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Eagleburger: 'Five Minutes to Midnight'

Interviewee: Lawrence S. Eagleburger
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
July 18, 2003

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Lawrence S. Eagleburger, a career foreign service officer who served briefly as secretary of State in 1992 under President George H.W. Bush, says the potential spread of nuclear weapons to North Korea, Iran, Iraq— and possibly to terror networks— is a “Pandora’s box that, if it isn’t opened yet, is damn near close to it.” Keeping the lid on may require collective military pressure. In North Korea’s case, he says, “If that means that there is a threat of war in the peninsula, so be it.”

He also says that he supports the current Bush administration’s foreign policy, which he says “marks a substantial and intentional shift from the traditional ways of doing things.” He adds: “There is no question but that this administration is much less interested in multilateralism than its predecessors were.”

Eagleburger, currently chairman of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on July 18, 2003.

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How would you evaluate the Bush administration’s foreign policy since 9/11?

Those who look at foreign policy in customary terms by and large probably would give the president not too good a grade. This is because what we are seeing is a foreign policy by this administration that marks a substantial and intentional shift from the traditional ways of doing things.

There is no question but that this administration is much less interested in multilateralism than its predecessors were. This relates in particular to traditional ties between the United States and its Western European partners. It is not that Washington today wants to throw out those relationships. It is just far less concerned about the significance of those ties. There is much more of a tendency in Washington toward unilateralism, and I tend to agree with that approach. Whether we like it or not, now that we are the world’s only superpower, we have to expect what in fact happened as a consequence of Iraq. We were condemned by a good many of our traditional allies. The condemnation was the result more of a concern on their part that we were going off on our own, and that we were demonstrating an unfettered use of our strength, than on any objective judgment about the Iraq policy.

The French and the Germans took the lead in this in part because of jealousy, and in part because of legitimate concerns that they cannot influence American policies much in this new era. Some of this is obviously because, purely and simply, we are the only superpower now; whatever we do will result in a tendency to object. In the case of the French, there is not only the normal French attitude toward the United States at work, but also a real concern that it may be virtually impossible for them to put together a Europe that can counterbalance our strength.

Did the administration rush into the Iraq war without preparing the diplomatic groundwork well enough and by skewing intelligence about Iraq’s unconventional weapons?

I don’t think there was anything we could have done that would have convinced the chief NATO allies that this was a legitimate effort. That relates, of course, to their concerns about how we were using our strength. This is not to say we did a particularly good job with the allies in trying to convince them.

As to preparing the groundwork in the United States, I think it worked reasonably well. We are now seeing the consequences of what may have been our excessive use of faulty intelligence. My problem is that I still believe we will find something somewhere in Iraq that will demonstrate that we knew what we were talking about. But beyond that, there is no question that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) because he used them against the Iranians and the Kurds. The issue then becomes how you define WMD. Certainly chemical weapons have been so defined. On the nuclear issue, I think the vice president in the early stages went way beyond what he should have said. But I think the American people by and large will not in the end turn against the president on this subject. I personally believe that when they have seen what the Iraq regime was like, they are not going to come to the conclusion that the Democrats now wish they would: turn [President Bush] out because he misled them.

In terms of our credibility abroad, there is no question we have done damage. In terms of the administration’s credibility at home, maybe [the administration has] incurred some marginal but not serious damage. In the next six months, if [it] can find some evidence of Iraq’s WMD program, that will take care of the problem.

So the Democrats don’t have a winning issue?

Nope. Certainly not on this silly issue of the one line in the State of the Union address that the British had “learned” that Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Africa. You can’t argue that that one line in that speech convinced anybody of anything. To the degree that you can use it as a stalking horse for the broader question that people were misled, that might have some [effect] for a while, but not much. I don’t think in the long run, given the success of the Iraq operation, that that will carry the day.

I’ll tell you where the administration is in trouble. If it doesn’t stop the bleeding now going on, that could hurt badly. That’s not a problem of whether people were misled. That’s purely a question of whether we can get away from something that looks uncomfortably like Vietnam.

The military operation was close to brilliant. It went faster than the administration expected. Where I think mistakes were made was probably in the numbers of troops involved— not in the winning of the war, but in the ability to clean up afterwards. We have been hurt by not getting hospitals and electricity and things like that going. It should have been fairly obvious early on that this guerrilla operation was probably planned before the war got started. People were put in place with ammunition and so forth. They probably are being supplied from outside now. It doesn’t seem to me that it should be beyond the mind of man to contain this, but we don’t have enough troops on the ground in Iraq to do it well. If that means we have to put more troops in there, the administration should have enough guts to do it.

How would you deal with North Korea’s threats to develop nuclear weapons?

Let me preface this by saying that, in my mind, the critical issue for this administration and for the country, not just now but in the years to come, is the question of weapons of mass destruction— in particular, the nuclear arms question. When you talk about WMD for some time to come, the only question that counts is the one dealing with nuclear weapons. I don’t see how we can tolerate the North Korean situation for very long.

I hate it when people say “use diplomacy.” I don’t know what that means and never have known. If what that means is we talk to the Chinese and the Russians and the Japanese and do what we can to persuade them all that something has to be done collectively, okay. I cannot believe that the Chinese want a nuclear North Korea. We can pursue that course for a while and see whether there is anything we can do to collectively deal with the problem.

We ought to do that for as long as we can in hopes of success. But success to me means that there has to be major collective pressure to force the North Koreans out of the nuclear business. If that means collective military pressure to force them, so be it. If that means that there is a threat of war in the peninsula, so be it. I don’t see how we can, over the course of the next five years, permit that process to go along without doing something about it. I don’t believe for a minute all those who say that all the North Koreans really want is to be let into the family of nations and to be recognized and to be given humanitarian and economic help. The history of the last decade has shown that they lie, they cheat, they steal, and whenever you make an agreement, they break it.

You don’t see any point in pursuing direct negotiations?

I don’t mind it, but I wouldn’t start there. If you can get the Chinese to join us, or in some way to become involved, that would be fine. I don’t mind talking for a while if it gets us something. But I don’t see any point to it if all it does is encourage the North Koreans to be intransigent. All I am saying is that, in the end, everyone has to be clear that there has to be a nasty stick. Everyone has to understand that. That of course scares everyone, especially the South Koreans, as it should. But this is a case where in the end, if the denouement of this policy is to accept a nuclear-armed North Korea with a means of delivery, we have entered into a whole new situation that cannot produce anything but total chaos.

The North Koreans are just the beginning of it. If we don’t deal with the North Korean issue, [the spread of nuclear weapons] will not be containable, because other states will march along the same path. Sooner or later, this stuff will be handed over to terrorist groups. The North Koreans have already made it clear publicly that they are ready to transfer these weapons. That is unacceptable rhetoric, no matter what.

On the nuclear issue, it is five minutes to midnight. One of the reasons I would defend the Iraq invasion under any circumstances is that I have no doubt that, left to his own devices, sooner or later Saddam would have been on to nuclear weapons. The nuclear issue to me is so important that this country, if it has to act alone when we have to, has an obligation to do so. I would hope that this would not require us to act alone very often, but the world [must] face up to the fact that the nuclear question is a Pandora’s box that, if it isn’t opened yet, is damn near close to it, and [that] this nation and the world are not paying enough attention to it.

What about Iran?

There is no question the Iranians are playing around with the same [nuclear] game, but we have some reason to hope that, if we are careful, it might work in our favor. It may be that there are sufficient pressures from the younger generations that are clearly unhappy and want real change in the regime, which might lead to more sensible attitudes on the nuclear question. We can only watch it for a while. But, in the end, how many wars are we going to fight to prevent this thing? You are going to have to face the fact that at some point, you are going to have to sit back and say we are not able to deal with all this alone. This gets me to a fundamental point: the issue of WMD will require an international regime with teeth in it or nothing will work.

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