Was the 1990 Gulf War Justified? – the Last Interview of Ambassador Joe Wilson pt3/6

On Reality Asserts Itself, with Paul Jay:

Amb. Wilson defends the U.S. leadership of the 1990 UN “counter-invasion” after Iraq invaded Kuwait, as a legal and necessary action; he contrasts that with the 2003 Iraq war he says was illegal.

Wilson’s wife Valerie Plame was outed as a CIA officer by VP Cheney’s office after Wison exposed lies that lead up to the Iraq War. The story was depicted in the movie “Fair Game”, Wilson was played by Sean Penn. Joe Wilson died Sept. 2019 PT (03/06)

Transcript

Paul Jay

Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself. I’m Paul J. We’re continuing our discussion with Ambassador Joe Wilson. Ambassador, in the end of our last segment, I asked you whether you think it was possible that Dick Cheney would knowingly allow deaths of American citizens 9/11 to happen. And your answer was, not that you were convinced that he had, although you think it’s a legitimate discussion, but that fifteen years earlier you would have said you wouldn’t believe it, but now you could.

Joe Wilson

Yeah, I think that’s a fair assessment. I think like most Americans who saw 9/11 happen couldn’t believe  that the government had any advance knowledge of it, or was in any way implicated. And I have to say, 15 years later, I’m not, I still can’t quite take you there. I can’t tell you that. Yes, Cheney knew. But I also can’t say with the same level of confidence that my government would never do that knowingly. And that’s really a Cheney, Cheney and Bush, and that crowd. And of course, now we see their offspring in the Trump administration. So now I’m not sure what we can believe anymore from—

Paul Jay

When Pence was asked, ”Who do you want to model your vice presidency after?” He said, Dick Cheney.”

Joe Wilson

Yeah. Yes. 

Paul Jay

Well go back to your childhood, because you grew up in a family that never would have thought much of what you’ve witnessed was possible. You write in your book about your grandfather was called a colonel, and you grew up in a family where military tradition was very strong, very much during the Cold War. And the amount of propaganda about America, the defender of freedom and light, and the horrible Soviets who were the devil.

    And you go from growing up in that kind of household and culture to someone who you write in your book, you write,”When in 1967, Mohammad Ali declared that he had nothing against the Viet Cong. It made sense to me and my friends, even as it sent chills down the spines of our parents.” Further down you write, “We did not trust the government to tell us the truth and the credibility gap, epitomizing  the gulf between the official pronouncements versus truth on the ground in Vietnam, pitted parents against kids in my family just as it did in many other households around the country.” How do you get from your childhood, where I would assume America would not do such things, you would believe to someone who sees well—

Joe Wilson

 My family wasn’t quite as rigid as you might portray them. My dad was the last Marine pilot to fly off of the USS Franklin before it got hit by a Japanese bomber. So he flew these corsairs off of aircraft carriers. And he grew up in a generation where if your government said to do something, you saluted and did it. But we grew up and we lived in Europe when I was going to high school. So we were exposed to a lot of different cultures and a lot of different thinking. And I give my parents enormous credit for that. Now, when Vietnam happened, there was this. Yeah, there was this you gotta salute and do your job. And  I went to university in ‘67, and we were the class that really sort of was at break between those who saluted and went off to war and those who instead went off to Chicago to riot in the streets and who, in our case, in Santa Barbara, burned the Bank of America and had protests and everything.

Paul Jay

Did you join protests? 

Joe Wilson

Yeah, I was not a protest leader, but I walked through the bank before it got lit up for the last time. And I was just talking to an old friend of mine. We walked through it together, and we were in the middle of the bank. And all these kids are trying to light up these curtains, putting furniture in the middle of the building and trying to light that up and long distance calls their parents and everything. And we took a look at it and said, “This might not be the best place for us to be tonight. So I didn’t take a bullet for the protest, but I was there. And we did a lot at UCSB in those years. We beat back the oil companies on offshore drilling. After they left, one of the derricks blew. We started the first Black Studies program, I think in the country at that time. We started, I think, one of the first Chicano studies programs., one of the first environmental studies. So our school was really very active. 

Paul Jay

So, growing up in such a patriotic household. And your parents’ instincts are, you know, your government, your loyalty, your government, your government’s gone to war, you should be loyal to it. And you come to understand how much of the Vietnam War was based on lies from the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which was the people who used the term,”false flag,” to that completely concocted casualty numbers and so on.

Joe Wilson

I think it was as simple as a quote used earlier. “I got nothing against those Vietcong.” It was as simple as Muhammad Ali said it was. I got nothing against those Vietcong. 

Paul Jay

So why do you then join a foreign service for a country that does the Vietnam War? 

Joe Wilson

Listen, I love my country. I think we’ve done much more good than harm. And I think we’ve, and I think also if you want to change things, you’ve got to be part of it. As Lyndon Johnson used to say about his political opponents, he’d much rather have ’em inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in. And if you really want to get change, you had to get inside the tent. You just had to be part of a tent. You had to be inside. And plus, it was a great way to see the world. It was a great adventure. And  we did a lot of good. We do a lot of good. I’m not ashamed of my country. I’m not ashamed of our stewardship of the international system since World War Two. Have  there been a lot of mistakes? Oh, yes, sure. Well, we are the only ones to make mistakes? Nah. Could we have done better? Sure. And I think, again, as is the Gulf War, the Gulf War was a case of Saddam Hussein violating international law in invading and overthrowing a sovereign of a neighboring state. We handled what was in a kinetic, but not existential threat to our national security in the aftermath of the Cold War, in a way that I think was absolutely exemplary. We went to the U.N., we worked very, very hard with our friends. We worked very hard with those that we had been rivals with for 50 years, with the Russians. People don’t know this, but there were thousands of Russians in southern Iraq. They were building power plants for the Iraqis,  and they were at real risk. If there  was an outbreak of violence, they would have been right in the middle of the fighting. And, you know, their government was as concerned about them as we were about about our citizens. And we worked very, very closely together, even though our relationships were new, rather fragile. But we, I think we forged a sort of post-Cold War era that I wish had held up. 

Paul Jay

You used the phrase just a couple of minutes ago. It wasn’t the next, it wasn’t an imminent threat or existential threat. It was an indirect threat. But then if it’s not an imminent threat, why go to war? 

Joe Wilson

Now, it was not an existential threat, but what it was, it was a crisis of international proportions that needed to be managed. And it had to be managed from the outside, and the system to manage it, was the system that we use the United Nations, and everything that the legitimacy of the U.N.system brings to bear on a on a crisis like that. We went there. We got 12 different resolutions, including a use of all appropriate means to expel him from Kuwait. Our mission was very, very limited. It was not to go to Baghdad to overthrow Saddam. It was to expel him from Kuwait. We stopped at the border. Again, there were some things that were probably not done very well. 

Paul Jay

There’s a lot of controversy about the American Ambassador’s meeting with Saddam before the Iraqi invasion in Kuwait. The Iraqis released a transcript later which suggested that the way she spoke sounded like it could have been a green light, that the Americans wouldn’t really oppose an invasion of Kuwait, that there was some understanding the Kuwaitis at a time were overproducing oil. The oil had gone down to 10 bucks a barrel. Iraq had tremendous debts from the Iraq-Iran war. And they (ed:Kuwait) were apparently doing this drilling, which 

Joe Wilson

slant drilling, 

Paul Jay

drilling to Iraqi oil fields. And in your book, you said that was no  intent on her part to give the Iraqis the idea—

Joe Wilson

And that’s not the message they took from that meeting.

Paul Jay

But you do have a paragraph in the book which says neither her nor a letter that came from President Bush, nor you, ever said if you invade, there’s going to be a military response and you better not do it. Why not? Why wasn’t why wasn’t it said?

Joe Wilson

Quite simply, we didn’t have a mutual defense pact with Kuwait. There was no legal rationale for us to react unilaterally in the event of an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. And so what she said in her meeting was to repeat what not just U.S., but what sort of international consensus talking points had been since these Arab borders were drawn by Gertrude Bell  in the 20s. And that is that we don’t take a position on your border dispute with your neighbor other than to encourage you in the strongest possible terms to solve it peacefully. And at the same time, all the neighbors in the Gulf region at that time were advising  us to go very slowly to not provoke Saddam. 

Paul Jay

So why not sanctions? Why not? I mean, so he’s occupied a broken internationa l law, clearly, invaded  a sovereign country, overthrown its leadership, clearly. But why does the response have to be war? Because you’re someone who has advocated that, you know, this shouldn’t be the first response.

Joe Wilson

And it wasn’t. 

Paul Jay

Because there were people at the time, including military leaders, who were saying, you know, give sanctions a try here. You don’t have to go to war right away. Because something like 200,000 Iraqis die in this war. 

Joe Wilson

We had sanctions up the wazoo on the Iraq’s during the entire period. We went back to the U.N. a dozen times. We had all the sanctions in the world we could put on the Iraqis. We went back to the U.N. We developed an international consensus. And it was really based on making the U.N. charter valid, a valid document and making the U.N. a valid institution. So we got all the, everything we needed. And remember, the war was very limited. It stopped at the borders edge. We went just as far as as the border. We didn’t go any further. So it was totally, in fact, one of the things that gave us enormous credibility was that we did, we we lived up to the limited mission we said we were going to do. And the Arabs at the time what they were most concerned about was what we were really plotting was an overthrow of the regime that we found to be unfriendly and not to our liking. And so when we stopped at the border, we were able then to bring the Arabs and the Israelis to Madrid and then to Oslo, because we had enormous credibility. We did what we said we were going to do, and we didn’t do anything more than that.

Paul Jay

 When Congress was going to vote on this there was this dramatic story. It turned out that Kuwait had hired, I think, for 11 million dollars Hills and Nolton to do PR for them. And one of this was this story of a young nurse who talked of Iraqi soldiers coming into an Iraqi hospital and taking infants out of incubators and throwing them on the floor. And it turned out, and this helped sway Congress in their vote, and it turned out she was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States and wasn’t even in Kuwait at the time. And the whole story was a crock. 

Kuwait Ambassador’s daughter

I was there. I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns. They took the babies out of incubators and left the children to die on the cold floor. 

Paul Jay

Doesn’t that concern you that a lot of this decision was made based on a fabrication? 

Joe Wilson

That’s not, that’s not what —-

Paul Jay

We’re talking congressional vote. 

Joe Wilson

No, that didn’t decide the congressional vote. That  was not it. It was a body of evidence. And it was  the persuasiveness of the argument we were able to make.And that was a very, very small part of it. Well, one of my many jobs, I was a congressional fellow up on the Hill, and I worked for Tom Foley when he was majority whip. And I worked with Al Gore when he was senator from Tennessee, and Al was one of those who sided with the president. And when you get a chance to talk to him, he will tell you that he was the one senior Democrat who was right on both the first Gulf War and on the Iraq war. He stood with the president on the Gulf War and against President Bush on the Iraq war. And the last person he talked to before he came to his decision, each case was me. So I’m really pretty familiar with how that debate went down and and how people lined up on it. And, you know, the baby story out of Kuwait was background noise, but it wasn’t decisive.

Paul Jay

What you distinguish between the first Iraq war and second was this issue of one, there was a U.N. resolution and two, United States kept within the resolution and didn’t move on to Baghdad and overthrow Saddam.

Joe Wilson

Well, more to the point that we did the Gulf War collectively as a world, the countries who we had in our coalition were as diverse as Muslim countries from Africa, like Niger to, you know, the European countries. The second Gulf War, it was us and the Brits and anybody else we’d sort of dragoon into the effort. The second war was us acting unilaterally. There was no basis, there was no basis legally, morally or in any other way for us to take the actions we did. Whereas the Gulf War was a way of trying to establish an international order in the post-Cold War era, as you deal with these sorts of regional conflicts that are best dealt with collectively because they don’t pose an existential threat to one particular country like us, 

Paul Jay

 One of the criticisms of the U.N. and its allies’ intervention in Kuwait, although it’s an invited intervention by what was the Kuwaiti government, was that they went beyond the U.N. resolution, that there was a massive bombing campaign in Iraq, particularly there was a big bombing campaign of Iraqi infrastructure. Perhaps 200,000 Iraqis died in the war. That’s certainly one of the numbers that have been,  seems to be validated. Do you think, however, the process got there that was multilateral and was done under the auspices of the U.N., but did the war itself go beyond that? 

Joe Wilson

Well, first of all, there was no American invasion. There was a map on American,  there was a an allied counter attack to the Iraqi invasion of a sovereign neighbor. And yet once you go to war, all bets are off. You go to war to win. Now, I cried when I saw the bombing of Baghdad. The shock and awe of it, and what they did. Aside from that, I really liked that they took down the building department of the telephone company because we’d run out hundreds of thousands of telephone bills talking to families and having our hostages talk to their families in the States. But if you’re not going to take heed of the 12 resolutions that were passed by the United Nations, you just simply can’t expect that this is going to be tiddlywinks. Somewhere in the desert south of Basra, this is a military action. It had an objective. The objective was to get Saddam to leave Kuwait. We gave him every opportunity to leave peacefully. I was part of the—-, when I got back from Baghdad, I did some bomb damage assessments in the basement of the Pentagon. I was not privy  to the strategy they employed. Other than that, we had given them the strategic sites at all our hostages have been placed in around the country. But make no mistake about it. War is not  beanbag. And if you’re prepared to take on the allied forces we had compiled and put into the theater, then you really don’t understand what’s going on. 

Paul Jay

I’m no military expert, but the critique was that  the allied forces led by the United States and an American general, had all the wherewithal to push the Iraqi troops out of Kuwait and didn’t have to do this big bombing campaign, especially against civilian infrastructure, and that much of the strategic objective became weakening Sadaam, not just push him out of Kuwait. 

Joe Wilson

Well, again, the processing of the military action was in the hands of the generals, and they did it the way they thought best to do. So. 

Paul Jay

What do you write in your book? Once the war started you felt confused.

Joe Wilson

 Oh, I hated it. Are you kidding? I lived cheek by jowl with the Iraqis for three years. When I was chargé, I would drive around the city without any security. But I was able to sort of meet with the Iraqis. The rug market, the copper market. They were as scared as anybody else was about what was going to happen to them. So, yeah. The confusion came from, man, we really wanted them to get out of Kuwait peacefully. And to a certain extent it was a sense of profound failure. Diplomacy had failed. I had failed. And people I knew were going to die. And it was, you know, how could you not be confused by it? 

Paul Jay

If the fundamental issue for the United States, for U.S. policy. I’m not saying you but U.S. policy, was upholding international law, this was not a government that was very good at following international law. 

Joe Wilson

Which government? 

Paul Jay

The Americans 

Joe Wilson

We were better than Saddam. 

Paul Jay

If that’s the criteria . . .if Saddam Hussein’s behavior and frankly, . 

Joe Wilson

Look, this is not an exercise in bashing the US government during this particular international management.

Paul Jay

What I’m saying is that if you take under his under HW Bush’s watch, the ousting Noriega in Panama, as horrendous as Noriega was, that was clearly a violation of international law.

Joe Wilson

Again, you can say anything you want about these trashy little wars that the U.S. government has gotten involved in. The  Gulf War was an exercise in how one manages an international crisis in a post-Cold War period when you are gathering together allies, and you’re doing it under the auspices of the United Nations. That’s not to excuse all the screw ups that may have happened and all the arrogance of U.S. administrations in the past. But make no mistake about this. This was an exercise that should have been the way that we conducted ourselves and the way that we gathered the international community in the face of these sorts of international crises and these international military actions going forward, 

Paul Jay

Which was not the case in the second—

And my great regret is those lessons were all lost between the Gulf War and the Iraq War. 

Paul Jay

OK. We’re going to continue our discussions with Ambassador Joe Wilson on Reality Asserts itself.

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