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.

What signal do we send to the Muslim world by refusing to talk to governments that have been democratically elected?

Just because somebody has been elected democratically doesn’t mean that you have to talk to them if you have a great deal of difficulty with some of the positions they’re taking. Now, I wasn’t around when Hamas got elected, so this is again this crowd, not me. But Hamas was democratically elected, and they are now the government. But Hamas won’t recognize the state of Israel and calls for its destruction. It make sit hard for U.S. to deal with a government like that.

Can we talk about Democracy to our Muslim and Arab friends? You bet we do. I’ve given some of the best democratic speeches you ever want to read. Go back and look at my confirmation hearing. But I’m also extremely practical. And democracy means one thing for us. To many nations, it creates instability for them to try to go democratic. As one of my Arab colleagues once told me, “Be careful what you ask for.” Because if we had a free, full, fair, open election tomorrow, boy would you be hurtin’. We would be gone, and you would be facing an Islamic fundamentalist regime that would hate you to death. And guess what? There would never be another election. So be careful.

If you look at what I was saying and doing during 2004, I was pushing for reform. Because democracy has to have institutions, it has to have a base upon which it rests. Are you familiar with the J curve? Well, there’s a new book out called the J curve. Imagine a hockey stick. And the blade of the hockey stick is up here, and it comes down, and it goes all the way up the handle. The handle’s at the top. The two most stable kinds of governments are at either end—where the blade is, and way up here at the top of the handle. The United States is at the top of the handle. At the top of the blade are all the authoritarian and totalitarian nations that we see around the world. And the whole theory, and it’s a pretty good theory, says that to get from here to there which is the desire, you have to go down. So any time you break one of these authoritarian regimes, it doesn’t become a democracy. It descends into something that’s really ugly until the institutions that should have been built start to built up.

Now is America really that stable? You better believe it. There isn’t anything you can do to U.S. that we can’t figure out a democratic solution to through our Constitutional process and our history and tradition. We had an election all hung up in Florida in 2000—we’ll figure it out. The vote was five to four, Bush becomes the President—nobody reaches for a gun, no tanks move. Everybody says okay, fine, let’s move on, let’s watch Oprah. That is extremely stable.

Do you think we are currently engaged in a struggle with radical extremists in the Middle East and elsewhere that will be like the Cold War in terms of intensity and duration?

I have a slightly different view. 9/11 was a huge traumatic shock to us. And it changed everything before and after 9/11. But in all the speeches I give around the country, I try to make the point that the Cold War’s gone, China’s selling to Wal-Mart, all it wants to do is sell, and it’s not going to be an enemy. I’m sorry, my best friends want it to be an enemy, but it won’t cooperate. Why would they want to be an enemy? Look how well they’re doing. A trillion dollars in U.S. dollar reserves. [Treasury Secretary] Hank Paulson’s over there begging. So why are they going to be an enemy?

Listen, all the theologies and ideologies that were going to supplant ours are gone. I mean, they’re all gone The communists, the fascists—get serious! The few authoritarian regimes that are left around are peanuts. Like Belarus, Turkmenistan, Venezuela. Castro. Give me something to get serious about. Then you have terrorism. One, it’s non-state. Two, most of them have to hide and stay in hiding. We are now better on the offense against them. We’re better on the defense against them. We haven’t had an incident in five years—knock wood. But the point I make to all of my audiences is that it will happen again at some point, and maybe we’ll lose another facility. Maybe we’ll lose some of our fellow citizens. But what they can’t do, what they never can do, is change who we are. They can’t change our form of government. They can’t change we, who we are. Only we can do that.

We can’t let terrorism suddenly become the substitute for Red China and the Soviet Union as our all encompassing enemy, this great Muslim extremist monolithic thing from somewhere in Mauritania all the way through Muslim India. They’re all different. It’s not going come together like that.

At the same time as we are at war in Iraq, we also have good relations right now with both India and Pakistan, with both China and Japan . . .

I had a pretty good four years!

On the other hand, North Korea claims to have gone nuclear, the Iranians are on the way to getting a bomb . . .

North Korea’s trying to sell us something. The Iranians want to have a program. I don’t know yet whether they can get to a bomb, it’s years away, but they want to have a program and they’re not going to give it up just because we threaten them as you said earlier. And the threats that you were alluding to earlier aren’t really go to war threats. They’re just huffing and puffing and sanctions. I don’t think you should utter threats like, “You must answer by the 30th of June, or the 50th of whatever,” and then they end up telling you, as the Iranians did, “We’ll answer you on the 23rd of August.” Okay. That’s not a useful way of doing business.

But the way I summarize this for my audience is, every war must end. Every crisis I’ve ever been involved with is gone. I got decades of this stuff, from Iran-Contra all the way through Panama, to Haiti to Somalia, Bangladesh, Chad. I’ve seen my share. Desert Storm, Desert Shield. I’ve seen a lot. One thing about a crisis is they tend to go away sometime. And when I look at the world right now—let me add this up, 7 billion people? 7 billion people, only 3 of the countries, in my judgment, could ever possibly have the economy, the population, or the national military power to threaten us. China, Federation of Russia, and India. I ain’t worried about Indians. China? They can’t afford to. They’re doing too well. Russia? They got the GDP of Portugal. They’re never gonna go back to being the Soviet Union. They got nuclear weapons. China’s got nuclear weapons. India’s got nuclear weapons. But in neither one of those cases do I lie awake at night worrying about a threat anymore. It’s gone.

So that’s 1.3 billion plus 1.3 billion—that’s 2.6 billion. And a few hundred million Russians who are going to be fewer in 20 years. And let me throw in 800 million Europeans, or however many there are. Half a billion Europeans. Then our hemisphere, 800 million? Something like that. I’m not losing a whole lot of sleep over Hugo Chavez, even though he’s annoying. He’s annoying! Castro is annoying! These are annoyances, these aren’t threats. Castro used to be a threat when he was stirring stuff up all over the region with the Soviets behind him.

Then I go to Africa with another several hundred million people. It’s tough things that have to be done there—HIV AIDS, and infectious diseases, and Darfur. But we ended the North-South conflict in Sudan. I signed it. We saw what was going on in Liberia. I sent in, after a lot of pressure on my colleagues, some marines to help the AU [African Union], and now they’ve had elections. A lovely woman is president. Somalia—you figure Somalia out. It hasn’t been a country in 2000 years. And Congo has just had elections. Hmm. There’s a little bit happening there.

So of the seven billion people in the world, we’re having trouble with 120 million. I’m just telling you! Wait a minute, wait a minute. All this world in crisis that everybody talks about. I’m in the private equity business. I’m in the venture capital business. There is so much money sloshing around looking to invest in open economic systems. China’s main problem is that 300 million middle class Chinese are showing a billion Chinese what their lives could be. They want it. And the Chinese know it. So what are they gonna do with those billion people? 800 million are farmers who can’t be sustained on the land. So they’re gonna create cities. Industrial cities to suck up this labor pool of 800 million farmers. And so they don’t want any war with anybody. They all need good relations with the west, and especially with the United States.

Do you believe that part of what the world needs from the U.S. is simply a statement of old fashioned American optimism, that everything will be OK, that the future is bright?

Yes. I agree with that. I make my living speaking. And I’m part speaker, part entertainer. And I talk about all the problems in the world. I talk about the problems in Iraq, I talk about Afghanistan. I talk about the Palestine-Israeli issue. I talk about any problem they want me to talk about. And I talk about the fact that we’ve gone down the tubes with respect to public opinion in parts of the world. But I start with, “Let me tell you what it was like when I came into the army. You know, kids were ducking under the desks because of nuclear weapons. Let me tell you what it was like on October 1, 1989, when I became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Top of my career, most senior military officer in the world. And the first thing I did that morning was get briefed on whether Russian submarines were off the coast of Virginia, and what the flight time was of the cruise missiles. That’s all gone.” So I tend to see historic forces at work that over time are in our interest.

And I’m not making it up. But all people see are these dunderheads every night on the news saying everything’s falling apart. Well, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. My grandkids—they’re terrific. Their future looks great.

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David Samuels is a regular contributor to The Atlantic.

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