Interviews April 2007

A Conversation With Colin Powell

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell talks with author David Samuels about the relative advantages of using “soft power” and “hard power” in spreading American influence and ideas, and about the current state of American diplomatic efforts in the Middle East and elsewhere

You were famously quoted as saying “if you break it, you own it” about the consequences of an American invasion of Iraq. So do we own it? And, as a practical matter, is it possible for the United States to declare at this late date that we don’t take part in other people’s Civil Wars, and to withdraw our troops?

The famous expression, if you break it you own it—which is not a Pottery Barn expression, by the way—was a simple statement of the fact that when you take out a regime and you bring down a government, you become the government. On the day that the statue came down and Saddam Hussein’s regime ended, the United States was the occupying power. We might also have been the liberating power, and we were initially seen as liberators. But we were essentially the new government until a government could be put in place. And in the second phase of this conflict, which was beginning after the statue fell, we made serious mistakes in not acting like a government. One, maintaining order. Two, keeping people from destroying their own property. Three, not having in place security forces—either ours or theirs or a combination of the two to keep order. And in the absence of order, chaos ensues.

What has been gained and what has been lost by not talking to Syria and to other states in the region?

I did talk to them.

And did you find that to be productive?

Yes. I talked to Syria for four years. I went to Damascus twice. We had low-level conversations with the Iranians. That’s a different account; you can’t compare the two of them. We have diplomatic relations with the government of Syria. As to why we’re not talking to them, you’ll have to ask those who are not talking. They pulled the ambassador out last spring, and have not returned her. I agree with the ISG [Iraq Study Group] that you should talk to people.

Notice I keep using the word “talk.” Not “negotiate.” Negotiate comes at some point in the process of talking. And you can’t say, “I’ll only talk if you give me this.” Because they’ll say “I’ll only talk if you give me that.” And you immediately freeze the basis for talking. So even on those horrible afternoons when I had to spend all my time arguing with the Syrian foreign minister, which we did a lot of—- exchanging vivid talking points with each other—- we were talking.

It took me a year to get permission to do it, because of reservations, but nevertheless, I started talking to the North Koreans, and I met with the North Korean foreign minister in 2002, in Brunai for the first time. But then the nuclear problem exploded in their face and our face.

What were those exchanges with the Syrians like?

They’re always difficult. They’re tough debaters and tough negotiators, but I can hold my own. Sometimes they said they would do things which they didn’t. And sometimes they did things which we suggested would be wise for them to do. So it was a mixed bag. And sometimes nothing was accomplished: we just talked. But when you’re trying to get them to do things, which apparently we are trying to do now, I don’t know any other way to try and get them to do those things, except perhaps to talk to them and not just cajole them and threaten them. And they love to talk.

Does the U.S. military have a role to play in helping to export American values?

We have. We’ve done it for decades. When I was a corps commander in Germany, or a young lieutenant in Germany, I was exporting American values. In fact, after the cold war when we were drawing down our troops from Germany and I was the one doing the drawing down, Joschka Fischer, who was my dear friend and colleague and still is, said you know, “I’m really worried and troubled about this.” He said, “I’m not troubled because there’ll be fewer troops to fight the non-existent Soviet Union. But for fifty years, Germans have had Americans live amongst us. And we always saw that as a sign of friendship and a connection to the United States. Your GIs were our biggest insurance policy, and we liked them, even though there were occasional problems.”

And I think I even wrote in my book somewhere—I better read that book again—that it’s pretty great, as a young lieutenant, to have a German farmer come out in the winter forest and bring you a cup of hot coffee and brodchen, a piece of warm bread, because as far as they were concerned, it was that American lieutenant in the woods who was protecting them.

 If there are people who don’t want American troops there, should they be there?

It depends. They’re there because they serve our interest. And they also hopefully serve the interest of the country that they’re in. In the case of Haiti—Haiti is an example where we were not invited in, but there was a horrible civil war that was about to break out, if you’re talking about 2004. And our friends and allies, the French, Canadians, and others said we had to get Aristede to come on out, and he did decide to come on out. I provided him a plane and got him out, and everybody condemned U.S. roundly. Everybody was mad at me. The Haitian people were mixed, but there was gonna be a bloodbath that weekend, and I’ve never felt badly about doing it.

A better example is Panama. We invaded Panama in 1989. It was unilateral, we didn’t ask nobody. We did it on four days notice. I briefed the president and told him they killed one of our navy officers. They had abused a couple of our wives. We’d been putting up with this stuff from this guy Noriega, we had a Federal indictment in on him. There is an elected President who’s in hiding in his country, and we can’t let it go un-dealt with. We were catching a lot of congressional hell. I said if we go in there, we should take out not just Noriega but the whole government, because the whole government is Noriega. And Noreiga’s been in jail since then, and they have had four successful elections and are resting on a pretty solid democratic base. And there are no American troops in Panama. So you do it ultimately in your own interest. You try to do it quickly. The quicker you do it, the quicker you restore a sense of normalcy to a society and get it back in their hands, the more likely you are to survive the criticism you get, and the more likely you are to see a better environment.

Are there features that make America’s current engagement with the Arab world unique?

Six years ago, we were not doing too badly with the Arab world. If you look at the polling back then, we had 50, 60, and in some countries 70 percent favorable ratings. Iraq has dropped it into the tank, and the inability to do something about the Palestinian Israeli situation has hurt U.S. badly in terms of Muslim perceptions and Arab perceptions. Is it our fault that they haven’t gotten a peace agreement? I don’t think so. I mean, believe me, I worked hard for a year and a half on Arafat before I had to give up, he was hopeless. And I found out just what Clinton had told me the last day in office, when he said to me “Colin, he almost drove me crazy. And it’s his fault.” But the Muslim community and the Arab Community measures U.S. not so much against progress as against constant effort. Why don’t you have an effort there, why isn’t the secretary of state living over there? And we decided to take a different tack. And as a result, things got better for a while, but have deteriorated rapidly since two things—one, the revival of Hamas by democratic process, and Lebanon this past summer.

Jump to comments
Presented by

David Samuels is a regular contributor to The Atlantic.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.


CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.


A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.


Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.



More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In