Wolfowitz Interview with Atlantic Monthly
Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz Interview with Atlantic Monthly
NEWS TRANSCRIPT from the United States Department of Defense
DoD News Briefing
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz
Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2002
(Interview with James Fallows, The Atlantic Monthly. Also participating was Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Victoria Clarke. The article based in part on this interview appears in the magazine's March issue.)
Fallows: [The article will run in] about five or six weeks. Breakneck speed.
Voice: But whether Osama is captured or killed by that time --
Fallows: My bet has been never to refer to the time of his capture, but I hope to be proven wrong about that.
Thanks for inviting me to come in. I appreciate it.
Wolfowitz: Never is a (inaudible) presumption. You'd like it to be tomorrow, but you need a policy that anticipates that he might be the last one left.
Clarke: One of the many things I lose sleep over from the very, very beginning was (inaudible). Back in September, October. We just said it could happen today. That doesn't begin to solve the problem. So I worry about the alternative, you get him, and people go oh --
Fallows: Catching him alive is in a way the worst alternative, but that's your problem.
Wolfowitz: I'm not sure I agree with that. (Laughter) I don't think that trying him would be so difficult.
Clarke: Did I hear this morning correctly that the Moussaoui trial will not occur until October? I think I heard because he wouldn't enter a plea so they entered a plea of not guilty on his behalf, and then I could have sworn I heard the trial date was set for October, and I thought there must be some way to do that a little faster.
Fallows: Thank you for having me come in here. Here's [inaudible]. This is for reading whenever you should want it. This is not about foreign policy but about technical revolutions that will improve our lives.
Wolfowitz: Thank you. This was done before September 11th?
Fallows: Yes, although weirdly, to spend 15 seconds on that it's argument has been strengthened because if one assumes the airlines to be permanent encumbered as I think they are in terms of inconvenience, then certainly the demand for sort of point-to-point ad hoc more secure transportation (inaudible). One of the companies I wrote about got a billion dollar order last month for its plane from people working for the less expensive small jets. That's a different matter.
Wolfowitz: It should help Amtrak too, you would think.
Fallows: Videoconferencing and non-airline travel I think are the beneficiaries.
My ambition is, for The Atlantic, because we have these long lead times, we have to write around the news. So I don't want to ask you about Iraq, what should be done, etc. What I mainly want to ask you is how you got to where you are now. I've been talking with various of your friends, various of our mutual friends in the last couple of weeks and reading lots of things, so this may try your patience, why you think the things you think, but bear with me. It's part of the cost of public service. So that's what I'd like to just ask for a couple of minutes. I will base this largely on our interview, but also reading and interviewing other people.
To start off, as you think back in what is now a long and varied career in public service, what has been the main turning point that changed your life and shaped the world view that the world is now encountering? What are the three or four or two or ten episodes that were most important in shaping how you understand the world?
And I know [between] like a budget meeting and having to do promotions for various people, but I thought I might as well just ask. I have some specific ones and have some background processing to do.
Wolfowitz: There are a few that have some real logic to them. I came to Washington originally on what was going to be a one year leave of absence in 1973 to work on the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and was very seized with the idea of trying to do something to reduce the likelihood of nuclear war, which -- it's funny. If there's one thing that really separates my generation from the next generation it's the Cuban missile crisis. People who lived through that can see the world in a certain way, but people who didn't live through it can't, I guess. I continue to think, and I would be an idiot not to think that what you do about nuclear weapons makes a big difference in that regard.
But one of the things that impressed me in the three years I worked on that stuff was that nuclear wars are most likely to arise out of conventional wars. Preventing conventional war is the key to, and maybe I tend to think more important than simply looking at nuclear weapons in a vacuum. That actually led me to grab on very eagerly when I had the chance a few years later to come here in '77 for the first of my three times here, and I was in the program analysis office but I ran the division that did analysis of regional balances.
When I got there there was a big NATO office and a fairly large East Asia office. This was four years after the oil embargo (inaudible). I said where's the Persian Gulf office? I was told oh, we don't plan forces in the Persian Gulf.
So with the help of a very small and a very impressive -- I think we had about five people working on this including Dennis Ross who's gone on to much greater renown and a guy named Lin Wells who's here as the principal deputy of the C3I, did some work that is still very good on understanding what the military balances are in the Persian Gulf and how precarious they can be. And even went so far as to warn of the danger of an Iraqi attack on Kuwait or Saudi Arabia.
Fallows: This was during the Carter Administration?
Fallows: I remember that at the time.
Wolfowitz: It was sort of hard to get people first to pay any attention to it, then the Shah fell and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and suddenly people were [seized] with the Persian Gulf so we got a few things done, but they still didn't want to really face the implications or the conclusions.
Anyway, I left government briefly. So I guess just understanding the importance of conventional balances, understanding the importance of energy security, understanding the precariousness of the Persian Gulf itself was something that has stayed with me. I don't mean it's been my driving concern in life, but it does seem to have a way of, it keeps coming up over and over again.
And then I got invited to work at the State Department at the beginning of the Reagan Administration.
One of the things that really made a very big impression on me and it's something that I think is sort of central to, I think it is in some ways the central issue in foreign and national security policy, and there are different ways of working it out. It tends to get treated in these absolutes of realists versus idealists which I think is not a very helpful way to look at it.
But at the beginning of the Reagan Administration there were some people, sort of acolytes of Kissinger who wanted to do away with the assistant secretary for human rights, and I was head of the policy planning staff. We did a terrific memo. I say we because I wasn't the principal author, although I was an enthusiastic promoter of the work, arguing that this would be a terrible mistake for many reasons. That for Reagan in particular to give up the moral dimension of foreign policy didn't make sense at all.
The two things that came from that that I think have a general applicability, if it were universal I don't like words like that, but it keeps coming up in situations that are very different, is that number one, it is, even if you just view it from a kind of narrow national interest point of view, one of the greatest instruments of American policy if you want to use loaded military words, one of the most powerful weapons in our arsenal is the fact that we stand for what most populations in the world want to have for themselves, and clearly the more ideological dimension of American policy had a lot to do with the victory in the Cold War, and I think Reagan's willingness to push it hard played a big role.
But the second insight, in a way, which really only started in the '80s was that if you're going to be serious about that you can't just apply it to your enemies. You have to treat your friends different from your enemies. I think that was -- by the way, I guess that's another general insight that I think is sometimes lost sight of. The United States, and particularly those people who put the label internationalist on themselves, which I think is another crummy division because they say I'm a unilateralist. I'm not at all. They tend to want to treat enemies as well as friends, and I think a principle of international relations, as a lot of the rest of life, except in life you don't have usually enemies that are quite as nasty as you do in foreign policy, is that you should punish your enemies and reward your friends. If you blur the line too much, you don't do that.
But having said that, you couldn't give a pass to "friendly" dictators and say that what they do to their own people is no matter to us as long as they're supporting us. And what sort of made that more than just a theoretical thing to me was that sort of one of the benefits of being the head of policy planning and having responsibility for everything and nothing at the same time is you got to look at the whole world. Looking at the whole world in the early '80s, it didn't take a rocket scientist to find out that getting involved with East Asian affairs was an interesting thing to do.
I had this background from here on the military side. But when the opportunity came to be assistant secretary for East Asia and work on the politics and economics it was fantastic for me. I thought it would be mostly about China and Japan, and it was a lot about China and Japan, but the single biggest preoccupation in the three and a half years I was (inaudible) and it was a practical application of some of these points that you do need to take the philosophical issues serious, even with people who seem to be your friends, that you have to question the argument that there's no alternative, in this case no alternative (inaudible), but that also it's very important, I believe, to work in an evolutionary and not a revolutionary way. It is possible to make things even worse. I think we did that in Iran. One can argue how much the U.S. was responsible for what happened, but certainly what followed the shah looks to me -- I mean finally now it's getting back to something that has some hope in it, but for a long time it was an object lesson in overdoing these things.
I really believe there's a lot to be learned from what the United States succeeded in doing in East Asia in the 1980s. It wasn't just the Philippines. Even more impressively, Korea, and we not only I think did right by the Korean people in supporting a democratic transition there, but we clearly took, lanced the boil, if that's the right metaphor, of a great deal of growing anti-American feeling because we were in the difficult position of having to support a dictator because the threat from the North was much worse than a dictator in the South. Only by having actively encouraged and ultimately supported a democratic alternative were we able to get out of that dilemma.
And Taiwan is another case of that. Our role was led back to them in (inaudible) of the Philippines, but in fact I can't believe that (inaudible) wasn't influenced by what he saw taking place around him. I think these sorts of changes are very much influenced by what people see happening in their neighborhood, either physically in the neighborhood or culturally in their neighborhood.
If you look in the economic area, I think it's not an oversimplification to say that the Japanese demonstrated to everyone else in Asia, even people who hate the Japanese, that you don't have to be western Christian in order to succeed in modern capitalism. And having inspired the Koreans who hate them probably more than any other people in the world, by that example the Koreans set off (inaudible) and the Taiwanese set off (inaudible). And I think, though there's no way to demonstrate this, but I think a significant factor in the PRC's economic performance in the late '70s is that the success of Taiwan and Hong Kong and Singapore made it impossible to continue telling Chinese people that 150 years of Western colonialism had made it impossible for them to succeed because they had this evidence in front of their eyes that it was possible, you didn't even have to be Japanese or Korean, you could do it if you were Chinese.
And I think the political model in Asia to some extent, though it's not as sweeping in its effect, but I think one of the things that has the Beijing leadership very nervous about Taiwan, it's not usually said as a major reason, but I had actually a Chinese communist professor say to me five or six years ago is that what terrifies those old men in Beijing is next year Taiwan will have a democratically elected President. Now he wasn't your typical communist party member, but he was a party member.
So I think these examples are important and I felt for years that, ever since I visited Turkey for the first time 25 years ago, and that made a big impression on me. I expected something, the sort of women who were in veils or who had just barely gotten -- I was impressed by the modernity of the company. And Bernard Lewis has said if you approach Turkey from the West, from Europe, you're impressed by its backwardness. If you approach it from the East and Middle East you're impressed by how far it's come.
But it seemed to me then and it's seemed to me for 25 years now that it's an incredible strategic opportunity for the United States and the Western world that here is one of the most successful countries, and arguably the most successful country and arguably the most powerful country in the Muslim world that really wants to be part of the West and the West has done a very crummy job of welcoming Turkey in.
I saw the same thing in Indonesia. Here's the largest country. They won't even fit, at least back then, I don't know if it's changed now, they didn't want to be said to be part of the Muslim world because Islam is not the state religion like a lot of official respects for other religions, but it's without question the largest Moslem population of any country in the world, and yet one of the most moderate strains of Islam. Some of my Arab friends will say yes, but the Arab world is never going to look up to Turkey or Indonesia. There's some truth in that, but you could just as well have said that the Koreans and Chinese will never admire the Japanese. But it's the ability to demonstrate success that in fact even the very competitive attitude towards --
If Turkey were like, I don't know, Hong Kong or Singapore today, I think it would have a much bigger effect on the [world] than a Turkey that's kind of struggling. And similarly with Indonesia.
So that whole, continues to have a very, very complicated set of issues. It's not some simple thing that democracy works or democracy should be the centerpiece of American foreign policy. And actually, liberty and democracy are not the same thing necessarily.
But I think we just had another demonstration in a way in Afghanistan, that the weakness of that regime versus tyranny, the reason it collapsed so quickly wasn't just its military weakness, but more importantly its political weakness.
Fallows: Can I ask you to apply this Philippine logic to the current range of allies we have in the anti-Taliban, sort of the anti-terrorism struggle, many of whom are more oppressive than the Philippines were under Marcos. How would you apply the lessons you learned in the Philippines and Indonesia to today's pressure or lack of pressure on non-democratic allies?
Wolfowitz: First of all, let's talk about the non-democratic enemies. The fact is that all the regimes that sponsor terrorism or have in the recent past terrorized their own people. For reasons that aren't obvious, let me just say that, we've tended to -- by we I guess I don't just mean the United States, I think the sort of world in general has tended to give a pass to, for example the Syrian dictatorship that it never gave to the South Korean dictatorship. I'm not saying that the South Koreans should have had the pass, you sort of wonder at the ready acceptance of this kind of --
Fallows: You must have a hypothesis for the explanation.
Wolfowitz: Not a very convincing one. I think some of it is it's just a big mistake. The treatment of Turkey is a big mistake. And that may not sound like --
I remember when I became assistant secretary of State almost 20 years ago, and Elliott Abrams called me up and said I hope you're going to stop this policy of coddling Ferdinand Marcos. It was the first I really knew that we had a policy of coddling Ferdinand Marcos, but sure enough he was right. My initial efforts to change it were very much thwarted by the State Department bureau that I was supposed to be in charge of. Not completely, but it was sort of an attitude that Marcos isn't great but the alternatives are worse.
I don't know whether I might eventually have succeeded without other help, but when they murdered Aquino it changed American policy in a way that was dramatic and that change in policy produced a change in the Philippines that was in turn dramatic that I think encouraged people to think maybe we can actually make this kind of policy work in a place like Korea. So success built on success and in the Middle East you might say failure is built on failure.
So the lack of successful models encourages people to say either some kind of cultural despair that they're just not capable of, which is pretty hard to square with the way Arab Americans manage to get into American politics as successfully as they do.
I think an underestimation of just how intimidating those kinds of tyrannies are. When you look at the famous case of Iraq. People say there's no viable opposition. First of all, they ignore a third of the country which is in opposition, and actually operating a fairly, I don't know, I wouldn't want to call it democratic, but a reasonably open mini-state in northern Iraq. But if you stop and think about the penalties for being known to favor any kind of positive political change in Iraq it's not surprising that there are a million Iraqis that favor positive political change and they're all outside of Iraq.
I think if you ask about sort of why the tolerance, if that's the right word, or lack of -- There isn't pressure on Saudi Arabia or Egypt of the kind that we have on South Korea. It's partly because of fear of the alternative. That fear is very much intensified by the presence of regimes like Iran or Iraq or Syria nearby. It's a hard thing to do.
I guess I think if you sort of look two or three years, four years down the road, that one of the consequences of September 11th is to look at all these issues in a different light. And we're certainly not going to be -- there was a kind of tolerance, if that's the right word, it isn't the right word, lack of intolerance towards support for terrorism. We have these terrorism lists and countries were put on lists that supporting terrorism was considered a bad thing to do but it wasn't considered intolerable.
I think after September 11th it's considered intolerable. And I don't want to use the same words here, but it seems to me the political condition of the Muslim world and the Arab world was considered tolerable before -- not very nice, but you lived with it. I think it's not healthy. It's not healthy for us and it's certainly not healthy for them. What my experience with Turkey and Indonesia and a lot of other places sort of brought home to me is that given a chance, still a great majority of Muslims want to not be like us -- they want to be Muslim, they don't want to be like us, but they would like to enjoy the benefits of a free and prosperous society and they don't want to live under the kind of thing the Taliban were doing. But if that door seems closed every time the Europeans kick the Turks in the teeth they sort of -- I'm not saying the door is closed, but to the extent the door seems closed, obviously there's a greater field for recruitment for people with these kind of medieval ideas.
So I think if you take it on the measure of punishing enemies and rewarding friends, I mean our enemies are people who support terrorism, but our friends are the millions of people who would like to enjoy a system that's like the one we aspire to and I think they deserve more support than they tend to be getting now.
Fallows: I have a question about another important event in your career, which was the original Gulf War. Speaking just for yourself, not for administration policy more broadly, what did you learn from that experience that you're able to apply now? For good and for ill.
Wolfowitz: I think there was a lot about, and I've never tried to sort of put this down in a minimal sort of checklist, but I think there was a lot about the effective use of military force from sort of the obvious principles that, though they're obvious they frequently get ignored, at least to me. I think it was important that you don't just think of military force as a way of singling things, that it has -- I get very, very uncomfortable the minute I say we're going to send a message with it, through that use of military power. I found it funny coming sometimes from people who's formative experience was opposing the Vietnam War which I would have thought would have given them greater caution about it. you send a military message by having a military effect. We could have bombed Afghanistan for months and months and not sent any message if we hadn't found a way, largely through getting Special Forces people in on the ground, to coordinate airstrikes and make the air power a devastating military impact. But just dropping bombs and showing that we can do something that other people can't do --
I remember actually taking the entire top leadership of the Indonesian military to visit an aircraft carrier, and the commanding general who was very, very smart, (inaudible), he was, Suharto would never have given so much power to somebody so smart except that he wasn't Muslim so he couldn't overthrow him, and (inaudible) said, this is after they did this display of military might, very impressive, this one ship could destroy our entire army. But then he said, but of course it couldn't do anything to help with our problems which are internal.
So to come back, I do think one reason this group of people works very well is there are a lot of things, many of them subtle, I suppose if I sat down and thought for an hour or two I could kind of come up with more details, but I think that experience on how to use force effectively, and I don't mean to suggest that therefore it isn't perfect or there won't be problems later, I think this is very different from the Gulf War. The differences in some ways sort of leap out at you harder than (inaudible). And in many ways much more difficult.
There you have the astonishing retrospect that Saddam Hussein give us, such a wonderful set piece problem with such a wonderful set piece solution. It didn't seem like a set piece solution at the time, and it's worth reminding people that nearly half the United States Senate voted against that war. It took enormous strength of leadership on former President Bush's part to push things through. I actually did a piece in the review of Rick Atkinson's book called Victory Came (inaudible), it was so easy that people didn't realize how difficult it really had been.
I'm trying to think of what -- I tend to think -- I guess what this is leading to, I think much more of the differences than the similarities.
Fallows: Let me ask about one particular application. I think in the outside world it is seen that the end of that war you were arguing hard for sort of more finishing steps, especially the use of helicopter by the Iraqis. How is that debate seen now, do you think? The debate about whether it would have been practical to take more finishing steps?
Wolfowitz: I don't know. It's one for historians, I think. One thing I would say, two things I guess I would say clearly. Number one, I don't think we should have gone to Baghdad, I don't think we needed to go to Baghdad. In fact that was part of the argument. And ironically, by the way, even though you hear different things now, I heard the Saudis say very, very clearly to this government that they, in different ways they wanted us to finish the job and as far as they were concerned this guy was a mortal threat to them. And kind of once you poke the tiger you have to finish him.
But I don't think we should have gone to Baghdad and I think it's difficult with all this hindsight to remember that in foresight it looked like a very, very difficult job. And as I said a minute ago, it took all the great efforts of the president to get that limited mandate to stop at the Kuwaiti border basically. I'm sure if he had gone on and it had turned into a fiasco in some way, all those 45 or 48 senators who voted against him would have said you exceeded your authority, you had no authority to do this, and so forth.
Plus the fact that I myself am surprised that Saddam managed to survive a defeat of that magnitude. Although it's quite clear that he's gotten past that. It helps to control everything your people read and hear.
But to me the real mistakes, and this is going to sound partisan, but I think there was nothing that President Bush did that was weak. We may have let him fly helicopters when we shouldn't have, but nobody in the Middle East thinks that was American weakness. It might have been a mistake.
It's interesting too, by the way, that among Arabs who believe that we're punishing the Iraqi people with sanctions, they also widely believe that we're punishing the Iraqi people by leaving Saddam Hussein in power. There are two parts to that syllogism that may sound strange but it's not. It has a slightly conspiratorial logic to get there but they do. But as soon as Bush left office, in fact I think a couple of days before he left office, there was an amazing interview where Clinton said that I'm a born-again Baptist and I believe in deathbed conversions and if Saddam Hussein wants to play ball, that wasn't the phrase, but we can come to terms with him. His response to that was to attempt to assassinate President Bush. And our response to that was to do this pathetic Tomahawk strike in the middle of the night which is the sort of definition of pinprick use of force. You just had a series of failed American responses to serious Iraqi provocations. And to provocations in general. Somalia was another one which bin Laden himself has referred to as how the Americans don't react when something is done to them.
I think that in my view sent a bad message to everybody including -- again, we talk about people who look at how what goes on in their neighborhood or what goes on to people like them. Terrorists don't operate in a vacuum. They look at what happens to other terrorists. Hopefully, now in fact they are looking at what's happened to the people in Afghanistan. We're clearly getting very different responses from the Yemenis, for example, than we had 12 months ago.
Fallows: I wanted to ask about one other thing you wrote.
Clarke: It's very interesting so I hate to break it up, but --
Wolfowitz: We're over.
Fallows: I'll ask you this one question. Just before you took office you said that you thought this was like 1899 more than 1919, the great power rivalry was sort of the main source of instability. Which great powers are you thinking of?
Wolfowitz: Well, China's the most obvious one. But one of the things I wrote about, there were a series of articles that worked that same thing from different angles. In East Asia in general you have this stunning growth of economic power which means ultimately potentially military power, and a unified Korea itself is half the size of Japan, is the size of a major European power, and just introducing -- I'm not saying that Korea is on the verge of unifying tomorrow, but it has the possibility in 10 or 15 years of a England or Germany emerging armed in the middle of the East China Sea, I guess it is, or on the edge of it. Yet it's a shrimp compared to the countries around them. China's the biggest one, Vietnam is, again, only in Asia does Vietnam look like a small country. Its army is tough and big. Then you've got the Indians who we are increasingly aware are a budding major regional power. So you have not only China, but you have a very complex equation of countries none of whom have a history of getting along with one another terribly well.
So I would say that to sort of think of China on the model of a Cold War is really a mistake. It's much more a kind of, the question of how to achieve balance of power in East Asia among these growing powers without going through the experience that Europe went through to get there is a little too (inaudible). I think it could have, who knows, I'm not great on the what if. You certainly wish it had been avoided. Part of what I wrote about in those articles is you had this enormously hopeful decade at the beginning of the 20th Century and then it all came crashing down.
Fallows: And to be clear, you weren't talking about Russia and the sort of Russian/U.S. great power rivalry.
Wolfowitz: Oh, not at all. No, no. I mean if anything in my simplistic way looking out 20 years as opposed to the next year or two, it seems to me that the Russian Far East is one of those Asia problems. There is an imbalance between a very sort of resource-rich and people-poor Russian Far East and a people-rich and resource-poor China. It's more Russia's problem than it is anyone else's, but it seems to me it's even in China's interest to try to make sure that that doesn't get sorted out in some of the old fashioned ways, which old fashioned ways, as we've discovered, have a way of coming back over and over again.
So no, I think -- during the Cold War to some extent, what we were trying to do with the opening of China was to help a weak China deal with the threat from a very powerful Soviet Union and I think in the future we may be trying to figure out how to help a weak Russia deal with an increasingly powerful China. But I think we really are in a new era of U.S./Russian relations. It will go through bumps and starts and it's not a new era in the sense that suddenly they love us and we love them, but our interests coincide in so many ways that they didn't before.
Fallows: Thank you very much for your time. And congratulations on what you're doing here.
Wolfowitz: So far so good, but there's a long way to go. At least in some of those headlines from the first few weeks when the war wasn't going well.
Fallows: I didn't see that, no.
Wolfowitz: It's really great. One of the best parts is the takeoff on (inaudible). Our war in Afghanistan bogged down and something, something, isn't there a danger that we're going to appear weak (inaudible). Isn't that the same question you asked last week? She looked at her notes and says oh, yes, excuse me. I meant to say with the war in Afghanistan going so well isn't there a danger we'll look like a bully (inaudible) support of the Afghan people.