Clinton Weighs in on bin Laden, War in Iraq
By Christiane Amanpour
Friday 09 July 2004
Washington - Former President Clinton sat down this week for a wide-ranging interview with Christiane Amanpour, CNN's chief international correspondent.
Amanpour asked Clinton about some of the decisions he took in the White House and what he would do differently if he were leading the country now. Throughout the conversation, Osama bin Laden was never far from the former U.S. president's mind.
Amanpour: I want to ask you about Osama bin Laden. You say in your book you made several efforts to kill him. In retrospect, do you believe though that you should have marshaled some kind of special mission, even though many of your senior military advisers opposed that at the time? Do you think you should have done it?
Clinton: What I wish now is that I had had a more vigorous military debate. One of the discussions that I had with the 9/11 commission involved the question of the reorganization of the military in the 1980s under the Goldwater-Nichols Act, which has done a lot of good.
It has helped us to downsize the military. It's helped to rationalize military spending and spend more on the areas where we need it - but essentially it made the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff much more powerful. It centralized authority there. ...
People began to second-guess the fact that I didn't send the Special Forces there, even though, concededly, nobody knew where bin Laden was. Nobody knew. We had a general idea.
After 9/11, I wished that I had had a military debate because basically the Pentagon and Gen. [Henry] Shelton [former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] were strongly opposed to it.
They thought the chances of those guys getting killed were high. And that's what they signed on to do - to risk their lives - but they didn't want to get killed with no reasonable prospect of accomplishing the missions. But I'm the commander in chief, or I was then, and they would have gone, had I ordered them to. I wish that I debated it more thoroughly.
The other issue I'm asked about is slightly different, and it's this - after the USS Cole was bombed [in October 2000 in Yemen], do I wish I had ordered the Special Forces in, and the answer to that is, I would have done it in a heartbeat, with Special Forces and more, with or without international support, once I got the CIA and FBI finding that Osama bin Laden did it.
I just assumed he did from the day it happened, and everyone else did. But it wasn't until after I left office that the CIA made a finding. If they had given me a finding beforehand, I would have gone after him.
Amanpour: In one of your farewell interviews as president, you told an interviewer that one of your most difficult and challenging issues as president was Iraq. In retrospect, do you wish that you had mustered a large invasion force like President Bush? And if not, do you think the threat you faced from Iraq was any different than the one President Bush faced from Iraq?
Clinton: The answer to the first question is no. I basically believe that the policy that I inherited, which was basically to keep Saddam Hussein in a box and under sanctions, unless and until he fully complied with the U.N. resolutions, was the right policy. It wasn't so great for the Iraqis, but he didn't present a substantial threat to anyone else.
Amanpour: You intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo to stop genocide, and the war was also coupled with a very robust, postwar plan, with very heavy armored U.S. forces and a political plan.
Given the instability in Iraq, post the formal war there, what do you think could and should have been done differently to stabilize Iraq in much the same way Bosnia and Kosovo were after the war?
Clinton: First of all, we had a very different situation because NATO wasn't with us in Iraq and the Russians didn't come into Iraq. Keep in mind, the Russians nominally opposed what we did in Bosnia and Kosovo, but they knew we were right, and they came in and helped us with postwar planning. ...
So we lost a lot of soldiers there after the mission was declared accomplished in Iraq, hundreds of them. And it made [former Army Chief of Staff] Gen. [Eric] Shinseki - whose military career was cut short because he committed candor testifying before Congress that we needed more troops - it made Gen. Shinseki look like a seer, like he knew what he was predicting, so you can say we needed more troops there.
But it was a constant to-and-fro because we had troops in other parts of the world. We already had 15,000 troops in Afghanistan, which is clearly not enough for us within any confidence to look like we're going to stabilize the whole country or find bin Laden or his top lieutenants. So we got 15,000 there, 140,000 or more in Iraq already.
I think the main thing is we should have moved more quickly to internationalize it. And we should have moved early on to let the United Nations have more say in the political decisions, opening the contracts up to people other than Americans and their allies and basically, say, "OK, Saddam's gone now. We need everybody's help to make it right."