My (almost) conversation with Colin Powell

Powell begins his speech at the 20th annual conference of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee. (Nigel Parry)

As soon as US Secretary of State Colin Powell sat down I decided to seize the moment to go and speak with him. He had just delivered the keynote address at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s (ADC) annual convention on 14 June, at the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Arlington, Virginia.

EI’s Ali Abunimah stews during Powell’s speech. (Nigel Parry)

I had been stewing in my seat, listening to Powell give an address to the packed banquet hall in which he offered Arab-Americans and Arab people no positive message, except for pro forma declarations of how valued Arab-Americans are as a part of US society. That part of his speech could have been given to any ethnic group, just by switching the name.

Despite the deterorating situation in that country, Powell declared, “Iraq is free,” though he said nothing of the weapons of mass destruction he aggressively sold to the UN Security Council as a reason for war. He said he saw stirrings of reform and democracy throughout the Arab world — as a result of US engagement — which led me to wonder if perhaps there was a whole other set of Arab states I hadn’t heard about.

As for Palestine, Powell once again blamed Palestinian “terror” for the impasse, and did not use the word “occupation,” or criticize Israel in any way, shape or form. At the same time he repeated that Israel had a right to “defend” itself. Prior to Powell’s speech we had been asked not to boo, by former US Senator and ADC co-founder James Aburezk. Aburezk said, correctly, that when someone is invited into your home, you treat him courteously, even if he is your worst enemy. Aburezk quickly corrected himself, to say that Powell was by no means “our worst enemy.” Two years previously, Assistant US Secretary of State Thomas Pickering had received a less than effusive welcome when he spoke at ADC.

Delegates and guests listen to Powell’s speech. (Nigel Parry)

But there were ripples of derisive laughter several times, not least when Powell said that Israel’s Ariel Sharon was committed to peace. Yet by a significant portion of the audience — it looked like about half the room from where I was sitting — Powell was received warmly, with a standing ovation.

As soon as Powell sat down, people started to get up from their seats to chat and mill about. We had been sitting for a long time. I knew there was a short window before he was mobbed by other people. I walked up to the dais with the intention of asking one simple question: “Mr. Powell, you say Israel has a right to defend itself against the people whose land it occupies. Can you tell me what right, if any, you believe the Palestinians have to defend themselves against their occupiers?”

When I got to him, another person from the audience had beaten me to it. Shaking with anger or nerves I couldn’t tell you, but speaking clearly and with dignity, she said to Powell: “I have been there, I have seen the Israelis demolishing houses on people’s heads. It is the occupation, sir, the occupation.” Powell’s friendly smile turned to a scowl and he shot back “I’m trying to end all that.” He turned away from the woman and seized my hand in a firm grip, hoping perhaps I would provide some relief. “Mr Powell,” I said, “I have just one question…”

I didn’t get to ask it though, as I was pulled back by a secret service agent. Powell stood, turned and was quickly ushered from the room.

Going… Powell being reprimanded by the woman after his speech.

…going… Ali moves in to ask the question.

…gone. Secret Service agents move in on all concerned and Powell is spirited from the room. (Photos by Nigel Parry)