So far, the new autobiography of General Hugh Shelton, retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hasn't received a lot of attention in media or publishing circles. Two weeks after its publication, the 500-page memoir hasn't cracked the Top 100 on Amazon.com, or received high-profile reviews in the Washington Post or The New York Times, although he did appear on ABC's This Week.
Indeed, the only real "buzz" generated by the book was a story that ran--briefly--last week, describing how President Clinton misplaced the nuclear "cookie" (the codes needed to launch nuclear weapons) for several weeks. General Shelton's account confirms the claim of retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Buzz Peterson, who detailed the incident in his book, Dereliction of Duty, more than six years ago.
But there's another anecdote in Shelton's autobiography that is far more disturbing. At a weekly breakfast with other Clinton Administration security officials, a senior cabinet officer (unnamed in the book) proposed a novel idea for starting a "needed" war with Saddam Hussein:
"At one of my very first breakfasts, while [National Security Advisor Sandy]Berger and [Defense Secretary William] Cohen were engaged in a sidebar discussion at one end of the table and [CIA Director George] Tenet and [UN Ambassador Bill] Richardson were preoccupied in another, one of the cabinet members present leaned over to me and said “Hugh, I know I shouldn’t even be asking you this, but what we really need in order to go in and take out Saddam is a precipitous event — something that would make us look good in the eyes of the world. Could you have one of our U-2s fly low enough — and slow enough — so as to guarantee that Saddam could shoot it down?”
“The hair on the back of my neck bristled, my teeth clenched, and my fists tightened,” Shelton wrote. “I was so mad I was about to explode. I looked across the table, thinking about the pilot in the U-2 and responded, ‘Of course we can ...’ which prompted a big smile on the official’s face.
“’You can?’ was the excited reply.
“’Why, of course we can,’” I countered. ‘Just as soon as we get your ass qualified to fly it, I will have it flown just as low and slow as you want to go.’
General Shelton writes that he was shocked at the disrespect and sheer audacity of the question. The cabinet official was quite willing to send a U-2 pilot to his or her death, providing the justification required for "getting" Saddam. In 34 years of service leading up to that 1997 exchange, Shelton said he had never seen or imagined "anything that came close" to a senior cabinet member suggesting that he be a party to killing one of our great airmen, in hopes of starting a war.
This particular revelation has touched off speculation in some circles as to the identity of that cabinet secretary. Reading between the lines, it doesn't take much detective work to finger Secretary of State Madeline Albright as (perhaps) the most likely suspect. According to Shelton, Ms. Albright was a regular participant in the meetings, and one of the few cabinet-level officials present. And, according to the general's account, the other cabinet officers present (Cohen and Tenet) were engaged in other discussions, making Albright a leading candidate for the repugnant "suggestion."
But that's not the only evidence that leads us to Secretary Albright. In Colin Powell's book Soldier, he writes of run-ins with Albright (then our ambassador to the United Nations) on the subject of Bosnia. Albright was an early advocate of U.S. military action in the Balkans; Powell, in his role as Chairman of the JCS, was hesitant. He found no compelling American interest in the region, and warned that any military commitment would result in "numerous casualties" and require an open-ended commitment that might last for decades.
Exasperated at Powell's "no can do" approach, Albright once asked him: what's the point in having an army if you can't use it? General Powell, of course, was not only concerned about the geopolitical impact of military operations in the Balkans, he was also worried about the soldiers who would perform that mission.
More than fifteen years later, we can argue about who was "right" and "wrong" about U.S. policies in the Balkans. But given Ms. Albright's preference for military intervention in the early stages of that conflict, it's not hard to imagine her floating the idea of starting a war with Saddam--with an Air Force U-2 (and its pilot) as the bait.