The dialogue (conflict) on Iraq and the war on terror would be far more productive
if both pro- and anti-war sides would read and reflect on this in-depth Paul
Wolfowitz (PW) interview (Jul-Aug
2005 Atlantic Monthly). The author is Mark Bowden (MB). So that you appreciate
the scope, the interview sessions were on these dates:
- 15 Sep 2004
- 28 Oct 2004
- 19 Nov 2004
- 04 April 2005
If you’re not yet an Atlantic subscriber, I hope this
piece will motivate you to subscribe. Not all of the political pieces
are this good, while some of the economics pieces are naive (see James Fallows
in the same issue). But the Atlantic’s best is very good indeed.
For background here are some other public domain Wolfowitz interviews
that are free Internet content (as of 6 Jul 2005):
Jan 2002 Interview with James Fallows, The Atlantic Monthly
25 Sep 2002 Interview with NATO Journalists
May 2003 Interview with Karen DeYoung, Washington Post
May 2003 Interview with Sam Tannenhaus,
Nov 2004 Interview with Radek Sikorski
Jul 2005 Interview with Associated Press (now as World Bank President)
Anyone who has read the previous Wolfowitz interviews knows that
the legacy media characterization of Wolfowitz is very nearly the anti-Wolfowitz.
But this interview is probably the best I have read because (a) being current,
it reflects recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan; (b) the sessions
were unhurried, giving Wolfowitz time to express himself, and (c) it appears
that Bowden was honest in quoting Wolfowitz (such journalistic honesty is not
common regarding Wolfowitz).
Wolfowitz the person is so unlike the press cartoon it’s hard to know where
to start. If forced to choose one attribute I would opt first for intellectually-honest,
and secondly for ethical . Much like my role-model physicist
Richard Feinman, Wolfowitz is a serious critical thinker – a policy thinker
who relects a grasp of the scientific method. E.g., "science is always written
in pencil". So should be policy recommendations – which should every day be
subject to reevaluation.
Profiling Wolfowitz as the arrogant,
inflexible optimist is irresponsible (the charitable view), or pure partisan
propoganda (I think the realist view). E.g., claiming that Wolfowitz has championed
invading Iraq since 1991 is a blatant lie, though seems to be the "accepted
according to the media grouped around the NYT. Personally, I think most historians
100 years in the future will treat Wolfowitz (and probably the Bush Doctrine
as well) favorably, while the NYT party-line will reside in the dustbin.
When I opened the latest Atlantic Monthly I hoped to find illumination
on some of these questions:
- What is it like – i.e., decision-making in the real world, and the least-worst-choice
- What really happened regarding the "well-known" State vs Defense
- What is the truth of the "not enough troops" mantra?
- What about disbanding the Iraqi Army?
- What have been the most critical problems or mistakes?
- Am I correct that the so-called "insurgency" was planned and
organized by Saddam and his inner-circle, and is best characterized by analogy
to a Mafia crime-family controlling the neighborhood by intimidation
- What did Wolfowitz actually advocate (e.g., the widely reported meme that
Wolfowitz pushed for the invasion of Iraq starting in 1991).
- Who is the "insurgency" in Iraq (thought it’s not "PC",
for accuracy please think "terrorists" everywhere you see "insurgents" in
the following excerpts).
- And what about France?
I’ll pick some excerpts appropos those questions, but first, because I think
it so important, I want to emphasize the closing paragraph:
PW: "A fundamental flaw in the 9/11 report, absolutely fundamental,
is that it assumes that if we had had perfect intelligence, we could have
prevented the attacks. Therefore what we need is perfect intelligence. Instead
of recognizing that you’ll never have perfect intelligence, which takes you
down an entirely different policy route."
What is it like – i.e., decision-making in the real world, and the
MB: "But how certain do you feel that you are right?"
PW: "I think someone once said that decision-making is
usually trying to choose the least crappy of the various alternatives.
It does seem to me that so many things we have to decide are fifty-five—forty-five
decisions, or sixty—forty decisions. Arrogance is
one of the worst failings in a senior decision-maker. I really admire
people like President Bush and Harry Truman, who were good at it. Dean
Acheson said about Truman that he was free of that most crippling of
emotions, regret. Once he made a decision, he moved on. And I think that’s
what characterizes really good decision-makers. I think this president
is one. He accepts the fact that if he’s batting six hundred,
he’s doing pretty well. I was in the Oval Office the day
he signed the executive order to invade Iraq, and I know how painful
that was. He actually went out in the Rose Garden just to be alone for
a little while. It’s hard to imagine how hard that was. And of course
you can’t be sure, maybe ten years from now or five years from now, how
it will look. We still don’t know how it will turn out, so you can’t
possibly be sure you were right.
PW: "I still think it was right. I’d advise it all over again if I
had to. There is this sort of intellectual notion that there is such a thing
as perfect knowledge, and you wait to get perfect knowledge before you make
a decision. In the first place, even if there were perfect knowledge,
it would be too late by the time you got it. And secondly, there is no such
thing. Accepting the imperfection of knowledge is a very important part of
being a great decision-maker. I’m not. I understand the process intellectually,
less so emotionally. I feel a lot more comfortable about any decision I make
if I feel like I have thought through all the arguments—even if at
the end of the day there is not a mathematical formula that tells you which
one is right. But at least you won’t discover a factor you hadn’t even considered.
What really happened regarding the "well-known" State vs
I devoured the report of the Future of Iraq Project (lead by Iraqi
exile Kanan Makiya) when it was first published. I’m certainly not a scholar
of Iraq, but to me the report made a lot sense (as do most of Makiya’s writings
and interviews). I didn’t expect it to be used as a policy script, but that
the best proposals would be adapted into policy. Two ideas in particular were
(1) training a large cadre of Iraqi expats to fight alongside coalition troops,
and (2) to immediately stand up a provisional government comprised of Iraqis
– many of whom would of neccessity be refugees.
The conventional wisdom per the NYT seems to be that these ideas were not
implemented because Bush delegated "control" of the Iraq liberation
to the "neo-conservative cabal at Defense". Since I believe Wolfowitz
is honest in his recall, here we learn that the problem is more likely to have
been at State than at Defense. I should also remind the reader that Ambassador
Paul Bremer’s multi-year occupation scheme seemed on the face of it naive.
MB: The most frequent criticisms of the administration’s Iraq policy were that
the war should not have been pursued without a UN resolution and without troops
from more nations; that there should have been more allied soldiers on the ground
in Iraq to control the country after the initial victory; that the administration
ignored State Department advice about postwar planning; and that the Iraqi army
and police should not have been disbanded.
PW: "People start by deciding what is a mistake that we made," Wolfowitz
said. "It’s based on their desire to say ‘I told you so,’ or ‘We were
right.’ So you start from ‘The mistake was not enough troops,’ or ‘The mistake
was not enough UN resolutions,’ or ‘The mistake was not enough State Department
people,’ or ‘The mistake was not enough electricity.’ And if that’s the mistake,
then you analyze from the mistake to who’s at fault.
PW: "I can go through the list. Most of the things that are suggested
as mistakes didn’t happen at all. The notion that we didn’t
pay attention to the State Department plan—that’s baloney. The notion
that we didn’t have the State Department play a role—there were many
of them! There
were at least ten ambassadors or former ambassadors, including Bremer himself
and his two deputies; and the governance team, which played the key advisory
role in the political process, was directed by a State Department official
and had many State officers on the staff—and they did a good job. The
State Department itself opposed the recommendation of the Future of Iraq
Project to recognize a provisional Iraqi government from day one…
What is the truth of the "not enough troops" mantra?
PW: "…Then there are the allegations that we didn’t flood the place
with troops, and we disbanded the Iraqi army. On the not-enough-troops
issue, no one has made a convincing case about how having more troops
would have gotten at the insurgency or the enemy better. The
problem was recognizing who the enemy was and having actionable intelligence
to find them. But if you have more troops, that creates a new set of problems.
You have a heavier American footprint, which means alienating more
people. And without better intelligence you
can’t do anything with more troops."
What about disbanding the Iraqi Army?
PW: "The other ‘mistake’ was supposedly disbanding the Iraqi army,
and that’s a mixed bag. Look what happened with the Fallujah Brigade
[the Iraqi force that essentially went over to the insurgents]. So keeping
their army intact certainly wasn’t a panacea, and it had a lot of problems
built into it.
I don’t think Wolfowitz mentioned some of the other key issues indicated
by my own research:
- that the Iraqi army disbanded itself,
- was chock full of political-unrealiables at the officer level, and
- at the infantry level was populated by untrained, undisciplined conscripts.
Am I correct that the so-called "insurgency" was planned
and organized by Saddam and his inner-circle, and is best characterized by
analogy to a Mafia crime-family controlling the neighborhood by intimidation
PW: "Almost no one says the real problem is that Saddam never surrendered.
And even though he was captured, his people never surrendered. His organization
is still operating as though they have a chance to win, and they’re allied
with people who want to help them win—by which I mean the jihadis on
the one side and the Syrian Baathists on the other—even though the minute
they triumphed they would start fighting with each other over the spoils. I
think we’re even seeing signs that the Syrian Baathists and the Iraqi Baathists
are getting back together temporarily. They all want to see us lose, and that’s
more important to them than who comes out on top. But if you don’t see who
the enemy is and why they’re fighting, you can’t win. The fact is that they’ve
been fighting this way since the beginning of the war—in fact, they’ve
been fighting this way for thirty-five years. You’re
dealing with cellular structures that were the way Saddam ruled and terrorized
the place from the beginning. The model is closer to John Gotti than any
other model we know, except it’s on a national scale."
What have been the most critical problems or mistakes?
MB: "…would it be safe to say you underestimated the difficulty of
dealing with the country after Saddam fell?"
Wolfowitz replied that criticism of the administration’s postwar planning
by and large ignored the difficulty of contending with a stubborn enemy.
PW: "I think most people underestimated how tough these bastards are.
I would say—and maybe it’s more than just defending myself—we
fought very hard before the war to get free Iraqi forces trained in order to
have reliable security forces after the war was over. Others believed that
wasn’t important, because after the war the regime would be gone and we wouldn’t
need security forces. There was also a bit of a split. Our case was: After
it’s over, you’re going to need some reliable people, because the institutions
are rotten to the core. We also had report after report of Iraqi brigade-division
commanders who were promising to bring their units over to our side. I don’t
think there was a single such event that actually took place. I
remember Rumsfeld saying at the time, ‘That’s what they’re telling you; in
the meantime, they’re telling Saddam the opposite.’ It’s
quite clear that from day one there was never any intention among the five
thousand or ten thousand or fifteen thousand hard-core to do anything but continue
fighting us. Saddam didn’t leave Baghdad
declaring surrender. He left Baghdad saying ‘We are going to continue to fight,
and we are going to continue funding resistance up until December.’ He still
calls himself the president of Iraq. His cronies still have hundreds of millions
of dollars, we think, in bank accounts in Syria and Lebanon and maybe in Jordan.
It’s as though the Nazis after their defeat still
controlled Nuremberg, and had bank accounts in Switzerland and sanctuary in
Switzerland and some cooperation from another country like Iran."
Wolfowitz paused, reflecting on my original question, cupping both hands around
his coffee mug, and then resumed.
PW: "Sorry, it’s a long answer. But what I really think is, the
heart of the problem is that thirty-five years of raping and murdering and
torturing in that country created a hard core that is incredibly brutal and
a population that is incredibly scared—a population that is relatively
easy to intimidate.
And by and large we didn’t deal rigorously enough with the possible tools
at our disposal. As someone put it to me in Iraq, the blacklist should
have been more than fifty-five people. It should have been more like
five thousand. On the other hand, people who weren’t on that blacklist
should have been brought into the fold more readily."
Who is the "insurgency" in Iraq (thought it’s not "PC",
for accuracy please think "terrorists" everywhere you see "insurgents" in
the following excerpts).
MB: "When we were talking last," I said, "you were saying
you weren’t sure that even the people fighting the war knew who it was they
were fighting. Has that come into any clearer focus?"
PW: "Substantially clearer," he said. "In the sense that
CENTCOM seems to have a much clearer view. It’s possible that it’s clear
but wrong. But they’re actually now identifying the top thirty-four or thirty-five
key financier-facilitator leaders of this operation, if you can call it an
operation. One of the things that is elusive here is to what extent they
are coordinated. I don’t think anyone would say it is centrally controlled,
top-down, Lenin-style, but I think you could make a case that it’s a bunch
of different groups that are reasonably closely coordinated and have reasonably
common sources of funding."
MB: Wolfowitz noted again that the financial roots of the insurgency reached to
Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon.
PW: "One of Saddam’s half brothers, Sabawi al-Tikrit, has been reported
in Syria for well over a year. He’s probably delved into funds. The Iraqis
claim that Saddam’s daughter in Jordan is helping to fund the insurgency.
There was this conference in Lebanon that was basically an enemies’ alternative
conference to the Iraqi National Conference in Baghdad. It was actually public
and it was a conference of the violent opposition, held under Syrian auspices
because you don’t have a conference in Beirut without the Syrians.
PW: "Speculation on my part is they’ve been growing their organization basically
by re-recruiting the old Baath Party guys and coming around and saying, ‘Look,
the Americans are flagging. Allawi is failing. We’re going to win, and when
we come back into power, we’ll remember who was with us and who was against
us.’ There was even a press report a month or two ago, which had a lot of credibility
for me, that somebody had gone back to the Baath Party—it’s not the party,
it’s the hard core—and had second thoughts about it, and when he tried
to leave, he was killed and his body was dumped in the river. It’s very mafia-like.
I think it’d be interesting if we could find some real experts on attacking
gangs and send them to Iraq to work on this operation. The
gangs make the offer you can’t refuse: either you accept a lot of money or
they kill you. And they have figured out there are things worse than death."
What did Wolfowitz actually advocate (e.g., the widely reported meme that
Wolfowitz pushed for the invasion of Iraq starting in 1991).
MB: The public’s impressions notwithstanding, throughout his long career
in government service he had been only a reluctant advocate of force. He
said that even though he had pushed for a more aggressive American effort
to topple Saddam—beginning
in 1991, right after the Persian Gulf War—he had
not advocated invading Iraq in order to accomplish that. His support for going to war came only
after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.
PW: "I changed my view after 9/11," he said. "Contrary
to the myth that I have been waiting all along for an excuse to invade
Iraq, before then I really didn’t want to even think about sending in U.S.
ground forces. I had always thought the idea of occupying Baghdad was both
unnecessary and a mistake. What was needed was to arm and train the Iraqis to do the job themselves—the
way, in effect, the Afghans did, by taking advantage of the fact that a third
of the country was already liberated. I advocated supporting them with air
power if necessary. I remember congressional testimony where I think I may
have used the phrase—maybe someone else did—‘reducing
Saddam to the mayor of Baghdad,’ at which point he would collapse. It was sometimes
called the enclave strategy, disparagingly, although I still don’t know what
was wrong with it. I have a general strong bias in favor of empowering other
people to liberate themselves rather than using American force to do it.
I don’t like using American troops, and I believe the
best alternative to using American troops is to get allies. And the best
allies are people who are trying to liberate themselves. Part of what is wrong with the view of
American imperialism is that it is antithetical to our interests. We are
better off when people are governing themselves. I’m sure there is some guy
that will tell you that philosophy is no different from the Roman Empire’s.
Well, it is fundamentally different."
MB: "So how did 9/11 change your opinion?"
PW: "What changed were two things. It was not
principally the 9/11 attacks, it was the anthrax scares that came days
later. That brought the
awareness that it might be too dangerous to take this guy down slow-motion.
Remember, we still don’t know who did those anthrax attacks, to this day.
PW: "I remember a conversation with the president at Camp David on September
15 during a coffee break, and the president said that the Iraq options prepared
by the military didn’t offer very much. I agreed, and said that it would be
very simple to enable the Iraqi opposition to take over the southern part of
the country and protect it with American air power. That would have included
a large chunk of Saddam’s oil revenues. And the president said, ‘That’s an
imaginative idea; how come you didn’t say so?’ And I said, contrary to what
is in Woodward’s book, ‘It is not my place to contradict the chairman of the
joint chiefs unless the secretary of defense asks me to do so.’ In fact, I
believe that in the directive—it is all coming back to me now—the
president signed to Rumsfeld to put together a plan for Afghanistan, it specifically
mentions the option of taking control of the southern part of Iraq in some
MB: "Isn’t the Iraq debate ultimately over the uses of power?" I
PW: "I see the debate differently," Wolfowitz said. "I see
it as a debate over the acceptability of the status quo—whether you
go back to containment; living with the Soviet Union; living with Marcos,
Korean dictators, Suharto; living with Saddam; or even today living with
Iranians. There is a constant bias toward inaction, because the risks are
PW: "But you must also consider the costs of inaction. When
people say Saddam was a bad guy, I immediately know what is going to follow:
‘So are a lot of other dictators.‘ But Saddam was not just a bad guy. I feel like paraphrasing
Lloyd Bentsen in the Dan Quayle debate: I knew Ferdinand Marcos, I knew Suharto,
and neither dictator was a Saddam Hussein. There is such
a world of difference between many dictators and the rare ones that torture
children in order to make their parents talk. The point is,
this has something to do, I think, with the morality of what we did. But
it also has a lot to do with the nature of the enemy we are still fighting.
The use of force to liberate people is very different from the use of force
to suppress or control them, or even to defeat them. This gets back to the
idea of America imposing its idea on other people. It doesn’t mean there
is some simplistic course of taking on all dictators indiscriminately. It
doesn’t mean you don’t do a deal with Qaddafi when there is something to
do a deal on. It doesn’t mean you pull all the plugs on Mubarak. But you
don’t take a complete pass when Egypt locks up a guy like Saad Ibrahim, who
represents the desire for a civil society."
And what about France?
MB: As for pushing ahead without the support of France and other major European
allies, Wolfowitz was dismissive.
PW: "I’m not sure what we would have been waiting for. I think the notion
that if we waited longer we would have had a unified international community
and we would have been able to act—number one, that’s very dubious.
And number two, our problems in Iraq don’t stem from the fact that the French
didn’t join us. I don’t think so."
PW: "I guess the other thing is—and I think they’re just beating
their gums on this—suppose suddenly the French say, ‘We’ll give you
all five thousand French troops that are deployable.’ But the French are
stretched beyond their capacity already, so maybe they’d hire Pakistanis.
I don’t know where they’d come from."
In closing I want to make one Seeker Blog point: the anti-war coalition has
continually raised and redefined the hurdle required for succcess in Iraq.
This is a long topic of its own. But one thing that I think is clear – their
current definition of success is negated if in any given week there
is even a single suicide bombing that results in even a single casualty.
I think that is about as silly as expecting that in two or three years that
Iraq will be a functioning democracy like Switzerland. Any objective observer
of post-war Iraq recognizes that the combined jihadi/Baathist terror coalition
is going to be doing business at some level inside Iraq for years. If they
have only $1000 left in their bank accounts they can hire one more killer.
Governance in Iraq is never likely to much resemble Switzerland. Like Wolfowitz
I cannot predict how the democratic enterprise will play out in Iraq. Will
the Iraqis be able to completely dismantle the web of corruption inherited
from Saddam? Probably not anytime soon. Will they perhaps be able to reduce
the level of corruption to that of the EU? Stay tuned…