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Lawrence Eagleburger: Not removing Saddam Hussein 'probably a mistake'

Lawrence Eagleburger served as U.S. Secretary of State under the first President Bush.
Lawrence Eagleburger served as U.S. Secretary of State under the first President Bush.  

Lawrence S. Eagleburger was United States Secretary of State under George H.W. Bush from 1992 to the end of the administration. He was an executive assistant to Henry Kissinger during the Nixon administration, and helped set up the National Security Council staff. During the Carter administration, he was ambassador to Yugoslavia, and was an Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs during the Reagan administration. He joined the chat room from Charlottesville, Virginia.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Secretary Lawrence Eagleburger, and welcome.


CNN: Why didn't the United States insist that Saddam Hussein be removed from power during the Gulf War?

EAGLEBURGER: Well, as you know, I was in the State Department then, deputy Secretary of State, and it's complicated, but I'll try. First of all, we didn't know where he was. It would have been continuing on the ground in Iraq with our military for some period of time to try to find him.

Secondly, we had declared that our purpose was to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait. We never said our purpose was to replace the Iraqi leadership. We had accomplished what we said we would do.

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Third, we would have had a very serious time, particularly with our Arab associates in the coalition, if we had tried to get rid of him, or had gotten rid of him. They were very much opposed to that, although they were more than willing to support us in driving Iraq out of Kuwait.

Finally, President Bush had said, and he was absolutely correct, was that the last thing he wanted, was to see the United States get into Iraq or that part of the world, and then stay there in force. The Arabs wouldn't have liked it, Americans wouldn't have liked it. And if we'd run him out, it would have been our responsibility to find a replacement for Saddam Hussein, help them set up a new government, and that could have kept us there for some period of time.

Now, having said that -- and I was one of those in the government who supported the decisions of the President, and believed they were correct -- but having said that, in retrospect, I'm not sure we were correct. There is no question that Saddam has been a pain in the neck ever since. There is little question in my mind that he has supported terrorism, including Osama bin Laden, with money and support. There is no question in my mind that if given a chance, Saddam will again try to become the bully on the block in his part of the world. Maybe we could have prevented all of that if we had driven him out of power when we invaded Iraq. But I emphasize "maybe." We have no idea who would have replaced him. We have no idea how committed the replacement might be to continuing Saddam's policies.

But again, I guess I would say that in the end, while I thoroughly understand and totally supported President Bush's decision not to pursue Saddam personally, I am now prepared to admit that it was probably a mistake. But, please understand, it would be a close call in either case. Not removing him has presented him with a number of problems. Removing him would have also presented us with a host of problems.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Sir, as evidence continues to point toward Iraq as a major player in the world of terrorism, will the United States have the will to move on Iraq?

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Eagleburger, would you support a conflict with Iraq if there was proof of their involvement in terrorist sponsorship?

EAGLEBURGER: The answer to the second question is yes. But the two questions point directly to what (...) will be a very serious problem for us, and that is how do we move against other states if they have supported terrorists, and particularly if they're still supporting them. That's easier said than accomplished. First of all, a number of those countries that have gone along with us in this work against the Taliban and so forth will not be enthused about extending this to states like Iraq. So, we'll have serious problems with current coalitions if we try to expand against the Iraqis, the Syrians, the Libyans, the Iranians, or whomever else, because this really is a major escalation.

Now, we've declared you're either for us or against us in this issue. You either agree that we must pursue terrorism, or you are a terrorist. If we mean that (and I think we should), then the answer is that if Iraq is seen to be involved, then yes, we must go after Iraq. And again, that's easier said than done. When I say "go after," do I mean Air Force? Ground troops? What does that entail? I can't answer now, except to say that when you get to where you're beginning to study how to go after these states, it becomes difficult. You have many questions.

For example, we simply do not have the military forces at our command today that the first President Bush had when he decided to move against Iraq, because of the invasion of Kuwait. So, amongst other things, it brings you right up against the question of the size of the defense budget, the size of our military, how much all that would cost, and if you're going to expand the military back to a point where we are capable of handling these challenges, and I think we can do that, but it will be expensive and time-consuming, and it will take the support of the American people.

So, you have to ask yourself if you as an American are prepared to defend and support that? Are your friends and colleagues prepared? In the past, when the towers in New York were destroyed, or Pearl Harbor, we always have reacted with tremendous strength, tremendous will, and have been prepared to spend and do whatever was necessary to protect our freedom and independence. But those were always a different kind of war. Are we prepared to be as tough and as committed when we are conducting this war against terrorism which is so different from what we've had to do in the past? It's a serious question, and I don't have an answer. I only know that I believe in my country and her people, and therefore, I think we can do it.

If I had any questions, I must tell you that the way the wonderful people of New York City conducted themselves after the September 11 attack was superb, and we saw the best of what America can be, and it's not the sophisticated intellectuals who sit at universities and natter amongst themselves. It was the policeman, the fireman, the average New Yorker who demonstrated the real guts of this country. I don't know about the rest of you, but I was very proud of them. If this sounds like a sermon from the mount, I don't quite mean it that way, but we must never forget how superbly those people performed at a time of great crisis.

CNN: Shifting to Afghanistan: What are your opinions about the shape of Afghanistan's government post-Taliban?

EAGLEBURGER: If I could answer that question, I ought to be ruler of the world. It's almost unpredictable. If you take a look at Afghan history, usually they have united to defend against an outside enemy, and as soon as that's accomplished, they turn and start killing each other. This internal instability is a constant invitation to outside forces to come in. Now, can the Afghans avoid it this time? We will have to see. Certainly the United States is trying to assure that there's no internal civil war this time, but our influence is very limited. I have to think that after the awful years of the Taliban, most Afghans would want to remain at peace, and get the benefits of the new freedom they've now found. But I can't be sure that old habits won't reassert themselves.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Originally, the power to identify terrorist groups operating in the U.S. was given to the Secretary of State; now it has been moved to the Department of Defense. What difference does this make in term of who is likely to be singled out?

EAGLEBURGER: Well, I think you have misdefined the problem, with all respect. I was Secretary of State once, and I can assure you I never thought I had the kind of authority you're describing. What the State Department was ordered to do by the Congress was to identify what we thought to be terrorist groups. They were then put on a list, but the State Department had nothing to do with any enforcement activities against the terrorists in a military way.

Now, having shifted the authority, well, not so much to name terrorist groups, but to act against them, having given that to the Defense Department, it seems to me perfectly legitimate. What it means is what President Bush says... we are now at war with terrorism. Before, we were not. We would react on occasion to some terrorist act, but there was no coherent long term U.S. approach to the problem of terrorism. Now that we've declared this war, who better to manage it than the Defense Department? So, I think what we've seen is a president who has announced to the world that he is determined to use whatever American resources are necessary for whatever period of time, to destroy this new cancer.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Eagleburger, how do you think President Bush is handling all this?

EAGLEBURGER: I think he so far deserves an A+, but don't misunderstand me now. I think we all will have to reserve judgment until we see how seriously he has meant this claim that this is a long-term objective, namely the destruction of terrorism, and how ready he is to keep our nose to the grindstone as a nation in pursuit of that objective. A lot of us Americans will get tired of this fight after a while, and start wanting to find some compromise, which would in effect mean that the terrorists had won the war.

What will be critical is to see whether President Bush has the leadership ability to keep us all on track over time. We need to remember that this is not just an Afghan war, but in some way or another, we'll have to deal with terrorists and terrorism across the world, and including the United States, and it will mean getting rough with a number of other countries who have supported terrorism. The question will be how thoroughly that war has been fought out, and how thoroughly it is pursued, and the degree to which the American people will continue to support it. I think President Bush is up to that task, but to say that he's done very well so far is not to say that you can assume in this very complicated future that he will [continue to] do as well. I certainly hope he does as well, but I can't be sure of it.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you consider it imperative to follow through on finding Osama bin Laden? What is your reaction to the $25 million bounty by the U.S. government on Osama bin Laden?

EAGLEBURGER: Absolutely imperative. He must be found, dead or alive. If alive, he has to be tried. But, that's only the beginning of the story, not the end -- this is a long-time war, and Osama bin Laden is only the tip of that iceberg. But we have made so much of him, and he has made so much of himself, that we have no choice but to find him and bring him to justice. As for the 25 million dollar bounty, I don't have any trouble with that. He certainly is worth 25 million dollars if we can get him off the streets, and it will be a real press to see whether all of his colleagues are really as devoted to their leader as they profess to be. Twenty-five million is a very strong incentive, even if you have to pay taxes on it, which I'm not sure they would. So yes, we must get bin Laden, and if it takes 25 million to so that, I have no problem with it.

CNN: Turning now to the Middle East, the policy that Secretary of State Colin Powell set out yesterday is basically a restatement of the Mitchell principles. Does this reaffirmation of U.S. international policy help or hinder the Middle East conflict?

EAGLEBURGER: It probably helps marginally. It's not new, as you point out, but what's important about it, I think, is that it is saying on the part of the Bush administration that we're going to be engaged again. We were not, during the first few months of the administration, and that had some bad repercussions, especially among Arabs. This statement by Powell may calm down Palestinians a bit, as they wait for us to come up with some solutions.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Dr. Eagleburger, has the United States changed its policy in the Middle East?

EAGLEBURGER: No, but I think you will find that this administration is slightly less pro-Israeli than the past Clinton administration. Secretary Powell's speech indicated an attempt to be "even-handed," and that almost always means somewhat less support for Israel, somewhat more sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Having said that, the fundamentals of American foreign policy with regard to Israel, have not changed, and will not change.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Secretary. Eagleburger, do you think a Palestinian state will help cease hostilities in the Middle East?

EAGLEBURGER: Perhaps. It's a very open question. It really will depend very much on whether that Palestinian state is prepared to live at peace with Israel. You must remember that it's been a principle of the Palestinians for years that Israel must disappear from the face of the earth. Now, that's been moderated in the past few years, but there are still many Palestinians, I think, who really don't want to live at peace with Israel. So the question is whether a Palestinian state is able to control those people, or whether it will get in bed with them, and increase the threat to Israel. I think it's still an open question, and will depend very much on how the Palestinians come to view Israel. Are they prepared to live with Israel?

CHAT PARTICIPANT: The next peace talks are to be in Berlin, Germany, is this a good location?

EAGLEBURGER: I don't really know... I haven't thought about it much. Berlin brings back all sorts of memories and connotations, I know. But in the end, I don't really think it makes very much difference.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Eagleburger, would this peace process proceed faster if America backs out and the UN steps in as negotiator?

EAGLEBURGER: No. The UN is simply not capable of dealing with that Israeli-Palestinian problem. The Israelis don't trust the UN, and with good reason. The UN bureaucracy is just not built to handle a crisis like this. Unfortunately, everyone is far better off if the United States is directly involved, because the Israelis do trust the United States, and so do the Palestinians, basically because they know that Israel will agree to a peace settlement only if it is confident that they will have the support of the United States in its implementation. So, if we like it or not, I'm afraid we continue to be very important.

CNN: Do you have any closing comments to share with us?

EAGLEBURGER: Just that this is my first experience with a chat group. My abilities on a computer are pretty pathetic, so I did not understand how useful these things can be! But I must tell you that the questions were extremely good, and probably a lot better than the answers! So anyway, it's been a lot of fun for me.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today


Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger joined the chat room by telephone, and CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview which took place on Tuesday, November 20, 2001.


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