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Newsmaker Interview With Paul Wolfowitz

May 28, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Now to our newsmaker interview with one of the principal architects of the war and occupation in Iraq: Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Mr. Secretary, welcome.

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: Good to be here.

MARGARET WARNER: President said Monday night, he said again today, full sovereignty will be handed over to this new government on June 30. Who will control in that situation, who will control the U.S.-led coalition forces?

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: It’s going to be a security partnership between multi-national force which will be under U.S. command but under U.N. authorization. The Iraqi forces which will now be reporting to a sovereign Iraqi government. We’ve got to work together, we have a common goal which is providing the kind of security that country needs. In fact what the new government faces, I think, are two principle challenges, one is security and the other is preparing a way for elections at the end of the year.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, British Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested earlier this week though that that government will really have the ultimate say over what operations U.S. forces engage in, and let’s just take a look at what he said. He said, if there is a question of going into Fallujah in a particular way, that has to be done with the consent of the Iraqi government. The transfer of sovereignty has to be real and genuine. Will this government have veto power over a military operation that the U.S.-led forces may want to mount?

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: It’s going to be a partnership. It’s been a partnership in fact already. Think about Fallujah. We started a military operation there; we got some very strong advice from the Iraqi Governing Council that modified our approach. We eventually as in the south in Najaf and Karbala, we’ve been working closely with local Iraqi leaders there. The essence of what everybody is looking for is force where it’s necessary, but to the minimum extent it’s necessary in making sure that we retain the consent of the population. That’s important for our people just as it is for Iraqis.

MARGARET WARNER: But I mean even in a cooperative relationship sometimes there’s a disagreement. At that point who holds sway?

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: It’s one of these things that we work out. To be honest, it’s not something for lawyers; I think it’s something for politicians and leaders. I am struck when we’ve talked about possible candidates for this new Iraqi government what the president consistently asks is: Do they have the guts to lead, can they take the heat. This is a country that’s under very vicious attack, their people know it from both Saddam and his former henchmen or his former henchmen and Saddam we hope is out of the picture, but that structure is still there – to Mr. Zarqawi who is a world class terrorist, from killers. They’re trying to move forward to elections at the end of this year. That is a very important thing I think for people to understand. As important is the fact that this is a sovereign government at the end of this year it will be an elected sovereign government.

MARGARET WARNER: Now what about the question of how law forces will stay, the Danish prime minister – you just heard him say essentially we’ll stay but only as long as even this interim government wants us. And let me also show you what Colin Powell had to say, the secretary of State, a couple of weeks ago. He said, were this interim government to say us to we really think we can handle this on our own, it would be better if you were to leave, we would leave. If the transitional government asks us to leave, asks the U.S. to leave –

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: That’s the right answer to the hypothetical question, but it’s extremely hypothetical. I mean the new government is I think going to be asking us to stay, in fact they would be shocked if we proposed leaving. They face a very real problem. But I think what has been striking in polls, even going back some months ago, is how many Iraqis say they want the Americans to leave and how many also say they want us to stay for a year or two years. Their patience admittedly is getting a little thinner over time. But they need some stability, they need a chance to get on their own feet and that is what the president’s plan is talking about — it is a plan to lead to Iraqi self government and to Iraqi self defense.

MARGARET WARNER: But as you said, they’re going to be leading up to elections. Does it seem possible maybe even likely to you that in campaigns for elections you’ll have Iraqi politicians essentially out bidding each other with promises to make the U.S. troops leave — that the political atmosphere will shift to such a debate as there will be pressure on the U.S. to leave?

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: Well, I think it’s certainly going to affect the way we do military operations. It affects the way we do military operations today. I hope they’re going to be Iraqi politicians who are going to be bragging about their ability to create Iraqi security forces. That’s I think what Iraqis really want to hear, is that there are leaders who cannot — not to tell the U.S. to leave, that’s easy to do – but leaders who can step up and lead new Iraqi security forces so they provide for their own security. That is where we are really united. The sooner they can do that for themselves, the better off everyone will be.

MARGARET WARNER: But if it doesn’t work out as you hope and in fact the interim government were to say it’s time to go or it’s time to leave this part of the country, would the U.S. –

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: I mean Secretary Powell has been clear, I’ve said that is the answer to the hypothetical question. But instead of dwelling on the hypothetical the important task in front of everyone is how to strengthen Iraqi security forces. They were put to a very severe test in April and they got at best a barely — we didn’t expect them to get any sterling grade. But by the end of this year they’re going to have to be capable of some very serious work. We don’t want to stay forever, believe me.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, shifting to this interim government, there was great confusion today out of Baghdad about the appointment of its new prime minister. Where does that stand? Can you clear up the confusion? Is this Allawi?

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: Not totally, and I mean, I think to some extent this is democracy. People go and make decisions. It appears the governing council by processes that I don’t understand came to this unanimous consensus on one of their members being the new prime minister. It’s an interesting notion and may well turn out to be that that’s where Ambassador Brahimi goes. But let me be clear, the process that we endorsed and are supporting is to have this distinguished U.N. ambassador who put together the interim government in Afghanistan consult with literally hundreds of Iraqis to try to get a feeling for who is interim leader, leadership that will achieve enough consensus to get Iraq through the next six months. Remember, we’re not talking about a permanent government, we’re talking about a six-month interim government. And Ambassador Brahimi hasn’t come to that final announcement yet.

MARGARET WARNER: So when the U.N. spokesman, Fred Eckhart, in New York says the decision is actually up to the governing council and Coalition Provisional Authority headed by Paul Bremer, he’s just wrong, as far as you’re concerned it’s up to Brahimi.

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: As far as we’re concerned, we’re waiting for Ambassador Brahimi to make his recommendations.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you about the governing council’s role here because the president has said and he said again Monday night they will be — that council will be dissolved on June 30 — this is a new day — yet the governing council apparently according to the reports are the ones who nixed Brahimi as initial first choice for the job of prime minister, they made it clear they didn’t want him. Now they come forward with one of their own. Are they having trouble letting go here?

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: Remember the governing council will be gone June 30. I don’t think they’re having any trouble letting go. Many of these people represent important constituencies in Iraq, some of them represent, for example, the two Kurdish leaders probably they actually won elections over last ten years in their own area. Some of the figures from the Shia communities speak for very, very large numbers of their own people, so it’s not an insignificant group of individuals, and when they express an opinion, I’m sure Ambassador Brahimi pays attention it to. But they’re not the decision-making body.

MARGARET WARNER: Are you comfortable with that?

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: Democracy is a process. I mean a little perspective is healthy here. Iraq has been free from the grip of Saddam Hussein for barely a year now — one of the most horrible dictatorships in history. If you think back to how long it took us to get our act together as a new democracy and how long it took Germany and Japan after World War II, it doesn’t happen overnight.

MARGARET WARNER: I guess my question really is, is the U.S. comfortable with, this is basically a U.S.-appointed group many not all of them, but many of them are Iraqi exiles; they seem to have some trouble being accepted by their own population. Is there not a danger that it can appear that once again a U.S.-selected person formerly supported by the CIA is stepping into this job?

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: That is why it is so important for everybody to understand that this is an interim government, it will only be there for six months; its main job is to prepare for elections. That’s why elections at the end of this year are so important. As the president laid out in his speech Monday night, this is one step in his case of a five-part plan and the fifth step is those elections at the end of this year. Even beyond that there’s a whole year of constitution-making afterwards.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let’s go now to the deal in Najaf that was supposedly cut this week between U.S. forces and al-Sadr’s militia, there were more attacks today. Is the deal holding?

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: I can’t tell you that. What I can tell you seems quite clear over the course of the last few weeks is that the majority Shia and most significant leaders among the Shia are not happy with young Mr. Sadr’s behavior. They are a bit cautious about how they say it because he’s a dangerous man. They’re also a bit cautious because they don’t want us plunging into the holy sights of Najaf and Karbala with heavy force. We’re trying to use our force in a way that bolsters people’s confidence but isn’t so overwhelming that they say plague on both your houses. The key to success there and we’re working on is going to be getting Iraqi civil defense corps and Iraqi police strengthened and back on the job. I think we made steady progress.

MARGARET WARNER: So then why was the U.S. willing to make an agreement that didn’t meet the two requirements that it set up initially, namely that the militia men would surrender their arms and two, that al-Sadr would surrender himself to some sort of Iraqi court on the murder charges?

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: I think there are a lot of tactical agreements being made, some with respect to Karbala and some with respect to Kufa. I think that the ultimate goal is to get the militia out of that area to restore law and order and to make sure that there is some kind of legal process for dealing with these charges against Sadr, which are very serious charges. But it is — there’s a difference between the strategy which I think is quite clear which is ultimately to get the militias off the streets, to get law and order in the form of Iraqi police, Iraqi civil defense corps. How you do it, each tactical stage in each of these cities is very complicated, as again, because, as you know, but your listeners may not all know, Najaf and Karbala are the two holy cities of Shia Islam; they have very important mosques, that you have to be very careful in any fighting that gets close to them.

MARGARET WARNER: The U.S. did a similar agreement up in Fallujah only this time with insurgents and former members of Saddam’s army and again in this time they were left in charge of security. I guess my broader question to get away from tactics as you said is, is the U.S. potentially leaving to this new government a country that really is three ethnic groups, each with their own really well armed militia, the Kurds in the North, some of the Sunnis and former Saddamists in the triangle, and one if not two militias in the South?

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: I think Fallujah is a fairly unique situation. And I don’t know that it will reproduce anywhere in the Sunni areas, it was a way of dealing with what was – can become the most difficult security problem in the country. I think with respect to the South we’re not talking about doing a deal with Sadr so that Sadr’s militias now control Najaf and Karbala. … I think they have to disarm. That’s clearly got to be the ultimate outcome. But what we want, what is similar in both situations is, yes, we want Iraqi forces controlling those cities, controlling their own security. The best way to do that is to bring people in to the civil defense corps, into the police and we’re doing that, we’re doing that up North with the Kurdish militias; we’re doing them in the South with some of the tribal groups and with the Badr corps. I wouldn’t rule out that if Sadr militia men want to become peaceful law-abiding people that they can sign up in the Iraqi civil defense corps but they will be part of the disciplined force under a unified control.

MARGARET WARNER: You’re essentially betting that the sort of power or vision or idea of a unified Iraq ultimately is going to be more important to all these factions than breaking up into warring areas, potential for civil war — because you’re not removing the power that they have now, the weapons, the ability to mount a civil war if they wanted.

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: The fighting isn’t between these different areas, it’s not Shia on Sunni or Kurd on Sunni. The fighting is certain lawless elements trying to impose their will on the population. And all the indications we have is that most of the people in Iraq, first of all want peace. They want to live in a stable society, they want independence, they want their own government and I think they want free elections. If we can establish the conditions of peace and security leading to elections, I think the whole country is going to calm down considerably.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you one sort of overall — a couple of overall questions.

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: I think it’s going to be very, very tough going for the next six months. No rosy scenarios here.

MARGARET WARNER: I want to ask you about a couple of rosy scenarios at the end but first let me ask you about the prisoner abuse scandal. You have six investigations ongoing. We reported on that heavily on this program. But they are being criticized the fact that they’re all really in house investigations. And let’s just look at what Wayne Downing, a retired four-star army general had to say. “I really doubt whether the Defense Department can investigate itself because there’s a possibility the secretary himself authorized certain actions. This cries out for an outside commission to investigate.” Should Secretary Rumsfeld and will Secretary Rumsfeld recommend to the president that an outside commission, an independent inquiry be established?

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: Well, secretary has organized a panel led by former Defense Secretary Jim Schlesinger to ask for additional investigations if they think they’re warranted. These are independent people with independent judgment and enormous integrity. I think they can do that job.

MARGARET WARNER: But all of them are members of his Defense Policy Board.

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: But they are independent people with their own character and integrity; they’re not going to do anybody else’s work. Look, the prison abuses are horrible. I think the secretary himself called them a body blow. We — it’s hard to sufficiently strongly express how unhappy we all are and what a terrible blow it is on the United States. Best we can say is though that there’s no cover up here. We’re going to get to the bottom of things – we’re going to find out the truth. People will be held accountable. The Iraqis tell me well the one thing we may learn from this is, this abuse takes place all over our part of the world, this would be a case where abuses get corrected and people who commit abuses get punished.

MARGARET WARNER: You were referring earlier to rosy scenarios and I just did want to put up two quotes of things you said before the Iraq war having to do with your expectations of what would happen after a war. This was to a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist. You said, it is entirely possible that in Iraq you have the most pro-American population that can be found anywhere in the Arab world. When she asked you about, can you possibly establish a democracy in a former dictatorship, you said, well, if you’re looking for historical analogy, it’s probably closer to post-liberation France after World War II than anything else. What shaped your expectations and your assumptions which you said last week in testimony in the end probably were somewhat miscalculated?

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: I didn’t say that all assumptions were wrong. In fact, what I said in my testimony and I’ll say it again we’ve been fighting Saddam Hussein up until last December when he was captured, we’ve been fighting his people even to this day. We’re fighting an al-Qaida-associated world class terrorist, Mr. Zarqawi, who works with him. We’re still at war. That is the expectation that I don’t think anybody fully took account of and that makes everything harder. We have been greeted as liberators and we’re still regarded as liberators, and in fact, the polls I’ve seen recently have even a small majority of Sunni Arabs saying it was worth it and the Kurds and the Shia overwhelmingly. The problem, it is not a country that wants to be occupied. In that respect it’s like France and not like Germany. And no one should have gone in there thinking and maybe some people did, I was not one, who thought we could have a five-year occupation and like Macarthur we could tell these people what to do. They’re independent; they’re nationalists and they want us out of there relatively soon, but the key to that is enabling them to govern themselves.

MARGARET WARNER: Did you rely too much on Iraqi exiles, particularly someone like Ahmad Chalabi who was a client essentially of the Pentagon and he’s now fallen from favor?

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: He wasn’t a client of the Pentagon; we’ve worked with many different Iraqi opposition figures. In fact our belief is to work with anybody who shares our goals, both inside and outside.

MARGARET WARNER: But did they mislead you?

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: I don’t think we relied on any individual to get a sense of what Iraqis feel like. I just met today with seven Iraqi businessmen who had their arms amputated by Saddam about ’95 or ’96 in order to blame them for the horrid state of his economy. They speak in a way that most Iraqis, 80-90 percent of them speak about what a horrible regime it was and how glad they are to be rid of it. Does that mean they like being occupied, no. Does that mean they like Americans breaking down their doors, no. That means our strategy has to be is the president laid down in his plan the other night moving as rapidly as possible to Iraqi sovereignty, to Iraqi elections and from the point of view of the Defense Department, most importantly to Iraqi self defense.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Secretary, thanks for being with us.

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: Good to be with you.