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The archbishop and the general

Tuesday, April 01, 2003

It's April Fool's Day, folks. Time to clear up at least one apocryphal story floating around cyberspace about our secretary of state and the current archbishop of Canterbury.

If you have a computer, at some point in the last two weeks you've probably received the following missive squeezed between Nigerian get-rich-quick schemes and the usual torrent of obnoxious breast and penis enlargement ads:

"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.

"[Powell] 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 quiet in the room."

This alleged diplomatic smackdown has landed in my e-mail box several times since the beginning of the war. It's supposed to be a dignified rebuke to folks who question the intentions of our president and our secretary of state. In fact, the version I got last Friday contained this warning:

"Consider the following message and keep it in your memory whenever you think of writing a column that even hints [at] the United States having motives other than helping to secure peace in the world."

OK, it's time to do a little demythologizing for the sake of history. We can return to our usual tactics of myth-making and dubious hagiography after we set the record straight.

First, as a good Anglican, I couldn't let this slander against Rowan Williams, the newly installed archbishop of Canterbury, stand. The implication of the e-mail is that this confrontation with Colin Powell happened during Williams' watch, which formally began in February. The war, as we all know, began two weeks ago.

To many, a confrontation between Powell and the archbishop sounds plausible given the level of griping within Episcopal circles. In this country, Archbishop Williams has become something of a bogeyman thanks to opinion pieces in conservative journals decrying his liberal political convictions as a form of spiritual arrogance and pride. But as with all myths, there is an element of truth in it.

There was an encounter between Powell and an archbishop at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January. It had nothing to do with Archbishop Williams, though.

During a question-and-answer period following Powell's speech, George Carey, the retired Archbishop of Canterbury, asked Powell if America was honoring religious values held in common by Christianity, Islam and Judaism. He also wanted to know if the sacredness of human life was part of the diplomatic equation and planning in Washington.

According to the official World Economic Forum transcript, there wasn't a single reference to empire-building or a hint of antagonism in Carey's question. In fact, Carey thanked Powell profusely for all he was doing to "improve the state of the world."

Following applause for Carey's question, Powell gave a very thoughtful answer about the uses of diplomacy and military power. His answer was followed by applause as well -- not silence.

After answering Carey's question, Powell made a general defense of the use of American power. The quote making the rounds is an abbreviated version that doesn't do justice to Powell's eloquence or his agonized struggle with the evil of Saddam's regime as he understands it. This is what Powell actually said:

"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 in 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."

This isn't as sexy as the old story, but at least it benefits from being true.


Tony Norman can be reached at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.

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