Video: Desert Storm commanders, together again

  1. Closed captioning of: Desert Storm commanders, together again

    >>> and now to the extraordinary gathering right here in this room a few hours ago. the commanders of what the pentagon back then called desert storm , the first gulf war . the first major military effort of the post- vietnam era , over half a million americans served in the conflict, rappelling the iraqi invasion of kuwait with that u.s. coalition of 34 nations riding to victory. it's been 20 years. the war stopped short of taking baghdad, short of taking saddam hussein , and i asked former president bush about selling the war effort to the american people .

    >> this is the war historian washington post journalist rick atkinson . bush careened around looking for a rationale, trying to find his voice on the issue. he hopped from rationale to rationale. he wanted to make it appear as though this was not a blood-for-oil swap. there's the word "oil." mr. president, do you think americans would have responded if you'd said, look, here are the stakes, we've got a nation that runs on this black liquid. yes, this is for our vital strategic interests, if you want to call it oil, call it oil.

    >> i think that -- i think that was vitally important, but i don't think that was the whole message by a long shot. it was immorality of a big country , fourth largest army in the world, taking over a member state of the united nations and just brutally taking it over. so i think there was that moral question as well as the question of economics.

    >> what about saddam ? you also chose, your call, to personalize the war. and the media, of course, picked right up on that. bush versus saddam . he's dead now. been executed. how often do you think about him?

    >> not so much any more. i mean he's a bad guy . we've seen that in a lot of other ways since then. but it was -- it wasn't as personal with me. it was just the whole idea that they went in there and took over this other country.

    >> you know, i think it was appropriate to use all the arguments, because we were doing the right thing. and so there's nothing wrong with using an economic argument, or using an argument about how this guy was, how he brutalized his own people and the people of kuwait using morality arguments. use them all, because we were doing the right thing.

    >> mr. president, the decision to end the war where you did when you did, tell us about that.

    >> well, we had an objective. the objective was to kick this guy out of kuwait . and we did it. and we formed a coalition to help achieve that. and so it didn't enter my mind that we ought to do more, that we ought to go on further. now we're in charge, we ought to kill him. that wasn't the objective and that wasn't the way in which he formed an unprecedented international coalition. so when people came to me and said "it's over, we won," that was fine. that was enough.

    >> did any of the gentlemen at this table advocate going further? to baghdad, to saddam ? were you present when anyone of senior rank did?

    >> no.

    >> no one did.

    >> and mr. vice president, of course this things us to one of many elephants here in this sizeable room, and that is, true or false, question you've answered before, the way gulf war one was executed and when and where it stopped, led almost by definition, to gulf war two.

    >> well, i guess i would take exception to that, brian. we were -- a lot of the advice we got when we got through gulf war one was that saddam hussein would never be able to survive that kind of defeat. he did.

    >> did you try to ferment anything from inside? any real attempt made to do that?

    >> no, i don't think so. i don't think there was a serious effort. there may have been something going on in the succeeding administration.

    >> secretary baker is confirming there was in fact an effort.

    >> diplomatic. there was some other efforts that weren't successful.

    >> but, again, the objective as the president said wasn't to get saddam , the objective was to liberate kuwait , and that's what we did.

    >> there was an intervening event between gulf war one and gulf war two, it's called 9/11. it's fundamentally changed the calculus with which you use to measure saddam hussein and what his capabilities might be.

    >> secretary baker, you warned of an occupation force, general, you warned of an occupation force, general powell , you warned of an occupation force. of course it's been years. 50,000 kids still there.

    >> i think one of the key aspects of the second gulf war is that when you take out a government, which is what we did, you become the government. we understood that, and we talked about it a great deal. and it was because of that, that president bush decided to go to the united nations and see if we could not get a diplomatic solution to this problem. there was not unanimous agreement within the second bush family over that, but we did it. and it was the right thing to do. and we gave saddam hussein , just as jim did many years earlier, a chance to avoid this. but the risks, we felt, were too high at this point just to let him slip away from this and let him continue to violate the u.n. resolutions.

    >> mr. vice president, on the subject of disagreements, they go all across this table, they're all throughout this room and in the air. gentlemen at this table have said that's not the dick cheney i knew. he's unrecognizable to me. it was the transition between gulf one and gulf two and all the changes. the nature of gulf two that was seen as an elective war in the wake of 9/11, have you made peace, if not with some of the men at this table with whom you haven't enjoyed casual conversation heretofore until today for years and do you feel the need to?

    >> i prefer to think of it as a truce, brian.

    >> we have agreement on that from everyone?

    >> yes. we're going hunting, jim and i are. we haven't invited anybody else, but the two of us are going to go. no, i -- clearly we had differences on subsequent policy issues. from my perspective, and i looked at saddam hussein differently after 9/11 than before 9/11 as colin pointed out. but i reached the point and i think where a lot of the controversy concerns me is that i was in the bunker, in the white house on 9/11 and watched as the world trade center was destroyed, the pentagon was hit, 3,000 americans were killed. never before have i seen an attack like that on the united states . and i was bound and determined, as was the president i then worked for, that that was never going to happen again on our watch.

    >> and mr. president, some of these troubles must have troubled you. here you have this incredible, indelible role of the bush family in u.s. history . you're right up there with the adamses, and yet on your son's watch some of the relationships broke down, including some involving your best friends.

    >> such as?

    >> well, forgive me, general scowcroft was in disagreement with the policies of your son, president george w. bush .

    >> no problem. everybody has got his own opinion so it didn't bother me. i was out of it all by then, so i just, you know, support our son as president. the fact that others disagreed with him on different policy issues, it goes with the territory. so i didn't make a big federal case out of any of that.

    >> you just sat in houston, kennebunkport.

    >> let the president do his job.

    >> watched it on cable until you had to turn it off.

    >> that's right. that became easy at times. but, you know, you can't -- you can't worry about that. you can't worry about differences. they're bound to happen, bound to take place.

    >> former president bush 41, this extraordinary gathering of these men here today organized by the george bush school of government and public service . we'll hear more from them a bit later on in the broadcast.

NBC News and news services
updated 1/20/2011 10:10:39 PM ET 2011-01-21T03:10:39

Former President George H.W. Bush defended the decision to kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in the first Gulf War on Thursday and said his own adviser's criticism of his son's policies and invasion of Iraq in 2003 didn't bother him.

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Bush said disagreements on policies "go with the territory" as president.

Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser under the elder Bush, maintained in the run-up to the invasion that it wasn't clear that Hussein was part of the global terrorism network

"You can't worry about that," Bush told NBC News anchor Brian Williams in a roundtable discussion on the 20th anniversary of the start of the war. "You can't worry about the differences. They're bound to happen, bound to take place."

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Former President George H.W. Bush, Scowcroft and and other key members of his foreign policy team gathered at Texas A&M University before an expected audience of several thousand people, including Gulf War veterans, to discuss the conflict, which started Jan. 17, 1991.

Asked about the selling of the war, and the opinions of some that it was about protecting oil supplies, Bush told NBC News it was a moral war.

Morality of war
"I think (economics) was vitally important, but I don't think that was the whole message by a longshot," Bush said. "It was the immorality of a big country — with the fourth-largest army in the world — taking over a member state of the U.N., just brutally taking it over."

James Baker, secretary of state under Bush, said it was "appropriate to use all the arguments" in favor of the war. "We were doing the right thing," he said.

Bush said there was never a thought of extending the war by going into Baghdad after Hussein, and no one in leadership advocated it.

"We had an objective. The objective was to kick this guy out of Kuwait and we did it. And we formed a coalition to help conceive that. It didn't enter my mind that we should do more."

Colin Powell, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under the elder Bush and secretary of state under George W. Bush, said the attacks on 9-11 "fundamentally changed the calculus by which you measure Saddam Hussein and what capabilities he might have."

"From my perspective I looked at Saddam Hussein differently after 9-11 and before 9-11," reiterated Dick Cheney, defense secretary during Gulf War I and vice president during Gulf War II. "I was bound and determined as was the president for whom I worked, that that was never going to happen again on our watch."

New documents detailing conversations former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had with members of his inner circle as the ground assault began on Feb. 24, 1991, were released Thursday by the National Defense University in Washington.

Hussein called Bush 'enemy of God'
The transcripts released for the 20th anniversary show Hussein tried to broker a last minute peace deal with the help of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev but at the same time remaining defiant, calling the coalition forces "treacherous and cowardly" and describing Bush as "the enemy of God and humanity."

Along with Bush, the reunion included former Vice President Dan Quayle, then-Defense Secretary Cheney, former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Powell, former Secretary of State Baker and then-National Security Advisor Scowcroft.

Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the coalition forces, will not be there for health reasons.

The war was prompted by Iraq's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, its small, oil-rich neighbor. The Kuwaiti dignitaries expected at the event Thursday include the emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah.

The United States Security Council warned Iraq that if it didn't withdraw its troops from Kuwait by Jan. 15, 1991, a U.S.-led coalition would be authorized to drive them out. The Gulf War, also known as Operation Desert Storm, began two days later with air attacks against Iraqi targets.

The ground assault that started about a month later lasted only 100 hours. Kuwait was liberated and Iraqi troops were driven back to their home country. Of the more than 540,000 Americans deployed at the peak of the fighting, 148 were killed and 467 were wounded.

The documents released Thursday showed that as coalition troops began their ground assault, Hussein was exchanging letters with Gorbachev, asking the former Soviet leader to help broker a peace agreement. Gorbachev had apparently been able to get Iraq to agree to withdraw its troops from Kuwait within 21 days.

Appeal to Gorbachev
"Even though we will keep our promise, Mr. President, we do know that the Americans, especially their president, have no honor and we do not trust them; therefore, we are working only with your peace proposal," Hussein wrote to Gorbachev.

Gorbachev replied that Bush had not agreed to the proposal, having been upset by Iraq's burning of oil fields in Kuwait. Gorbachev urged Hussein to write to Bush directly and promise to withdraw his troops not in 21 days, but in nine or 10.

By that point, however, the ground attack had begun. The documents show Hussein's frustration at Gorbachev.

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"He tricked us; it is a trick!" he said of the Soviet leader's efforts.

Bush said this week he has no regrets about his administration's handling of the war, including the decision to pull out American forces and leave Hussein in power.

The Iraqi leader was ousted in 2003 during the Iraq war, which started under Bush's son, former President George W. Bush. After being convicted of crimes against humanity, Hussein was hanged in December 2006.

Texas A&M is about 100 miles northwest of Houston and home to Bush's presidential library.

The Associated Press, NBC News and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

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