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William Crowe : Veteran of Mideast Crises Reflects on Current Standoff By Gregg Easterbrook

August 19, 1990|Gregg Easterbrook | Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor to Newsweek and the Atlantic. He interviewed William J. Crowe Jr. in the retired admiral's Washington office on Thursday

WASHINGTON — Retired Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., born in 1925 in landlocked La Grange, Ky., was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1985 to 1989. Crowe served in the Navy for 43 years, his career beginning at the close of World War II and concluding, with the U.S. military under his command, with the 1986 Libya bombing, the Persian Gulf operations during the Iran-Iraq War and the destruction of an Iranian airliner by the U.S. guided-missile cruiser Vincennes.

Crowe was a surprise choice for the joint-chiefs post. His reputation was more of a bookish sort--he holds a Ph.D. in political science from Princeton--than a warrior. He set a trend, though--the current joint-chiefs chairman, Army Gen. Colin L. Powell, holds a master's in business administration. Crowe's tenure at the joint chiefs was distinguished by reduction in interservice rivalries, a shortening of chains of command and increased authority for the chairman himself. This was required by the Goldwater-Nichols defense reorganization bill, passed just as Crowe was taking office and, to the delight of Pentagon critics, enthusiastically embraced by Crowe. Crowe was also an active participant in diplomatic efforts to bring top Soviet generals for tours of U.S. military facilities--and vice versa.

Since retiring late last year, Crowe has been a professor at the University of Oklahoma, a member of a Washington think tank--the Center for Strategic and International Studies--and a popular lecture-circuit speaker.

Question: What are the current chances of avoiding fighting in the Persian Gulf?

Answer: There are many possible scenarios, but looking at it rationally, considering that our presence there is increasing every day, the prospects for avoiding hostilities are improving. But you can't discount the vagaries of the area or the possibility of a misstep--the sorts of accidents that have in the past started unintended wars.

Q: Were you surprised by the sudden announcement of a kiss-and-make-up between Iran and Iraq?

A: I wouldn't give it the significance some people are. Saddam Hussein has already derived from his Iran campaign most of the benefits he was going to get out of it. Now he's got bigger things on his mind, and he's clearly trying to reduce his problems so that he can concentrate on the United States. Iran's in such bad shape, Hussein is not giving away much of value.

Q: Will it be a lasting peace between those two nations?

A: No, not unless Iraq comes out of this crisis completely deflated.

Q: It's now being said that the Israelis are out of joint because we are not including them in this operation. Does that seem true to you?

A: If they do feel that way, they're gravely mistaken. Surely they must understand that with the political imperatives of the Arab World, the United States cannot afford to have Israel associated with this effort. Of course, the Israelis have their own peculiar way of looking at events, and they are insatiable when it comes to anything that generates closer ties to the U.S. They may feel they're missing a great opportunity--but that has an unreal air about it.

Q: There's been speculation that if combat begins between the United States and Iraq, the Israeli military would take advantage of the distraction to begin attacking military installations in western Iraq that threaten Israel. Might that happen?

A: I think without coordination with the United States and the other countries involved, it would be a terrible mistake for Israel to blunder into a conflict that might develop.

Q: Just after Hussein took Kuwait, there was a great deal of worry that he would invade Saudi Arabia immediately--before we were in position to do much about it. But he didn't. What do you read into that?

A: Certainly from a military standpoint, there's a lot in that. I think even at that early stage it was becoming clear to Hussein that he had seriously miscalculated the political unity he would create in the West, and that he was in for some real political static.

Q: Why has Western reaction been so forceful?

A: To me the most remarkable thing about the whole crisis, which distinguishes it from any other in the postwar period, has been that the that Soviet Union has not been at cross-purposes with the United States. This has thrown the whole business in a new light, giving the President a latitude that no postwar President has ever had in dealing with these sorts of crises.

Though our attention is right now focused on the Middle East, the biggest single factor at play is that so far all this business of improving our relations with the Soviet Union has already paid off handsomely. If this crisis had taken the pattern of the past--with the Soviet Union continuing to support Iraq and supply it with arms--we could not have done what we are now doing.

Q: So in your mind the question of whether the Soviets will join us in some sort of blockade is secondary to the simple fact that they're not opposing us.

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