The World Through Colin Powell's Eyes

The general talked about Saddam Hussein, the Soviet putsch, and the shifting focus of military toward regional conflicts. INTERVIEW

THE United States' top military officer says that while the fall of communism will obviously have some impact on his business, the sweeping changes underway in the Soviet Union are things the Pentagon has been planning on for some time."Nobody could anticipate anything as dramatic and revolutionary as we've seen in the last few weeks," said Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a meeting with Monitor editors. "But for the last several years we have been following Mr. Gorbachev's reforms. We took note of the fact he was cutting the size of Soviet forces. We have started to plan for a reshaping and a downsizing of our forces." US active-duty units are to be cut 25 percent over the next few years, points out General Powell, with forces deployed in Europe to be reduced 50 percent. He complains that things have reached the point where Congress is resisting some of the important reductions, such as an attempt to cut the politically powerful reserve forces as much as their active-duty counterparts. Still, the indelible images of the Soviet breakup raise questions about the Pentagon's future. If the Soviets are no longer to be a union, why not US military reductions of greater than 25 percent? The cold war is over, the US has won. Why maintain standing forces of more than 1 million people? "You ought to be the chairman and come live in my world," said Powell in reply. On the first morning of the Soviet coup, when it looked as if it might succeed, the JCS chief's fax machine was inundated with messages complaining he'd cut too fast. The next day, those stopped. Two days later, after the putsch collapsed, it was "you troglodytes, why aren't you cutting your budget more? Don't you see there's a new world?" Powell quoted one of the US Army's favorite military theoreticians, 19th-century German Gen. Carl von Clausewitz: "There's a great Clausewitzian expression which says 'beware the vividness of transient events.' There are lots of transient events out there, and I am trying to beware of their vividness." Other comments Powell made during a wide-ranging interview:

Will the changes in the Soviet Union mean we may have to revisit recent big arms control agreements?

"At the moment the answer is no. They have indicated to us they will continue to abide by all agreements that have been made.... I sense they are fully committed to START when both sides have ratified it and the terms of CFE when both sides ratified it. They now have a real honest-to-God ratification process. Perhaps it's even as untidy as ours. It's wonderful. It's democracy.... "It is in their interest to make these reductions. It's a point I have made to my Soviet counterparts... . It is in their interest to bring the size of the Soviet armed forces down as rapidly as they can. "Why? They can't afford it ... the whole nation is crying out for that investment to be converted into other things....

Can they afford the kind of unemployment military cuts might cause?

"The problem they have always come back to me with is 'It's easy for you to say. You can reduce and if you put some officers out ... eventually your economy will absorb them.' [The Soviet chief of staff] used to say 'I have a hundred thousand officers who have no apartments living in tents I said I know it is not easy. But you have no choice .... the human dimensions of their structuring down are far more severe than the human dimensions of us structuring down.

Did you ever try to contact any of your Soviet counterparts during the most heated hours of the coup?


Why not?

"Should I have been directed to do this [by the President] I would have done it but I was not.... It was a very confused situation for a while. The last thing anyone needed was the chairman sticking his nose in the middle of it. "I monitored the situation very carefully. I never had any reason for concern with respect to the security of the United States. "There were a few little aberrations. But these were fairly minor. They were of short duration.

What's an 'aberration', in this context?

"An aberration means something that happened that I'm not going to tell you about....

Should we have pushed Saddam Hussein harder when we had the chance?

"I don't think so.... We are pushing him hard now. He presides over a nation that is in deep trouble ... he presents no rational threat to any of his neighbors, which is the problem we went in to solve. "People sometimes simplify this. 'You could have just marched to Baghdad and gotten Hussein.' Really? What if he hadn't been there? Think he would be standing at the gate waiting? "It's somewhat simplistic to suggest that all it would have taken was for the American army to march to Baghdad and call for general elections and lots of little Jeffersonian democrats would have popped up to run for office.

Was the US government surprised by Hussein's nuclear capability?

"We knew he was working on it .... What was new to us was the extensive nature of that program. There are about five technologies you can use to get enriched uranium. He was trying each and every one of them. "He does not have a nuclear capability and I think he will have difficulty acquiring one now.

Is the US emerging as too - singular a power in the world today?

"The United States is clearly the leader of the democratic world now, both the West and East. Whether that is unipolarity or whatever you wish to call it, I think it is the case. "They look to us because they can trust us.... They trust us because of our democratic political system which seeks no foreign territory, which seeks not to subject anyone else ... even though we do have our economic problems we still represent the economic model of choice. "They look to us because we have an armed force second to none and we have the ability to use that armed force to deal with political problems that arise in a careful way. It can be something as discreet as a couple of F-4s buzzing Manila on December 2nd 1989, to 541,000 troops in the Persian Gulf.

Are there flashpoints still out there in the developing world?

"There are flashpoints out there. Most of them I don't know about yet ... I've been involved in 12 crises of one kind or another, none of which were on my dance card when I took over as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Our whole focus now is shifting to regional crises. "The world is going to be a lot more chaotic. But I think the growth pattern ... is positive. I have a lot of hope in my heart for the way the world is heading ... what is different in my period of service is that the likelihood of the United States and the Soviet Union going to war has dropped significantly. "There's a little story I like to tell. Five years ago at this time I was a corps commander in Germany, commanding the Fifth Corps. And Fifth Corps was eyeball-to-eyeball with the Eighth Guards Army of Soviet forces in Germany. Stacked up behind it was the First Guards tank army. Behind it were three other Soviet armies that would flow out of Czechoslovakia and western parts of the Soviet Union ... and we were all planning on a war that might break out on two weeks' notice. "My corps only had a depth of about a hundred kilometers before you hit Frankfurt and the bridges over the Rhine. That was real stuff for me, five years ago. Now the border's gone. The Soviet side of that, gone. My beloved corps is probably going to be inactivated.... "We used to worry ten years ago that global war might start because of something that might happen in the Middle East. Remember? Global war might come about because of a Soviet intrusion into Iran, headed for the oil fields. "Now we work with the Soviet Union and the UN to solve crises as best we can.... That's how the Iran-Iraq war got stopped in '88, US and the Soviets working together. Afghanistan, southeast Asia, Cambodia. "But at the same time there will be instability and chaos. There will be regional crises that come along. There will be unpleasant turns in the road. "But on balance I think it's time for hope."

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