The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Parsley Island
Published on June 14, 2012

The following is an excerpt from Colin Powell’s book It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership

Leaders must be problem solvers. If you are not solving problems, you are no longer leading. Hopefully the problems you are solving relate to you, your organization, or your own interests. That is not always the case. Sometimes a problem comes totally out of the blue. It is of no interest to you, you have no skin in the game, you don’t know the first thing about it, and yet you have to take it on. Out-of-the-blue problem solving can grow even more complex if your organization happens to be the United States government, which—for better or worse—has long been the world’s go-to problem solver.

On a quiet Thursday afternoon in July 2002, I received a phone call from the new Spanish foreign minister, Ana Palacio, in office for just a few days. I managed only a couple of congratulatory words before she got to the reason for her call. “We have a crisis in the Mediterranean,” she said excitedly, “and you need to do something about it.”

I had no idea what she was talking about, but rather than look like an idiot, I bought time. “I’ve been getting updated on the situation; let me call you back in a few minutes.”

I put down the phone and screamed at the staff in the outer office, “What crisis in the Mediterranean? Haven’t I told you about ‘telling me early’ and ‘no surprises’? Is there a war going on that I don’t know about?”

The staff called our resident European and African experts, who came charging into my office. “Mr. Secretary, here’s what’s going on. There’s an island two hundred meters off the coast of Morocco named Perejil—‘parsley’ in Spanish. In English we usually just call it ‘Parsley Island.’ Perejil belongs to Spain, and has for four hundred years. Morocco disputes that, as well as Spain’s ownership of two other enclaves on the coast of Morocco, Ceuta and Melilla.”

“I never heard of the place,” I replied. “I thought I knew the Mediterranean.”

“Well, sir, it’s a tiny, rocky outcropping about the size of a football field. Nothing much grows there except parsley, and there are no inhabitants other than feral goats. Sunbathers and drug runners occasionally stay overnight.”

“Yeah, yeah, okay, so why do I have a crisis?”

“Well, sir, we have just had the first invasion of Europe from Africa since World War II. For reasons that aren’t clear, the Moroccans decided to seize the island, perhaps to celebrate the king’s recent wedding. The invading force consisted of a dozen Moroccan frontier guards who paddled across and put up a tent and two Moroccan flags. And they had a radio.”

“All right, then what happened?”

“Well, a couple of days later, the Spaniards noticed they had lost their island, and all hell broke loose. It became a political crisis in Spain. The Spanish government notified NATO and the European Union. NATO punted; told them it was a bilateral problem. But the EU condemned the invasion. ‘This is clearly a regrettable incident,’ they announced. ‘It constitutes a violation of Spanish territory.’ The Moroccans took the issue to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and got their support. No surprises there.”

My guys continued: “Well, then the Spaniards attacked with naval forces, retook the island, and put the Moroccans back on their own beach. There are now seventy-five Spanish Legionnaires on the rock.”

I had to smile. “Are you all pulling my leg? Isn’t this a scene from The Mouse that Roared”?—alluding to the classic Peter Sellers comedy about a minuscule European country that gets hold of a superweapon by mistake and makes the great powers tremble.

“No sir, it has become a serious international issue.”

I wondered, Why is Ana calling me? I was afraid to answer, but I had to call her back.

When I got Ana on the phone, I explained that I was now fully up to date on the crisis. “How could I be of help?” I asked reluctantly.

“Well,” she replied, “we’ve got our island back; now our Legionnaires want to come home. But the Moroccans are waiting on the beach and might try to retake the island. The OIC supports them; the EU supports us; and so you have to solve it.”

Bingo, I’ve got the brass ring.

Fortunately, no one was hurt in the invasion or the counterattack. When the Legionnaires arrived, only six Moroccans actually remained to garrison the island. The Legionnaires escorted them back to Morocco.

The solution was obvious: go back to the status quo ante bellum, the way it had been for four hundred years. It sounded simple to do.

Over the next forty-eight hours I made multiple calls to Ana Palacio and to the Moroccan foreign minister, Mohamed Benaissa, a distinguished diplomat I had known for years. All kinds of arguments surfaced, but we successfully buried them. Finally, on Saturday morning we had a deal (I was now making all these arrangements from my home by telephone). We agreed that the Legionnaires would leave the island by 11:30 my time, a few hours hence. I was congratulating the two foreign ministers when they suddenly demanded that the deal had to have a written agreement.

“Go write one,” I suggested.

Nope, I had to do it.

“Me? But who will sign it?”

“Easy, we want you to sign it.”

They expected me to write and sign an international binding agreement between two foreign countries? It’s a good thing I was home and my lawyers weren’t around. I went to work on my home computer. About ten minutes later, I had knocked out a one-page agreement. I faxed it to them, and more arguments broke out. The biggest was over the name of the island. Morocco objected to the Spanish name, Perejil, and the Spaniards wouldn’t accept Leila, the preferred Moroccan name.

Colin Powell is a retired four-star general of the United States Army. He served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993, and as Secretary of State from 2001 to 2005.