Colin Powell on Foreign Policy

Secretary of State (Pres. Bush Cabinet)


Liberia is part of U.S. history; stay involved there

Called "the Milosevic of Africa," [Liberia President] Charles Taylor became intolerable, and the international community demanded the formation of a transitional government in Liberia in 2003.

The President wanted to know what his options were in dealing with the Liberian crisis. "Why should I do something in Liberia?" he asked Colin and I.

"Because Liberia is ours," I replied. We talked about the history of the country that had been founded by freed American slaves. "Even the Liberian flag imitates the Stars and Stripes," Colin added.

The President was determined to do something about Liberia. The President reiterated that Taylor had to leave and said that the US would "participate with troops." Ad-libbing the last part of the statement, the President had committed the US to a military role.

In the face of international pressure and US resolve, Charles Taylor resigned the presidency of Liberia as three US warships drifted into view and two US helicopters hovered overhead.

Source: No Higher Honor, by Condoleezza Rice, p.230-232 , Nov 1, 2011

We do not seek conquest or colonies

After WWII, visionary leaders set out to help create a new international order with the US in the permanent lead not as a neutral actor in world affairs but as the protector and defender of a particular world order. This was not an expression of American jingoism. The US has never wanted to impose itself on the world. As Gen. Powell noted, we do not seek conquest or colonies. We seek our own safety and, insofar as possible, the chance for other people to live in freedom. So the president and the leaders of both parties shifted America's foreign policy. America took on the task of anticipating, containing, and eventually defeating threats to the progress of freedom in the belief that actively protecting others was the best way to protect ourselves.

The new order had three pillars: active involvement and participation in world affairs; active promotion of American and Western values including democracy, free enterprise, and human rights; and a collective security umbrella for America and her allies.

Source: No Apology, by Mitt Romney, p. 23 , Mar 2, 2010

1980s: Chief advocate in Congress for supplying the Contras

Powell favored a continuation of congressional funding for the Nicaraguan contras. Indeed, by his own account, he served as "the chief administration advocate" in Congress for supplying the contras. When the Democrats balked, Powell put his Vietnam memories to the service of winning votes. "I've been where the contras are now, except that it was in Vietnam in 1963," he told them. Out in the jungle he and his troops had waited desperately for the helicopter to come with resupplies every 2 weeks, depending on it for their lives. "It's no different for the contras today," he said. The analogy may have been open to question, but the strategy worked: Congress decided to keep up the contras' supplies.
Source: Rise of the Vulcans, by James Mann, p.158 , Sep 7, 2004

Powell’s job: diplomatic solutions & disagree with Rumsfeld

Once Bush decided [to invade Iraq], he never looked back. At that point he expected his White House staff to support him, but he allowed his Cabinet officers wider latitude. “People say that Rumsfeld and Powell are at war with each other,” an aide said. “No kidding. They’re supposed to be. The State Department’s answer to most anything is diplomacy. The Defense Department’s answer to almost anything is weapons and warfare. The question is what is the right mix of those for each situation. You want those differences of opinion to exist in any organization, and you have this ongoing dialogue. The glue that holds it together, according to management consultants, is mutual respect. If you respect one another, you’ll find the right balance. So do Powell and Rumsfeld respect each other? I believe they do. Are their disagreements excessive? Are they dysfunctional? I’ve never seen that.“
Source: A Matter of Character, by Ronald Kessler, p.134-35 , Aug 5, 2004

1994: Pushed last-minute deal to avoid Haiti invasion

On Sept.16, in a last-minute attempt to avoid an invasion, I sent Pres.Carter, Colin Powell, & Sam Nunn to Haiti to try to persuade Gen.Cedras and his supporters in the military and parliament to peacefully accept Aristide's return and Cedras's departure from the country.

For different reasons, they all disagreed with my determination to use force to restore Aristide. Though the Carter Center had monitored Aristide's overwhelming election victory, Pres.Carter had developed a relationship with Cedras and was skeptical of Aristide's commitment to democracy. Powell thought only the military and the police could govern Haiti, and that they would never work with Aristide.

As the deadline for our attack approached, President Carter called me pleading for more time to persuade Cedras to leave. Carter desperately wanted to avoid a forced invasion. So did I.

Cedras promised to cooperate and to leave power by Oct.15, as soon as the general amnesty law required by the UN agreement was passed.

Source: My Life, by Bill Clinton, p.616-618 , Jun 21, 2004

Attended inauguration of South African Pres. Nelson Mandela

Fifty thousand people attended Nelson Mandela's inauguration, a spectacle of celebration, release and vindication. Everyone marveled at the orderly transfer of power in a country that had been so ravaged by racist fear and hatred. Colin Powell, a member of our delegation, was moved to tears during the flyover of jets from the South Africa Defense Force. Their contrails streaked across the sky, tinted with the red, black, green, blue, white and gold colors of the new national flag. A few years earlier, the same jets were a powerful symbol of apartheid's military power; now there were dipping their wings to honor their new black commander in chief.

Mandela's speech denounced discrimination on the basis of race and gender, two profoundly embedded prejudices in Africa and most of the rest of the world. As we were leaving the ceremony, I saw the Rev. Jesse Jackson weeping with joy. He leaned over and said to me, "Did you ever think any of us would live to see this day?"

Source: Living History, by Hillary Rodham Clinton, p. 234 , Nov 1, 2003

UN faces irrelevance if it does not respond to Iraq

1441 states that a failure by Iraq at any time to cooperate in the implementation of this resolution shall constitute material breach of its obligation. We wrote it this way to give Iraq a test. I believe that Iraq is now in further material breach. I believe this conclusion is irrefutable. Iraq has now placed itself in danger of the serious consequences called for in 1441. This body places itself in danger of irrelevance if it allows Iraq to continue without responding effectively & immediately.
Source: Speech to the United Nations Security Council , Feb 5, 2003

We embargo Haiti because of our love of democracy

By 1995, after the junta was finally thrown out, the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) and other agencies began projects to try to rebuild what was left of the battered public health system, but that has been stopped. They wanted to try to reverse the decline of life expectancy, the only case of that in this hemisphere.

That effort was stopped by the embargo. It blocked half a billion dollars' worth of aid that was coming from the IADB and other sources, and it terminated the projects and, of course, exacerbated the already horrendous conditions. The only help they're getting is from Cuba.

Haiti, incidentally, is paying interest on the loans that are blocked and that it isn't receiving, just to add to the catastrophe. So that's the 2nd embargo. This is also being imposed because of our love of democracy, as Powell and others have explained

Source: Power and Terror, by Noam Chomsky, p. 75 , May 25, 2002

State Dept shakeup: More funds; more career officers

As part of a State Department shake-up, Secretary-designate Colin Powell is leaning toward abolishing about 70 special envoy positions as well as the War Crimes Bureau, according to department officials. The possible changes, among several to be instituted by Powell, are based on his belief that career foreign service officers have been under-appreciated and underused for many years. US diplomats have high expectations that Powell not only will give them better jobs but will bring more funds into the State Department, which now receives 1/16th as much as the Defense Department.

Powell and a small team of close advisers have settled into the labyrinthine State Department building, quietly holding dozens of meetings during the last two weeks with foreign service officers representing nearly every bureau. He first met with those specializing in Africa, a surprise to many given the lack of attention by Bush during the campaign.

Source: John Donnelly, Boston Globe, p. A5 on Bush Cabinet , Jan 6, 2001

American century gives way to “century of democracy”

The world is watching to see if all this power and wealth is just for the well-to-do, the comfortable, the privileged, or are we a nation that can make our dream real for all Americans so that all share in what we have been given by a generous God?

We must show to the rest of the world, the beauty and potential of democracy. Our greatest strength is the power of our example to be that shining city on the hill that Ronald Reagan spoke of and that the whole world looks up to.

Our nation on a course of hope and optimism for this new century. The century historians will look back on and record not that it was the American century or the European century or the Asian century, instead let us pray that when they look back, they will call it the century of democracy, a time when America led the world that wants to be free to an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity.

Source: Speech at the Republican convention , Jul 30, 2000

Don’t make up new enemies to fit old mission

Q. What should the new Secretary of State do?

A. First, you need to understand that Russia is not coming back. But you can’t have a vacuum of mission. That leads to anxiety and dread. Dig deep and rip out that old mission and fill it immediately with a new mission and then start training for it. You cannot tolerate a vacuum!

    A Secretary of State should do three things:
  1. Keep the military strong
  2. Don’t look for new enemies
  3. Keep the economy strong
Source: Interview at Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, NM , Jun 9, 2000

Russian democratization is a top US priority

Powell considers it a top priority of US foreign policy "to keep the process of democratization and market reform going in the republics of the former Soviet Union, and especially in Russia. Russia remains a superpower because of its size, because of its potential, and I think the revolution that has occurred over the last several years is still tenuous, and I think one of our most important foreign policy objectives, if not our most important one, is to keep that process moving forward in Russia.
Source: Powell & the American Dream, by Cummings&Rudnicki, p. 25 , Nov 1, 1995

Cuba is an irrelevant Cold War leftover

Cuba for General Powell is becoming "an irrelevant leftover of the cold war." He feels that we will soon have to modify our policy and recognize the nation in order "to get ready for the collapse of Castro."
Source: Powell & the American Dream, by Cummings&Rudnicki, p. 25 , Nov 1, 1995

Cuba is an irrelevant Cold War leftover

Cuba for General Powell is becoming “an irrelevant leftover of the cold war.” He feels that we will soon have to modify our policy and recognize the nation in order “to get ready for the collapse of Castro.”
Source: Colin Powell and the American Dream, p. 25 , Jul 2, 1995

Haiti: Imperfect agreements are better than war

[While negotiating with the Haitian president], Jimmy Carter laid out the terms for stopping the US invasion, as I got word back to President Clinton. “Mr. President, I think we’ve got some movement here. We just need more time.” Clinton was uneasy. He was not going to change the invasion timetable, he said, but we could keep talking a little longer. The documents were prepared, and Carter and the Haitian ministers signed them. The storming of Haiti had been averted at H-Hour minus six.

The agreement we worked out was criticized. The “thugs” supposedly got off too easily. I was attacked for playing on the honor of dishonorable men. The criticism did not bother me. Once the US troops set foot in Haiti, for better or worse, we ran the place. What happened to the junta was inconsequential. Because of what we accomplished, young Americans, and probably far more Haitians, who would have died were still alive. That was success enough for me.

Source: My American Journey, by Colin Powell, p. 585-6 , Jan 1, 1995

Somalia: Feeding hungry OK; national-building not

I spent my 56th birthday in Mogadishu trying to move the Somalia operation off America’s back and onto the UN’s, where it had been in the first place. We had accomplished our mission by ending the civil disorder that had disrupted the production and distribution of food and led to the mass starvation. It was now up to the UN force to maintain that order. But the UN approved a resolution shifting the mission from feeding the hungry to “nation building,” a phrase I had first heard in Vietnam. But the will to build a nation originates from within its people, not from the outside. Nation building might have an inspirational ring, but it struck me as a way to get bogged down in Somalia, not get out.

[In early discussions with newly-elected President Clinton], Somalia was uppermost in my thoughts. I told him we could not substitute our version of democracy for hundreds of years of tribalism. “We can’t make a country out of that place. We’ve got to find a way to get out, and soon,” I said.

Source: My American Journey, by Colin Powell, p. 565 & 572 , Jan 1, 1995

Colin Powell on China

Economic strength more important than military strength

In this new world, economic strength will be more important than military strength. Nations seeking power through military strength, the development of nuclear weapons, terrorism, or tyrannical governments are mining “fool’s gold.” They can never hope to match or challenge the military or economic power of the free world led by the US. Despotic regimes will come to realize it in due course, when they find themselves left behind while free nations prosper and provide a better life for their people. One only has to look at China to see a nation slowly finding a place in the world, not through the strength of the People’s Liberation Army or Mao’s Little Red Book, but through the release of the creative entrepreneurial power of the Chinese people. In Vietnam, American businesses are being invited in to repair the economic disaster created by two decades of “victorious” communism. We should encourage and support these impulses.
Source: My American Journey, by Colin Powell, p. 588 , Jan 1, 1995

Mao’s China had thorough thought control but not paranoia

What struck me about China [during a 1973 visit as a White House Intern], particularly after visiting the Soviet Union, was the absence of paranoia. Our Chinese guides seemed less frightened than their Soviet counterparts. They were not constantly searching our baggage, restraining our movements, or stopping us from taking pictures. Two distinctive threads, however, ran through the Chinese experience. You could ask an ordinary person in Beijing, Canton, or any village, “How are you doing?” and the answer was invariably a smile and “Fine. Under Chairman Mao we have a sewing machine, a radio, a bicycle.” The thoroughness of thought control in so vast a country was frightening. The second iron rule was that Chinese officials would admit shortcomings, but never error.

One day on the Soviet border we turned to see two Chinese MiG-19s streak into the sky. “What was that?” I asked our guide, who continued to gaze ahead placidly and silently. “What was what?” he answered. End of discussion.

Source: My American Journey, by Colin Powell, p. 169 , Jan 1, 1995

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Page last updated: Oct 26, 2021