The Colin Powell Interview
Meet the Press transcript of Chuck Todd interview with Colin Powell
Chuck Todd: Good morning. You might have noticed something different just now about the opening of the show. You heard it right. We have a new announcer. And appropriately, that was the voice of a TV president, Dennis Haysbert, who played David Palmer in 24. All right. Now let’s get down to business. We have some fascinating new poll numbers out of Iowa and New Hampshire. We’ll get to that later in the show.
But first, this week, we learned that Congress can’t stop the Iran nuclear deal. That’s not stopping Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, by the way, from attending a rally this week here in Washington, that will attempt to showcase opposition to the deal. The Trump/Cruz duet is symptomatic of how polarized foreign policy’s become. With a recent CNN/ORC poll showing this: 70% of Democrats think Congress should approve the deal, with only 15% of Republicans in favor.
They now view foreign policy as a polarized item these days. I can think of no better guests to discuss the Iran deal and many other important issues, including the president race, than former secretary of State under George W. Bush, retired General Colin Powell. General Powell, welcome back to Meet the Press.
Colin Powell: Good morning, Chuck, good to be back.
Chuck Todd: Appearance number 33, let’s start right with Iran. Is this a good deal?
Colin Powell: I think it is a good deal. I studied very carefully the outline of the deal and what’s in that deal. And I’ve also carefully looked at the opposition to the deal. And my judgment, after balancing those two sets of information is that it’s a pretty good deal.
Now, I know that there are objections to it, but here’s why I think it’s a good deal. One of the great concerns that the opposition has, that we’re leaving open a lane for the Iranians to go back to creating a nuclear weapon in ten or 15 years. They’re forgetting the reality that they have been on a superhighway for the last ten years to create a nuclear weapon or a nuclear weapons program, with no speed limit.
And in the last ten years, they have gone from 136 centrifuges up to something like 19,000 centrifuges. This agreement will bring them down to 5,000 centrifuges. All of these will be under IAEA supervision. And I think this is a good outcome. The other thing I’ve noticed is that they had a stockpile of something in the neighborhood of 12,000 kilograms of uranium. This deal will bring it down to 300 kilograms.
And it’s a remarkable reduction. And I’m amazed that they would do this. But they have done it. And with respect to the plutonium effort, the plutonium reactor at Iraq, which is now starting to operate, it’s going to be shut down, except for minor parts of it, and concrete will be poured into the reactor core vessel.
And so these are remarkable changes. And so we have stopped this highway race that they were going down. And I think that’s very important. Now, will they comply with it? Will they actually do all of this? Well, they get nothing until they show compliance. And that’s the important part of their arrangement.
Chuck Todd: Well, the other criticism of this deal has to do with behavior changes. Why didn’t we ask for– it wasn’t enough to just try to slow them down on their nuclear front or stop their ability to get a nuclear weapon. It is, should we also put in this deal having them stop the funding of Hamas, stop the funding of Hezbollah, stop the backing of Assad and Syria? What do you say to that criticism?
Colin Powell: I think all of those are important objectives. And they should not be set aside because of this deal. We have to keep pushing on the bad behavior that the Iranians show constantly throughout the world. But this deal specifically had to do with the thing that was most concerning to the world, most dangerous to the world. And that was their nuclear program, which could produce a weapon in a very short period of time.
That has been thrown into a detour. It isn’t going to happen. And in ten or 15 years, we don’t know what the future will hold. But it’s not clear that in ten or 15 years from now, they will want to start it up again, or the material that has been under IAEA supervision for the ten or 15-year period will be available or suitable for such an increase. And so that’s pretty good. The real issue I think that came down to the opposition is how do you verify?
And I’m reminded of what my former boss Ronald Reagan used to say when he talked to the Soviets, “Trust but verify.” With respect to the Iranians, it’s don’t trust, never trust, and always verify. And I think a very vigorous verification regime has been put in place, with the IAEA and other international organizations.
And especially listening to Secretary of Energy Moniz, he really knows his stuff. He really knows his stuff. He’s a nuclear physicist. And he and the intelligence community are confident that they can verify what is happening inside of Iran.
Chuck Todd: We can chuck some of the opposition here in the United States politics, and that’s fine. But there are allies in the Gulf and of course Israel are most opposed to this deal as well. And they in some ways have been generating the opposition here in the United States when it comes to this deal.
Colin Powell: Yeah I understand that.
Chuck Todd: What do you say to their concerns, to the folks in Saudi Arabia and Israel?
Colin Powell: I think the this deal, which by the way, King Salman of Saudi Arabia did give his approval to this week when he was here with the president, but I think they will find over time, if it unfolds the way it is designed to unfold, they will see that they have been made more secure by derailing this Iranian nuclear program.
And we also have to keep in mind that we are in this with a number of other countries. All of the ones that have worked with us, China, Russia, Germany, France, Britain, they have already agreed to it. The British foreign secretary was already in Iran last week with a trade delegation. And so even if we were to kill this deal, which is not going to happen, it’s going to take effect anyway because all of these other countries that were in it with us are going to move forward, the UN is going to move forward, and a hundred nations have already agreed to this deal thinking it’s a good deal. And they’re all going to be moving forward. We’re going to be standing in the sidelines.
Chuck Todd: You were involved in an administration that negotiated a nuclear deal that tried to stop North Korea from getting a nuclear weapon. That didn’t work. Why would this deal not look like the North Korean deal in five years?
Colin Powell: Well, the North Korean deal was flawed from the 1994 original agreement, all the way through. And after a while, my view of North Korea was, you know, they really can never use a nuclear weapon without committing suicide. I think the same thing is true with Iran. You know, if I was with the Iranians, just like I said to the North Koreans on a number of occasions, “You do realize that any use, or anybody thinking they’re going to use one of these, you are committing suicide because your capital and your society will be destroyed the next day.”
If I was talking to the Iranians at a senior level, I would say, “What do you think you’re getting with these investment you’ve made in this all of these years? You think that you could actually use these without having the entire world condemn you the next day for being the only nation to have used nuclear weapons since 1945? Everybody will be against you.
“Secondly, you won’t accomplish any strategic purpose. You will have killed tens of thousands of people, destroyed part of the city, and the next day, you will see repercussions in terms of what will be done to you. And so this is something that is a waste of your money, a waste of your time, and I think that you ought to enter this deal with the full intention of complying with the outline of the deal, with what’s required of you to do, and cooperate fully with the inspectors.”
Now, people will say, “No, can’t trust them.” I don’t trust them. I say we have a deal, let’s see how they implement the deal. They don’t implement it, bail out. None of our options are going. None of our options are going. But this is something we ought to pursue and try to make it happen under the terms under which the deal was reached.
Chuck Todd: Let me move to the crisis with ISIS, which in some ways is connected right now to the migrant crisis that’s facing Europe and the Syrian refugee crisis. And I guess I would quote Jeb Bush. Jeb Bush said, “In order to defeat ISIS, you’ve got to get rid of Assad and Syria and we’ve got to deal with the Syria problem.” Number one, is he right? And what is your view of how to deal with ISIS?
Colin Powell: ISIS is not just an enemy waiting to be defeated in Syria and in Iraq and elsewhere. It is a movement. It is not something that’s going to lend itself to immediate military power to take it out. It’s a movement. And it’s going to have to be defeated by the people who live in the areas where this movement exists.
So airpower can just do so much. But air power is also destroying a lot of homes and towns and villages and other things. And so I think especially in Iraq, it’s going to take the Iraqi army believing in its government. The government that believes in its army and is giving the army what it needs to be successful, they have to not only defeat Iraq on the ground, but they have to hold the ground. They have to stay there, or else it falls apart.
With respect to Syria, I think that situation right now is so complex, so confusing between the government in Damascus, which is still there, but seems to be weakening between what the Russians might or might not be doing at the moment, that is of concern to Secretary Kerry. And who would replace Assad? Who would replace any of the other groups that are fighting for power? Whether it is ISIS or anyone else. I think Syria has every potential of falling into the kind of disrepair that we have seen in Libya and elsewhere.
Chuck Todd: I want to play for you a compendium of presidential candidates on Iraq. Because obviously with Jeb Bush’s presence in the race, it has brought up the Iraq War again. And it’s been amazing to hear all of these Republican candidates almost repudiate the war. Take a listen.
John Kasich: I would never have committed ourselves to Iraq.
Carly Fiorina: The intelligence was clearly wrong. And what we know now about the intelligence, no I would not have authorized war in Iraq.
Ted Cruz: The Iraq war was a mistake. It was based on false intelligence.
Jeb Bush: I would have not engaged, I would not have gone into Iraq.
Colin Powell: If we–
Chuck Todd: Where are you on this?
Colin Powell: If we had known the intelligence was wrong, we would not have gone into Iraq. But the intelligence community, all 16 agencies, assured us that it was right. My speech at the UN was based on that information. But guess what? 376 members of Congress, if I have my number correctly, voted on the basis of that intelligence, that it was something the president can do.
We tried to avoid it. I asked the president if we could take it to the United Nations, and we agreed, we took the case to the United Nations. All Saddam had to do to get out of jail at that time was to comply with the requirements of the United Nations. He chose not to. And the president decided, based on the intelligence that he had, and what he knew about the overall situation, that military force was necessary.
We quickly took Baghdad. My own personal belief is that after taking Baghdad, we made terrible strategic mistakes. The disbanding of the Iraqi Army, which we were counting on, the Pentagon asked us to count on that army to provide the security. And so I think the execution of the operation was flawed. Badly flawed. That the president made a decision as commander in chief, based on the information and intelligence he had.
Chuck Todd: Look, there was a lot of people that wondered if dealing with the Iraq war would not create a bigger mess overall, and believe it or not, of all people, a former Secretary of Defense in the mid ’90s, I want to play for you a clip of him, who later became vice president. Here’s what he said about why the first George Bush didn’t take out Saddam.
Dick Cheney: That’s a very volatile part of the world. And if you take down the central government in Iraq, you could easily end up seeing pieces of Iraq fly off. Part of it the Syrians would like to have, to the west. Part of eastern Iraq the Iranians would like to claim. Fought over for eight years. In the north, you’ve got the Kurds. And if the Kurds spin loose and join with Kurds in Turkey, then you threaten the territorial integrity of Turkey. It’s a quagmire if you go that far.
Chuck Todd: Twenty-one years ago, there was Dick Cheney talking about the Turks and the Kurds, talking about the quagmire in the Middle East, talking about the problems we would have with the border between Syria and Iraq. Here we are. Did the Iraq War create ISIS?
Colin Powell: I recall that I was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time. And in the second Bush administration, my view was, you know, remember, if you break this, you’re going to own it. It’s not going to be a simple–
Chuck Todd: I believe you called it the Pottery Barn rule at the time?
Colin Powell: Well, no, somebody else did, but I’ll accept it.
Chuck Todd: Fair enough.
Colin Powell: It was a newsman, as a matter of fact, but that’s okay. But the fact of the matter is, we did it right in the first Gulf War. We had to listen to arguments years afterwards about, “Why didn’t you go to Baghdad?” And then the 2003 war came along, and you saw why we didn’t want to go to Baghdad. We had a clear mission, clearly defined, we put the resources against that mission, took out the Iraqi army that was in Kuwait, restore the government, that’s what we intended to do, and that’s what Mr. Cheney was talking about.
And you have seen the pressions of his wars at that time, that you can create chaos. Once you pull out the top of a government, unless there’s a structure under it to give security and structure to the society, you can expect a mess. We saw that totally in Libya. Perfect example. In Egypt, we thought it was going to be good. We got rid of Mubarak, and now we have another general in charge of the country after a detour with the Muslim Brotherhood. So be very, very careful when you try to impose your system or your thinking on a society that’s been around for thousands of years and it is not really like us.
Chuck Todd: I want to move to some domestic issues here. This has been a tumultuous year in race relations. And obviously, probably the most poignant moment was what happened in Charleston. I want to play for you a clip from the president and what he said during the memorial service in Charleston.
President Obama: Maybe we now realize the way racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realize it. So that we’re guarding against not just racial slurs, but we’re also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal.
Chuck Todd: Is that where we are today? That we’ve still got a ways to go?
Colin Powell: We do have a ways to go. But let’s not overlook how far we’ve come. Fifty years ago nobody could’ve dreamed that a black president would be making a statement just made, or that a black guy could be secretary of State, chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, national security advisor. So we’ve made great progress.
Within that progress, a lot of people have been left behind. And we should have no illusions about the fact that there are still people in this country who will judge you by the color of your skin. I faced it in the course of my career. But I’ve always tried to make the problem that of the racist, and not with me. And just keep doing my job to the best of my ability.
Chuck Todd: What do you make of the Black Lives Matter movement?
Colin Powell: The Black Lives Matter, that’s a way of capturing the essence of this problem we have, where blacks have been killed by police officers in a way that doesn’t seem appropriate. Not that killing is appropriate in any circumstance. And so I don’t mind the slogan, and I don’t mind the movement, because it draws attention to a problem.
But the greater problem is violence in our society. Black-on-black violence is worse than white-policeman-on-black violence. And when you see what’s happening in every one of our cities every weekend, Washington D.C., right here, you’ve got to start asking yourself, “Is there something we can do to reduce the violence? Is it gun control?”
Or more importantly, is it teaching our children a different way? Is it giving people more opportunities to have jobs and to have stable communities and stable schools and schools that work? How do we restore the families in our country? Not just black families that are not as intact as they used to be, you’ll see the same thing happening in Hispanic families and in white families.
Chuck Todd: Two more questions. Do you still see a dark vein of intolerance inside the Republican party today?
Colin Powell: Yes. And people have said, “Why are you calling us racists?” I say, “No, I’m not calling the party racist. I’m just saying, if you look at it, you will see that there’s some in the party who practice a level of intolerance that is not good for the party and is not consistent with American values.”
Chuck Todd: Your name gets invoked a lot during this email controversy. Once and for all, can you explain what you did with your emails as secretary of state?
Colin Powell: You can read my book. I wrote a whole chapter about what I did in my latest book. It Worked for Me, Harper Collins, you can buy it on Amazon. But the point is I arrived at the State Department as secretary with a disastrous information system there. And I had to fix it. And so what I had to do is bring the State Department to the 21st century.
And the way of doing that was getting new computers. That gave them access to the whole world. And then in order to make sure that I changed the brainware of the department, and not just the software and hardware, I started to use email. I had two machines on my desk. I had a secure State Department machine, which I used for secure material, and I had a laptop that I could use for email.
And I would email relatives, friends, but I would also email in the department. But it was mostly housekeeping stuff. “What’s the status in this paper? What’s going on here?” So it was my own classified system, but I had a classified system also on my desk.
Chuck Todd: Do you believe this is a serious issue for Secretary Clinton or not?
Colin Powell: I can’t answer that. You know, we now have two IGs working on it, we have the F.B.I. working on it. Mrs. Clinton and some of her associates will be testifying, or be going before inquiries with the Congress. And I think it’s best for me to talk about what I know and not about what occurred under Secretary Clinton’s jurisdiction.
Chuck Todd: General Powell, I would love to talk to you for longer, but we’re going to stop there. Thanks for coming on Meet the Press, your 33rd appearance.
Colin Powell: Thanks.
Chuck Todd: In case you’re counting.
Colin Powell: Thank you.