From his childhood in the Bronx to his days as Secretary of State and the future of Iraq, Colin Powell discussed it all Saturday as he accepted an honorary degree from the University of Rochester.

A dozen protesters from the group Rochester Against War, wearing masks of President George W. Bush and holding signs reading “stop the lies,” stood outside the brick Goergen Athletic Center Saturday morning.


As the demonstrators outside decried his role in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke to a crowd of 1,600 people inside after accepting an honorary doctor of laws degree.


“Today we salute an entire life’s work,” University of Rochester President Joel Seligman said.


“My son always reminds me that these are honorary degrees,” Powell said as the crowd laughed.


Powell, 70, started from humble beginnings as the son of Jamaican immigrants growing up in the Bronx. Through his military experience, he rose to the rank of general and eventually took a seat near the helm of the government, serving as Secretary of State for four years under President Bush.


Powell used humor as he discussed his life and the choices he has made, such as taking military action in Iraq, that have received criticism.


Acknowledging that there have been wrong choices made when it came to the Iraq war, Powell emphasized that diplomacy and helping impoverished countries economically are the keys to thwarting future terrorist efforts.


“The Arab world has fallen behind,” Powell said. “Young people are unemployed and defaulting into bad behaviors and becoming terrorists.”


As for the results of the war and his role in the events leading up to military efforts, Powell says he is glad to see former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein gone. 


“I tried to do this diplomatically,” Powell said, “but I fully supported the military efforts.


“What we didn’t realize is when we became liberators, we also became the government and we did not see that reality,” Powell said. “We lost years from that.”


In order to end the Iraq war, which has continued for more than four years, Powell points to the Iraqi people’s need to step up to the plate and take charge.


“We need to encourage and push the Iraqi people to take on responsibility,” he said.


While Powell said he supports military action in Iraq, he sees a diplomatic approach as the way to solve the increasing tensions between the United States and Iran.


“The word ‘diplomacy’ means you talk to your enemies as well as your friends,” he said. “I think there are diplomatic solutions to solve the issues with Iran.”


It was Powell who had been at the forefront of adding stricter requirements to the visa process and more stringent airport security after Sept. 11, 2001.


Reflecting on the results of his actions, Powell said the degree of safety is higher, but foreign students are dissuaded from coming to the U.S. due to the difficult visa process.


“They do not want to put up with the visa hassle or stereotyping at airports,” he said.


Powell recalled his first experience catching a plane after relinquishing his title of secretary of state in 2004.


“The guard looked up at me as he used the wand and said, ‘General Powell, how are you?’ I responded, ‘I am fine, but if you knew I was General Powell why aren’t you over there looking for Osama bin Laden?’”


In an optimistic tone, Powell said, “You can not change us as an open and welcoming people — we will not allow that to happen.”


The candor and personality that Powell exuded surprised University of Rochester alumnus Gerry Margolis. 


“I didn’t know he was so smart on his feet and fun,” Margolis said.


Margolis made the trek up from New Jersey to celebrate his 50th class anniversary and was able to get a seat to listen to Powell at the last minute.


“I think he is right on the level with the issues,” Margolis said.


As he wrapped up his speech, Powell continued to point to economic growth and development as the keys to world diplomacy.


“The world I see now is different — it is a world of playing fields and countries realizing if you want to live a global life you need economic growth,” Powell said. 


-- Daily Messenger