BOSTON (CBS) - The late Colin Powell is being remembered Monday in a variety of ways, mostly for his impressive litany of firsts: first African-American National Security Advisor, first African-American chairman of the Joint Chiefs and first African-American Secretary of State.
But I will remember him more for being the most eloquent advocate for and explainer of what truly makes America great, warts and all.
The proof is in the transcript of his February 14, 2002 appearance on MTV News, of all places, as the headliner of a "global discussion." Read the transcript here for the full effect, but just a few quotes will give you the measure of the man.
Asked by a young Muslim American woman how Muslims should deal with the backlash against their faith after the 9/11 attacks, Powell said:
"I am glad that you have embraced your religion and you've gotten to know more about your religion since the 11th of September, and I hope your younger brothers do the same thing because Islam is a wonderful religion. It's a religion that teaches peace. It teaches taking care of those of our citizens who are less fortunate. It talks about finding a way that makes the world a better place. And so it is a wonderful religion. It is not a religion of violence. It is not a religion of taking innocent lives. And it should be embraced, and you should be proud of it.
We are proud of all the many Muslim Americans who are here in the United States. President Bush went out of his way to reach out to that community. And we also want to say to Muslims around the world our campaign against terrorism is not against anybody who is of the Muslim faith; it's against those individuals who are terrorists, who kill innocent people.
When you look at where the armed forces of the United States have fought in recent years, we went to Afghanistan to protect Muslims; we went to Kuwait to protect Muslims and give Kuwait back to the Kuwaiti Government. And when you look at what we did in Kosovo, we went to Kosovo to protect Albanian Muslims. So I think the United States has demonstrated through its actions, through the openness that we have in our society, that we respect all faiths. That is what makes this country great. We are a respecter of all faiths."
The next questioner, a young woman from Norway, seemed not to have been listening too closely. "How do you feel about representing a country commonly perceived as the Satan of contemporary politics?"
Powell was always a cool customer, but he seemed to bristle at this. "I reject the characterization," he said, before delivering extemporaneous remarks that ought to be required reading in every school and college:
"Quite the contrary. I think the American people, the United States of America, presents a value system to the rest of the world that is based on democracy, based on economic freedom, based on the individual rights of men and women. That is what has fueled this country of ours for the last 225 years. I think that's what makes us such as draw for nations around the world. People come to the United States. They come to be educated. They come to become Americans. We are a country of countries, and we touch every country, and every country in the world touches us.
So, far from being the Great Satan, I would say that we are the Great Protector. We have sent men and women from the armed forces of the United States to other parts of the world throughout the past century to put down oppression. We defeated Fascism. We defeated Communism. We saved Europe in World War I and World War II. We were willing to do it, glad to do it. We went to Korea. We went to Vietnam. All in the interest of preserving the rights of people.
And when all those conflicts were over, what did we do? Did we stay and conquer? Did we say" "Okay, we defeated Germany. Now Germany belongs to us? We defeated Japan, so Japan belongs to us"? No. What did we do? We built them up. We gave them democratic systems which they have embraced totally to their soul. And did we ask for any land? No, the only land we ever asked for was enough land to bury our dead. And that is the kind of nation we are. So, far from being the Satan, I think we are the protector of a universal value system that more and more people are recognizing as the correct value system: democracy, economic freedom, the individual rights of men and women to pursue their own destiny. That's what we stand for, and that's what we try to help other countries achieve as well."
In the wake of the disastrous end of our ill-advised intervention in Afghanistan, revisiting Powell's remarks is especially timely. One can reasonably criticize his analysis as glossing over some of the seamier details of American military policy and behavior over the years. But there's a fundamental truth expressed by Powell that should be understood and embraced by all – that along with the bad, there's a lot of good in the American Way that deserves to be remembered and celebrated.
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