Mark Danner

The War Behind Closed Doors: A Frontline Interview with Mark Danner

PBS Frontline Documentary

A “Frontline” interview with Mark Danner

Can you talk about the pull on Bush, assuming he’s at the center of the unilaterals and the multilaterals? What’s the debate going on around him?

All of us are in the position of trying to figure out where the president’s brain is, essentially, on foreign policy. He came to office as a governor with no foreign policy experience. More than that, he had hardly traveled abroad. So the first couple of years in this administration, as far as foreign policy, had been very much the education of George W. Bush.

There are figures within the administration whose views are very well known. They’ve been publicly articulated. Indeed, they’ve used public platforms very much to push their views within the administration. I’m talking about the so-called ideologues. Some of them are in the Defense Department: Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and others.

Those gentlemen are thought to advance a very ambitious view of the Middle East, and of what the war policy on Iraq could achieve in the Middle East — that is, this would lead to a remaking of the Middle East. Democracy in Iraq would then put pressure on the mullahs in Iran, would promote some kind of democratic outcome there, would isolate the Syrians, would lead to a cutoff of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and eventually lead to a Middle East peace agreement on the Israelis’ terms.

Whether those sorts of arguments, those broad ideological ones, actually have captured the mind of George W. Bush, I think, is very much to be doubted. Whether Dick Cheney, however strongly he advances a hardline policy on Iraq, really believes in that kind of ambitious approach to the Middle East … is also, I think, completely unclear. It’s quite possible that, when you talk about hardline views, that you have people who want to get in and get out, and who see this as a matter of simply of regime change — literally, of removing Saddam.

You have other people who have much broader views about the future of the Middle East, almost evangelical views. They’re ideologues in a very large sense.

In that context, it’s hard to know where George Bush fits in. I think the bottom line is that George W. Bush is a politician. He will listen, as many presidents do, to differing views within his administration. If he goes forward and makes war in Iraq, and invades and occupies the country, I think a lot of how the policy evolves will have to do with the kind of obstacles they encounter, and the political effect of those obstacles. The idea that this is fully foreign policy now, and someone like Paul Wolfowitz is in ideological control, I think, is very much a mistaken idea, because in the end, it will be the political leadership that makes the decisions. Those will be political decisions, based on how things go.

What do you mean by “political decisions?”

By “political decisions,” I mean, in the end, this war will have to be salable to the American people, as all foreign policy is in this country. In that sense, we still are in the shadow of the Vietnam syndrome. Even though George W. Bush’s father declared after the Gulf War that we have buried the Vietnam syndrome in the sands of the Persian Gulf, that syndrome still looms over us.

There will be great concern on the part of this administration to maintain the president’s popularity, as all administrations want to do. There will be great concern if the war, in taking a very long time, or in raising a lot of complications that weren’t there before, seems to risk the political future of George W. Bush. So in that sense, the obstacles, the unforeseen, will dominate how this policy evolves if war comes, in my view.

There’s a difference of opinion. The old-style realists seem to be lined up with Powell. How do we assume that works on the president? How is it laid out? We’ve got opposing forces pulling on him. From what we’ve seen so far with the directions that have been taken, what have we learned?

You can identify two strains in this administration, one of which would be the Reaganites — officials who take a somewhat ideological and almost evangelical view of the world. They would be officials who descend from Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech — the notion that American power should be used to change the world, not simply to manage it. This itself dates back to people who backed a policy of rollback in the 1950s — Douglas MacArthur, for example, Dulles to some extent. That’s one group. You find many of them in positions in the civilian leadership in the Pentagon.

The other group would be officials who really follow in the path of Bush I, of the president’s father. These are pragmatists, so-called realists. They believe that foreign policy is the patient management of alliances, competitions and, to some extent, conflict. You manage, you take things slowly, you use your allies, bring your power to bear in all sorts of ways, not simply military power. You recognize that the world, as it is, is a difficult place, where there will be evil people as well as allies, that those evil people cannot simply be destroyed, that in many cases they have to be lived with. Indeed, this strain, I would say, would be very uncomfortable with the words “good and evil.”

Insofar as you recognize that there are two strains, we have a struggle going on here for George Bush’s attention and for his allegiance, so far, the one thing we can say is that on one day the Reaganites win, on another day the Bush I faction wins. At least in the early prosecution of the Iraq policy, from the fall of 2002 onward, it seems to be that Secretary of State Colin Powell — who is certainly, within the administration, a leader of those you can identify in the descendancy from Bush I, from the president’s father — has been winning this fight. He won the fight to put the policy in the United Nations. He won the fight to seek, struggle for, and finally achieve a resolution in the United Nations based on inspections. He won the fight essentially to try to manage this problem. So there is an early victory for him.

On the other hand, one could say that the national security document itself was a victory for the Reaganite forces, and above all, Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense. That document suggested that the United States must, above all, maintain preponderant power. This is a notion that was brought up in the early 1990s, in an earlier Defense Department document. But at the time that was leaked, it caused an enormous stir, and indeed had to be withdrawn. In the atmosphere after 9/11, this kind of thinking seemed a lot more plausible, a lot more congenial, and especially, a lot more publicly acceptable to the American people.

What’s the connection to the war on terror?

The connection between the National Security [Strategy], as stated by the administration, and the war on terrorism is somewhat tenuous, which is a problem that the administration has been dealing with publicly ever since they announced, in preliminary terms, in the State of the Union address in January 2002, that Iraq would be next. George Bush didn’t actually say this. But he did introduce the phrase “axis of evil,” which was essentially an introduction to the next phase of the war on terror, which would be taking on these states, and particularly Iraq.

The problem is the connection between the axis of evil and the war on terror, though it is made again and again in Bush’s speeches, has never been completely convincing to a lot of people in this country, which is why you’ve had attempts, particularly coming out of Donald Rumsfeld’s Defense Department, to actually connect Al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein. Those attempts have essentially met with ridicule. They’ve never been accepted. President Bush has had a problem again and again in justifying why an attack on Iraq is called for now, and why it wouldn’t, as many critics assert, distract from the war on terror. There is, to my mind, no essential connection between the two.

What you’re saying, in some way, is that 9/11 opened the door to a doctrine that had been thought about for a long time, which had nothing to do with the war on terrorism, but had a bigger-picture story of what this administration was all about, or a part of this administration was all about. Explain that to me. How did 9/11 create the new doctrine?

The attack of Sept. 11 made it possible for the administration to safely introduce a doctrine of overwhelming conventional power, and also to state, very clearly, that it was in the vital interest of the United States to prevent certain states, many other states, from obtaining weapons of mass destruction. The president says, again and again, “We must prevent the worst states from obtaining the worst weapons,” the assumption being that, if indeed they obtain them, those weapons might go to terrorists. That was the ostensible connection.

My view is that, to some extent, this was a marriage of convenience between pre-existing ideas about weapons of mass destruction, their ability to deter the United States’ conventional power, and the new opportunity presented by the war on terror — that is, an opportunity to argue to the public that Iraq presented a vital danger to the United States. Why? Because Saddam Hussein might, in the next half-decade or so, obtain a nuclear weapon, and, having obtained it, he might give it to terrorists. [Although] there are many reasons why this is rather implausible as a public argument, it has been rather powerful.

The [2002] State of the Union speech, where [the Bush Doctrine] begins to be defined — how historic was this? Put this in historical terms. This type of a doctrine, this type of direction in this war — how radical is this?

It’s been clear from the first days after the attacks of 9/11 that the Bush administration has been setting down a rhetorical basis for a new policy. They have succeeded in the time since those attacks in setting, as it were, an ideological flaw under U.S. policy that had really been lacking since 1989, or 1991. You can hear echoes again and again in President Bush’s speeches, the speech to the joint session of Congress after the attacks, the State of the Union address — the “axis of evil” speech, VMI, West Point — of a vision of the world that is very familiar to American ears. That is, there is “us,” and there is “them.” There is “good,” and there is “evil.”

His speeches have divided the world into good and evil in a way that’s very reminiscent of President Truman’s Truman Doctrine speech in 1947. President Truman said very explicitly that there are two systems in the world today. There is “ours” — free elections, free rights of assembly and so on, free press — and there is “theirs” — government by repression — and it will be the policy of the United States to support free peoples, wherever they are threatened.

It was an all-embracing, evangelical policy of American power in the world. American power would be used to support ideas, the ideas of freedom, everywhere where they were threatened.

Terrorism has become the new communism. Terrorism is being used as an ideological justification for use of U.S. power in the world. That ideological justification was missing in the decade before George Bush came to power. The consequences for Bill Clinton were very clear, very often, in the interventions he tried to make — Haiti notably, Bosnia — it was hard to justify why indeed the U.S. had a vital interest in going into these places.

For that reason, the political basis for those interventions was very fragile. George Bush has succeeded in basing U.S. power on a new popular justification. It’s a very strong one, but it has its own internal contradictions.

How unusual is it for this administration — who, during the elections, of course, was seeming to pull back from the world — that they would be the ones that would bring out this very aggressive series of policies?

It might seem that this aggressive policy coming from the Bush administration was somewhat contradictory. The president, after all, during his election campaign, had talked about a “humble” America. He had used that word several times in his second debate with Al Gore when talking about foreign policy.

In fact, though, if you look at the policy closely, you can see many connections between what they’ve been saying since 9/11 and what they had set out in the months before and the months since the administration took power. There are a number of themes. The most important, I think, is the notion of overwhelming U.S. power, and a thorough-going policy to prevent any challenges to it.

Connected with that is the necessity of eliminating weapons of mass destruction, the policy of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of states who would, by obtaining those weapons, be able to threaten the United States, or at least prevent the United States from using its power in the world.

So in a sense, the Bush administration took 9/11 as an opportunity to sort of vault its policy up, make it seem more plausible. But it was a policy that really pre-existed those attacks. The change that the attacks brought was that it made it very easy to come out with the policy more explicitly and without criticism.

One of the things you write in your article is that the administration has been “coy” about the decision to go to war with Iraq. What does that mean?

While the administration has said a lot about the threat that Saddam Hussein poses, they’ve said very little about the intentions of a war against him. And particularly, they’ve said very little about the broader intentions that some prominent members of the administration clearly hold: that is, broad intentions to remake the Middle East, as it were, a political project that’s very ambitious, and that intends to essentially democratize the Middle East, the Arab world.

They’ve said little about this. They’ve said little about indeed what an occupation like this — how much it would cost, how long it would take. In general, they’ve been focused almost entirely on the threat that Saddam Hussein poses. So mostly this has been an act of public diplomacy in simply supporting the idea of a war, rather than what indeed they’re really talking about, which is an invasion, an occupation and a transformation.

It’s clear from President Bush’s public rhetoric thus far that he wants to emphasize the threat, and say absolutely nothing about the costs of the war. He has had many opportunities to talk about the billions of dollars this will cost, the number of years it will take, the difficulty of an occupation, the frustrations of trying to bring democracy to a country that has never had; how this will require sacrifice, both in financial and in human terms. He said almost nothing on any of these subjects. He’s preferred to simply focus on the threat, and the notion of regime change.

“Regime change” itself is a phrase. It’s like “surgical strike,” as we remember from earlier years. That is, it emphasizes the illusion that one can, in some way, change regimes as if you could, you know, change your shirt. You can take one regime, take it out, put another regime in, and everything will be fine.

That will not be the way things happen. But he has chosen to take the short-term goal of trying to build support for a war, and worry about what comes next then.

What are the negatives, though, against bringing up this grand strategy?

It’s clear the reason the administration doesn’t bring up the grand strategy of bringing democracy to the Middle East is it’s very ambitious; it’s controversial, and it will divide Americans. Many Americans, from all we know, think it isn’t necessarily the business of the United States to transform the Middle East. They might be willing to pay their tax dollars, and send their young men and women, put them at risk, to protect themselves from danger from a dictator with nuclear weapons, an erratic dictator. [But] they might be much more hesitant to do those things in support of a policy that’s meant to transform regimes very far away, whose interest to the United States is obscure, and about whom they know very little.

So it’s clear, from the administration’s point of view, that those arguments are not necessarily winning arguments. They would probably be divisive. It also should be said that this policy of ambitious democratizing in the Middle East, while clearly dear to the heart of many powerful officials within the administration, is not necessarily the adopted policy of the Bush administration as a whole. Indeed, whether or not they try to follow through on these ambitions, we will only see when the war is fought.

You refer to it as “breathtakingly ambitious.” What do you mean?

The policy is breathtakingly ambitious, because it talks about transforming regimes that have been in place, and have been harsh and dictatorial for decades. It talks about transforming a region in which, as you look around from Morocco to Baghdad, certainly the rule is much more the longevity of regimes than it is their proclivity to constant change.

The notion of making democracies out of many of these states is a terribly ambitious one, and it’s unclear how it could be effected. Indeed, it’s very unclear what the administration has planned for Iraq itself — a complicated country with serious sectarian problems, with rivalries between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds — and which has never been governed in any way democratically.

Which leads into the realists’ fears about the outcome, and the ramifications, which is quite opposed to the view that you just defined. Can you help us figure that one out? What are the fears of the realists?

I think the fears of the realists over a policy of democratization are several. First, that it’s not possible. Iraq, a country that is essentially a patched together country of three provinces of the Ottoman Empire, that has serious sectarian differences, that’s been ruled by the minority Sunnis since its beginnings — that to take that regime and to make a democracy out of it will be difficult, if not impossible. If indeed one seriously wants to accomplish that, it will require an American occupation of indeterminate length, perhaps five or 10 years; and that finally, the risks of that, not to mention the costs, are extraordinary.

The costs would be tens of billions of dollars a year in occupation costs, and possibly the loss of U.S. lives out to 10 years from now. The political costs are perhaps even more serious, which is, in the broad view, the United States is responding to a band of religious fanatics who attacked the country a year and a half ago in the name of destroying U.S.-backed regimes in the Middle East, that is in the name of imposing American imperialism in the Middle East. The U.S. is responding to that by occupying a major Arab country, which seems to be, if you put it in those stark terms, politically not very adroit.

One could see a long occupation in Iraq as being a perfect fundraiser and a perfect political help to Osama bin Laden and others who are sympathetic to his cause.

Some people talk about Wolfowitz [in] that first meeting on [Sept.] 15 at Camp David, looking at the horizon of what was in front of us in a very difficult war against small groups, cadres of terrorists all over the world, looking towards Iraq. How did that come into play? Could that have come into play as being a reason for the [National Security Strategy] that came out later and the direction that we took towards Iraq? Why did we turn to state sponsorships so quickly when it seemed that the focus was on terrorists?

There is a sense, when you look at the accounts of the meetings immediately after 9/11, particularly the Camp David meeting that Saturday, that states want to attack states. There is a need for a target less elusive, less difficult, and indeed larger than Al Qaeda. Iraq, in a sense, presented a much more palatable target than Al Qaeda, and indeed than Afghanistan.

We had enormous intelligence on Iraq. We knew where it is. We knew where their weapons were. We had been flying over it for a decade in the north and in the south. We had allies in the north, and the Kurds. More than anything, states like to fight states. Organizations like to have as their antagonists organizations similar to them. We know from the accounts of that meeting that there was a major attempt by Wolfowitz and, to some extent, Rumsfeld, if these accounts are to be believed, to bring Iraq to the forefront in the days immediately after 9/11, even though there was no evidence whatever that we know about that Iraq had anything to do with the attacks.

The 90s, Clinton is in power. Can you talk about in any way the debate that went on amongst the Reaganites within that [period]? … Was there any part of that debate of that period in which one can actually see the [thinking behind] the formulation of the [National Security Strategy]?

Throughout the 90s you can see the efforts of a kind of shadow foreign policy Cabinet, among the officials who eventually took their chairs as senior members of the Bush administration. They spoke out clearly and loudly on issues like, for example, Iraq, and the need to do something immediately about Saddam Hussein. Even more than that, there was an argument made, and repeated and reiterated that military power and state power should not be used for supposed social work. That is, we shouldn’t be trying to remake states like Bosnia and using the army for occupation duties; that military power is about war and that the focus of the United States should be on, ironically enough, on large states.

American policy should be focused on Russia and China. We shouldn’t be dilly-dallying in places like Rwanda or Somalia, or Bosnia or Kosovo; that this was an unjust use, and a foolish use of American power and that using American forces as constabulary forces, that is as occupiers, as police forces, was a misuse of what the military was for. You can see the outlines very early on of the policy that Bush adopted.

So this “grand strategy,” as it’s called — what does it entail in some beliefs in some members of the administration?

When we look at administration policy since 9/11, you can identify probably three phases. The first was the direct attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the escape of Osama bin Laden and the top members of Al Qaeda.

The second was sending counter-insurgency help to Yemen, Philippines, Georgia, to fight the war on terror by aiding allies, allied states, to fight local terrorist groups — [many of them] allied in one way or another with Al Qaeda.

The third phase is Iraq, and a broader effort to spread democracy through the Middle East, at least in the minds of some administration officials, particularly at the civilian levels of the Defense Department. This will begin with an attack on Iraq, an occupation, a destruction of the present regime, the installation of another regime that will be, in some way, at least it is said, democratic.

That will lead, so the thinking goes, to pressure being placed on neighboring Iran and the theocratic government there. The mullahs, under threat, will increasingly democratize, and the democratic forces in Iran will gain the upper hand.

This will isolate Hezbollah, the terrorist political group in southern Lebanon, which is supported by the Iranian mullahs. It will undermine them and take away a growing threat to Israel. It will also isolate the Syrians. In the end, this process of democratization will lead to, it is hoped, the possibility of a Middle East peace much more on the Israelis’ terms. That is, the Palestinians, in effect, their radical forces will be isolated and undermined by the loss of support from the Iranians and from Saddam Hussein, as well.

So this is a very broad, very ambitious policy, at least in the minds of some administration officials.

Some game of chess they’re playing.

It’s enormously ambitious; it’s enormously risky. It relies on a lot of assumptions about what you can do with power. Napoleon said, “You can do everything with a bayonet except sit on it,” by which he supposedly meant that you can do a lot of things with military force, but you cannot, in the end, govern with it. You can’t create a politics with it.

And this administration believes — very strongly, it seems — that military force can be the answer to political problems, and can be the answer to the problem of political modernization which has bedeviled the Middle East for the entire modern period, the entire post-colonial period. They seem to believe — at least some of them — that vigorous military action in Iraq will set in train a series of events that will lead to regimes that are more representative, and in the end, less sympathetic to terrorism, that will not be breeding grounds for terrorism, as it were.

So this is their political response to 9/11 in its broadest terms, and it’s a very ambitious one. It’s also a very, very risky one.

As you look at this whole big picture, did we miss anything that you think is important to understand?

When you look at the administration’s policy — particularly the much-ballyhooed National Security [Strategy] — which talks about preemption, the necessity of maintaining preponderant power, all of these very vivid phrases — I think it’s important to appreciate, not only what is new about that, but what is old. What is old is the notion of the United States as an exceptional power, as the one good power on the scene, the necessity to divide the world into the United States and the good forces, and the rest of the world, which is seen as evil.

This is an administration, which, in some sense, shows great pessimism about the world, a great sense that the world is threatening this country. In that sense, 9/11 came as something of a godsend. Certainly they didn’t welcome it. But in an ideological sense, this idea of threat, the necessity to prepare for constant threat, the idea of eliminating threats before they can strike us and, above all, this idea of unilateral strong action, that the most powerful must do all it can to avoid any strictures on its power — these were elements that preexisted 9/11.

[The events of] 9/11 allowed them to come into force, to come out and take a public role, in a way they never could have otherwise. It’s important to see those, I think, as something not entirely new at all. Indeed, those tendencies have a very obvious history in American foreign policy that dates from the Truman Doctrine, and that also dates from the proponents of rollback in the early 1950s, people who thought that the idea of containing communism was profoundly un-American. “We shouldn’t be content to let communism exist and wait until it crumbles,” which was George Kennan’s idea. “We have to go out and destroy communism, roll it back.”

These were people like Gen. MacArthur, who tried to do that in the Korean Peninsula, and others, who advocated supporting the Hungarian revolution, for example, in 1956. They believed that the U.S. has to take an active role in pushing freedom forward, and even doing it through the ends of bayonets, through military force.

We see those tendencies in the present administration. They didn’t spring whole cloth out of the ground. They have historical roots in American thinking about foreign policy, and American thinking about the country’s role in the world. All of this comes from the same well of American exceptionalism.

Their argument would be that it’s a very different world since the Soviet Union closed down shop — that deterrence doesn’t work against the enemies that we deal with?

That’s right. The notion that deterrence is over fits into the idea of the constant threat. Indeed, this notion of Saddam Hussein — that if he obtained a nuclear weapon he would be the predominant power in the region, and the U.S. would be able to do nothing to oppose him — it is, in realistic foreign policy terms, ridiculous. The Israelis have scores of nuclear weapons. The Americans have thousands of them.

However terrible it would be for Saddam to obtain a nuclear weapon — and it would be terrible — it isn’t altogether clear that this would be the end of the world as we know it. The United States would still have ways to deter him. The one thing that he could do is deter the United States from attacking him, or from overthrowing him, which, to me, is a very important part of their thinking.

The way they’ve so far dealt with the war — how has it put them in a bind?

Beginning in late August, the Bush political strategy on the war has been consistent and brilliant. Essentially, the president has argued that in order to avert this threat of Iraq without war, we must be prepared for war. We must talk about war; we must send troops to the region; we must do everything up to fighting a war to avert a war.

Politically, both in the domestic sense and the international sense, this has been brilliant, because it’s given cover to those, like domestic Democrats facing an election, who didn’t want to oppose the president upfront. They were able to argue to their constituents — and we’re talking about every Democrat running, for example, for the Senate, with the exception of Wellstone — they were able to tell their constituents, “Look, we are casting our vote in support of the president, but also in support of a policy that is our only hope of avoiding war.”

Similarly, in the Security Council, eventually the administration was able to impose a point of view that essentially said, “In order to avert a war which we are fully willing to prosecute, you must vote with us to be ready to prosecute a war.”

This policy of arguing that, to avert war, you have to prepare for war, be ready for war, and indeed be on the point of making war, has been brilliant politically in bringing along the president’s political opponents, both internationally and domestically. It has also put him in something of a box. He indeed will be entirely prepared for war. The only one who will be in a position completely to avert it is Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi regime itself. It essentially is putting the decision-making power, to some degree, in their hands. It’s starting a machine going, and the eventual destination is not entirely in the administration’s hands.