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Colin Luther Powell passed away on Oct. 18 due to complications from COVID-19. Many in Tokyo miss and respect him for being a man of many “racial firsts,” including being the first American of African descent to become the U.S. national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state. He is arguably one of the most successful African Americans in U.S. political history.

Japan’s Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihiko Isozaki offered his condolences and said that Powell “was the first African American to serve as Secretary of State, who led U.S. diplomacy at a time when the fight against terrorism in the wake of the (9/11) attacks was extremely difficult.”

Isozaki also said, “Secretary Powell contributed to the development of a very close and good relationship between Japan and the United States.” Even the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, usually critical of the United States, carried an article about “A ‘Good Guy’ Beloved Across Party Lines, Mr. Powell Embodied Consensus Building.”

That said, not everything Powell did or accomplished has been fully praised in Japan. The Asahi article reported that “Mr. Powell regretted his U.N. speech as ‘a permanent blot on his record’ that led to the outbreak of the Iraq War” and quoted a French journalist saying that “Mr. Powell lied to the Security Council members, and thanks to him we were headed for war.”

Powell and Japan

Despite his two tours to Vietnam and another to South Korea, Gen. Colin Powell and Japan had not crossed paths. Perhaps the only exception was the assignment of Michael Powell, his gifted son, to the Japan Desk at the Pentagon in the late 1980s when his father served President Ronald Reagan as his national security adviser.

At the time, I was assistant director for Japan-U.S. security treaty affairs in the Japanese foreign service. I was a frequent visitor to Washington and found the Japan desk, including young Mike Powell and his superiors, a great team to work with, although the senior Powell might have been too busy to pay much notice to it.

Although I am not an American, Colin Powell has always been my hero whose life embodied what made the United States of America what it is. My friends in Washington who worked with Powell unanimously say he was a great man of integrity and charm and always knew the right things to do in times of crises.

The Gulf War

Arguably, it was during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 when Colin Powell, then Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush, dealt with Japan, albeit indirectly, for the first time. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ordered his forces to invade Kuwait in August 1990. The United States in response mobilized nearly 1 million coalition troops from more than 30 countries to expel the Iraq military from Kuwait.

On Powell’s role in the Gulf War, the economic daily Nikkei reported that he “in 1989 became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then he commanded Operation Desert Storm during the Gulf War that began in 1991,” which, to me, was quite misleading.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the principal military adviser to the president, but is prohibited by law from having operational command authority over the armed forces. Therefore, the Gulf War was never led by Powell but by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the then commander of U.S. Central Command.

Operation Desert Storm was a war in which Japan not only failed to fight together as an ally to the United States, but also was harshly criticized for being “too little, too late.” Japan’s contribution of $13 billion, as I vividly remember, was never well appreciated politically in Washington.

That said, Tokyo’s contribution, especially its assistance-in-kind program, was highly welcomed by U.S. troops on the front line in Saudi Arabia. Under the program, Japan donated more than $400 million worth of materials and equipment, including a thousand 4WD vehicles and hundreds of military-grade computers, that the Central Command desperately needed.

After the war, to our surprise, Schwarzkopf wrote a letter of appreciation praising Japan’s contribution, but unfortunately the letter signed by the general himself was never copied to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That was the political reality in Washington in the early 1990s.

The Iraq War

Tokyo remembered Colin Powell as leading U.S. diplomacy in the fight against terrorism and contributing to improvements in Japan-U.S. relations. It is amazing, however, that, as Secretary of State, Powell actually met with as many as four Japanese foreign ministers during his four-year tenure.

Powell encouraged Japan to do much more during the international coalition’s efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq than it did in 1991. And without President George W. Bush and Powell, then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi may not have decided to dispatch Japanese Ground Self-Defense reconstruction units to southern Iraq.

Japan also correctly appreciated Powell’s view on the Iraq War. Despite his infamous U.N. speech, he recalled “I wanted to avoid a war. We tried to do that. We couldn’t get it through the U.N. and when the president made the decision, I supported that decision. I’ve never said I didn’t support a decision to go to war.”

With a similar logic, if my memory is correct, Japan supported the use of force against Iraq not because Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction, but because Saddam failed to comply with relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions including that of 1990, which authorized the use of force against Iraq.

The most memorable of Powell’s encounters with Japan, in my view, was his Nov. 30, 2003, telephone call to Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi in which he expressed his heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families of the two Japanese diplomats, my friend and colleague, who were murdered in Iraq the day before.

Finally, I would like to comment on his leadership style. “Bad news isn’t wine. It doesn’t improve with age.” is my favorite Colin Powell quote, which I often use to explain the essence of crisis management in my public speeches.

Those in Japan who met or know about Colin Powell will remember him as an extraordinary American of African ancestry. May his soul rest in peace.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies. A former career diplomat, Miyake also serves as a special adviser to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s Cabinet. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Japanese government.

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