Magazine

Colin Powell: On Iraq, Bush, and His Job


After interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. combat troops are stretched thin and Washington's military options are growing limited. That means President Bush will be relying more in coming days on his Secretary of State, retired U.S. Army General Colin Powell, to steer foreign policy.

Powell has frequently tilted against Administration superhawks and now finds himself with an unenviable mission: extricating his boss from the seeming morass in Iraq by involving the same U.N. that the hard-liners once scorned-and the same allies who were offended by Bush's go-it-alone charge into Iraq's treacherous sands.

The Administration's shift toward more nuanced diplomacy is well under way-and marks another high point in Powell's up-and-down stint at Foggy Bottom. Powell & Co. are trying to drum up support for another U.N. resolution on Iraq. U.S. diplomats are in the midst of tough talks over North Korea's nuclear arms. The U.S. is orchestrating growing international pressure against Iran's nuclear program. And the deteriorating situation in the Middle East demands deft diplomacy.

On Sept. 9, the Secretary of State sat down with BusinessWeek Washington Bureau Chief Lee Walczak and Chief Diplomatic Correspondent Stan Crock and sounded a confident note in the face of some stiff foreign policy challenges. Here is an extended, edited version of the interview that appears in the Sept. 22 issue of Business Week:

Q: Many people view the President's decision to seek more U.N. help in Iraq as a major policy shift. You don't?

A: It's more evolutionary than a shift.... We had a Madrid conference coming up next month for donors. So it seemed appropriate to go for a more comprehensive resolution. And frankly, we were getting pressed on a number of fronts to internationalize [the Iraq effort] more. We were working in that direction, and then we had the [U.N. Baghdad headquarters] bombing on the 19th of August. That kind of said: "Let's get going with this."

Q: What does the U.S. hope to gain from an expanded U.N. presence?

A: The most important thing we can get [is recognition that] the war is now behind us, [that] there's political support for reconstruction.... If you measure it in terms of troops, there's a limit to how many could be made available for peacekeeping. And it's not going to result in "We will match your $87 billion supplemental request." But it will certainly make it easier for those nations with the wherewithal to contribute troops or to give money to do so.

Q: Some war foes are gloating about the U.S.'s need to ask for the U.N.'s help at this point. Your reaction?

A: They'd better not gloat too soon. There are a lot of good things going on that simply don't get reported. [The story is] not as good as a [bomb] going off under a Humvee. But up in the northern section, things are going swimmingly. In the south, the British have done a good job. The tough area is the so-called triangle, and there are Iraqis who are destroying their own country. They're neither Baathists, fedayeen, nor terrorists. They're people stealing copper. And as soon as we get the economy going...that will pass. ... Saddam Hussein's gone. The place is no longer a threat to its neighbors. We'll find whatever they were doing with weapons of mass destruction. And it would really be a landmark achievement to have some kind of representative government in Iraq.

Q: Will the U.S. have to cut foreign companies in on some Iraqi reconstruction contracts as a condition of new aid?

A: There are going to be enough contracts for any nation that is committed to this effort to get a piece of the action.

Q: How about the idea of a U.N. proconsul to assume supervision of Iraq from coalition honcho L. Paul Bremer III?

A: We're the ones who have paid the political, economic, and military price to go in.... How can you imagine that we would suddenly say: "Please send somebody in to replace Bremer?" Some say we need an immediate turnover [of power] to the Iraqis. I would love to have an immediate turnover. But the Iraqis aren't ready.

Q: Which nations do you expect to send troops to Iraq?

A: There are 29 countries there with us already with 22,000 troops. When you look around and say, "Who are the countries that have large numbers of troops?" it's not a large number: Turkey, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Germany, and France. The Brits are sending more, but they're pretty much at their limit. The Germans have made it clear that in light of their position before the war, it's unlikely they would send any combat troops.

I would not expect the French to make a major contribution under any set of circumstances--one, because of what happened before the war, and two, because the French are stressed and stretched. They are in Kosovo, Bosnia, Cote d'Ivoire, Congo, Afghanistan. [We need] the Turks, Indians, and Pakistanis with large standing manpower.

Q: Where are we in the search for Saddam's weapons of mass destruction?

A: We are waiting for the report. [Chief weapons inspector] David Kay is hard at work on it. I don't know what's in it yet. I'm confident that the work he is doing will demonstrate that we were not blowing smoke. We said this was a place that was dangerous, a regime that was dangerous, with respect to weapons of mass destruction.

Q: U.S. military is now stretched pretty thin. Has the use of force in Iraq made diplomacy easier in disputes with nations such as Iran and North Korea-by demonstrating U.S. resolve-or has it made it harder?

A: Obviously, the more places we're involved in, the fewer forces are available to go somewhere else. But the way the President sees it, he doesn't really have to think right now about a military option in North Korea because he has good diplomatic options. There are diplomatic options with North Korea and diplomatic options with Iran.

Q: It's hard to measure progress in the North Korean talks when they conclude a session by boasting that they have nuclear weapons and may soon begin testing, isn't it?

A: The North Koreans are masterful in terms of painting themselves as the offended party... The Chinese now are as engaged in it as we are, as are the Russians, who wouldn't even acknowledge there was a problem for a while. They're all now saying the same thing to the North Koreans: "This is not good. We will not have a nuclearized Korean peninsula."

Q: And if the North Koreans test nuclear arms?

A: If they test we'll take note of their test. The only reason they are testing is to scare the international community. The President has already accepted the possibility that they might test. And we will say "Gee, that was interesting."

The 50-year history of dealing with this regime is that they are marvelous in terms of threats, in terms of rhetoric and actions. Well, they might take an action, but this time they would be sticking their finger not just in the eye of the United States, but I think Kim Jong Il will have to think twice about whether he would do such a thing in light of Chinese involvement.

Q: Many Europeans are worried that, after Iraq, the U.S. could again use force against its foes. Idle fears?

A: A lot of this is overwrought. The same opinion-makers in Europe don't ever want to use force hardly for anything if it can be avoided.... We haven't done a bad job in bringing Europe together [in support of U.S. policy on Iraq], but we still have a problem with the public because they have bought into this caricature [of the U.S.].

Q: And the real picture is...?

A: Look at what the President actually has done. He's improved relations with China and Russia. We got the Balkan states added to NATO without causing Russia to go nuts. We got Russia added to the NATO family. This isn't the action of a swaggering bully.... The President speaks in a direct manner with a very direct approach that is refreshing but sometimes does not meet European standards of intellectual mumbling.

Q: How does the caricature apply to you?

A: The caricature is that I'm in a constant battle with everybody. I'm either going to get fired next week or quit next week.... Sure, there's internal debate. And it's no secret that my views tend to be more moderate than some of my colleagues. But the President knew that when he hired me.

Q: So the disputes are more over how you get to where you going, rather than where you're going?

A: Yeah, I think that's fair....I always measure not the daily line, but who crosses the finish line. The fact of the matter is that the only one whose foreign policy counts, decision counts, and whose philosophy counts at the end of the day is the President. I feel quite satisfied with the advice that I and this department have given him.

Q: There are some people outside of government who would desperately like to see you stay around in a possible second term...

A: (Laughs) There are also some people on the outside who would definitely like to see me go...

Q: ...if only to serve as a counterweight to some of the President's more hawkish advisers. Are there any circumstances under which you might re-up?

A: I serve at the pleasure of the President, and that's something for the President and me to discuss. All I know is that notwithstanding what lots of people write, the President is satisfied with the performance of this department. We have transformed this department a great deal over the past 2-1/2 years with real transformation and not rhetoric. And it's reflected in the way the department is running and the way people feel about being in this department. People know we're making a difference.

Corrections and Clarifications

Our Q&A, "Colin Powell: On Iraq, Bush, and his job" (News: Analysis & Commentary, Sept. 22), should have said "...Baltic states added to NATO," according to the State Dept. transcript, not Balkan states.


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