A Farewell Interview with Colin L. Powell

By Trude B. Feldman
Jan. 13, 2005
Updated April 5, 2005

Colin Luther Powell, during his four years as America’s 65th Secretary of State, was intensely involved in foreign affairs and diplomacy and how those issues affected the world and our global interests.

In a farewell interview in his State Department office, he focused mostly on his efforts in the Middle East and on that region’s and Europe’s growing anti-Americanism. He also replied to questions on terrorism and its effect on other countries such as Northern Ireland and Laos. The conversation, in Q & A format follows:

Feldman: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen), continues to say, in retrospect, that the four years plus Intifada (Palestinian uprising) was a mistake, and that he intends to end the violence in the region. Do you believe him?

Powell: Mr. Abbas has said this before and he is correct. It is time to end the Intifada and not just say it should end, but start taking such action, like encouraging their media to stop inciting, stop encouraging, stop applauding people who conduct these actions or who commit suicide acts. I had encouraged all Palestinian officials to make clear statements that they are giving up terrorism. And I believe Mr. Abbas has begun to take action. As you know, he gave instructions to the Palestinian television stations to stop their inciting language, so I am encouraged.

His statements aren’t new to you, are they?

No, but he is now saying these things from a new position of authority. Yasser Arafat is gone.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in his State Department office, during a farewell interview with White House/State Department correspondent Trude B. Feldman. In addition to the Middle East and terrorism, Mr. Powell answered questions on Northern Ireland and Laos.

Photo by Michael S. Messinger

But, do you believe Mr. Abbas?

Yes, I do believe that he wants the Intifada to end. With Mr. Arafat, you never really were sure. I think Mr. Abbas understands that the Intifada — in four years — has destroyed the Palestinian economy;(and) killed lots of people, both Israelis and, in turn, Palestinians. The Intifada has not moved the Palestinians one step closer to a Palestinian state. Now that Mr. Arafat is gone and the Israelis have begun to show some flexibility toward the Palestinians by allowing them to move around, I am encouraged that Mr. Abbas is still saying he will take action. I believe him. Yet my believing him and his actions are two different things.

How would you describe your last official visit to the region (Nov. 22, 2004)? Did you personally see any progress?

Yes, my last visit was one of the better visits because when I met in Jerusalem with Israel’s Prime Minister (Ariel) Sharon, he was really engaged in his disengagement plan. He demonstrated flexibility toward the Palestinians, and was working with the Egyptians to help the Palestinians on security and political issues.

He was engaged, and he clearly was preparing to take advantage of the new opportunity — with the passing of Mr. Arafat. When I met in Jericho with the Palestinians — Mahmoud Abbas (then interim chairman of the PLO), Saeb Erakat (then chief negotiator), Nabil Shaath (then Foreign Minister) and other members of the Palestinian Authority, I sensed an understanding on their part that this is a chance they cannot muff. Also, in the immediate aftermath of Mr. Arafat’s departure from the region, to the hospital in France, and then his death, the Palestinians displayed quite a bit of political skill in keeping things intact, making sure there was no violence and essentially determining who would be in powers of authority during the transfer to the elections. That they were able to do this was also encouraging.

Is Ariel Sharon taking a risk by bringing in Shimon Peres (former Israeli prime minister) to join his governing coalition?

Mr. Sharon is a master of analyzing political risks, so I won’t go any deeper into coalition politics in Israel. It is complicated enough without my contributing to it.

What about your relations with the leadership of Israel and the Palestinian Authority?

I have good relations with, and am friends with many Israeli and Palestinian officials as well as with prominent American Jews and Arab Americans…so I think I’ve been able to play a connecting role among them.

With that ‘connecting role’ — how do you see a solution, an end to this powderkeg that is the Middle East?

I’ve always been looking for that end, and I think there is now the possibility of an end. But it will only come if terror ends and if the Palestinians are serious about that (solution) and are serious about reforming themselves so that they are a responsible interlocutor for the Quartet (the United States, United Nations, European Union, and Russia). They have to end corruption and make sure they have a government that is resting on a body of law and is operating properly.

Frankly, they also have to see some response from Mr. Sharon. He has obligations with respect to ending the outpost activity. You know our position with respect to settlement activity — it is that it should cease.

And there needs to be some opening of the region so that people can start to move back and forth. Both sides have obligations. While we want the Palestinians to reform, to put in place responsible leadership and end both incitement and terror, we also have expectations from Mr. Sharon.

Now, with Shimon Peres and Mr. Sharon together in a new unity government, there is hope that their withdrawal from Gaza and some of the settlements in the West Bank will go forward.

But there must be reform of the Palestinian security services as well as an end to terrorism. When both sides accept their responsibilities and act, I believe the Israelis will see they have a new partner for peace, and progress will be made. Then, the U.S. will play a vital part to, hopefully, lead to that end.

In retrospect, what was the problem with Mr. Arafat? Was it solely him or also his associates?

Mr. Arafat was certainly a major hindrance to progress. I tried, as you well know, to deal with him. I went to see him several times. Twice, I helped him to get out of his imprisionment (his compound in Ramallah). Both times I said to him, ‘You need to start acting’ And he said, “I will, I will’. But he never did. Finally, the President and I came to the conclusion that we could not go on like that with him. So, in the President’s June 24, 2002 speech in the Rose garden, he stated that the Palestinians need new leadership. Some months later, they did get a new leader, in the person of Mahmoud Abbas. But we were not able to benefit from him because Mr. Arafat was still in the way. While I believe Mr. Arafat was a major impediment, I would not rest the whole problem with him. There were other issues; and Israel might have done more and Shimon Peres might have done more.

In Sept., 1993, at his home, Gen. Colin L. Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sums up his 35 years of military services – as he begins his retirement – during an interview with correspondent Trude B. Feldman.

Photo by Greg Mathieson

Why was President Bush so adamant in his refusal to meet with Mr. Arafat? Has he ever met him?

I don’t know if he ever met him, but he did not meet with him in the past four years. Perhaps they had a telephone conversation, but never a meeting during Mr. Bush’s first term. My last conversation with Mr Arafat was about two years ago, before Mr. Bush said we cannot deal with him. But, yes, my earlier conversations with Mr Arafat were always pleasant.

In your quest for peace in the Middle East, what were the most satisfying, most challenging, most difficult times?

I never answer questions like that because it is hard to single out any one challenging or most rewarding or most difficult time. However, I would point out two highlights. One was President Bush’s speech on June 24, 2002 when he set forth his Road Map peace plan, and said the Palestinians must reform themselves and aim to live side by side with Israel. President Bush then said if they did reform themselves, that the U.S. would be prepared to help them create a state by 2005. But he also said the Palestinians first had to reform and run a responsible government. That day was a turning point.

The second most promising time was President Bush’s visit to Aqaba, Jordan (June 4, 2003) when he met with Prime Minister Sharon, Mahmoud Abbas, then prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, His Majesty, King Abdullah of Jordan and other leaders. While that meeting, in retrospect, appeared to be promising, unfortunately we still have not seen the kind of progress we had expected. But I still remain committed to the Road Map plan. Frankly, I think it is the only plan that can achieve success, and at the time, everyone seemed to be committed to it.

What is the real key to a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

I am always optimistic that we will [find a solution]. I think Mr. Sharon has put on the table an interesting idea, namely, ‘let’s evacuate Gaza’…and when you see the problems in Gaza, then the more reason to say, ‘let’s evacuate Gaza.’ I think if the Palestinians would prepare themselves by political action and reform of their security forces to govern Gaza when that evacuation occurs, we could be back on the Road Map plan and see more progress.

Why do you believe Mr. Sharon’s proposal for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza will lead to a two state solution?

Because until Mr. Sharon made his proposal, we just kept talking to one another about the Road Map, but nothing was happening. Then, when Mr. Sharon put his unilateral proposal on the table, President Bush, in his discussions with Mr. Sharon, succeeded in making it more than a unilateral proposal by linking it back to the Road Map and the provision for two states.

For decades, the Palestinians were saying, ‘We want the settlements out’. But they never expected they would all go at once. The first step is : all out of Gaza, four out of the West Bank.. The settlements are being evacuated by Israelis; and this could get us back on the Road Map and lead to the creation of a Palestinian state in 2005.

What about the role of the Quartet and its reactions to Mr. Sharon’s proposals for withdrawal?

I am pleased with how all members of the Quartet came together at the United Nations last summer and said there is now an opportunity with Ariel Sharon’s proposals.

Also, the United Nations and Secretary General Kofi Annan said that that certainly brings an international standing to the proposals. The European Union brought all those nations to support the proposal and also made them more ready to provide financing and support for the Palestinians as they move to take control of Gaza. The Russian Federation is an important player in the Quartet, and also brings national credibility to the effort.

Do you believe that Mr. Sharon’s vision for the West Bank provides a basis for a viable Palestinian state?

President Bush made clear to Mr Sharon that a viable Palestinian state has to have contiguity and coherence. There cannot be little Bantustans all over the West Bank. You have to start somewhere. Mr. Sharon’s plan for Gaza and the West Bank is a start. It is not an end, it is a start. And the two sides have to talk to each other. Mr Bush made this clear. It is a mutual agreement between the two Parties — on ‘final status’ issues, and particularly the issue that says, ‘What will Palestine look like?’

The two sides have to agree upon that. It is neither for Mr Sharon or any Israeli prime minister or any American president to decide. It is up to the two Parties.

Did it annoy you when the Israelis ignored your request not to bulldoze houses in Gaza?

I think it is unfortunate when houses of innocents are bulldozed. I understand Israel’s right to defend itself. I understand the danger they see in tunnels under the Gaza — Egyptian border across the Philadelphia strip (a cleared area separating Egypt and Gaza). But I have asked my Israeli colleagues to consider the public relations costs and the dangers of such action.

Have recent attacks on Gaza made it impossible to have a Palestinian state either in Gaza or the West Bank?

Not at all. Everyone should realize that it would be in the interest of both Parties if Israel would come out of Gaza and turn over security responsibility to the Palestinians. The Palestinians have to understand if they get responsibility for security and if they get Egyptian help, then they will bear the responsibility if arms smuggling across the border continues.

With the withdrawal, you would think they would be motivated to handle security responsibility. Not doing anything would cause the Israelis to then come back into Gaza.

In light of all the animosity and mistrust, do you really think it is realistic to anticipate a sovereign Palestinian state?

Yes, if you look at public opinion in Israel, not just the Likud Party politics. Public opinion will support the Road Map plan. Peace means a Palestinian state. So, yes, I think there is a possibility and there is considerable support in Israel and among most Palestinians because they need peace. Do they want to stay in this situation forever? We need to find a way to break out of this situation and find peace. Both sides need and want peace. The only way to get peace is through the Road Map plan; or to develop a new process like the Road Map for both sides.

At a reception in the State Department’s Benjamin Franklin Room on Jan. 12 – to say farewell to the Secretary and Deputy Secretary of State – Mrs. Alma Powell and correspondent Trude B. Feldman are flanked by Secretary Colin Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage.

Photo by Michael A. Gross, The State Department

Who should be the catalyst to break the impasse and find and secure that peace?

The United States has tried, and is still trying hard to be the catalyst. I have tried to implement the President’s policy. For instance, last May, I went to the World Economic Forum in Jordan and spoke at great length on the Middle East to my Arab colleagues. I explained to them, and emphasized that they should see the opportunity that exists in Mr. Sharon’s plan. He (Sharon) says his plan backs the Road Map plan as a solution. I also tried to reason with both sides to take advantage of the opportunity.

How has the Israeli-Palestinian conflict affected the reputation of the U.S.? And what about Iraq?

We are having difficulty with public opinion in Europe and the Arab world. People would like us to solve the issue overnight and it doesn’t lend itself to an overnight solution. We are often criticized for not doing more and putting more pressure on Israel. But Israel is a sovereign nation and has a right to self-defense and to make its own judgments.

The Iraqi people want to see their leaders take over again and to see the coalition forces leave. We, in the coalition, want to leave, but under the right conditions.

Some critics ask why the Palestinians weren’t included in the dialogue last year when President Bush and you started to negotiate with Mr. Sharon on his plan to withdraw from Gaza and the West Bank. How do you respond to that criticism?

That was a unilateral plan and not, at the time, one to negotiate with the Palestinians. Mr. Sharon wanted to know if the U.S. would support his unilateral plan. He wanted our support as well as our opinion. It was Mr Sharon’s unilateral plan to sell to his public. We were interested in doing this because we saw an opportunity. But we made it clear to our Palestinian and Israeli colleagues that it had to be part of a broader effort — and back to the Road Map plan — leading to ‘final status’ discussions. So it would have been inappropriate for us — at the outset — to discuss it with the Palestinians.

But once Mr. Sharon announced his plan, we immediately started working with all of our Arab friends. We said to them; ‘You may be unhappy with some of the realities pointed out in the plan, but look at the opportunities the plan provides for the return to the Road Map plan’.

We also told them that President Bush envisions a Palestinian state, and ‘Let ‘s work on that basis and not look at the disappointment you may have over the ‘right of return’ or the expansion of the settlements.

‘Instead, look at what is being offered to you in the sense that you are getting rid of settlers in Gaza and some in the West Bank. That’s what you wanted, and this is what can happen, and we can do it on the basis of mutual agreement and on the basis of the Road Map plan’

It seemed to us then that we might pay a temporary price with respect to unhappiness about what we had said about the refugees. But the opportunity of actually eliminating or turning over settlements seemed to us to outweigh any problem we incurred.

And since then, I think we have been able to make a good case to our Arab friends, namely that nothing is pre-judged with respect to a final outcome. The Road Map plan and all ‘final status’ issues are not decided by the United States — only by mutual agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Is it true that Mr Sharon’s plan contains some parts of which you and the President approve, but that contradict the Road Map plan?

No, I don’t think so.

Then, why is there some misperception on that issue?

In his State Department office, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is interviewed – to mark his 65th birthday – three years ago, by correspondent Trude B. Feldman.

Photo by Michael A. Gross, The State Department

Because President Bush said some realistic things about the ‘right of return’ of refugees and absorption of certain major settlements into Israel. He was offering an opinion, the way he saw it. That was the way all previous negotiators had done over the years — even in President Clinton’s administration. They saw how things might turn out. President Bush was essentially saying, ‘This is what I believe is the real situation.’

But before Mr. Bush said that, he said it has to be by mutual agreement between the Parties. He was not prejudging what the Parties should do; he was offering an opinion as to what he thought the answer ought to be.

Last May, Mr. Sharon’s Chief of Staff, Dov Weisglass, sent a letter to Dr. Condoleezza Rice ( then the President’s National Security Advisor) , a letter which seemed to contradict the terms of the Road Map plan regarding the removal of settlement outposts and freezing settlement construction. How would you correct that contradiction?

There is no contradiction on the outposts because we all understand they are to be removed and the Israelis say they will remove them. They are having some legal difficulties, but they are obliged to remove them.

With respect to settlements, the President’s statements have been clear over time. He wants to see the end of settlement activity. The Weisglass-Rice exchange was a way of getting our arms around what settlement activity means and dealing with some of the issues that the Israelis raise with respect to ‘What do we do about natural growth; a settlement exists — we are not trying to expand it, but if people have children, how can we accommodate that natural growth?’

We don’t really accept that concept. But what we were trying to do in the Weisglass-Rice exchange, was to follow up on that and get a better understanding of what we mean by ending settlement activity in a particular place. So I don’t think there is necessarily a conflict, but clearly that requires clarification so that we all have a common understanding.

So you don’t think there is any confusion in the Weisglass-Rice letter?

There are always people who like to find confusion. But, you know, my clear understanding of the President’s policy — and he has said it over and over — he wants to see an end to settlement activity.

The only modification he made to that is when he said there are certain realities on the ground that would have to be accommodated in any ‘final status’ discussions between the two Parties. In other words, there are some settlements that would have to be dealt with between the two Parties in ‘final status’ discussions. But the President said he does not want to see any more new settlement activity. He wants settlement activity ended in terms of new settlements, growth to settlements or increased appropriation of land for settlements. That’s what his policy is.

Do you think that anti-Americanism became worse as a result of the President’s policies in the Mideast and his firm support for Israel?

We are held to a higher standard by some nations as the superpower that should be able to solve every problem. The anti-Americanism that we see now is not good. As far as the Arab and Muslim worlds are concerned, I think anti-Americanism is the result of a couple of things. One, we have not found a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Arabs want that problem solved and we bear the burden in the eyes of the Arab world by not solving it. They think we can solve it. And we are held responsible for that because we have not told the Israelis to stop, (. . .) and that causes much of the anti- American feeling.

Secondly, Iraq. Because we have had difficulty in Iraq for the past year since we liberated the country… Abu Ghraib, other things, and the continued fighting have caused us to suffer in the eyes of the Arab and Muslim worlds as well as in Europe. European public opinion was always against us on the Iraq conflict. Even though European leaders joined us, most public opinion was against us.

Therefore, we have lost favor in the European and Arab public eye. But it is really our policies that have lost favor, rather than America. I am confident, based on my foreign trips and based on young people with whom I speak, who want to know about America, and like America, that, when our policies show success, and our Army can start to come out (of Iraq) and if we can find a way forward in the Middle East peace process and the War on Terror, I think anti- American attitudes could change in a positive direction.

Let’s close with two other countries — also affected by terrorism. President Bush recently (Dec 3) signed the Miscellaneous Tariffs Bill containing a provision enabling normal trade relations for Laos. Laos will subsequently apply for World Trade Organization membership. What impact will these actions have on our bilateral relations?

In June, 2004, in his State Department office, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell talks about President Bush’s Road Map plan and his initiative for a Palestinian state in 2005, during an interview with correspondent Trude B. Feldman.

Photo by Michael S. Messinger

I hope they will have a favorable impact, and that Laos will ultimately meet the requirements of WTO membership and participation. You know, during the last four years, some people think that all we did was be concerned with Iraq, Afghanistan and the Mideast, But we focused a lot on the poor countries of the world, including Laos. When you look at the Millennium Challenge Account, (a new approach to development assistance that ties increased aid to steps to improve governance such as curbing corruption), which is going to be five billion new dollars every year for developing countries that are committed to democracy, freedom and economic openness — in addition to that money — we have almost doubled the amount of money that we have in development assistance, in aid, for poor countries.

We spent tons of money on HIV/AIDS. If we don’t deal with HIV/AIDS, then development doesn’t work because a society is being destroyed with HIV/AIDS. So we believe that while we are fighting terror, we have to deal with poor countries that are the swamps of terrorism. If people don’t have jobs, if people don’t have homes and can’t educate their children, then why should they believe in democracy? They decide they might as well be terrorists.

In Northern Ireland, discussions on implementation of the l998 Belfast Agreement are at a critical stage. What’s your sense of the situation today? Are they close to an agreement?

They came close, but they didn’t consummate the latest agreement because of a difference of opinion — as to how they verify the Irish Republican Army (IRA) turn-in of weapons, You know, Ian Paisley wanted pictures taken of all of this decommissioning and there was a problem with the IRA. Right now it is not solved. The good news here is that the people of Northern Ireland have pretty much been not subjected to terror and violence while elements of the Good Friday Agreement have been debated for several years. And, clearly, they want peace. They don’t want to go back to the past. We’re still trying to give them that peace; as are the Parties. But they haven’t quite finished the work. There have been a lot of setbacks, but a lot of progress. And while we are looking for that final political settlement and the turn-in of all these weapons, at least the people of Northern Ireland are thriving. The economy is doing very well and we don’t see any terrorist incidents taking place.

Trude B. Feldman, a contributing editor to World Tribune.com, and a veteran White House and State Department correspondent, has known Colin Powell since he became a White House Fellow in 1972. She has interviewed every American Secretary of State since William P. Rogers in the Nixon administration.