Joseph Wilson Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

A Diplomat's Odyssey: Conversation with Ambassador Joseph Wilson, IV; May
    27, 2004, by Harry Kreisler

Page 4 of 5

The U.S Role in the Twenty-First Century

In your description of those events, you give us a nice sense of the synergy between the use of military and diplomatic power. In retrospect, that first Iraq war was a masterful display by Bush, Sr., as President of the United States, of not being afraid to use force, but not using it first -- pursing all the international routes before war was declared. Talk a little about that, because we seem to be going now through a period where that synergy between the use of military and political power has broken down.

Absolutely. In the interest of full disclosure, I admit my bias, having been part of that team. But I believe it will go down in history as a classic casebook study of how one applies both diplomacy and military force to an international crisis. It was clear from the first day that Saddam Hussein was in violation of the UN Charter, in violation of the Arab League Charter, in violation of his own draft constitution in invading Kuwait and in opting to go to war to solve this border dispute that could have and should have been solved by other means. The president made it very clear, then-President Bush, that Saddam was not going to go any further in the event that he had any ambition to do so, and then, subsequently, that we were going to roll back that invasion.

At the same time, we were in the immediate post - Cold War era, and we understood that the next generation of wars were likely going to be not unlike what we were seeing in the Iraq - Kuwait conflict -- small, bloody, not necessarily of strategic consequence to us immediately, and therefore not requiring the full brunt of a World War II - like response. As a consequence, we were going to want to manage them through a coalition of friends and allies who would help field troops and help finance the war, and any military action or any attempt to manage the invasion and roll back the invasion would have to be within the context of the collective security system that we had created for ourselves over the previous sixty years, the United Nations.

In this case, if you were going to do that, you had to narrow the objective to ensure that you had a maximum amount of coalition partners, both financing and putting troops in the field, and that's what we did: a narrowing of the objective. The one objective that we could get through the UN Security Council, and which provided the legal framework within which we could work, was expelling Saddam from Kuwait. That was the crime he committed, and that was what allowed us to use all necessary force.

Regime change was never going to be approved by the United Nations, because interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation was then and is still now something which not many countries are going to sign up to. After all, if it's Baghdad today, why not someplace else, friends of theirs, tomorrow? Why not former Yugoslavia, for example, when Milosevic and the Russians were pretty closely tied? So it was important that you narrow the objective to something everybody could sign up to, and the objective everybody signed up to was expelling Saddam from Kuwait.

And it worked in the sense that we didn't have to pay for the war, and there was a finite point where hostilities were ceased. But many in the aftermath -- and clearly this was a bee in the bonnet of the second Bush administration -- [were dismayed] that we didn't remove [Saddam Hussein] from office. Talk a little about that. It makes perfect sense in the multilateral context that you're talking about. We now know that the multilateral regime that was put in place after the war worked. It was a question of seeing the rightness of what we had done; but we lost sight of that in our politics here at home.

It became fashionable for those who wanted us to occupy Baghdad to spend a decade denigrating what we had done by claiming that we should have run all the way to Baghdad. Colin Powell in his book, and Brent Scowcroft and George H.W. Bush in their book, both talked about the problems associated with going all the way to Baghdad, which were the following:

  1. We would have violated the UN Security Council Resolution, which we had all signed up to. That would have made it much more difficult, if not impossible, the next time we had to manage a conflict along these lines and wanted the UN support to do it.
  2. If people remember, in those last days of the war to expel them from Kuwait, we were killing people, massacring people on the "highway of death."
  3. Going up the Tigress and Euphrates River valleys, we would have lost all the allies and would have been going at this ourselves, and public opinion would have turned against us quite rapidly.
  4. We would have had to occupy a very difficult country, as we're doing now, and we're recognizing now exactly what the downfalls of doing such a thing are.
  5. We would have lost all our credibility. Not doing it enabled us to go to Madrid and to Oslo, and to begin to think seriously about how to solve the Palestinian-Israeli problem.

But one can say, I think fairly, that domestic politics, for whatever reasons, didn't incorporate those factors that you just identified in its way of thinking about Iraq. You talk in your book about the Iraq Liberation Act, which was passed in the latter part of the Clinton administration, which called for regime change, and which was supported by a number of prominent Democrats and signed by President Clinton. So there was a problem here in the information, the understanding, and the analysis that you've just given us penetrating the political system.

What I found, particularly as I look at this run-up to the second Gulf War, is that you're at a disadvantage if you don't market your idea as aggressively as the other side markets their idea. Those who were pro-war, the neoconservative movement, marketed their idea and their policies brilliantly, even though their policies were utterly devoid of substance, and were not, frankly, subjected to critical analysis. The marketing campaign far outweighed the substantive debate in this case, and they went at it for a decade And nobody was there, aside from Colin Powell's book, and President George H.W. and Brent Scowcroft's book, to say this is not a good idea. By the time you got to the Iraq Liberation Act, it became politic to demonstrate your repugnance at a horrible dictator, Saddam Hussein, by voting for the Iraq Liberation Act. Tony Zinni had it right. He said, "This is a bad idea. It's going to provide the underpinning for a bad policy in the future."

Most people looked at it and said, "It won't have any great effect. It's going to be funded at $90 million a year." We know with what we're spending in Baghdad that $90 million doesn't buy you breakfast for a week in Baghdad for 135,000 troops! So it was not regime change by invasion, conquest, occupation; it was essentially a policy of regime change that would have employed some other methods: subversion, intelligence operations, propaganda.

In your book, a fascinating account of what you did after Iraq, you were stationed in Europe working on the Bosnia conflict. I was struck by [another] aspect of your work as a political advisor working with the military to train African armies to participate in peacekeeping operations, and so on. There was an effort in these different roles that you had to build a [precedent]; that if there's another time, this is how we will do it together, and how we will rely on the support of others.

Right. In the Gulf War, the Nigerians were the first to send troops to fight with us -- the Nigerians, the Senegalese, and some other African armies had sent troops to fight with us. We had often used African troops in peacekeeping operations. The African Crisis Response Initiative, which is what you're talking about, came about as a consequence of the Rwandan genocide, when we all realized that the United Nations, and indeed, the United States, reacted way too slowly to a horrible and morally unsustainable situation. The idea that we waited until 800,000 Rwandans had been killed before we reacted was something we did not want to ever do again. But understanding the difficulty in summoning both the national political will and the UN collective will to intervene in Africa, we decided that we would train battalions of African troops who could be called upon to move much more quickly.

We all understood that we, the United States, have unique capabilities to bring to any crisis. The most important of those is leadership. We can serve as a catalyst and drive agendas rather well. But specifically, we can also provide logistic support, command and control capability above the battalion level, and intelligence -- we've got a pretty good intelligence apparatus that we can bring to bear on a particular crisis. Other countries can put boots on the ground, as they say.

What we wanted to do was set up a system that allowed other countries to put the boots on the ground more quickly than we would be able to do, and then we would use our unique capabilities to supplement what they were doing in support of a mutually agreed upon goal, i.e., preventing or stopping genocide.

A social scientist would say that the two [Iraq] wars are a perfect scientific test of responding to a threat. We have the same villain, the same evil-doer. So I want to ask you, you're a student of politics, you've represented the United States, you're a student of our culture: How do you explain how this second Bush administration, that is, the administration of the son, is so different in its perspectives, not only about Iraq but about the world, about how we engage the world, with the emphasis on military power, the emphasis on unilateralism? It's quite a striking break in a tradition which we've just been talking about, that is, engaging the world, spreading American influence and interests in a way that understands multilateral institutions. That's what came before, but suddenly we're presented with the current situation.

That's exactly right. There is a school of thought which occupied a fringe part of the Republican foreign policy debate. It produced a paper called, "The Project for the New American Century," which is essentially a blueprint of an American imperium. If you go back and you read it now, it looks like a very empty set of assertions that are not supported by any reality whatsoever; it's just simply an ideological tract. But it had as its objective the goal of ensuring American national security over the long term by demonstrating through the use of force (or I would say the abuse of force) just how strong a power we are, and thereby discouraging others to threaten or challenge our dominance of the world. Max Boot, who is one of the writers for this crowd, said it best when he said, "We should stride across our empire proudly in jodhpurs and pith helmets like the British of the nineteenth century."

The problem is once it met reality in Baghdad, quite [contrary to] demonstrating how powerful we were, it showed very clearly the limits of our power. As a consequence, we now find ourselves in a position where, as an official from the Reagan era recently told me, we're on the eve of a strategic catastrophe in the Middle East.

Next page: The Road to War

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See also the Globetrotter interviews with Anthony Zinni (2001) and Max Boot (2003)