Albright & Powell to Speak at Major International Education Conference: What Were They Thinking?

Photograph Source: Carol M. Highsmith – Public Domain

The last time I used this subtitle was when I first wrote about the morally noxious appointment of Bob Kerrey as chairman of the Fulbright University Vietnam board of trustees in 2016.  I had the exact same gut reaction to this message, which appeared in my inbox earlier this year: NAFSA (Association of International Educators*) is pleased to announce that Dr. Madeleine K. Albright and General Colin L. Powell (retired) will be the Opening Plenary of the NAFSA 2019 Annual Conference & Expo in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, May 28.

As one colleague opined, “They’re aiming to impress NAFSA attendees with Albright and Powell’s ‘star power’, lies and callousness notwithstanding.  You can bet your bottom dollar that no questions from the audience that are not pre-screened will be taken.” Not surprisingly, NAFSA invited conference registrants to submit up to two questions in advance “for our distinguished guests.” Can you guess what types of questions will not survive the screening process? No doubt the “special conversation” that is the plenary will consist of softball questions lobbed by executive director and CEO, Esther Brimmer, and attendees who submitted theirs online.

Actions Are the Ground On Which We Stand

The faithful in attendance will listen attentively and respectfully. Albright and Powell will say all the right things and press all of the right emotional buttons telling the assembled throng just how important they and their work are. Colleagues will leave the venue with smiles on their faces, many of them no doubt pulling out their wallets and lining up to buy autographed copies of the speakers’ books.

As another colleague pointed out, “There’s something pathological about the fact that a lot of dyed-in-the-wool NAFSANs will simply think you’re being unkind in pointing out what you do in your piece. That ignorance is bliss collegiality is more important than speaking truth to power.” One can’t help but wonder what is more “unkind;” my criticism of NAFSA for selecting these two and the speakers themselves, or their past actions and statements,

Here are some of the initial comments I saw on Facebook about “The Albright and Powell Show,” which seems to be making the rounds these days.  Either these colleagues are unaware of the past statements and misdeeds of these two, or they don’t care.  My sincere hope is it’s the former. My concern is whether they’ll care once they know. We shall soon find out.

Woohoo! Madeleine Albright is exciting!

They were amazing together when I saw them… Enjoy!

Most exciting news of the day.

Yes, I know, these two elder statespeople appear sane and adult-like when compared to the clusterfuck and shitstorm – pardon my salty language – that are the current US administration, but those are hardly the subterranean standards one should be using as a benchmark.  I’m reminded of the final remembrance from the Buddha’s Five Remembrances: My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.

What are some of the statements and actions that raise serious questions about the benefit of having Albright and Powell speak to a large gathering of international educators? What is the morally repulsive ground upon which they stood while loyally representing their US government and military masters, a part of their legacy? In case you’ve forgotten, or never knew in the first place, I’ve enumerated a number of objections to allowing these two to speak to international educators from the US and around the world, including countries that have been the victims of US missionary nationalism in action.

Choosing the Victims Over the Victimizers

When Albright (MA) was US ambassador to the UN, she was interviewed by Lesley Stahl (LS) for CBS’s 60 Minutes newsmagazine. In discussing the human impact of US sanctions on Iraq, here is the exchange that includes Albright’s damning response:

LS:  We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?

MA:  I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.

Stahl was referring to the devastating impact of US sanctions on Iraq, including its children:  The study of the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation, published in a letter to the BMJ in 1995, concluded that deaths of more than 560,000 children could be attributed to UN sanctions. It also stated that the death rate among children under 5 years in Baghdad had increased fivefold since the war ended in 1991.

While it’s true that Albright later apologized, the cat was already out of the bag. This was not her first nationally televised interview so inexperience was not a legitimate excuse for expressing such a monstrous sentiment while millions of viewers watched and listened. The use of sanctions was a cruel and inhumane policy weapon that Madeleine Albright supported. It was business as usual for a government whose policies and actions have resulted in the death and suffering of millions of people around the world, in the name of freedom, democracy, and US “national interests,” including the murder of 3.8 million people during the US war, 2 million of whom were civilians, in Viet Nam, the country I have called home since 2005.

What are the implications of her remark that “the price is worth it”? Total and utter disregard for the sanctity of human life and a complete lack of empathy for human suffering, in this case, Iraqi children.

That statement alone disqualifies her from having an audience with thousands of international educators who have devoted their professional lives to building a more peaceful, just, and equitable world in which people from different cultures cooperate and solve problems together.

Then there was Madeleine Albright as the poster girl of inaction during the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi. An independent panel commissioned by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) claimed in 2000 that the US, France and Belgium, as well as the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, failed to act to prevent the genocide of between 800,000 and 1 million Rwandans in 100 days in 1994, accusing then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was the US ambassador to the UN at the time of the genocide, of using “stalling tactics” to prevent a military rescue mission.

Stephen Lewis, former Canadian ambassador to the UN and a member of the Organization of African Unity panel that put out the report had this to say in a 2000 interview about Madeleine Albright and the genocide:

Finally, Madeleine Albright says she was screaming about the way in which the Americans were mishandling the genocide; she thought their policies were wrong… If the screaming went on in Washington, I want to tell you it was absolutely inaudible in the rest of the world. Madeleine Albright, with a zeal which was virtually supernatural, pursued the mandate of preventing the U.N. from entering Rwanda in large numbers. She did it with a determined, methodical prosecution of her brief, in a way—I was an ambassador at the U.N.—in a way few ambassadors do. I would have thought that there comes a point in the life of a public servant, of a diplomat, where if you know that the results of your government’s inaction would mean the death of half a million to 800,000 people, which became early and clearly evident, then either you resign, as a matter of principle, or you yell from the rooftops. You don’t share the animus of your views quietly in the corridors of Washington. And that’s what disturbed the panel about Madeleine Albright.

This was confirmed in a April 12, 1994 declassified cable entitled “Future of UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda) and French Roles in Rwanda,” sent by Madeleine Albright, then US ambassador to the UN, to the Secretary of State. She wrote that “relative calm has descended on Kigali and UNAMIR troops are not presently the target of hostilities. Yet this might be a window of relative opportunity to evacuate UNAMIR forces; there is a real possibility that it might become more difficult to evacuate UNAMIR once the French and Belgians leave. In this respect, it is worth considering taking the lead in the Security Council to authorize the evacuation of the bulk of UNAMIR, while leaving behind a skeletal staff that might be able to facilitate a cease-fire and any future political negotiations.”

In other words, as the New York Times reported in a 2014 article about the nearly 300 secret cables obtained by the National Security Archive and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum from the US, Britain, New Zealand, and other members of the UN Security Council during the time leading up to the Rwandan genocide, “Ms. Albright’s tersely worded cable, recently declassified, starkly captures the reluctance of the United States to respond to the deepening crisis in Rwanda. When most of the United Nations force was withdrawn shortly afterward, leaving the violence almost completely unchecked, the crisis rapidly escalated into one of history’s most grimly efficient genocides, with some 800,000 people killed in less than 100 days.” Mass rape was also used as a weapon of war because the ultimate goal of this civil conflict was the destruction of an entire ethnic group.

The regret that President Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright subsequently expressed was not helpful to the 800,000 Tutsi Rwandans who lost their lives 25 years ago at the hands of machete- and rifle-wielding Hutu Rwandans because of their ethnic identity and because there was no one to protect them. The late Alison Des Forges, a renowned scholar and human rights advocate, conducted exhaustive research that led to the inescapable conclusion that governments, including the US and its then ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, and the UN “all knew of the preparations for massive slaughter and failed to take the steps needed to prevent it”.

Madeleine Albright is a junior varsity player compared to Colin Powell when it comes to the latter’s willingness to be a varsity Team USA player at all costs, including the lives of innocents and integrity. How quickly some forget about the infuriating and tragic spectacle of Powell lying in front of the UN in his 5 February 2003 presentation (1:16:19) in which he made the case for war with Iraq.  (Or is it forgive, forget and give him a pass?)  Always the good soldier, Powell dutifully did the bidding of the Bush/Cheney administration.

He sold his soul for the latest US military misadventure at unfathomable human cost to Iraq and, a much lesser extent, the US, not to mention the waste of $1 trillion ($1,000,000,000,000) and another trillion added to the US national debt. If you’re interested in learning about the human and other costs of that invasion, occupation, and war, have a look at the results of this survey.  An estimated half a million Iraqis died from 2003 to 2011.

The Routine Practice of Murdering Unarmed Military-Age (Vietnamese) Males

Rewind to the industrial-scale slaughter that was the US War in Viet Nam.  In 1969, Colin Powell was a US Army major and deputy operations officer of the Americal Division in Chu Lai.  He was interviewed on 23 May of that year by Lt. Col. William Sheehan and asked to retrieve the division’s operations journals covering the first three weeks of March.  This interview was part of an investigation that was the result of letters written to the Pentagon, the White House and 24 members of Congress by Ron Ridenhour, a veteran who had learned about what became known as the My Lai Massacre in which 504 unarmed civilians, mostly women, children and elderly men were killed in about four hours in March 1968 in My Lai and a nearby village.

Here’s what Powell wrote in the journal:  “Subsequent investigation revealed that Calley and his men killed 347 people,  The 128 enemy ‘kills’ I had found in the journal formed part of the total.”

As David Corn wrote in Colin Powell’s Vietnam Fog (2001) – my bold, Powell has never been implicated in any of the wrongdoing involving My Lai.  No evidence ties him to the attempted cover-up. But he was part of an institution (and a division) that tried hard to keep the story of My Lai hidden–a point unacknowledged in his autobiography. Moreover, several months before he was interviewed by Sheehan, Powell was ordered to look into allegations made by another former GI that US troops had “without provocation or justification” killed civilians. (These charges did not mention My Lai specifically.) Powell mounted a most cursory examination. He did not ask the accuser for more specific information. He interviewed a few officers and reported to his superiors that there was nothing to the allegations. This exercise is not mentioned in his memoirs.

Then there was a letter written by a young US Army soldier named Tom Glen accusing the Americal division of routine brutality against civilians. He sent it to General Creighton Abrams, the commander of all US forces in Viet Nam, and it ended up on Powell’s desk. Glen wrote “The average GI’s attitude toward and treatment of the Vietnamese people all too often is a complete denial of all our country is attempting to accomplish in the realm of human relations. Far beyond merely dismissing the Vietnamese as ‘slopes’ or ‘gooks,’ in both deed and thought, too many American soldiers seem to discount their very humanity; and with this attitude inflict upon the Vietnamese citizenry humiliations, both psychological and physical, that can have only a debilitating effect upon efforts to unify the people in loyalty to the Saigon government, particularly when such acts are carried out at unit levels and thereby acquire the aspect of sanctioned policy.”

“It would indeed be terrible to find it necessary to believe that an American soldier that harbors such racial intolerance and disregard for justice and human feeling is a prototype of all American national character; yet the frequency of such soldiers lends credulity to such beliefs. … What has been outlined here I have seen not only in my own unit, but also in others we have worked with, and I fear it is universal. If this is indeed the case, it is a problem which cannot be overlooked, but can through a more firm implementation of the codes of MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) and the Geneva Conventions, perhaps be eradicated.”

Glen’s observations are confirmed in Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War, which contains voluminous evidence, based on interviews and archival research, that body count was a metric for progress.

What was Major Powell’s response? To review Glen’s letter without questioning the author or assigning anyone else to do the same. Powell accepted a claim from Glen’s superior officer that he was not close enough to the action to know what he was writing about, which Glen denied. On 13 December 1968, Powell wrote a response in which he admitted to no pattern of wrongdoing. “There may be isolated cases of mistreatment of civilians and POWs but this by no means reflects the general attitude throughout the Division. In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.” This penchant for telling his superiors exactly what they wanted to hear, to refrain from speaking truth to power, became one of the hallmarks of Powell’s career.

Finally, in a 1996 article entitled Behind Colin Powell’s Legend – My Lai – reprinted in 2018, the 50th anniversary of the My Lai Massacre – Robert Parry and Norman Solomon wrote about a passage Powell included in his memoir, My American Journey, about the routine practice of murdering unarmed male Vietnamese. Powell wrote: “I recall a phrase we used in the field, MAM, for military-age male. If a helo (helicopter) spotted a peasant in black pajamas who looked remotely suspicious, a possible MAM, the pilot would circle and fire in front of him. If he moved, his movement was judged evidence of hostile intent, and the next burst was not in front, but at him. Brutal? Maybe so. But an able battalion commander with whom I had served at Gelnhausen (West Germany), Lt. Col. Walter Pritchard, was killed by enemy sniper fire while observing MAMs from a helicopter. And Pritchard was only one of many. The kill-or-be-killed nature of combat tends to dull fine perceptions of right and wrong.”

There you have it. The exact same justification that US Army soldiers from Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd (Americal) Infantry Division used for their four-hour-long orgy of rape, mutilation, and murder earlier that year in Sơn Mỹ. As Parry and Solomon noted, “while it’s certainly true that combat is brutal, mowing down unarmed civilians is not combat” but rather a war crime.

In 1963, during his first tour with a South Vietnamese army unit, then Captain Powell’s detachment torched villages through A Shau Valley, west of Hue in central Viet Nam, in an effort to discourage support for the “enemy”. As Parry and Solomon pointed out in the above article, “While other U.S. advisers protested this countrywide strategy as brutal and counter-productive, Powell defended the “drain-the-sea” approach then — and continued that defense in his 1995 memoirs, My American Journey.”

Disgrace and Dishonor By Association

Fred Branfman, a US peace activist and writer best known for exposing the covert bombing of Laos by the US during the US war in Viet Nam, wrote about people like Albright and Powell in a 2013 article entitled World’s Most Evil and Lawless Institution? The Executive Branch of the U.S. Government:

US leaders have never acknowledged their responsibility for ruining so many lives, let alone apologized or made proper amends to the survivors. Those responsible have not been punished but rewarded. The memory of it has been erased from national consciousness, as US leaders endlessly declare their nation’s, and their own, goodness. Millions of civilian lives swept under the rug, forgotten, as if this mass murder and maiming, the destruction of countless homes and villages, this epic violation of basic human decency—and laws protecting civilians in time of war which US leaders have promised to observe—never happened.

For their “distinguished service,” Albright and Powell are both respected and command hefty speaking fees.  Shame on NAFSA for selecting them.  Those responsible for their selection are utterly out of touch with reality, historical and otherwise, and spend too much time in DC hobnobbing with the aforementioned “US leaders.”

What do Albright and Powell have to offer international educators, aside from their status as negative role models, e.g., the importance of telling the truth, including to power, of integrity, and of always siding with the victims over the victimizers?  Life is short, which is one reason I will not be attending this plenary session. I urge colleagues with a conscience to do the same, as well as to express their disgust and moral outrage to the organization’s leadership.

NAFSA can do better, much better, than Albright and Powell, tired old US military and political establishment figures who disgraced themselves by lying in the service of their country and who have the blood of innocents on their hands for what they said, did, or failed to say or do.

Mark A. Ashwill is an international educator who has lived in Viet Nam since 2005. Dr. Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam.

*NAFSA, a non-profit professional organization based in Washington, D.C., bills itself as “the world’s largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange, working to advance policies and practices that ensure a more interconnected, peaceful world today and for generations to come.”


Mark A. Ashwill is an international educator who has lived in Vietnam since 2005. He is an associate member of Veterans for Peace Chapter 160. Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam and can be reached at