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 You are in: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice > Former Secretaries of State > Former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell > Speeches and Remarks > 2003 > April

Interview on BBC's Iraq Documentary

Secretary Colin L. Powell
Washington, DC
April 23, 2003

(4:00 p.m. EDT)

QUESTION: A bit of slightly ancient history now, I suppose, just to begin with: the aftermath of 9/11 when people first started talking about Iraq. What was your advice at that stage about what implications that event had on policy towards Iraq?

SECRETARY POWELL: To really put it in context, I have to take you to an earlier period, to the beginning of the administration, 2001, January of 2001, when the President came in. Iraq was on our mind then because we had been watching for the nine years after the Gulf War, ten years after the Gulf War, an Iraq that had been kicked out of Kuwait. Kuwait had been freed, but nevertheless Iraq was not complying with the obligations it entered into as a result of ending the Gulf War.

Mr. Cheney, Vice President Cheney now, and Secretary of State Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had more than a passing interest in what went on in that part of the world in Iraq. When we came in, we discovered that the sanctions regime that was being used to contain Iraq was falling apart, the Security Council was losing interest in it, they wanted to get rid of the sanctions, a number of the permanent members. We also realized that we had this no-fly zone where we were patrolling every day over the northern and southern part of Iraq, and it didn't seem to be serving an especially useful purpose over time.

And the issue remained what to do about his weapons of mass destruction regime. So it was a subject that was on our mind throughout the first part of 2001, even before 9/11 came along. In fact, each one of those tracks, what to do about it if we ever had to do something militarily was on our agenda. We started to think about that, but no war plans were generating yet. We were thinking about it -- what do about the no-fly zone and what do about sanctions.

Sanctions became the Secretary of State's problem and I worked for a year to put in place what subsequently became known as "smart sanctions," only allowing humanitarian foodstuff to get in and making sure that weapons were kept out.

Then along comes 9/11, and immediately the issue arose: How do we respond to the Taliban and al-Qaida, who was being hosted by the Taliban in Afghanistan? And the issue arose immediately: Iraq. Since Iraq was a source of weapons of mass destruction, it was a terrorist-sponsoring state. And there was some concern that there might be a connection between what happened at 9/11 and Iraq because of its terrorist activity and its sponsorship of those kinds of activities.

And so in our very first series of meetings after 9/11, the famous meeting that took place up at Camp David on the Saturday after 9/11, we focused on this. Should we go after al-Qaida immediately, and the Taliban, and put down an ultimatum to them? And at the same time, should we deal with an Iraq, or at least start to think about dealing with an Iraq, and what should our priorities be -- or one or the other, how to handle it.

And the President decided -- and this is also well known -- to deal with Afghanistan and deal with al-Qaida. They're the ones who attacked New York and Washington and Pennsylvania. And so that became the President's policy. We will deal with the Taliban and al-Qaida. But at the same time, he said this will be a comprehensive campaign against terrorists, against those who harbor terrorists or provide the wherewithal to terrorists to do their dirty deed.

So that early on, even though we're focusing on Afghanistan, we were also going to start turning our attention to Iraq.

QUESTION: Then came his State of the Union Address in which he used that phrase "axis of evil" which set a lot of nerves jangling, I think, in Europe, as you'll remember.


QUESTION: What did you see at that stage as the policy implications of that? What did that mean in policy terms, that phrase?

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, it was a very interesting phrase, and even more interesting was the reaction the phrase got. We thought that it was a line in the speech that would be noticed and get attention, but not as much as -- at least I didn't think would get as much attention as it did.

But it captured certain threads. It said there are nations on the face of the earth and there are people on the face of the earth who have evil intentions and will do evil things. They are dictatorships or totalitarian form of government, and they have the wherewithal to threaten us, either by terrorist activity or supporting terrorist activity, or with weapons of mass destruction.

And when he used that expression, it just caused all kinds of jangled nerves throughout the world, especially in Europe. And everybody said it was simplistic, and, my goodness, we're warmongers, we want to go attack everybody everywhere.

But, on reflection -- and I had to deal with the diplomatic aftermath of that phrase. But, on reflection, thinking about it, it was pretty accurate, and it was pretty close to the point. And you were seeing George Bush as a man of principle and a man willing to use strong, tough, direct language to underscore his principle and make it clear that he would act on his beliefs with respect to those principles.

But we had to then convince the world, and especially our colleagues in Europe, that always didn't mean we're going to war with somebody, but it also meant that we would not shrink from using our military force if that's what was required.

QUESTION: Well, there was a certain period of several months during which it seemed there was a debate going on in here in Washington about how to take the policy forwards. What advice were you giving the President, particularly so during August, during the late summer, about what the objectives should be and how it should be achieved.

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, first of all, let me start by saying there is always a debate going on in Washington, and the President in this administration has done quite a bit to inspire such debate by hiring people in his senior national security positions who have strong views about things. None of us, I would say, can be characterized as a shrinking violet. We also have known each other for years and have interacted in different capacities, so we're good friends and we know how to have a good disagreement about something and we know how to serve our President.

And so the debate that we had that summer was, okay, we're not getting anywhere with Iraq, they are simply not complying with these resolutions. And in this post-9/11 period where we can see the nexus between weapons of mass destruction and terrorists, the two coming together, it is not a risk we can continue to run. And the President said this is not a risk I wish to continue to run. And Prime Minister Blair felt pretty much the same way. We had been talking to the British and other nations along the way.

Well, okay, then, how shall we go about this? Shall we just go and decide on our own to undertake a military operation and invade, issue and ultimatum and go? Or should we take this problem back to where the problem belongs, and that is, to the United Nations? The United Nations passed these resolutions, Security Council resolutions, that are now being violated at will, with no consequences. And the President, realizing that this was a major issue for the world, and in the spirit -- if I might do this with a slight smile -- of multilateralism, elected to take the issue to the United Nations. Nobody disagreed with that decision. Not I, certainly, who helped structure the position. Neither the Vice President nor Secretary Cheney* nor Dr. Rice, for that matter.

We realized that to get the international support that we needed and to get coalition partners in, and especially to satisfy the needs of our British friends, this is the place to start. And so, on the 12th of September, the President took it to the United Nations, and
in a very powerful speech that will be long remembered, laid out the case clearly.

*Neither the Vice President nor Secretary Rumsfeld.

And then he called upon the United Nations to act through resolutions. And then over the next seven weeks, as is well known, we had a serious debate in the Security Council, which was resolved with Resolution 1441, passed unanimously -- everybody, including Syria -- which simply said Iraq is in violation of its obligations, it still is guilty, it stands guilty; it can fix that by coming into immediate, unconditional, full compliance; the inspectors are there to verify and to help; and if it does not take this last chance, serious consequences will flow.

QUESTION: There was skepticism, the reason there was that very long period of debate in the United Nations, particularly from the Russians, but even more perhaps, the French, about America's real intentions, whether they were simply seeking the diplomatic cloak for a war they had already decided on. What's your reaction to that? What is your response to that?

SECRETARY POWELL: We had concluded that if the United Nations was not prepared to act in a forceful way that forced Iraq to comply and deliver these weapons of mass destruction, and all the programs associated with them, and 'fess up to the past 15 years, 12 years, of misbehavior, we would go forward with the support of the United Nations' military approval, another -- you know, another statement by the United Nations, or without it. And if they did not comply and the Council chose not to take note of it, then we would act with a willing coalition.

We said that at the beginning. We never hid that from anybody. There was no hidden card here. I never had a conversation with any of my foreign minister colleagues when that point was not made, nor did the President. We were willing to act with a willing coalition, leading a willing coalition, if we could not get a coalition blessed by the Security Council.

And we made it absolutely clear when we negotiated 1441 and we got it passed that we believed there was sufficient authority in that resolution that if Iraq did not comply, the serious consequences called for by that resolution were appropriate and were certainly in accordance with international law, with that resolution and earlier resolutions.

1441 -- people almost -- it hasn't been that long ago, but people's memories have already begun to fade. It was a significant achievement on the part of the Security Council to put down such a strong marker condemning Iraq, and we all worked very hard and I'm very proud of the work we did on 1441.

QUESTION: During the inspections process that followed, Hans Blix has said that he sometimes felt he was being undermined by American officials here. Do you think he was given a fair chance to do the job?

SECRETARY POWELL: Yes, he was given a fair chance to do the job, as was Dr. ElBaradei of the IAEA, International Atomic Energy Agency. We provided them information. We provided them cueing. And I have nothing but the highest regard for Dr. Blix and Dr. ElBaradei.

But we found that over time, as they started to do their work, though they're dedicated international civil servants, they were running into the same games with the Iraqis that the Iraqis have always played with previous inspectors -- hiding things, deceiving things, snooping on them -- and we did not find it acceptable because the resolution, 1441, called for full, immediate, unconditional compliance. And Iraq immediately made it clear that's not what we were going to get.

We specifically put into that resolution a 30-day requirement for them to give a full, accurate and complete declaration. It was a test to see if they would do it. It would be an indication to us that they were serious this time. They failed that test.

And in the months that passed, we listened to presentations by Dr. Blix and Dr. ElBaradei. I made a presentation to the Council. We were meeting almost every Friday for a month on the inspection regime and what was going on. And we came to the conclusion, with some other nations -- the United Kingdom, Spain and Bulgaria -- that we were not seeing compliance; we were seeing efforts to frustrate us. Others -- the French, the Russians, to a lesser extent the Chinese, the Germans and a number of others -- felt, well, let's just give inspections more time, give the inspections a chance, put more inspectors in. But the issue wasn't more inspectors. The issue wasn't more time. The issue was compliance, and we were not seeing it.

And we realized that unless we brought this to a head, it will just dribble away, it would go away, it would dissipate. People would have forgotten about it a year later. And so we were ready to go forward, and at that time, that point, our British friends said we really ought to go for a second resolution. And we did. Others allies -- friends, coalition partners -- said the same thing -- the Italians, the Spanish, the Australians. For our own public opinion, the second resolution would have helped a great deal.

And so we went for that second resolution. We were unable to get it. And since we were not going to get it because the French said we're going to veto it, no matter what it is we're going to veto it because we want the inspections to continue, we pulled it down and didn't take a vote on it because we didn't want to put in a very awkward position some of our elected ten member friends in the Security Council, who would have had to show their hand, and perhaps made some political consequences.

QUESTION: What did you feel when the process collapsed on March 17th, or whenever it was, and did it mean that the whole process that began in September the previous year had essentially been wasted?

SECRETARY POWELL: No, not at all. This is a misreading of what actually was in that second resolution. The second resolution did not lead to a peaceful resolution. The second resolution said that if by the 17th of the month Iraq has not come into full, complete, unconditional compliance, then the serious consequences of 1441 apply. So the second resolution was leading to conflict. It wasn't leading to more monitors and more inspectors, or to a peaceful solution. The second resolution was going the same place that we believe 1441 allowed us to go.

What is fascinating about it is that even when the second resolution did not pass and we were concerned because Prime Minister Blair especially said he needed it for his parliament, for his vote in the parliament, I think the process of doing through 1441 and the fight we made and the case we made on trying to get the second resolution, even if it wasn't successful, gave Mr. Blair and Mr. Berlusconi of Italy and Mr. Aznar of Spain and Prime Minister Howard of Australia and the Bulgarian leadership and other leaders, gave them enough political energy that they were able to get successful votes.

And one of the brightest moments of this whole period, this whole saga, was when Prime Minister Blair walked into the parliament without that second resolution and got the vote, and got it handily. So this may sound a bit self-serving, but why not? That period of diplomacy, from the 12th of September through the end of the period when Operation Iraqi Freedom ended -- started, excuse me -- when the operation actually started was a period of successful diplomacy because we created the conditions under which we achieved legitimacy under 1441 and we were able to put together a willing coalition of some 49 nations. And in the aftermath of all of that, now we see a liberated Iraqi people.

QUESTION: How much damage done to relations with France in the process?

SECRETARY POWELL: There's been some damage done. There's no doubt about that. But, you know, we've had disagreements with any one of our other of our allies over the years, and we'll work through this. NATO is not going to go away. The United States is not going to fall apart. And our bilateral relationship with France took a hit, but it is not going to fall apart. I joke with audiences from time to time that the United States and France have been married together as partners for 225 years and we've been in marriage counseling for the whole 225 years, and we'll probably continue to be in counseling.

But the fact of the matter is we do many things together in a cooperative spirit. We operate on the world state with each other and we are strong partners in the NATO alliance and in the Security Council.

QUESTION: And are you still convinced you will find weapons of mass destruction during this process?

SECRETARY POWELL: Yes, yes. They're there and we will have to wait and be patient, let the troops finish the work they're doing now, securing and stabilizing the country. And as more and more people come forward who are now free to speak, I think the evidence will be more forthcoming. We've got exploitation teams in country now, as I speak, and these exploitation teams are finding interesting things, interesting documents and having interesting interviews.

But there's one question I didn't quite answer thoroughly -- you asked it a while ago -- and that was, was I being candid, were we being candid with our partners in the Security Council as we pursued 1441, was there some alternative to war or had we already made up our mind that no matter what, we were going to war.

The alternative was there. The President of the United States and other members of our administration, who were skeptical about whether or not Saddam Hussein would ever come into compliance or whether we could trust his compliance, nevertheless, we put on the table in 1441 that if he had come into full, complete, accurate, unmistakable compliance, that, in effect, was a changed regime and we would have been in a position of having to accept that outcome because we took that risk when we entered into 1441. And we were deceiving no one. We had all our cards on the table.

QUESTION: And do you think the UN and the Security Council rose to the challenge that the President gave it last September?

SECRETARY POWELL: I think they did in 1441. I think that they should have raised themselves to the challenge of a second resolution, but they chose not to. And that's why it's called a council and that's why it's called the United Nations. There are 191 members of the United Nations and there are 15 members of the Security Council at any one time, ten of them rotating and five permanent. And nothing is guaranteed.

And when you have a body like that, you're not going to prevail just because you walk in and ask for something. Every nation comes to that table with its own sovereignty, its own interests, its own political motivation, some domestic constituencies, and you try to blend it all and work it out. And we did work it out for 1441. 1441 was enough. It was a diplomatic triumph and provided the underpinning for Operation Iraqi Freedom and the liberation of the Iraqi people.

QUESTION: Can I ask you, finally, when you realized that war was inevitable?

SECRETARY POWELL: It pretty much was after the last briefing of Dr. Blix and when it was clear that we would not be able to persuade the French that they should not keep saying we will veto anything, and there was no other track that was open.

But even before then, I could see that it was going to happen, but once the second resolution went down, that was it. The second resolution had a slight opening of the window that Iraq could have avoided it. We didn't think they'd take it because it wasn't much time and they hadn't taken it so far. They thought they were winning at that point. They thought that they had stalemated the United Nations and they thought that we would blink. We didn't blink. And they were counting on other pressures, international pressures, world opinion, which were going against us, to stop us from acting. But if I can back to the beginning, they misunderstood the determination of President George Bush when he is standing on a matter of principle.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much, indeed.

SECRETARY POWELL: You're welcome.

Released on April 26, 2003

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