Colin Powell, the retired four-star general and former secretary of state, says we’re living through trying times, but not the “worst of times.” The respected American statesman and soldier is convinced the current economic turmoil, while deeply disruptive to the United States and the world, can ultimately lead to a healthy rebalancing of life in America.
In an exclusive interview with The Washington Diplomat at his office in Alexandria, Va., Powell said the economic meltdown provides a powerful and sobering message that certain features of American life became excessive.
“It is a challenging time, but within these challenges are opportunities. For the United States, there is a chance for us to get a better grip on how we’ve been behaving as an economic society,” he said. “We need more savings in this country. We need to be less consumer-oriented in the sense of being less profligate in our spending. So maybe this is the kind of brush back we need. We have to be patient and work our way through these problems.”
Powell believes that much of the commentary describing the current economic crisis as the gravest threat since the Great Depression is overblown and lacks historical perspective.
“When people say to me that this is ‘the worst of times,’ I think they have short memories or weren’t around a few years back. The ‘worst of times’ was when had two great empires that threatened our very existence as a nation and as a political system — the Soviet empire and the Chinese empire. The Soviet empire is gone and the Chinese empire is no longer the kind of empire it used to be. We don’t have nuclear weapons pointed at each other on hair-trigger alert and we have freed hundreds of millions of people from totalitarian leadership.
“And it was the ‘worst of times’ for me to see what happened to my country, the United States, between roughly 1968 and 1974 with a resignation of a president, the resignation of a vice president, distress that affected the whole country, racial problems, the counterculture, drugs, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, the assassination a few years earlier of John Kennedy. And the Soviet Union was then on the rise. But they are gone and we aren’t going anywhere,” Powell told The Washington Diplomat.
Powell acknowledges that today’s international environment is messy, complicated and, at times, chaotic. But he is emphatic that the current array of global problems doesn’t constitute the kind of existential threat that loomed over us during the Cold War.
“The good news is that while the world faces serious problems — Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs, and the Middle East being as unsettled as it’s ever been — the world no longer faces the prospect of World War III. That is good. We should not short sell the achievement of the past 30 odd years in bringing the Cold War to an end. As terrible as the problems in Iraq or Afghanistan are, they don’t threaten our survival as a nation,” he said.
Expansive and energetic, Powell remains a deeply respected, even iconic, leader in the United States. His 35-year military career was successful by every possible measure as he rose through the ranks to become a four-star army general.
He later served as the national security adviser for President Ronald Reagan, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush, and then secretary of state for President George W. Bush — the first African American to serve in the latter two positions.
But Powell’s tenure working for the younger Bush though was reportedly filled with friction, especially with more hard-line figures such as Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney — and the moderate Powell came under fire for his role in building a case at the United Nations for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Powell has since moved on, returning to private life, though he recently endorsed President Barack Obama and has joined the new president in his call for greater national service.
Now 72, Powell continues to monitor world affairs. He reads six newspapers a day, travels frequently, and meets with international leaders to compare notes on global developments. “I’m keeping in very close touch with the Obama administration and people around the world,” he noted. “I have a steady stream of visitors who come from around the world to see me.”
Assessing the daunting international challenges that the United States confronts, Powell sees a mixed bag of hope and difficulty.
On Iraq, he says the American role is shifting in a significant way. “The destiny of Iraq is increasingly in the hands of the Iraqis. American forces will phase out on some schedule. I don’t subscribe to a lunar definition, but in the next 16, 17, 18, 19 months, American forces will phase out and go down to some kind of trainer and adviser level,” he said.
“Iraq has a government that is functioning with a military and a police force,” he added. “They will have to figure out what kind of society, government and political system they want. With Iraq I know where things are headed. I don’t know what that destination looks like, but I know the road they are taking.”
The former secretary of state says the United States faces far more complex challenges in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The fates of these two nations, he argues, are linked and it’s far from clear what the United States can do to bolster stability in either country.
Regarding Afghanistan, Powell said that even with more U.S. troops deployed there, Afghan leaders will have to strengthen their own government, expand its reach beyond Kabul, get the economy growing, and tackle the burgeoning drug problem.
The Pakistani dilemma is even more complicated and fraught with peril, Powell said, lamenting that the political and security trends there are discouraging.
“The most important thing is dealing with the instability in Pakistan. But can we do something about this instability? That remains to be seen,” he said. “It is necessary to help the Pakistanis improve their military and police forces and their border control forces. It is important for us to help the Pakistani economy. We have to help the Pakistanis deal with tribal areas and other parts of the border. We also have to help the Pakistanis deal with these things if we want to see Afghanistan improve.”
On another front, Powell remains deeply interested in the former “empires” that posed the biggest threat to the United States during the Cold War: Russia and China.
He has been visiting China regularly since 1973 and has seen significant economic and, to a lesser extent, political progress in the country. But he is convinced China will only accelerate political and economic reforms when its leadership believes it makes sense to do so, not as the result of pressure from the United States.
As for Russia, Powell said he understands the willingness of the Russian people to accept a tough-minded leader such as Vladimir Putin who brought stability to a nation that was in economic freefall for most of the 1990s.
“Russia is a nation that used to be an empire. In just a couple of years it lost its empire, lost its ideology, lost its political system. It lost its influence around the world,” Powell pointed out. “Mr. Putin gives the Russian people a sense of order. He stabilized things, with an authoritarian, centralized government. Personally I think he should have used his great influence and popularity to put in place institutions that will outlast him and [Dmitry] Medvedev. And I have said this to him personally.”
Despite Russia’s harder edge and more aggressive policies in recent years, Powell does not expect Russia to become an enemy of the United States or even an implacable rival for that matter.
“I have no fears of Russia becoming another Soviet Union. It doesn’t have that capacity. But even more importantly, that movie failed at the box office the last time. It’s not coming back. I know a lot of people in Washington would like it to come back. Life was a lot easier for us politicians, diplomats and soldiers when there was only one thing to worry about,” he mused.
But today, Powell believes the U.S. government must use its diplomatic resources to engage both Russia and China — and he does not subscribe to the notion that American diplomatic contacts should be reserved only for friends.
“We have to work with Russia. We should not see Russia as an enemy. We should not see China as an enemy. They are important nations with their own interests,” Powell said. “We can find ways to work with them when we have mutual interests and disagree when we have disagreements. That’s the way we’ve done things for friends and allies for many years. That’s what international diplomacy is all about.”
In addition to following international affairs, the retired general is active in other projects as well. Powell served as the founding chairman of America’s Promise from 1997 to 2001 and continues to support the foundation, which works with hundreds of companies, nonprofits, educational institutions and government agencies to connect young people with mentors. (His wife Alma is chairman of the board of directors at America’s Promise.)
Powell also works with the Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies at the City College of New York, a nonpartisan policy research center that also seeks to develop new leaders from minority communities. He was pleasantly surprised when the college created a center named after him, noting with a smile that his academic career there was not all that distinguished. “It was quite an achievement for a guy who they got rid of 50 odd years ago with a C average,” he quipped.
“It is a great school that for 160 years has been educating the poor immigrant kids of New York. It’s what it did for me and is doing for kids today. Fifty percent of our students are immigrants. Not the children of immigrants — immigrants. And about 89 percent of our students are minority. Working with the school gives me a great deal of satisfaction,” said Powell, who was raised in Harlem by Jamaican immigrant parents.
Powell is also a strong advocate of volunteer programs, calling service an important way to renew and revive the nation. “When you help someone, they gain. But you also gain,” he said. “There is more satisfaction in helping another person than any position or title can give you.”
Today, Powell tries to stay out of the political limelight, choosing to enter policy and political debates only when he feels he has a contribution to make. Powell, a moderate Republican, captured the nation’s attention last fall when he endorsed Barack Obama for president.
“When I feel like I have something to say — as I did when I endorsed Mr. Obama — or when I feel that people are interested in what I have to say, I will surface. I don’t want to be a constant critic-in-chief. I don’t want to be seen as just another talking head. If I have something to say, I will go on TV or give an interview.”
Powell said he has no regrets that he declined to run for president in 1996 or 2000, even though many believed he too could have been the country’s first African American president.
“I know who I am. I’m not a politician. I wouldn’t be good at it because I’m not passionate about it,” Powell explained. “You have to be an Obama or McCain or Clinton or Bush and have that kind of passion for it. That’s not me. I don’t find it to be a character flaw at all or a mental deficiency. It’s important to know who you are and what you are.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s limited his interests or ambitions. Powell said he is fascinated with how technology is changing the business and political spheres — and the everyday lives of people around the world. He is a strategic limited partner with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, and he also has business interests in green technology and is a consultant to Google.
“I’m always looking for something new to play with. I had 35 years as a soldier. I want to do new things. I’m really taken with the information age we live in. As a family we are very interested in technology,” he said.
But Powell’s overriding passion is training and mentoring a new generation of leaders. He is convinced the United States still produces remarkable individuals who can become great leaders if they have good training and stern challenges.
“I was never really a diplomat. I didn’t come from a school of foreign policy. I didn’t come from a think tank or a university foreign policy department or academia. I’m basically a soldier who bounced into being the national security adviser for a president and then was selected to be secretary of state,” Powell told The Diplomat.
“I do have a great deal of experience in diplomacy and international relations, but I don’t live in those worlds. Being a soldier, I worked with soldiers and trained them. So I think I know a little about training young people. A large part of my current interests have to do with young people.”
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.