THE COLIN POWELL INTERNET WHOPPER
The following story is making the rounds of the Internet. Ive received three copies of it recently from right-wing acquaintances who cite it as demonstrating the unassailable virtue of the United States and the weakness of European (especially French) arguments against the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Heres the common Internet version of the story:
When in England at a fairly large conference, Colin Powell was asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury if our plans for Iraq were just an example of empire building by George Bush. He answered by saying, Over the years, the United States has sent many of its fine young men and women into great peril to fight for freedom beyond our borders. The only amount of land we have ever asked for in return is enough to bury those that did not return. It became very quiet in the room.
The story--and its widespread dissemination on the Internet--is a perfect case of the Bushite hawks unabashed disregard for the truth. First, they get their facts wrong. Then they interpret what facts they do claim to have in ways that miss the point.
It turns out that Powell didnt say this at a conference in England, and it wasnt the Archbishop of Canterbury who asked the question. The question was asked by the former Archbishop of Canterbury (true, a small quibble) at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2003, where the U.S. was forced to defend itself against strong criticism of its Iraq strategy from almost every other nation there. The former archbishops question actually had to do, not with empire building, but with U.S. plans to use hard power (warfare) instead of soft power (diplomacy) in Iraq. Powells actual answer was long and thoughtful, citing instances of when the U.S. had used hard power (World War II) and when it had used soft power (the Marshall Plan). In fact, at one point, Powell did say, We have gone forth from our shores repeatedly over the last hundred years, and weve done this as recently as the last year in Afghanistan and put wonderful young men and women at risk, many of whom have lost their lives, and we have asked for nothing except enough ground to bury them in, and otherwise we have returned home . . . to live our own lives in peace. Powell received some applause for his remarks. The room did not become very quiet, as if the Europeans were shamed into silence by the unquestionable truth of his remarks.
Powell seems to have grown fond of his statement that Americans go to war only for high-minded purposes and ask only for enough ground to bury our wartime dead before they go home to live in peace. He has repeated it in several other venues, including on MTV.
The problem is, hes telling a lie. In truth, the United States has always demanded and received much more than mere burial plots in the lands on which it fights its wars. We fought a war with Spain in 1898, and ended up with military bases in Cuba and the Philippines. Oh, yes, we also got Puerto Rico wholesale and have since used it for target practice--hardly a burial plot. We liberated the Germans and the Japanese in World War II, and--what a surprise!--ended up with military bases in Okinawa, Ramstein and all over the rest of Germany. We fought in Turkey and ended up with military bases there. We freed Italy and saved Spain and have bases there. We like to think we saved England and so have bases there. We fought for South Korea and have bases there. We invaded Afghanistan--and does anybody think we wont keep a base or two like Bagram there in the future? And just in the last few days, of course, Bush administration officials have said that we expect to maintain at least four military bases in Iraq for the foreseeable future.
Sorry, Mr. Powell, youre spreading lies. In almost every country where weve fought, weve demanded not just a place to bury our dead soldiers, but also a place to keep our live ammunition and to house the military forces to use it.
I like Colin Powell. Hes one of the few grown-ups in the Bush Administration. But the next time he says that the U.S. wants only just enough land to bury its dead, the audience should indeed grow quiet. The alternative is to laugh him out of the room.