CFR President Richard N. Haass, former Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Richard Kerr, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Thomas R. Pickering (via video conference), and former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Paul D. Wolfowitz join National Public Radio's Deborah Amos to reflect on the legacy of the Gulf War. The speakers reflect on the events leading up to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and the factors that drove U.S. decision-making leading up to the war. Over the course of the conversation, the panelists discuss operational aspects of the war, its legacy on U.S. military planning in the Middle East, and lessons for U.S. diplomats and policymakers.
* For historical context, speakers are listed with their titles at the time of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
AMOS: OK. Welcome to the Council. I’m Deborah Amos, and this afternoon we have a remarkable panel as we examine the 25th anniversary of the Gulf War. And as you probably noted in the materials that you have for historical context, the speakers are listed with their titles at the time of Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
So I’m going to make introductions, although none are probably needed. Richard Haass was the senior director, Near East and South Asian Affairs, at the National Security Council. Richard Kerr was the deputy director of Central Intelligence. Thomas Pickering, on the screen, was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Paul Wolfowitz was the U.S. undersecretary of Defense for policy.
I was a reporter 25 years ago, and I would have killed for the numbers for these men. (Laughter.) But anyway, it’s nice to be here 25 years later with all of them.
HAASS: What do you want to know? (Laughter.)
AMOS: It’s a little late for my reporting, but nevertheless.
You know, for many, we were saying it’s hard to remember the Gulf War. It’s 25 years ago. And I think that we have to remember that we still live with the legacy of that war. It was a decisive military victory for a U.S.-led coalition. It had clear justifications, limited goals, and it was over in six weeks.
I’m going to begin by asking about Saddam. He was our guy in the Middle East. We had backed him, more or less, against Iran. He had prevailed. It’s now two years later. He was massing forces in the summer of 1990. In each of your particular roles, when did you know that he wasn’t kidding—that this was not simply to threaten Kuwait, but it was to cross that border? Let me start with you, Richard.
HAASS: Well, thanks, Deb. And it’s—the reunion is appreciated.
I wouldn’t quite describe Saddam as, quote/unquote, “our guy.” I think, you know, what the administration tried to do—and you know, because, as you say, the Iran-Iraq War ended about six months before the administration of George Herbert Walker Bush came into power, and Iraq was obviously one of the critical local states. And what we tried to do was—I think the phrase was “constructive engagement,” to see if we couldn’t work out some way of making Iraq a bit—something of a better citizen of the neighborhood. And we tried in various limited ways, and essentially by early 1990—I see Ken Juster here; he’s written the most about it; he’s the expert on it—but by about early 1990, spring of 1990, it had run its course. And by then, Saddam had done enough things to demonstrate that he wasn’t prepared to become a respectable, responsible citizen of the neighborhood. There was the threats he was making against Israel, the way he was treating journalists and others, and so forth.
You then had the buildup. You know, that’s the strategic background. The tactical buildup began in mid-July, and Dick can give you the details of that.
Until nearly the invasion—until really about two days in advance, a day in advance—I thought it was all theater. I thought this was a latter-day version of what you might call gunboat diplomacy. He was building up, I thought it was, to put pressure on Kuwait to cool it when it came to violating or exceeding its production quota, which were keeping prices down. Saddam was desperate for money to rebuild. So I thought it was essentially an elaborate muscle flex, and it was really not until July 31st, August 1st that I came to the conclusion that, actually, he was going to use force. But even then, and even when he began to use force, it wasn’t clear to me, at least, what would be the nature of his war aims. Would he just make an incursion? Would he do something more? How long would he sit on it? Again, it’s hard to read the minds of—or it’s hard to interpret the foreign policy of a country when so much is inside the cranium of one individual. It’s a little bit like trying to understand Putin’s war aims, say, in certain places now, because the decision-making process is so concentrated. So with Saddam it was—it was tough. But it wasn’t until literally just before he launched the invasion that I concluded that this was something other than theater.
AMOS: Dick Kerr, at the CIA, did you think that he wasn’t kidding?
KERR: Did I think what? I’m sorry.
AMOS: That he wasn’t kidding, that Saddam meant to cross that border.
KERR: Well, we had had—the agency had had a group of people following Saddam for a number of years, I mean back to the beginning. And I think we would seldom think he wasn’t kidding about something. This is not a guy who kidded. I mean, he was a—he was a very difficult person in terms of internal opposition, in terms of what he was doing. He was killing off people, he was—he was—inside and outside Iraq. During this period and up before the war, we were following him fairly carefully. And since—immediately following the end of the war with Iran, he began building and rebuilding his military—building munitions plants, adding a lot of things that didn’t look like they were defensive in nature.
I went back immediately after the war and I did a kind of postmortem of what did we know, how well did we do, the usual intelligence, waiting for people to come and drop a pile of bricks on you for failure. And unfortunately, I don’t have access to that now. But my memory of it is pretty clear, in that we began following the buildup on the border about nearly 30 days before the invasion, but that’s all. And that started primarily because of the movement of some equipment up along the border, and then particularly about three weeks before the actual invasion the movement of tank transporters. The movement of those tank transporters led our analysts, more than I think—than me, but led our analysts, then—our military analysts—to say this is—this is something for real.
Now, what does that mean? Did we know what he was going to do? The answer is no, we did not. We did not have sources inside the regime. Our sources were fairly peripheral, in the tribal and with the Kurds, but not an insight into what he was going to do. If we had opened his safe and looked inside of it, we had pulled out maybe a blank piece of paper, but—because it’s not even clear to me that he had the plan.
And I don’t know whether Paul can remember this or not, but I remember that after the war we had—we had captured a number of Iraqi generals. Some of—none of them knew the plan. (Laughter.)
KERR: I mean, they were up there prepared to do things, but they didn’t know what the plan was.
I would say somewhere about 10, 14 days before the actual war, I became fairly convinced they were going to do something. I thought what they would do would move into the north part of Iraq and the oilfield—
HAASS: It’s Kuwait.
KERR: Kuwait, I’m sorry—the north part of Kuwait and take the oilfields in retaliation to some irritation that the Kuwaitis had clearly been—because they claimed them of slant drilling and a lot of other things. But we said they could have the capability to go all the way into Saudi Arabia if they wished. I mean, they had the capacity and there was nothing to stop them.
And then we issued—the NIO for warning issued a warning of war about five days, I think, six days before the invasion. And at the last few days, when we—our last meeting of the deputies, you know, I said it just seemed to me 100 percent we’re going to have, or 99 percent we’re going to have a(n) invasion. But—
HAASS: That was the last—that was already August 1st. That was—
KERR: Yeah, that was right the day before, so. But you know—
AMOS: So, Paul Wolfowitz, you were at the Department of Defense. CENTCOM had just finished a war game that looked a lot like what was going to happen next. Were you getting ready early, or did you have the same sense as Richard had, that this—
WOLFOWITZ: Well, I want to start by violating one of the better aphorisms of the Pentagon, which is never tell a war story when there’s an eyewitness present. (Laughter.) And this man is not only an eyewitness, he’s a participant. I remember around June, middle of 1989, we were doing a little series of policy reviews at the beginning of the administration. And this meeting was to discuss a new policy toward Iraq, which I think in current—terminology of the current administration would be resetting U.S. relations with Iraq. And the president himself, at the end of the presentation, said, but can this leopard-meaning Saddam Hussein—actually change his spots? And Dick, who was there representing the CIA because Webster was away, gave a rather long and detailed and eloquent presentation, the gist of which: this leopard’s spots are not going to change. And at the end of that, which I thought was a pretty compelling reason to think about what we were doing, Brent Scowcroft concluded the meeting by saying, well, it doesn’t do any harm to try. I’m not quite sure that it didn’t do some harm to try.
In January of the following—January 1990, Saddam formed an alliance with Jordan and Yemen, two countries that also had strange relations with Saudi Arabia, which certainly led the Saudis to a high degree of paranoia. Sometime that spring he started talking about burning half of Israel, which was clearly meant to be an allusion to Scuds with chemical weapons. And when the crisis first broke out with the threatening noise to Kuwait, Cheney had I guess you could say the misfortune of being the first administration official to have to face the press, because he had a scheduled Sperling breakfast that morning. And I think going on instinct he said, we have always stood by our friends in the Gulf and we will stand by our friends this time, which was about as good, I thought, an improvisation as you could come up with.
And I felt—and I think Bob Kimmitt felt the same way at State—that this was a time to do some things that would demonstrate a deterrent capability. And in fact, when the UAE asked us if we could deploy some tankers so that they could mount continuous air cover over their oilfields—and it was, I think, much more a way of sending a signal to Iraq that they had American support than that they were specifically worried about an attack on the oilfields—we did that. It didn’t work so well. They kind of—I think they scared themselves in the process. When we talked in the Pentagon about maybe it would be a good time to send an aircraft carrier into the Gulf, General Powell and the military in general were quite opposed to this. Of course, as I think Richard hinted, so was Hosni Mubarak. We didn’t have a whole lot of support from anybody for deterrent actions.
I think that deterrence might have made a difference. If you go back to 1960—I’m sorry, that’s—(laughs)—that’s more than 25 years—but in 1960, when Kuwait became independent, Iraq sent—called several divisions, I think, down to the Kuwaiti border to claim it at the 19th province of Iraq. The British happened to have a brigade of Royal Marines there, including a wonderful American Marine named P.X. Kelley, who was seconded to them. They put those British Marines ashore and the Iraqis backed off. I don’t know what would have happened if we had been clear about our willingness and intention to use force.
I certainly think we were surprised—I was surprised not so much by the fact that Saddam used force. He had already shown a rather reckless willingness to use force against Iran, that incredible war. I was surprised that he used it in such a total way. If he had just taken the northern oilfields of Iraq—of Kuwait; we’re having the same confusion—(chuckles)—of Kuwait, he might have gotten away with it. It was legally ambiguous from a point of view of international law, unfortunately. But by taking the whole country, what he did was absolutely unambiguous. And it was important, I think, in mobilizing the kind of support both in the United States and internationally for taking serious action.
AMOS: Tom Pickering, you were at the U.N. And, you know, history tells us that Arab ambassadors were saying, we can handle this, it’s fine. Can you tell us about the discussions at the U.N.? Was there alarm as those troops were moving towards the border?
PICKERING: Deborah, in the end of June and the beginning of July, I was in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait on a trip that U.N. ambassadors, when they don’t have much else to do, normally take leading up to the beginning of the General Assembly in September. (Laughter.) And it was very much on my mind. We had been following the intelligence. I saw Saud al-Faisal in—I think it was in Jeddah at the time, and he told me this was not something to worry about. Saddam had a tendency to overreach, in his judgment. The issue was, could he get enough money to rearm and reequip, I think, as Richard said, and at the same time deal with the debt he had run up to the Arab world, which he wanted to cancel.
In Kuwait, I think the situation was even more calm and maybe undisturbed, if I could put it that way. I saw the emir, but more importantly saw Sheikh Sabah, the foreign minister, and the oil minister, and pushed them quite hard because what looked like it was coming was either a tremendous bluff to extract a lot of money or a serious military action. And in either case, their reaction to either one of those scenarios as they gave it to me was: Saddam’s a great bluffer. We don’t have a lot to worry about. He goes through this all the time. We haggle. We’re not giving. We’ve been giving for a long period of time. And the old war is over, and we’d like to see things settle down, and we think there’s a very good chance that they will—clearly, a set of reactions that in its own way may both have undermined the sense of reality that probably should have prevailed on the one hand, and perhaps on the other generated the kind of response to Saddam which I think, in the course of making up his mind, made it pretty clear that if he wanted to get something—and he clearly did want to get something—he was going to have to use military force to do that.
I followed the intelligence. Remember, the tank transporters was not obviously present in the final hours. And there was no discussion in New York. And in fact, New York was in a period of what I would call extended somnolence. I can remember my first month in New York, which was March of 1989, we had no meetings—zero—of the U.N. Security Council on any subject at all. So it was, in a sense, from the New York perspective, a huge revolutionary event. I was called in the early evening of the 1st of August and asked to go ahead and have a Security Council meeting right away, and prepared a resolution, and we went at it. And that was the beginning, and that was the sole lead-up in New York to the events that later ensued.
AMOS: One of the enduring moments of the war is—and widely reported—is a meeting that Ambassador April Glaspie had with Saddam. And you know, in the historical record, she was said to have given Saddam the green light. And so I hope that you gentlemen can shed as much light about that moment. And also, would it have changed events, if it’s true, if she hadn’t?
HAASS: Well, she did not, and I think there’s been a lot of cheap shots taken at her. The meeting took place about a week before. It was July 25th, plus or minus, if my memory serves me right. It was interesting; it was her first meeting with Saddam Hussein and it was a no-notice meeting. He did not meet with ambassadors, all things being equal. So this was—you know, put her in a tough situation. She basically did it without instructions. And the line that’s so often taken out of context—and again, I hope my memory doesn’t do—I hope it gets it right—was the idea that we don’t take issues on the specifics of the disputes. And if you read the whole thing, it meant we weren’t going to argue where the line should be drawn between Kuwait and Iraq about oil rights and the rest. But she did have language there in it about the non-use of force to deal with disputes.
She hurt herself a little bit in her reporting. Again, she wrote a short cable right away and then a much longer cable, and the short cable didn’t capture a lot of the texture. So I think she put herself at a slight disadvantage in terms of how it was read. But you know, the bottom line was she got assurances from Saddam. She thought the crisis had passed enough that she then went on leave. And again, it’s hard to know whether this was trickery on his part or he was making it up as he went along.
But the one thing I’d say in her defense is if 500,000 American troops didn’t dissuade Saddam Hussein that we were serious, what do we think an ambassador was going to be able to say without instructions? That’s where I disagree with Paul. We could have sent an aircraft carrier, we could have sent two aircraft carriers, but I don’t think Saddam Hussein took us seriously. There was lots of intelligence suggested that he learned what he thought was the lesson of Vietnam, and Saddam was persuaded that the Americans couldn’t take a hit and basically stick with something. He didn’t take us seriously. He didn’t respect us, in many ways.
WOLFOWITZ: He even said that to her. One of the things in there that’s quite—he said, I can take—as though he takes it personally—I can take 10,000 casualties in a single day, as I did in the Iran-Iraq War; you Americans can’t take casualties at all. There’s a lot of truth in that. I do think, if you’re going to say we sent weak signals to Saddam, it certainly wasn’t just April Glaspie. It was, arguably, other officials testifying, and it wasn’t just Americans. It was Arabs, as well, as we’ve discussed. But I do think collectively, including all of those people I’ve just mentioned, we underestimated Saddam before the war, and I think at the end of the war we underestimated his staying power. Very few people thought he could survive this kind of military defeat, not understanding that he had built essentially a coup-proof regime where he purged anybody who was not loyal. He created separate security services to monitor one another. It was kind of like his version of separation of powers. And as a result I think we had the son of bitch—forgive my language—around for another dozen years making serious trouble, and basically destroying the country.
AMOS: Yes, please, Dick. Would it have made a difference?
KERR: Let me comment on Paul’s—this whether Saddam could survive the war. It was interesting because some of my analysts that followed Iraq were convinced that he would survive, for the very reasons that you describe—that he had built a really oppressive regime, he had demonstrated his willingness to use force. In fact, as you remember, he had killed people as a demonstration just to make sure that they were—
WOLFOWITZ: (At the inauguration ?).
KERR: —that they were loyal. But my analysts were a little more—were more inclined to say he’s going to survive. I was inclined to say he wasn’t. I didn’t think—I thought the generals would—somebody would walk in and put a bullet in his head, quite simply. And I—they were more right than I was on that—on that call because I—and I think the Deputies Committee generally said, you know, we’re not going to go—you know, that’s a step beyond what we’re going, and they didn’t think that he would survive.
WOLFOWITZ: You had to be a very brave general to try and put a bullet in his head.
AMOS: Yeah. Tom Pickering, do you think that diplomacy would have made a difference?
PICKERING: I think that what April had to say and did has been mischaracterized, as Richard said, and agree with him. But I very much doubt that Saddam was going to be influenced by diplomacy.
I think it was an interesting, perhaps, bellwether of things to come that all of a sudden he called the American ambassador in, put her on the spot, asked her the tough questions, she responded, and once again he seemed to have gone away telling her that he was totally convinced that the U.S. was a wimp, it wouldn’t stand up, and there was no way in which perhaps he should be frightened of where the U.S. was. I can recall the NSC meeting the morning after we started at the U.N., the beginning of the second day, and it was very clear that our preoccupation in that meeting was almost totally with Saudi and Saudi security and stability in light of these 40-some divisions that had moved into Kuwait, many of them down on the Saudi border. And we were deeply concerned as to how to protect Saudi Arabia, how to protect particularly the northern portion of the Saudi oilfields, and so concerned with that at that meeting that I think perhaps I was the only one who spoke in any way at all about Kuwait.
And I hadn’t heard Paul’s story about Dick Cheney’s statement somewhat earlier, but my deep concern was that we had a foreign policy that would have an initial shredding if, in fact, we didn’t make it clear that our support for our friends in the Gulf involved, obviously, supporting Kuwait’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. That came later the same day, when Mrs. Thatcher came over, met the president in Aspen, Colorado at Henry Catto’s house, and convinced him that the two of them needed to go out and say something about our aims with respect to support for Kuwait, which I think was a very important piece. But it was not a deterrent. (Laughs.) It did not in any way at all, I think, respond to the concept that we might have pushed off Saddam.
But I have very great doubts. My whole experience with Saddam during the three or four months that we did resolutions was that he was the perfect enemy. He never missed an opportunity to give us an opportunity, in fact, at the U.N. to use the Security Council resolution process in an effective way to strengthen and build at least the political aspects of the coalition in that particular area.
But I’m getting ahead of your questions.
AMOS: Well, it brings me to a particular question about a particular quote, which goes to what you all have been talking about—this notion that we still were suffering from the Vietnam syndrome. And it is the quote from Margaret Thatcher. It was—it’s been widely reported that she was—happened to be at Aspen, and what she said was—to the president—“Remember, George, this is no time to go wobbly.”
WOLFOWITZ: That wasn’t where it happened.
AMOS: All of you—I know you’ve all said this, so please tell us what actually did happen. (Laughter.)
HAASS: That will clarify it. The quote “don’t go wobbly” happened several weeks later, and it was in the context that Tom had—who, by the way, performed, I thought, sensationally in New York. One of the resolutions that they had passed then was the resolution that put all sorts of sanctions, essentially embargoed Iraq. And the first resolution just did it. There was going to be a subsequent resolution that would actually put the enforcement into place. And the question—and there were certain challenges that were potentially coming up, and Mrs. Thatcher got impatient. This is now several weeks into—we’re now in mid-August at this point. And Jim Baker was pleading with the president—and, Tom, I believe, agreed with him—saying, just give us another 48, 72 hours; we can get all the votes. And now is not the time for the United States or the United States and Britain to start acting unilaterally. Let’s keep the Security Council together. And it was that—and it was in that context where she was impatient. She said let’s not go wobbly—“don’t go wobbly,” and Baker won the conversation, persuaded the president to wait, and Tom got the votes. And so you had—Security Council cohesion was maintained.
It did not come at the beginning. And quite honestly, the president and the United States did not need her at that point to buck them up. He was there. The first meeting of the NSC was a poor meeting. It was all over the place, to put it gently. And the president at the end of the meeting had to get on a plane to give this long-scheduled speech in Aspen about U.S. military and nuclear forces. Mrs. Thatcher was there and all that. But after the first meeting he was extremely unhappy with where the meeting was, as was General Scowcroft, the national security adviser. And when he had the meeting with Mrs. Thatcher, I think it was something of a mind meld. It put—you know, they were very much in the same place. But he was already there, and the second meeting made that clear. And it was Secretary Cheney, General Scowcroft, and Larry Eagleburger, who was then the deputy secretary and acting because Jim Baker was over hunting with Mr. Shevardnadze in the far reaches of Mongolia—(laughter)—which turned out to be good timing because we got the Soviets very much as a partner in the—in the crisis. But I think by the second—after another 24 hours had passed, the entire administration pretty much—the principal Cabinet figures, including the president, were at one on what needed doing, and that included Kuwait. So even though there was real concern early on, given Saudi Arabia’s vulnerability—just to do the math, Iraq was about 10 percent of the world’s oil, Kuwait was another 10 percent of the world’s oil, and then you had Saudi Arabia, which was a far bigger chunk, and Saudi Arabia was vulnerable. But very quickly on people understood that you had to undo what had happened—what had happened in Kuwait.
WOLFOWITZ: Deborah, if I may, I’d like to take that “wobbly” incident and jump a little bit forward, because I think what was going on there was whether or not we were going to board an Iraqi tanker that was running the—
WOLFOWITZ: —defying the sanctions and heading into harbor in Aden. And I think in the president’s mind, if he could give Tom Pickering and Jim Baker a couple of extra days to see if he could get the resolution he wanted from the U.N.—I think, as with getting congressional approval much later on—the president was committed to going ahead. He knew that he could use force against tankers when he had to, but he would rather have that authorization.
Margaret Thatcher wasn’t so sure about the president’s resolve. That’s basically what that reflects. But I think it’s—and this is an important point, and this may provoke Richard—I don’t think this was a simple decision, except in hindsight. I think the president was facing huge risks, great unknowns about what the world would be like if we used force to expel Iraq from Kuwait, great unknowns about what would happen if we did not use force, great unknowns about what the consequences of war would be. If we’d had 1,000 American casualties instead of 149 or whatever the number was, the whole thing would have looked much different. And I—he admitted, I think, to his kids that he faced the real prospect of impeachment.
Against all of that, he made a whole series—I counted up before this about a dozen that I can list easily—that were tough calls, most of which had some opposition, including for example on going to Congress for the resolution. My boss, Dick Cheney, thought that was a mistake. It turned out to be the right call. Starting the ground war, your colleagues at the CIA said it’s premature, at least told the president we haven’t destroyed enough tanks. Doubling the force, Colin Powell didn’t like that decision at all. There were a whole series of them.
But the single most important one—and I think it’s really important to understand—at the very beginning—and Richard, I think, was there; I don’t think you wrote the talking point, though—the president said publicly this aggression will not stand. That was a decision of huge import. And by the way, he had no idea how he was going to make it not stand. He didn’t say this aggression will not stand but I don’t have a strategy for it yet. (Laughter.) He simply said this aggression will not stand.
And the importance of that to be emphasized to me came out just, what, a week or so later, when I went with Dick Cheney to Saudi Arabia, where he was seeking an unprecedented approval from the Saudi government to put not an American force, but a huge American force on Saudi territory to implement a strategy. And a lot of people were surprised, including Henry Kissinger, that King Fahd said yes. And it seems that Crown Prince Abdullah was a little surprised or a little unhappy. (Laughter.) But at the end of that Prince Bandar took a group of us aside and said, you realize that if this were the United States of Jimmy Carter that responded to the fall of the shah by sending four F-15s to Saudi Arabia as a show of force and announced while they were still in the air that they were unarmed, we would never have said yes. And he must have read some of the snickers on our face and realized that we thought he was just hitting at Carter, and he said, or if this were the United States of Ronald Reagan that abandoned Beirut after 250 Marines were killed, we would not have said yes.
So you have to ask yourself, what convinced them to say yes? And I think part of it was the sheer size of what we were proposing. But I think most important of all was that resolve that the president demonstrated at the outset, and that had all the conviction of him and rather strong will that this aggression will not stand. And that, I think, carried him all the way through a whole series of decisions, although unfortunately in my view he made a mistake at the end.
HAASS: Just to be clear on that, it was the president. I simply met him at the helicopter and briefed him on what was going on and how the diplomacy wasn’t working, despite all the comments from the Egyptians, the Jordanians and others, just leave it in their hands. The same people who said, leave it in our hands, Saddam won’t invade, they then said leave it in our hands, we’ll get him to leave. And it wasn’t working. And meanwhile, the president was getting hammered—this was about day four of the crisis—for indecision by the press. And that’s when he basically had had it, and he made the—you know, this aggression against Kuwait will not stand. And that’s when—that’s when the debate ended, for all intents and purposes. Then it became a question of how, not whether, one way or another. And we went—
WOLFOWITZ: The debate within the government. (Laughter.)
HAASS: Yeah, six months of what began—
WOLFOWITZ: Not the debate outside.
HAASS: You know, diplomacy and sanctions and, ultimately, the use of force by mid-January.
AMOS: The Saudis—
PICKERING: Deborah, a little bit of insight into the “wobbly,” just very quickly, because Paul’s recollection of the events is right, but it came at a time when the real wobbly problem, in my view—because the president had already come out on this—was the Chinese. And the Chinese had a real problem with the resolution, that it in effect gave the coalition authority to board these tankers and to make sure, in fact, they didn’t go out in the world with oil. On the one hand, Kuwait was prepared to take—sorry, one hand Yemen was prepared to take them in Aden, but the other was that my Chinese colleague had really difficult problems. He said this is use of force. And I said, looks that way, doesn’t it? And he said yes. And he said, I can’t vote for it. And I said, well, you’re going to have to abstain because otherwise you’re going to split this coalition and it’s going to go nowhere, and the whole thing will be undermined, and you will have to bear the consequences.
We worked out a little game, and the little game was very simple. He came to me and said, OK—he said, if I speak last in explaining my vote, I will say in effect that China doesn’t consider this a use of force, and you will guarantee with your influence with the president of the Security Council—who was the Romanian—that nobody come after me will say that I was wrong and it is the use of force. And we worked out that little game, and the Chinese stepped right through into it, and that fact got them over the first hurdle in the use of force. It wasn’t conclusive, but it put them in a position, I think, to skate down the road toward the big resolution at the end of November, which really did authorize the use of force in a broad way.
AMOS: This was the war that changed America’s relationship with the Saudis, and it all comes down to a meeting in Jeddah with the king—and his brothers are in the room, and the king decides yes. How convinced were the Saudis, how convinced—and especially you, Dick, at the CIA—that Saddam, his next move was Saudi Arabia, that that’s where he was ultimately going to go?
KERR: Well, I don’t think that was his ultimate goal. I’m not sure he had an ultimate goal. He let loose his forces, and they moved so easily through to Kuwait and through—into the oilfields in the south that I think that was—that was it. I don’t think he was intending to—
HAASS: We didn’t know, and we—
WOLFOWITZ: Cheney decided as he was preparing for that presentation, let’s not try to make predictions about the unpredictable. Let’s tell them we’re at the point now we can’t predict what they will do. If they do anything, we have no time to respond. And as I recall, we didn’t have really great Arabic speakers on our side, but Chas Freeman made out some of it. The crown—the king said, well, the Kuwaitis didn’t ask in time, and now they’re living in our hotels—excuse me, now they don’t have a country. And Crown Prince Abdullah said, oh yes they still have a country. And the king said, yes, but they’re living in our hotels.
HAASS: Just to be clear, we didn’t know whether he would go to Saudi Arabia, but it didn’t matter in one sense. And by that, let me just be clear: if he was already sitting on 20 percent of the world’s oil, given his own and Kuwait’s, and it had been shown that he could get away with it, we basically thought the idea of an independent Saudi Arabia was over—that he didn’t need to invade to dominate OPEC and to dominate the region. So for me, though it would have been obviously qualitatively worse had he physically gone into Saudi Arabia, he didn’t need to do that in order to exercise effective control over Saudi Arabian decision-making. So that was—so we had no idea what his game plan was. He probably didn’t know what his game plan was. But whether he went into Saudi Arabia or not was, in a sense, immaterial. We still knew we had to get him out of Kuwait.
AMOS: Tom, interesting that you were in Saudi and Kuwait before, as the buildup starts. How do you see that these events changed our relationship? How different was it in 1990 with the Saudis?
HAASS: Well, if you want me to—
AMOS: Yeah, fine.
HAASS: The answer? Not different enough. I actually think Saudi Arabia is one of the more complicated, troubled relationships that we have, and it’s very hard for me to put it in a one-dimensional here. Words like “friend,” “ally,” “partner” are thrown around a lot, and I would just suggest that the U.S.-Saudi relationship has far more dimensions to it.
So here was an area where we were largely able to cooperate. We overcame, shall we say, our respective doubts about one another. I think the doubts were in both directions going in—you know, starting in the summer of 1990. But when one looks at the scope of U.S.-Saudi interaction over the 25 years coming out of Afghanistan, where we again had limited cooperation but also some areas where we didn’t quite see eye to eye—Dick would know that better than I would—and we look at all sorts of things in the region, whether it was Arab-Israeli, Israeli-Palestinian issues; Saudi support for radical institutions, religious and other institutions around the region and the world; Saudi treatment of its own citizens; I don’t think this—even though it led to considerable cooperation, both during the war-the run-up to the war, the war, and long-term presence afterwards, the idea that it somehow transformed the relationship is wrong because this is—it wasn’t and it never became a one-dimensional relationship.
KERR: You know, I think Richard’s right. And my perception of it was—and I was never a real specialist in this area, but obviously followed it—that it was very much based on the particular problem at the moment—that it was driven by a whole set of different things that varied. And sometimes we were together, and sometimes we weren’t. I mean, it’s much more like the classic relationship among countries that are not traditionally friends: they vary depending on the self-interest of the parties involved. And I think that’s very—
PICKERING: I think for a—I think for a long time the Saudis had primarily a defense and security policy. They’ve only begun in the last five years to develop a kind of foreign policy of outreach in the region and more activist work. A lot of that was, I think, very much dependent on their deep sense that they could provide the energy part of the equation and we were fully committed to defense. Their own defense policy, I think, was built very heavily around amassing a significant amount of military equipment and being able to demonstrate at least some capacity to use it, and that that would, in effect, create a kind of psychological deterrent barrier, the combination of the U.S. and others.
My own sense was that the Kuwait invasion and what we did afterward solidified that for a long period of time, and it made a difference. I don’t think it changed the relationship because those assumptions that I just gave you were the assumptions before the war and were reinforced after the war.
It was fascinating over a period of time much later in the decade and beyond that the Saudis then began to look at the question of whether we should stay in Saudi Arabia in any fashion with military forces as more of a liability than a benefit or an asset. Some of that, of course, in recent years has turned around. And in effect, the whole question of how the Saudi-Iranian relationship is looked at from the perspective of the United States is a real change in the relationship that we’re all now clawing our way back on, in many ways, to try to reassure the Gulf and the Saudis that the fundamentals of that relationship remain.
WOLFOWITZ: Deborah, the Saudis were not happy with the war the war ended. They thought the ceasefire was premature. And I was there with Jim Baker when they told him the worst thing you could do is leave Saddam Hussein in power; you should support—and this is generally not what’s said in the general commentary because they didn’t—they didn’t say this publicly—you should support the Shia rebellions that have started in southern Iraq. We’re not afraid of the Shia of Iraq, they said only half-credibly. For one thing, they’re Arabs and not Persians, which happens to be true. And for a second thing, they fought loyally for Iraq for eight years against Iran; they’re not about to be dictated to by Tehran. And they said very similar things, by the way, later in the 1990s to Bill Clinton when he visited Saudi Arabia after the—after Saddam sent his army back to the border. I think they saw Saddam as a long-term threat to them and thought that we were letting him off the hook prematurely, and would have liked to have seen us do for the Kurds—the Shia what we later did for the Kurds.
AMOS: I want to talk a little bit about legacy, and then I’m going to open it up to questions from the members. Richard Clarke wrote a piece about the meeting. He was there in Jeddah when the Saudis decided that they would say yes to this American force coming. And what he writes is that Iraq and terrorism have dominated American foreign policy for three decades and continues to do so today. And he writes, “One contributing factor: we didn’t have to leave those forces behind in Saudi Arabia.” Looking back, do you agree?
HAASS: Well, that was one of the things that Osama bin Laden specifically cited as a motive, I guess you’d say, was the fact that foreign forces—non-Muslim forces had been called in. If you remember, at the time he was one of those who voiced the idea that the Saudis didn’t need to bring in foreigners to help them, and obviously he opposed the presence of forces for years to come.
My own view is the Saudis didn’t have that capability—it was not credible—and that, if you’re Osama bin Laden or like him, you would have found 86 other reasons to be motivated, given your agenda. So I don’t find that persuasive or dispositive at all. I think that you would have—many of the dynamics you saw—indeed, all the dynamics—I think you would have seen anyways. And we’ve seen them in other countries where American forces haven’t been present. I think there are much more profound and many more profound explanations of what the world is going through than simply a reaction to the military or physical presence of American and other forces in the—in the region.
WOLFOWITZ: I think Richard’s absolutely right, they would have found plenty of other excuses for killing Americans. I think the important thing is, what would have happened in Saudi Arabia? What would Iraq have done? And we know the history of what Iraq did do: they played this game of cheat and retreat with the U.N. inspectors. Actually, the inspections had gotten to the point in 1995 of declaring Saddam free of biological weapons until his son-in-law defected and told us where to find all the documents about the anthrax program. He sent an army down to the Kuwaiti border in ’94. Bill Clinton had to send a huge American army to Kuwait to deter what we thought might be a second attack. And there was no way—I don’t know what Richard Clarke thinks would have happened if we had left a military vacuum in Saudi Arabia. I think it would have been much worse with respect to what Saddam was doing.
AMOS: I have to go back and ask you about the Saudis supporting a Shiite uprising in southern Iraq, which is fascinating—(laughter)—considering where we are today. You know, it is often said historically that the president encouraged that uprising and then didn’t support it. Whether that is true or not, I can see already—(chuckles)—that you’re going to say no, that’s not how it happened. And I’ve met some of those people in the elections in Basra who were part of that. Was that a moment in history that should have been taken? Should we have supported that uprising?
WOLFOWITZ: I believe it should have. And I think when people say we were right not to go to Baghdad, I think they are right. I don’t think going to Baghdad was the right thing to do. But think about the fact that we had complete control of the air over Iraq. He was flying helicopters allegedly because the bridges were down, but he was using them to machine-gun the rebels. And as we learned in documents that we got in 2003, he had actually ordered them to drop sarin gas from those helicopters. There was no sarin available, so they humanely dropped mustard gas instead, which wasn’t quite as effective.
We also controlled almost anything that moved along the highway on the north side of the Euphrates. We had our army along the south side. I believe we could have stopped the Republican Guards from moving south to conduct that slaughter.
AMOS: Dick, what were you all saying? What were you saying at the CIA?
KERR: Well, I usually try to stay within my intelligence rules and not be a political—an adviser of policy, but every once in a while it’s just too tempting. (Laughter.) And besides, my—most intelligence problems can be turned into policy questions. (Laughter.)
In this case, I actually wrote a—sat down and wrote a memo when I was deputy to General Scowcroft and said we cannot let Iraqi helicopters—which were—which were armed helicopters—fire and take against the Shia in the south, the Sistani—I guess it’s Sistani group, and that that should not be allowed, and we have every capacity to stop those helicopters if we wish, and we should do that. If not for reasons that make good sense now, I thought it made good sense for the future in terms of the relationships with the Shia in the south. And obviously that was out of my little—out of my area, and ignored.
AMOS: Richard, you were at the White House.
HAASS: Like I said, I never saw that memo. I remember the conversations. And the conversations at the time were—you know, I’ll say a couple things. One is give the backdrop, which was we all thought that Saddam was going to go. We didn’t think we had to be the agents of their going. We thought that he would be done in by his own soldiers and his own generals who had gotten tired of him marching them to defeat yet again. We were wrong in that. And I was wrong, as was Dick, in that reading of the situation.
In terms of the helicopters, our view was that he didn’t need the helicopters. If he wanted to mow down people, he had lots of other things. And what we were worried about at that point was getting drawn into what would be a prolonged aftermath. And we just thought that it would create situations where American forces then would find themselves without clear lines, without clear authorities, very hard to identify friend from foe. Essentially, we would find ourselves in the middle of multiple civil wars within Iraq. So it wasn’t a questions of the helicopters as opposed to everything else. But that became a kind of metaphor for whether we at that point get involved militarily in the future of Iraq.
And we just thought not, partially because we didn’t think Saddam would survive, partially because we thought that that would set in motion a process where far more Americans would lose their lives than had lost their lives up to that point. And several of us had no confidence—and this maybe reflects a real difference—we had no confidence in the future political trajectory of Iraq. I wasn’t persuaded, and I actually think that recent events have borne out some of my thinking, but I’m prepared, you know, to have people disagree with me. I simply wasn’t persuaded that American involvement in various ways at that point would set in motion dynamics where one would have a coherent country in which Shia, Sunnis and Kurds would not be—would not be killing one another. I just didn’t read Iraqi political culture that way. Paul and I had the disagreement then. I expect we will have the disagreement—
WOLFOWITZ: I’m ready to do it. (Laughter.) Look, we finally did the right thing a month later in northern Iraq with the Kurds, where it was far more difficult because we didn’t have the kind of presence on the Turkish—we could not have the kind of presence on the Turkish border that we had on the Euphrates River. We actually had to send in ground troops. I think it was a—it was called Operation Provide Comfort, with a U.S.—two U.S. battalions, a Royal Marines battalion, a kind of rainbow force of Spaniards and Italians. I think there was even a tiny Luxembourg detachment if I recall correctly.
And they were able, because of the effects of the previous war, to push the Iraqi army out of that whole area of northern Iraq, which has, compared to the rest of the country, been thriving over the last dozen years. And we could have done that in the south much more easily. It wasn’t just helicopters. Richard’s right about that. It was tanks, it was Republican Guard divisions. We could have stopped those divisions from the ground or from the air or both, without a single American life being put at risk.
HAASS: I didn’t realize that was the conversation. Could we have done more—in two ways: Could we have extended the war longer? Yes. And I think, you know, a lot of people in retrospect wish it had not ended, the ground war, at the hundred hour point. It could have gone on several more days, and part of it was the so-called fog of war, where people thought more had been accomplished militarily than—
AMOS: And the Highway of Death.
HAASS: Exactly. We thought more Iraqi tank units were caught than turned out to be the case. And could we have done more in the south? Yes, I think we could and arguably should have done more along the lines of what we did in the north. I was simply drawing the distinction between those were largely humanitarian efforts, as opposed to efforts where we would try to determine the future political orientation of Iraq. I did not want us to get involved in that.
WOLFOWITZ: I don’t think you can separate in the south where 100(,000) or 200,000 people were be slaughtered, many of them civilians, pushed into mass graves. I think the humanitarian reason was a powerful one. I think the strategic one was even more powerful.
AMOS: I can see that this argument is going to go on for the 50th anniversary. (Laughter.)
HAASS: Probably won’t, because neither one of us will be—
WOLFOWITZ: Speak for yourself, Richard. (Laughter.)
PICKERING: Yeah, Deborah, can I—can I jump in on this?
AMOS: Yes, please. Yes, please.
PICKERING: Paul will recall that we had had conversations at the U.N. with the British and the French in the context of formulating the war termination arrangements, which we did up there in a long resolution. And one of the ideas that had come out of that was that there should be a very broad U.N. zone into Anbar. Not in the populated areas, but alongside. And that particular effort got a lot of support, at least my French and British colleagues, who I had presumed were talking with Paris and London—so much so that they indicated that they were prepared to put ground forces in. We would have had to do air. We had to do air anyway.
That did not prosper. I think it did not prosper in part because the U.S. military misunderstood it. It didn’t prosper perhaps for some of the reasons that Richard advanced, that we wanted to avoid the kind of involvement that might put us in the midst of Iraqi civil disturbances. On the other hand, Paul points out that hundreds of thousands of people were murdered. We would have been alongside the Shia. And military colleagues tell me they were shocked by the early end of the war because they had not in that particular period of time done what they should have done and felt they should have done to prevent the large number of Iraqi Revolutionary Guard armored forces from moving north across the river, something that was very much within their capacity to do. And I think that has to be obviously put up against the French-sponsored effort that Paul spoke about a minute ago, for us and others in effect to take over Kurdistan in northern Iraq. The complement of that in the south would have been in Anbar.
In my view, it would have been a useful proposition, and one that might have avoided the kind of further trouble that we had on a continuing basis with Saddam, not just in the period after 2002 but certainly well in the period before with the cheat and retreat, with the difficulties and game-playing that went on, and indeed with what I think was a real catastrophe, his ability to convince at the end of the day back in 1998 that the Chinese, the French, and the Russians join to abstain in a very important resolution in the United Nations to reinvigorate and strengthen the whole U.N. weapons of mass destruction monitoring operation in Iraq. And we lost it. And so he saw, in fact, that the Security Council coalition which had stood against him went away. If we, I think, had been a little more careful, a little more clever in war termination, we might well have had a stronger position in the decade that followed the conflict.
WOLFOWITZ: Bob Kimmitt and I thought that Tom’s initiative was terrific and we tried to persuade Baker on the trip over to Saudi Arabia to pursue it. And I think he at least—he certainly listened to us, but unfortunately he then met with General Schwarzkopf who killed the whole idea.
AMOS: I had wanted to get to legacy, but I can see that people have written books about this, we’re not going to get there. So I’m going to leave it to the members to press these gentlemen on the legacy of this war.
So I’m going to call for questions. Raise your hand. Remember, this is on the record. Identify yourself and short question, please, so we can get in plenty.
Q: Hi. Michael Kramer (sp).
Some of you know that during this period I was embedded, I guess is the world we use now, in Taif with the Kuwaiti government in exile. I was the only journalist there, so I’m offering a little bit of a Kuwaiti perspective here, having spent too many hours with Sheikh Sabah and Jaber and Ali Khalifa, who was the smartest of all of them.
I just want to make—I guess this isn’t so much of a—I apologize—of a question.
AMOS: But at some moment you do have to get to a question.
Q: But it is—it is the Kuwait perspective. At the end of the war, when we rode up—and I rode up with Sheikh Sabah to the Highway of Death, he was convinced, which he hadn’t been until that time, that the termination—the hundred hour termination was the right thing to do, and there was unanimity in the Kuwaiti Cabinet that Saddam would be gone probably within six months. So everybody got it wrong.
My one question for Dick is this, as you know the border was really porous. It’s a myth that, you know, nobody could get through. Kuwait was running agents in and out, back into the country and to the city a lot. And coming back and reporting that the Iraqis were really not going to fight when it came time, and it turn—and in fact it didn’t—they didn’t. Did you not credit those reports, or you just felt that you couldn’t base a strategy on that kind of intelligence?
KERR: Well, I’m sure we reported it, but I’m not sure that I recognized the extent of it or the—that you’ve just described. So I don’t recall that as a central theme that we reported on.
WOLFOWITZ: I think the Kuwaitis may have been complacent because, after all, they had gotten their country back with essentially no fighting on their part. Prince Bandar and Prince Saud had a very different view of it. And I actually remember when they said leaving Saddam in power is like leaving a wounded snake. I thought, well, isn’t he defanged? Why are you still afraid of him? I turns out, I think, that they had a better grasp of the situation. And some five years later—this is according now to especially Patrick Tyler’s book, I’ve also written a little bit about it—there was a CIA-organized coup attempt against Saddam Hussain in which Saddam demonstrated how coup-proof he is, or was. I think he rounded up 160 of the coup plotters and executed them, and that was the end of that idea.
And when—quoting the Tyler book—when John Deutch went to Saudi Arabia to try to enlist King Fahd in this effort, and Fahd realized how it was going to—they were going to go about it, he didn’t want to have anything to do with it. Gave them a check for $60 million and said that’s all.
Q: My name is Khalid Azim.
I want to ask a very simplistic strawman question, and ask you to respond to it. How did we do everything so well in the first Gulf War and do things so poorly in the second one?
HAASS: Well, you may not have—it’s good you’re sitting down, because you may not have consensus on this either. But they could not have been more different. You know, from my—whether it was in the setting. The first Gulf War, it’s important to take a step back, Saddam Hussain had violated one of the fundamental tenets of international order as we understand it, which is you ought not use military means to change maps. And there was wide—you know, there was broad and deep international support for it. And the United States was able to mobilize the world based upon that. And it was in a sense a very reactive policy which enjoyed tremendous international support. Ironically enough, less domestic or congressional support. And we fought it with, you know, lots of backing, limited aims.
All of this is very much in contrast with the second war. There wasn’t quite the casus belli at the beginning. It was much more unilaterally perceived by some on the U.S. side. It was not internationally shared that Saddam had done something at that point which warranted the sort of reaction. We fought it with far less international support. And we fought it for far more ambitious goals. And so it seems to me, you know, that and many other factors would explain why not just it turned out to be far more controversial the second time around, but I would argue far less successful both in what we tried to accomplish and how we tried to accomplish it.
I also think that both of them, though, do have one thing in common, is they show the difference between, if you will, battlefield military successes and controlling aftermaths. And in both wars, we did far better in the battlefield phase than we did in the aftermath phase. And I think that is a lesson that ought to be—ought to be taken to heart about the difficulty in translating, using military tools, that into lasting political outcomes. And I think we’ve learned that in both cases.
AMOS: Not a surprise, Paul, that you will want to respond.
WOLFOWITZ: Yeah. George Pickett, who had the misfortune of being the Confederate general who was order to lead that fatal charge at Gettysburg, was asked after the Civil War which Confederate general was most responsible for the defeat at Gettysburg. And he paused for a moment reflecting, and he said: Well, I always thought the Union army had something to do with it. (Laughter.)
And I think the enemy had a lot to do with it. These are two very different kinds of war. One was a conventional battle for which the U.S. military turned out to have made fantastic improvements beyond even what we thought we were capable of. The second one was a counterinsurgency, which we had actually finally, after years of failure in Vietnam, General Abrams finally figured out how to fight a counterinsurgency. I think at the heart of our problems was the U.S. military, particularly the Army, wanted to forget the whole Vietnam experience, wanted to forget everything we had learned from that.
It took a general like Petraeus to basically reinvent counterinsurgency doctrine. And I think to talk about after the war, I would say in both cases we didn’t handle the aftermath very well. The war didn’t end in—for Saddam Hussein with that ceasefire. He kept fighting for a dozen years. He tried to assassinate a former president of the United States. He was conducting a major genocide against the Marsh Arabs, which is a thousand-year old civilization. He was playing all of his games with the U.N. inspectors. I could go on with actually a much longer list.
And it didn’t end when we got to Baghdad in April of 2009. We made the mistake of thinking, well, the war is over. I think as far as Saddam Hussein was concerned, and the people around him, this was the time to start an urban guerrilla insurgency. And he—as he’s told April Glaspie, that we couldn’t take 10,000 casualties, he supposedly told some of his people, if we can kill 4,000 Americans they’ll give up and go home. It wasn’t a bad estimate actually, unfortunately.
So I think if—I think actually what we should have done at the end of the first war was to say, OK, we have some time. There’s no need to rush here. Let’s pause a little, for at least a few days, look at the situation as it has developed, this rebellion that we did not expect that has broken out, how should our strategy be adjusted. And though there were many mistakes made by the second Bush administration after 2003, I think you have to give the second President Bush a lot of credit for saying, OK, my strategy isn’t work, what do I need to do?
He came up with a new strategy which is somewhat mistakenly, I think, labeled as a surge. It wasn’t so much about adding troops, it was about adopting a real counterinsurgency strategy. He brought in a general named Petraeus who was committed to doing it and it worked miraculously in a rather short time. That’s my short answer. (Laughs.)
AMOS: Tom Pickering, you have some—
WOLFOWITZ: I can give you a longer one. I’m sorry.
PICKERING: Yeah, I jointed with Richard and differ with Paul, because I think we never should have gone in. But secondly, I think having gone in the second time, we never learned the terrible lesson of the first time, which I think was serious, that we are not good at war termination. And Paul is right, we have thought more than a few days. We should have, in fact, been thinking about it even before we started the short military ground campaign in the first Gulf War. But we had absolutely no idea.
The notion that we should permit Iraqi helicopters to fly, apparently on the misunderstanding that they needed the helicopters to get to the negotiations with General Schwarzkopf, whatever it was. I think that was a mistake. And I think that we had no sense of how and in what way to deal with the future of Iraq in either case. One, we were deep into it and we were in kind of colonial arrangement. And that never succeeded and calls to mind the question of whether we should have gone in in the first place or, in fact, contained and lived with Saddam, as difficult as that was. That was not in my view the high-risk, highly dangerous problem that has how evolved and that we see with ISIS, with the effort to try to deal with the Gulf states, the future of the whole region, and Iran’s future role in that what is happening here today in Washington with respect to the confused and uncertain voting on the nuclear agreement.
AMOS: Questions all the way in the back.
Q: Lo Bo (sp) from—with the foreign press.
I read an interesting book called The Assassins’ Gate a couple years ago, and—about the beginnings of the second Iraq War. And it painted Mr. Wolfowitz as one of the protagonists. Basically, it claimed that the lessons that were not learned from the first Gulf War and the things that were not done, such as overthrowing Saddam, led to this faction within the U.S. government led by Mr. Wolfowitz that was arguing for the overthrow. Snuck into a congressional resolution near the end of the Clinton administration. That it was these—it was this reliance on things that were not done during the first Gulf War that led to the second Gulf War, much more so than allegations of WMD or that Saddam’s somehow cooperating with the Taliban are, al-Qaida. So I just wanted to just ask Paul specifically, and to the panel, to what extent were things not done in the first war—unresolved things that led—directly led to the second?
MR. WOLFOWITZ: The letter that you refer to—and by the way, I mean, I wish I had the power to get 98 members of the Senate to vote unanimously for what was called the Iraq Liberation Act. I’m not—to be honest, not nearly that influential. I did sign a letter suggesting in the 1990s, as did many other people—could give you a long list including Richard Armitage, the list goes on—saying that we should actively support efforts to overthrow Saddam Hussein. And in the course of working out that letter, there was actually some very strong objection by Donald Rumsfeld, who was one of the signatories, to any mention of the use of ground forces. The idea was much more to empower the southern Iraqis to do what the Iraqis had done in the north, basically.
People don’t like accepting this fact, but 9/11 dramatically changed the way in which one had to view the risk posed by Saddam. And it did. And it made people think much more about doing much more than what we had been thinking about in the 1990s. And I would say it’s not because of where we were in the 1990s that we ended up where we were in 2003.
HAASS: Well, I agree with Paul’s last statement. There was nothing inevitable about the second Iraq War, which is the reason I called it a war of choice. I think it was a consequential and extremely ill-advised war of choice, but it was—it was just that. It did not follow on inevitably or inexorably. And I think Tom’s point made a few minutes ago was essentially right, that it was an imperfect situation that we could have essentially lived with.
And it certainly had a degree of imperfection about it that compares, shall we say, rather well with the degree of imperfection that we now see throughout the Middle East. And I’m not attributing the current situation in the Middle East entirely to what happened to the aftermath of the 2003 war, but it had a part to play. American acts of co-mission, including the Iraq War, have a part to play. American acts of omission, what we haven’t done in Syrian I think had a contributing thing. And the Middle East itself bears a lot of responsibility for what the Middle East is—the fundamental flaws in the region’s DNA.
But clearly, we help—you know, we contributed to the set of events that has brought about the contemporary Middle East. And to me, part of the lesson of that is—I think Paul is right, in the sense that post-9/11 thinking had an impact. And it made people less tolerant of certain possibilities, no matter what the likelihood. But I also think there was a desire after 9/11 to send certain signals to the region and to the world. And people believe that the Middle East, and Iraq in particular, was ripe for a democratic transformation.
I thought then and I think now that represented a fundamental misreading of the political DNA of Iraq. And to me, the lesson of Iraq, and it was the lesson of Vietnam, is know local realities before you go to war. And I simply think we did not sufficiently know the local realities of Iraq or Middle East before we went to war in 2003. And we deluded ourselves into certain optimistic scenarios that would likely come from what it was we set in train. And I think again, in part—we can argue the percentages—but in part what we now have is the consequence of all that.
AMOS: Tom, you were—
WOLFOWITZ: Yeah, but the people who say that we should not have done anything in 2003, really need to say, do you really mean do nothing? Do you really mean Saddam Hussein—leave Saddam Hussein in power, let the sanctions collapse, let the inspections collapse? Where would we be with Saddam Hussein in power for another dozen years? I happen to think most wars are wars of choice. Truman had a choice in Korea. It looked after three years as though it had turned out very badly. If we had left Korean in 1953, Korean would have turned out very badly and we would not be seeing the success story that we see today.
I think if—I think President Bush made the absolutely right decision in opposing Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait. But if it had been a war of necessity, as Richard likes to call it, you would not have people like Brzezinski and Senator Sam Nunn, and Admiral William Crowe opposed to it and Colin Powell quite skeptical about it, and the majority of the Democrats in both the House and the Senate opposed to it. It was a very tough choice. And I think if you don’t accept that it was a very tough choice you actually underestimate the amount of resolve and moral courage that the first President Bush had in order to see this thing through.
AMOS: This will be another topic for the 50th anniversary. (Laughter.)
AMOS: Tom Pickering, I saw you shaking your head yes. And what do you think the answer to this is?
PICKERING: Well, I think that the notion that we couldn’t live with Saddam is one that I think is a serious mistake. I can envisage the fact that 9/11 had an influence, but the influence of events is supposed to be appreciated, analyzed, assessed and evaluated from the point of view what U.S. interests are. There was no existential threat to the United States from Iraq in 2002 and 2003. Things may have been a little bit less tidy than they were at the end of the first Gulf War, but it was not impossible for us to last and live and, indeed, continue to tolerate some of that, as hard as it was. The notion that regime change was just around the corner I think is a serious mistake.
And the notion that we didn’t know, as Richard said, about the situation in the region means, in effect, not that we didn’t know—we didn’t pay attention to the people who knew. And the people who knew prepared an extensive document. I’ve never read it, but I’ve heard about it. A kind of hundred-page document that the distinguished secretary of defense set aside and, indeed, forbade people, according to the stories, to pay any attention to. But it had much of what we knew about the region, much of what we knew about the potential problems, much of what we knew was likely to happen or could happen after the combat period. And so my own sense is that it was not a question of unknowing, it was a question of not paying attention. And I think that is a serious and vital mistake.
WOLFOWITZ: I don’t know what document’s involved, but I do have to say I never heard Rumsfeld tell anybody there’s something you must not read.
HAASS: No, but it is true, just to be clear, that the CIA at the time was tasked to prepare all sorts of assessments of the post-war realities, what would likely follow. They prepared a set of analyses and predictions which ended up bearing a very close resemblance to what ultimately transpired. People looked at it but largely rejected it because it didn’t square with people’s—either their own assessments or their own preferences. I mean, that’s—
PICKERING: Well, Richard is—Richard is right, but there was a comparable State Department document.
HAASS: Oh, there was one—
PICKERING: A hundred-page document that had much of the same sense.
KERR: There was one that my office prepared, I know about it. (Laughter.)
WOLFOWITZ: That CIA estimate—I think the CIA estimate made a lot of predications about a Shia-Sunni civil war. It made virtually no prediction of about a Ba’athist-supported insurgency, which is actually what we ran into. The civil war took three years to really break out. It wasn’t until after the Samarra bombing—or the bombing of the Samarra mosque that you saw this serious, secular confessional violence—Shia on Sunni and Sunni on Shia. Zarqawi was trying for years to provoke it. And in the face of some really horrific bombings, for a long time Sistani’s restraint prevailed among the Shias. So I think actually one of our problems going in there was there was very little attention to the extent to which there had actually been preparations made by the regime, perhaps for other reasons, to actually be able to conduct an insurgency when we were there.
AMOS: To Kerr.
KERR: Well, you’re getting into an area—I had retired by this time.
WOLFOWITZ: Lucky you. (Laughs.)
KERR: Lucky me. But I had been asked before the war began with Iraq, the second war, to do a post-mortem on all of the intelligence provided to the policymakers for two years prior to that point in time, which was beginning about September, just before the war was launched against Iraq. And to your point about weapons of mass destruction, I think you have to be very careful about saying that that had no influence on the war. People believed that. The intelligence community believed that. They happened to be wrong about a number of things.
And they were wrong about—because they lived to a considerable degree on early and old intelligence. It was poorly done. The analysts had not done a good job. And the people supervising them had done even a poorer job. They did not ask good questions and they did not prompt the community to answer them. It was—and as you went back, you could say very clearly you understood why the policymakers were presented the material and it was reasonably persuasive on nuclear, chemical and biological.
As it turned out, they were general wrong on all three accounts. The biological program was primarily a fraud based on information that had been fabricated. The nuclear program had largely been slowed down. And there was a big chemical program, there’s no doubt about that. Warehouses were filled with chemicals, though, there’s no doubt about that. But the general tone of intelligence during this period and the months before and the actual vision was not particularly helpful to the policymaker and did not sit back and do serious questioning of assumptions.
WOLFOWITZ: But, Dick, to be complete, the Duelfer Report, which is the Iraq Survey Group, which is sort of the definitive word on this, is very clear about the fact—and Saddam even told this to his—George Piro who was the guy who was conversing with him—and Duelfer says we had clear signs they had preparations to start up all three programs once the sanctions had gone away.
KERR: There’s no question there were programs, but they were in abeyance and they were not—
WOLFOWITZ: But the question is, how long would the sanctions have lasted? And were they going to last for another dozen years?
KERR: Well, they were not in the shape that we were describing them at the immediate stage that we were describing.
WOLFOWITZ: That’s true.
HAASS: But it’s also true that the United States never took seriously the policy possibility of bolstering the sanctions. If we had made that the priority, and we had made that something where we would put resources into, we never looked seriously at doing things that would have shored up the relations with several of the neighbors—Turkey and Jordan. There were things—if we had basically said sanctions strengthening was the priority of the United States, my own view is there were things we could have accomplished. We never took that seriously as an option before 2003, because people had more ambitious aims, including regime change, because, again, they believed it would not only succeed in Iraq, but if Iraq were democratized they thought that would set an example that the rest of the region would be unable to resist. And I simply, again—it wasn’t the vision thought I bought into.
WOLFOWITZ: That wasn’t why the decision was made to go to war.
AMOS: Let’s ask for a question, because I don’t think we’re going to resolve this on this panel.
KERR: No, I think we’re going to get into another war.
Q: Stanley Arkin.
Of all of the creative intents, your very admirable considerations and information all of you had, and your colleagues, did anybody during this period going back 25 years up until, say, 2005, ever focus on Syria, ever think about Syria?
WOLFOWITZ: When I was in the second Bush administration, I thought about Syria pretty much every day. And I think to this day it’s a little of a mystery to me why we didn’t end up with a more effective strategy for stopping this really horrible Syrian-assisted insurgency in Iraq. I can’t really explain it. But I think Syria as a big problem. And I would say, if we want to talk about the source of problems in the Middle East today, and especially ISIS, there is an Iraqi piece of that story. But the real heart of that story is what the vacuum in Syria allowed for ISIS to grow and develop.
Q: My name’s Roland Paul. I’m a lawyer.
There’s been a—there’s several basic questions about the Gulf War that really haven’t been asked here. And I will ask one of them, which we know that General Schwarzkopf and we know even in this building that the chief of staff of the Air Force both were amazed and disappointed that the war ended when it did. And so I would ask why—it’s sort of been addressed—but why President Bush stopped the war, and maybe who convinced him to do so? In passing, I would just say, since we talked about the 2003 invasion, don’t you think Saddam would have nuclear weapons today if we had not invaded? Thank you.
HAASS: On the second, no. On the first, I don’t know why General Schwarzkopf would have been amazed, because he was—had a conversation with the president, with Colin Powell standing there, the president on the phone and Colin Powell on the phone to General Schwarzkopf as the war was unfolding. And he was asked whether he was comfortable with stopping the war at that point. And he said, let me check, I’ll get back to you, and got back to him and said it was fine. So I don’t know why he was—why you or anyone else would represent that he was amazed. Now, again, we learned retroactively, or afterwards, that people thought they’d accomplished or surrounded more Iraqi armor than in fact had been the case. But again, no one can argue that they were amazed by the decision. And people had a chance to weigh in.
And I’ll just simply say that I did not hear anybody in the room or outside the room who had a chance to weigh in vociferously push back. The reason that people wanted to end the war at that point was in part that they thought the military aims had been accomplished. They wanted to avoid the appearance of, quote, unquote, piling on, that we felt we had tremendous international support for what we had accomplished. As we said before, we also thought we had done enough to set in motion trends that Saddam would not be able to survive. So it wasn’t clear at that point—you know, all the Arab governments at that point were—and what I was hearing, Paul may have heard different things—but diplomatically we were hearing they were comfortable with it. So it wasn’t clear what war aims we were going to accomplish by preserving at that point. And the president as worried that we would very quickly burn up an enormous amount of goodwill that the United States had banked up to that point.
AMOS: Anybody else?
WOLFOWITZ: I think there was an enormous desire to stop quickly and go home so that we would not—as the military was very concerned, I think Schwarzkopf too, with this concept of getting stuck to tar baby. I would argue that because we quit prematurely we actually got stuck in Iraq a lot longer than we would have. I think we failed to take the time that had been taken earlier in the decision process to think through what our options were given the situation. And I think it’s important to say, as far as I can tell, President Bush is the only person at the highest level of his administration who openly expressed unhappiness that Saddam was still in power. He said in a press conference—somebody said, you don’t seem elated. He said, how can I be elated when Saddam is still in power? And I think a week after the helicopter started gunning people down, he was at a press conference in Ottawa after meeting with Prime Minister Mulroney. And he said, mistakenly unfortunately, Saddam agreed—the Iraqis agreed not to fly helicopters. They have to stop. And I wish we had followed up that statement with saying, well, you may not have agreed, but you just agreed now. (Chuckles.)
AMOS: I’d like to quickly—because we’re coming to the end of this panel—ask each one of you shortly to talk about the legacy of 25 years ago and what it changed and how we got here.
HAASS: Well, I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and wrote the piece for The Wall Street Journal about it. And I was surprised by my own conclusion, which there was less of a legacy than I would have thought. This war looks, I think the phrase we use in the piece was, classical, and everything else since then looks anything but. There was a clarity to this, there was a battlefield quality to it, there was a beginning and middle, something of an end, though the end was more ragged than people thought. But it was fought with regulars and so forth. It wasn’t transformational. And it wasn’t, in some ways, a harbinger of conflicts to come. In some ways, it was the exception. And if you look at the wars that have been fought since, they look qualitatively different.
It’s in no way to criticize what we did. And I think what President Bush did deserves enormous credit. And at the time, and we haven’t talked about it today, this was—take a step back. This was the first crisis after the Berlin Wall had come down. This was, you know, basically less—it was eight, nine months—not even—seven months, eight months after the wall had come down. We thought that what we did and how we did it was going to set all sorts of precedents for the world to come. So it’s hard to—so I think it got the post-Cold War era off to a good start, if you will. What it couldn’t do in and of itself was sustain that.
And since then, I think we’ve largely seen a deterioration in the post-Cold War world, not because of this war. I think this war, again, was largely well-handled, well-managed. But in and of itself, it turned out not to set or to put into place or institutionalize the kind of world, you know, where force wouldn’t be used, where there would be a significant degree of domestic and international consensus about what do to security challenges. The war just didn’t turn out to be the turning point that many of us hoped or thought it would be at the time.
AMOS: To Kerr.
KERR: Well, it’s interesting, because in thinking about it in terms of its impact on intelligence, this war had a rather significant impact on intelligence. It was really the first war where CIA was largely irrelevant. Prior to this, CIA had been involved in the wars of—the various wars that were around the globe. We were a principal player. But those were surrogate wars. The U.S. military wasn’t involved. And in those wars, we played the major role, not only in directing some of them but the intelligence assessment. Even in Vietnam, the CIA was a major player, independent of the military, independent assessment of what was going on and how it was going—primarily because it lasted so long and because it was such a difficult war.
In this war, we really had no role. And in fact, one of the interesting things is we only had a few people working on the country to start off with. We had a very good quality group of photo-interpreters who were used to interpreting what was happening on a battlefield. But in this case, we tried that for a while and it was a disaster because we decided earlier on that—I can’t remember which it was—but it was the—that it was the ground forces that were doing the kill, not the—on tanks, Iraqi tanks, not the Air Force. General Schwarzkopf called me in and said, what are you guys doing? You’re going to cause a controversy about who is killing the tanks. What difference does it make? And it didn’t make any difference. And we stopped it.
We were playing a role like we had always played of bomb damage assessment, who’s wining here, who’s not winning. And as a result of this, we became—following the Kuwait war we became very single-mindedly, nearly, focused on support to the military, because we got a lot of criticism from Schwarzkopf and some of the other. And I went down and talked to the—to the group of chiefs about it and said—because they were criticizing because we didn’t given them enough support during the war. And I said, do you realize how many people we had involved? We had fewer people in our entire overseas group than you have on one single carrier. I mean, this is not a—this is a relatively small group of people, and we’re not particularly good at some things. We’re better at others.
But we did begin, because of that criticism, to focus on increasing support to the military. And we have to this day—in my view to the detriment of other intelligence problems which the intelligence agencies should be focusing on—China, Russia, the Middle East and others—where we are—we are less than—we’re spending a lot of our assets actually supporting military operations. You know, we run the drones program—or a sizable portion of it. We do it very well, because we’re very careful on how we choose targets. We do an incredible job of picking the targets. I would guess probably better than the military does, because we use a broader range of intelligence sources. Is that a job for CIA? It’s not obvious to me, though, that we haven’t—we are doing jobs that are not our primary core job, so.
WOLFOWITZ: I think it was—I think it was quite important. I think it really cemented the U.S. role as the central pillar of Persian Gulf security. You started after the British withdrew from east of Aden with a vacuum created in the Persian Gulf, which we hoped for a while in 1970 somehow the shah would fill. Of course, the shah didn’t last for very long after we thought of that. Then in the 1980s we went through this period when we thought maybe—and I think this is certainly something to think about—that supporting Iraq in this brutal war with Iran would somehow stabilize the Gulf. This is where we really—we became the stabilizer ourselves.
A Kurdish friend of mine said not so long ago, well, this is the 25th year you Americans—and he’s very friendly to us—have been bombing Iraq. And I guess one might say it’s—it might go on for quite a while longer, judging by the lack of results we’re having so far. And I think there’s a totally understandable reaction among a lot of ordinary Americans, and not just ordinary Americans a lot of pretty sophisticated ones, sort of maybe going back to Henry Kissinger’s famous remark about the Iran-Iraq War, it’s a shame both sides can’t win—that, look, this is a part of the world we can’t understand. We’ve demonstrated that we don’t understand it. Let’s just let them all kill each other and we’ll pivot to East Asia and other nice places where it’s fun to work.
I personally pivoted to East Asia when I went from running the policy planning staff in 1982 to being assistant secretary for East Asia for George Schultz. And it really was like going from night to day, going from a part of the world where all people did was to create problems, to a part of the world where all the do is solve them, at least for the last several decades. I could do that personally. The United States as a country can’t afford to do that. I would say sort of paraphrasing Leon Trotsky who famously said: You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you. You may not be interested in the Middle East, but unfortunately the Middle East is interested in us.
And I think we have to recognize—and I certainly, I need to—I understand it, the range of things there that we don’t understand. I think one of them I would put high on the list is we do not understand the damage that has been done to the fabric of those societies by decades of a kind of brutal war by Gadhafi, by Assad, by Saddam Hussein, even by Mubarak, although he’s not in the same class as those, where people no longer really trust themselves or trust anybody in the society. And I think we’re dealing with that. I think what we’re going to deal with in Syria in the future is going to be far, far worse, because whatever there might have been under Assad it’s now completely shattered.
But on the other hand, we need to think about ways in which we can at least hopefully get an outcome that’s better than the one that would happen if we did nothing, because we are one of the only actors outside of the Middle East that can influence events. And I would say, in thinking back on the earlier experience, I believe that not only can countries in that region or actors in that region do much more when they feel that the U.S. really has their back—which is what President Bush did, particularly with that opening statement about this will not stand—but also that when they believe the United States is ready to act decisively, you can persuade them to do things that they might otherwise not be persuaded to do. I would try to apply that at least to Syria today. It is such a mess it’s hard to imagine any kind of outcome that would be—get us anywhere. But I think—I think it’s a mess that we will live in, and we really need to think about ways we can do that.
AMOS: Thomas Pickering, you’ve got the last word.
PICKERING: Yeah, we’re in overtime so let me try to make a few discrete and clear points. On a strategic level, this is the war that gave the positive dimension to the negative end of the Cold War, and led in my view to too much hubris about unipolarity and too much confidence about unalloyed, totally positive, always accepting U.S. world leadership, that was going to happen as a result of where we were, not who we were, of how we equipped ourselves rather than how we acted. In the U.N. context, it was very interesting, because I think it was the first time and maybe the last that the Security Council operated certainly in U.S. interests and the way in which it had been envisaged in 1945 to operate. And it did help, with respect to the reluctant Democrats that Paul spoke about some time ago, in solidifying the support within the United States for the kind of congressional action that was required for us to participate in the combat.
The really interesting question was, as we came out of that particular conflict in the Security Council, we thought all future arrangements were going to be the same. And so we did things in Somalia without thinking about where we were going to go and put forces in the field that were inadequate, but marched merrily along the path without the kind of time and attention that was required to look at the end game. And then we came and doubled it down on ex-Yugoslavia, and produced the kind of difficulties and chaos that comes from not thinking about where you’re going, not having a clear strategy, and not knowing what the exit is.
And my final point, one that I’ve made several times here, but it bears repeating, when you go into a war you’ve really got to know where it is you want to come out, and how and in what way to the best of your ability the military capacity will contribute to the wisest possible political war termination that you’re trying to achieve. And we have not really done that very well. And I think that continues to be an albatross around our necks. And we ought to be very, very careful as we go down the road. Military is not, in my humble view, a quick and easy solution for really trenchant diplomatic problems.
AMOS: Well, thank you. That was a fine wrap up. And I’d like to thank our panel, which was just terrific, and the members. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
This is an uncorrected transcript.