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Remembering President Ford

On Iraq war: 'They made a big mistake'

Ford, in an embargoed interview, says rationale for invasion was in error and that he would have sought sanctions.

December 28, 2006|Bob Woodward | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Former President Gerald R. Ford, in an interview embargoed until after his death, said that the Iraq war was not justified. "I don't think I would have gone to war," he said a little more than a year after President Bush launched the invasion advocated and carried out by prominent veterans of Ford's own administration.

In a four-hour conversation in July 2004 at his house in Beaver Creek, Colo., Ford "very strongly" disagreed with the current president's justifications for invading Iraq and said he would have pushed alternatives, such as sanctions, much more vigorously. In the tape-recorded interview, Ford was critical not only of Bush but also of Vice President Dick Cheney -- Ford's White House chief of staff -- and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who served as Ford's chief of staff and then his Pentagon chief.

"Rumsfeld and Cheney and the president made a big mistake in justifying going into the war in Iraq. They put the emphasis on weapons of mass destruction," Ford said. "And now, I've never publicly said I thought they made a mistake, but I felt very strongly it was an error in how they should justify what they were going to do."

In a conversation that veered between the current realities of a war in the Middle East and the old complexities of the war in Vietnam whose bitter end he presided over as president, Ford took issue with the notion of the United States entering a conflict in service of the idea of spreading democracy.

"Well, I can understand the theory of wanting to free people," Ford said, referring to Bush's assertion that the United States has a "duty to free people." But the former president said he was skeptical "whether you can detach that from the obligation No. 1, of what's in our national interest."

He added: "And I just don't think we should go hellfire damnation around the globe freeing people, unless it is directly related to our own national security."

The Ford interview -- and a subsequent lengthy conversation in 2005 -- took place for a future book project, though he said his comments could be published at any time after his death. In the sessions, Ford fondly recalled his close working relationship with key Bush advisors Cheney and Rumsfeld while expressing concern about the policies they pursued in more recent years.

"He was an excellent chief of staff. First class," Ford said. "But I think Cheney has become much more pugnacious" as vice president. He said he agreed with former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's assertion that Cheney developed a "fever" about the threat of terrorism and Iraq. "I think that's probably true."

Describing his own preferred policy toward Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Ford said he would not have gone to war, based on the publicly available information at the time, and would have worked harder to find an alternative. "I don't think, if I had been president, on the basis of the facts as I saw them publicly," he said, "I don't think I would have ordered the Iraq war. I would have maximized our effort through sanctions, through restrictions, whatever, to find another answer."

Ford had faced his own military crisis -- not a war he started like Bush, but one he had to figure out how to end.

In many ways those decisions framed his short presidency -- in the difficult calculations about how to pull out of Vietnam and the challenging players who shaped policy on the war. Most challenging of all, as Ford recalled, was Henry A. Kissinger, who was secretary of State and national security advisor and had what Ford said was "the thinnest skin of any public figure I ever knew."

"I think he was a super secretary of State," Ford said, "but Henry in his mind never made a mistake, so whatever policies there were that he implemented, in retrospect he would defend."

In 1975, Ford decided to relieve Kissinger of his national security title. "Why Nixon gave Henry both secretary of State and head of the NSC, I never understood," Ford said. "Except he was a great supporter of Kissinger. Period."

But Ford viewed Kissinger's dual roles as a conflict of interest that weakened the administration's ability to fully air policy debates. "They were supposed to check on one another."

That same year, Ford also decided to fire Defense Secretary James Schlesinger and replace him with Rumsfeld, who was then Ford's chief of staff.

Ford recalled that he then used that decision to go to Kissinger and say, "I'm making a change at the secretary of Defense, and I expect you to be a team player and work with me on this" by giving up the post of security advisor.

Kissinger was not happy. "Mr. President, the press will misunderstand this," Ford recalled Kissinger telling him. "They'll write that I'm being demoted by taking away half of my job."

But Ford made the changes, elevating the deputy national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, to take Kissinger's White House post.

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