You speculate that Afghanistan might have provided a better showcase for progress than Iraq. But in an interview I did with Michael Scheuer, he said that at the end of the day the Afghans will probably install some sort of Islamist government in Kabul, and you can probably have ten or fifteen "democratic" elections, but in the long run it will still be tribal politics and clan relations dominating the politics of the country.
I bow to him in expertise on Afghanistan, but the point I'm trying to make is that there was a lower bar for seeming to succeed in Afghanistan than the bar we set for ourselves in Iraq. In Afghanistan, if you could make things somewhat better, then you could show that by going in and removing the Taliban, the United States had brought what was by every measure a net improvement. You could also have probably made it somewhat easier to stamp out the poppy economy and kept the warlords somewhat more under control. It would not have been Luxembourg or Sweden, but it would have been better. It would have been an easier challenge to meet than this very grandiose, sweeping test of the first Arab-Islamic democracy we've created for ourselves in Iraq.
You describe a power vacuum that set in after Bush revoked the Presidential Decision Directive 56, which laid out interagency cooperation in emergencies. Without that in place, a lot of power became concentrated in the Pentagon. What are some of the risks of that kind of concentration of power, and what effects are we seeing from that now?
There have been a number of failures of inter-organization cooperation and collaboration associated with the war in Iraq. The State Department was almost willfully frozen out of post-war planning. And near the end, Bush signed an order saying the Pentagon would officially be in charge of the occupation. So what could have been a machine working together starting in early 2002 ended up instead as a bunch of turf wars. There was an evident loss of a lot of expertise, time, and effort, and an increase in resentments. Nobody, probably not even the Pentagon, will now claim it was a good idea to have only the Pentagon in charge of the occupation. The State Department is now being roped into it as fast as the Pentagon can manage, and that shouldn't have been necessary a year-plus after the war. It should have been that way from the beginning.
You make clear that because of the war in Iraq, our ability to deal with a North Korean or Iranian threat is much more limited. Our army is spread thin, we have fewer troops in South Korea—
And who will believe our warnings now?
Exactly. What do we do if there's a crisis with North Korea or Iran, say, ten years down the road?
Ten years down the road, I don't know. In the short term, it seems to me we are really in a mess involving both those countries. Essentially, everyone understands two things about the way we need to deal with them. First, solutions have to involve international effort, international leverage, and international assurances. And second, the United States has to lead those international efforts. We have the most advanced intelligence system and the biggest military, among other things. Both halves of that equation are harder for us now. It's harder to put together the international effort, and who will believe our intelligence? So, what exactly will happen with respect to North Korea and Iran, I honestly don't know. Many people argue that North Korea, although apparently more of a lunatic regime than Iran, is ultimately less threatening because what they're looking for is mainly status and recognition. Their demand in the last session of showdowns with the U.S. was essentially a commitment from the United States that we wouldn't attack them. That's just about all they wanted. Both these regimes clearly have nuclear programs underway. It's not a matter of doubt like with Iraq. So, it will be a major challenge for the next administration to deal with both those countries with diminished resources.