WASHINGTON – Bender Arena at American University was generously packed for former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s remarks Wednesday. The 74-year-old retired four-star general gave a one-hour talk at the behest of the Kennedy Political Union, and at its culmination, responded to inquiry regarding the pre-no-fly zone presence of Special Forces and CIA agents in the civil war-torn North African nation of Libya. Powell couched Barack Obama’s metonymous statement that there would not be “boots on the ground” by suggesting that the group of elite American soldiers “on the ground” would only be indirectly involved in enabling insurrection against Gadhafi’s regime.
A presidential finding leaked by various news outlets a few days after the enforcement of a United Nations no-fly zone over Libya evidences Obama’s willingness to deploy America soldiers into Libya weeks before he would tell the American people on television that they would not have to count on “boots on the ground” being deployed into Libya.
If indeed there are flickers of democracy evident in the rage of Libyan family and friends of nonviolent protesters gunned by Gadhafi’s heartless mercenaries, their encouragement by domestic players or foreign interlocutors is curious insofar as so many American public figures feel compelled to fan them solely under the aegis of Libya’s self-determination and sovereignty.
Tyler Bass: “How are you, General? So recently White House Spokesman Jay Carney as well as Barack Obama himself have repeatedly underlined that there are, quote, ‘no boots on the ground’ in Libya, yet there are all these reports coming out of the New York Times and other publications –
Colin Powell: (Off mic) – the sound system is pointed that way – (off mic)
TB: “OK, then I’ll talk more toward you. White House Spokesman Jay Carney –“
TB: “—has repeatedly said there are no boots on the ground in Libya. So has Barack Obama, but we have reports from the New York Times and other outlets saying in fact that there are, as well as CIA, which I guess is ‘shoes on the ground,’ right?
So why is – why is Barack Obama saying this? Why is Carney saying it? Or are they not aware, which I think is really unlikely? Or why are they saying it?”
CP: “They’re obviously aware of what’s going on, but what they meant by ‘no boots on the ground’ is that we were not – (off mic) –ground war – (off mic) – sending in our combat units – (off mic) – infantry or armor to fight these units on the ground, but to send in intelligence agents and –“
TB: “Or Special Forces.”
CP: “—or Special Forces –“
CP: “—they are not going to be actively involved in fighting either the government or the rebels, but obviously it’s a way of gathering intelligence and helping the rebels fight more effectively. So there may not be boots on the ground – (off mic) – shoes on the ground – (off mic) –
When Powell had approached the stage, long-time Code Pink Activist Medea Benjamin stood to extend a sign proclaiming him a war criminal. Many students booed her, and she was summarily shown out. Later that evening, I asked her why she had protested the general’s presence. She replied, “Why did I walk on the stage with a sign that said ‘Powell=War Criminal? I was in Baghdad the day Colin Powell got in front of the UN and made a raft of false accusations about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. That sealed the fate of millions of Iraqis who have suffered so much since the US invasion. Powell has the blood of countless Iraqis–as well as thousands of US soldiers–on his hands. He shouldn’t be given huge honorariums for addressing college students; he should be an trial for war crimes.”
In the same moments as he mused upon his teenage grandson’s comfort with Twitter and other social media, for the “Arab world” in particular, Powell repeatedly celebrated the oncoming “information revolution” and the “infonuts” who have enabled it, lauding them for their willingness and ability to “get around the government systems.”
Powell spent time reflecting on the privilege of office. He visibly enjoyed reminiscing in front of AU students about the trappings and perks of his former station. His face glowed as he described the process of walking up the red carpet to his ever-waiting 757 that accompanied him on every trip he took to foreign dignitaries and sovereign leaders. When a foot of his hit the bottom step, he said, one engine would turn on; when another hit the top step, the other engine would go on. Inside his private cabin, a steward would pull out a Diet Coke and, with the clink of the can hitting the surface of the table in front of him, the plane would roll. Half jokingly, he would admit that something was amiss that “they took [the plane] away.” It was a theme that began early in the talk when he lightly mourned his loss of station, holding one hand higher than the other to indicate the psychological toll of settling back into a life of less authority, if more income.
In the early part of the previous decade, his wife, Alma, would browbeat the then former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for even considering treating his new role at the State Department as if the command of a barrack. Powell would iterate that, upon seeing 500 State Department employees his first day as secretary, the department “was [his] infantry battalion” and that he “didn’t know any other way” after having been so thoroughly inculcated into the military meme.
Along the way pulling up a decent Reagan vocal impression, Powell mused on the Soviets repeatedly and the ideological coaching the Soviets and he had received in the interest of hating each other. He recalled his meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev and how the Soviet Communist Party’s final general secretary proceeded to lecture him at length at the series of reforms he had sought to put in place.
Gorbachev, relays Powell, looked at Powell’s scowling face and wasn’t convinced that Powell had bought his sales pitch. The then secretary general looked up and away from Powell and then returned his gaze, this time with a twinkle in his eye. Powell made a point of imitating Gorbachev’s smirk at this juncture. “Thirty years,” he said, “he had invested in this thing,” the Cold War, and he didn’t intend to lessen his condemnation of Soviet ideology on account of Gorbachev’s claims he had impressed a newfound transparency upon the aging Communist regime.
Unconvinced by the full-throated advertisement of “glasnost” and proclaimed attempt at reconciliation, Powell dismissed the Soviet leader as another “commie.” Gorbachev had countered that he had seen Powell’s KGB file and insulted him on the basis of his simply having been a soldier only trained to fight.
Apparently not including former FBI Assistant Director John O’Neill or Counterterrorism Security Group Chair Richard Clarke in his proverbial “we,” the former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said, “We never thought anything like 9/11 could happen to us.” Yet now implicating a direct foreign threat from Osama bin Laden, the general expressed his determination not to be afraid of “some clown hiding in a cave in Pakistan.”