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Powell: War with Iraq is 'last resort'

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(CNN) -- CNN's Larry King talked with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell Wednesday night about Iraq, terrorism and controversial comments by singer Harry Belafonte.

KING: It's always a great pleasure to welcome him to this program, the secretary of state of the United States, Colin Powell.

Secretary Powell, we'll begin with your response to the assessment raised in the letter by the deputy CIA director stating that Baghdad now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks. Is this now in opposition to what the president said the other night?

POWELL: Well, I don't know, Larry. I always take with a grain of salt anything that comes out of Baghdad. And we are always trying to make an assessment. But, you know, what you have to do in this case is measure Saddam Hussein's intentions. And his intentions for many years have included developing weapons of mass destruction to threaten his neighbors and threaten the United States, if he thought that would serve his purposes.

And we know that, over the years, he has supported terrorist organizations. So it is not just what he might be doing at any moment in time, it's what his overall intentions have been for that long period of time.

And we are going to give him a challenge now, hopefully with a strong congressional resolution, with a strong U.N. resolution, to change his ways, change the behavior of that regime, or the regime will have to be changed. And we're hard at work on that, and I think the president's been doing a terrific job in making the case.

KING: Mr. Secretary, therefore, is the CIA's assessment wrong or is the CIA just relating what they hear?

POWELL: It's an assessment, Larry, and it's always a function of the information they have available to them at any particular point in time. Assessments rise in likelihood of occurrence or not a likelihood of occurrence depending on information that comes in. So you always have to see an assessment like that as a snapshot at a point in time.

KING: A great general once told me, Chappy James -- I know you knew him well -- that no one hates war more than a warrior. You've been a warrior. Do you fear the possibility that if military action does occur it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and Iraq then uses its chemical weapons on a state like Israel?

POWELL: War should never be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It should always be a deliberate act by people acting rationally, hopefully. And in this case, as the president said the other night, we are trying to see war as a last resort.

There is a way to avoid war, but it must include the disarmament of Saddam Hussein, taking away his weapons of mass destruction and the capability to produce them.

If that can be done through the international community rallying around the president's agenda, the international community coming together and supporting the resolutions that the U.N. has passed for many years and the new resolution I think will be put before the U.N., then we can solve this problem, hopefully without war.

But if it takes military action to solve this problem, then that's what we will do, either in concert with other nations under a U.N. mandate or, if necessary, the president is prepared to act with just like-minded nations without a U.N. mandate. But it's much better to do it with the international community coming together.

KING: Just to make this clear, Saddam Hussein -- and he might be watching for all we know; we are seen in Baghdad -- he has to do what that would prevent him facing military action? What does he have to do?

POWELL: He has to eliminate all of his weapons of mass destruction. And the only way we can be sure of that is to send inspectors in who have total access to any place in Iraq, to see whoever they have to see, any time they decide they have to go see that place or person, without any interference. And we'll see whether or not the Iraqi regime is prepared to cooperate on that basis.

And if they cooperate on that basis and they can assure the international community that they have been disarmed, that will take care of at least one of the many U.N. resolutions, and I think we will have a different situation that we will have to examine at that time.

KING: What's the timetable? When does he have to start doing this?

POWELL: Well, he should have been doing it over the years. He should have done it in 1991. I think it's important for us to act promptly now. That's why I hope the United States Congress will act promptly on its resolution, the resolution that President Bush helped draft with the Congress, because that will show that America is united behind this effort.

And with that congressional resolution, then I think our efforts to get a U.N. resolution are strengthened. And I hope that this will all come about in the not-too-distant future, within a matter of days or perhaps a week or two.

KING: It has always been said that you were once opposed to us acting unilaterally. Do you still favor that position, that we don't do it without the U.N. and congressional approval?

POWELL: I think it is always best to rally friends to a cause that they should be rallied to, a cause that we all should believe in. And in this instance we can rally the international community.

The president did exactly just that on the 12th of September when he went before the United Nations and reminded them of their responsibilities, laid out the indictment against the Iraqi regime, and then said clearly what the Iraqi regime had to do. And then he made it also clear that there had to be consequences if Iraq did not comply this time.

It is always best to see if you can do it with like-minded nations and with the support of the international community.

But, at the same time, if the United States is in danger, at risk, the president has the inherent right, as president of the United States, to do whatever is required to protect us.

That might sometimes require unilateral action. And it is not because we don't like multilateral action, but because it is necessary to act unilaterally. And that is not a new position. It has happened very often in the course of our history.

KING: Are you, frankly, Mr. Secretary, optimistic or pessimistic about the response of Iraq?

POWELL: I have stopped trying to handicap the Iraqi regime a long time ago. All I know is that I think the international community is coming together at this time to put down a strong demand.

There is no debate in New York among the Security Council members about the fact that Saddam Hussein has violated these resolutions. There is also no debate among my colleagues in the Security Council that we need to have a tough inspection regime that is any time, any place, anybody.

The discussion is, How do you link consequences to their failure to act this time? So it's not a matter of being optimistic or pessimistic, we'll just see what they do.

I do know that there is a new determination, a new understanding within the international community that we cannot turn away from it this time, we cannot look away and trust Saddam Hussein to do the right thing. He has to know that there will be consequences for violating whatever new resolution is put down. And this is not a matter of negotiation with him or measuring optimism or pessimism from day to day.

This is a realistic approach. It's a real approach. It's a way to solve a problem and see if we can do it without going to war. But there must be consequences for failure to comply. And if those consequences include going to war, then I hope the international community will understand the importance of us doing this as an international community.

KING: Mr. Secretary, no state likes to start a war, so the obvious is what is the threat to this state, the United States, in starting it? What can he do to us?

POWELL: His conventional military capability -- tanks, planes, divisions -- nowhere near the capability they had 12 years ago at the time of the Gulf War. The Gulf War succeeded in bringing that conventional capability down to size.

What would concern us are the weapons of mass destruction, the very reason that such a conflict may be necessary. We do know that he has stocks of biological weapons, chemical weapons. We don't believe he has a nuclear weapon but there's no doubt he has been working toward that end. And that's what we want to make sure does not happen, him to be in possession of a nuclear weapon.

So he could use these chemical and biological weapons against our forces going in, but more seriously he could use them against neighbors, or against his own people as he has done in the past.

At the time of the Gulf War 12 years ago, we also attributed him with a capability to use chemical and biological weapons, and we took the risk at that time, protecting our troops as they went into battle, and he demonstrated that he would strike at his neighbors. He fired Scud missiles at Israel and at Saudi Arabia.

He caused casualties, but those missiles did not contain chemical or biological agents. I don't know whether they would or would not this time.

But we have to make sure that if it comes to conflict we do everything we can to protect our friends in the region, and we also send out a clear deterrent message to the Iraqi regime about the inadvisability of using such weapons, and especially get that message down to the commanders and units that might be the ones ordered to use those weapons, and let them know they would be held to account for the consequences of such use.

KING: You were a commander. Would a commander listen to the threatening statements made by another nation?

POWELL: If that commander thought that he might face the consequences of not listening, if that individual thought he could be brought to justice for this kind of crime against humanity, and if that individual started to lose confidence in his leadership, recognizing that his leadership was about to be removed, then there may be a different calculation going through his mind and he might well be paying close attention to what we're saying.

KING: A few other things, Mr. Secretary: Israel supports the United States completely in this, yet they face the most immediate danger. Is this a dichotomy?

POWELL: They do face a danger. I think Saddam Hussein and the weapons he's been developing are a danger to all the nations in the region, to include Israel.

And so that's why Israel has been a strong supporter of the need for the international community or for nations who are inclined to act together if not under the umbrella of the international community to deal with this threat.

KING: So much has been written about rifts, and we've dealt and discussed this before. Under what circumstances, Mr. Secretary, would a Cabinet member, yourself, resign? In other words, you're a good soldier and good soldiers have to support. Are there circumstances -- is there a circumstance under which you would say, "I can't live with what we're doing"?

POWELL: Larry, there's no point in getting into this kind of a discussion. We are knitted together as a Cabinet team, as a national security team on this issue, under the leadership of the president. He's given us clear guidance, he's given us clear instructions and he's given us a vision of what we have to accomplish.

And we know what we have to do. We have to be firm at this moment in history, we have to be united as a Cabinet, as a nation, and I think we are. And we also should be united as an international community, the United Nations coming together.

And it is all for the purpose of removing a threat to the region, a threat to the people of Iraq and a threat potentially to the United States, if we do not now disarm Iraq, one way or the other.

And so the question you pose, nice, hypothetical, rhetorical one, has no relevance at the moment.

KING: All right, we're going to let you go now. Any comment at all on the Belafonte statements critical of you?

POWELL: I think it's unfortunate that Harry used that characterization. I'm very proud to be serving my nation once again. I'm very proud to be serving this president.

If Harry had wanted to attack my politics, that was fine. If he wanted to attack a particular position I hold, that was fine. But to use a slave reference, I think, is unfortunate and is a throwback to another time and another place that I wish Harry had thought twice about using.

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