New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo moved again Tuesday to defuse a continuing controversy over remarks he made in Los Angeles late last year in which he called on President Bush to “try to negotiate our way out” of the confrontation with Iraq.
In the latest round in an ongoing political flap, Cuomo wrote an Op-Ed article published in the Washington Post on Tuesday, denying accusations that he had misrepresented his Los Angeles statement when he appeared on the ABC television talk show “This Week With David Brinkley” on Nov. 24.
Potentially high political stakes surround the controversy because Republicans have accused Cuomo--a possible Democratic presidential candidate--of advocating “appeasement” of Iraq in the months leading up to the Persian Gulf War. That charge--based on his Los Angeles remarks--could be central to the GOP attack on Cuomo if he runs. Already, Cuomo has faced close questioning from reporters about his remarks.
On the Brinkley program 10 days ago, Cuomo repeatedly denied he had proposed offering Saddam Hussein territorial concessions in Kuwait as a way to settle the Gulf crisis two months before the United States went to war with Iraq.
During the program, columnist George F. Will said that Cuomo had “suggested early on that perhaps the way to deal with Saddam Hussein after the invasion was to give him a few islands.” Cuomo responded: “No, I never said that.”
Later, when asked by ABC correspondent Sam Donaldson if he had “suggested a territorial concession at one point,” Cuomo responded firmly: “No, no, no.”
Will and Donaldson based their questions on a Los Angeles Times report that quoted Cuomo as saying in his November, 1990, appearance in Los Angeles that the United States “could negotiate” a deal with the Iraqis that “gets them out of Kuwait for the most part, leaves them maybe a little bit on the water, leaves them a little bit of the oil. . . .”
Two days after Cuomo’s appearance on the program, Will and Richard Cohen, another columnist, had articles published in the Washington Post citing the Times’ report and criticizing Cuomo’s responses on ABC as misleading.
In response to those accusations, Cuomo wrote Tuesday that Will’s question on the Brinkley program “implied a position on the crisis that I never took. . . . The supposed ‘concessions’ were not a recommendation by me, nor anything like it.”
The dispute stems from an appearance Cuomo made on Nov. 19, 1990, at a fund-raising dinner for The Guardians of the Jewish Homes for the Aging in Los Angeles. After his speech, Cuomo took questions and was asked what he would do about the showdown with Iraq. Cuomo’s remarks were tape-recorded by the Times reporter covering his appearance.
In a lengthy answer, Cuomo said: “When President Bush made his move in the beginning I was 100% supportive as most Americans were. I said, ‘Look, Saddam Hussein is a danger, he has seized Kuwait, he must be stopped.’ ”
But, Cuomo added: “It has a reached a point now, however, where the American people have the right to know more clearly what your purpose is in Kuwait. . . . I said months and months ago, let’s be honest, we’re there for oil, we’re not there for some grand purpose to protect Kuwaiti sovereignty. . . . I don’t know how many Americans know who the ruling families in Kuwait are, let alone care enough about it to send their sons and daughters there, perhaps to die over it.”
Cuomo went on to say: “Under what circumstances should you fight? Only under the last possible resort circumstances.”
He added: “Make a deal, if we can. What kind of deal? This is going to be very tough because I don’t believe that (Hussein) can make a deal that gives President Bush in the beginning what (Bush) said he should have--remember, his first statements were Saddam has to be gotten rid of, no nuclear, no chemical, no nothing, he’s out. One hundred percent and that’s it. That’s the deal that President Bush wanted to make.”
Cuomo continued: “I doubt very much (Bush) can negotiate that because that’s the same as saying to (Hussein) commit suicide. The minute Saddam Hussein sits down and signs a contract like that he might as well put a rope around his neck and jump off the nearest Iraqi bridge because when he gives everything up I don’t think they will give him a retirement home in Iraq. They don’t work that way.
“So I doubt that he would make that good a deal. It would have to be something less than that, and probably something less than Israel wants, because a lot of people in Israel feel that to be protected they have to be absolutely certain that Saddam Hussein is destroyed altogether. I doubt very much that you could negotiate that.”
In what has since become the key passage of his remarks, Cuomo next said: “You could negotiate something that gets them out of Kuwait for the most part, leaves them maybe a little bit on the water, leaves them a little bit of the oil, and then puts in a United Nations task force to go over the whole question of chemical weapons . . . and this movement toward nuclear capacity. So the first thing we ought to do is try to negotiate our way out.”
In his Washington Post article Tuesday, Cuomo wrote that in his Los Angeles remarks, he was “merely speculating about the contrast between the objectives we and our allies might seek and the kinds of things that Iraq might demand.” He added that he had said “specifically to the (Times) reporter that I did not know enough of the military intelligence to be able to make a fully informed proposal and that trying to would be presumptuous. . . .”
Cuomo did not note in his article that those qualifications were raised a day after his remarks, when he was questioned about the comments by the Times reporter. In that interview with The Times--conducted in Fresno and also tape-recorded--Cuomo said of his Los Angeles remarks: “I’m not suggesting that as a blueprint for a settlement. That would be presumptuous and stupid. . . . I’m not in a position to know how to negotiate this. I don’t know the intelligence.”
In that interview, Cuomo reiterated his view that “we must strive to negotiate our way out of this” and any accord could not demand total capitulation from Hussein.
“It’s war or a settlement,” Cuomo said. “If it were a settlement only, then you would want a perfect settlement. But when it’s a settlement or war, you take a less than perfect settlement.”