Colin Powell’s interview on NBC’s Meet the Press

NBC’s Tim Russert interviewed former US Secretary of State Colin Powell on NBC’s Meet the Press on 10 June 2007. The full transcript is available here. Powell — whom I have huge respect for and have seen in person when he spoke at my uni — covered a wide range of issues, including the Iraq war, Iran, Gitmo and the next US presidential elections. Many thanks to pseudonymity for highlighting this interview in his blog. The following are some extracts which I found quite eye-opening.

On the Iraq War

Powell: I didn’t think the war was a mistake at the time we entered into it. It was a war that I would have preferred to avoid, and I said to the president in August of 2002, “Let’s take this to the UN and try to solve it, because there are consequences, both unintended and intended, associated with entering into a conflict with Iraq that are going to be difficult. We break it, we’re going to own it. We’re going to be liberators, we’re also going to be occupiers.” And the president did that, he took it to the UN. But he did not get a satisfactory solution from the UN, and he made a decision to use military force, and I supported him in that. But I think we have handled the aftermath of the fall of Baghdad in, in a very ineffective way.

Russert: Knowing what you know today, would you do the same thing all over again?

Powell: If we knew today—or knew then what we know today, that there were no weapons of mass destruction, I would’ve had nothing to take to the United Nations…. I think it is doubtful that without the weapons of mass destruction case, the president and Congress and the United Nations and those who joined us in the conflict—the British, the Italians, the Spanish, the Australians—would’ve found a persuasive enough case to support a decision to go to war.

But let’s go back to around 10 April of 2003. Saddam Hussein’s statue fell on the 9th, and from the 10th of April, for a month or two, everybody in the United States thought this was a terrific outcome. And it looked like it was going to work, just as the administration has said it was going to work. We were liberators for a moment, and then we simply did not handle the aftermath. We didn’t realize we were in an insurgency when we were in an insurgency, and we watched as the ministries that we were counting on, the government ministries we were counting on to help us take over, were being burned and looted. And we didn’t respond. And we didn’t have enough troops in the ground.

Because once the government fell, the whole structure of government collapsed. Once the government in Baghdad came down, everything came down. And it was our responsibility then, under international law as the occupying authority as well as the liberators, to be responsible for restoring order, and we didn’t have enough troops there to restore that order nor did we have the political understanding of our obligation to restore that order.

I spent five days out at the CIA going over every single piece of information that was going to be in my presentation (to the UNSC on 5 February 2003). There were a lot of other pieces of information that different people would have wanted me to use and it was all rejected. Everything in that statement was blessed by the director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet; his deputy, John McLaughlin; and all of their senior officials. They believed it, too. George has said he believed it. And so I went to the UN having dumped a lot of stuff on the side of the road because it wasn’t multiple source. It might have been right, but it wasn’t multiple source and I wouldn’t use it. And the reason you see Director Tenet sitting behind me is because I wanted to make sure and he wanted to make sure that people understood I was not making a political statement. I was making a statement of the facts as we knew them.

And we all believed it. Our military believed it going into battle. Other governments believed it. The reality is they did not have those stockpiles. We were wrong.

Fourth point I’d like to make. Suppose that the UN sanctions had subsequently broken down. We didn’t go into a war with Iraq and Saddam Hussein was free of all UN constraints because of the collapse of the Oil for Food program. Would you believe, would anybody believe, that with the capability and with the intent he would not then go back to trying to build up those stockpiles? That’s the chance the president did not want to take, that’s the risk he did not want to take.

We went to war on the basis that we have a terrible regime and what makes—it’s been terrible forever. What makes it so terrible now, in the aftermath of 9/11, is that they had demonstrated that they will use these weapons.

I’m glad the regime is gone. I’m glad Saddam Hussein is gone. But the case that we took to the world and the case that we took to the American people rested not just in his human rights abuses or his cheating on the Oil for Food program, it rested on the real and present danger of weapons of mass destruction that he could use against his neighbors, or terrorists could use against us. That was the precipitating issue in my judgment, and it turned out those weapons were not there.

…when we decided to take it to the UN, I worked for seven weeks to get a UN resolution, a unanimous resolution. as it turned out, 1441, and that resolution had a get out of jail card for Saddam Hussein. It gave him, I think it was 30 or 60 days, to come forward and answer all the questions that are outstanding about your capability and your stockpiles and what you’ve done with it. And, instead of seriously trying to answer that question, he just dumped a whole bunch of stuff on us that really wasn’t credible or believable. And it was at that point that he set us on the road to war. He had a chance to stop this. And when I briefed the president in August of 2002 about the potential consequences of the war, and he said, “What do we do?” I said, “I recommend we go to the UN.” He accepted that recommendation, we went to the UN. But I said to the president at that time, you know, “He could satisfy us, and if he satisfies us, if he makes it clear that here is it—here it all is, then you have to be prepared to accept that, and there may not be a war, and we may have a changed regime but not a regime change.”

Russert: What did the president say?

Powell: He said yes, he understood that.

I would’ve preferred no war because I couldn’t see clearly the unintended consequences. But we tried to avoid that war with the UN sanctions and putting increasing diplomatic and international pressure on Saddam Hussein. But when I took it to the president and said, “This is a war we ought to see if we can avoid,” I also said and made it clear to him, “If, at the end of the day, it is a war that we cannot avoid, I’ll be with you all the way.” That’s, that’s part of being part of a team. And therefore I couldn’t have any other outcome, and I had no reservations about supporting the president in war. And I think things could’ve turned out differently after the middle of April if we had responded in a different way.

On Iran and Syria

I believe we should be talking to all of Iraq’s neighbors. I think we should be talking to Iran, we should be talking to Syria. Not to solve a particular problem or crisis of the moment or the day, but just to have dialogue with people who are involved in this region in so many ways. And so I think it is shortsighted not to talk to Syria and Iran and everybody else in the region, and not just for the purpose of making a demand on them “and I’ll only talk to you if you meet the demand that I want to talk to you about.” That’s not the way to have a dialogue in my judgement.

On Guantanamo Bay

Guantanamo has become a major, major problem for America’s perception as it’s seen, the way the world perceives America. And if it was up to me, I would close Guantanamo not tomorrow, but this afternoon. I’d close it. And I would not let any of those people go. I would simply move them to the United States and put them into our federal legal system.

America, unfortunately, has two million people in jail all of whom had lawyers and access to writs of habeas corpus. And so we can handle bad people in our system. And so I would get rid of Guantanamo and I’d get rid of the military commission system and use established procedures in federal law or in the manual for courts-martial. I would do that because I think it’s a more equitable way to do it and it’s more understandable in constitutional terms. I would always—I would also do it because every morning I pick up a paper and some authoritarian figure, some person somewhere is using Guantanamo to hide their own misdeeds. And so, essentially, we have shaken the belief that the world had in America’s justice system by keeping a place like Guantanamo open and creating things like the military commission. We don’t need it, and it’s causing us far damage than any good we get for it. But, remember what I started in this discussion saying, “Don’t let any of them go.” Put them into a different system, a system that is experienced, that knows how to handle people like this.

On the next Presidential elections

I’ve met with Senator (Barack) Obama twice. I’ve been around this town a long time, and I know everybody who is running for office, and I make myself available to talk about foreign policy matters and military matters with whoever wishes to chat with me.

Russert: Would you ever come back in the government?

Powell: I would not rule it out. I’m not at all interested in political life, if you mean elected political life. That is unchanged. But I always keep my, my eyes open and my ears open to requests for service.

Russert: Any endorsements?

Powell: Oh, not yet. It’s too early.

Russert: But you’ll support the Republican?

Powell: It’s too early.

Russert: Would you support an independent?

Powell: I’m going to support, I’m going to support the best person that I can find who will lead this country for the eight years beginning in January 2009.

Russert: Of any party?

Powell: The best person I can find.


Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

2 thoughts on “Colin Powell’s interview on NBC’s Meet the Press”

  1. Hi Gerald,

    Powell shows that good men often have to make tough decisions and sometimes these decisions turn out to be wrong.

    Whilst in the Cabinet, he had no choice but be a team player and take collective responsibility for what the whole cabinet decides on.

    I suppose if he disagreed with some decision or find something really repugnant, he would have to resign rather than be identified with the team.

    I hope he gets called up for public service again by the next president ( whoever he or she is)


  2. hi Dr Huang,

    Well you’re right. If he really disagreed, he should have resigned right away, just like Claire Short and others did in the British Cabinet.

    At the time I attended his speech in my university, he wasn’t even Sec’y of State yet. In fact many were hoping he would run for president to succeed Clinton. The polls all showed he would beat Gore hands down. I wonder if things would have turned out differently if he became president instead.

    I too hope he gets called up again, but would any president take the risk of calling up someone who previously supported the tragic war?

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