Adam Garfinkle, editor of
The American Interest, spoke
with General Powell at
his home on January 11, 2010.
AI: Let’s start with the topic the AI featured in its January/February issue: How do you think the President is doing?
Colin Powell: I’ve never been one to assign grades to a President after his first year. I think Obama has taken on a number of very difficult issues, but they are the issues that he said during the campaign that he would take on. His first major problem was dealing with the economy. I think he managed to stabilize the financial system, and his challenge for 2010 is to do something about unemployment. That’s what’s on the minds of people now, but many have already forgotten how bad the financial system and the economic situation looked when he was elected. I think he’s done a pretty good job on the economy so far.
With respect to other major domestic issues, he took on health care, and hopefully some legislation beneficial to the country will emerge from that. He has also taken on climate change in a way that hadn’t been done previously. And he has taken on education, particularly the need to do something significant about our dropout problem. I think he is making progress on all these issues, but every one of them is extremely difficult in a highly partisan environment, so it’s too early to say whether his presidency will be a success. I’ve been through four presidential first years in government service, and this one is typical of others I have watched.
With respect to foreign policy, he pretty much has continued the Iraq policy that President Bush left him with: to continue to draw down and turn things over to the Iraqis to shape the destiny of their own country. With respect to Afghanistan, he did something that might be surprising to those who elected him, which is to add 30,000 more troops for 2010 to the 20,000 he committed in 2009. Whether that works the way we hope it will remains to be seen—that’s the big question mark.
All in all, I’d say he’s doing reasonably well in light of the challenges he chose to face, and in light of the desperate economic situation that confronted the nation at the outset of his term—and which I think was a critical factor in his election victory. But this is a congressional election year, and partisan charges will go back and forth, so we’re not likely to hear many objective assessments of anything the President does or has done.
AI: Let’s stay with the politics of the moment. When Senator Obama was campaigning for the White House, one of the themes he stressed was that “politics as usual” had to go, and he was specific about what he meant. He meant the transactional “K Street” culture that sends so many lobbyists and so much money coursing through our political system. He promised to do something about it, but in the first year, many observers were surprised to see him essentially turn the crafting of the stimulus package over to the Democrats in Congress—same with the health care bill and also the budget process. Now, if you’re going to go after the transactional culture, ceding initiative to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi doesn’t seem the right way to address the problem. Why did he do this?
Colin Powell: I would also be somewhat critical of the President for relying on the Democratic leadership of the Congress to do all the heavy lifting on things like health care and cap-and-trade and the rest of it. It doesn’t work well that way, and I hope that he learned a lesson in the first year: You can’t just say you’re going to do something and hope the Congress will do it for you.
So I think he’s going to have to organize himself and his White House in a slightly different way for the remainder of his term. He’ll need to be more definitive with Congress as to what he wants, what he’s expecting, and what he’ll demand of them. He is the leader of the Democratic Party.
It’s not the 1960s anymore. There are no barons in the Congress now, no real leaders in the House whom a President can simply call and say, “Go do this for our party and for the country.” It’s a much more diffuse business than it used to be. It’s much more argumentative, too. I never thought we had elected a political Superman, never thought that his charisma meant he could break through all the bureaucratic and political hurdles inherent to the system today. But at the same time, I think that in his second year he’s got to be far more direct with Congress about his goals, and far more demanding of congressional leadership to achieve them. For example, he said he would close Guantánamo. He shouldn’t have given Congress a year to play with it. That ensures that all their individual interests will get inserted into the process. My own suggestion—and I’ve called for GITMO to be closed for years—is to simply tell the Secretary of Defense to close it and tell the Attorney General to find places for these people. Time won’t make this problem any easier.
AI: Let me ask about the organization of the White House for foreign policy. Two characteristics seem to stand out so far: the White House-centric nature of the process, with a large NSC staff and, related to that, the appointment of several high-status Special Envoys like Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell who in effect report to the President. You’ve been both Deputy National Security Advisor and National Security Advisor; what’s your assessment so far? Is this approach working? What are the advantages and disadvantages of setting things up this way?
Colin Powell: The one thing I’ve learned over all these years is that there is no single correct model for the NSC and the system; it is whatever the President chooses it to be. And he and his closest advisers have decided that their approach is to have quite a few of these envoys and Special Assistants. The NSC staff has now grown to something like 200 people, with many Special Assistants to the President.
My personal preference is to keep the NSC and the Special Envoy system as small as possible in order to energize the bureaucracy to act, and in order to keep clearer lines of communication and coordination among the various players. If you have a huge bureaucracy standing there and you see someone come in as a Special Envoy and then create a staff to go with his position, there’s potential for conflict between the envoy and his staff, and the Assistant Secretary for that region and his staff.
AI: You mean like when Ambassador Holbrooke and Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher disagreed, rather loudly I’m told, in front of their staffs about reporting protocol, for example?
Colin Powell: Well, the point is that it’s for the President to decide how he wants to organize the NSC system. If President Obama is satisfied with this model, then that’s the correct one for him. But it would not be a correct model for me. I would have fewer Special Envoys, and I would use the organized bureaucracy in a way to support the President’s goals, and I think it can be done. Not to say that this isn’t happening now; it’s just not the model I would have picked to do it.
AI: What’s the state of black America with Barack Obama as President?
Colin Powell: I think President Obama has been an inspiration to black people. He received over 95 percent of the black vote. But we didn’t elect a black President. We elected a President who happens to be black, just as I was a Secretary of State who happened to be black. We don’t, or we shouldn’t, color-code our national leaders.
But of course it’s a bit much for anyone to think that, just because of the color of his skin, he’d suddenly break through centuries of residential segregation, or suddenly improve the condition of our communities so that our kids aren’t dropping out of high school anymore, or so that we have less illegitimacy or more young black men going to college. But what has Obama been doing? He has been trying to fix health care, which is a problem for all Americans, black and white, but more a problem for the less well-off. And he has been trying to fix education, which is a problem for all Americans, but especially minority Americans. So I think he has been very wise, in both the campaign and the presidency, not to be identified as “the black President”, yet to work on the structural and deeply embedded problems we face in our minority communities at the same time. I think that’s the right way to do this.
AI: Let’s switch now to one of the key seams between domestic and foreign policy: terrorism and homeland security. Everyone was distressed at the Detroit Christmas Day attempted bombing episode, that the guy was able to get on the airplane, and the discussion we’ve been having since—about whether the new Directorate for National Intelligence set-up is the right one, whether DHS makes us safer or not, whether political correctness corrupts the bureaucracy and so on—is one we need to have. But what has distressed me even more as this story has played out is how much it has played out. It has dominated the news almost as if the bomb had gone off and brought down the plane, God forbid. The President made three high-profile public statements about it and ordered a formal inquiry. Doesn’t this help the bad guys, give them a chain to yank? Why do we let terrorists essentially take hostage the way we speak and act about our national security?
Colin Powell: Well, let me start an answer by pointing out that the problem we’re having with terrorism is real, and we have to fight it any and every way we can. But terrorism cannot bring down the United States, cannot change our way of life except to make it more inconvenient. But we can change our way of life if we respond to terrorism in a way that suggests it’s World War III when it’s not. Terrorists can’t change our system; only we can do that, and we are in danger of doing that.
Take a look, for example, at how modern communications have affected how we respond. We are inundated all day long with cable channels that have to fill the time with something. We are inundated with blogs and Google alerts and “designer” news pouring in from every direction. Everyone has a cable show or talk radio show, which are increasingly partisan and increasingly strive to capture market share. So the President was being criticized for not saying something in just the first few hours after the news broke, even thought he didn’t yet have anything to say. In the old days, Lyndon Johnson could have said, “You’ll hear from the Attorney General”, and that would have been enough. That’s no longer acceptable. The press demands that, for every issue like this, it has to hear directly from the President.
I wish that were not the case. It overhypes everything to the point where we’re thinking about the wrong things. We ought to be thinking about China and India and Brazil, and economics and all the rest of what really matters, not just this Nigerian guy on an airplane. But the nature of the modern media environment demands the President’s attention on these things. What does the White House think about this? Why is the President on the beach instead of in the Rose Garden making a statement?
AI: The President also seemed to respond more or less directly to former Vice President Cheney’s remark that he doesn’t know we’re at war. Obama said, of course, as he had said before, that, yes, he knows we’re at war. But was it wise for the Oval Office to respond in that way?
Colin Powell: He did indicate this before, right. He has said it in previous speeches and on the campaign trail. So Mr. Cheney was wrong in suggesting that the President doesn’t understand the nature of the threat we face. I would also point out, if Mr. Cheney is interested, that it was Secretary Rumsfeld who tried to get away from use of the term “war.” Frankly, I think the war image is okay. It keeps us on our toes, and highlights it in the minds of the American people that this is a problem we’ll have to deal with for a long time. But let’s get on with life.
AI: You mentioned China, India and Brazil a moment ago. As you know, the intellectual chatterati are frequently on these days, once again, about the decline of the United States and the “rise of the rest.” That was going on before the economic crisis, but it has accelerated since. Are we in decline?
Colin Powell: I think America is still the leading nation on the face of the earth by every measure. In our democratic political system, our economic system, our inventiveness and ingenuity, and our ability to adapt to changing circumstances, we’re still number one. But there are many other nations out there that are not number ten anymore. China has risen. They’re going to build dozens of nuclear reactors in the next 15 years. We haven’t built one in decades. At the same time they’re also the leaders in solar and wind technology. They made more cars last year than we did. They now are the largest exporter in the world, recently displacing Germany. They are the second-largest economy in the world by some measures.
But none of that means the United States and China need to be adversaries. The Chinese aren’t looking for trouble. They’ve got 800 million people who still are dirt poor. They have to industrialize to bring some of those 800 million people off the farms, where they will never have a better life, and into the industrial system. Maybe that’s why they’ve built a train that goes 217 miles per hour, and why they’re building roads and infrastructure out into the countryside. And yes, they’re expanding their influence throughout the world in the process. But is that in order to become an enemy of ours? No.
AI: And the Chinese are not alone in growing economically and wanting to grow further, are they?
Colin Powell: Not at all. Economic growth is the driving political force these days throughout the world, not just in China. The chance for general affluence is now available for the first time to many societies, and that’s what they care most about right now—something we’ve had for so long that we sometimes take it for granted, and fail to realize how it motivates others. Our economy ended up fairly flat for the past decade, which is unusual for the United States, but most of the world’s societies had a successful decade economically. Many more people have been pulled out of abject poverty since the end of the Cold War than in any comparable period in human history. But again, that doesn’t necessarily mean there will be more conflict, or that the United States has been eclipsed as the leading power.
Of course, new problems have arisen with new circumstances, and rapid growth does often rattle societies. With all the growth we’re also seeing greater energy use and environmental damage. The leading countries know that economic growth, energy use and environmental despoliation form a single problem set. They know, too, that the fourth “e”—education—is critical to prepare their populations to thrive in an information-driven world. And who leads in all this? The United States. The world still looks to us to solve major problems. From the Middle East peace process to cap-and-trade and emissions control, the world looks to President Obama and the United States. That hasn’t changed.
But relatively speaking, it’s true that several other nations have considerable influence, including several non-Western countries, and that’s something new in the post-World War II era. The Soviet Union was strong militarily, but it never exhibited the economic dynamism of China, India or an increasing number of countries. And now we coexist with these other countries not as enemies, but in a fluid and mixed set of relationships. That’s unprecedented in the experience of the United States as a mature power, but the fact that other societies are thriving is potentially good for us as well as for them.
Also unprecedented, however, is the fact that a developing nation is now the financier of the profligacy of the richest nation on earth. That doesn’t necessarily means we’re in decline, but it’s probably not a good thing either.
AI: The profligacy of the richest nation on earth bothers me, too, and seems to point to some problems we do need to fix. After all, the underlying sources of world leadership do not restore and renew themselves automatically. But do we need to reinvent American capitalism, as some say, reinvent the way that government and markets interact? Or should we be more circumspect in how we define our challenges?
Colin Powell: The major economic problem the United States has to deal with is the disparity between those doing very well and those further down who are working harder for a living. The disparity has become increasingly troubling, and we are reluctant to do some of the things necessary to fix this. Is any CEO really worth 400 times an employee’s salary? And no modern democracy can tolerate rising inequality to that extent for very long and still be a unified and effective political community.
Part of the solution to our economic problems is to start living closer to our means. We’re still not living within our means, or we wouldn’t have the national debt that we do, or the load of credit the average person carries. But we are beginning to understand, as individuals, as families, and perhaps as a country, that we cannot keep living beyond our means and borrowing to sustain it, and this is a good thing. We’ll bounce back. Most Americans believe that, I think, and we need to believe that, to believe in ourselves.
AI: You always say that optimism is a force multiplier, and over the years you’ve persuaded me of that.
Colin Powell: You’ve got to believe that, and most Americans do. One of my favorite stories on this point comes from when I was President Reagan’s National Security Advisor. It was the year of Japan. “Japan, Inc.” was buying everything in sight, from Rockefeller Center to Pebble Beach. The whole economic team came to see Reagan one day and said, “Mr. President, we’ve got to do something about this. This is disastrous.” Reagan just sat there listening to it all, and when they were through he said, “Well, I’m glad the Japanese know a good investment when they see one.” In other words, let them invest in America! Reagan had that confidence. So do I. So should we all. In this case, however, the Japanese investments weren’t successful.
AI: I know how to put your optimism to the test: Let’s talk about the “Greater Middle East.”
I’m pessimistic about Afghanistan. I don’t see how 30,000 troops, or even 47,000 troops, in a situation where there are so many structural disadvantages working against us, can make a real difference in 18 months. And I’m not sure that talking about a July 2011 date to begin removing some of the force was the right signal to send to the region and beyond. I’m concerned, too, that a perception that we’re losing or that we’re struggling in a futile effort in Afghanistan will affect other portfolios, including Iran, Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict and perhaps others in a negative way. The whole thing makes me feel uneasy.
Colin Powell: There’s good cause to be uneasy. I understand why the President had to do what he did, but no one can give him a guarantee of what the results will be. I’m sure the generals have given him an indication of how the troops will be used, but I don’t know what the result will be, and whether the Taliban will be defeated or deterred, or whether we can build up Afghan defense capabilities to the point where they can handle it by themselves.
The idea of a deadline at which we will start to pull out again seems to have been fudged a lot by other people in the Administration. So I’m not sure what that means at the moment. But the reason it was put out there was to tell the Afghans and others that this can’t go on indefinitely. I don’t think the American people have the tolerance, because in 2011 it will have been ten years since this started. So sooner or later we have to decide how much this will cost us, and how long we can afford to wait for the Afghan government to demonstrate the capacity to handle its own problems.
We’re just going to have to wait and see what the situation looks like after a year has passed. At the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011, the President and his advisers will have to take a hard look at this and ask if this engagement is achieving the purpose intended—especially it will have to ask if the Afghans are doing their part so that, when an American infantry battalion goes in and squares things away in a province and then leaves, the Taliban doesn’t just come in from the neighboring province and reverse the effort. That’s the major problem: the Afghans being able to hold territory themselves.
All of this is complicated by the more serious problem of Pakistan. There, we can use Predator drones, we can give additional funds, but ultimately the Pakistanis have to solve their own problems. For a variety of reasons, they have until recently been reluctant to go all out against their own Taliban presence. We’re going to have to keep pressing. Ambassador Holbrooke, General Mullen, General Jones and Secretary Gates are spending a lot of time trying to persuade the Pakistanis that fighting the Taliban is in their interest. It’s their country; bombs are going off in Pakistan more than they are anywhere else right now, so it’s in their interest to do something about this problem.
AI: The Pakistani elite will certainly fight to reclaim their favorite vacation spots, as they have in the Swat Valley, but I’m still skeptical that they’ll be willing to push up against the Durand Line enough to make a difference to the fight in Afghanistan—especially now that they think we’re unlikely to stick around for long. But maybe my skepticism will prove unjustified. Anyway, let’s move on to a simpler problem: Iran.
Iran has become a double moving target: the nuclear program is moving and so is a burgeoning but hard-to-figure domestic opposition. Right now, the Administration is in a position of having missed its own year-end deadline for engaging the Iranians, triggering consideration of what the Secretary of State has referred to as “crippling sanctions.” But we don’t seem to have the international support we need for such sanctions, and now the discussions over sanctions have gotten nuanced to the point that, some say, it looks like we are losing the policy edge. How does all this look to you?
Colin Powell: The Iranians are committed to having a nuclear program, and perhaps a nuclear weapon. For years, in the second half of the Bush Administration, we kept insisting that it had to be stopped, suspended, abandoned. And they kept saying, it isn’t going to be. They continue to say that. So the question is whether there’s a way to keep that nuclear program from becoming a weapons program, a way to freeze it at the power-producing level, which is what the Iranians publicly say they’re interested in. I have a hunch that if there is a negotiated settlement it’ll fall along those lines. There will be a nuclear power program, but also an agreement, enforced by the international community and the IAEA, to put in place inspections that will make it as impossible as we can make it to climb the ladder to a weapons capability. I don’t think they’re going to abandon the program altogether; they have too much committed to it.
So far, in the ten years I’ve been watching this, I have not seen the international community come together with a sanctions program that the major players all can agree upon that would cause the Iranians to change course. That the Bush Administration couldn’t do it using one approach wasn’t the fault entirely of the Bush Administration, and that the Obama Administration has not been able to do it so far using another approach isn’t entirely its fault either. It’s a hard problem.
On the other hand, it’s not clear to me what the possession of nuclear weapons would really do for Iran. Of course, I don’t want to see them get that far, but I still have an old-fashioned view that deterrence works. So does this really make sense for them in the long term? I’m not sure, and I’m not sure they’re sure yet. So we have no choice, ultimately, other than to keep looking for a diplomatic solution, because the Iranians are not simply going to say, “Oh, gee, we quit.” And how we look for that solution needs to involve all of the aspects of any serious diplomacy: how we shape our approach, how we cooperate with other interested parties, how American power figures in the calculations of the other parties, how we assess the nature of the domestic situation in Iran, and so on.
The domestic situation may turn out to be the key. Iran has an extremely youthful population. The one serious discussion I had with an Iranian Foreign Minister took place in late 2004 over dinner in Cairo. My Egyptian colleague arranged the arrival time so that the Iranian and I were the last to arrive. We started talking, each of us being careful not to overstep his brief. (He was more careful than I was.) He was an economics professor, and when I asked, “What is the major problem facing your country these days?” he responded, “We have to create 600,000 jobs every year.” They aren’t creating that many jobs, so unemployment among these young people keeps increasing. They will never catch up with that need until they fully enter the world economic system. So I think these internal pressures will eventually change Iran. I can’t tell you when, or how, but I can tell you that we better not stick our nose too much in the middle of all this, because the regime will use that against us.
AI: You say you have an old-fashioned belief that deterrence works, and you wonder what good a bomb would do for the Iranians. Well sure, the Iranians would never use a nuclear bomb against the United States; they would be deterred on that level, of course. But the mere possession of a bomb changes the political coloration of the regional landscape even if it’s never used, does it not? It certainly harms the global non-proliferation effort, and I’m not so confident that the weapons would never be used. We’re not talking about just two sides with nukes, as in the Cold War, or about secure second-strike forces. We’re talking instead about a likely mousetrap proliferation effect within the region, and about small and unsophisticated arsenals on many sides coexisting for years. That’s a crisis-unstable, accident-prone situation, it seems to me. The Iranians would not be better off for all this, you’re right. But with nuclear powers already arrayed around them—China, Russia, Pakistan, India, Israel, us—I’m not sure they see things that way. All of this persuades me that an Iranian nuclear breakout would be a very dangerous development.
Colin Powell: It should worry all of us. Iran, or some other country, could act irresponsibly in a domestic crisis or so sloppily that lots of things could go wrong. Maybe they would proliferate to terrorists, too, who might use or try to use a weapon. That seems to me unlikely, because we’d know where it came from and know the return address. Besides, a nuclear weapon is not something a terrorist can just turn a dial on or light a fuse to deploy. But the possibility of transfer or theft and use is not zero, and the consequences would be enormous, so we have to take it seriously. The Obama Administration’s position, like that of the Bush Administration, is one of “prevention”—and I think that’s the right policy. How to achieve that without causing as many problems as we solve is the tough part, now as before.
AI: One last question: You’re an optimist, but is there anything that keeps you up at night?
Colin Powell: I’m bothered by the crises we’re involved in in Iraq and principally in Afghanistan and Pakistan. You have young men and women who are a very small percentage of the population bearing the burden for this, along with their families. As a former soldier, and as a former diplomat and politician, that bothers and troubles me.
What bothers me more than anything else right now, however, is the discord that exists in our country, and the way in which we are shouting and screaming at each other, and how everyone’s motives are challenged—where you can call the President a communist and be cheered on, where nonsense like the “birther” movement spreads. Americans both on the right and left have got to take a deep breath and start pushing back against this. We’ve got to tell our politicians to get out of the business of just spending money to appear to be solving problems, to lay off the earmarks, to quit constantly raising money to run for re-election. We have to push back on the inflated influence that money now has in our politics—that transactional culture you mentioned before—or else we’re in danger.
AI: I’m glad you raised the campaign-finance issue. As you know, it looks like the Supreme Court is about to roll back campaign finance constraints to pre-Watergate levels.1 But when you peel back the onion on all the domestic policy problems we haven’t been able to solve over the past twenty to thirty years—and it’s a long list—it all goes back to campaign financing, to the need to raise enormous amounts of money to pay for making and running television ads. It’s a situation that almost invites influence peddling and corruption. In my view, if we decline, it won’t be because of other countries doing better; it will be because we go rotten inside.
Frankly, I don’t understand what the big problem is here: Why can’t the FCC, instead of giving away broadcast licenses for free, sell them and use the revenue to create a more level playing field for candidates without the big bucks? Bandwidth is a limited and valuable resource, after all. I don’t see why it should be given away for free.
Colin Powell: We’ve done that in the past.
AI: And we could do it again. And I don’t see why, like pretty much every other mature democratic country, we don’t limit official campaign seasons so we could at least bracket the power of money to distort the democratic process.
Colin Powell: The Supreme Court will tell you why: It’s a First Amendment issue, besides which congressional incumbents aren’t going to pass a law that hurts them, at least not unless the American people rise up and demand real reform. If that happens, I suspect that the Court will find another way to see the issue, as it has done with many issues in our history. I think that will happen in one way or another. We’ve had episodes of big money distorting our politics before, and we’ve overcome the problem. You have to look at the whole historical picture. If I do have an attitude of persistent optimism, it’s because I have undying faith in the American people, that slowly but surely we can sort things out and get the right answers.
Look, these aren’t the worst times we’ve seen. The worst time in my adult life was the 1968–74 period: the height of the Vietnam war; Bobby Kennedy is killed; Martin Luther King is killed; there are riots; the White House is surrounded by buses; a Vice President resigns in disgrace; then a President resigns in disgrace; the Soviet Union is ascendant. But then Gerald Ford comes along and reminds us of what our values are. Jimmy Carter, a populist, wins the next election, followed by Reagan, and then we’re back—and it didn’t take all that long. The sweep of history has validated America and the way we go about things. I have an undying faith in the goodness and the collective, slow-burning decision-making process of the American people. If I didn’t believe in that, I don’t know what I’d believe in.
AI: Is Obama’s election somehow part of that?
Colin Powell: I think so, yes.