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Powell and the First Gulf War

How the United States balanced the use of sanctions, diplomacy and military force during the First Gulf War. General Colin Powell in conversation with Walter Isaacson, President and CEO of The Aspen Institute.

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Video transcript

I'm Walter Isaacson from the aspen institute and i'm here with General Colin Powell form a four-star general national security advisor chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and secretary of state during the first Iraq war under President George HW Bush you were chairman of the joint chiefs of staff when that war came about tell us about how you balance the question of using sanctions using diplomacy and using military force to take a rack out of Kuwait where a racket invaded Kuwait once Iraq invaded Kuwait and claimed it as its own in a very short period of time president bush along with Secretary of Defense Cheney and Secretary of State Baker were able to begin creating a political coalition and getting authority from Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region to send United States military forces into the region their first mission has given to me by President Bush was to make sure that the Iraqi army did not come south in the Saudi Arabia we worried about Saudi Arabia then the question became okay Saudi Arabia is now secure because we have American troops there what do we do about the Iraqis in Kuwait and the president's decision was to use diplomatic efforts sanctions economic pressure and the UN and the force of the international condemnation of Iraq for this action and while we were doing that we kept building the force up to make sure that Saudi Arabia was secure but it was the president who said we were going to try to avoid a war and I fully supported that as the general Schwarzkopf and my colleagues on the Joint Chiefs of Staff it was an early November of 1990 that I returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia to talk to general Schwarzkopf about our plans and I said to the president mr. president Saudi Arabia is now totally secure if you want us to keep thinking about going in kicking the Iraqis out of Kuwait I want to double the size of the force at general Schwarzkopf request we talked about it he said I want to retain that option and we double the size of the force from 250 to 500 thousand and that's the number of troops that we had maximum during the entire Vietnam War so you're using significant force to make sure you accomplished and the number really was 700,000 because of coalition contributions it's hard to believe we had a Syrian division and an Egyptian division that's hard to imagine now isn't it we had the Russians on our side as the Cold War was ending in the Soviet Union was about to disappear President Bush with advice from both general Schwarzkopf myself mr. Cheney Baker everybody kept trying to find a diplomatic solution but as the force built up to 500,000 most of us were coming to the conclusion not sure we want a diplomatic solution at this point we know we can win why not get rid of this problem once and for all but as you'll recall Walter up until the very end the president was trying he sent Jim Baker to Geneva to talk to the prime minister of Iraq Tariq Aziz even when Gorbachev said don't launch the ground attack yet President had to listen to that and gave Iraq another two days to pull out which they didn't and then the ground attack started concurrent with you building up with general Schwarzkopf the forces Secretary of State James Baker was building up an international coalition that you just mentioned why was that so important to have Syria and other countries on our side because we could and we were able to pull except for I think the Palestinian Authority and Jordan just about everybody else in the world was with us this was part of sanctions political sanctions saying the Sodom Hussein hey what is it you don't understand about this the whole world's against you except for a couple and won't you blink and he said no so we dropped the hammer on him but don't you believe that pulling together a big international coalition like that is a significant part of doing it right yes and sometimes you can pull a coalition together as great as that sometimes you can't you were willing to give sanctions a little bit longer you were more on the side of letting sanctions work and that even general Schwarzkopf he has a little group explain that not all up diplomats one that was on our side of this issue was the president and mr. Cheney frankly general Schwarzkopf and I are combat veterans we don't like war war has unintended consequences you never know what's really going to happen and so if this problem could have been solved to the president's political satisfaction to the satisfaction of the UN and all the other parties involved then we were for it but that started to become a diminishing value as the force got bigger and bigger and bigger and the concern that arose just before we started the action was that look if we let this guy get away now after we've assembled 500,000 troops or 700,000 he's still as powerful as he was before and people forget that when we prosecuted that war when it did start it was never our intention to destroy totally the Iraqi army why Iran so you were trying to keep a balance of power in the region between the two traditional rivals Iraq and Iraq they had been fighting for eight years it was almost too bad that we had a ceasefire which freed Iraq to threaten Kuwait and so had we gone into Baghdad and overthrown Saddam Hussein totally that would have led to a situation in which the balance of power between those two nations and their rivalry we would have tipped the balance towards Iran it's hypothetical I can't tell you what might have happened in 1991 at the end of the first Gulf War Saddam Hussein began a massacre of the Shiites there was some who said we should have gone in and protected them for partly for humanitarian reasons and others who felt it was not part of our mission and this was an internal situation in Iraq President George HW Bush came down on that second side that it was not something that was part of our mission explained that he had no intention of going into Iraq to start dealing with all the problems that were arising in Iraq secondly it was the Shia uprising that created the massacre if you call it that I can't use that word i don't know if that's what i would call it and criticism was levied on the military and Schwarzkopf in particular because we allowed armed helicopters who continued to fly that that I don't think is a fair one because he had more than sufficient ground forces to take care of the she is and that she is were not equipped with weapons or anything else that would have allowed them to have a successful insurrection against the government in Baghdad that still had power and a military and so that wouldn't have worked but it was a bad scene and it was a bad scene in the North when all the courage went running into the mountains the same reason and we launched an operation there as a humanitarian operation to get them out of the mountains operation provide comfort and we've created a line my eye I and General Jack Galvin our supreme Allied commander in Europe just drew a line one Sunday morning and said tell the Iraqis not to go north of this line because we're bringing the Kurds back and that really became the de facto border the classic statement of American realism when it came to the Kurds prior to that was when in a similar situation Henry Kissinger said foreign policy should not be confused with missionary work meaning we're not going to go in and protect the Kurds explain that since that threat of realism and to the extent do you agree with it I can't totally agree with it I can't apply to every situation that might come along in the future it's a judgment the president has to make as to whether or not the humanitarian crisis that he's facing should be dealt with or not and sometimes you do it even if it isn't necessarily in our foreign policy interest but you just have to do it and so when you find you have to do one of those such as what we did for the Kurds we fixed it so that we're going to bring them out of the mountains get him resettled and then make sure the Iraqis do not come in there and that was all the president wanted to do and that's what we did you were the first to have to fight a war with CNN and have a televised war we sent the entire camera crews inside right now we're preparing to put on our gas maps that we've been told there are sounds of planes overhead we don't know whose planes there are but air raid sirens are going off insistently there are military convoys on both sides of me we're being told to get off this platform and get inside into the air raid shelter immediately but right now everyone's been training for this how did that affect your decisions and how does that even affect things like humanitarian pressures when people are watching on TV what's happening I really was the first chairman to go through this and it's interesting because people have often said to me that first night of the war was something I was watching it on CNN it really was the first completely open televised war and we had to figure out how to deal with it how to embed reporters who were demanding access to the lure and there was criticism as to whether we should have embedded or not but we did it and I think it worked out pretty well reporters weren't happy but the American people were satisfied with what we had done but that led me to a set of new Powell rules which I've used repeatedly that said there are five audiences that I now had to think of because of media coverage the first audience is the reporter not important he's just asking the question pay no attention to him once the questions asked second the American people who are watching this remember that's what you talking to third the 50 countries who might have troops involved in this and they're all watching to see how you're using your troops before thiz your enemy your enemy is watching and the fifth and always in my heart the most important the troops the troops are now watching their in their aircraft carriers or out there listening or watching or being told by their parents what's going on thank you