The War Behind Closed Doors
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interview: dennis ross
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Ross served as special Middle East coordinator in the Clinton administration and director of the State Department's policy planning office during the George H. W. Bush administration. In this interview he argues that if the Bush administration wants to use the invasion of Iraq to transform the Middle East, it has to link the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime to a true reform process within Iraqi society. He also describes how the evolution of the post-Cold War international system led the U.S. to re-imagine its role as the world's predominant power and recounts the debate in the Bush administration over how to use this power. This interview was conducted on Jan. 27, 2003.

... There seems to have been dips and peaks in the arguments, or trying to find smoking guns when it comes to Iraq off and on over the last year and a half or so. Why does the administration keep on falling back to that, trying to figure out a way to connect Iraq to 9/11, or to the anthrax attacks or just to Al Qaeda specifically. It happens, it disappears, it happens again. What's going on there?

I think what's going on is that the administration came into power with a particular focus on Iraq when it came to the Middle East. There was a tendency to disengage from Arab-Israeli issues and to say the real issue that engaged America's interest, national concerns, was Iraq. Somehow this administration views threats through a lens of power, and the Arab-Israeli issue was seen as a nuisance, but not something fundamental as a threat to American power, whereas Saddam Hussein still being in power, still harboring his ambitions in the region, still seeking weapons of mass destruction, was seen as a threat.

The administration established an objective and it will act on that objective.  At this point, were it not to act on that objective, it would certainly raise questions about the value of the American word.

So, [the administration] came in, and its first objective was to try to come up with a better way to contain Saddam Hussein. That was the whole logic of smart sanctions. You would sustain the sanctions in a way that was geared more towards his capacity to develop the weapons, while reducing the onus and the pressure on the Iraqi public.

9/11 came along, and 9/11 created a shift in focus, at least for the president. I think the president suddenly saw, as he said, the overriding mission of his presidency was the war on terror. And he and the vice president, almost from day one after 9/11, looked at 9/11 and said, "Can you imagine what would have happened if these terrorists had been armed with weapons of mass destruction? Then the number of dead would have been catastrophic, almost incomprehensible. That's a scenario, that's a contingency we have to ensure never takes place."

So, the focus remained on Iraq, in an interesting way, but with its being tied not to his regional ambitions and his weapons of mass destruction, but to the very concept that there's a war on terror, this guy may be the quintessential terrorist, and he may arm the people who could do these kinds of 9/11 events with the worst kind of weapons. That was the notion of the axis of evil. It wasn't an alliance of evil; it was the marriage of the worst weapons in the worst hands.

So, I think, what you saw initially was an impulse to say, "Well, let's see how they related to this." Because there was a desire, I think, to realize that you had to deal with Saddam Hussein. It was easier to rationalize dealing with him if, in fact, there was a specific link that you could find to Al Qaeda, a specific link to terror. That wasn't so easy to produce. And yet, I think, in the aftermath of dealing with the Taliban, and dealing in Afghanistan, the focus was on, alright, what is the next phase in this war? Well, at one level it's going to continue going on around the world. But, the really big target is the state sponsors of terror, and here's Iraq, and so let's deal with Iraq.

And so as the war on terror is proceeding in one dimension, you have this focus in another, but a case is never really made, a public case is never really made. And, I think, one of the reasons that you saw a kind of vacillation was also the administration last summer became, I think, rather defensive in terms of looking at Iraq, and just without saying much, assuming it would be able to deal with it on its own timetable.

You saw an article by Brent Scowcroft that was seized to be a kind of indicator that look, there's an important establishment out there -- including the Republican establishment -- that thinks this isn't necessarily the way to go. ...

One of the things that you said was that Scowcroft's statement, when he came out, the realist sort of view affected the administration very specifically. And you said, if I understood you right, said that's one of the reasons that led us back to the U.N. Explain that.

What I mean by that is I think the administration was operating on a premise that the president's authority and credibility and popularity basically meant they didn't need to make a case on Iraq before they were actually ready to go. But, in August of last year, the Scowcroft article suddenly created a kind of momentum behind those who were saying, "We don't understand where you're going. And you look like you're going without having made a case. And you look like you're going on your own. Where's the international support?" Suddenly the administration was on the defensive.

That produced an answer to show, "Look, there's a case. We won't go it alone provided the Security Council's prepared to show it's relevant." So, the president goes to respond to what was the administration being on the defensive and needing to make a case. But, he goes to New York, and without wanting to make us entirely dependent upon the Security Council, he lays down a challenge [to] the Security Council to be relevant. Here's Saddam Hussein, for the last 11 years has flunked at 16 Security Council resolutions; you know, he has to understand, and the world has to understand, that these resolutions mean something. So, be up to the challenge.

And that sets in motion what, I think the administration believes is going to be a very quick discussion on the Security Council resolution, that takes eight weeks. And so, again, the administration buys onto that process with a set of expectations. And it takes longer than they expect.

Then, I think, there also was an expectation that once you had this resolution, given its terms, given its focus on compliance, given its explicit reference to this being the last chance, I think there was an assumption again this would play itself out relatively quickly, because Saddam, in fact, wouldn't go along. And he goes along enough to create the impression anyway that he's cooperating, even if he's not fully complying. And so that again produces, I think, a need for the administration to up the ante in terms of what we're doing, and to create some realities by its moving of troops. ...

There's different factions within this debate from all over the place, but the goal always seems to be the same.

I think there were two goals and there was some conflict between the goals. One goal was certain regime change for a part of the administration. Another goal was disarmament. Now, the real question was whether those who were in favor of disarmament were really in favor of disarmament, or what might be called "an enhanced containment regime," which would make it difficult for Saddam ever to go nuclear, which would contain what he was doing. You might not disarm him, but you'd keep him in even a tighter box.

If you think about it, Colin Powell launched the idea of smart sanctions at the beginning of the administration, and that was designed to create a tighter box within which to keep [Saddam]. So, I think, that there were certainly some in the administration who didn't have high expectations you could actually produce disarmament. But, that was the label, the title under which they were pursuing an objective. They would settle for enhanced containment, and who knew, maybe you could actually succeed in getting disarmament if you -- and here's where there was a marriage between the two.

For those who wanted regime change, they saw the issue was Saddam and those around him -- in particular those around him who were interactive, those that were neighbors -- had to understand we were serious about changing the regime. And the more you were serious about that, the more something might happen internally. You might get a coup, you might get an assassination. You might get him deciding to abdicate. Or, you might actually make the change. Those who were in favor of the disarmament or enhanced containment approach also saw value in terms of raising the pressure, because the pressure was the only way to get any change in the situation. ...

Powell's role now, how significant a role has he played?

Well, I think he played a very significant role in two cases so far. I think in terms of the shaping of the approach to Iraq, he has played a significant role. Going to the Security Council was clearly his advice and his suggestion. Getting a Security Council resolution, I think, was obviously where he exerted enormous efforts. And I think now, feeling somewhat trapped by the inspection regime, he now takes the lead in terms of trying to, in a sense, convey the message that, "Look, we don't have forever." Partly, I think that's to retain credibility within the administration; partly, it's actually to put pressure on those who may be not so willing to go along with us at this stage -- and those are the very people who have looked to him to be the source of reason within the administration. So I think his role has been very important on Iraq, but I think he himself is at a very sensitive moment in terms of what he's going to do to try to shape what it is we will ultimately do. ...

Within the administration there seems to be a belief that if you take care of the Iraq problem, you also start the dominos to take care of a lot of other problems in the region and in the world. Explain to me that view and your perspective on it.

I think that view was one in which you would create an object lesson, the object lesson being: Here is a bad actor who has approached things in a way that is not only bad from the standpoint of the region, but who also supports terrorism. And you need to send a message that these kinds of regimes lose. So, changing the regime was going to have its effect elsewhere. It might affect the balance of forces within Iran, at a time when it's clear there's tremendous ferment. It might affect how a young president in Syria would approach things, recognizing if you continue to persist in supporting groups of terrorists that this could be your fate too. So, I think, there was a kind of view that somehow you could create an object lesson with Iraq.

My view on it is a little different. My view is that there may be object lessons, but it takes more than simply removing Saddam to change the realities in the region, or change the realities elsewhere. My feeling is that somehow if you want to focus on Iraq from the standpoint of removing a regime, you also have to be thinking about transformation within Iraq, and transformation in the region. What I mean by that is the following.

If your objective is only stability in Iraq, removing him, then you may focus on the Iraqi military as the instrument of stability. If that's the case, your potential for affecting others is going to be very limited. What you will produce, in terms of change, will be limited almost entirely to Iraq itself.

If you're thinking more broadly, and you're thinking more about what I would call a positive message that is focused in the area of hearts and minds, we know that there are Arab reformers. We've seen it in the human development plan that was written for [the United Nations Development Program] by Arab intellectuals. It talked about why the Arab Middle East lags behind, and they identified three deficits: a deficit in democracy; a deficit in education, what is taught and how it's taught; and a deficit in terms of excluding half of your population for constructive activity, meaning women.

Now, if you're focused on Iraq as a springboard to change, then you're focused on how can you show that what happens in the aftermath of Iraq is something that will promote those who favor reform in the Arab world? Right now they're limited where they operate, because the regimes in which they exist don't tolerate much change. One thing that has to happen if you're interested in the broader transformation is you're going to have to support the concept of transformation in Iraq that also promotes reform. Does it mean democracy? No, because you can't create its democracies. But, it means democratization. It means broad-based, representative government. It means giving voice to those who see that the future requires expanding their political space so that there's greater participation within society, so that decision-making isn't always the providence only of the very narrow limited elite. If that's the purpose in terms of removing Saddam, if that's the strategy that is going to guide the objectives within Iraq, then the potential to effect the region more generally, I think, will be there.

But, if it's more just geared well, we're going to get rid of him, and we'll get rid of the weapons of mass destruction, we'll stabilize around the Iraqi military, we'll create an object lesson that way, my guess is the effect will still be significant because you remove someone who's been a fixture in the region. But, it's not going to have the transforming effect that linking this to a reform process more generally would.

What are the signs? Which one of those two does the administration seem to be pointed towards?

A lot of the rhetoric suggests the latter. I think a lot of the planning suggests the former, which isn't surprising. There's a preoccupation with stability in the aftermath of Iraq, because look what happens the day Saddam goes. He's been the visible form of power in Iraq since 1979 and less visible since 1969. The whole structure, the whole administrative structure within Iraq is his. The day he goes, that whole structure goes. We assume responsibility for services. We assume responsibility for preventing the bloodletting, the score settling, which is likely to be a very much part of that environment. So, it's not surprising that the administration's preoccupation will be stability.

I myself am not against the idea of stability, especially in the early going. But, I think, if you want to focus on transformation, you're going to need to do several things. You're going to need to ensure that you have a multilateral presence developing new institutions in the aftermath so it doesn't look like this is all made in America. You're going to have to focus on how you get Iraqi participation from across a wide spectrum relatively quickly in the process. You're going to have to also be more forthcoming in terms of what are the values that are important to us. We're not going to dictate what an order should be. But, we should be not defensive at all about the value of promoting tolerance, about the importance of protecting minority rights. Many of the things that we value should be a part of our public articulation, and applied not only to Iraq.

Your perspective on the point of view of the administration on the effect of going after Iraq, on for instance, North Korea, for instance, China down the road; a focus of a lot of people involved in this administration for a long period of time before the Bush administration came into power. What does it seem their take on that is in the importance of Iraq?

Here, I think, there's a kind of inconsistency in terms of posture that is driven mostly by the reality of how hard it is to do more than one of these things at a time if you're not given the luxury of avoiding those. But I think the preoccupation with preparing the ground for military action against Iraq made it more difficult to develop the kind of options that might have been pursued versus North Korea. It was the president who identified an axis of evil. This was his terminology, this was his point of departure. And you could make a case that there was a lot to it.

But it is interesting that the country that represents the most immediate threat in terms of the marriage of the worst weapons in the worst hands is now North Korea. Especially given how close they are, if they resume their processing, to having what would be an arsenal of weapons, at least five to seven nuclear weapons within six months -- and a history of selling anything to anybody for any price. So, there's no doubt that if they cross that threshold, they will do that. And the administration, I think, felt constrained in terms of its options. ...

I think one area where the administration could have been more consistent was by not trying to say this wasn't a crisis. By trying to suggest it wasn't a crisis, it sent a message that looked like there was a very inconsistent posture. In the Middle East the view is, you know, this just proves that you're just out to get Iraq, because the real problem is North Korea, and you're not pursuing them.

The North Koreans got the message too. "Well, if it's not a crisis, we can continue to up the ante." And they did. The Russians and the Chinese, who are the ones who have the real leverage on the North, looked to this and said, "Well, what's the urgency? We can pursue this in a way that we might on our own terms."

So, in a sense, while it was understandable at one level not to want to ratchet things up too much given the preoccupation with Iraq, it also sent messages that made it harder to resolve the North Korean issue. And that also, I think, made building a consensus around Iraq more difficult.

I'm going to back up in time because we're looking also for the roots of where this all came from. And one of the things we're looking at is the [Defense Planning Guidance] that came out in 1992, the Wolfowitz document. When that came out, describe to me sort of the feeling about the release of that, and what took place when it came out.

I think at that time it was an effort to identify what were new potential threats that would have to be dealt with. This was not something that was viewed as being an immediately operational document. It was more designed to try to show some of the directions where you might have to begin to plan and some of the threats that you have to deal with and opening up the possibility of how you're going to contend with those threats. ...

It took a hit. I mean, there was a reaction, a strong reaction against it. Explain that, and explain State Department sort of thinking on it.

Well, at the time when it came out, I mean, there was a concern that it would produce a kind of -- the term is "preemption," but in fact the right term is "prevention." You preempt when there is an imminent attack, you preempt before you can be struck. Prevention is looking at longer-term threats and saying, "I'm not going to wait until they materialize." And so, I think, this was suggesting that we were lowering the threshold to military action in a way that wouldn't be understood internationally.

I think, the only caution, as I recall at the time, the only cautions that I had from my approach, were not that this was a wrong way to be thinking; it was a question of whether or not you wanted it out there in the open before you fully vetted it, number one. And number two, one of the elements of vetting it had to do, I think, and still do is what the administration's put out now, had to do with how you begin to suggest where this applies and where it doesn't apply.

I mean, it really is a case-by-case approach because if it's a blanket set of rules, then others will use it to deal with the problems of their immediate neighbors. And that was never its intent. The drafting of it was never designed to suddenly say, "Alright, it's a free for all now." Or, "We're going to approach this in a kind of mindless way. We're establishing principles that are going to govern what we do, and it doesn't apply to anybody else." This was the beginning of what was going to be a serious dialogue about trying to take a look at what were new threats. From that standpoint, I found it legitimate. Its early exposure was, I'm afraid, premature because it was bound to distort what was the intention.

Why the reaction by the administration at that point? Why Cheney's sanitization, or whatever, of the document, re-released in a different manner?

Because I think at the time there was a sense that this was an overstatement. In fact, this was not something that had been reviewed with the president. The president's own instincts were much more cautious than this, not that he would be reflexively against it. But, this is something that also he would want much more discussion before he would suddenly put it out. And he was also someone who was, I think, highly sensitive also to his relationships with other leaders.

And to the extent to which this was surprising, to the extent to which others would feel exposed by it, in his eyes it would create problems. So, it didn't reflect where he was coming from, number one. And it was his administration. And from that standpoint, that required, I think, taking a step back.

The way the Gulf War ended, was this related to some extent to that? Or was it more of a post-Cold War thinking, it's about time we deal with the world in a different way? I mean, what were the roots of it?

What drove this, I think, was not the end of the Gulf War, but instead an effort to take a look at where we were in terms of what might be called the architecture of international politics and national security. There was a view that we had not come up with what was a coherent way yet to deal with what was the post-Cold War world. We knew there were going to be new realities in this post-Cold War world. You had the deputy secretary of state at the time, Larry Eagleburger, who gave a speech that was described as being nostalgic for the Cold War, because he talked about what was the kind of order that existed in the Cold War, with all of its potential for catastrophic threats to our survival -- after all, one was talking about literally threats to our survival -- nonetheless, it created a kind of order and contained conflicts around the globe.

Now, suddenly without the superpower competition to keep a lid on other conflicts, now you were going to see the potential for much greater conflict. You were going to see the potential for many more conflicts that looked like what you were seeing in Yugoslavia. That was erupting at that point. You could see that there was a certain risk of terrorism that might be different than the Cold War, even though terrorism was certainly a part of it. And, I think, the feeling was, if you're going to face new threats, you need new premises to deal with those threats. And you can't simply use all the same theories, premises and doctrines that have guided us in a world that was vastly different than the one that we're facing.

So, I think, it was very much motivated by a desire to try to deal with what was seen as a new array of threats in a world that was inherently more messy, where the threats to us were going to look different, where it might come from actors who were much less of an obvious threat, but have the capacity to hurt us in smaller but nonetheless meaningful ways. And this was an effort to try to cope with that new world.

So explain for me, if you can, the relation of the '92 document to the 2002 [National Security Strategy].

Well, I wouldn't overstate the relationship, but I do think some of its concepts, some of its intellectual premises, were picked up in the year 2002. I think the critical thing about looking at a new architecture internationally, recognizing the threats were very different, some of that was certainly picked up, but then refined and developed and made much more comprehensive.

The 2002 document is an effort to look at national security with a very broad set of brushstrokes. In effect, there's an effort to look at national security and look at some of the threats that are not even traditional threats: to look at health issues like AIDS that could be a threat, to see that in a place like Africa that there has to be an approach to trying to transform the reality there. This is something that you didn't find at all in the 1992 document, because it was a narrow DOD approach designed to try to anticipate what were new kinds of military threats that the military would have to plan against.

The National Security [Strategy] is comprehensive, in the sense that it incorporates that, but it tries to look more broadly. The controversial elements of it [were] the United States' necessity to be the sole power, the necessity as that power to deal in a different way than in the World War, Cold War world, that sometimes means preemption and such. Having said that there are real differences between the two documents, there's also a certain continuity to them, as well.

In 1992 what was clear is that the Cold War was over and we had won it. We didn't know exactly what the shape of the new world was going to be, and this was an effort to look at the nature of the threats, but we were the predominant power. That was unmistakable then. So there was an effort to look at new threats, but to look at them through the lens of how could you use the power that we had to deal with those, recognizing that we had no peer, no real competitor, as a power?

So that's where I think some of the intellectual wellsprings of the 2002 document do emerge from that, because 2002 is making it very clear, very explicit, that we will use our power to pursue these objectives, to pursue objectives that we consider to be important for American interests, but for the world's interests. In many respects, the character of this document is in keeping with what might be described as America's image of exceptionalism: that we always use power for good, that we have selfless purposes. This is the way we see ourselves. It's not necessarily the way the rest of the world sees us.

And what problems does that bring about?

Well, one of the problems is, I think it creates an impression that even in circumstances where you would have jealousy and envy anyway because of America's strength and its power and its wealth, it adds to that sense that somehow the U.S. shouldn't be able to arrogate to itself how it's going to shape the rest of the world, and it's not simply up to the United States to make these decisions. I think the more it appears as if we have made the decision that we will simply shape the world in an image that reflects our selfless purposes, the more we're going to find that we find even some of our traditional allies creating obstacles for us.

Especially, I might add, because so much of what we want to do cannot be done by us unilaterally. The exercise of power is one thing. But if we're looking at problems like terrorism, terrorism by definition requires a coalition, because it depends upon intelligence, and it can't only be our intelligence. It depends upon law enforcement, and it can't only be our law enforcement. It depends upon cutting financial flows, and we can't do that unilaterally. So there are, by definition, certain issues -- whether it's terrorism or its environment or its health, like AIDS -- these are each problems that are going to have to be taken on, on a multilateral basis. Proliferation, much the same.

But isn't that one of the main debates within this administration?

I think it is one of the main debates in the administration. The fulcrum is how much you have to depend upon others and how you produce others' participation. One side of the administration believes that if the U.S. is very clear about its purposes, its red lines, its willingness to exercise power, others will come with us. And by definition, they will come with us, but they have to see that we're ready to go. The other side of the administration says, "Look, it's not going to work that way. You're going to end up creating a coalition of the unwilling, against us. And so you need to be able to massage, you need to be able to work with those who might be your putative partners."

I think the reality, actually, is somewhere in between, because there are certain cases where the American readiness to act even unilaterally if necessary will ensure that you have others with you. And there are other cases where you have to be clear that the nature of the threat, the nature of the problem in many instances is not one that we're most well equipped to deal with, but others may be. So I think in many ways it's got to be case by case. ...

In Bush 43, in how the folks that surround him, and the time of history that he sits in, compared to Bush 41 and the people that surrounded him, and the point in history he was, how do they differ, and how does that answer the direction that 43 is going?

I think they definitely differ in terms of emphasis. When I say that you can't so easily caricature 43, I think that's right, but the instincts of many of those around him is much more geared towards the establishment of the American readiness to act as the vehicle in which to get others to join you. And I think in the case of 41, there was certainly readiness to act, but there was also an instinct to work with others up front, to build coalitions up front, and in fact, to be more subtle in terms of how you emphasized your readiness to go it alone. In a sense, not to ask others whether or not you could go, but also by the same token, to be careful what you said in public, even if you were more direct in private. I mean that's one of the distinctions I see, is the public presentation is different. ...

There truly was a readiness in 41 to do what it took, even if no one else was going to join us. But if you go back and you take a look at the public presentation, it was very different. From the beginning, there was a focus on getting a series of Security Council resolutions to cloak what we were doing in a kind of broader legitimacy, even though the president said four days after the invasion, "This won't stand." But he said, "This won't stand." He didn't say, "We will go ahead and we will take care of this, whether anybody's prepared to join us or not." And the image, I think, was such that we were prepared to work with others, and as a result, it made it a little bit easier. And I think the point of departure of having a premise that the U.S. will act alone if necessary is always going to be required. And to think that you produce coalitions, if that's not there, if you're not clear in terms of your own purpose, misses the point that others frequently do look to see, "Well, what are you truly prepared to do?"

But there is a question of how you present it publicly. Because when you present it publicly one way, they have to have their own public posture. And many of these countries, as we've seen now, have their own problems in terms of their domestic audiences. So one thing one has to keep in mind is the public presentation. And I think 41 did it one way; 43 has done it a different. Now maybe partly because of 9/11, partly as a reaction of many in this administration to the Clinton administration -- I mean what binds what might be called the different factions of this administration is their distaste for many of the things that the Clinton administration did, and the feeling that somehow the Clinton administration wasn't strong enough in terms of its readiness to exert American power -- and so what they represent is a reaction to that. ...

And lastly, the Iraq situation, the way Iraq has played seems to have become such an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to defining how this administration views the world or how this administration wants the world to view the United States. Is there almost any way you can get out of going to war with Iraq because of the way this thing has been structured?

I think it's very difficult at this point. I think in a sense there is a set of expectations that have been raised, there's been very strong language that was used. Unless you have unmistakable disarmament from Saddam Hussein, it's very difficult to see that that's going to happen. I don't see how you avoid a war unless he decides himself to go into exile because he, as someone said, is homicidal but not suicidal.

But I would expect knowing Saddam Hussein, or at least having been someone who watched him for a long time, his capacity to calculate correctly is I think nonexistent. I've always referred to him as the master of miscalculation. And it isn't that he wouldn't in fact abdicate if in fact he thought his survival was at stake, it's that when he comes to that conclusion, in all likelihood it's going to be too late, because no one around him can tell him the truth, he won't calculate correctly, and the administration I think will do what it has said, because in fact I think it established an objective and it will act on that objective. At this point were it not to act on that objective it would certainly raise questions about the value of the American word. ...


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