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Two Who Got It Right: Scott Ritter in Conversation With Robert Scheer
Posted on Mar 20, 2007
Robert Scheer: I want to get to the book. But before that, some general questions. We’ll go back and forth. Maybe for an hour, or something like that, and then ask questions, if that’s all right. Even if it’s not all right, that’s the way we’re going to do it. [Audience laughs.] I want to begin—-and I don’t want to single out any candidate. But ... Hillary Clinton last week .... [Audience laughs.] ... said that when she voted for the Iraq war, it was based on false intelligence. Others have made that claim—not necessarily candidates. What is your response to that?
Scott Ritter: First of all, it’s a pleasure to be here tonight and to have an opportunity to talk with you and be in the company of Mr. Scheer.
Hillary wants us to believe that the vote she made was a vote made in good faith. She wants us to believe that she was a victim of misleading intelligence. She wants us to believe that she is an individual of strong character and that we can trust her to do the right thing when it comes to leading our nation should she be elected to the highest office in the land. The most powerful office, by the way, in the entire world. She asks too much.
For us to say that Hillary was misled is for us to believe that there wasn’t ... that we need to erase eight years of Bill Clinton presidency. I know that Bill and Hillary didn’t have the closest of relationships during this period of time. I’m not being facetious here. It’s very possible that she could have been doing her thing and he was doing his thing: running the country. But even Hillary had to be aware that it was Bill Clinton that initiated the policy of regime change when it comes to Saddam Hussein. It was Bill Clinton that initiated the policy of economic sanctions, base containment and destabilization to achieve regime change. It was under Bill Clinton’s tenure that the CIA undermined the weapons inspectors, creating the perception of a noncompliant Iraq when the facts spoke other.
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And now Hillary is saying, “Oops”? She got it wrong? No. Hillary and the other politicians who voted in favor of war in 2002 took the route of political expediency. She, like John Kerry before her and others, were examining, weighing the costs/benefits of this vote. She and others knew that, should she vote against this war, she would be subjected to immediate and harsh criticism that would undermine her viability as a national political leader. With all due respect to Hillary Clinton and her current posturing, she is—frankly speaking—a damn liar and should be treated as such, and never be given the opportunity to lead the United States of America. [Audience applauds.]
Scheer: I didn’t expect it to be quite so partisan. [Audience laughs.] Let’s change the mood a little bit. I didn’t want this to be so much Hillary bashing, but, how can we learn? Bill Clinton—let’s take it away from Hillary and put it on Bill—he did resist the call to go to war in a number of different ways. He did try, for instance, to work out an arrangement with North Korea. He did resist a lot of this. What would have been the reason for going for regime change? What was the idea? That Saddam Hussein was a destabilizing force?
Ritter: Again, I give Bill Clinton the benefit of the doubt here. I think it’s only fair to note that the initiator of regime-change policy in regards to American-Iraqi relations was George Herbert Walker Bush. And the reason George Herbert Walker Bush chose to eliminate Saddam Hussein from power was that Saddam Hussein had become a political embarrassment to the first Bush administration. Because Saddam Hussein’s existence reminded everybody of the reality of the Reagan administration and the George Herbert Walker Bush administration’s very close ties with Saddam Hussein.
We were just talking at dinner about the fact that Saddam Hussein—the two crimes he was being tried for before he was executed, were crimes that took place prior to Donald Rumsfeld’s visit, when Donald Rumsfeld embraced Saddam, passed on a message that said, “You are a friend of the American people.” George Herbert Walker Bush sent Sen. Bob Dole to Iraq in March of 1990 with the same message. “You are a true friend of the American people.” It’s only in August 1990, when Saddam invades Kuwait, that he suddenly becomes the personification of evil. And it’s the requirement to get the American public from going from viewing Saddam as a true friend to the personification of evil worthy of military intervention that we had to change the mind-set. Saddam Hussein became the Middle East equivalent—and this is where Bush made his fatal mistake—the Middle East equivalent of Adolf Hitler, requiring Nuremberg-like retribution. These are direct quotes from a speech made by George Herbert Walker Bush in October of 1990. Now, when you call someone the Middle East equivalent of Adolf Hitler, requiring Nuremberg-like retribution, that means at the end of the day he has to be gone, in prison, held to account.
At the end of the Gulf War in 1999, Saddam Hussein was still in power. We didn’t go into Baghdad. We were never supposed to go into Baghdad; we were supposed to simply liberate Kuwait, which we did. Now Saddam Hussein is still in power and George Herbert Walker Bush has a political problem. And this is the point that I’ve made from day one. Why is regime change so important? It’s not about national security. Saddam Hussein never posed a threat to the national security of the United States that warranted American military intervention, whether it be in 1991 or 2003 or any time in between.
Scheer: But it’s kind of a depressing thought that you don’t have adults watching the store. Because I can go back way before George Walker Bush and ask, why did Jimmy Carter declare the mujahedeen in Afghanistan freedom fighters and challenge the seculars who were in Kabul? And that’s where 9/11 comes from. Why did Eisenhower overthrow Mossadegh in Iran? And that’s why we have the bloody madness in Iran right now. We can go through a whole history of the last 50 years where, in the name of making things better, we make things worse. You’re a guy who’s been out there in the field, sort of left holding the bag. You’re not nave about Saddam Hussein. You know he was a bad guy. You describe in one of your books—I forget which one—being at the Baghdad airport looking for weapons of mass destruction, and so forth. You understand. Yet, in retrospect, as I understand your writing, you don’t think Saddam Hussein was really the worst thing that could have happened.
Ritter: I was driving down the California coast a couple of days ago, went past Camp Pendleton, watched the Marines out there doing their thing, almost deviated off course, shaved my head and rejoined because I really love the Marine Corps. I miss that time. I appreciate their service to country, etc. But one of the things that’s imperative before we ask our men and women who honor us by serving in the military to make the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our country, is that it’s a cause worthy of the sacrifice. That means we have to study the cause and know the cause, understand the cause.
While I was driving there I was listening to the radio and there was a song—we talked about it—a Green Day song. One of the lyrics is “calling on idiot America.” [Editor’s note: Actually, “calling out to idiot America.”] And it just became so obvious to me that the American public doesn’t know squat about the world we live in. Here we are, we’re having a national debate about Iraq. “Where do we go with Iraq? What do we do in Iraq?” How can you debate something you don’t know? How can you solve a problem you haven’t defined?
And here we are talking about Saddam…. How easily we, the people of the United States of America—and I use that term because it is derived from the preamble of the Constitution, a document which defines who we are and what we are as a nation—how easily we, the people, are deceived. How easily we, the people, are manipulated. How easily we are pushed in one direction or the other. How quickly we bought into Saddam Hussein being the personification of evil. And while we were calling him the Middle East equivalent of Adolf Hitler, how little we knew of Iraq. How many people here truly know the difference between a Shia and a Sunni? Don’t feel bad if you don’t; the head of the Intelligence Committee of the United States Congress certainly doesn’t. How many people here know whether al-Qaida is a Sunni-based organization or a Shia-based organization? Don’t be upset if you don’t because the head of the Intelligence Committee certainly doesn’t. Do you know where Wahhabism ... do you know what Wahhabism ... ?
The point is, I throw out a lot of these terms, which are very relevant about modern-day Iraq, and you have complete ignorance about it. Not maybe you in the audience, because you’re here trying to make an effort to try and learn. But Los Angeles, last time I checked, has a population greater than 400 people. The vast majority of the people walking and driving the streets of L.A. today, or any city and town in America, know nothing about Iraq, and yet they feel free to have opinions about Iraq.
Saddam Hussein was a product of Iraq’s modern history. Saddam Hussein was a product of a nationalist movement that had its roots with Nasser in Egypt, that recognized that in modern Arab society you have tendencies to rip this society apart, called religion, that schism between Shia and Sunni. So you better damn well know the difference between those two if you want to talk about coming up with a solution, Mr. [Silvestre] Reyes, congressman from Texas, head of the House Intelligence Committee! But we might want to remind Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House, who appointed this man. I bet you she couldn’t pass the pop quiz, either. None of them can. You better know that there’s not just the difference between Sunni and Shia, but a difference between Kurd and Arab, a difference between a Turkmen and a Kurd. You better know the difference between Wahhabism and those who embrace the following of Saddam Hussein. You better know the different religious holidays. You better know all of this. Saddam Hussein did. You better know that tribes have a tendency to rip society apart, too. That’s why Baathism, modern Baathism—and I’m not here condoning Baathism, I’m just stating reality—rejected tribalism, rejected ethnicity, rejected religion, and spoke of a unified secular Iraqi state. In order to achieve that vision, Saddam Hussein had to suppress the very tendencies that rise up and tear modern Iraq apart. And we condemned him for this? We called him a war criminal for this? Yet now we’re in Iraq, we took away the glue that held together, and we’re doing the same damn thing, but even worse. We’ve accused Saddam Hussein over the course of 30 years of killing 400,000 Iraqi people. Hell, it’s taken us four years and we’ve killed 600,000.
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