I got an email yesterday with the following story:
When in England at a fairly large conference, Colin Powell was asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury if our plans for Iraq were just an example of empire building by George Bush.
He answered by saying that, “Over the years, the United States has sent many of its fine young men and women into great peril to fight for freedom beyond our borders. The only amount of land we have ever asked for in return is enough to bury those that did not return.”
It became very quiet in the room.
As so often turns out with a great story, reality is quite different. In this case, reality is actually much more interesting and displays why I have a tremendous amount of respect for Powell.
The big conference was the World Economic Forum at Davos in January and you can read the entire transcript of his speech and the Q/A afterwards.
It was a former Archbishop who asked a question and it was not whether we were empire building in Iraq. It was a somewhat convoluted question dealing with the proper use of soft or hard power, when to use each and how we should. He was worried that the US may be relying too much on hard power instead of soft power.
Powell then gave an incredibly eloquent answer, expressing the views of most Americans. Simply, We do not like to use hard power. We prefer soft but if hard is the only way, we will not shirk from using it. Read his response. It is much better than this short synopsis.
I do not disagree with this. I think many people worldwide would agree that hard, military power has to be used. The disagreement comes deciding what point must be reached before hard power needs to be used. My favorite quote from his repsonse is this:
I mean, it was not soft power that freed Europe. It was hard power. And what followed immediately after hard power? Did the United States ask for dominion over a single nation in Europe? No. Soft power came in the Marshall Plan. Soft power came with American GIs who put their weapons down once the war was over and helped all those nations rebuild. We did the same thing in Japan.
So our record of living our values and letting our values be an inspiration to others I think is clear. And I don’t think I have anything to be ashamed of or apologize for with respect to what America has done for the world.
After he finishes this, there is loud applause. Not a silent room. A lot of people agree with him. Then he next speaks the part that was quoted in the story, although there is substantial editting to make it more powerful and, in fact, more miltaristic and disrepectful of the audience. His real words are just as important and heartfelt but they do not have the hard edge that is present in the story.
We have gone forth from our shores repeatedly over the last hundred years and we’ve done this as recently as the last year in Afghanistan and put wonderful young men and women at risk, many of whom have lost their lives, and we have asked for nothing except enough ground to bury them in, and otherwise we have returned home to seek our own, you know, to seek our own lives in peace, to live our own lives in peace. But there comes a time when soft power or talking with evil will not work where, unfortunately, hard power is the only thing that works.
Not as pretty as the story. Powell’s answer to this one question was interrupted twice by applause. His entire speech was interrupted 8 times. The audience treated him with respect, as he did the audience. The first question was put to him by the Secretary General of Amnesty International. The one following was by a businessman. Both asked very good questions in a respectful fashion. Powell answered both with the same measure of respect, never dismissive in his response. He showed a strong sense of humility and a sharp sense of history.
The truth is SOOO much more complex and interesting than the skewed message in the email. If you want to get tears in your eyes, read the answer to the last question. The moderator asked Powell how 9/11 had affected him personally.
This man is someone I would trust with my country. My major worry has been that his views have become more marginalized in the Administration over the past year, if not longer. There are strong neoconservative views opposing his moderate ones. When several advisors wanted to go after Saddam within days of 9/11, not because Iraq was involved but because it fit their strategic views, Powell more than anyone else forced the focus back to Osama.
If Powell can avoid the long knives and forge a strong political career separate from Bush, he could have a huge effect on the future course of America. At least in my (not so humble) opinion.
How his career will play out is not knowable but here is one person’s opinion.