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Jewish World Review April 29, 2003 / 27 Nissan, 5763

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Finally, a president defending American principles in the Middle East ... 10 minutes with Alexander Haig | For more than 50 years, Alexander Haig -- first as a military leader and then as friend and/or close adviser to seven U.S. presidents -- has been one of the country's most important and powerful figures.

Haig served on Gen. MacArthur's staff in Korea and was a brigade and battalion commander in Vietnam, where he received the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism.

He was military adviser to Henry Kissinger in the Nixon White House. Then, in 1972 as a full general, Haig helped Nixon negotiate the Vietnam cease-fire and arrange the president's historic trip to Communist China. In 1974, President Ford named him supreme allied commander in Europe and in 1981 he was sworn in as President Reagan's secretary of state.

Today the 1947 West Point grad owns his own advisory firm, Worldwide Associates Inc., which gives strategic advice to corporations on global, political, economic, commercial and security matters, and is host of the weekly television program, "World Business Review."

I talked to Haig on Thursday by phone from his office in Washington.

Q: Was the war in Iraq prosecuted to your total satisfaction?

A: Well, or course it's not over yet. The fighting phase is over, largely. There will be a terrorist phase, but the most important phase will be the rebuilding of Iraq. Until that is done in a satisfactory way, we can't conclude the case by a long shot.

Q: Are you optimistic about the ability to transplant democracy to Iraq?

A: Now that's not a process that happens overnight. And when we Americans are foolish enough to believe we can do that, more often than not we are disappointed. We saw that in Haiti and in a number of places.

You know, the best way to spread democracy is by example - not by bayonets or pressures or blackmail or economic embargoes, but by example. And that's how we Americans are going to be successful.

Now in the case of Iraq, they have a history which is acquainted with democratic procedures and representative-type government, although it was a monarchy before it was a so-called republic.

Q: So we're not trying to build it from scratch.

A: No. They have had a very highly educated population that's been the cultural center of the Middle East and the historic center of the world. Mesopotamia was the cradle of civilization. This is a country where I think there would be considerable hope for representative government and due process, and that means respect for the rule of law.

So I think we have reason to be optimistic if we can get a balance between the various ethnic and religious sectors, such as the Sunnis, the Shiites, the Kurds, the other religious minorities and other nationalistic interests.

Q: Are you comfortable with the Bush administration's "active" - I put quotes around "active" because I think it's almost a euphemism - foreign policy in the Middle East?

A: I'm not only comfortable with it, I would suggest that it's 30 years overdue. Both parties, Republican and Democrat, have mishandled Middle East polices for at least 30 years and I've been involved with the area in most of those 30 years:

Starting out with our willingness to let the British withdraw from the region in the early '70s, for the want of a little money. Then the overthrow of the shah of Iran. Followed by the hostage crisis of 18 months' duration, in which we did nothing but bluster and fume, and in the process continued to lose credibility.

In the Reagan years, the Lebanon blow-up was very badly handled in my view, and it resulted in the murder of 260-some Marines. And then the demolition of our embassy annex with the loss of another 60 State Department personnel. And we did nothing but put our tails between our legs and run home.

Q: So we should have been more - I'll use the word "aggressive" -- but more ...

A: Principled about preserving our interests. I don't have to tell you what happened in the (first) Gulf War. We had the conflict won. We were the ones who wrote the resolution, so the claim that we were confined by it is sort of foolish.

Q: The resolution what - not to finish the job on Saddam?

A: To just free Kuwait. Of course, the facts of the matter were that that was a major strategic error and it lost us credibility throughout the region and made Saddam Hussein the hero in the Middle East.

That was followed, I don't have to tell you, by one terrorist act after another, each one becoming more and more violent. It was true especially during the Clinton years, when we had eight years of bluster and fume, and demolition of our embassies in Africa and the attempted murder of former President Bush in Kuwait City.

So all of these things left a residue of zero American credibility and, in fact, contempt for America. That led to the kind of violence - the suicide bombings that we see not only in Israel - and finally 9/11.

We, of course, had a similar terrorist effort against the World Trade Center made early in the Clinton administration and had that bomb been put in a better position in the trade center, we would have lost tens of thousands of people, because there would have been no warning.

We knew who did it. The evidence was pretty clear. Now, all these terrorist groups are linked. We uncovered the big training camp in northern Iraq where al-Qaida and these terrorists from different groups come in and train, get equipped and go back to do their mischief. So what we've got is one of the key players in global terrorism - Saddam Hussein.

Q: So you have any unsolicited advice for President Bush about what to do or not to do next?

A: That depends on the situation. We are at war. The United States is not now out of war. We are still at a state of war with global terrorism that was declared as a result of 9/11.

I think the president did the right thing by declaring war. This is the first and very important step in the battle against global terrorism, because the outcome of what's happened in Iraq is going to cast a shadow over every one of these terrorist movements.

In that area -- and people overlook it -- the president has done extremely well. We have been wrapping up al-Qaida cells and related terrorist activity at an unprecedented rate abroad and at home.

Q: Of all of your many important jobs, which was the most rewarding, most satisfying, the most fun - however you would want to characterize it?

A: The most satisfying, and also the most traumatic, is commanding young men in battle, where you have a very important responsibility for their life and their welfare. There's nothing that compares with it, from Watergate to Timbuktu.

That is the most moving experience a human can have, to see the bravery and courage of our young people. And they deserve the absolute best in political leadership, and they haven't got it in recent years in America.

We now have a young president who has thus far shown he has what has been lacking in most of them - and that's an unusual degree of character. You can buy brains, you can buy good looks, you can buy television personality. But character is what makes the difference between a good president and a so-so president -- or worse.

Q: If I said to you, "General MacArthur," what would be your one-sentence response about him?

A: Superb. I knew him personally. I worked right in his office at the outbreak of the Korean War. I landed at Inchon which was his conception and was carried out despite the vehement opposition of President Truman and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff, with the exception of the Navy.

Q: How about Henry Kissinger? A: Kissinger's a brilliant scholar with great historic depth, and without historic knowledge I would say most people don't even know how to even start with foreign policy. That's the first premise of foreign policy - knowing history.

Q: Mr. Nixon.

A: Mr. Nixon was a badly maligned victim of Vietnam and his own lifetime effort of anti-communism. He was among the best presidents I've served in foreign policy.

Q: Ronald Reagan. A: I obviously have great affection for Ronald Reagan. I think he accomplished a great deal through what I referred to earlier -- a high level of character. A visceral intuition.

Q: I know you've been asked this a thousand times, but if you aren't "Deep Throat," who do you think is?

A: (Laughs) You know I'm not "Deep Throat" because Woodward and Bernstein have both denied it vigorously. Finally. It took them 20 years or more to do it, but they did it. (laughs). And anybody who had known history knew I wasn't even in the White House when "Deep Throat" was at work. (laughs). I was a vice chief of the Army.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald