Beyond Fear Radio Documentary
Interview With Colin Powell, Former US Secretary of State
Retired U.S. Army General Colin Powell served as the chairman of the joints chiefs of staff and national security adviser before becoming U.S. secretary of state in 2001. He spoke with David Brancaccio in March, 2007 for the documentary “Beyond Fear: America’s Role in an Uncertain World” produced by the Stanley Foundation and KQED Public Radio.
Q: General Powell, you hear senior administration officials grouse that world affairs are not a popularity contest. To what extent does it even matter if polls around the world show that so many people don’t like us anymore?
Gen. Colin Powell: Well, polls do show that we have fallen in our favorability ratings over the years. But at the same time, people still respect
Q: When we read books and essays about leadership, as I’m sure you have as well, it’s often argued that leadership is about winning respect first and then people want to essentially follow you up the hill. I mean, do you agree with that idea and can we apply this better to our relationship with the rest of the world?
Powell: I think leadership is about trust and you garner trust by convincing people in the rightness of your cause, and also by sometimes taking chances. You can’t always wait until everybody agrees with the action you’re about to take. Sometimes you have to act and then hope that public opinion will follow that action. I’ve been in a number of situations, for example the invasion of Panama back in 1989 when I was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, roundly condemned by many people in the world. But we got rid of a terrible regime and
Q: Those are big ones.
Powell: Those are big ones, and we probably could have taken more time to explain our position with respect to
Q: You pointed to examples where
Powell: I think we could do a better job. I think we could take more time to listen and consider the views of others, and not just hear them, but actually listen to them and crank their positions into our own deliberations as we go forward. I’ve always a believer in diplomacy, a believer in dialogue, “Let’s do everything we can to avoid a crisis or to avoid a war.”
Q: Look, I know hope springs eternal. From the tsunami zone in
Powell: Well, you know, that’s nonsense. We have many friends in the world. We have great alliances. We have the NATO alliance. We have a good relationship with the European Union. We have a strategic relationship with
Q: As we’ve gone around the world looking at innovative ways that the U.S. engages other countries, my colleagues and I do hear this disturbing refrain about your previous point, that people are not inclined to follow the lead or the wishes of our country too often because they’re just so angry about what happened in Iraq. General Powell, you helped make the public case for going to war in
Powell: I am glad that Saddam Hussein is gone. It’s a terrible regime. The intelligence information that I presented to the UN was the same intelligence information that was presented to the United States Congress four months before, the same intelligence information that was provided to the President, the same intelligence information that our allies were using when they decided to come along with us, in the case of the
Q: Well without inviting you to take potshots at present policy – that’s not my intention – are there lessons to be drawn from experience in
Powell: When you have to undertake an operation like this, make sure that you have planned well for all potential consequences. It wasn’t the first phase of this operation that gave us difficulty. The regime came down quickly. Nobody should miss the opportunity that was created with the elimination of one of the most despotic regimes that the world has ever seen, and I’m glad they’re all gone. We did not plan sufficiently for the aftermath, and did not understand the nature of the environment we were entering. Then when the insurgency broke out, we didn’t respond sufficiently to that.
Q: Leaving the subject of Iraq now, many Americans do seem to see the wider world through what’s really a prism of fear; a lot of international threats are all too real given what we’ve seen, and we have to fiercely guard against them. But to what extent do you worry that reacting to fear is almost the defining idea of our foreign policy?
Powell: It’s not good. You’re often saying, “Many Americans see,” or, “Everybody in the world sees.” I would submit to you that many Americans see an entirely different picture than the picture you just conveyed to me. I travel widely around America and I see people who are working hard, who are creating value or creating jobs, who are confident about the future, and they have put terrorism into its context; it is a danger to us. We have to guard against it. We have to go after the terrorists. But at the same time, we can’t let terrorists change the way we live. We can’t let them change our value system. My understanding of the American psyche right now is we are troubled by Iran and North Korea, we are deeply troubled by Iraq and we are concerned about terrorism, but the country continues to move on. Our economy is doing extremely well. We are creating huge amounts of wealth. Companies are investing not only here in the United States but they’re investing overseas. Huge equity funds are being raised in order to make these kinds of investments. The American people going about their business, concerned about the crises but also relieved that there’s no longer a cold war in Europe, there is no longer a cold war in Asia and that the nations that used to have the capacity to destroy us as a nation and a society – the Soviet Union and to some extent China – are now, for the most part, friends. So there are a lot of opportunities out there and I see many American companies and institutions taking advantage of those opportunities, and being worried about the crises you touch on but at the same time fairly confident of the future.
Q: There are a lot of problems though around the world that might be improved with some American attention and investment. What you tend to see though is the pitches for government money to fix problems overseas often appeal to the national security argument. Is that a problem at all, this notion that you can’t just say, “Poverty alleviation,” you have to say, “No, it’s all really about fighting terrorism”?
Powell: I was in charge of all of our development assistance for the four years that I was Secretary of State, and very seldom did I use in my conversations with Congress the national security argument. If you look at the way in which our funds are used now compared to the days of the Cold War, where the argument always was we’ve got to bolster those nations that are anti-Communist and not invest in those nations that are Communist, well that distinction is gone. What I was concerned about as Secretary is how do we relieve poverty, how do we help those nations who have foresworn corruption and have put themselves on the basis of the rule of law? How do we help people who are suffering with unclean water and who need food, basic necessities of life? I didn’t have to worry about who is an enemy and who isn’t an enemy and, “We’re only going to do this on a national security basis.” We did it on the basis of what America’s obligation is to our fellow human beings around the world.
Q: What is the right blend of military power versus other kinds of engagement if the goal is making the world a safer place?
Powell: You can’t compete them that way. There’s always a suggestion, you know, we should take more money from the Defense Department and give it to the State Department, or give it to Social Security or give it to the Agricultural Department. We’re a rich nation. We can afford whatever we need if we’re willing to pay for it. I always argued for additional assistance money for my accounts on the basis of need, not on the basis of, “You should take it away from the Defense Department.” The Defense Department has significant worldwide responsibilities. Right now, it’s involved in two active theaters in Afghanistan and Iraq and that takes a great deal of money. So the Defense Department defends what it needs, and hopefully the Congress will give them everything they need. The State Department, including the Agency for International Development, has to make the case for what it needs. Hopefully it is a persuasive case that the Congress will support.
(This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.)This material is part of the public radio documentary "Beyond Fear: America's Role in an Uncertain World" from the Stanley Foundation in association with KQED Public Radio. The program is produced by Simon Marks, Kristin McHugh, Keith Porter, and hosted by David Brancaccio. All material related to "Beyond Fear" can be found here.
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