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Colin Powell's American Life

Alone among US President George W. Bush’s senior advisers, Colin Powell did not push for the costly, ill-advised Iraq War, and it would be misreading history to hold him responsible for it. He remained a man of moderation and character to the end.

NEW YORK – Colin Powell, former US national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and secretary of state, who died this week at the age of 84, was a quintessential American, the son of immigrants. He was forever upbeat, someone who advised “not to take counsel of your fears or naysayers” and that “perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.”

All of us are framed by our experiences early in life, and Powell was no exception. For him, it was the Vietnam War, where he served two tours as a young army officer. He became acutely aware of how poor policy and leadership could cost lives and destroy institutions, and came away wary of global abstractions thought up in Washington and implemented halfway around the world. With his direct military experience, war for Powell was never less than real.

Powell’s experience in Vietnam profoundly influenced his thinking as a policymaker. This was reflected in the “Powell Doctrine,” which established criteria to be considered before military force is used. It was a plea to employ military force carefully, if at all. War for Powell was a last resort. Articulated in the aftermath of the classic, battlefield-oriented Gulf War and amid debates over less traditional interventions in the Balkans and Somalia, the Powell Doctrine called for pointed questions to be asked and answered.

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