It was another one of those frighteningly good segments Jon Stewart pulls off sometimes: Celebrity interview – Colin Powell.
I thought Powell gave a pretty strong defense of the Bush/Blair position vis-a-vis the Downing Street memo. The interview wasn’t explicitly focused on that; it was more wide-ranging, but the memo did get mentioned, and for all that the Daily Show is comedy, this was very much one of those times when Jon Stewart takes his outsider-critic role seriously, and Powell came off as the principled guy that I still want to believe he is, and the result was some really good discussion that felt truer to me than the shouting-head back-and-forth that passes for public debate in too many places these days.
At the same time, the line Powell took was close enough to the one that Blair and Bush took at their joint press conference that I’m not kidding myself; I don’t doubt for a second that it’s still coordinated spin. But he sells it pretty well.
Anyway, I went ahead and transcribed the appearance for those of you who are interested in it but don’t want to (or can’t) stream the video from the Comedy Central site. Follow the link below, or scroll down, for the transcript.
Jon Stewart: My guest tonight, a four-star general and former Secretary of State in the Bush administration, please welcome to the program General Colin Powell. General. Hello, sir.
Colin Powell: Hey, Jon. Very nice to see you.
Stewart: Nice to see you.
Stewart: Thanks for coming by. First of all, let me say this–
Powell: Where’s Rob Cordry?
Stewart: Rob Cordry is in… Washington, um… [laughter] at the White House, reporting on serious issues of things…
Powell: I heard him.
Stewart: You’re here to fire me, aren’t you?
Stewart: [laughs] Let me say this: you look terrific.
Powell: I’m doing all right.
Stewart: This has been, you’ve been out of the administration how long now, about six months?
Powell: About four and a half months.
Stewart: Four and a half?
Stewart: It clearly agrees with you. [laughter] I find you look, clearly, vitality… Did you take a break, or did you dive right in to work?
Powell: I dived right in. I bought a lot of paint to paint my garage. The paint hasn’t been opened yet, I’ve been busy for the last four and a half months, doing…
Stewart: I will paint your gararge.
Stewart: I will do this for you out of my gratefulness to you for coming on the program.
Powell: Well, I’m delighted to be here.
Stewart: Well, we’re delighted –
[shout from crowd, laughter]
Stewart: Settle down. The gentleman who shouted ‘Booyah!’ just graduated from Marist College, unfortunately.
Stewart: It’s… I always feel awkward in these instances, because you understand what goes on behind the scenes of something that… We all have the same sort of goal, of making America safer and all that, but we clearly have disagreements, and I always feel as though, am I crazy to not understand some of the decisions that the administration made. And I just wonder, you seem like a very reasonable man. So I would like you to say to me, “yes you are crazy,” or “no, you are right, there are some reservations that a reasonable person could have about the direction of the administration, foreign-policy-wise.”
Powell: You know I’ve been in a number of administrations. I’ve been in four different administrations. And the issues that a president has to deal with with his top team, are difficult. And they’re not simple. And so you have a variety of opinions, you look at alternatives, you examine options, and you see what support you have in the international community. But ultimately it comes down to the president deciding what’s best for the country, what’s in the best interests of the country, and he’s the one who was elected to make that decision.
Stewart: You’re saying, not me.
Powell: Not me, not anyone else. We are there as his appointees to help him, to give him our very best advice. And President Bush always sought the best advice he could get from all of us. And we didn’t always agree. Sometimes we had disagreements. But that’s what a cabinet’s all about. That’s what a president is for, to sort through those differences of opinion and make decisions.
Stewart: Why is it so important for them to present that then, sort of a monolithic front, and not have that discussion with the country. Because I almost think that I might understand it better, if I knew more about, if, if, sort of like in math, when you show your work, and you go oh yeah, okay, I understand that, rather than when a guy just comes out and says, “I think Iraq’s the problem.” You know? Because right after 9/11, the Afghanistan war — man did I dig that. I’d like to go again. [laughter] But Iraq seemed like such an odd left turn. and I wonder, within the administration, obviously you say there were dissenting voices, I’m assuming perhaps yours, perhaps some others…
Powell: The dissent was over the pace at which to approach the problem, and how to take it to the international community. And what the president did was listen to all of us. And I made a case, which was agreed upon by my other colleagues in the administration, that you need to take it to the United Nations. And that’s what the president did. So, he didn’t run off in the summer of 2002 as some suggested, and some British documents suggested –
Stewart: The Downing Street memo this, uh…
Powell: The Downing Street memo. What did he do at the time the Downing Street memo was being written and presented to Prime Minister Blair? President Bush and I and my other colleagues were in discussions about how to take it to the UN in Sepetember of that year. And so we took the problem to the UN, because the UN, the international community was the offended party. Their resolutions that were not being obeyed over a 12-year period. So there were differences of opinion within the administration as to how long one should wait, what should be the events that say this is enough, we can’t take any more. War could have been avoided if the international community, I think, had held firm with Saddam Hussein and insisted that he meet the requirements of that first UN resolution. Give a full, fair and honest disclosure…
Stewart: And you felt that having the inspectors in there didn’t meet the…
Powell: We didn’t think it was meeting the test. And ultimately the president decided, “We are about to lose this….because we’ll go through another year, another resolution, the UN will go away for the summer and come back in the fall, the problem will still be there, Saddam Hussein will be free of sanctions.”
Stewart: And you felt that the urgency was so great –
Powell: Everything we were being told by the intelligence community –
Powell: — was very disturbing with respect to his intention, his capability, but also his history. I had beeen to the places, I have been to the villages in northern Iraq where he slaughtered people. I have been to the place where he had gassed 5,000 people one morning, and killed 5,000 people in one morning. So this wasn’t some, you know, academic exercise. This was a guy who had done that. And we knew that if he was ever free from sanctions we were concerned he would do that again. Now where we got the intelligence wrong — dead wrong — is that we thought he also had existing stockpiles, and now we know that those are not there.
Stewart: That was the thing that, coming from the other side, I do think that the disagreements in America at least don’t seem to be over whether or not threats needed to be confronted. It seemed to be that, even at the time in 2002, even at the time when you were preparing to go to the UN, wasn’t there concern within, say, the German community and other things, that the intelligence was being skewed. And I think the impression people get is, the DOD went ahead and set up this sort of separate office, and the intelligence started to get funneled through them. There were all these sort of qualifications that were being put on the intelligence, that people felt were being dismissed, your reservations, certainly with the experience that you have, and the stature that you have. It seems like all that would have been taken to a much more serious place. And I think people feel that that was dismissed, and now the argument has been turned around to say, hey, we’re just spreading democracy. That seems to be the disconnect that I feel. And I don’t know whether or not that’s…
Powell: Let me make a point.
[scattered applause, cheer]
Stewart: And those two guys, they don’t know what I’m talking about.
Powell: They may not be able to graduate… The intelligence picture that the president was given over that period of time, that was given to congress, that President Clinton received in the late 90s, all pointed to this kind of capability and stockpiles existing in Iraq. President Clinton acted on that in 1998, and bombed Iraq for four days specifically on that kind of intelligence. It was very difficult to follow after that 1998 bombing with the kind of intelligence collection that we would have liked to have seen, because the inspectors had to come out. But intelligence is never perfect.
Powell: And what you do is get the best picture you can. And you say it wasn’t discused —
Stewart: And you stand by it even now. You, you…
Powell: I stand by the fact that what we presented to the congress, which caused the congress to pass a resolution, and what I presented to the United Nations–
Powell: — was what the intelligence comunity believed at that time. I didn’t receive any intelligence information from outside.
Stewart: Nobody from Germany called you and said, “Curveball’s kind of a nutjob.” None of that.
Powell: Not me. There may have been sombody who was called inside the system and said, “Beware of Curveball.”
Powell: But it never got to me and it never got to the president.
Stewart: Never floated up the chain.
Powell: And the intelligence I was using didn’t come from little special outfits that had been created here and there. It came from the Director of Central Intelligence.
Stewart: But even you would admit at the time, weapons of mass destruction was directive A, and directive B, and directive C. And the other sort of rationales for war seemd to be accents, and not the thrust…
Powell: Well, if you look at the presentation I made to the United Nations, most of it was on wepaons of mass destriction.
Stewart: You weren’t waving a vial of freedom powder. That was anthrax.
Powell: That was anthrax. I also, though, concluded my presentation by talking about the human rights abuses, that were also against UN resolutions, and terrorist activity that should have been concern to the whole international commuity.
Stewart: I certainly apprecate that, uh…
Powell: The bottom line is that he’s gone, he’s gone.
Powell: The Iraqi people want freedom, they want democracy, they want to have their own government, they’re trying to write a constitution. We have given them the ability to do that, what we have to do is defeat this insurgency.
Powell: So whether you supported it or not in the beginning, now we have–
Stewart: No, I know, that is, is, in some respects it’s spilled milk to an extent. It’s probably hard to get over it because it is such a serious buesinss and it’s… But I certainly appreciate your graciousness in talking with me about it.
Powell: Jon, you know, there was a lot of open debate. Congress debated it. They debated it in the form of a joint resolution.
Stewart: But I’ve seen those guys, and honestly? Uh, the next thing they debated was “freedom fries.” I’m not so sure that they’re worth anything…
Stewart: We’re going to come back, we’re going to talk a bit more about the future, and some other things. But I certianly appreciate you being here, and thank you so much.
Powell: Thank you.
Stewart: We’re going to come back with more Colin Powell…
Stewart: Welcome back to the show, we’re talking to General Colin Powell. Is it true that Kim Jong Il could fit in your pocket?
Stewart: It is true?
Powell: It depends on whether he’s wearing his…
Stewart: The heels?
Powell: His high heels or not.
Stewart: Do you get to keep in touch with these fellas? When you leave the job do you still have the phone numbers? Do they change their number? Do they, you know, has someone hacked your Sidekick and gotten the…
Powell: You’d be surprised about how many people still drop by to say hello.
Stewart: Really? And that makes you feel very good?
Powell: Oh yeah.
Stewart: Does the president still drop by?
Powell: He was by last week.
Powell: Yeah. He came out to the house for dinner. We had a nice time.
Stewart: Does he know who I am? [laughter] At all?
Powell: Jon, no.
Stewart: [laughs] Dammit! I knew it! Do you still, is it difficult to get out of work when he stops by, is there a way to have casual conversation? Can you say, “Oh, jeez, these Nationsls are playing great, I’m looking to get in on a consortium,” and you guys can talk baseball? Or is it all, “Fallujah!”
Powell: [laughs] No, uh, he and Mrs. Bush came to the house, just the four of us had dinner, and we relaxed. And we talked about family; we’ve known them for many years in the family, and we talked about issues of the day, and we also talked a little bit about the Washington Nationals baseball team.
Stewart: Are you thinking about getting in on some of that?
Powell: Yeah, I have a line with one of the groups that is trying to buy the team from Major League Baseball, and I hope we will be successful.
Stewart: I hope so, Major League Baseball should not be the owner of that team. Somebody’s got to wrest control of that from them. Because…
Powell: We’re working on it.
Powell: And I appreciate that, and I hope you do it, and if you do maybe I’ll throw out a pitch or two. [laughter] You would swing for that…
Powell: We’ll see. We’ll see.
Stewart: After dinner with the Bushes, is the worst thing to say, “So how about some strip poker?” [laughter] Is that the worst thing to say?
Powell: Yeah, that’s pretty bad.
Stewart: That is pretty bad. You’ve gotta come back and see us again, because we truly did enjoy it.
Powell: I look forward to it. Thank you, Jon.