Gary Sick, Professor of Political Science,
William Quandt, Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs,
University of Virginia
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
GARY SICK: With regard to Saddam Hussein, specifically, he rules like a mafia don. He
wins by terrorizing his opposition, by intimidating them, by being more ruthless and by being
very, very clever. He manipulates people. He moves people around. He shuffles things. He sees
trouble coming and undoes it. He uses competing intelligence services to keep track of what is
going on. It’s very hard to conduct a coup in Iraq, and that’s one of the reasons why he’s there.
KEITH PORTER: The role of the Persian Gulf in US foreign policy five years after the gulf
war on this edition of Common Ground.
SICK: Iran, at some considerable sacrifice from its own political point of view, decided
to stay out and not support Saddam Hussein, to remain quiet and behave themselves while the
allies came in. And they thought they would be rewarded for this, and clearly were angling for
more support or at least respect in the West. And they didn’t get it at all.
PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape
events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
The gulf war came and went just five years ago. Gary Sick, a former member of the National
Security Council, now a professor at Columbia University, tells us that the importance of the
Persian Gulf region to US national interests remains high.
SICK: Oil remains important, even though the sources of oil have been diversified
throughout the world. There are new ones coming up. It still remains the place in the
world where the reserves of oil remain. So that if demand goes up over the next decade as people
anticipate that it will, more and more we will have to look to the gulf as the place where we get
That doesn’t imply that the United States alone has interest, because obviously the Japanese, the
Europeans, and others do. One place where we’ve sort of lost an interest, in the past US policy
was designed to prevent the Russians from moving into the gulf. At least militarily, that isn’t
seen as a very likely thing now. So we’re dealing with the gulf in a much more economic way than
we were in the past.
WILLIAM QUANDT: I agree that oil continues to be a big interest, and that’s not going to
change any time in the coming decade or so.
PORTER: This is Professor William Quandt, another former member of the National Security
Council. He now teaches at the University of Virginia.
QUANDT: There is one other point I would make, however, and that is if one could be
reasonably assured that this region would somehow remain stable, we could say that it is still of
great importance, but we could adjust our own involvement in the region, perhaps reduce our
military presence, spend less time and effort on maintaining that kind of capability. But that’s
very unlikely. The gulf has a kind of built-in instability in that there are two largish
countries with rather questionable records in terms of how they’ve dealt with the gulf region,
particularly Iraq, and then you have the smaller Arab, oil-producing countries who right now feel
fairly confident that they are not exposed to any particular threat; but if tomorrow the United
States packed up and left, there’s no guarantee that they would be secure.
So whether our interest is vital a interest or just a very important economic interest in the
oil, there is a kind of corollary to that that says as long as that is the case, we Americans
have to keep some kind of capability in the region to balance Iraqi power, Iranian power. It may
not require exactly what we have there today, but the prospect for us disengaging and the gulf
remaining stable is fairly low.
SICK: Just to add one point to that. One of the reasons why disengagement is likely is
simply inertia. I mean we are there. We have built a policy over a period of years. We have been
shocked in the past. We now have a military infrastructure that has, in fact, been developed as a
result of the gulf war where we have agreements with some of the countries to maintain troops on
the ground, etc. And having done all of that, made the investment, it’s very unlikely that we’re
going to just undo that and walk away.
But there is a pernicious side to this too, and that is that the countries and the region tend to
see the United States as their savior. Indeed we were their savior in some degree in Desert
Storm. But it also means that they’re less likely to address difficult issues that face them,
because they say Uncle Sam will take care of that. Of course, Uncle Sam really probably won’t
take care of that, but it doesn’t keep them from feeling that way. It helps them to postpone
really tough decisions about their own internal and external relations that otherwise they might
PORTER: Well, it certainly goes into the next thing I was going to ask about the lasting
impact of the Persian Gulf War. It sounds like one of those impacts is that we’ve created a
certain situation there not only with our military infrastructure but also this perception that
America will always be there to respond. What are the other sort of lasting impacts from the
Persian Gulf War. We’ll start with you Professor Quandt.
QUANDT: Well, the most obvious is that Iraq has been set back mightily in terms of its
economic prospects. Of course, its military power and that doesn’t mean that Iraq won’t ever
recover from it. But I think the human and economic toll that Iraq suffered first from eight
years of war with Iran in the 1980s and then the just crazy calculation of Saddam Hussein that he
could get away with invading Kuwait and the way that turned out, is that Iraq, which at one point
looked like it was well positioned to become one of the better developed, more modern Arab
states. It had oil. It had sort of balance of population and resources, a relatively educated
population. Women participated in the work force. All of that has been jeopardized.
So first and foremost, you can say that Iraq has been set back by maybe the equivalent of a
generation’s worth of development. And it’ll take them a long, long time to get back to where
they were in the late 1970s. In strictly a military sense, that is probably reassuring to some
people that Iraq isn’t going to be the big threat that it had been earlier, but it does
correspondingly mean that Iraq also can’t play the role that it might have otherwise. That’s a
kind of balancer to Iran’s regional ambition. So Iran, almost by default and despite the fact
that it’s a country with lots of problems, looms larger in the preoccupation of some of the
There are two quite contradictory temptations on the one hand. If Iran is the big power now that
Iraq has been defeated. If the United States can’t be entirely counted on for the long term,
there’s a tendency to say we’ve got to work out the best kind of relationship we can with the big
neighbor, Iran. And there’s something that is potentially healthy about that. But that is a
consequence of the gulf war. The other consequence is that at some point, if Iran looks too
menacing or too demanding, some of the countries will get very nervous and very anxious about the
threat posed by Iran. And I think many people in the gulf are of two minds about whether Iran is
a potential big power stabilizer of the region or whether it’s ultimately going to be the
hegemonic power that dominates them and makes their life miserable.
PORTER: Professor Sick.
SICK: Just to follow up on some of the things that fell out of the gulf war, I think one
thing in the past, especially the Arab states of the region, the oil rich Arab states, wanted an
American presence that was over the horizon, that it was sort of out of sight and hopefully out
of mind. They wanted the American presence to be there in case it was needed, but they didn’t
want it visible in the meantime. And that really has changed for better or worse, because it
could cut both ways.
For better, as far as the Pentagon is concerned, they can now arrange military deployments,
conduct exercises with the forces in the region, etc. They can do this openly, where in the past
it had to be done almost clandestinely.
QUANDT: And prepositioning.
SICK: And prepositioning.
QUANDT: Have equipment on the ground.
SICK: This is very important in terms of their capability to intervene and to act
militarily in the region. The down side of this is exactly what the governments in that region
originally feared. And that is that they would be perceived as dominated by the United States,
that the United States would be calling the shots, that they would be seen as somehow
relinquishing their own legitimacy to the Americans. And the Saudis have faced this very
seriously. There was a very substantial amount of criticism when the Americans came in. How can
you hire the infidel to come in and defend Islam’s holy places? And that’s a very telling thing.
Now it hasn’t translated into instant collapse or anything like that or even into sort of
revolutionary movements. But that perception is something that is left over from the war and
that, I think, is going to continue to have an impact over time.
PORTER: Professor Quandt.
QUANDT: There are just two other consequences of the war that are worth mentioning. One
is that almost without much forethought, we and some of the European countries acquired a
commitment to protecting the Kurdish population of northern Iraq which has now been kind of
institutionalized so that de facto northern Iraq is separated from the rest of the country and
there’s a degree of Kurdish self-government. It’s not working so terribly well right now, but
without that the Kurdish population would be threatened with the way Saddam has treated his
Kurdish population in the past, which is very brutally.
That kind of commitment by the West, primarily the United States, to protect that Kurdish zone is
a real policy issue for us. We don’t discuss it; we don’t debate it; the costs are manageable;
but, at some point one has to ask will we indefinitely be the protector of this Kurdish entity?
The Turks aren’t wildly enthusiastic about it, because they fear a Kurdish state emerging from
this. But we have undertaken a kind of obligation which, if we back away from, is very likely to
lead to potentially real massacres and almost nobody even thinks about what the consequences
would be if we just decide to stop protecting that northern Iraqi zone.
The other fallout from the gulf conflict, and this is maybe a little bit less direct, was that it
did bring into play for a certain moment a kind of coalition that we hadn’t seen before in the
Middle East that included Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Western powers, and Israel, all sort of in
the same camp against Saddam Hussein. And there’s been a residue from that. Israel is no longer
the great pariah state in the eyes of gulf countries. The whole Madrid process, which was early
peace negotiations, was launched in the immediate aftermath of the gulf war playing on the fact
that there had been some commonality of interest that had been forged in the midst of the gulf
crisis. That peace process has been inching forward. It hasn’t made huge strides recently, but
insofar as there is some kind of a structure of negotiations, it is at least partly a result of
the coalition that formed and was maintained in the gulf crisis.
PORTER: Gary Sick, go ahead. I want to come back to the Kurdish issue in just a minute,
SICK: Okay. Yeah. I think that we do have to ask ourselves a question about the Kurdish
issue, what happens if things really begin to come apart, at how deep is our commitment. But I
was going to raise one other issue in terms of the long-term effects and rather more subtle
effects of the gulf war. One of these was that Iran, at some considerable sacrifice from its own
political point of view, decided to stay out, not to support Saddam Hussein, to remain quiet and
behave themselves while the allies came in. Which they could have behaved differently. They
couldn’t have stopped it, but they could have made things much more difficult by trying to stir
up activity, etc.
They felt that, although many would argue that was very much in their self interest, it was
something they didn’t have to do and that they did it at a certain amount of political cost. They
thought they would be rewarded for this, as they thought they would be rewarded for a number of
things such as helping to get the American hostages out of Lebanon and other gestures that they
took that from their point of view. They paid a fairly high price to do this and clearly were
angling for more support or at least respect in the West. And they didn’t get it at all.
This has in many ways poisoned the atmosphere. And, of course, the United States has gone just
the reverse now. We won’t even permit normal development. We’re stopping a dam from being built
in southern Iran; we stopped the development of a normal gas field that actually would have been
a very profitable thing for an American company, etc. So Iran, instead of getting rewarded for
this, has in fact been punished for it. And there is a bitterness about that which again tends to
poison their relationship with the gulf states. The Arabs, whom they see as toadies basically of
the Americans. They are nominated by the Americans, and so they approach their relations with
those countries in that way.
This is a more subtle outcome, but it’s not a positive one by any means.
PORTER: We’re talking on this edition of Common Ground with Professors Gary Sick
and William Quandt. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit,
nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and
encourage dialogue on world affairs.
What about the role of Kuwait now? Obviously wanting to keep diplomatic, if not physical,
distance from the Iraqis and exerting some pressure from the other countries to keep them at
arm’s length from Iraq as well. Is Kuwait being successful in this? Do we have to—how much
special treatment do we have to give Kuwait following the Persian Gulf War?
QUANDT: Kuwait has every reason to be hostile toward Iraq, but I don’t think they have to
work too hard to convince the other gulf countries that Saddam is bad news. They are, however,
the most vulnerable. So the others can play around with the idea that maybe having political
contacts is not terribly dangerous. The Kuwaitis have always suffered a bit in the Arab world by
not being on terribly good terms with some of the other countries, and that may still be true.
It’s not particularly new.
But it seems to me that the Kuwaitis are doing all right in some ways in terms of their internal
political change since the gulf war. They’re experimenting with some changes that are, frankly,
overdue in the rest of the gulf. They have a parliament that is functioning more openly. There’s
probably more debate over political issues than we’ve seen in some time. So I don’t think that
Kuwait has a huge amount of influence in the region. But what’s happening there? We have no
reason to be terribly embarrassed that we saved Kuwait from being gobbled up by the Iraqis. Not
only was it geostrategically a sensible thing to prevent Iraqi hegemony there, but Kuwait is not
a disaster in the aftermath of this. They don’t carry much weight elsewhere in the region.
PORTER: Gary Sick, anything you want to add to that?
SICK: I agree with that entirely. I would just say that Kuwait is the outstanding
example, however, of the state which has reversed its views about the United States and the open
relationship as a result of the gulf war. And more than any other state in the region, they are
openly willing to associate themselves, making no bones about it whatsoever. The only thing they
do to diffuse the criticism of being really connected with the United States is to make equal
pacts with a lot of other states as well—the French, the British, the Russians, and everybody
they can. But everybody realizes that America would be number one.
I agree very much. I think Kuwait was worth saving and I think we were right to do it.
PORTER: All right, Professor Sick, let’s go back to the Kurdish issue. How do you
characterize the commitment that the United States has to the Kurds, and what will the long-term
consequences of those commitments be?
SICK: Actually our commitments are changing. We have this sort of formal commitment of a
safe zone in the north that we’ve taken responsibility for. Outside the United Nations actually.
This is not a UN commitment, this is on our own. But the thing that concerns me most is that
commitment is evolving over time. For instance, very recently there has been tremendous fighting
among the Kurdish factions in northern Iraq. So that the Barzani’s and the Talabani’s, who have
never gotten along that well, have actually come to blows, and there has been open warfare. These
are the two that are supposed to be cooperating to build a Kurdish entity in the north. It
doesn’t speak very well for the stability, not only of northern Iraq but of Iraq generally, if
you can have this kind of a tribal civil war.
The United States has intervened and has sent senior diplomats over to talk to them privately and
to try to encourage a more peaceful outcome. The results of that are yet to be seen. There has
been some progress, but they haven’t really come to a result. In the meantime, other people are
tempted to come in. The Iranians now, seeing the Americans do it, have also offered to conduct
mediation. They’ve been at least as successful as the Americans. Though, again, not totally
There is this kind of competition going on, but I think everybody begins to get nervous when they
see Iran, a neighboring state with its own Kurdish problem, trying to mediate an answer to civil
war in northern Iraq among the Kurds. It begins to ring some alarm bells in various places; and I
should think, starting in Washington.
PORTER: Professor Quandt, did you have something else to add to this issue?
QUANDT: Just one more point on the Kurds. There’s not only the question of Kurds in
northern Iraq where we have wisely or unwisely undertaken a certain kind of commitment, and I
think we would be reckless to just abandon it entirely. It’s not an easy commitment to uphold.
There would be heavy costs just giving it up now, and it doesn’t answer the long-term question of
where do Kurds fit into the geopolitics of the region. But for the moment, as long as Saddam
Hussein is there with his track record, it would be a human catastrophe if we just withdrew the
Now, to make it work however there has to be some kind of understanding with Turkey as well. It
is from Turkey that we carry out this policy of protecting the Kurds in northern Iraq. And there
is a real problem in Turkish politics about how they’ve been dealing with their own Kurdish
population. We and the Europeans have been concerned with the harshness with which Turkey has
dealt with its Kurdish problem in the last year and a half or so since the death of President
Ozal in particular. We should try to use whatever influence we have with the Turks as they enter
a very delicate political period themselves to try to get back on the track of some kind of
political strategy for dealing with their own Kurdish problem.
There’s a tendency for the Kurdish Turkish military to simply say it’s a terrorist
problem, and that’s all there is to it. But it’s not all there is to it. Like all of these
security challenges, there’s also a political context. And a few years ago the Turks were dealing
with that part of the challenge much more successfully, and they’ve kind of lost their way on
PORTER: Gary Sick, another issue—on Iraq and survival of Saddam Hussein. Does the United
States have any interest any longer in whether or not Saddam Hussein stays in power; and, I
guess, a separate question is, do we have a choice on that issue?
SICK: I think the second part of it is very necessary because I think anyone who thinks
that we called the shots in Baghdad really doesn’t understand the problem. We tried to, and we
did have an opportunity I think at the end of the gulf war. If we had wanted to push it hard,
there were things that we could have done that probably would have resulted in Saddam Hussein
being completely undermined, if not dismemberment of the country and/or perhaps his downfall. We
chose not to do that. And I think we were right not to go to Baghdad, but I think we were wrong
in the way we handled the uprisings and that we caused a human tragedy to occur that we bear a
good deal of responsibility for. It was not one of the great days of American diplomacy.
But now, Saddam is there, he has shown that he has staying power. Things are not going well for
him. The situation in Iraq is not good, but a lot of people would argue that continuing the
sanctions actually works to his benefit, that by having the sanctions there it makes him the
savior. People who are desperate, you know, look for strength, look for organization out of this
chaos. In that sense we have removed perhaps any viable alternative to Saddam by sustaining the
sanctions. Whether the sanctions should be there or not is another question.
With regard to Saddam Hussein specifically, he has shown tremendous ability. He rules like a
Mafia don. He wins by terrorizing his opposition, by intimidating them, by being more ruthless
and by being very, very clever. He manipulates people. He moves people around. He shuffles
things. He sees trouble coming and undoes it. He uses competing intelligence services to keep
track of what is going on. It’s very hard to conduct a coup in Iraq.
And that’s one of the reasons why he’s there. Plus, he has at least managed in the face of very
severe sanctions to keep the population more or less fed. That is not a small achievement
actually, and it’s the kind of thing that highly authoritarian regimes can do. They do make the
trains run on time. He has, in fact, managed a system of coupons for food that has prevented mass
starvation. It hasn’t prevented problems, but it’s prevented the most severe of those problems.
PORTER: Professor Quandt.
QUANDT: Saddam heads my list at least of the most disastrous leaders in this century in
the Middle East. He’s inflicting enormous pain and suffering on his own people by decisions that
could have been made differently. What I am a little bit mystified by is why, if we have in the
back of our mind that we would like to have a different regime there, we haven’t gone public
with—along with our key allies who would be affected by this—with some sort of clear statement
to the Iraqi people that we have nothing whatsoever against them or the idea of a strong and
prosperous Iraq. But we have a real grievance with Saddam Hussein; and we don’t trust him, but
that any successive regime that was willing to live up to the UN resolutions and international
law could count on quite generous support in terms of getting itself back on its feet. We
recognize the country’s taken a tremendous hit from the war and the sanctions and that it was
primarily Saddam’s fault.
Technically right now, any successive regime is going to be saddled with about $100 billion worth
of debt, reparations claims that maybe go as high as that—another $80 or $90 billion. It’s
impossible, even if you had an absolutely Jeffersonian democrat who governed Iraq and you said
well here’s the bill, start paying on a kind of rate of $30 billion a year. It would take half a
century to pay off these debts, and there would be nothing left to build the country up with. So
if we want to encourage a successor from within the military, from within any sector of Iraqi
society, at a minimum we have to say you won’t be treated the way Weimar, Germany, was. You will
have a chance to get out from under this burden, the legacy of Saddam Hussein.
He won’t. He’s going to be held accountable as long as he’s there. Even if the sanctions are
lifted, he’s going to have to face these demands for debt repayment, for reparations, etc. But a
successive regime should be told that we will treat them very differently. Not only will the oil
begin to flow and refill their coffers if they play by the rules and don’t threaten their
neighbors, but that debt can be postponed or rescheduled or written off.
That message has not been conveyed. I can’t understand why, because we’re not going to collect
debts from a decent successive regime. We’d be crazy, we would undermine it immediately by trying
to impose these Draconian economic conditions on it. So I think we may as well get some credit
for saying we have no quarrel with the Iraqi people, we have no quarrel with a successive regime
if it plays by a different set of rules and, in fact, we could be very helpful to it.
PORTER: Professor Sick, we’re just about out of time. I’ll give you the final word.
SICK: I agree with Bill that this is something that could be done. I think the fact that
we don’t do it is one of the factors that raises doubts about what US policy is all about in this
region. What do we really want? What are our real objectives? If we really wanted a better Iraqi
regime, there are certain things that we could do to promote that and to make it go along without
physical intervention, without going in and assassinating Saddam but to allow serious
alternatives. Instead, we are focusing only on the sanctions, and you almost have the feeling
that the key objective of the United States is just to keep both Iran and Iraq very, very weak,
and very, very poor, and out of sight for the moment while we deal with other things in the
region. There are, of course, prices to be paid for that at some stage along the line. When you
play that kind of a game, it creates a legacy of its own. It’s not necessarily a healthy one.
PORTER: That is Professor Gary Sick from Columbia University. Our other guest has been
Professor William Quandt of the University of Virginia. For Common Ground, I’m Keith
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