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Powell on the Second Gulf War

Post 9/11 diplomacy and how the United States came to the conclusion to take military action in Iraq. 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 of the Aspen Institute I'm here with General Colin Powell and we're going to talk about the Second Gulf War under President George W Bush the second president Bush and this was after 9/11 after Afghanistan and momentum was building to go in and take out Saddam Hussein and what we thought were his weapons of mass destruction you were considered one who was more eager to let diplomacy play out whereas others had almost in some cases made the decision that they wanted to invade Iraq even before the whole discussion got serious explain your thinking and theirs well there was some of the administration who wanted to go take out Iraq even before 9/11 but my discussions with the president before 9/11 with respect to Iraq is that this is a this is a contained problem and so we should be careful about getting ourselves into this we have Southern watch planes flying in the North planes flying in the South over Iraq watching the place and the president agree with that but then 9/11 changed the equation for the president he thought that with the weapons of mass destruction that the intelligence community was insisting were there presented a new threat to the United States if any of those weapons got in the hands of terrorists such as the Asama bin Laden crowd and so increasingly President was asking for military plans if they became necessary it was on August 5th of that year of the year before that I met with him because I was concerned that he was not getting a full picture and it was my fault if he was not getting a full picture and I wanted to correct it and I said to him I have no doubt about our military ability to do that but you need to understand the aftermath we will own that country we will be taking out of government and we are a replacement until we can find a replacement and we're gonna break it and 25 million people will be standing around looking at you and so if there's some way to solve this weapons of mass destruction problem without invading we ought to seek it and the offended party is the United Nations and it's resolutions so let's take this problem the United Nations and see if there's not a way to solve it and for the next seven weeks I worked the United Nations and we got a unanimous resolution calling and Saddam Hussein to account for everything he'd been doing and give us the documentation of it other than the technicality that the UN was the aggrieved party with their larger reasons you wanted to have a broad international consensus rather than just do this alone yes because if the president felt that the Iraqis had not satisfied the conditions of the resolution the very fact that we gave them a chance to do so gave us the ability thereafter to put together a coalition or to least say to the world we tried we didn't just have a war because we had nothing else to do that day we tried to solve this with the other tools and toolbox than we talked about and so that was very much in my mind was I said to the president if we get the resolution and the Iraqis past the get-out-of-jail test fine we solve the problem but if they don't then you have given the world a reason through this resolution as to why military force might be necessary he went to the United Nations presented the evidence that there were weapons of mass destruction some of that evidence ended up being flawed what did you learn from our from that failure of intelligence that should be applied in the future be very cautious with intelligence make sure that it is multiple sourced make sure that every alternative to what you're being told has been looked at that intelligence was flawed it should have been known that it was flawed the two Commission's that looked into the failure both concluded that analysis was not good I have to remind everybody because most vividly in the minds of everybody is my presentation to the UN and the 5th of February of 2003 people tend not to remember that three months earlier the Congress faced with the same intelligence more of it had passed a resolution not unanimously but with a serious majority telling the president if you have to use military force to it and the president was using the same information that I presented in his speeches and in the State of the Union but mine was the most visible I've even had members of tell me that they voted for the resolution based on my speech and I have to remind them no you didn't you voted three months earlier and so I fully supported the president's decision to use military force and I've never stepped back from that my problem with the war was the way it was executed and after the war was after the war yeah there was not a proper use of resources to deal with the aftermath Baghdad fell rather quickly which I fully expected it to remember we had cut that army in half a few years earlier but we didn't anticipate what might happen once there's no government we didn't have sufficient force on the scene nor did they have a mission those that were on the scene to secure the place did argue the more forces and a clearer mission I argued with the commander general Tommy Franks a little out of channels Secretary of State but a former general talking to a general and said Tommy you think you have enough forces for what you might face I didn't know what would what would he would face but I thought the force was small compared to what you might face was this a case of the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld trying to modify the Powell doctrine and prove that we could do things with lighter use of force that is what general franks says in his memoirs he essentially took my advice and said that General Powell's of a different era and that we don't need this much force and that was the judgment that they made I disagreed with it and I would continue to disagree with it the one hook in here is that the force that really was going to be rebuilt to secure the country was the Iraqi army but to my astonishment and with no prior knowledge that this is going to happen the Pentagon decided with ambassador Bremer to totally dismiss the Iraqi army on the argument that most of them had gone anyway but the structure was still there you could if we filled it and the people who were not allowed to come back in ended up writing for their pay when they got their pay they all kind of ran off to become insurgents so we needed the surge in 2003 not 2006 and so in retrospect was the Iraq war a mistake remains to be seen seriously and I'm not ducking the question but I am ducking the question because I don't know it reminds me of when Henry Kissinger asla docto about the French Revolution and whether it was good we're still waiting sad too early to tell but the reality is that they have a an elected government we have built up an army that has not done well lately but it remains to be seen if in ten years from now the government is functioning they have satisfied the conflicts between Kurds Shias and Sunnis and the economies flowing with oil then one could argue that there was a success thank you