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oral history: mikhail gorbachev

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Interview with Mikhail Gorbachev, President of the Soviet Union
We had Malta behind us....the unification of Germany. The cold war split was being overcome. International relations were being freed from ideological confrontation. Nuclear arms were being reduced. So this action seemed done with an idea to explode all this. This is why it surprised me and angered me. I resented it.

Q: You issued a joint Soviet-American statement condemning Iraq within two days of the invasion. What led you to do that?

Gorbachev: The world had become different and the two superpowers were in the situation where we had to show whether we were able to cooperate in this new situation, especially on such a critical issue like aggression. A country was occupied. If we were not able to cope with that situation, everything else would have been made null and void.

Q: How difficult was that decision to throw your lot in with the United States?

Gorbachev: We were quite firm about it. Similar steps were made by other countries. We called for an immediate end to the aggression and solving the problem politically. But, we did not declare that we were breaking all our relations with Iraq at once. On the contrary by this firm demand we gave them a clear-cut signal that we would be together with the UN and what they did was unacceptable. But on the other hand, we were also acting as friends of Iraq. There was no contradiction in it. We were throwing a life ring to Iraq. If they reversed the situation, they could have preserved the relations. We didn't say we were breaking everything at once.

Q: Were you worried that the Americans would maybe use going into Saudi Arabia as an excuse for a permanent military presence in the Gulf?

Gorbachev: No. It was very easy for us to understand the American administration. In America you can only win your ratings by decisive actions. If you start all sorts of discussions, then you are not President.

Q: Just before the Helsinki meeting, I believe Saddam wrote to you a private letter--do you remember that?

Gorbachev: I can't recall all the details now of this process because we were in constant contact with Iraq.

But I met with Aziz when he came to us and we had a very long conversation. I pointed out Iraq was acting as if in a vacuum, in unreality. There already was a US-Soviet declaration. There was the Security Council position, the opinion of the world community and the public. I asked: `Can you imagine what that might lead to?' 'Yes' he said. `This might lead not only to the endangering of the region but to a world conflict. But we are not afraid--neither of the world conflict nor of the Americans. He therefore meant that when the Soviet Union joined in collective action within the framework of the Security Council, the Soviet Union was afraid. It was all nonsense.

From the very beginning we realized how sensitive this region was. Oil was there. The protracted Middle East crisis was waiting for a solution. It was a very conflict-prone region. I told Aziz: `You don't realize what you are doing might turn into tragedy for the Iraqi state and people. I do not think this is what the Iraqi people want its government to do.'

That is not the exact quote, but is the gist of it.

This first visit showed that that was a very dangerous leadership, and we had to act decisively and coordinate our actions, so that not to give them any opening for a way out. They were looking for such an opening, to split up the allies. This talk took place just three days before the Helsinki meeting.

I told him, "I remember you always ask for Allah's advice, because this is what you have started our meeting with. Let me use the opportunity of this meeting to give a piece of advice to you - reconsider your position, because it is dangerous. Pass this message from the Soviet leadership and from me in person to Saddam Hussein--the path you have chosen means trouble for Iraq, the world community would never agree to that, it would not let a conflict with such dangerous consequences to start as a result of your adventure." That was our tough, but absolutely just, position. It was in everybody's interest, and most of all to the interest of Iraq.

Q: You went to Helsinki where you had this very important meeting with President Bush. Tell me, what you said to Bush.

Gorbachev: I think this meeting, after Malta, was one of the key meetings in the development of the Soviet-American relations, it was of great importance.

It started with myself and the President expressing our deep satisfaction that we were able to hold such a meeting. Then I told the president we had already achieved a strategic success in cooperating with each other and with the Security Council. The aggressor had been condemned, the sanctions worked out, the world community was acting in accordance with the resolutions. And the aggressor was actually isolated. We would do everything possible to force Iraq to accept them, we do not exclude, as a final resort, the use of military force. But we should put the main accent on the political settlement, not to bring the situation to the military conflict.

This decision was easier for me to make because I was supported by general consensus in our public opinion and in political circles. For President Bush it was more difficult because he was criticized. Margaret Thatcher was also a big help in that she spoke very decisively for an immediate severe punishment.

On the eve of the military action I told President Bush: "George, you and all of us should think not about how to start, but how to end this military action, how to get out of this military conflict. The generals should think about the military operations, how to make them more effective, but the two of us should be thinking of how to get out of it, and not to exceed the mandate of the Security Council." But that was later. In Helsinki we had very good mutual understanding. I think the President had his doubts disappear that we might be partners that could fail him.

I think that neither ourselves, nor the US could have acted otherwise in this situation. It would have been disastrous to the United Nations. And the third point, no less important, is that I said that it would be very reasonable and right that we, the leaders of the two superpowers, here in Helsinki bear in mind that once we put an end to this aggression, we should open the way for the Middle East settlement. In the final declaration this was mentioned in passing. But nevertheless, we had had a very serious discussion on this, and later it quickly led to the Madrid Conference.

Q: Did you think the crisis would end in fighting, or be settled peacefully?

Gorbachev: It think both myself and Bush thought at that stage that out joint statement at Helsinki and the Security Council position would force Iraq to accept it.

Q: After the Helsinki summit you embarked on your own peace negotiations using Primakov -- you sent him off to Baghdad to have talks with Saddam and Tariq Aziz. Did you feel that there was too much emphasis in the West on solving the conflict militarily?

Gorbachev: There are a lot of myths and rumors about this. We thought the initiative corresponded to what we had agreed in Baghdad and that it corresponded to the Security Council decisions. This is why all these rumors are false. Nothing was changing in our position. This is the first point. Second, he US President knew about our initiative, because on the eve of its announcement and on the eve of the trip I had a phone conversation with Bush. He said that he would support such initiative if it does not change the agreed Soviet position. The President and his closest advisors were completely aware of all our steps.

Q: Did you feel that in the West there wasn't enough attention being paid to finding a diplomatic solution?

Gorbachev: I do not think that you should put all in the West into one pile. There was a big difference in positions. President Mitterrand to the very end was fighting for a political solution. We were in very close contact with him. The majority of the leaders preferred a non-military solution. Political and economic pressure to find political settlement. It was very important to show that the most serious conflicts could be solved politically.

I do not think President Bush was all for the military solution. He always emphasized that he would have been satisfied with the political settlement.

I think it was the government of England and Margaret Thatcher that from the very beginning preferred the military action. That was their style. I do not want to condemn them, but I did not share that approach. We already had the experience of Afghanistan, Vietnam, Namibia, Nicaragua. It only led to bigger conflicts, bigger casualties, bigger destruction, bigger military spending, when we neglected our environment, food and population problems everywhere in the world.

We saw that when we started to treat those problems politically, it was possible to untangle those knots. Afghanistan and all of that was before the Gulf events. That was an example of acting together with the Americans and we had the Geneva decisions that opened ways to end that war. Ten years of that war showed what force and war were. I don't exclude the fact sometimes it is necessary to intervene militarily with peacekeeping forces to separate confronting sides. Anything could happen, but I would never give priority to the military decision.

Look at Yugoslavia, look at the military priority there. And here again Margaret Thatcher called for bombing Sarajevo. It is interesting why she called for bombing Sarajevo, but never bombed Belfast. The conflict in Northern Ireland lasted for 25 years, and it was solved not by bombing but by political initiative. No matter where we go - to the distant past, to Yugoslavia, to Northern Ireland, to the post-Soviet territory - in talking about the conflict in the Gulf we can look at it in the context of other experiences, I think that I was right, and the Soviet leadership was right insisting on that. The American position, the position of the American President was very well thought through, well weighed and responsible.

Q: As the air war was starting on January 16, there are some reports that you tried to send the last message to Saddam in Baghdad. Can you tell me about this?

Gorbachev: I do not remember in detail the content of that letter, but we told them to immediately pull out the troops from Kuwait. It didn't produce any results. They thought they would be able to resist, using the environment - the oil wells, use any possible means to make the world shudder. I think that was their reasoning. They were adventurers.

When the bombings started I had many questions. I saw the bombing went beyond military forces in Kuwait. Baghdad, the industrial places, sites of possible nuclear research were being bombed. I pictured the destruction of the country and its industrial potential. That was beyond the mandate of the Security Council, that gave me an opportunity to contact the Iraqi leadership again and try to bring them to their senses telling them where they were headed.

I told President Bush at that time: "You know, George, you should think about not how to get in this war, but how to get out of it so that we do not bring into motion the Arab world." And if the United Nations saw that we were not only trying to stop the aggression but to ruin the Iraqi state--that the casualties among peaceful Iraqi citizens are numerous-then we were exceeding their mandate. That was our conversation.

I do not know whether they were trying to outsmart me, but we had quite a large degree of sincerity between us. But nevertheless, the Americans and the President agreed with my reasoning. I think that might have influenced the position of the President which in a way is proved by the fact that they were able to stop even at the stage after the land war started. We still had a chance on the last night -- as a result of very intensive contacts through the ambassador and others during the bombing. We finally received their answer that agreed to stop the hostilities and make an immediate pullout. I told this to the Americans, but I told them this at midnight Moscow time. But at 7 o'clock even though they knew about our conversation they gave the command to start the land war.

I think this proposal to stop the war and start the political settlement was taken as a result of the Soviet Union's initiative. But for the American leadership, that would have been equal to losing World War II. Prestige was the main thing. I think it was possible to reach political settlement but, as I was told on the phone, the troops had already started their advance.

The only satisfaction that I have is that those troops reached a certain boundary, stopped and didn't go into the heart of Iraqi territory. I think events might have developed differently. But the Americans, not to lose the initiative, gave to Hussein 48-hour ultimatum, instead of accepting what he alredy had told us from Baghdad.

Q: Let me ask you in a little bit more detail about those telephone conversations because they are very important particularly the last two calls that you had with President Bush on October 21 and 23. Can you tell me, personally what you said to Bush and what he said to you?

Gorbachev: All was within the framework that Bush was anxious for us not to begin our own separate policy behind the back of the United States and the Security Council. In those conversations I confirmed to Bush our unchanged position. On the other hand, I tried to convince Bush that since military action was unavoidable it should be reduced to a minimum, and that we should not waste our time and try to find a political solution. He said to me: "I am interested in that, understand me, I am interested to settle it politically, but we can't do it so far." I told him not to lose the will, and not to hurry, and continuing to act together to try to find the political solution.

There was nothing special there, nothing secret that you can't disclose. Everything was within that framework. We were worried in the Soviet Union that the Americans and the Western leaders were trying to push the military solution, and the Americans were anxious for us not to begin a double play behind their back. I think all of this could have been present, it was a very serious moment for the international relations, but nevertheless we were able to cope with the situation.

Q: What about Saddam Hussein?

Gorbachev: I can tell you very little about Saddam. I had all the information about the regime, and what Iraq was like. But when you have a personal meeting then all this looks entirely different. I had only one meeting with Saddam Hussein. He is a very refined politician, not a simple man, one shouldn't imagine him as a fool. He plays a very big game in the region and in the Arab world, and on the world stage, his team is good, but his regime is repressive and on the verge of state terrorism. It's a very dangerous, adventurous team, which uses demagoguery and existing contradictions to stay afloat.

Iraq and its people, have to go their way, and decide their problems themselves. I know that some people told Bush --have the troops go to Baghdad and get Saddam Hussein's head. I do not think that in politics one should think this way. We know what this might lead to. If the events in the Middle East and in the world are going to develop towards greater security, settlement of conflicts, tension, creation of security guarantees for all the states, then I think there is no way out for this regime, they will have to deal with that.

Q: Do you think that the Americans should have gone to Baghdad?

Gorbachev: I don't think either we, or the Security Council, would have supported such a course of action. And, the Americans would have become isolated -- it would have exploded the international coalition. I don't think the United States had this idea. They had bombed the palace, including targeted bombings. One could see their desire not only to ruin the military objects but also to get Saddam. But to make that kind of decision would have meant to accept Saddam's logic.

Q: What was your initial reaction on hearing Kuwait had been invaded by Iraq?

Gorbachev: A surprise. An absurd decision. That action could have been done only by an adventurer or a person who did not have a sense of reality.

We had Malta behind us....the unification of Germany. The cold war split was being overcome. International relations were being freed from ideological confrontation. Nuclear arms were being reduced. So this action seemed done with an idea to explode all this. This is why it surprised me and angered me. I resented it.

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