice but to stand behind his claim of WMD—or be accused of undermining Bush administration policy.
For Americans at the time, it was difficult to gauge the accuracy of his claims— Powell, after all, didn’t make them up out of whole cloth. His evidence was real—if fragmentary and inconclusive. And as the country plunged ahead with war, it became harder for journalists to report such information without seeming to be unpatriotic.
At its core, that is why Powell’s U.N. speech still matters today: It marks a moment when the American press failed in its watchdog role, and we were all vulnerable as a result .
It wasn’t just Powell who went off a cliff—the media did too. And the whole country followed. The Bush administration got away with one of the biggest lies in modern history because the watchdogs were too easily tamed.
For Americans who remember this moment, it’s easy to feel despondent about the state of journalism today . But there are lessons that these journalists under pressure need to learn. Namely, they need to stay firm even if their editors or producers or publishers don’t find their reporting convenient—and continue to press the administration when the evidence doesn’t add up .
Powell’s speech was a triumph of style over substance—which is why it made for such riveting television. In his rising baritone, Powell cast a sheen of authority on his words, and seemed to be in control.