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Gen. Wesley Clark remembers the legacy and leadership of Colin Powell


We are continuing to follow breaking news this morning on the death of former Secretary of State Colin Powell. He was 84 years old. Powell was the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first Black secretary of state. Powell's family announced he died of complications from COVID-19, though he was fully vaccinated. Joining us now to talk about his legacy is retired four-star general Wesley Clark. Good morning.

WESLEY CLARK: Good morning.

DETROW: You know last May, in a report for the Black News Channel, you said, quote, "The magic of Colin Powell is common sense. He listens." You, over the course of your career, dealt with a lot of generals. What was different about Powell's style?

CLARK: He just knew how to make smart decisions. He understood Washington's in and outs. He understood people's perspectives. He just had a great, intuitive grasp for other people.

DETROW: You - speaking of one decision, you were both four-star generals. You, at one point, ran for president. Powell was encouraged and recruited, and realistically, he could have been the first Black president. But he chose not to run. What did that tell you about his character and his decision-making and how he thought about things?

CLARK: Well, he said he didn't have fire in his belly, and he shouldn't have run if he didn't feel like it. And he made the right decision. He was a man who - he always knew who he was and how he fit in. He came up through tremendous obstacles in the United States Army. There was tremendous prejudice against African Americans in the officer corps for many, many years. And he and his wonderful wife, Alma, worked their way through this thing. And I think for all the hardship, it gave him an incredibly deep understanding of the - why - who he was and how he fit in. And he used it.

DETROW: How much did that change the Pentagon? How important of a signal was it when he became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the first Black man to hold that position?

CLARK: Well, first of all, the first thing he did really, as a senior leader, was worked for Cap Weinberger when Weinberger was secretary of defense. And he helped formulate the idea that U.S. forces don't go into battle unless they go in with sufficient force...


CLARK: ...To win decisively. He put in the so-called Weinberger Doctrine. And this saw us to success in Grenada. It saw us to success in the Gulf War. It saw us to success in Panama. And then, as national security adviser to President George H. Bush and later as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he was able to - or national security adviser, you know, to Reagan as well.


CLARK: What he was able to do is see us through the end of the Cold War and transition the United States armed forces into a post-Cold War environment. So we reduced our forces. We had to manage the so-called peace dividend.

DETROW: But let's...

CLARK: He took the new...

DETROW: But - sorry. Let's talk about that for a moment. Because as you said, he did put forward this idea of overwhelming force. But then, as secretary of state, he plays a key role in a war where the military often did not make that decision. It was criticized for years for not having enough troops on the ground in Iraq, and that was a big part of the problems. And let's listen. Before we talk about that, let's listen to Colin Powell making the case - a faulty case - for war at the United Nations.


COLIN POWELL: Here you see 15 munitions bunkers in yellow and red outlines. The four that are in red squares represent active chemical munitions bunkers.

DETROW: And of course, Powell expressed regret for his role there. But given what happened when he was secretary of state, what do you think the long-term, lasting foreign policy legacy is of Colin Powell?

CLARK: Well, I think he helped the United States communicate with a lot of different nations. I think, as secretary of state, he was a symbol for a diverse America. And I think people responded to that. I know he always regretted what happened at the United Nations. And he - you know, he held himself responsible, you know, even though it wasn't his information. And I know he always felt bad about it. But he had no say over the size of the force that went into Iraq. That was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who, over the objections of all the generals and over Colin Powell's objections, kept cutting it down.

And one more thing I'll say. When he was secretary of state, Colin Powell was well aware that there was no so-called exit strategy or Phase 4 plan for the invasion of Iraq. He did a study on it, and the Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld killed the study, squelched it, didn't let it go anywhere. Because if you had read General Powell's study, you probably have said, well, this looks like a really difficult problem. Why are we invading in the first place?


CLARK: And so he did what he could to change the course of policy. But he was a soldier at heart. He was loyal. And he stayed with the president.

DETROW: And General - we're speaking to retired General Wesley Clark. We've got about 30 seconds left. We're reviewing these key public moments in Colin Powell's life today. You were his peer for so long. What's the personal memories that you're thinking about today as you digest this news?

CLARK: Just a guy who, when you went in to talk to him, he just understood you instantly. Just tremendous rapport with people of different ranks, different experiences. He just had it. He had magic...


CLARK: ...With people.

DETROW: That's retired four-star General Wesley Clark, speaking to us about the news that former Secretary of State Colin Powell has died this morning at the age of 84. General Clark, thank you so much.

CLARK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.