Colin Powell's most memorable quotes

'Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?' former US secretary of state famously asked. 'The answer is no, that's not America'

When members of the Republican party accused former president Barack Obama of being Muslim, Powell said, 'Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?' AFP
Powered by automated translation

As the tributes for Colin Powell pour in, he is remembered as not only the son of immigrants, but also a defender of them.

Powell, who died on Monday due to complications from Covid-19, was a longtime Republican, but he began drifting away from his party in 2007 and in 2008 endorsed Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy.

He also endorsed Hillary Clinton for president in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020.

The following are a few of Powell's most inspirational and incendiary quotes.

On being Muslim

During Powell’s appearance on Meet the Press on October 19, 2008, he was asked about then-senator Barack Obama's candidacy for president.

"I'm also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say, and that it is permitted to be said such things as, 'Well, you know that Mr Obama is a Muslim'," he said.

“Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he's a Christian.

“He's always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America.

“Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, 'He's a Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists.'

“This is not the way we should be doing it in America.”

On Obama versus McCain

Journalist Tom Brokaw asked Powell about his support for Mr Obama in 2008.

“Because of his ability to inspire, because of the inclusive nature of his campaign, because he is reaching out all across America, because of who he is and his rhetorical abilities ... he has met the standard of being a successful president, being an exceptional president," Powell said.

“And I can't deny that it will be a historic event for an African American to become president. ... should that happen, all Americans should be proud — not just African Americans, but all Americans — that we have reached this point in our national history where such a thing could happen.

“It will also not only electrify our country, I think it'll electrify the world.”

On war

Powell served in the Vietnam War and was heavily decorated for his service and for saving the lives of his fellow soldiers. He often said war should be a last resort, but also knew that sacrificing military lives was inevitable.

“There are times when American lives must be risked and lost,” he said in his 1995 book My American Journey: An Autobiography.

“Foreign policy cannot be paralysed by the prospect of casualties. But lives must not be risked until we can face a parent or a spouse or a child with a clear answer to the question of why a member of that family had to die.

“To provide a 'symbol' or a 'presence' is not good enough.”

Colin Powell dies from Covid-19 at 84

Colin Powell dies from Covid-19 at 84

On leadership

Jacqueline Falkner, who served in the US army as 507th air refuelling wing director of psychological health, said she was inspired by a quote from Powell’s 2012 book, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership.

“The day the soldiers stop bringing their problems is the day you stopped leading them,” he wrote.

“They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.

“Respect for leaders by followers can’t be mandated: it must be earned. It has to be given to leaders by their followers."

On kindness to others

“Don’t just show kindness in passing or to be courteous,” Powell said.

“Show it in depth, show it with passion and expect nothing in return. Kindness is not just about being nice: it’s about recognising another human being who deserves care and respect.”

Powell also recounted an inspirational childhood story of when his church welcomed an elderly priest to become part of its congregation.

He often paraphrased that priest’s words in the hope of inspiring others.

“Always show more kindness than seems necessary because the person receiving it needs it more than you will ever know.”

On Iraq

As former president George W Bush’s secretary of state, Powell said that invading Iraq could destabilise the Middle East, and after a two-hour post-9/11 White House meeting, he laid down what became known as the Pottery Barn rule.

“You break it, you’re going to own it.”

He applied that rule to himself when, after pleading Mr Bush’s case to the UN, the US invaded Iraq:

“I’m the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world and it will always be a part of my record,” Powell said in a television interview.

He also wrote opinion pieces following the war in which he wrote that he had put "loyalty over leadership".

Powell is quoted in Colin Powell: Imperfect Patriot by Jeffrey Matthews as saying, "Well, loyalty is a trait that I value, and yes, I am loyal and there are some who say, 'Well, you shouldn't have supported it, you should have resigned.' But I'm glad that Saddam Hussein is gone."

Updated: October 20, 2021, 2:38 AM