Friday, September 21, 2007

Colin Powell is a Wise Man

I've never really been a huge fan of Colin Powell, but I am often surprised and impressed by the things he says. I was really young when the first Iraq war happened, and remember him on TV a little. When he was running for president I was excited about the prospect, and would have voted for him at the time if I were old enough to do so. I always saw him as something of an honest broker in the 2nd Bush White House, up until the point where he went to the U.N. and gave them false information (of which he has said a million times since that he didn't know it was false, and that he feels part of the blame for doing what he did).

That said, every interview of him I've ever read has impressed me. He's eloquent, moderate, and will say what he thinks without that veneer of Washington-speak that plagues those who don't even work in Washington anymore. He did a recent interview with GQ Magazine that has some thoughtful ideas about race and gays in the military, where we are today as a country, democracy, and about terrorism. Here's a few selections, but you should really read the whole thing.

This is the quote that may surprise a lot of people:

What is the greatest threat facing us now? People will say it’s terrorism. But are there any terrorists in the world who can change the American way of life or our political system? No. Can they knock down a building? Yes. Can they kill somebody? Yes. But can they change us? No. Only we can change ourselves. So what is the great threat we are facing?

I would approach this differently, in almost Marshall-like terms. What are the great opportunities out there—ones that we can take advantage of? It should not be just about creating alliances to deal with a guy in a cave in Pakistan. It should be about how do we create institutions that keep the world moving down a path of wealth creation, of increasing respect for human rights, creating democratic institutions, and increasing the efficiency and power of market economies? This is perhaps the most effective way to go after terrorists

And here is what he says in response to the question, "So you think we are getting too hunkered down and scared?"

Yes! We are taking too much counsel of our fears.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t a terrorist threat. There is a threat. And we should send in military forces when we have a target to deal with. We should also secure our airports, if that makes us safer. But let’s welcome every foreign student we can get our hands on. Let’s make sure that foreigners come to the Mayo Clinic here, and not the Mayo facility in Dubai or somewhere else. Let’s make sure people come to Disney World and not throw them up against the wall in Orlando simply because they have a Muslim name. Let’s also remember that this country was created by immigrants and thrives as a result of immigration, and we need a sound immigration policy.

Let’s show the world a face of openness and what a democratic system can do. That’s why I want to see Guantánamo closed. It’s so harmful to what we stand for. We literally bang ourselves in the head by having that place. What are we doing this to ourselves for? Because we’re worried about the 380 guys there? Bring them here! Give them lawyers and habeas corpus. We can deal with them. We are paying a price when the rest of the world sees an America that seems to be afraid and is not the America they remember.

You can drive up the road from here and come to a spot where there is a megachurch over here, a little Episcopal church over there, a Catholic church around the corner that’s almost cathedral-size, and between them is a huge Hindu temple. There are no police needed to guard any of this. There are not many places in the world where you would see that. Yes, there are a few dangerous nuts in Brooklyn and New Jersey who want to blow up Kennedy Airport and Fort Dix. These are dangerous criminals, and we must deal with them. But come on, this is not a threat to our survival! The only thing that can really destroy us is us. We shouldn’t do it to ourselves, and we shouldn’t use fear for political purposes—scaring people to death so they will vote for you, or scaring people to death so that we create a terror-industrial complex.

Read that last line again. Maybe a third time, and think about how much the threat of terrorism dominates political discourse. This is very reminiscent of what Eisenhower warned about in his Military-Industrial Complex speech, made obvious by Powell's usage of the same words. I feel similarly about Eisenhower as I do about Powell, a military leader that towards the end of his career in the public eye warned about the judicious use of our military and the threat that it can pose to the fundamental values of our nation. Both Eisenhower and Powell used their positions as lifelong military leaders to try and do good in the world, and to try and avoid war, despite the nature of their job being to successfully manage and win wars.

This is, I think, a pretty fair representation of how America should walk in the world:

So you think we should be a bit more on guard against arrogance when we pursue a democracy agenda?

[laughs] Very good, very good. We have a tendency to lecture and perhaps not think things through. We have to be careful what we wish for. Are we happy with the democracy that Hamas gave us? There are some places that are not ready for the kind of democracy we find so attractive for ourselves. They are not culturally ready for it, they are not historically ready for it, and they don’t have the needed institutions.

How can we restore America’s image?

We should remember what that image was, back after World War II. It was the image of a generous country that sought not to impose its will on other countries or even to impose its values. But it showed the way, and it helped other countries, and it opened its doors to people—visitors and refugees and immigrants.

America could not survive without immigration. Even the undocumented immigrants are contributing to our economy. That’s the country my parents came to. That’s the image we have to portray to the rest of the world: kind, generous, a nation of nations, touched by every nation, and we touch every nation in return. That’s what people still want to believe about us. They still want to come here. We’ve lost a bit of the image, but we haven’t lost the reality yet. And we can fix the image by reflecting a welcoming attitude—and by not taking counsel of our fears and scaring ourselves to death that everybody coming in is going to blow up something. It ain’t the case.

Again, what he says about America being "a generous country," in the eyes of the world after WWII is reminiscent of Eisenhower when he said:
We now stand ten years past the midpoint of a century that has witnessed four major wars among great nations. Three of these involved our own country. Despite these holocausts America is today the strongest, the most influential and most productive nation in the world. Understandably proud of this pre-eminence, we yet realize that America's leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.

War is stupid, and very complicated to speak about eloquently without sounding equally as stupid. I have a weird admiration for both Powell and Eisenhower in their thoughts about democracy and the military. They see the institution of the military as a tool for good in the world corruptible by greed and malevolence, and warn against its misuse.
Though I don't see it as always a tool for good, I agree that the unchecked power of the military does not serve in the interests of democracy. We cannot go willy-nilly around the world imposing our values on those who would not have it, yet we must also stand up against injustice against human beings in other places besides the interior of our borders. This – as with almost everything in the world – is messy. The right answers and the right actions are unclear, but a fundamental prudence in how we go about the betterment of this world is not only laudable but necessary for our survival.


Robert said...

If you're like me and enjoy having the sound of Colin Powell's voice lull you to sleep at night, there was an excellent speech of his from the Aspen Ideas Festival that was broadcast on public radio over the summer... and the presenter has made an mp3 download available. Same ideas, really, but it's a good bit of oration.

Peter B. said...

It's really interesting what he said about the military-industrial complex. There was a similarly themed article in this month's addition of Harper's that struck the same vein of thought. The article "Disaster Capitalism" discussed our new economic dependence on disasters such as Katrina and the Iraq war. These events are huge money for companies like Blackwater and Enron who end up securing unbelievable government contracts without even an open bid. What is most frightening is our government's reliance on these mercenaries. Our Military would probably grind to a halt if wasn't for these private contractors. America is basically outsourcing it's defense and emergency response abilities to private entities. It's truly frightening what could happen. Blackwater for instance has a military compound in Virginia that commands a private military force of around 40,000 solders. It is essentially a military entity operating with little legal restriction. Frightening!