Interview: Admiral William Crowe, USN (Ret.)

Proceedings : You have considered for years that the Soviet strategic nuclear arsenal is the most dangerous military threat to the United States.  What do you see as the greatest danger today?

Crowe : I’m not sure that’s changed very much.  I don’t mean to imply that Soviet nuclear weapons will be used, because I think it is very unlikely.  In fact, I think the likelihood of a nuclear war has receded to the lowest point now since the end of World War II or since the Soviets developed nuclear weapons.  The reason I say it is still the most dangerous threat is because nuclear weapons are the only weapons that can reach the United States.  We have been living under that specter since the mid-1950s.  And we can do very little about it.

Now, if you had asked me about the most likely threat, my answer would have been different.

Proceedings : What is the most likely threat?

Crowe : I’m not sure there is a likely threat to the continental United States, but there are many threats to our interests.  We just confronted and defeated one, and we’re probably going to see more Balkanization and instability around the world.  We are now seeing it in Yugoslavia, Pakistan, and India.  Africa and North Korea have some major problems.  The most important threat, however, would be the breakup of the Soviet Union, if it turns violent and hostile.  That is not going to threaten the survival of the United States; it is, however, going to threaten our interests.  The stakes are high in that part of the world, so we will be involved directly or indirectly.

Proceedings : With President [George] Bush’s tactical nuclear weapons announcement, the “Neither Confirm nor Deny” policy is now no longer necessary.  Is this a gain or a loss?

Crowe : I think it’s a gain.  I don’t see how you could sustain the policy.  This seems to be a logical follow-on to the decision made by President Bush.  He did not make it for this reason, but certainly it will now be easier for foreign countries to approve U.S. ship visits.  Our political-military relationship with Japan—where this has always been a source of considerable confusion, if not argument—should improve.  “Confirm nor deny” is not the problem in North Korea, but certainly the President’s policy should put us in a much better position to influence Kim Il Sung not to produce nuclear weapons.

Proceedings : How much confidence do you have in the verification process?

Crowe : First of all, President Bush’s announcement, as I interpret it, left a considerable hedge in our own inventory.  We are not eliminating all of our capability.  One thing that may present a bit of a problem for the Soviets is that we are not destroying everything we have, even tactically.  So I think we have some margin for error.  Our ability to verify is probably pretty good.  Our ability to prevent cheating 100% is probably not.

Proceedings : Some would say your exchange visits with the Soviets in the late 1980s paved the way for improving relations between the two countries.  At the time, what changes did you expect and which ones surprised you most?

Crowe : Number one, I’m not sure our reciprocal military visits paved the way to anything.  I would never be so presumptuous.  What I had hoped for was to improve the relationship sufficiently so that we could discuss at least our mutual problems and have more open disclosure between militaries.  That way, we would have a better handle on what the Soviets did and did not have, and a more realistic appreciation of what we were confronting.  It’s done a little of that.  I don’t know that it’s done it sufficiently to satisfy us, but I think we understand more about the Soviet Union than we did.  Perhaps not because of my initiative, but because the Soviet Union is in so much trouble, we understand now how hollow the entire system was.

But one thing we did do, I think, we changed the minds of a lot of people concerning the aggressiveness of the United States.  I know we changed Marshal [Sergei] Akhromeyev’s view.  He started those talks with a very distorted and depressed view of United States ambitions.  During the last three years of his life, he changed his mind, and told me so.  In his judgment, too, the prospect of war between the Soviet Union and the United States had become the lowest it had been since World War II.

What impact that has on other events, I don’t know.  But I think many senior Soviet officers who have had the opportunity to visit here have had a similar awakening.  And I suspect that those in the U.S. military who are having more contact with the Soviet Union are discovering that some of their deeply held convictions may not be as right as they once thought.

Proceedings : You developed a good working relationship with Akhromeyev.  Why did he give up on the reform movement?

Crowe : He probably had a little different version of the reform movement than we did.  We don’t know that he participated in the coup.  Several articles say that he did, but I don’t know.  A number of good, high-level Soviet sources have either called me directly from the Soviet Union or through intermediaries, saying their information is that he was not associated with the coup.  But I cannot testify from personal knowledge.

He was closely wedded to Gorbachev and he thought—this I know for a fact from my conversations with him—there were a lot of things wrong with his society.  He had matured in that society as a thinking man, and he understood that.  He did not like sending people to exile in Siberia, or shooting people, or restricting their travel, or chasing out professional people.  He could list at great length the things wrong with his nation.  To paraphrase, Akhromeyev wanted a kinder, gentler socialist state.  But he did not want to see the socialist state disappear.  He worked his whole life in the vineyards of communism.  He did not want to see the republics become independent.  He did not want the Warsaw Pact to erode or go away.  The process that he originally encouraged was going further than what he had in mind.  He wanted a better relationship with the United States, and I think he wanted that until the day he died.  But he wanted a 50-50 relationship, and he wasn’t so sure it was 50-50.  Everything the United States wanted was happening.  Nothing he wanted was happening.  And that irritated him.  He had great trouble admitting that all problems in the Soviet Union were self-generated, but that was built into his soul.  The trouble with revolution is that not everybody is satisfied after the revolution.  There must be two sides or you don’t have a revolution.  I just finished a book about the last days of Robert E. Lee.  You know, the South was pretty upset with the outcome of the Civil War.  And Akhromeyev was pretty upset by the outcome of this revolution.  He said to me at one point, “We’re electing people to office I never even heard of, and they’re lazy.”  I said, “Marshal, we’ve been doing that for 200 years.  That’s the name of the game.  If you want pluralism, you’ve got to get used to that.”

Proceedings : One of the side effects of the President’s tactical nuclear weapon initiative seems to be an increase in congressional clamor for further cuts in an already sharply reduced defense budget.  In your view, how much defense is enough?

Crowe : The real answer is I don’t know.  But I like the approach of the administration and the military right now, saying they’re going to make cuts in the neighborhood of 25% to 30% in five years.  That I think is about right.  My fear is that if current trends continue in the Soviet Union, Western Europe, and around the world, Congress won’t be satisfied with that.  And as the five-year period draws to a close, they will continue to cut further and further.  There must be a threshold.  [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General] Colin Powell says that this a baseline we’re moving toward and we should never go below that baseline.  That makes a certain amount of sense to me.  My instincts tell me we won’t get away with it, that if the world continues to progress the way it is, the Congress will go deeper.  And that would probably be a mistake.

Of course, it’s a dynamic equation.  It all depends on circumstances outside and inside and on what other demands you have on your budget.  I happen to believe right now that because our domestic concerns are very grave, this is the proper time to cut the military.  There has never been a better time in my adult life to draw down the military than today.  However, I would do it gradually, and I would stop at a minimal level.  I preach all over this country that whatever size military we decide on, it must be a healthy one.  To attract good men and women, which should be our very first priority, we must allow people to fly, to sail, and to shoot, whatever size the military is.  Otherwise, young men and women who are so attracted to it now won’t come into it later.  And if you don’t have good people, you won’t have a good military.  And you won’t have a good cadre around which to expand when the day comes that we need larger forces.  And that day will come sometime.

Proceedings : The recent tactical nuclear weapons action seems to be exclusively between the Soviet Union and the United States.  What should be done to get other countries involved?

Crowe : Of course, if President Bush can not only reduce his own inventory but inspire the Soviets to reduce theirs, the deeper and more sustained the cuts are, the more important this question becomes.  There will be a level that nobody will want to go below until we have all the other nuclear powers participating in the process.  Right now, we have not as yet taken that into consideration.  In fact, in our strategic talks, we have insisted all along that nobody else should enter into the discussions—just the two of us.  We will have to review that question and expand the scope of these matters if reductions are to continue below 3,000 or 4,000 level.  We simply cannot continue indefinitely without bringing the French, the Chinese, and the British into the debate.

Proceedings : Do you think it is feasible to work with the Soviet Union on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)?

Crowe : The Soviet Union has neither the resources nor the talent right now to compete directly with us in SDI, if we choose to make a determined effort.  I don’t know if we’re looking to them for anything at this point.  It seems to me as though the problems in the SDI are such that we have to make some very painful decisions on our own, irrespective of what the Soviets do.  Whether you’re going to have a space-based SDI or not depends on how much money is going to go into defense, how deeply you want to cut the Army, Navy, and Air Force in order to build on SDI.  Is the return on the investment great enough to justify it?  We’ve got a lot of questions to ask.  The current level of debate on SDI in this country is very superficial.  I think the people who want it, want it, and they ignore most of the practical problems.  The people who don’t want it ignore the same problems, too.  The two poles of the argument are so busy advocating their own positions that they don’t really treat the subject in great detail and comprehensively.  It’s a very serious question.  The goals of both sides are, in a certain sense, right.  An effective SDI that could knock down all incoming nuclear weapons and keep the United States free from attack would be a most laudable goal.  But so what?  The question is, what does it cost?  What do you give up?  Every time you spend that kind of money, you give up something.  It is frankly too early into the game to commit irrevocably to a certain kind of SDI.  The fact that we have a Patriot missile does not mean we can have an SDI.

I happen to think that we can overcome the technical problems.  Then, you must ask, “Is it worth the investment?”  We’ve got to know a lot more than we know now because we can answer that question.  But the advocates don’t want to talk about that.  They want you to make a decision right now, no matter what it costs.  The people opposed to SDI don’t want it no matter how promising our research.  Some are just plain antinuclear.  Some are interested in domestic problems.  Some just don’t like the people who are advocating it.  Some are politically against the people in office and want to throw them out of office.  These issues are so hard because of the motivations of the people doing the talking.  They usually never say exactly what they have in mind.  They might have some cause in mind they don’t want to articulate.  It’s the old story.  One rule of thumb, I think, applies to just about everything that goes on in Washington: whatever it is, it’s never as good as the advocates say it is, and it’s never as bad as the opponents say.  SDI, I think, falls in that same category.  There are strong arguments for SDI, but there are some strong caveats regarding SDI.  I don’t want to see the Army and Navy disappear in order to get us an SDI.  If we had unlimited resources, I would be for an all-out SDI program.  We don’t have unlimited resources.  If we do, I’m not aware of it.

Proceedings : Why have we seen no evidence of cutbacks in Soviet strategic weaponry?

Crowe : We have a couple of areas—naval forces being one—where we have not seen the cutbacks we anticipated.  We keep predicting that the Soviets’ economic situation will inevitably force drawdowns.  We have seen some reductions in the Soviet ground forces, but we have not seen significant strategic reductions.  Now that we are going to get a strategic arms agreement, perhaps the picture will change.  But at this time, the Soviet Union is in such disarray that START is their second priority.  If Mr. Gorbachev announced, “We’re starting cutbacks tomorrow,” I don’t know if that would mean anything.

I don’t think there’s any question that the prospect of a protracted major war with the Soviet Union has receded dramatically.  The Soviet Union could not wage a war for a long period of time because of its economic and political disarray.  So the fundamental threat has retreated, but whether the strategic weapons numbers are down or not, and why not, I can’t say.

Proceedings : In 1978 you wrote the longest article in recent Proceedings history, “The Persian Gulf: Central or Peripheral to United States Strategy?”  Much of it is very prophetic.  One of the things you predicted is that with “…a further depletion of the world’s oil supplies Baghdad could very well turn its attentions southward.”  Now that such a move has been thwarted, what’s your forecast for the Middle East, short-term and long-term?

Crowe : You’re really tying to get me into trouble, aren’t you?

Proceedings : Well, sure.  That’s what interviews are all about, right?

Crowe : You let me get myself in trouble.  It seems to me that, irrespective of Desert Storm, the fundamental political problems that have plagued the region for quite some time are still there.  We contained Saddam Hussein and drove him out of Kuwait, but we haven’t sorted him out—replaced him.  His radius of influence is reduced and his ability to kick everybody around probably never was very high, although we credited it to be high.  In any event, he is contained and is now just a symptom of other problems in the Middle East, which are still there.  The people of the Arab world, despite their big talk, are not unified.  The “haves” and “have-nots” are still a tremendous problem, and the “haves” don’t want a new world order.  They want to go back to the second of August last year as soon as they can.  Pluralism is alive—at least the pressures for pluralism—in the Middle East.  They are not so intense as they are in the Western world, but they are there.

We have to deal with all these things.  Of course, the United States faces a basic conundrum, which has been there from the very outset, since the late 1920s.  We have to deal with the elites who control the oil.  We have no choice.  On the other hand, those elites are probably going to disappear sometime.

Proceedings : As Commander Middle East Force, did you meet Saddam Hussein?

Crowe : No, I did not.  I was not allowed to go to Iraq.  I have several friends in Bahrain who know him well.  A military victory against him has not solved all our problems.  Many Americans have a tendency to forget that military victories should be linked in some fashion to political agendas.  We don’t just defeat people for the thrill of defeating them.  Iraq is a good example.  We overwhelmed its forces, and yet Saddam Hussein is still in power.  A lot of people in the Middle East are still running the place that do not want to change.  How do you reconcile these pressures?  Are you on the right side of history?  In several things we’ve engaged in over the years, we’ve been on the wrong side of history.  Our involvement in the Middle East is going to be protracted, it’s probably going to be painful, and I don’t know any way we can avoid it.  That’s the burden of being a great power.

Proceedings : Would you say we’re on the right track in getting the two sides at least to sit down and talk—or shout?

Crowe : Yes.  That’s progress.  It’s minute progress, but it is progress.  And it’s very characteristic.  You go to a lot of effort to take one small step, but there’s no other way to do it.  I’ve followed the situation very closely.  You know, the hype that accompanies everything we do—instant television coverage and so forth—is very unfortunate.  The reason I say unfortunate is that it is not a matter of informing or educating the American people; it raises their hopes and expectations.  The nature of our political system is that the President must come out and say certain proposals and negotiations are the greatest things since sliced bread, no matter how small the steps.  In this case, there’s going to be a lot of agony.  But it’s a necessary part of the process.  The American people are constantly led to expect too much.  It would be much better if the President were allowed to insulate himself from these everyday pressures.  Personally, I am a born pessimist.  I’ve discovered that it feels so good when you’re wrong.  I wish the American people were more guarded, but they’re the opposite.  As a result, they’re constantly being disappointed.



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