The War Behind Closed Doors
homewatch the full program onlineanalysesinterviewschronologydiscussion
interview: barton gellman
photo of gellman

Gellman is a reporter for The Washington Post. In this interview he describes how he was leaked a draft of the Defense Department's 1992 Defense Planning Guidance -- a strategy document that advocated that the U.S. maintain its position as the sole superpower after the Cold War and included the first mention of preemptive intervention to prevent countries from obtaining weapons of mass destruction -- and how published reports in The Washington Post and The New York Times led to an international and domestic outcry. Although the language in the 1992 document was eventually softened and a stronger emphasis was placed on multilateral action, Gellman tells FRONTLINE that he sees a strong continuity between that document and the current National Security Strategy. "You simply have to lay the documents side by side and you will see huge areas in which they're the same," he says, "and frankly, very few in which there are striking differences." This interview was conducted on Jan. 29, 2003.

Let's just focus on the 1992 [Defense Planning Guidance] which Paul Wolfowitz was very important in creating. Tell me about that hitting the public and the ramifications; that it was leaked, and what it said.

You have to take yourself back to 1992. This is the first time that the Defense Department gathers itself to say, "What is our new strategic mission in the world now that there is no more Soviet Union? What's our biggest challenge?" So they identify, first, Russia as the potential successor enemy. Right now, at that moment, it is looking friendly. But they have to pay attention simply to the mass of military power that Russia is still thought to possess. ...

The Bush administration believes big picture; that, although there may be a global consensus against something,  the combination of persuasion and facts on the ground can change that consensus, or at least make that initial consensus much less relevant.

The bigger picture is, they said, "Our number one mission in the world, now that we are the sole superpower, is to make sure we stay that way." They wanted to pocket that gain. What was so politically insensitive in this internal document -- which wasn't meant for distribution -- is it talked about, not only Russia, but Germany, Japan, India, all as potential regional hegemons that could rise up to challenge the United States as at least a regional, and, potentially a global superpower. They said their number one mission is to quash that.

What was the reaction?

Well, most of the countries I just named were on some kind of friendly terms, or central allies of the United States. They weren't none too pleased to be named as potential rivals. The public reaction was, "Good God, we're supposed to have a peace dividend now. The Cold War is over. Let's get on with our lives -- of course, stay strong enough to protect ourselves -- but what in the world are you doing, going out there and looking for trouble?"

It was very controversial in Congress. There was an enormous amount of commentary by the opinion leaders saying, "This is way over the top." It was an election year; and they caved.

Let me back up. Who was involved in this doctrine? Was this a new plan or was this following up on other things?

Part of this 1992 Defense Planning Guidance is really expressing a lot of continuity, just in a not very politic way, with American policy since the Second World War. Since the containment doctrine was drafted, and since George Kennan's famous "X Article" in Foreign Affairs, the U.S. had identified about five regions of the world that had the potential to create global military power. The objective of the United States during the Cold War was to make sure that the Soviets didn't add any of those regions to their orbit and therefore change the global balance of power.

So now you have a shift in which there are not Soviets. The question is whether any of these powerful regions -- and this is because they have technology, resources, population, economic power -- are going to grow the military power that goes along with that, and rise up to challenge the United States.

There was one important addition. That was that the United States would be prepared to preempt the use of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons by any other nation -- even, the document said, where our interests are otherwise not engaged. That is to say, in a war somewhere else that's not about us, it spoke of punishing or retaliating for that use. But it also said "preempt." This is the first time.

Now you have to remember, these are exactly the same people who are most influential right now in the U.S. government, and in the formation of U.S. strategic policy. It's Dick Cheney as defense secretary. It's Paul Wolfowitz as undersecretary [of defense] for policy. And it's a guy named Scooter Libby who is, right now, Dick Cheney's chief of staff and chief strategist, who was deputy to Paul Wolfowitz. They were the three drafting authorities for this Guidance.

So why is that important to understand?

Well, Cheney is vice president now. Wolfowitz is number two at Defense Department. These people have had enormous influence in drafting President George W. Bush's key strategic concept for the world. Whereas a political fury in 1992 required them to back off, that hasn't happened this time.

You have had much the same reaction in Europe, the Middle East, and in other parts of the world to this idea of America not only being the global superpower, but ensuring that it stays that way. But this time, they think they can pull it off.

We talked to Phil Zelikow yesterday, who was involved in the drafting of the [2002] National Security Strategy. He says no connection between the documents, not whatsoever. Different people wrote it. It's a whole new theory. No connection. What's your thought about that?

... I don't doubt that different people could have put the words on paper. But it reflects a strategic worldview that was first expressed in substantially similar terms in 1992. At that time, the Cold War is over. The U.S. unexpectedly finds itself as the preeminent power in the world, not subject to challenge, right then, by anyone else, and wants to pocket that gain.

Now we've lived with that for 10 years, and we want to make sure we don't lose it. That's their conception of American place in the world. Now it's coupled with the belief that the United States is a benign global hegemon; that it uses its power, not only to protect its own interests, but to protect an international system that is stable and promotes democracy and free markets, and that is in everyone's interest. That's the way they really think about it, and there is a considerable amount of evidence for that. But naturally, the rest of the world doesn't want to have one judge, jury and executioner protecting world peace.

We talked to Elliot Cohen yesterday also, who said [that] journalists and scholars always do this. They focus on the doctrines. But the doctrines are not necessarily the policy. Policy happens because of events. And the fact is if you focus on the doctrine, you miss the intentions or, in fact, the directions that administration is taking. What's your thought on that?

Well, I think it's absolutely true that doctrines do not uniformly govern policy. Policy is about putting out fires and about the art of the possible. So, just to take the "axis of evil" identified in 2002 by the Bush administration -- all three of those nations -- Iran, North Korea and Iraq -- are clearly developing special weapons. All three of them are important regionally and, in some measure, hostile to the United States.

But two of them present no viable military option to the United States. One of them does. So all of the focus of the Bush administration right now is on Iraq, because it can. It's going to preempt the acquisition and use of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq because it can. It's within American capabilities. In North Korea, the consequences would be awful, to South Korea primarily, possibly to Japan. In Iran, it would be enormously difficult to wage that kind of fight.

So you're right. Doctrines don't govern policy. They provide a conceptual framework by which policymakers approach their decisions. But there is no such thing as a doctrine that controls policy in every way.

So why is it important to look at a doctrine that an administration voices, and the roots to that doctrine? Why is it important to look at it?

The doctrine matters because it tells you the way people think. It gives you a broad sense of their approach to the world. If the Clinton administration thought principally in terms of forming alliances, of navigating the constraints, and the many multiple interests of the United States and the world, the Bush administration sees itself much more strongly as a unitary actor.

Bush has a very strong conception of America as consensus shifter, and as a country that can change what the market will bear globally in terms of balance of power, in terms of leadership of unfriendly countries, in terms of the use of tools that include economic sanctions and military force. Clinton saw himself much more as the steward of alliances and of consensus that moved in the right direction. He didn't see himself as someone who could change the overall thrust, I think, of global policy.

But the Bush administration?

The Bush administration believes big picture; that, although there may be a global consensus against something, that the combination of persuasion and facts on the ground can change that consensus, or at least make that initial consensus much less relevant. In effect, the Bush administration believes that it can do what it sees as vital to American interests, and the rest of the world will get over it.

How ironic for an administration that, when they were in the elections, was saying that it would not be the policeman of the world and such. How ironic [is it] that we've sort of come in this direction?

The strongest statements of the Bush campaign foreign policy, were on several fronts. Bush clearly said he was not going to subject American security to the caprice of alliances, or the United Nations, or any other outside power. The U.S. would decide for itself.

But he also said the United States was not that interested in the internal affairs of other countries, and their forms of government and, in particular, that it was not going to use the U.S. military for "nation building." [That] was a term of opprobrium in the Bush camp, and was directed at what Clinton had done in Bosnia, in Kosovo, and in Somalia, especially.

What Bush is finding is that, if America is going to throw its weight around, it's going to make big changes in the regional balance of power. It can't just go in, fight the bad guys and leave, because if it does, then the situation collapses again, and is likely to lead to yet more threats to American interests. So kicking and screaming, dragged against his will, George Bush has become a preeminent nation builder.

Going back to the 1992 document, the Wolfowitz document, you talked about the Russian scenario. There's also another scenario that states that we might very well find ourselves in a world where we're fighting Iraq, and North Korea uses that as an excuse and we end up having to fight North Korea at the same time. How interesting is that that this scenario was in the 1992 equation, and now it's coming to haunt us today?

The drafters of this 1992 document showed some foresight, you have to admit, in saying that a very strenuous challenge to the U.S. military could be simultaneous or near-simultaneous conflicts in Iraq and in North Korea. You're seeing exactly that potential coming true today.

At that time, it was mainly intended to size the American military force. Everyone wanted a peace dividend and an economic dividend after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Finally, many domestic arguments went, we could start diverting some of the $300 billion in resources in the defense budget towards urgent domestic concerns. The U.S. military was shrinking, and it was frightened about how fast it was shrinking. It was trying to defend what it called a base force, which was about 1.6 million active duty soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

That base force did not survive. It's down by another, I think, roughly 50 percent by now. It was sized by looking at what would be the requirements of fighting Iraq, and then near-simultaneously fighting North Korea. That's the size force, the structure of divisions, air wings, and aircraft carrier battle groups that would be needed to do both those jobs.

What happened once the negative reaction was [caused] by this leaked document? Cheney got involved. What took place? And what was the end result?

Between about February and May -- and those represent the initial leak of the draft Defense Planning Guidance and the major revision of it, because of this international and domestic outcry -- they changed the document both substantively and also, especially in terms of making its language more politic.

One central example is they flipped what had been two basic concepts. You had, first of all, the need to preserve and protect the system of alliances that had serve the United States so well in Europe, Asia and elsewhere. That was the new emphasis.

Secondary to that was the need for the United States to be ready to protect its own interests, with or without those alliances or, in particular, with what they called "coalitions of the willing." Presume you couldn't get NATO or ASEAN or any of these other organizations to go along with you when you saw a vital threat to American interests. Then you'd sort of just choose up sides. "You, you and you, whoever is willing to come along, rally behind me, and we're going to go." This was quite a change from the idea that American efforts would be centrally multilateral.

So whereas the first draft said, "We will go with whoever we can convince to bring us along and, at the same time, we'll try to keep the coalitions behind us," the second draft said, "Our principal strategic goal is to preserve these coalitions. And only if they fail, will we act alone."

A second way that the draft changed was to just cut out all of the unfriendly references to India, Germany, Japan. Those references are still implicit in the final document. And the fact is any American administration has to keep an eye on any global center of power. If Germany started to slip towards hostility and started rebuilding its military power on a substantial globally capable scale, it wouldn't matter what the declared policy would be. The United States would certainly take a very strong interest in that. It's just that they decided to take that out of the document. You don't have to say everything you're thinking.

So the next thing that happens is these guys are out of power, the Wolfowitzs, the Cheneys--

Actually, there's one more thing I should say about that. The overall guiding language got much softer. But one important thing to keep in mind is this is a document that is designed to direct the military services, how they should spend their money, how they should structure their divisions and their air wings. Even though the language softens, they were told, "Your requirements are that you need to be able to pull off each of these seven scenarios in the appendix." Those scenarios continue to be a dual war with Iraq and North Korea, or repelling a Russian invasion of Lithuania. The sort of philosophical guidance got softer, but the hard planning didn't.

In the end, was this a PR mistake, plain and simple, that they fixed the language for, but the philosophy didn't change?

I think the philosophy did not change very much, in truth, between the controversial draft and the one that ultimately settled down the political debate. You could call it a PR mistake, except that the drafters and implementers of this strategy never intended to make it public. It was classified, secret. Also, it had a stamp on it that said, "No foreign." What this means in the American system is "no foreigners," i.e., "Even though we have good friends in NATO and elsewhere with whom we normally share stuff that's much more sensitive than secret, this time we won't. Let's not let the word get out."

It did get out because, inside the U.S. defense planning establishment, there were people who thought this thing was nuts, and they wanted a public debate about it. That's why they talked to me, and that's why they talked with the New York Times. ...

I guess this is a bigger question here and you can see it in the National Security Strategy. You can see it in some of the preparatory, neo-conservative theses that came out in 2002, Kristol's group, for instance, defining what they feel the United States' role is. And the U.S. sole power doctrine is always there. ... For some reason, this group likes to put it on paper, likes to define this issue of American sole power in such a way that they're somewhat deaf to the effects on people's ears. And while others like the realists might go down the same direction, but they do it in a different way. Is there something to that argument to be made?

You don't have to talk about everything you're thinking. The reason that this neo-conservative group of thinkers did is because they believed in their gut and they believed it was politically valuable to say that Bill Clinton had been weak, that he had shrunk from the use of U.S. power after threatening it, and that it had made the United States seem feckless and unreliable in the world.

Clinton had continued a long struggle with Iraq over UNSCOM and over disarmament. Ultimately, the worst he did was to allow cruise missiles and, in the very end, a four-day bombing campaign. He did not use military force in a way that compelled Iraqi compliance, after saying all along he would do so.

So the Bush strategists, and Bush himself, decided that they were going to signal that when they said something, they'd mean it; when there was a threat to U.S. interests, they would do what it took to squash that threat, whatever anybody else said.

There was and is a longstanding conservative belief that the United Nations is a big part of the problem; that if you wait for a consensus to form, you're going to operate on a least common denominator; that America simply can't rely on any coalition -- but especially the United Nations -- to defend its interests. So there's always been this undercurrent of hostility, which has resonated with a conservative political base. ...

Let's look beyond Iraq for just one second. Let's look, supposing it's successful, our direction in Iraq leading to a strengthening of the quote, unquote "doctrine." How does that affect the long-term direction with, for instance, relations with China?

I doubt there's any government in the world that guides itself primarily by strategy or conceptual documents or worldview. Anybody who has the reins of power has to look at practical limitations and tradeoffs -- the fact that you can focus at most on one or two things at a time, that resources are limited. There are conflicts of interest, for example, between your trade objectives, your human rights objectives, your nuclear nonproliferation objectives, and the desire to make sure you're the toughest kid on the block in every region of the world.

So I see a strong element of pragmatism and realism that is in competition in the Bush White House with the grand strategy of maintaining global hegemony and the grand strategy of preempting the acquisition or development or use of certain classes of weapons by any other state.

You saw it in the interception of a North Korean supply ship on the way to Yemen with a load of missiles. If there was any case study in which you'd expect to see the application of a Bush preemption doctrine -- and let's remember, this happened literally on the day that this preemption doctrine is released -- you'd have thought that American policy under this White House would have taken these missiles, either seized them or sunk them on the high seas and said, "We're not going to tolerate North Korean missile exports."

And what do they do? They get a very strong protest from Yemen, on which they are depending in another security interest entirely, which is the war with Al Qaeda, and they cave. They say, "Oh, excuse me, we didn't realize it was for you. Here are your missiles."

So grand strategy can't guide every decision, and certainly isn't guiding every decision in the Bush White House. ...

The National Security Strategy comes out September 2002. Who is involved in it and the president's involvement with it and how he sort of takes this? I mean, how important is this document?

I think we really can't say yet how important this document is. It began with drafting in, for example, Doug Feith's policy shop in the Pentagon. Wolfowitz certainly has a hand in it; Cheney's office and Scooter Libby have a hand in it.

But it also has to navigate through the usual Washington inter-agency process, and that is presided over by classic pragmatist Condi Rice. Rice sees her job as serving the president's interests in making sure that everybody gets their say. It's very much a consensus administration. Sort of bulls in a china shop don't do very well in this White House. So it reflects to some extent the pragmatic streak that is equally present in the Bush White House. Because of that, it's really too soon to say to what extent the more muscular prose is going to govern individual policy decisions.

The roots of this document, some of the very strong things it says, how much of this came from the past? How much of it came from a theory that had been developed amongst neo-conservatives for a good period of time, and now, in power, they get to sort of throw it down on paper?

Whatever they say about who drafted it and whether the world is a little bit different now than it was 10 years ago, I see a very strong overlap between the [National Security Strategy] as expressed today, and the first and very muscular draft of the 1992 [Defense Planning Guidance]. You have many of the same players who are in primary positions of influence. You simply have to lay the documents side by side, and you will see huge areas in which they're the same, and frankly very few in which there are striking differences.

Now you can't literally lay them side-by-side, because, as far as I know, other than in the classified archives, there are only two places where it could be found: that's sort of inside the newsrooms of the Washington Post and the New York Times. For reasons of our own security and protecting our own sources, we've never published the entire texts. They were circulated initially in 25 numbered copies, and there are subtle differences potentially there among them. It's one of the classic internal security techniques of the U.S. government to make sure that each copy is slightly different. We would be potentially burning our sources if we were to sort of lay the whole thing out there. ...

 

home · introduction · view program · analyses · interviews · chronology · discussion · readings & links
producer's chat · tapes & transcripts · press reaction · credits · privacy policy
FRONTLINE home + wgbh + pbsi

white house photo copyright ©alan schein photography/corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

 

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

The Rise of ISISOctober 28th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS