Colin Powell on Oil Spill: Time for 'Comprehensive, Total Attack' on the Problem

Former secretary of state talks gays in the military, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan.

May 23, 2010, 10:33 AM

May 30, 2010— -- The federal government's response to the BP oil spill "has to move quickly and move with -- to use my favorite expression -- decisive force to demonstrate that it's doing everything that it can," former Secretary of State Colin Powell told ABC News' Jake Tapper on "This Week."

Though the president has been monitoring the oil spill from the very start, Powell said in a Sunday exclusive interview, "that impression was not conveyed to the American people. And the comprehensive speech he gave the other day, I think he would have been better served and the nation would have been better served if he'd given it a few weeks earlier."

The retired general would not say whether the government's response to the spill should be taken over by the military, but added, "Whether it's Army, Coast Guard, local forces, it is time for a comprehensive, total attack on this problem to protect the shoreline, to protect the livestock, to protect the wetlands, but most of all to give the people in that part of our country a sense of hope that this is going to be solved."

In a far ranging interview, Powell also discussed other pressing issues of state and military affairs.

As chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1993, Powell was a guiding force in creating the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military. But 17 years later, Powell said "it is perfectly acceptable to get rid of the law and the policy."

"The country has changed," Powell said.

But before changing the policy, he said, "we have to hear clearly from the officers and men and women who are in charge of executing that policy.

"At the end of the day," he added, "the law will change and 'don't ask, don't tell' will go away."

Colin Powell: Keep Pulling Forces From Iraq

Powell endorsed the continued reduction of U.S. forces in Iraq as, this week, the number of troops in that country fell below the number of U.S. forces committed to Afghanistan.

"It's moving in the right direction, and I think the president is correct to keep it on track and continue with the drawdown," Powell said.

While he acknowledged that violence is still a problem, "it has not reached a level where the government starts to look like it's going to collapse."

Powell added, "There are bombings taking place, but it's nothing like it was two or three years ago. It might be 10 or 12 a day compared to hundreds a day that used to be the case."

Powell called the situation with Iran's nuclear program "dangerous" and said newly-proposed U.N. sanctions would not likely steer them off a nuclear course.

"They are very clever, and they know what sanctions might be coming, and I'm sure that they have done their own planning and have their own counter-sanctions strategy," Powell said.

"I don't see that this [U.N. sanction plan] causes sufficient pain that will cause them to say, 'Gee, why didn't we realize we were so off on this, and we're going to stop all of our nuclear program,' The nuclear program is there. It's operating. And I don't think they're going to give it up easily," Powell said.

"I think we may have to eventually reach a point where we say, 'Well, maybe we have to accept a nuclear program that's designed strictly for power generation and for their medical research reactor,'" he said.

"I wish they were not pursuing any nuclear program," he added. "But the fact of the matter is whether we argue about whether they should or shouldn't, they have it. The centrifuges are spinning. They're producing the material. And the policy so far has not caused them to stop doing that."

Afghanistan: Can't Stay Forever

Powell was supportive of President Obama's Afghanistan strategy, but said that U.S. forces eventually must leave.

"Ultimately," Powell said, "the United States Army and Marine Corps cannot remain in Afghanistan forever as police forces."

Powell said there are challenging questions facing the president on Afghanistan.

"We have had this additional input of 68,000 soldiers, bringing it to over 100,000 soldiers," he said. "We have done what we said we were going to do. Have the Afghans done what they must do -- build an army that is capable, an army that is connected to the central government, an army that the people believe in?"

He cited other open questions.

"Do we have a police force that is not corrupt? And do we have a government in Kabul that is really reaching out and connecting the people together into some kind of political system that people believe in?" Powell asked.

In the end though, Afghanistan's fate will be decided by Afghans, the former secretary of state said.

"Ultimately," he said, "we can do just so much, but to win this conflict and to create the kind of Afghanistan that we all want to see, it ultimately is going to be in the hands of the Afghans."

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