Secretary of State Colin L. Powell delivered a spirited defense of U.S. foreign policy and the war in Iraq, telling a convention of minority journalists in Washington yesterday that he was "solidly behind" the use of force against Saddam Hussein.
Speaking to Unity: Journalists of Color hours after Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry told the gathering that the Iraq war represented a failure of diplomacy, Powell replied: "We haven't had a failure in Iraq. We have gotten rid of a horrible dictator."
Asked about his experience being on the losing end of important foreign policy debates, Powell said "there was no split" over the invasion of Iraq once the Bush administration concluded Hussein had violated the final demands from the U.N. Security Council.
"I can assure you that I have in no way been constrained, contained or kept on the outside of our discussions," Powell said.
Kerry took a brief detour from his travels in the Midwest to address Unity, a consortium of four minority journalism associations. He focused attention on domestic issues and divisions of race, class and ethnicity, and he promised to run a more inclusive White House.
He pledged to fund federal programs that target a broad array of groups, from Native Americans to Filipino American veterans to Hispanics and African Americans without health care. He also promised to use his White House pulpit to press for an increase in the number of minorities holding prominent media jobs.
Noting that people of color are "only a tiny fraction" of editors, anchors and executives, Kerry challenged management to do better. He promised to appoint Federal Communications Commission members who will see that "small and minority-owned broadcasters are not consolidated into extinction."
The blue-blooded Democrat from Massachusetts, competing against an equally well-heeled president raised in Connecticut, told Unity he is the candidate who can best connect with minorities in the United States.
"Above all, who is truly committed to bridging the divides in this country that continue to separate, sometimes willfully, intentionally and politically . . . race from race, group from group, region from region?" Kerry asked. "I am also aware -- how can you live in America and not be aware? -- of the special challenges facing people of color."
In one of Kerry's biggest applause lines, he said every black vote would count in future elections. In 2000, many black voters were denied the right to vote as a result of breakdowns in registration and vote-counting systems.
"The harsh fact now is that in the last election more than 1 million African Americans were disenfranchised in one of the most tainted elections in history," Kerry said. "We have to see to it in November that every vote counts -- and every vote is counted."
Kerry measured his words carefully when asked to discuss actor Bill Cosby's admonition that black Americans take greater personal responsibility for their children instead of blaming others or the government if their children do not succeed. He said the comedian was being "excessively exclusive" by focusing on personal responsibility without acknowledging the protective role government must play.
"I am talking about these people who cry when their son is standing there in an orange [prison] suit," Cosby said in May remarks that created an intense debate. "Where were you when he was 2? Where were you when he was 12? Where were you when he was 18, and how come you didn't know that he had a pistol? . . . In all of this work, we cannot blame white people."
"I understand exactly where Bill is coming from in his comment," Kerry said. "It may be excessively exclusive in the breadth of it, in the sense that it sort of targets just the responsibility side, but that's an important side."
Kerry said government and society are to blame, too, for not providing adequate assistance and protections to minorities.
"We also need to do the things we need to do as a society to empower those people, have plans for those kids, to make the world safer," Kerry said. "It's all of us together."
President Bush is to address the Unity convention today.
After Kerry departed and Powell's turn came, the secretary of state insisted that Bush administration's foreign policy is more multilateral than its critics at home and abroad contend -- and more effective. He said that if the United States had not deposed Hussein, the Iraqi leader would have developed unconventional weapons.
"We would have faced those weapons at another time, at another place," Powell said.
Before the invasion, Powell expressed doubts in administrative channels about the wisdom of the war and the president's understanding of its implications, but he said yesterday that he was "solidly behind what the president found he had to do last spring when he undertook Operation Iraqi Freedom."
"And I'm pleased that that dictator is gone," added Powell, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. "He's been a thorn in my side for the last 12 years, too, I can assure you."