Few U.S. Senators in recent history have been as influential as former Sen. George Mitchell of Maine. After 14 years in the Senate, including several as Democratic Majority Leader, Mitchell “retired” in 1994 to a variety of positions in business, politics and diplomacy. He was a Special Envoy to Northern Ireland and the Middle East, the Chairman of the Walt Disney Company, and the main investigator on the use of performance enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball.
Mitchell recently spoke with American News Report during an appearance at Whittier College in Whittier, California.
Your career has seen you go from Congress to Northern Ireland to Israel to several positions in the private sector. What will your legacy be, and what should it be?
I’m not much on people making up their own legacy through words. I think we’re better off devoting ourselves to actions, and letting other people find the words to describe the legacy.
Should a nuclear Iran come to fruition, will the world see an arms race in the Middle East, particularly with Saudi Arabia?
I think that’s one of the truly great dangers in what is occurring in the Middle East. I think with almost 100 percent certainty, if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, there will be an arms race. Egypt, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, you could name a dozen countries. That’s not just the Middle East where it’s true. There are now nine countries with nuclear weapons. There are many, many times more than that that have the capacity to produce nuclear weapons, but they refrain from doing so because they rely on the United States, and their belief that it would be destructive to their own stability and security. But if the genie comes out of the bottle in the Middle East, it will almost certain result in arms races in other parts of the world.
The collapse of the non-nuclear proliferation regime that the U.S. has painstakingly worked to build over the past half century would be a very bad thing for us and for people all around the world.
Which is a bigger threat to world stability, a nuclear Pakistan, which we obviously already have, or a nuclear Iran?
Both have a huge potential and I think we have to work very hard to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapon, and to encourage stability in Pakistan to prevent the use or distribution of nuclear weapons.
Would you support an Israeli strike on Iran?
At this time no, absolutely not. I think it would be very unwise and it would almost certainly produce a retaliation that could result in a conflagration.
What’s the number one threat to peace in the Middle East?
Well I don’t know if there’s any number one threat, there are many different threats. If you think of it in general terms, the possibility of the outbreak of a conflict that would spread in ways that are unpredictable, cannot be foreseen, that could have a devastating impact on the lives of people there as well as on the lives of people in this country. Just think about the last two weeks in this country. Gas prices have risen dramatically. That’s affected almost every American family. The principle reason economists assign to it is uncertainty over what will happen in the Middle East, particularly with respect to the Strait of Hormuz and Iranian oil.
After the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, you said that all peoples, no matter how historically deep their divide is, can reach peace. Is this true today?
Yes, I do. Primarily because I believe that ultimately, nations, like individuals — when you think about it, what is a nation other than a group of individuals – act in their self interest. I think the self interest of both the Israelis and Palestinians is so clearly in resolving their conflict. The other side of the coin is the disincentive to conflict, to say if they don’t make an agreement, they’re going to suffer severe consequences. There will be huge political pain in reaching an agreement on both sides – both societies are divided politically within their societies. It’s going to be very hard for any political leader to reach an agreement. But on the other hand, if they don’t reach an agreement, it’s going to be much worse.
Ultimately, people act out of a combination of positive factors and negative factors: you get something and avoid something else really bad. That certainly was the case in Northern Ireland. The principle factor in the end of the conflict there was the widespread fear among the political officials with whom I dealt that if they didn’t reach agreement and the peace process collapsed, there would almost certainly be a renewed outbreak of violence, and the level of violence and the destructiveness of the conflict, both in terms of human lives and human suffering and economics, would be far greater than ever before.
Indeed, given the rapid advance of technology, the ability of human beings to kill other human beings has been dramatically enhanced in the past century or so. Almost every conflict that occurs, that level of destructiveness rises. The capacity of very small numbers of people, one person, ten people, with very little in the way of resources or organization can inflict enormous damage given modern forms of communication, transportation, the density of populations in major cities. I think that it’s possible to resolve every conflict, and I hope and very much pray that the conflict in the Middle East will be resolved.
In the 90s, President Clinton offered to appoint you to the Supreme Court, but you refused the position in order to focus on passing health care reform. In retrospect, do you regret this?
No I don’t. What I’ve found in life is that you’ll often be faced with difficult choices, many of them unexpected. The best thing you can do is use all of your powers of reason, think it through, and make the best decision you can make on the circumstances that exist at the time and move on. When by virtue of later events it turns out you made a mistake, or it didn’t work out the way you expected, you can’t spend the rest of your life agonizing over that. You’ve got to move on and move forward and continue to make other decisions.
When President Clinton offered to appoint me to the Supreme Court, it was of course a very great honor, and extremely tempting. I’d been a United States District Court judge. I’m a lawyer by training, and I think it’s fair to say that for most lawyers, the epitome of their career would be to serve on the Supreme Court. But, we had just started an effort to reform our nation’s health care system, and I’d been working closely with a Republican Senator who’s an extremely close friend of mine, John Chafee (R-Rhode Island), and we thought we had a chance to develop a bipartisan program that could be enacted and have a long lasting and meaningful impact.
So I told the president that while I was honored and flattered by his offer of appointment to the court, I thought it was more important that I stay and finish this bill. I’d already announced my retirement, so that wasn’t an issue. As it turned out, we couldn’t pass the bill. But I don’t regret it. It would have been nice to be on the Supreme Court a couple times when they made decisions I disagreed with. I think to myself that I wish I’d been there to make an argument, but I had the opportunity to do other things. I went to Northern Ireland, I went to the Middle East, I did a lot of other things that I would not have been available [had I accepted the appointment].
Thank you, Senator Mitchell.