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robert blackwill

blackwill

Former Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill was brought in to the National Security Council (NSC) as deputy national security adviser for strategic planning, and presidential envoy to Iraq in August 2003. In this role, Blackwill served as National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's eyes and ears on the ground in Baghdad. Here he discusses the "serious estrangement" between the State and Defense Departments, the difficulties CPA Administrator Paul Bremer had in trying to bridge a disconnect between the military and civilian policies and the significance of the Iraq's interim constitution. "If we're successful, [and] the kind of Iraq we wish does finally emerge, one of the two or three most important reasons will be that document," he explains. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 25, 2006.

[How were you brought into the National Security Council (NSC)?]

I was ambassador to India. I was on my way back to [teach at] Harvard, … and Condi [then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice], who was an old dear friend of mine, as I think you know, and we'd worked together in 41['s] -- Papa Bush's -- administration, she asked me whether I would be interested in coming to the NSC. She had at that time really three different functions, which were normal, one ambitious. They were to be concerned about Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. Then she also had in mind a policy-planning function that she wanted me to do across the government. I thought about it and said yes and told Harvard I wasn't coming back, and arrived in August of 2003.

And when you got there, … how do you get yourself up to speed? Do you read cables, read memos, do all those kinds of things?

I did all those kinds of things. … [I] left India on a Friday, participated in my daughter's wedding on Saturday, flew to Washington on Sunday, and went to work on Monday. …

I arrived at the beginning of August and really just spent August, since it turned out to be a pretty quiet month, reading everything I could find on Iraq especially, but also Iran and Afghanistan. …

As I read through the material -- and of course, it's in a way antiseptic when you're not talking to people; you're just reading material -- but I concluded that this was difficult to do; that is to say, to realize the president's objectives with respect to Iraq, which were well known then, which were democracy, stability, no threat to the neighbors, no weapons of mass destruction and so forth -- that it was difficult to do, but doable, and with the right degree of quality of American policy, intensity of actions, activism and so forth, that this could be accomplished. …

I thought it was hard to do, but I didn't -- and I have to say directly -- I didn't realize it was going to be as hard as it has turned out to be, not by a very large measure.

… Many people we've talked to, including Ambassador [L. Paul "Jerry"] Bremer, say [August 2003] was the first real moment where they knew the insurgency was a real thing despite what [Secretary of Defense] Don Rumsfeld was saying at the moment. What did you think?

Well, let me say at that point I'd just arrived. … Of course I knew all these things were happening, but I was not in a position to have enough context to discern what Jerry Bremer, another very close friend of mine, what Jerry clearly saw, which was the beginning of signs that the insurgency was taking root, or blooming, or whatever horticultural metaphor you want to use.

Everybody understood that the military strategy and the political strategy needed to be reinforcing. As I look back myself now, I think we never managed that.

… Purely in terms of how you understand the organization of it all, who was Bremer working for? What is Dr. Rice's role? What will your role be as she articulates it to you?

… Jerry Bremer was working for Secretary Rumsfeld. Not the slightest doubt that was the chain of command. He communicated with Secretary Rumsfeld. …

Now, Condi Rice's role was certainly to monitor that with great care on behalf of the president and to keep the president informed. But she was not, at that time, [in the] operational sense anywhere between Jerry Bremer and Secretary Rumsfeld. Not at all. She, I think, was well informed about what was Jerry Bremer's view of things through the channel from Bremer to Rumsfeld to Rice.

What we've heard [is] there was a British back channel that she needed because DoD [Department of Defense] was holding onto information, or it wasn't coming clearly. Is that accurate?

Well, let me just say again, I'm not omniscient here, so I didn't know everything. The British were a very good channel for information on Iraq -- sometimes identical, sometimes alternative view about what was going on. We were in close contact with the British Embassy, and she undoubtedly was in contact with her counterpart.

But my own feeling, at least in September, was that the problem was not principally knowing what was going on as best as Jerry Bremer understood it in Iraq. The problem was rather on the Washington side and the coordination of our Washington policy. …

[What do you mean?]

Well, this is no secret. There was estrangement, very serious estrangement, between the Pentagon and the State Department. It had gone back, my understanding is, before I arrived, even to the period before Jerry Bremer was chosen by the president to go to Iraq. It was very longstanding. It was much broader than only Iraq. It was many issues. That was my best understanding.

Therefore, the level of cooperation between those two agencies was really quite minimal, quite minimal. So the interagency process was essentially not working. Of course, that's what is one of the recipes for sensible policy, is you involve the relevant agencies; you be sure that there's a coordination between and among them. In this case, it would have been between the military strategy, the political strategy. … That basically was broken, if I may put it like that, in September of '03, because of the estrangement between those two agencies.

And NSC and DoD?

I can't speak for before I arrived. I think it was good. [Then-Undersecretary of Defense for Policy] Doug Feith and [then-Deputy National Security Adviser] Steve Hadley were close. Doug Feith is a very close friend of mine, and I've worked for him in previous administrations, and I have a very high regard for him. Steve had worked for [then-Deputy Secretary of Defense] Paul Wolfowitz. I think we all had a high regard -- Condi, Steve and myself -- for Don Rumsfeld, which I continue to have for sure.

I think the ties between the NSC and the Pentagon were OK. I didn't see a serious problem there. The problem was the interaction between the State Department and the Pentagon, which was minimal as to [be] nonexistent. …

How does Dr. Rice run [the NSC]? …

… She was determined to provide for the president, in as objective a way as possible, without her own views intruding, the views of the relevant agencies. That's the [former National Security Adviser Brent] Scowcroft model.

It's also like the Scowcroft model in this sense, which is that it did not prevent Brent or Condi from expressing at the same time, in the most private possible way, their views to the president.

But what they did not try to do, as some other national security advisers had done, was exclude prominent Cabinet members from the actual process and discussion with the president. They did not try, either one of them, to skew what was presented to the president so that they would get their way. But this didn't mean that they ceased being homo sapiens when they were one on one with the president. Those conversations, those one-on-one conversations, will only be known by the president and, in this case, Brent Scowcroft and Condoleezza Rice. …

When it comes time to kind of handicap her performance, there's many people we've talked to [who] say, on this film and others, Cheney, Rumsfeld -- longstanding partnership, direct, mature. A lot of people said, "Yes, Condi's a very smart woman, very capable, has a great personal relationship with the president, but these two guys really are where the power resides."

I would put it different -- certainly that both the vice president of the United States, secretary of defense, very close; certainly had a special relationship with one another, which is not always the case between vice presidents and other Cabinet members. Also, extremely able people. Both spent a lot of their lives becoming expert on foreign and defense policy, which again, is not always the case with our vice presidents or with our secretaries of defense. Sometimes they don't know so much about defense policy when they arrive. This one certainly did.

Then there was Secretary of State Colin Powell, another major, major American figure in this area. So the first thing I'd say is it's just a structural, historical point. It's rare when we have a president, a vice president and a secretary of state, all of whom are very large figures in their own right, but, equally important, all of whom are quite expert on the subject of foreign and defense policy. That's if you go all the way back to Truman. This is rare, so point one.

Point two, that then poses a special challenge for any national security adviser who tries to adjudicate between and among these elephants, if I may call them that, using a double entendre. I think she did very well at doing that. …

It was her job to establish relations, deep relations with the three of them, none of which she had when she arrived, although of course she knew them, being a prominent Republican strategist for foreign policy type[s] and so forth. But she didn't have deep relationships with any of them. …

My impression was, certainly, that she gained the trust of the vice president, of the secretary of defense and the secretary of state in the way I described before, which was she was an honest arbiter; she's trying to get the views before the president.

What she didn't try to do … was to cook this to [the point where] somehow it's Condi Rice against Don Rumsfeld, or it's Condi Rice against the vice president. That's not what she did. She didn't seek power at their expense. …

[What was your reaction to Bremer's Sept. 8, 2003, op-ed in The Washington Post?]

… Jerry Bremer's one of my closest friends. We've been friends for 30 years, and I just have enormous regard for him. I think that historians will be much kinder to him than some of the contemporary pundits. …

But when I read that, and given my reading and reflections in August, I immediately believed that we are not going to be able to sustain our position in Iraq on that three-year timetable. I just thought that the politics were not going to permit it, the domestic politics of Iraq; that the occupation would become more and more intolerable to the Iraqis. …

[It was] a schoolbook solution, but a solution without … Iraqis. … So I immediately spoke with Condi and Steve about this. We had a series of conversations about this in which I argued -- and I think they were coming to the same conclusions -- … that this was just too long a timeline. …

We discussed, well, what is a reasonable timeline for this? We decide that it is the following summer, that it is June of the following year, and that there is an enormous amount to do between now and then, but that we can sustain our leadership role, our management of Iraqi sovereignty on their behalf that long, but not longer, we decided.

Now, let me just say this was not a conclusion that one could empirically prove; war policy doesn't work like that. But it was our best judgment. It was our best guess given the dynamics and given what was the increasingly activist role of [Grand Ayatollah Ali al-]Sistani and our reading of the Governing Council and all the rest.

So that's what we decided, and then I went to Baghdad to see my old friend Jerry Bremer to discuss this with him.

Take me there. What's he like when you arrive? How do you get there? What do you see? What's your first observation?

Well, you fly in from Kuwait on a C-130, and you do a spiral landing. … It's going into the war zone, and I've never been in a war before. It was exhilarating in one way, but also one knew one could die there. You normalize it fast, by the way. You don't wake up and say every morning, "Well, this is the morning I shall die." You normalize it fast.

But even by that time, I had very great admiration, as I'd seen it, for what Jerry was trying to do and how hard it was, especially given the difficulties back in Washington -- the lack of connections between State and Defense and so forth.

I went, and I think my relationship, my many years of friendship with Jerry Bremer were a foundation to talk to him about this, the timing issue. He's extremely smart. He's one of the most gifted public servants in the last two or three generations, in my opinion.

But he's somebody who, as the most gifted public servants tend to be, who, having thought through a position, don't necessarily give it up instantaneously because somebody from the White House gets off the C-130 in Baghdad. So we spent several days talking about this, and back and forth, doing the arguments back and forth.

Was it tough?

Well, tough. He's a very direct person, and so am I. If the question is, was there ever any tension or animosity, no. This was a big, big subject for our country. There wasn't any cookbook answer to it. One couldn't say, "Well, let me look up and see what the recipe is here for success." We went back and forth. But it was a genuine intellectual inquiry into the merits of a longer period before sovereignty was turned over, and the shorter one.

Did he ever say to you: "What the hell are you doing here? I work for Rumsfeld"?

No.

[He] wouldn't? Knows better?

Well, we're friends. Condi had talked to him before I went. So no, it wasn't that. Jerry Bremer is a Jedi knight. He has done this many times in his life -- five presidents and all the rest -- so he knows the White House has a passing interest in the war. So no, it wasn't like that.

What it was instead was … this prolonged conversation back and forth. He had -- let me stress this -- as often is the case in public policy discussions, he had good arguments on his side. … With respect to the seven-point plan, it wasn't as if it was quite obvious that there were no reasons to support that proposition.

At the same time, my view, which was it should happen the following summer, had serious weaknesses to it: Can it get done by then? How do you get everybody organized? When would an election occur? Is it really going to occur after the transfer of sovereignty? Do we really ourselves appoint the first independent -- ?

People from the outside, they don't understand this completely, because -- and I say this now having been out of government a year and a half -- the further you are from government, the more obvious the solutions appear to you, and the clearer it becomes that your prescriptions are correct.

Did you feel a ticking time bomb when you were there during this period? …

Well, that ticking time bomb is too vivid a metaphor, because partly it's the personality of Condoleezza Rice. Condoleezza Rice is a mature human being, and in all the time I've known her, I have only seen her depart from just a complete equilibrium manner maybe twice in all these years. … The president, I think, is not different in that regard. Of course he gets frustrated, as everybody does, and so forth. But again, there was no sense of panic, if that's the question.

There was a sense of, we need to get this policy right. There's an enormous amount at stake for the United States, and the issue we're talking about, which is the political process inside Iraq, we need to turn over sovereignty sooner rather than later. …

Jerry Bremer concluded in August, September that we needed more troops ... on the ground to execute the strategy. I concluded the same thing in September, obviously on the basis of a lot less knowledge than he had. But as I was watching the insurgency grow, I concluded the same thing. ...

Did you or Dr. Rice talk to Rumsfeld about these things? Was there a kind of lobby from NSC, or was it just in the air?

You'll have to ask Condi Rice about that. I don't know what she did with Secretary Rumsfeld on this score. I know that I shared, of course, this view with her. ... My chain of command was up through Condi Rice and the president, and I told her my view. ...

What I do know is that Jerry argued separately up his chain of command to Rumsfeld about this. But I was never myself present at a discussion in which the issue explicitly was put on the table of more troops in Iraq. I was present often when the president made clear to Rumsfeld and [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Dick Myers and the military that he would abide by their advice with respect to the troop levels in Iraq. I was there many times when he would say to them, and did say to them: "You tell me. If you need more troops, you'll get more troops." But they never made such a recommendation. ...

[At NSC meetings, was there a debate over whether security or politics needed to be addressed first?]

... The structure of the meetings would begin with a military briefing -- no, actually first a CIA briefing: "Here's what we think is going on," usually by [former CIA Director George] Tenet or [former CIA Deputy Director John] McLaughlin. Then next in the agenda would be the military briefing -- "Here's what we think is going on" -- usually done by [CENTCOM Commander Lt. Gen. John] Abizaid from wherever he was in the world as he carried out his responsibilities in the region -- and then the politics. Jerry would usually be present via secure video link. When I was out there, he and I were together out there in that respect.

But since it was so intertwined, you had to structure it like that because otherwise it would be a bowl of spaghetti on the floor. But everybody understood that the military strategy and the political strategy needed to be reinforcing. As I look back myself now, I think we never managed that. We never managed the integration of our military and our domestic political strategy.

That was always a mess?

Yeah.

And when Abizaid or Myers report in, and Rumsfeld would talk about security or talk about the military situation, were they positive?

Yeah.

They were always positive?

Well, in this sense: ... They argued that they had a strategy which would produce success. That's what they argued. I mean, they didn't minimize how difficult it was, ... especially as the insurgency grew [into] a tough, resilient enemy and so forth. But of course, as you would expect, they said, "We know how to deal with this, and we have a strategy to deal with it."

When Bremer comes to Washington during that time, isn't it kind of a "come to Jesus" moment for him?

No. ... When Jerry came back, he understood the sentiment in the White House because I'd told him. So he was completely prepared for the views that were expressed in the White House by Condi Rice and the president about the timeline -- too long a timeline. It didn't come as any shock.

Again, he's the authoritative person on this subject, but my impression was by the time he got to Washington, he had come to the view that the shorter timeline was acceptable to him. I don't know whether he was persuaded by the intellectual arguments on behalf of that notion, or rather he just understood that this was the way the president wanted to proceed, or a combination of the two. But I think by the time he came back, he understood that's the way the wind was blowing. And then, being this extraordinary public servant, he saluted and did everything he could to carry out the president's instructions.

So when he says, ... "I think I'm being set up as the fall guy by the DoD on this thing" --

... Well, he, of course, had his view, and if that's what he said, that's what he thought. But from our point of view at the White House, we didn't think that. We didn't, because we didn't accept that the military strategy was fine and the only problem was political. We didn't accept that, because the insurgency was growing, and we could see it was growing.

We thought the military side needed a reformation in terms of the strategy. We thought the political side needed a reformation in terms of the timeline and the transfer of sovereignty. What we got done during those months, a couple of months, is we got the reformation on the political side. We never got the reformation on the military side, I would say. Jerry, he would know how he felt at the time. That's certainly not the way I felt.

Let me just make a more general point. He came to feel, I believe, that myself and Steve Hadley and Condi Rice were assets for him as he tried to manage his Washington challenges in a broken interagency process. Therefore, from very early on, he saw the reorganization of the interagency process and the Iraq strategy and my role in that and so forth, he saw that as an advantage.

He then just methodologically began to interact with us as much, if not more, than he was interacting with the Pentagon. His interaction with the Pentagon I think was solely through Rumsfeld. I'm sure they talked a lot, but what the new factor was [was] his conversations, which became almost daily, with Condi, with me, the both of us and so forth. He very quickly, I think, concluded this was good for what he was trying to do out there, to try to have more coherence. He was a strong supporter of the reorganization of the bureaucratic process, because he'd been frustrated out there [with] the absence of State Department. He couldn't get the State Department to send out people, and it was just -- it was a mess. ...

So when Rumsfeld sits with him in December and says, "You work for Condi Rice now; I'm out of this," is that a victory for Rice?

No, Condi doesn't think like that.

Why is Rumsfeld saying that to him then?

Well, you'd have to ask Rumsfeld why he's saying that. I wasn't present in the conversation, but what I would say is Rumsfeld, too, was frustrated by the breakdown of the interagency process. I have myself a good relationship with Rumsfeld, built importantly on how much I admire him, and I think he thinks I'm OK. I used to see him frequently. Whenever I wanted to go over and talk to him about whatever it was, he was always available for me. Usually they were one on one, with just the two of us. I'd always tell him what I thought.

When we had the reorganization of the interagency process, one of the first things that happened was Doug Feith called me and said: "This is great, because we have had this situation where the interagency process is broken; the meetings are [of] no consequence. I think it's great that you're now going to be chairing this."

But they kind of broke the process, right?

Well, that's before my time. I don't want to comment on that. But they realized it was broken, and ... then Rumsfeld, when I ran into him the next time over in the West Wing in the Situation Room, said the same thing: "I'm really glad you're doing this." They didn't resist it at all.

To your point about December, Jerry had this role, which was an awkward one. He was not a proconsul, because he had no influence over the military decisions for deployment. None, zero. Through this period, he had a hard time even knowing what was going on on the ground, and I had shared that with him when I was out there. ...

He was trying to manage this complicated, what should have been integrated, process in Iraq, having very little knowledge of what was the military decisions, because the Pentagon wouldn't tell him, and the folks on the ground wouldn't tell him. Therefore, [he was] forced trying to carry out a domestic political strategy deeply affected by these military actions, but not connected to them.

What we tried to do with, I think, incomplete success when we reorganized was to try to bring them together in Washington, but that was very hard. Let me just say no Pentagon, at least in the many years I've watched them, wants to share its operational military plan outside the Pentagon, none of them. ... Their nightmare is Lyndon Johnson lying on the Sit Room table down in the basement of the White House, doing targeting, bombing targeting on Vietnam. ...

[What happened in Fallujah in the spring of 2004?]

Here's what happened, at least from my Rashomon-like view: Terrorist nests in Fallujah [were] beginning to export terrorists out into the other cities and towns of the Sunni heartland. It's a sanctuary for them, and they run the town. They terrify the local inhabitants, some of whom are sympathetic, of course, but more of whom are just terrified because they don't want to be killed. So the decision is made: We have to wipe out the vipers' nest. That decision is made, and the military planning goes forward to do that.

That decision is made by you guys?

Oh, no! No, by the president of the United States on the basis of the advice that he's getting from the Pentagon and from the field commanders and so forth -- which, by the way, Jerry and I support. We do need to wipe it out. ...

But we are told it will be a short operation, because of course Jerry and I are preoccupied -- him more than me because it's his direct responsibility -- with the effect on the Governing Council and the domestic policy.

OK, so it begins. In retrospect -- and I don't want to say that I understood this as well, at least from my point of view, then as I do now -- we underestimated the ferocity and the skill of the enemy, and we didn't have enough troops. Therefore we bog down early, as we started in and took very heavy fire, and we took casualties, and we did not have enough troops to do the job. ...

As day after day after day went by, ... if this continued, the Governing Council would shatter, and there would be mass resignation, and we would have nobody to turn sovereignty over to in two months' time, because you had to have the Governing Council to turn over sovereignty.

We together went back to the president and Condi and the principals and said this to them: ... "We cannot hold this together. We're going to have resignations. ... Once it flies apart, there's no one to transfer sovereignty to, and we can't put Humpty Dumpty back together again in two months." We persuaded Washington, which I'm sure was thinking along the same lines -- at least the White House -- that we just had to stop it. And we did.

And the howl from the military?

Well, there was certainly a howl. I don't dispute the intensity. The Marines howled. And for the very best reasons, the Marines, they started engagement. This is their culture, their heroism, their patriotism. ... The Marines on the ground were saying: "We need more time. We need more time." ... I'm sure it was just enormously painful for them.

Others have written -- and of course I didn't know this at the time -- that there was a lot of tension up and down the DoD chain of command. ... But we didn't know any of that. All we knew was we were meeting around the clock with the Governing Council, which was about to explode.

… Are you feeling [the presence of Moqtada al-Sadr at the same time]? ...

Yes, you could have these two revolts beginning to interact. Al-Sadr's people were in touch with the Sunni terrorists in Fallujah, so the answer was yes.

I want to take the opportunity here, though, to say two things with respect to Jerry Bremer. ... I think what historians will say, first of all, is we have an enormous problem with Moqtada al-Sadr in Iraq today. Arguably he may be a bigger problem now, and his militia and the Mehdi army, than the Sunni insurgency. Jerry Bremer persistently tried to persuade Washington to take him on from the very beginning. He said: "We have to end this guy. We have to arrest him. He's going to grow" -- I don't even think Jerry knew how much -- "into an increasing danger to the United States and our mission." He could never persuade Washington to do it.

What happened? Why?

In fact, there was a worry in Washington: ... "Well, gosh, if we do that, won't there be a problem with his militia? Maybe there will be more instability. We've got our hands full already in Iraq." I think it was a classic public policy [issue], which is in the short term, that was right. It probably would have been some demonstrations, maybe even some violence. In order to avoid the short-term problem, you bought yourself just an enormous long-term problem.

Who made that short-term argument?

Well, I think ... there was no one who disputed it. Let me say that often in these meetings, it's not like the text of a play in which everything is absolutely clear. It was more [that] Jerry would make the argument and people would worry. It wasn't an analytical process by which, "Well, let me tell you the seven reasons why we shouldn't act." It was rather: "Well, let us get back to you on that. We're worried about it." It never got the authorization, and the military never got the authorization to act. So that's one. But that's history changing, I think, in Iraq. And Jerry was right.

The second thing is, which was underestimated, is the ... interim constitution. This was Jerry's idea, and I have to say I was really quite skeptical about it at the beginning because I thought it was too hard to do, and I thought that the consequences of trying to do it were such that failure, which I thought was possible if not likely, would be a big blow to what we were trying to do. I was wrong, and I was wrong because I underestimated Jerry's capacity and that of a few of his colleagues to get this done. Again, it's history changing, because that document is the basis of the permanent constitution of Iraq. ...

If we're successful, [and] the kind of Iraq we wish does finally emerge, one of the two or three most important reasons will be that document, which Jerry did around the clock. As I said, with the odds that if you were at Hialeah [Racetrack near Miami], this is a pony that's 27-1, and he did it. He just did it by the force of his personality and by his relationships, by his negotiating skill, by his energy, by his cohesion. By his imploration he did it, and it was an extraordinary accomplishment.

... When you saw him [leave Iraq], what were your hopes for the future?

I was not there. I left before the transfer of sovereignty. ... I left with a feeling of optimism, for sure, and a feeling of accomplishment, partly personal, but more accomplishment for the administration and what we were trying to do.

We had a very strong Iraqi prime minister [Ayad Allawi]. He put together a good team. We knew tough days were ahead, but I was optimistic well beyond what the future would hold for us.

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posted oct. 17, 2006

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