In a speech sandwiched by standing ovations, retired Gen. Colin Powell revisited his careers in the U.S. government and assessed current diplomatic situations and crises before a packed Arlington Theatre audience Friday night.
Standing in front of the provided podium, Powell examined his experiences in the U.S. Army, as President Ronald Reagan’s national security advisor, as a joint chief of staff and as President George W. Bush’s secretary of state. Powell also answered some pointed questions from UCSB students and faculty about his decisions while in government and about those of the current administration.
Just outside the theater, protesters gathered with signs and passed out flyers. Sign slogans ranged from, “You Lied to Us Colin” to “Truth Is the First Casualty of War” to “Support Our Troops: Bring Them Home.” Also included was a poster picturing two hands covered in blood. One female protester wore a mask of Powell and a dog collar with leash around her neck: She responded to all questions by saying, “Woof.”
Another protester, a UCSB political science professor who declined to provide his name, said the 50 or so protesters amassed outside to “shame” Powell about the speech he gave as secretary of state before the United Nations on Feb. 3, 2003.
In his speech to the U.N., Powell said American intelligence reports showed that Iraq had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction, providing the main justification for the U.S. to attack the country. Powell has since said – including in his speech Friday – the evidence turned out to be “a failure of intelligence,” but was not a “hoax.”
Protesters, however, claimed the four star general purposefully lied to provoke a war.
“I think Powell has many mirrors in front of his face,” the UCSB professor said. “He has the person who went in front of the U.N., then he has an incredible history behind him. … We need heroic figures and instead we have these tragic figures.”
During Powell’s Friday speech, at least two dissenters inside the Arlington tried to shout at the general, but fellow audience members hushed them and security guards quickly escorted them out.
While Powell acknowledged serious accusations against him and explained his positions, he also tried to keep the evening somewhat lighthearted. The general intertwined several well-received jokes into his speech, including jibes at his aging, humorous vignettes about his encounters with foreign dignitaries and a brief impersonation of President Reagan.
As the title of his lecture “Leadership: Taking Charge” suggested, Powell focused on essential skills leaders share, such as honesty, investing in and trusting the team and maintaining a vision.
“You know you’re a good leader when people follow you, if only out of curiosity,” Powell said, quoting his Army sergeant from decades ago.
Of his own leadership ability, Powell said he helped reorganize the U.S. State Dept. and other government agencies’ response capabilities after the events of 9/11. He said U.S. intelligence and defense databases finally communicate with each other, making the process of defending the nation more efficient.
“The first responsibility of the government is to protect its people. … The nation is better protected now than before 9/11,” Powell said.
In addition to domestic developments, Powell said he was proud of his accomplishments abroad, such as his involvement with Afghanistan’s new and first democracy, and his role in securing free trade agreements.
Powell said, however, that “some serious mistakes were made” during his time as Secretary of State. For instance, the U.S. entrance into the Iraq War was ill-planned: Too few troops went in, and as a result, the Army was unable to completely crush the Iraqi insurgency. Despite this, America has a responsibility to remain in Iraq until the new democracy’s security is assured.
“Whether you supported the war or not, we are where we are now,” he said.
Powell said his main concern in the Middle East rests with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If peace can be achieved, Powell said, the U.S. would probably see a dramatic decrease in the entire region’s violence and in anti-Americanism.
“No single issue gave me more stress,” Powell said of the conflict. “Every time we thought we’d made progress, something would happen.”
Returning to his main theme, Powell said much of the world still looks to America as a leader and problem solver. One example he cited involved a “crisis in the Mediterranean” between Spain and Morocco while he was secretary of state. The Moroccan Army uprooted the Spanish flag and replaced it with its own on Perejil Island, which Powell described as the size of a football field.
Powell said he secured an agreement between the two nations after several back and forth calls within a 36-hour period, and assured Moroccan King Mohammad VI to give his blessing over the document without seeing it, based solely on his trust in Powell’s and America’s goodwill.
Powell said he was initially confused as to why he had been asked to interlope in the two countries’ affairs, but realized the role of the U.S. often requires it to lead others out of crises.
“We are still the nation people bring problems to,” Powell said.
To conclude the event, Roman Baratiak, film and lectures manager of Arts & Lectures, read Powell seven questions compiled from UCSB students and faculty. Aside from the question about his speech to the U.N., Powell was asked to define his stance on keeping prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Powell said the prison was legal, however, prisoners needed to be tried or sent back to their countries soon – not kept there indefinitely.
“That’s not the justice system I understand,” Powell said.
Powell also answered a question concerning the balance between national security and civil liberties, specifically, if the current Bush administration is within its right to eavesdrop without warrants on American citizens’ phones. Powell said eavesdropping programs in general are necessary, but either the laws need to change to make warrantless eavesdropping acceptable, or the administration needs to rethink its stance.
“The President does not pass laws – Congress passes laws,” he said.