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Secretary Cohen's Interview with Pentagon Press Corps (Broadcast Media)

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
January 31, 1998

Secretary Cohen: As all of you know, this meeting, as such, was scheduled some time ago and it was really designed to give a recap of my first year in office. It's been exactly 53 weeks that I've been in office and I thought I might just recap a couple of things that I think have been very successful for me.

One was the QDR process. I came into it a bit late but became actively involved in helping to shape the QDR process and drive it from the top down as well as bringing information from the bottom up. I believe that in defining our strategies -- the shape, respond, prepare -- is something that's going to be relevant for all future QDRs and other types of analyses. That's not going to change whether we're talking the year 2010 or 2030 -- shaping the environment, responding across the spectrum of crises and preparing for the future is going to remain the essential part of our overall strategy.

The second major component for me was the Defense Reform Initiative. That was to really reform the way we do business. I can't hope to provide the kind of resources necessary for the future unless we change the way we do business here, so it's the reengineering to adopt the best business practices from the Pentagon. It also involves consolidating defense agencies, other types of components in the Defense Department.

As you know, my own office (OSD) we will eliminate nearly 1,000 jobs over the next 18 months. It's an indication that we're committed to reforming the way in which we're doing business.

We're going to have more competition for many more positions. This will provide relief to the taxpayer so it will give us a better quality product and lower price for our customers. And we need to eliminate. That comes back to the BRAC processes, that unless we have relief from the overhead that we're carrying, then I really can't carry out the kind of investment policies that need to be carried out. This is an argument that I will, of course, take to the Hill next week when I present the budget on Tuesday to the Senate Armed Services Committee and also to the House National Security Committee on Thursday.

In addition, we have other issues. Obviously, quality of life and readiness. These are two issues which are really linked very closely together. Unless we have a high quality of life dealing with health care, housing, incentive pay, education, other types of issues which affect the quality of life for all of those who are serving, it will have an impact upon readiness as well -- the operational tempo and the personal tempo.

So we're trying to address the issues. We have found some deficiencies as far as readiness is concerned. They have been identified with a good deal of help from the media, I might add, in focusing on these issues. As a result, we have responded.

I have included an additional billion dollars in the budget for readiness issues that I will present to you on Monday during the rollout, but give you some indication that we are addressing readiness.

But readiness itself is always going to be challenging. You can never achieve a perfect, static level of excellence as far as readiness is concerned. It will change depending upon what contingencies are required to be addressed, whether or not we have an operational tempo that is higher than one would like to have at a time. It will depend upon whether there's adequate funding so that we can address those issues and not be forced to take them out of modernization. So there are always going to be some tradeoffs, and we have to watch them very closely. As a result of the reports that readiness has become an issue, we have really developed new techniques of monitoring it more closely, making sure that I get an accurate assessment from the bottom up and it gets to me, and we now have a reporting system that we think will more quickly identify where those readiness issues appear so we can address them.

There will be something in the neighborhood of a 15 percent reduction in joint exercises. We hope to have the CINCs come up with an additional 10 percent by the year 2000. So we're trying to cut back on the operational tempo and the PERSTEMPO to provide relief to those units that are in high demand but low density, as we say, and make sure that we continue to attract and then keep the best possible individuals in our military.

With that, I will not stall you any longer. I know there are other issues you wish to address, but I wanted to focus just for a moment on what I think have been major successes during the first year.

Q: I have a three-part question for you. One, how would you evaluate the airstrikes against Iraq? Are they imminent? Two, are you going to the Persian Gulf area before those strikes? Three, will the Saudis let us use Al Kharj and other bases in Saudi Arabia for those strikes?

A: First of all, there has been no decision by the President as to whether we would use or resort to a military strike. That is something that has certainly been deferred until the President determines that all diplomatic avenues have been fully explored and have been unproductive and are at an end. He has not made that determination yet, nor has the Secretary of State recommended that they have been completely futile at this point. So we're not going to address the military option at this point.

We would hope that we can achieve a diplomatic solution to the crisis as it exists, and the best way to achieve that is to have solid support within the Security Council and the United Nations. To the extent that Saddam sees there's a division within the Security Council, then he will seek to exploit it, so we're hoping that we can persuade the members to support a very strong resolution and to support the United States in this effort. But we have not made a determination yet.

If and when a determination is made, then obviously we will have whatever resources are necessary to carry out such a mission. That's all I can say at this point.

Q: Your second two parts, are you going to the region before the strikes?

A: I have only tentative plans to go to the region. I will go in the President asks me to go. He has not asked me to go at this point. But if he does so, then I have the flexibility to leave from Europe. I'll be in Germany next week, and I also plan to be in Moscow, and I've built enough time in that I could travel to the Gulf if necessary.

Q: And the last part about the Saudis letting us use their basis for such strikes.

A: I have every confidence that the Gulf states will support whatever action is necessary on the part of the United States, including Saudi Arabia.

Q: What additional forces are you planning to send to the Gulf?

A: We've made no determination to send any additional forces at this time. There has been a request made. We are looking at that request to examine whether it's necessary, and we will keep that in mind as we develop any plans that might be necessary to take, any action plans.

Q: The request is for what? Is it for additional aircraft as well as ground troops in Kuwait?

A: Well, I really don't want to talk about what is in a request. A request has been made. I'm looking at it. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is looking at the request to see whether any additional forces or assets will be required for a military operation.

Q: Mr. Secretary, I know no one likes to enter the realm of a hypothetical, but should airstrikes become necessary, can you talk about what you hope to achieve politically on the other side of that? Do airstrikes make people change their minds? Do they make inspections easier, or do they eliminate them entirely? Certainly you can't hope to get all the weapons of mass destruction stashed in all the different parts of a country like Iraq.

A: I think you correctly stated the nature of the, not dilemma, but at least the problem. The best solution for containing Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction is to have the inspectors on the ground. There is no adequate substitute for that. To the extent that they have been completely precluded from carrying out their mission or negated in their effectiveness, then you have to look to see what the other options are.

To the extent that there is a military option, it is not an adequate substitute for inspectors being on the ground, having unfettered access. So that's why we continue to stress the need for unfettered access. If there were military action, I think we should not raise expectations unreasonably high. What we would hope to accomplish if that becomes necessary is to curtail as best we can, Saddam Hussein's capacity to regenerate his weapons of mass destruction capability or to marshal those forces that could pose a threat to his neighbors. But I don't think anyone should be under the impression that this is going to be a mission which will accomplish the complete elimination of his weapons of mass destruction, or force him to say he surrenders, or remove him from power. That would not be the goal of the United States and hopefully our allies in any sort of military operation.

Q: It would seem that if you did it and inspectors could not go back in, then you would have to do it again about every six weeks to guarantee or even have any small measure of guarantee that Iraq could not regenerate its ability to create these weapons, so you'll have to do it again and again and again.

A: I think it's clear that a military operation would not necessarily be a one-time operation or action. I think what's important is that we have the support of our allies to make sure that sanctions stay in place; that the message to Saddam Hussein is that unless you allow the inspectors back in there is no prospect of relief from those sanctions. I think Saddam Hussein has basically two goals in mind. Number one, to get rid of the inspectors; number two, to get rid of the sanctions. Again, I repeat that the best way for us to avoid the necessity of even considering a military option is for the security council members to speak very clearly on this and very solidly on this, that he must give unfettered access. So we're hoping that will be the case. In the event that it's not, then we will have to deal with the issue as best we can, recognizing once again that there's no single silver bullet solution or single military action that would be complete. So we would have to then follow up with other plans, again, in conjunction with our allies in terms of what measures could be taken to restrict his ability to regenerate those systems.

Q: Mr. Secretary, the Secretary of State said this morning that any military response would be significant. With that, an Arab newspaper in London is describing a three-point attack: first against the Republican Guard; if that doesn't bring the result, the second would be against strategic targets in the palaces; and then the third option, third stage of that, would be possible landing of U.S. forces in specific areas. So there's your battle plan for you. But can you speak to the significance of what you would do?

A: I'm not sure where those reports are coming from in terms of the reliability of those sources. I think it's adequate that I say that should military action be necessary it would not be meager, it would be substantial in size, and I think, impact. But beyond that, I wouldn't care to say.

Q: Mr. Secretary, by virtue of the sorts of targets that U.S. military strikes might go after in any kind of military action, by many estimates, this would entail civilian casualties. How much has that been a consideration in the discussion in the Administration? And is the Administration prepared for the kind of political fallout that would follow civilian casualties in such an endeavor?

A: I think it's always been the policy of the United States in considering any potential military operation to consider what the impact would be upon innocent civilians. The phrase is collateral damage, but it really means concern about innocent people being harmed or killed, so that's always a factor in any kind of planning operation for the military and something that we take into account and factor in in any kind of operation.

Q: Is it a larger factor this time around because of some of the potential targets? The chemical, the biological weapons facility sites that are suspected are in fact situated in civilian areas, many of them operated by civilians. So is it a bigger consideration this time than if you were simply going after specific military targets?

A: I think any time you're talking about weapons of mass destruction and the potential for collateral damage, in that context, you take a good deal more concern about it into account.

Q: You mentioned two areas. One was, a number of people have said that airstrikes will not be effective, particularly if Saddam Hussein is still in power. You touched on that briefly. Is there a chance that the U.S. might have a series of escalating strikes. That one strike, if that doesn't put enough pressure on the allies then an ever-increasing, another escalating activity. The eventuality of perhaps going in to remove Saddam Hussein. Again, what are your thoughts about... Many critics have said that the problem with the Persian Gulf War is you were still left with Saddam Hussein. Are we again going to be left with him?

A: I can see that you are intensely interested in my first year in office by your questions.

Q: It's something that you inherited.

A: Let me repeat it. I don't think it's appropriate for me to speculate what our plans are since there has been no plan that the President has approved to use military force at this time. Any speculation on my part or discussion of it I think is counter-productive. What I've said is, should military action become necessary, we should not raise expectations unreasonably high. That what the goal would be under those circumstances would be to curtail his ability to manufacture chemical and biological weapons, or nuclear weapons for that matter, and to pose a threat to his neighbors in the way of his missile capability or his ability to mobilize forces and move them against either Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. Those would be the goals should it become necessary.

But no one should be under any illusion or expectation that this is an all complete and satisfactory solution to the issue. What we need to have is inspectors on the ground, and that's the reason why we are spending so much time seeking to get unanimous support on the part of the Council members to back up the resolutions with their strong support. To the extent that we don't get that, then I think it undermines, my personal judgment is it undermines and affects the credibility of the UN itself. So there's a lot at stake here.

I think as you're seeing some of the members, the French in particular have indicated that they've become somewhat frustrated in dealing with Iraq. They have looked for creative solutions to resolving the issue diplomatically, but according to all press reports, they, too, are experiencing great frustration.

I think what we have to do is to solidify the support within the Security Council and the UN. That would be the best way to pressure Saddam Hussein to yield. If he thinks there's an opportunity to split the Council; if he thinks there's an opportunity to exploit these differences, then it's going to make it that much more difficult.

Q: Again, going after Saddam Hussein, that should definitely not be a goal for the U.S. military.

A: I don't think we should anticipate that that is going to occur.

Q: Mr. Secretary, what are some of the unintended consequences of large airstrikes in the region? And a second question is has the Lewinsky matter at all complicated the decisionmaking process in this regard in your view?

A: The answer to the second question is no. The President has focused on this issue intensely for the past several weeks. He met with the CINCs, the commanders in chief of our combatant commands and our service chiefs this week, and made a major speech at the National Defense University. So he has been kept up to speed on our plans and efforts for the past several weeks and has been intensely involved. It has no impact.

With respect to what could go wrong, as such, in terms of large military operations. There's always the chance of errant missiles; there's always a chance in the "fog of war" to hit targets that were unintended; there are always miscalculations that can be involved. But that's part of the planning operation. That's why it's very important that very detailed plans be made and proper exercise of the military troops be undertaken, that they be well trained and well led -- understanding that any time there's a military operation there's always a chance that things can happen which are unintended.

Q: I know you're waiting for word from the President on this, but what will determine whether or not you go to the region? If you go should this be seen as a rather grim sign? That things have taken a trend for the worse?

A: No, if the President feels that I can make a contribution to helping to either shore up support or convey a message from him, then I would do so. But what will determine it is the President. If he asks me to go, I will go.

Q: Could you describe for us the difference between the weapons that are available today and the weapons that were used in the Gulf War?

A: Generally speaking they are more accurate, they have greater lethality and more precision guided than they have been in the past. We would anticipate that they would be more effective. Beyond that, I don't think I should say any more.

Q: Do you have much greater numbers of precision guided...

A: I think we have a greater capability with precision guided equipment.

Q: Mr. Secretary, a Russian envoy is headed back to Baghdad. So you think that Saddam Hussein is simply pulling the string one more time, playing it out as long as he can to make some last minute concession that looks as if he's going to cooperate on weapons inspections? Precisely what do you think Saddam Hussein is up to and is he miscalculating?

A: I think it's obvious that Saddam Hussein has been up to playing hide and seek for the past six or seven years. He has engaged in a game of masterful deception, of delaying the inspectors, of hiding and placing the materiels and equipment that the inspectors are looking for outside their realm. But I say that with one caveat. They have been reasonably successful in their efforts. In spite of all of the hide and seek games, they have been able to destroy -- as the President said during his State of the Union message -- more weapons than were destroyed during the entire Persian Gulf War. They have not destroyed them per se, they have supervised the destruction of those weapons.

So I suspect that what he is up to now is to see if he can, in fact, find some way to drive a wedge between the members of the Security Council to see if he can't find ways to substitute other personnel for U.S. personnel, to load them up with individuals that he thinks would be more sympathetic to his cause. So I think all of that is involved in his efforts. What we have to make clear is that the United Nations has picked individuals for the inspection teams based upon their competence and experience, and that we have no objection to others contributing to the effort to conduct these inspections but not as a substitute for the United States.

We've already indicated that to the extent that others have the capability of supplementing or complementing the U2 efforts, we have no objection to that. But we are not prepared and will not agree to any regime which simply politicizes the Security Council's efforts, the UNSCOM inspectors, or undermines its expertise.

Q: Has he miscalculated?

A: I think it's a miscalculation, and we'll have to wait and see if we have the united support of the Security Council, but I think there's been a big miscalculation on his part.

Q: Mr. Secretary, when the Monica Lewinsky thing broke you were quoted as saying that if her allegations are true it's all over. Were you chided by the President or anyone else at the White House for that statement? And since we are very interested in your past and also your future, do you plan to stay on for another 53 weeks?

A: Number one, I did not make such a statement. Number two, the President had no conversation with me pertaining to that whatsoever. We were together during the course of the week, in fact I attended a function for the commanders in chief at the White House. This has never been a subject of discussion for us.

Q: Mr. Secretary, you have mentioned several times the importance of the Security Council staying together on this issue. Would it not be of tremendous importance to get from the Security Council a statement or a finding that Iraq is in material breach?

A: It would be helpful, but it's not necessary. We believe that we have the authority to act without any resolution of material breach. I think it would be helpful to show there is solidarity of support, and frankly, I find it incredibly hard to accept the proposition that in the face of Saddam's actions that members of the Security Council cannot bring themselves to declare that this is a fundamental or material breach of conduct on his part. So we don't think it's necessary. Would it be helpful? I think it would be helpful.

Q: But if you don't get it, then it shows that he has succeeded in driving a wedge, that this simple factual finding which is so obvious, as you point out, they are unable to come together with the United States.

A: I think it challenges the credibility of the Security Council if they as individual members cannot find the strength to say that this constitutes a significant material breach. But we don't think it's necessary to do that. We think the authority is there to take action without it. But I think it does reflect upon the Security Council's lack of commitment to enforcing the resolutions if they cannot find the will to say material breach or substantial significant breach of the conduct on his part. I find it hard to accept that proposition. It may be the case, but we don't think it's mandatory or essential. Again, I think it would be helpful.

Q: Mr. Secretary, the Indian Prime Minister this morning said that India would not tolerate a U.S. strike on Iraq. I wonder if that is a factor, how much of a factor that is in any of the decisions you're making; and peripherally, beyond that question, does this apparent improvement of relations with Iran, that looks on the horizon, have any effect on what you would do in the area?

A: I think they're separate entirely, and frankly, if the Indians have objection to any resort to military force should it be required, I would hope they would have a more constructive recommendation as to how to help get support for imposing the sanctions and enforcing them, and the UN resolution. So I think it's one thing for those on the outside of the process right now to criticize or condemn, but I hope that they would have a more constructive approach on how they would be helpful in getting support for inspectors being on the ground, unfettered, and imposing the sanctions.

With respect to Iran, that really is not a factor in our deliberations.

Q: You mentioned going back to your one year in office and you avoided answering the next 53 weeks. What do you see ahead of you for your future?

A: I don't think I avoided answering, I think it was a three-part question, and I thought by answering the first part it took care of the third part.

I would anticipate being here for the remainder of my term, and I hope to be, and hope to continue my efforts in promoting the Revolution in Military Affairs, presiding over the Revolution in Business Affairs, and helping to transform our military so it is at least one to two steps ahead in generation from any competitor in the future. So I hope to continue to make those kinds of contributions in the coming years.

Q: During the Gulf War, some Iraqi troops surrendered to an unmanned aerial vehicle. What's your assessment of what will happen to the Iraqi military if there are sustained airstrikes?

A: I don't care to speculate what would happen. Who knows what lurks in their minds and their spirit. Again, we haven't made that decision yet, and if and when we do, we'll have to wait for the outcome. I can't speculate on it.

Q: If UNSCOM has been relatively successful; if Saddam Hussein remains in a box; he's really not at this point threatening his neighbors. If he makes a move, we're all over him. He's under a microscope right now. Why is it then, why would it be then necessary to take that step of military action if he's already so contained in the region?

A: Because without inspectors on the ground having access to the sites that have been declared off-limits, there's no way to verify and to determine whether or not he's building a greater capability so he can threaten his neighbors. So it's important that if you don't have the inspectors on the ground that you curtail, as best you can, his ability to expand or build upon those capabilities.

Press: Thank you very much.

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