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Brent Flynn: You've Got Propaganda!

You've Got Propaganda!

By Brent Flynn
Practically Rational

If you're like me, you've received emails from conservative friends, co-workers and family members that tell of some outrage perpetrated by a pacifist, tree-hugger or all around bleeding heart (Clinton and celebrity bashing enjoy their own distinct categories). You may also be familiar with the other variety that highlights some noble or charitable deed performed by a God-fearing, patriotic Republican (Oliver North is the subject of one such email).

The latest addition to the right-wing's email propaganda campaign comes in the form of a humble response by Colin Powell to a question from the Archbishop of Canterbury at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January.

But as is generally the case with this type of politically motivated email, the context of the quote is misrepresented and the claims made cannot be supported. In this specific case, the intent is to play on Americans' increased sense of patriotism and need to believe that what we are doing in Iraq is just.

Here is the text of the email as I received it:

> > A Colin Powell Quote
> > 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 that, "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.

Powell's response is presented as a moving moment in the email and his words are meant to be a proud reminder of our country's history of selfless giving to the cause of liberty around the world. However, the recipients of this email are being mislead by the half-truths contained within it and the end result amounts to propaganda.

For starters, the questioner was misidentified as the current Archbishop of Canterbury when it was actually former Archbishop George Carey. It is a minor mistake, but still worth pointing out.

More importantly, there is a discrepancy between how the question by Carey was framed in the email versus how it was actually uttered at the forum. The email's paraphrase of Carey's question asks "if our plans for Iraq were just an example of empire building by George Bush." But a full reading of the transcript reveals that Carey's question was a nuanced inquiry into the use of hard and soft power by the Bush administration, not an allegation of "empire building."

This mischaracterization of the original question is an obvious attempt to set up "liberal" claims of American imperialism for a big fall. But even if the question had been about empire building, Powell's response is disingenuous and misquoted in the email (to read the question and response click here).

Powells assertion that once the US military finishes its job, it packs up and leaves, is untrue given the shear number of US military bases around the world. We have had military bases in Japan and Western Europe for 50 years. Sure, our presence was welcomed in Europe during World War II and even by the Japanese and Germans during the Cold War, but many governments and citizens of foreign nations are rethinking their role as hosts to US troops.

Ask the people in Okinawa and Vieques how they feel about our military presence there.

In Okinawa we occupy much of the prime coastal real estate with our military bases. The noise, pollution, alcohol-related disturbances and prostitution created by troops stationed on the island is a constant source of resentment for the native population--as is the case in many countries that have US military bases.

In Vieques, the U.S. Navy uses portions of the island to test depleted uranium, napalm bombs and other chemical and toxic weapons condemned by international public opinion because of their adverse impact on health and the environment. A declaration of ultimatum approved by the Assembly of the People of Vieques declared that the US Navy is a usurping entity of their territory, "whose presence and activities violate the natural right of the people of Vieques to enjoy our natural resources and the right to peace."

Powell's statement also overlooks the bases in Saudi Arabia still manned by units left behind after the first Gulf War--which ended over a decade ago. We should not forget that it was the presence of those US troops in the land of Mecca and Medina that so infuriated one rich Saudi that he and his terrorist network began attacking US targets overseas and, eventually, targets within the United States itself.

Powell's remarks suggest that the current war with Iraq also is being waged for purely defensive and altruistic reasons. However, the strategic importance of the Persian Gulf to the United States is well documented. Members of the Bush administration including Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, the top two at the Pentagon, have been participating in discussions about the projection of US forces in the Persian Gulf for years.

There was an interesting report released by the Project for the New American Century (a conservative think tank, which boasts a membership list of the two Pentagon officials mentioned above as well as Dick Cheney and Jeb Bush) in September of 2000. The report, titled "Rebuilding America's Defenses," stated that, "the United States has for decades sought to play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security. While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein." (emphasis mine)

That statement, when coupled with the recommendations of The National Energy Policy Development group headed by Vice President Dick Cheney that Bush make energy security a priority of our foreign policy, calls into question the reasons given by our leaders for invading Iraq. Our energy security hinges on access to Middle Eastern oil, and Iraq possesses the second largest oil reserves in the world.

Colin Powell's idealistic statements sound noble and are rhetorically persuasive, but they don't take into account our country's history of building bases in every strategic location possible. While their presence in other countries may not necessarily represent conquest in its strictest sense, there is no other way to characterize the invasion and occupation of Iraq. And it won't matter how much the Bush administration tries to convince us and the rest of the world that it is about "Iraqi Freedom."

But the email will be sent around by Americans of every political stripe, who want so badly to believe that their government is not a bully, not an occupier, not an imperial power. I would like to believe that, too. I'm just not willing to suspend reality just so I can feel good about a bunch of former oil executives taking over Iraqi oil fields.


--Click here to read another column about the conservative email smear campaign.

Contact Brent Flynn at if you would like to receive future columns weekly via email.



Here is the question from former Archbishop George Carey:

“Mr. Secretary of State, at this conference, among the language that has been used has been a phrase, the difference between hard power and soft power: hard power and military power, and perhaps expressed in America as the only superpower with a grave responsibility to create and help to forward the cause of peace in the world; and then soft power, soft power which binds us all, which has something to do with values, human values and all the things that you and I passionately believe in...

But I've got two questions, if I may. The first one: Do you feel that in the present situation, and I'm following on my colleague who just spoke, and regarding Iraq but also Palestine as well, that we are doing enough in drawing upon the common values expressed by soft power in uniting what is called West and the Middle East in Islam and Christianity, in Judaism and other religions?

And would you not agree, as a very significant political figure in the United States, Colin, that America, at the present time, is in danger of relying too much upon the hard power and not enough upon building the trust from which the soft values, which of course all of our family life that actually at the bottom, when the bottom line is reached, is what makes human life valuable?

Powell's response:

The United States believes strongly in what you call soft power, the value of democracy, the value of the free economic system, the value of making sure that each citizen is free and free to pursue their own God-given ambitions and to use the talents that they were given by God. And that is what we say to the rest of the world. That is why we participated in establishing a community of democracy within the Western Hemisphere. It's why we participate in all of these great international organizations.

There is nothing in American experience or in American political life or in our culture that suggests we want to use hard power. But what we have found over the decades is that unless you do have hard power -- and here I think you're referring to military power -- then sometimes you are faced with situations that you can't deal with.

I mean, it was not soft power that freed Europe. It was hard power. And what followed immediately after hard power? Did the United States ask for dominion over a single nation in Europe? No. Soft power came in the Marshall Plan. Soft power came with American GIs who put their weapons down once the war was over and helped all those nations rebuild. We did the same thing in Japan.

So our record of living our values and letting our values be an inspiration to others I think is clear. And I don't think I have anything to be ashamed of or apologize for with respect to what America has done for the world.


We have gone forth from our shores repeatedly over the last hundred years and we’ve 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 seek our own, you know, to seek our own lives in peace, to live our own lives in peace. But there comes a time when soft power or talking with evil will not work where, unfortunately, hard power is the only thing that works.

Complete Transcript:

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