General Richard Meyers

Richard Bowman Myers is a retired four-star general in the United States Air Force and served as the 16th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Previously, he served as Commander in Chief of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Space Command.

Richard Bowman Myers is a retired four-star general in the United States Air Force and served as the 16th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Previously, he served as Commander in Chief of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Space Command.


What was the impact of 9/11 on defense and security?

I think the first thing it did was to get us thinking about non-nation state actors.  We talked about that; we talked about asymmetric warfare, but it wasn’t until 9/11 that we felt it, and felt it in a very real way.  And then we had to deal with it.  That was probably the biggest impact on national security: that we have non-nation-state actors that can cause harm to the U.S., and significant harm, and perhaps have a profound effect on our national security, even though they’re not they’re not nations.  They don’t have armies, navies, or air forces.

Regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, what changes have been made in those countries?

Well, you know, those two efforts – the war part, the combat phase of both Iraq and Afghanistan — were the easy parts.  The hard part was when the decision was made that we’re going to try and rebuild these societies and get into the nation building business.  So I think one of the lessons there is: try the best you can before you get in these conflicts to know what the end point is.  Frankly, I don’t think in either case we knew what it was, even though everyone was asking, “What is the end point?” In some cases, it’s unknowable.

In the case of Iraq, you go in; you think the Iraqis will be happy to take responsibility for their own affairs.  It wasn’t true. They didn’t.  They had been under thirty years of dictatorship, so they didn’t stand up and say, “Hey, we’re going to take charge.” In Afghanistan it was a different dynamic, but with the same outcome. We’re still there.

I think we’ve learned a lot about how culture plays a role in what we do post-conflict, after major combat. As well as we thought we’d studied the culture – and I’m not just talking about the Department of Defense, the U.S. government, other governments, NATO for that matter – in Afghanistan our understanding was pretty naïve at first.

What is the end point in Afghanistan?

I think that president Obama has articulated that, in terms of trying to provide Afghanistan, which is stable and secure – those are relative terms, but for the region, stable and secure, primarily meaning the government of Afghanistan is not at threat from, say, the Taliban from falling and so forth – enough security and security forces to maintain security throughout the country.  Those are tall orders. It won’t be done by the time we leave, which is why I think that strategic relationship we’re going to have going forward, especially in the training area, will be necessary.

How is terrorism ranking as a threat?

My personal opinion is that the threat from extremism – extremists use terrorism as a method – it is pretty close to the top of what we ought to be worried about.  Of course, we’ve got Iran, presumably going for a nuclear weapon. You’ve got other threats out there that will have an impact on our security.  Cyber warfare, we can’t forget that’s also a profound threat.  But I still think terrorism is probably number one; and if you listen to the Congressional Testimony from the intelligence agencies, the open congressional testimonies, I think terrorism was ranked number one, and they’re seeing all the classified information that we don’t see, and basing their judgments on that.  So I think terrorism is still a very serious threat.

In regards to resources, are we doing well in anti-terrorism efforts, etc.?

I think our spending over the last eleven years since 9/11 has been changed and modified to adapt to the non nation-state actor and the threat from perhaps nuclear or biological terrorism. Yes, I think we have aligned our resources fairly well.  The issue is going forward with our fiscal dilemma in the United States and the threat currently of how we’re going handle that and the threat of sequestration.  What will be the defense budget going forward; and can we continue to deal with terrorism, cyber warfare, and conventional warfare as we have in the past? That’s a big question, at this point; I think an open question, given all the fiscal issues the U.S. is dealing with.

Should we be cutting back or adding to conventional warfare defenses?

I think as we sit here and, approaching the fall of 2012, there’s a debate of the role of our current nuclear deterrence. It’s possible, of course, if people decide that our current nuclear deterrence could be changed, somewhat diminished, some of those resources could go into other efforts to thwart terrorism — Islamic extremists that may use fissile material or biological weapons against us. You know, one of the biggest issues is Iran moving towards a nuclear weapon.  My take on that is not so much an Iran armed with a nuclear missile; it’s the fact that when they develop this fissile material to produce a weapon or a radiological bomb that the likelihood of that proliferating would be pretty high, and could easily fall in the hands of non-nation state actors and could become a threat to us.

Is Iran getting nuclear weapons inevitable?

I don’t think it’s inevitable, but I do think we’re coming to a point here where it’ll become pretty obvious that something’s got to be done. President Obama and other presidents in the past have said we will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapons capability.  So far we’ve had little impact on Iran’s march to that capability.  Sanctions, the current round, a couple of rounds of U.N. sanctions against Iran are working; Iran is feeling the pinch. If it will be enough to turn the tide, to get Iran to think differently about its nuclear weapons, we don’t know yet.  It hasn’t gone along that far. But at some point, if we’re going to live up to what our presidents have said, you’re going to force yourself in a corner where military force would be the only remedy.  That would be a bad situation.

What is the response from Iran?

You know, since we the U.S. don’t have diplomatic relations; a few of the European countries do – but I don’t think that’s reliable.  I think the internal workings of what Iran is thinking remain a puzzle to most of the policymakers in the U.S.  So I don’t think we know what they’re going to do. There is this debate about whether Iran going for the bomb or are they going to the point where they could do that and say, “No, this is not for us”? There are people on both camps in the US.  We’ll see which one is right. Right now we’re still trying to guess.

Does Iran have the capability to harm the U.S.?

Iran? Yes, I think Iran, through proxies like Hezbollah – which, if people think back, when we talked about taking on the al Qaeda, folks often say, and I would say, “Hezbollah is the A-team of non-nation-state actors.  They’re around the world, they’re well-organized, they’re well-funded, and Iran is their primary sponsor.”  Would there be some kind of fallout if it ever came to the use of force against Iran either by Israel or the U.S.? I think the answer is yes, and they’d do it through proxies. I think Israel would be the one that’d be in the most danger, but we can’t rule that out here. It was not long ago when the Iranians tried to assassinate a Saudi embassy official here in the United States. They have reach. If you have fissile material, and you have people that don’t care about the sanctity of human life and would use it against innocent men, women, and children; then you have a problem.

What effect does the rise of China have on the U.S. Military?

I think the rise of China is another great question when you talk about our security. In the administration I served in, President Bush placed a lot of emphasis on building strong military-to-military relationships.  Those relationships have been unplugged depending on how various events have occurred between our two countries.  I personally believe that China has so many internal issues to deal with, not withstanding they’ve got a strong economy, but so many internal issues to deal with.  For instance, they have over 300 million people in poverty. 300 million – the population of the United States!  They have to deal with that.

So I think they’ll be preoccupied with that.  I think our best hope that China develops into a nation that is contributing to the goodness of this world is to build relationships with them. I still do that as a retired officer, and I think from their point of view it’s important to work with them; knowing all the time that, in terms of cyber attacks against the U.S., a lot of those emanate from China, and they’re going after some of our dearest secrets.  So on the one hand, understanding that. On the other hand, trying to work with them to bring them into this community of nations in a way where they’ll be helpful in the future.

What are factors to be considered before intervention?

I think the primary factor, when you think about the U.S. intervening in internal conflicts or other conflicts around the world, is to set very clear objectives.  What do you expect to achieve by this intervention?  Looseness about getting involved without knowing the specific mission of the military is a formula, we’ve been down that path before.  That leads to not satisfying the objectives that people had set for you before, if they set them at all. I think knowing what you want your military to do has to be clearly spelled out by the political leadership before the U.S. military is used in interventions.

Is it part of the U.S. to act as a security guarantor?

I think in many cases, only the U.S. can act. We saw in Libya that NATO eventually acted, but they couldn’t have done what they did without the U.S. military there. So all the support aircraft, and a lot of the command and control, was all U.S.; even though there were Europeans doing the flying with fighters and so forth. So I don’t know that it’s possible to intervene without U.S. help.  Our logistics capability alone trumps any other nation’s ability to do it.  Most nations can’t get there, and we can get there with the right stuff. So I don’t know if we’re indispensible; but I think given our values, given our moral authority in the world, I think we have an obligation to help in some instances.

What about the aftereffects of Libya?

Well, I think, that’ll be up to NATO. In this case, NATO thought it was in their best interests – a lot of Libyan refugees were coming up through Italy and Europe didn’t want that – so they felt they had to do something.  An intervention was the path they chose.  NATO is also involved in Afghanistan. In fact, it’s NATO that’s responsible for the security and stability development in Afghanistan.  It’s not the U.S., its NATO. Their heads of state decided that many years ago now. I think going forward, the question is: Given the economic crisis, the fiscal crisis in Europe, will they sustain a security capability that will allow them to participate where they’re needed, particularly in the Mediterranean and around the Middle East?

What are common characteristics of interventions from Africa to Vietnam?

Of course, during the cold war, there was a polarized world; there was the Soviet Union and the United States.   A lot of our interventions were used to block the advance of communism, and so there was a very ideological basis for our interventions. Some of them successful, some not as successful, but that’s probably the case with all interventions as it turns out; but intervention was much more different than it is today.

What did the U.S. learn from the intervention in Liberia?

I can’t remember the year, but it was like 2003 or 2004 when the Liberian government fell and the country was in chaos, and there were a lot of folks who wanted the United States to intervene. In terms of setting goals, we set very clear goals for our intervention. We’ll intervene, we’ll re-establish security, but it’s got to be followed up by a U.N. force to come in there and keep the peace.  And so we just happened to have some Marines afloat that sailed close to Liberia, went in, and actually fixed some of the poor infrastructure.  They stabilized the situation.  There was a great threat from folks who had been warring. There was a threat, but there wasn’t a great threat. So we stabilized the country, and the U.N. put together an African peacekeeping force, that by the way we helped train and equip, and they came in then and replaced the United States. I think it was an example of an intervention that was well thought out, defining limits for the United States; and Liberia, I think, has been the benefactor of that intervention. I guess the other thing about Liberia is that there wasn’t any ideological issue involved. There’s conflict going on, we get the U.N. stabilized for peacekeeping, and then we can go in there and start the process of either rewriting the constitution or holding elections in accordance with the constitution. And the U.N. can do that kind of stuff; they can be very helpful in those kinds of roles.

When interventions are staged, how have we been impacted by instability and the unknown?

In this case there were no unknowns that popped up, but you’re right. If you look at Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s the unknowns that get you. Some have been famously said or known, and some have been unknown.

What are the regional implications of the Iranian crisis?

I think that regionally, most of the Gulf States see Iran as their enemy.  Saudi Arabia, for instance, sees Iran as their mortal enemy.  For ten years we had an air born warning to control aircraft to warn Saudi Arabia of an attack from Iran.  That was at the Saudis request, the Saudis were on board the aircraft, and we did that for ten years, twenty-four hours a day, and seven days a week.  It was a huge effort because of this threat from Iran. I think people can imagine that if Iran were to get a nuclear arsenal, that would trickle down the Gulf States to the UAE, Qatar, and other countries in the region would feel they have to have a nuclear arsenal to off-set and to observe Iran from being too adventuresome with their new found weapons.

That’s the regional impact. I think the global impact would be from the global proliferation of fissile material.  There was a study from a professor at Harvard that said every country that has developed nuclear weapons has proliferated the technology, which includes the United States; although we proliferated to allies. If that’s true, there’s going to be proliferation of the technology or the material themselves, and that would be very dangerous. It would probably land in the hands of non-nation-state actors, possibly Hezbollah and others.

Do you think we should abandon the Responsibility to Protect?

You know, no. If you have the means, you can’t stand by and see people slaughtered. What’s happening in Syria today; and how do you intervene in a way that won’t make it worse? I mean, it’s clearly a civil war and it’s a really tough situation. But I think the principle to not let people suffer if you have the means is a reasonable principle. Sometimes it’s really difficult to apply when you have to deal with the practical aspect of the situation.