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interview: james baker

... Do you wish now that maybe we had gone further and removed Saddam Hussein?

Well, wish is one thing. Do I think that the first President Bush made the right decision in stopping the war when he did? Absolutely. I am absolutely convinced it was the right decision. I think most thinking people would agree with that. Let me tell you why.

We had promised the entire world in building what was an unprecedented international coalition, that we had no interest in occupying an Arab country. We weren't in this business to occupy Iraq. We were going to do what the United Nations Security Council said we should do, which was unconditionally eject Iraq from Kuwait. That was our war aim. That was our political aim. Would it have been better if Saddam had not survived? You bet. Did our Arab allies and everybody else think he would not survive a defeat of the type that we administered to him? Yes, they did not think he would survive. He did survive. But he survived in the context of -- he's been under pretty good wraps, you know.

He's hobbled?

He's hobbled. Sure, he's hobbled.

The 20/20 armchair generals love to say, "Why didn't you take out Saddam?" Well, that would have involved, first of all, changing our war aims and political aims. But more importantly, this would have involved going to Baghdad. There was no way to take out Saddam in the context of the Gulf War without occupying Iraq. We might still be there fighting a guerilla war. We'd promised the world we weren't gonna do it. Our military wanted no part of it. And the very people who today suggest we should've done it, are, for the most part, the same people who opposed our going to war to eject Iraq from Kuwait in the first instance.

Furthermore, let me just say one other thing. There would've been no Madrid peace conference if we'd done that. There would not today be peace between Israel and Jordan. There would not be even a process, shaky though it may be today, between Israel and the Palestinians. So, there were many good reasons why that was not the thing to do at the time. Even in retrospect, [I think it] was not the thing to do.


James Baker served as secretary of state from 1989 to 1992 in President George H. W. Bush's administration. He previously served as secretary of the treasury and chief of staff for President Reagan. He tells FRONTLINE that overthrowing Saddam Hussein was never part of U.S. strategy during the Gulf War, and argues that America should focus on coalition-building and complete its Afghanistan campaign before deciding whether to target Saddam. He was interviewed in mid-October 2001.

Is there a meeting or an incident that comes to mind where you remember the decision was made that we're not gonna go to Baghdad?

...Well, there was never a decision made that we're not going to Baghdad. That was just never really on the table, the concept of going to Baghdad. First of all, we weren't authorized to do that under the U.N. Security Council resolutions. We were authorized to eject Iraq from Kuwait unconditionally.

The president did, at some point, have to confront the question of when to end the war. I remember a meeting in the Oval Office. I can't pinpoint the date for you, where we were on the phone, all of his advisors were there. We were on the phone with General Schwarzkopf in the theater. We were killing, at this time, literally thousands of Iraqis who were fleeing Kuwait up the Highway of Death.

The president was advised by all of his political and military advisors that it was time that we'd accomplished our war aims. We'd accomplished our political aims. It was time to end the war. And that's what he did. It was the right decision at the time.

But weren't we encouraging the Kurds and the Shia to rise up during the war against Saddam? And didn't he stand by while the Republican Guards slaughtered them?

No, I don't think that's a fair characterization. We made some mistakes. One mistake we made: did we say we would be fine if the Iraqi people themselves turned out that government? Yes, we said that. ... We did not undertake it as a covert action program. We in fact specifically declined to do that. The president and maybe some other spokesman said it would be wonderful if we got a new government in there. But it wasn't encouraging them in a sense that I think you're using the term. So, I don't think that's a fair characterization.

We saw the rebellion going on.

Yeah, we did see their rebellion. And I was about to go back to my prior comment. Did we make some mistakes? Yeah. We made two mistakes, I think, that we have to acknowledge and own up to. We let Saddam fly his helicopters in the aftermath of the surrender. He said he needed them to re-position his forces, or to provide relief to people. He actually used them to put down those rebellions. That was a mistake on our part.

The second mistake we made, was not requiring him to come to Safwan himself.

You mean, to the surrender?

To the surrender tent there, on the ground, and acknowledge that he'd been beaten and signed the surrender documents. That would've been probably something we should've done.

But all these 20/20 hindsight wizards who say, "You left the job unfinished. You should have gotten Saddam," they don't understand that for one thing, that the only way to have done that would've been to occupy that big Arab country, in contradiction of everything we'd promised the rest of the world, and with the adverse consequences that I mentioned to you earlier.

Is it true that the Saudis were very nervous about removing Saddam or allowing any of the opposition groups to take over?

No. No, that's not true, and quite the reverse is true. Quite the reverse is true.

The Saudis wanted to go further?

That's correct. Well, they and some of our other Arab allies were interested in seeing a much more aggressive posture on the part of the United States in terms of supporting Kurds in the north and the Shia in the south. That's all I'll say about that.

Well, we've talked to the Kurds in the north and the Shia in the south. And they say yes, the Saudis wanted something to change. But what they didn't want was democracy on their border. They didn't want a parliamentary democracy in place.

I don't think that's a fair characterization. I think they were a lot more fearful of a Saddam Hussein on their border than they would be of some democracy on their border.

Frankly, since the end of the war, you've seen the beginnings of a spread of democratic tendencies in the region. You see it in Qatar. You see it in Bahrain. ... They're right there on the border of Saudi Arabia. ...

You know that the debate is going on about whether or not to actually take Saddam out this time.

Sure.

Good idea?

Well, for one, I was supportive -- and said so the very day of this attack, or maybe the day after -- of repealing the executive order that prohibits the United States alone among all the other countries in the world, from conducting political assassinations. There may be times when it's very important to do something like that.

Let's assume that's done. But getting rid of Saddam? We weren't able to do that during the war.

We weren't, no. Actually, it's not as if we didn't try. He was the commander-in-chief of the Iraqi armed forces. And it would've been quite legal for us as a matter of combat and war, to take him out. It's simply that we couldn't accomplish [it.]

So you think it would be a good idea to try to do that now?

Well, I'm not saying that. I'm not up there now. All I'm saying to you is I support the idea that we're eliminating this executive order. ... But I think we need to utilize all the tools that are available to us in the war against terrorism.

Even though the Saudis and the Egyptians and others have said, "Be careful, United States, don't attack another Arab state?" They meant Iraq.

Well, that's a different question than the one you asked me.

Well, that's going to require a military action.

Now if you ask me should we attack Iraq, my answer to that would be, well first of all, let's see what the evidence shows, for instance, with respect to anthrax. We don't know yet. We don't have the evidence yet that's a direct link. We may get to the point where we need to do that in the war on terrorism.

In an interview, Jim Woolsey, former head of the CIA, said--

Jim Woolsey is not a policy-maker.

No. But he said that there was incontrovertible evidence in 1993 that Saddam tried to kill your former boss, President Bush.

There's no doubt about that.

That's enough justification right there. They say that he's a terrorist. That he's an assassin. And his apparatus is "Let's go in and get him."

... There may be enough evidence. But we need to approach these things in a way that will permit us to accomplish the goals we seek. What do you mean when you say attack Iraq? Throw some more bombs down on them? We've been doing that consistently since the end of the Gulf War. Fire some tomahawk missiles in? Or really go in there with ground forces and everything else, and get the job done? That's a major undertaking that we need to think about.

Even though we know that Iraq is on our list of states that sponsor terrorism, we need to think it through carefully. We need to first conclude the action we've undertaken in Afghanistan, with respect to the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, and then take the war on terrorism to its next stage. If that means going to Iraq, then maybe we do that. ...

Has there ever been a discussion about keeping Saddam in power, allowing him to stay in power, weakened, hobbled, but at least we wouldn't have to put up with chaos in Iraq, or danger of the Iranians intervening and any further danger to the Gulf? You know, we like it this way. He's can't do very much.

Well, I don't recall a specific discussion to that effect. But I do know that we were not anxious to see a Lebanization of Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf War. I think that was one policy consideration we had.

The Iraqi opposition people tell us that the United States has not backed, if you will, the imposition of democracy in Iraq, because Saudi Arabia and other allies don't want to see a democratic secular regime.

I wouldn't buy that for a minute. There's never been democracy in Iraq. Are they talking about restoring democracy in Iraq? They've never had democracy.

They reflect back to 1957.

The Iraqi opposition has been totally fragmented for a long, long time. They fight as much with each other, unfortunately, as they do with Saddam. There was never any really strong Iraqi opposition strong enough to have a reasonable chance of overthrowing that government.

Or of controlling the country after he was overthrown?

Absolutely of controlling the country after he was overthrown. If Saddam had been overthrown in the uprisings that followed the Gulf War, I think you would probably have ended up-- it's just my own person view-- you probably would've ended up with a Kurdish north and a Shiite south, and a Sunni center.

The way it was under the Ottoman empire -- as separate provinces?

That's probably what would happen. ...

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