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evan thomas
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Thomas is the assistant managing editor of Newsweek. In this interview, he analyzes the U.S. president -- his methods and motives -- and measures Tony Blair's influence on him. Thomas also discusses some of the pivotal debates that took place on the road to war with Iraq and ultimately concludes that the president may have erred by letting the diplomatic course run on for months in the hopes of indemnifying the British prime minister, his staunchest ally, against a political backlash. This interview was conducted on March 19, 2003.

... The picture that emerges from the interviews I've been doing over the last week is of an administration that is pretty much open warfare for the president's brain at any particular time.

I think there is open warfare, but there's an important distinction here. At the top in the War Cabinet, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice, as individuals, they get along pretty well. And they want to get along. Beneath them, there is a seething war zone, the so-called "deputies process." The deputies are supposed to get together and work out what the principals decide. That's so torn apart that I'm told the Defense Department doesn't even show up for various deputies' meetings, they're so in disagreement with the State Department. You see the splits below decks more than you see them up top. ...

Rumsfeld. The great quote by the Spanish prime minister: "We could do with more Powell and less Rumsfeld." What type of guy is he?

Rumsfeld makes the Washington mistake of actually telling the truth; he says what he believes. That's often a very healthy and refreshing thing, and a lot of journalists like that about him. On the other hand, you can't always say the truth, and you can't always say what you believe, especially when you're in a difficult diplomatic situation and there is no margin for error. Donald Rumsfeld can be restrained and behave himself and not really say what's on his mind for almost an entire briefing, and then out pops the one thing that is sure to get him into trouble. It's just his nature. ...

To understand why George [W.] Bush went to war on Iraq you have to understand his daily intelligence briefing. That is a horror show, a scare show, a fright show.

He was asked about British forces. He made a terrible mistake by indicating that they might not fight. I think in his own mind he was telling the truth, which was, "It's possible that the British government's not going to permit its forces to fight, and if that happens, we're going to have to work around it. That's a remote possibility, but it is a possibility," and that's what Rumsfeld was trying to address. He's told the truth, but it was a mistake because it sure hurt our ally, Tony Blair.

 
 

The president. Every time there's a big decision to be made, it's almost as though on every issue that the president's mind is a blank sheet of paper: "OK, guys, what do you think? Tell me."

I think it's a mistake to misunderestimate, as George Bush would say himself. It really is a mistake. He has plenty of ideas. They may not be as eloquently expressed or as carefully thought out, but they are strong ideas. One is this code of the West. We talk about Dick Cheney being from Wyoming; well, George Bush is from Texas. He is a creature of Midland, Texas. He really does believe that when the bad guys come, you've got to do something about it.

This seems crude and simplistic to most Europeans, and they mock him as a cowboy, but Bush and Cheney are proud to be cowboys. Dick Cheney went on "Meet the Press," and said on the eve of war, "Cowboy is a pretty good label." It does apply to us. A lot of Americans respect that attitude. So something that Europeans disdain, Dick Cheney and George Bush are proud of. ...

Pre-9/11, what was the president's worldview?

I don't think the president thought a great deal about foreign policy. Certainly, when he was running a baseball team and when he was governor of Texas, he didn't think about it at all. He was tutored in foreign policy before he became president by Condoleezza Rice, his current national security adviser, and he got a basic grounding, ... Out of that, his basic attitude, at least as expressed during the campaign, was humility -- that the United States should not throw its weight around, that it can get itself into trouble, that we ought to be careful where we step and we shouldn't presume to jump in everywhere and play global cop. I think that accurately expressed his view coming out of the campaign.

What changed, of course, was 9/11. ... Instead of thinking of us as a humble power who shouldn't intervene, he began to think of us as the world's hope to stop terrorists with weapons of mass destruction, a nation that was obliged to step up to them, and himself as a president whose moral duty was to stand up to this threat.

It was an abrupt shift. It's perplexing to people. They listen to his rhetoric in 2000 and he's talking about humility, and they listen to his rhetoric after 9/11 and he's king of the world. So what happened? What happened was that a sleeping giant woke up. It's very American to be essentially isolationist, to not worry that much about the world, to not want to get ourselves all entangled.

Then, suddenly, we're threatened, and that's a very different American who comes barging out the door ready to fight, to go to war. It's a different kind of American interestingly, than George Bush's father. President Bush I comes from a different tradition. ...

There is a basic split here. In this country, particularly on the East Coast, there is a group of internationalists who believe that the United States has to be engaged in the world all the time -- trade, diplomacy, militarily -- and they pretty much run the foreign policy year in and year out.

There is, however, another group ... that doesn't care that much about foreign policy, except when our interests are threatened, and then they're willing to go to war. That's the strain that Bush, the son, comes from -- the latter strain.

Bush, the father, is a global internationalist. He's comfortable around heads of state, he's comfortable going to tri-lateral commission meetings and the Council on Foreign Relations and jabbering all night long with ambassadors. That's his world. He knows it, he's comfortable with it. He was ambassador to China, ambassador to the U.N., head of the CIA. That's his world.

The son comes from a very different world. He comes from Midland, Texas -- no Council on Foreign Relations there, no ambassadors there. Baseball teams and football teams, and oilmen, but not world events. So he comes from a different place and views the world differently.

I would love to know, and I think we'd all love to know, what father is saying to son, and son is saying to father, because we know they talk all the time. They are constantly in communication. I did speak to an old friend of the father's, who says that the key here to understanding what the father and son are saying to each other is that the father does not presume to dictate to the son. He never says to the son, "Look, son, you've got to do this," for a couple of reasons.

One is a practical one. The father really doesn't have the information, the intelligence, the real-time intelligence. But the other's more subtle and psychological, and that's that the father has watched his son grow up sometimes aping him, sometimes in rebellion. But there is a tense relationship, or was a tense relationship; they weren't always close father and son.

I mean, young George rebelled. He really couldn't live up to his father. He was not Phi Beta Kappa -- he was a C student. He was not a war hero -- he was in the National Guard. He was not a successful oilman -- he was an unsuccessful oilman. This created some tension, the son trying to live up to the father, unable to live up to the father, and rebelling against him. ...

[NATO came out waving a NATO flag the day after the Sept. 11 attacks and said, ""We're with you in the war on terror." What does this president think about international institutions like NATO?

Unlike his father, I don't think that George Bush Junior believes that international coalitions or institutions can achieve much. Yes, you have to deal with them, but they're not, in the end, effective. George W. Bush is somebody who likes to do things on time, and he likes to be decisive. International institutions never do anything on time, and they're often indecisive. So Bush is naturally, by nature, frustrated by international institutions, and he was not brought up to deal with them. Even though his father was an ambassador -- in fact, a U.N. ambassador -- that really wasn't George Bush's world. George Bush's world was playing baseball back in Midland. He never saw his father. His father was an absent figure during that time. So Bush is not naturally comfortable with, nor eager to participate in the U.N., NATO, deal with the E.U. You name the institution, it's never really been his thing. ...

How did Iraq suddenly come into the picture?

There are a number of reasons why we're going to war with Iraq, but let me just take one. To understand why George Bush went to war on Iraq you have to understand his 8 a.m. morning president's daily intelligence briefing. That is a horror show, a scare show, a fright show. He is presented with all sorts of terrifying evidence, raw intelligence, about terrorist threats. And intelligence is very rarely precise; it's not like they're intercepting phone calls of terrorists saying, "We're going to blow up New York on Tuesday." It's always bits and pieces that are put together, and often it's wrong bits and pieces. But that's what the president is seeing every single morning, and it convinces him that Iraq really is a threat. Not that the evidence is conclusive, but that there's a lot of evidence that Saddam has these weapons, or probably has these weapons, and will or might give them to terrorists.

If you're hearing this every single morning, even though it's phrased conjecturally and it's not for sure, over time the cumulative effect has been to convince the president that the threat was real. He's not making that up. Even though Europeans and a great many Americans weren't convinced that the threat is real, that the evidence is there, I do believe that George Bush was convinced, because he sat in this terrifying meeting every single morning hearing these bits and pieces of thrilling, sometimes wrong, but necessarily scary intelligence reports that told him that you can't take Saddam lightly; you must deal with him.

What happened then? Tony Blair got very nervous about it, listening to Donald Rumsfeld, listening to Cheney.

I think the world was way behind the president on this, including Tony Blair. I think that George Bush made up his mind to go to war with Iraq long before last summer, long before the U.N. In fact, one telling story: I was talking to Richard Haass, who was the policy planning man at State, who works for Colin Powell. In June, Richard Haass went to Condi Rice, the president's national security adviser, and said, "Well, should I start having meetings or studies about whether we're going to confront Iraq?" And Condi Rice's answer was, "Don't bother. The president has already made up his mind." This is in June.

I believe the president, in a fundamental way, made up his mind on about Sept. 12, 2001, that Iraq was something he was going to eventually deal with -- maybe not right away, but eventually. One of the curious things about trying to track the road to war by looking at the actions and meetings of the United States government is that there's no "there" there. There's no turning point. There's no decisive meeting. There's no buildup. There's no "Let's gather all the heavyweights together and debate whether to do this." It just sort of happens.

One State Department person told me it was like water dripping. It just gradually accreted. I think the reason for that is that the fundamental decision to go to war was made instantaneously, as soon as President Bush reflected on terrorism attacking the United States. In a real sense, in his heart, he had decided, "I'm not going to stand for this. I'm going to do whatever it takes," and it was pretty clear that whatever it takes would include, ultimately, Iraq. That was true all the way back in the early fall of 2001. ...

[How did the military action in Afghanistan influence the thinking on Iraq?]

Afghanistan was an early litmus test of whether you could fight a war with less, using high technology, smart bombs, special forces. They were able to defeat the Taliban without using a vast invasion and thousands and thousands of men. Now Rumsfeld wants to bring the same kind of thinking to Iraq. He spent months and months working, getting the generals on his side, forcing them to come to him, and working plans that are quicker, faster, more imaginative. So war gave Rumsfeld the surround that he needed to be able to force the sort of reforms that he wanted in the military.

I think that that's what Rumsfeld's eye is really on -- creating an effective fighting force. He's not thinking so much about peace in the Middle East or reforming the Middle East, or even necessarily the threat to the United States, although I think he is thinking about that. His main goal, his main purpose, is to create an effective fighting force that can win wars. This makes him a hawk, of course, because if you're creating an effective fighting force, you're going to want to use it to show that it can work.

One of Donald Rumsfeld's favorite expressions is to be "forward leaning." Rumsfeld believes that the military became risk-averse after Vietnam, that it became too stolid, too slow, too unwilling to take casualties, not willing to take chances, not willing to lean forward.

One measure of this is the rules of engagement over time. The soldiers fight with rules of engagement, and in a complicated world, those rules are often complicated: what's a civilian, what's a combatant, when can they shoot, when can't they shoot

In Rumsfeld's view, the rules of engagement got all tied up in knots by lawyers, and Rumsfeld had been going around trying to take the lawyers out of the rules of engagement. He's been going to junior officers and their commanders and saying, "You have pretty liberal rules of engagement here. I don't want you to be slowed down by the lawyers. If you think you've got a fight, if you've got to shoot somebody, go ahead and shoot."

It's that kind of aggressive, forward-leaning, take-chances, be-bold mentality that he is trying to bring to the Pentagon, and he's come pretty far. ...

How did [Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, and Secretary of State Colin Powell] succeed in convincing the president to go down the U.N. road?

There was a fundamental contradiction in the decision to go to the U.N. that was never resolved. Powell and, I think, Rice -- but certainly Powell -- believed they were going to the U.N. to put together a coalition that could hopefully bluff Saddam out of power, or at least make him give up his weapons. Powell actually believed that a combination of force and diplomacy could work to disarm Saddam.

I think a lot of the world believed or hoped [the same thing]; the British and many of our allies [did]. That's not what everybody else in the U.S. government believed. Certainly Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bush never really had [any illusions that] Saddam was going to surrender. They always thought there would be war, that there would be a military solution, and their only reason for going with the U.N. was to get U.N. approval to go to war.

So there was a fundamental contradiction built into this whole process. ...

Because there was that fundamental division, I think the public got a lot of mixed signals. On the one hand, they would hear that our goal was to remove Saddam; no, actually, our goal is to disarm him. They would believe that Saddam was a threat. They'd hear that Saddam was a threat because he's going to get a nuclear weapon; no, it's because he's going to cooperate with the terrorists.

In fact, we were always going to war. ... But I think there was a lot of confusion and hurt feelings, because people didn't really quite appreciate that we were going to war from the beginning.

Blair had a completely different world view. He wanted to corral the cowboys into a multilateral approach.

Yes. I think that Blair did have a different world view. ... Blair got caught in a trap, I believe.

Bush truly admires Blair as somebody who's willing to stand up and do the right thing and is grateful for that, and sees Churchillian echoes in Blair's willingness to stand up. But fundamentally, Bush was coming from a different place, so that although he admired Blair and wanted to work with him and needed Blair to get some cover, really, they were coming at this problem from different angles. President Bush always believed that we were going to war; Tony Blair hoped he could save us from going to war.

That's a fundamental contradiction, and no amount of talk or diplomacy was going to paper that over.

Also, Blair wanted whatever was going to happen to happen with the U.N.

Well, I think Bush and Blair were in agreement to this degree -- that it would be nice if there was a U.N. [resolution] on what they were going to do. ...

When I was listening to the tales of what the British were up to in the summer of 2002, I was always struck by this view I would hear from our diplomatic correspondents -- that they really did believe that there was a U.N. solution and that Saddam could be disarmed peacefully. I don't think that was ever the view of this administration. It was, maybe, the outside hope of a few people in the State Department, but certainly not the view of Dick Cheney or the people around him, or Donald Rumsfeld or, importantly, the president of the United States, who always knew in his heart that he was going to war. ...

What Bush wanted was U.N. approval, international approval to go to war. What Blair wanted was not to go to war. He wanted to avoid going to war. That's a fundamental contradiction, and they were never able to reconcile it.

I wonder about how honest the United States was with Blair. We'll never know. I'm not sure anybody's taking notes when they have these sort of conversations. But whether President Bush ever said to him, "I really mean it. I'm going to war here, no matter what," or whether he allowed [Blair] to believe that we were going to make a good faith effort to have a diplomatic solution. ...

What happens after [Resolution 1441 passed unanimously in the U.N. Security Council]?

In clear retrospect, when Saddam replied to the request for documents and turned over a bunch of phony documents that revealed nothing, that was the moment. If there ever was a last chance, that was it. Once those documents were turned over, it was absolutely clear that the United States was going to war. Unfortunately, it was news to the French and to much of the world that that was the case, because I don't think we'd ever made it clear. I don't think there was any question. Once Saddam lied to us in those documents, that really was his last chance. ...

I don't think there was ever a meeting to announce that. I'm merely reflecting what I think the state of mind of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bush. ...

What then happens is that it becomes clear that Colin Powell is very much on his own. Did the State Department still believe they could bring around the French, the Russians?

There is some evidence that the U.S. government believed the French would fold and come around. I know, from talking to people on Condoleezza Rice's staff, the National Security staff, that up to the last minute, they had meetings saying, "Let's leave the door open so the French can come home," with the belief that the French would come home. There was a fundamental miscalculation there. I think the United States government believed -- and I mean Powell, but also the White House -- that at the end of the day, the French, after all their bluster, would join us, would come home and sign on to some kind of resolution to go to war. ...

[Talk about the rift between Colin Powell and his French counterpart.]

Colin Powell knew that diplomacy here was a long shot, but a key to it was the French. He knew he had to have the French on board. And he believed that, in September, he was seeing eye to eye with the French. According to Powell's people, he said to de Villepin, "Don't sign 1441 unless you're going to be on board for force at the end of the day, for enforcing the thing."

In January, when he learned from the French that they probably weren't going to be on board for a second resolution to enforce 1441, he was absolutely furious. On a personal level, I think he felt betrayed. But he also knew it was the end of his hopes of keeping this machine rocking along, that ... there was a high risk that diplomacy was going to collapse.

I do think that the White House held on hope to very late in the game that the French would ultimately come back. But it was a pretty bad sign for Colin Powell when his friend, de Villepin, seemed to be going his own way and even mousetrapping him in January. ...

Why didn't the U.S. just cut itself adrift from all this nonsense?

My understanding is the White House felt some loyalty to Tony Blair and really wanted to go the extra mile for him, to give him as much cover as they could. So even though their heart really wasn't in it and they didn't really believe it was going to work, they wanted to at least go through the motions of giving Blair what he wanted, a second resolution. That was the main impetus in doing it.

It wasn't any belief that diplomacy would succeed. It was a belief that Blair should be given some cover, and, I think, this feeling that the French, at the end of the day -- resolution or not -- would come home, would find a way to ally themselves with the United States; and if the French did, then the Russians would and everybody would. Then everybody would be on board to go to war. That was a miscalculation, but it was one that they were making into February. ...

In hindsight, it would have been better for the president, when it was clear that Saddam wasn't going to comply, as clear as December when he turned over phony documents. In retrospect, Bush should have fished and cut bait. But he really wanted to give cover to Tony Blair. He really wanted to bring the British along. He really did want an international coalition to go to war, and he wanted to give that cover to Blair. He believed, I think, that the French and the Russians, if you give them enough time and enough debate, would, in the end, come around.

So instead of just ending the process in December -- again, in hindsight, the correct thing to do -- he wanted to let it play out a little bit longer. Instead of playing out to a happy end, however, the ship just turned over. ...

To what extent is all this ideology back in the box [once] the war with Iraq's over? There's an election coming; you can't fight wars during election periods. So that's it, really, isn't it?

I think a lot of people hope that Bush will take a more magnanimous tone if it's a successful war, and that he will seek to repair some of the international damage. He'll go to the French and the Germans and the Russians and say, "OK, we won, but we still love you and we want you on board and want your help and your money in reconstructing Iraq."

So there will be this period of laying on of hands, of a softer, fuzzier, warmer President Bush. I think that's the hope. But there shouldn't be any mistake that if President Bush anticipates a threat, he's not kidding. If he sees a threat to an American city, he is going to take military action. If he thinks that New York is going to go up in a mushroom cloud or its people are going to die choking in gas fumes in the subway, he's going to act.

The "axis of evil" speech. You mention the almost religious tones of the language -- very interesting for all sorts of reasons.

I think it's hard for Europeans, who are quite secular, to understand how important religion is to many Americans, and particularly to the president of the United States. He's not a wear-on-your-sleeve born-again fundamentalist Christian. But he does believe that he was saved by Jesus Christ and, more importantly, he believes in providence and that God has a plan for him and for the United States; that he is in God's plan, and God's plan for him is to stand up to evil.

Now, sophisticates can scoff at what I just said. But George Bush believes this in his heart. He gets up in the morning and he reads the Bible, and he reads religious passages. He really does believe that God gave him the strength to give up drinking some 20 years ago, and that same God is now giving him the strength to be strong in the face of evil and to do something about it.

Leaders under terrible stress have to find solace and strength somewhere, and American leaders have often turned to religion. Lyndon Johnson, when he was picking bombing targets in the basement of the White House at midnight, would go to a Roman Catholic chapel in Washington and pray. Johnson wasn't even Catholic. But he was turning to God; he was looking for religion.

When JFK was going to the Geneva summit to meet with Nikita Khrushchev at a very tense time in the Cold War in 1961, he wrote down a passage from Lincoln invoking God. Just as Lincoln had turned to God in the Civil War, JFK turned to God at the height of the Cold War. I think the passage was, "I know there is a God and I see a crisis coming. If he has a plan for me, I am ready."

There's a deep American tradition of believing in providence, that this is a country that has a place in God's plan for the world, and American leaders are destined to take America to that place.

A lot of Europeans would say the problem with a world where America makes the rules is, it's fine when you're going for someone like Saddam. But what about when it starts to get tainted by self-interest?

I think that Americans believe that all the world is driven by a self-interest, but American foreign policymakers are less driven by self-interest. Yes, there's an element of greed always involved -- oil, that kind of thing -- but America, more than any country in the history of the world, has been driven by good motives, by a desire to spread freedom and democracy and human choice, to be selfless in its foreign policy.

American foreign policymakers are quite self-righteous. They are not cynical about it; they really believe that they are doing good. They believe that in their hearts. I'm quite sure that George Bush believes that he is doing good. He is not feathering the nest of the oil industry or even helping the American economy; actually, he's hurting the American economy. But he is trying to make the world a safer place. He really believes that. ...

 

 

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posted april 3, 2003

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