Wolfowitz: The Exit Interviews

As he prepared to leave office, the deputy secretary of defense engaged in a series of conversations with the author on Iraq, democracy, intelligence, 9/11, and how he believes America must make its way in the world
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Those who deplore America's invasion of Iraq have no shortage of official villains, but to them perhaps none is more diabolical than Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, who, in a promotion that vexes his detractors, will soon take over leadership of the World Bank. His name alone suggests sharp teeth and a thirst for the kill. Even in the hawkish administration of President George W. Bush there was no more forceful proponent for the war that toppled Saddam Hussein.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Fallows@Large: "Wolfowitz = McNamara, Chapter 402" (April 5, 2007)
"Jeez louise. How much inner peace does it suggest about a person if he refuses to talk about the event for which he will always be principally known?" By James Fallows

Last fall Wolfowitz agreed to a series of private and wide-ranging interviews about his tenure at the Pentagon. My conversations with him took place during four meetings over six months. Wolfowitz's office is large, its pale-blue walls hung with landscape paintings and one big photograph of "P-Dubs" (as he is sometimes known at the Pentagon) holding the hand of a small Iraqi boy during a visit to the war zone. Cynics may doubt America's motives in Iraq, but Wolfowitz appears well-intended: he is a proud liberator. The anteroom and office are decorated with reminders of power: flags, patriotic emblems, photographs of the Dep posing with President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and others. The view from behind his desk looks out on the gray Potomac River and beyond, to the grand landmarks of the capital.

Whatever history's ultimate verdict on Wolfowitz, he works hard at his job. Famous for his long hours in the office, where he requires two shifts of staff members to keep pace, he has the year-round ghostly pallor of the work-addicted, accentuated by the graying of his defiantly unruly mop of straight hair (ridiculed by the antiwar filmmaker Michael Moore, who captured him trying to tame it with a comb and some spittle before a public appearance). There is nothing bellicose in Wolfowitz's manner; on the contrary, he is gentle and professorial—he was once the dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, at Johns Hopkins—and speaks so softly that at times I had to lean closer to catch his words. He frequently interjects "I might be wrong" before delivering an opinion. And while he can be persuasive, no one would ever accuse him of being smooth. He is genuine, unguarded, and above all preoccupied. He seems always at some remove and has an endearing awkwardness; he will stride across a room to shake one's hand and then just stand there, smiling earnestly. Unless some effort is made to engage him, he drifts off—even if he hasn't physically moved. That distance evaporates when one asks him a question—and rather than giving tidy, guarded, prepackaged summaries of his thinking, he steps right onto the careening raft of his consciousness.

At the core of Wolfowitz's view of the ongoing struggle in Iraq is the conviction that the tenacious enemy there consists primarily of organized remnants of Saddam's old regime. Critics of the American effort tend to see the Iraqi resistance as a broad-based popular one motivated by nationalism and anti-Americanism, and spearheaded by jihadis. If they are right, then the invasion of Iraq may simply have stirred up an ongoing civil war in that country, and could lead to the formation of a fundamentalist Islamic government that—allied with neighboring Iran—could serve as precisely the kind of haven for Islamist terrorists that the United States had hoped to destroy, one perhaps worse for America than Saddam Hussein's old regime. If Wolfowitz is right, then the insurgency consists of a relatively small number of brutal Saddamite thugs whose only popular support is based on fear. In his view, this core group, which he likens to the mafia, can be defeated, and Iraq in the near future will be a stable and self-governing ally in the region.

His conviction is partly a leap of faith. He likes to tell the story of a conference in Washington where a critic of America's foreign policy stood up to denounce the arrogance of imposing "our" democratic values on the Arab world, only to have an Arab stand up to complain that true arrogance was to assume such values were "ours," when they are universal. Underlying his faith about Iraq is the belief that mankind everywhere seeks freedom and self-government. If there were no polls or even anecdotal evidence to support the view, Wolfowitz would still believe that that is what a majority of Iraqis want, and that those who would restore dictatorship or impose religious extremism are, by definition, a minority. Democracy, in his view, is both a universal ideal and a universal default position. When a Polish interviewer suggested that his policy was about "exporting democracy," Wolfowitz objected. "'Export of democracy' isn't really a good phrase," he said. "We're trying to remove the shackles on democracy."

My aim in talking with Wolfowitz was not to debate policy or to second-guess decisions but to elicit a fuller explanation of his thinking.

September 15, 2004

By almost any measure the war appeared to be going badly. Nearly sixteen months after President Bush had dramatically declared victory, Iraq was still a bloody battleground. Americans were hunkered down behind concrete barriers and barbed wire. A string of kidnappings and gruesome videotaped beheadings had horrified most of the world and inspired jihadis and die-hard Saddamites. A number of small Iraqi cities and towns—most notably Fallujah, scene of the murder and mutilation of American contract workers months earlier—were under the control of insurgents. Fallujah had effectively been ceded to the insurgency in April, when the newly formed Iraqi forces sent to reclaim it had allied themselves with the rebels. About fifty Americans had already died in Iraq that month, and sixty-six had been killed the month before. At home a report prepared for the CIA—and leaked—concluded that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, although he did have the means to manufacture them, and would probably have done so if UN sanctions had been lifted—a step the UN was considering prior to the invasion. On this very day Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, would tell the BBC that the U.S. invasion was unjustified and "illegal," and that conditions in Iraq were unsuitable for the elections scheduled for just four months hence.

Wolfowitz made no effort to paint a rosier picture. He seemed both concerned and determined. Not all the news was bad. A combined force of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers had partially retaken Samarra, a small city under insurgent control, and the intervention of Iraq's Shia spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, had persuaded the forces of the rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to lay down their arms in Najaf and "Sadr City," an enclave in Baghdad. A national assembly had been chosen to oversee the interim government of Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, and the Occupation Authority (whose very existence Wolfowitz had opposed)had been dismantled. I asked him what was now the most pressing matter in Iraq.

"Concretely, it's what do you do about Fallujah," he said without hesitation. "When do you do it? Is the success that is being reported through our military channels in Samarra real, or is it another Fallujah? Is what I think was a success in Najaf being followed up aggressively enough against the Sadr people elsewhere? What should we be doing about Syria, which I think is very actively promoting trouble in Iraq, perhaps even to the point of shipping young Lebanese suicide volunteers to Iraq?"

Wolfowitz spoke in detail about military actions in certain Iraqi towns that had proved encouraging, particularly the routing—"at least for the time being"—of insurgent forces in Nineveh.

"I'm feeling good about that action," he said. "And then, alongside it, two major developments are under way. One is the training of Iraqi security forces, which finally seems to have some real momentum, as of a couple of months ago. I have less confidence in the political process leading toward elections in January. It's easier to sort of track the training schedule for battalions and equipment coming in and so forth. You can kind of see that concretely. What's actually going to happen in the elections, I guess, is much less clear."

Wolfowitz said he was concerned about reports, primarily in the American press, that the Baath Party, Saddam Hussein's political organization, was set to make a comeback, to "re-emerge openly." Despite its very public successes, the insurgency remained mysterious. Was it a loose collection of popularly supported cells following the lead of al-Qaeda, and thus part of the general anti-American, Islamo-fascist movement in the region? Or was it a remnant of the old tyranny, tightly run and centrally organized and funded? As noted, those who believe that the war cannot end well tend toward the former view. Those fighting the war are convinced—as is Wolfowitz—that it is mostly the latter.

"I admit to a prejudice here that we consistently underestimate the ability of the old apparatus to terrorize people," he said. "I had a bit of an argument this afternoon with a former colleague who thinks we are kidding ourselves because we're underestimating the extent to which the opposition is something new, and sort of genuine nationalist anti-Americanism. You could argue which is better news or which is worse news. There are problems in both. And there is a certain mixture. There is no question, I think, that as time has gone on, more people have become either disillusioned with us or maybe doubtful whether we are going to win. Therefore, some people who are not so hard-core about this are more susceptible to being pushed to do things. But there is an organization to this war. Quite a bit of organization. It's loose, but it's there. And unless you think there are several organizations, and the Baathists have suddenly picked up some non-Baathist allies, I don't see it as spontaneous anger at Americans. I mean, to the contrary: just look at the hundreds of people, thousands of people, volunteering to join the national guard and the police force.

"And so even though it looks as if the situation keeps getting worse, week after week, at the same time it may be that the forces that are going to turn it around—as I believe—are getting stronger also, and there is a turning point coming. But the trend is admittedly bad.

"It was my own view before the war that we ought to go in and establish an Iraqi provisional government the day we got there. Nobody agreed with that. And maybe they were right. It's not black and white. But some people were against it because they said it would be a government of 'externals.' It refers to Iraqis who were in exile in northern Iraq, outside of Saddam's control. You can't call them all exiles, because you can't call Jalal Talabani [the Kurdish leader who is currently the president of Iraq] and Masoud Barzani [the current leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party] exiles. They've been in Iraq all this time. So you call them externals. So we took fourteen months, and we came up with a prime minister who is an external, a president who is an external, a deputy prime minister who is an external, two deputy vice presidents who are externals, and a cabinet which I think, if you look at it, would be seventy-five to eighty percent externals. I think it was a nutty idea from the beginning. It sort of had ingrained in it the notion that those who ran away were cowards, didn't suffer. A lot of them who ran away ran because they were suffering even more than others.

"Once we accepted the label of being an occupation authority, it hurt us. It was debated among the lawyers, and ultimately we were told this was the international legal framework. I didn't like it. Just the word 'occupation,' I think, has allowed al-Jazeera to draw a parallel with the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. The original plan was to continue the occupation until next year, when there would be an elected constitutional government. I just think that would have been crazy. So finally, last fall, with Rumsfeld's push, we embraced the idea of accelerating the transfer to sovereignty. I think you can see from Iraq's reaction to it what a hit it is. Even with all its limitations. The main limitation is people saying okay, you transferred sovereignty, but the security situation hasn't gotten any better. Well, that's where we lost time.

"The other place is on the issue of training Iraqi security forces. That gap is being filled now."

"Given some of the things you said and wrote prior to going into Iraq," I asked, "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.

"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.

"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."

"You were one of those who was most emphatic prior to going into Iraq that Saddam had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction."

"I don't think so."

"I can quote you."

"Okay."

I read him a line from an op-ed article under his byline in the British newspaper The Independent for January 30, 2003: "There is incontrovertible evidence that the Iraqi regime still possesses such weapons." Wolfowitz had spoken in the same terms on numerous occasions.

"'Incontrovertible evidence' is a pretty strong way of putting it," I said. "How did you feel when you found out they didn't have such weapons?"

"Well, I don't think they don't," he said. "You say it turned out they didn't. By the way, read me the quote again."

I did so. Wolfowitz said he needed to go back and review his prior statements.

"But clearly you believed they had stockpiles of such weapons?"

"You are putting the word 'stockpiles' in," he said.

He was right: "stockpiles" was my word.

"See, that's what—I wasn't convinced about stockpiles. I always thought the nuclear thing was overstated. That was down the road. What really bothered me was biological weapons, and we know they made them. We know they know how to make them. We know there was a lot of deliberate effort to destroy evidence of all kinds of things. 'Incontrovertible,' I agree, is a pretty strong word. But we know they've had the stuff and—let me put it this way—they were given a chance to come clean under [UN Resolution] 1441, to declare everything they had and to cooperate fully with inspectors. We caught them lying on the declarations on not insignificant things—mostly on the missiles they were working on and the UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] they were working on. And there was lots of evidence of obstructing inspectors and moving things and hiding things. That was supposed to be the test of 1441—not whether we could prove they had stockpiles."

"Well, absent the threat of weapons like these, should the United States have gone to war against Iraq or Saddam Hussein?"

"You had a very dangerous character who played with terrorists, who had regularly declared hostile intentions toward us and toward our allies in the Persian Gulf, who definitely had a capacity to make these weapons and—absent some kind of fairly fundamental change in his attitude and policy—was extremely dangerous, and much more dangerous in the light of September 11 than before. And that's where September 11 changed the calculation. I think it would have been irresponsible to leave him alone. If he had fully complied with the UN resolutions, wouldn't we still have a problem with him? He could still be supporting terrorism. He certainly would still be mistreating his own people. Compliance would have represented a major change on Saddam's part. But he didn't comply."

As for pushing ahead without the support of France and other major European allies, Wolfowitz was dismissive.

"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."

As our conversation ended that day, I came back to a comment he had made earlier in passing. He had mentioned the possibility of failure.

"What would failure in Iraq look like?"

"I'm not sure it helps thinking about it," he said, "other than to realize that you've got to do everything to prevent it. I think it's preventable."

"But what would it look like? Are we talking about anarchy, or civil war, or a new dictatorship?"

Wolfowitz dodged the question. He was not prepared to speculate on the possibility of failure.

"One reason I don't think we will fail is because all the enemy has is its ability to terrorize," he said. "It doesn't promise people a better life. Does it appeal to Iraqi nationalism? It certainly doesn't appeal to Shiite or Kurdish views of the Iraq they want to see. I don't think it appeals to most Sunnis. So we have superior force, we've got resources and a lot of money, which is slowly making a difference. But that alone isn't enough. At the core what we have is legitimacy. I don't mean we as Americans, but this effort has legitimacy in the eyes of the Iraqi people as a whole."

"What if America's patience and toleration are exhausted?"

"The American people are pretty impressive in their ability to keep after something if they think it is doable," he said. "I think what they don't want to hear is that all this is for something that can't be done."

October 28, 2004

It was just over a week before the election. There had been another terribly bloody month in Iraq, including more videotaped beheadings and the slaughter of forty-nine young Iraqis who had been recruited for the country's new army. Muqtada al-Sadr's forces had negotiated an agreement and begun turning over their rifles (he proved a manageable problem, as Wolfowitz had predicted),but the city of Fallujah was still insurgent-controlled, and the wave of bombings and kidnappings throughout the country created an impression of hopelessness. Wolfowitz showed no concern that President Bush (and thus he himself) would be turned out of office. He seemed to appreciate better than most of his countrymen that no matter who won the election, the problem he was handling was not going to change or go away.

"I want to ask you this question before Election Day," I said. "What would, or could, a different administration do differently in Iraq?"

"I think we're on the right approach now," he said. "So I can imagine a different approach, but I can't imagine it working."

"What would the different approach be?"

"Flooding Iraq with American troops, although I don't think they're going to do that. Pulling out, or partially pulling out. Kind of saying to the Iraqis, 'Okay, it's put-up-or-shut-up time now. You're on your own.' In a way we're doing that now, but we're trying to do that on a controlled schedule. To use one of Rumsfeld's favorite metaphors, we're raising the training wheels on the bicycle rather than removing them completely. 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."

Wolfowitz was less focused on the U.S. election than on the Iraqi ones scheduled for January. Around the world critics of administration policy were arguing that the elections ought to be delayed, that the level of violence and intimidation in Iraq made holding fair elections impossible. Wolfowitz saw the ballot as the most formidable weapon against the insurgency.

"The insurgents are really anxious to prevent the elections from happening," he said. "It is interesting to note that the election in Afghanistan was just an enormous strategic defeat for the Taliban. They can see the same thing happening in Iraq. If there really is a popular elected government, that means they'll be fighting Iraqis, not Americans, and that's already a problem for them. Polling shows a roughly ten-percentage-point increase in popular criticism of the enemy because of things like killing schoolchildren, beheadings, and the general violence. Of course, the purpose of that violence isn't to get people to love them; it's to get people to fear them. This is an intense period both politically and in terms of security. Secondly, I think the situation is one where both sides are getting stronger. I mean, I've been trying to figure out how does one square a certain level of real optimism on the part of our commanders with the fact that in many measurable figures of security, things seem to be getting worse. The answer is that our forces on the ground see the Iraqis getting stronger, gaining ground, and eventually overtaking the enemy. I think it's like a footrace where the enemy got a head start, but they're basically weaker in numbers, popular support, and lots of other things. The Iraqi side is going to catch up and overtake them. I say 'Iraqi side,' but that's one of the things that is not so clear right now. What is the Iraqi side? Is it Ayad Allawi? Is it somebody else? How strong is Allawi personally? It's hard to know those things. But just the sheer number of people who are volunteering for the national guard and the police in the face of unbelievable efforts to intimidate them is very impressive."

Estimates of the size of the insurgency were, in his opinion, just guesses.

"It's big, but it's a tiny fraction of the country," he said. "It's even a tiny fraction of the Sunni Arab population. But it's enough to scare the shit out of everybody if two hundred of them are living in your city. And if the two hundred are able to pay a thousand unemployed kids to plant bombs and shoot RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] … I don't know of another guerrilla war in which killing for hire has been the principal enemy tactic, apart from suicide bombers."

The administration had initially estimated the number of insurgents at 5,000, and more recently at as many as 20,000. The growing estimate had become a political issue, because it suggested that support for the insurgency was spreading. Wolfowitz believed the opposite was true.

"The implication is, I think, that it's metastasized, kind of like a cancer, and that they're proliferating," he said. "I don't think that is the model. One of the most fundamental challenges is understanding what the problem is. You can't win if you're chasing the wrong problem." This is what he felt many of the war's critics were doing—evaluating the game as though only one team were on the field. Every setback to the home team was caused not by a clever counterstrike by a determined enemy but by a failure of planning or execution—as though a perfect policy were possible. In retrospect, he said, it's clear that mistakes were made in preparing for and handling the postwar phase, but they were not the ones most frequently mentioned.

"What I think would have made a difference is: number one, training more Iraqis before the war," he said. "Other people said, 'We don't need trained Iraqis.' We ended up with seventy-two as a result in this training program. Second thing would have been to have an Iraqi government recognized from the onset, and we lost that; but the opposing view stemmed from the belief that we could control the country for a much longer period of time. I thought the model of what happened in northern Iraq in 1991 was a model worth trying to emulate. Recognizing northern Iraq was a lot simpler. And the third thing, I think, was that we didn't go after the bad guys in a properly focused way. The usual criticism is that de-Baathification was too harsh, and there's some truth to that. But the other criticism, which isn't made enough, is that we were nowhere near as tough as we should have been on the really hard-core."

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.

"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.

"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. 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.

"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.

"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."

November 19, 2004

The big news at home was that President Bush had won re-election. There were rumors all over Washington about what job Wolfowitz would get in the cabinet shake-up. I saw him for just a short time, and found him unchanged—still as troubled and preoccupied by the hard challenge of Iraq as when we had first met. The good news from that country was that an American assault had succeeded in taking Fallujah, but large portions of the city had been leveled. Insurgent attacks had not decreased. There had been yet more videotaped beheadings. Margaret Hassan, the director of CARE International in Iraq, had been killed by insurgents who had kidnapped her weeks earlier. On the first day of the month the deputy governor of Baghdad had been assassinated, along with two of his bodyguards. With Iraqi elections scheduled in just over two months, the picture was still bleak.

I asked Wolfowitz about the retaking of Fallujah. Military commanders in Iraq had declared that day that the city was completely under American control.

"The purpose of the operation, in my view, was not primarily to kill and capture the people we killed and captured, although that's a gain, but to take away sanctuary, to not give them places where they can freely build hundreds of IEDs [improvised explosive devices], and to deprive them of a place to run away to after a fight. And also to discourage them from thinking they can set up a sanctuary somewhere else. I think the psychological effect of Fallujah is pretty large. This victory reverses that. You can't measure the strategic impact of this victory just from the fact it was a tactical success. Also we'll see over the next few months what impact it has on the psychology of people to realize that the Americans are here to stay, that George Bush has been re-elected, and that Fallujah's not a sanctuary anymore. I think it's part of a package of convincing folks that our victory is inevitable. But of course part of the issue here, too, is to transfer 'our' from meaning 'the Americans' to meaning 'the Iraqis.' And one of the successes in Fallujah is that we managed to maintain a great deal of basically almost perfect coordination and closeness with the Iraqi government. If you remember, what stopped the operation last April was all of them were threatening to leave the governing council, including Allawi, and Lakhdar Brahimi [the UN special envoy charged with forming the Iraqi interim government] was threatening to end the UN role. One might have toughed it out, but it was a very close call, and it may have been reasonable judgment to say the politics of this are more important. This time we went into it, we said to these guys, 'If we start it, we have to finish it, and you have to be with us.' And they were. And they were jittery, biting their fingernails. I'm not sure even yet if they believe it was a victory for them. But I think it is. There were relatively low civilian casualties, because the government gave people lots of time to get out of town."

"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?"

"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."

Wolfowitz noted again that the financial roots of the insurgency reached to Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon.

"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.

"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."

The key to victory is bringing the leaders of this mafia-like organization to justice. Unfortunately, Wolfowitz noted, Iraq lacks a working criminal-justice system.

April 4, 2005

At our last meeting Wolfowitz appeared far more cheerful and relaxed. Successful elections in Iraq had seemingly confirmed his belief that a majority of Iraqis were eager for democracy and opposed to the ongoing insurgency. The elected interim assembly in Iraq had just finished naming a government—something many skeptics had believed would never happen. Insurgent attacks and American deaths were at their lowest point since immediately after the fall of Baghdad. The American mission to create a stable democratic society in Iraq was every day becoming more and more an Iraqi mission. There was still a long way to go, and the possibility of failure was still very real, but it seemed a lot less likely than it had half a year before, when I first sat down with Wolfowitz.

If he felt vindicated, he didn't say so directly. He was cautiously optimistic. It was a moment suitable for moving on to the next challenge. He had just returned from Brussels, where he had been unanimously approved as the new head of the World Bank. Clearly excited about the powerful new position, he seemed relieved to be stepping away from his war role—not just to be free of the awful burden but to be distancing himself from the caricature of him as a carnivore in the Bush administration. The World Bank's mission of fighting poverty, he said, was perfectly in keeping with the philosophy that motivated America's war in Iraq: a happier world is a more secure world. "We are all better off when other people are better off," he said. 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.

"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."

"So how did 9/11 change your opinion?"

"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.

"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 form."

"Isn't the Iraq debate ultimately over the uses of power?" I asked.

"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 less obvious.

"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."

"Since we last talked," I said, "there were elections in Iraq—generally perceived, I think, as successful."

"Dramatic," Wolfowitz said.

"I always begin these conversations by asking you to assess where we are in Iraq. So where do you think we are now?"

"The two main tracks are self-government and self-defense, and Iraq has come a long way in the past six months on both tracks. Iraqi security forces are bigger, stronger, and generally performing much better. Is it uniformly wonderful? No. But I think it's a very clear upward path. There are real splits in the so-called insurgencies now. The election must have created a certain sense of inevitability, if eight and a half million people would vote in spite of being threatened not to vote. If you see that the overwhelming majority of your countrymen are ready to risk their lives to win this thing, and that one or two hundred thousand of them are training and getting armed and so forth, it has got to take away a lot of the enemy propaganda that we can just wait these people out. There is an Iraqi-American I know who said that on April 9, 2003, the Americans liberated Iraq, and on January 30, 2005, the Iraqis liberated Iraq. But I think every one of these victories has a certain half-life."

"Was the election an expression of a desire for democracy," I asked, "or was it primarily tribal—the Shiites finally getting the chance to assert their majority status?"

"Well, that is not undemocratic," Wolfowitz said.

"When did you first get reports of what was happening?"

"I literally didn't want to stay up. Not because of the time change, but maybe it was sort of a statement of faith. I didn't want to stay up in suspense all night. I wanted to get some sleep."

"So you went to bed."

"There were some friends who were having a party, and when I got up in the morning I talked to them, and by that time it was clear the turnout was large. And I remember getting this very excited phone call from an Iraqi friend who said that he voted for the first time in his life.

"Each time something good has happened in Iraq, I have had this uncomfortable feeling. Like when Baghdad was liberated. I mean, I was excited, but I didn't think it was over. And I remember the same sort of feeling when Saddam was captured: this is great, but it is not over. The more everyone else is getting exhilarated, the more I get the feeling we will make the General Meade mistake of not following up on victories. [The U.S. Civil War general George Meade famously failed to pursue Confederate forces after the Union victory at Gettysburg, giving General Robert E. Lee a chance to regroup and fight on.] The big difference about the January 30 victory is that it's no longer in our hands, which I think is a good thing."

"In our first conversation, in September, I asked you what failure would look like in Iraq if it happened, and you declined to comment. Could you talk about that now? What would it look like if things failed in Iraq?"

"Well, I suppose if we pulled out prematurely, before the forces of a new Iraq get their act together, you could have the restoration of some kind of tyranny. It would have a very bloody form, I think, and in fact it might pull us back in all over again. It's hard to imagine us standing aside and watching that happen."

"So," I said, "the United States could end up just stuck in Iraq, with our forces targets for insurgent attacks, and with no credible Iraqi leadership?"

"I guess that would be one possibility," Wolfowitz replied. "But we are not going to pull out prematurely, and the elections have helped convince Iraqis of that. If some kind of constitutional government gets established in Iraq, if the insurgency is defeated and Iraq gets on its feet, then I think it's a huge gain for us in the Arab world and in the overall war on terrorism. It's such an imperfect analogy, but I still think of the analogy of Germany and Japan being basket cases for several years after World War II and then becoming pillars of our own foreign policy. South Korea being a basket case for much longer, and now an independent, self-supporting country that contributes hugely. The new democracies in Eastern Europe. I think we just get stronger when these new countries emerge that share our values, more or less. That doesn't mean they are carbon copies. That certainly doesn't mean we have no differences with them. But overall, it's a much better world for us as a result. I think that after 9/11 the importance of beginning to push that kind of change in the Muslim world is huge."

"Since you are going to be leaving your position and heading on after this tumultuous four or five years," I said, "how certain do you feel when you make these decisions?"

"Fortunately, I don't have to make the decisions," Wolfowitz replied. "I give advice to people who do."

"But how certain do you feel that you are right?"

"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.

"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.

"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."

And that is the route we are on.

Mark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic.
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Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. His most recent book is The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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