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robin wright

Give me a sense first of the first time that the rest of us knew that terror and terrorism could strike America, back at the beginning stages of the Reagan administration, in Lebanon.

For the United States, the turning point on terrorism was in Beirut in the early 1980s, when Islamic extremists attacked two American embassies and, more importantly, the compound housing the Marine peacekeepers. The attack on the Marines killed 241. It was the largest loss of U.S. military life since Iwo Jima during World War II. It was also the largest non-nuclear explosion on Earth since the use of the atomic weapon during World War II.

Afghanistan created the illusion that we could launch a war very quickly and succeed, and change the environment in a region.

This was a moment that the United States came head to head with an emerging trend. We had seen it a little bit play out, the kind of anger expressed in Islamic terms during the 1979 Iranian Revolution, when as part of that, 52 Americans were held for 444 days. But it played out in a way we never anticipated in Lebanon, as the Marines became a target particularly, and any symbol of the United States. It was a follow-up, a new stage, when the Islamic extremists also began to take American individuals hostage. So there was a period when the emergence of the first Islamic extremist groups began to define, or force the United States to figure out, how to deal with this part of the world. We didn't really understand at the time what was happening in the Islamic world.

You were a reporter in that part of the world, and an up-close observer. What did it feel like at the time?

Well, terrorism in the '60s and '70s had been a problem in Europe, but the United States had never faced it, and so for America to come under attack in the Middle East was really a profound turning point. And there were many of us who knew the moment that the United States fired on a Muslim militia, when the U.S. Marines had been assigned to Lebanon as a peacekeeping force, that this was going to be a turning point, that the United States was going to become a target, because it had crossed the line; it had become a participant in Lebanon's civil war, and it had taken on one important player that had strong backing throughout the region. That was the turning point actually. The attacks on two American embassies and the Marine compound were really the moment [at] which the Islamic world and the United States came into conflict.

And the way we reacted, what message did that send? And what ripple effects continued to be felt?

photo of wright

Robin Wright, The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent, has reported on the Middle East for almost two decades and is the author of four books, including Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam and Flashpoints: Promise and Peril in a New World. In this interview, she discusses how the Islamic world has viewed Saddam Hussein and U.S.-Iraq relations over the decades and the unintended consequences of America's invasion of Iraq. Addressing the larger picture, she says the U.S. has "profoundly" misread what was happening in the Middle East and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the '80s and '90s. This interview was conducted on July 9, 2004.

Well, there's an enormous debate about how the United States responded. ... Then-Secretary of Defense Caspar] Weinberger had opted not to go in and attack the Islamic extremists that had bases in eastern Lebanon. The United States instead decided to build huge barriers around the Marine encampment, to put the Marines in what were like underground containers for several months. This changed the dynamics. We had gone to Lebanon as the peacekeepers. We were the ones who helped transform one of the most chaotic countries in the world, and in the end we became targets, and we became more besieged than any of the other players in Beirut. ... That was the moment at which the powerful United States began to be seen as vulnerable, as not willing to take on extremists, and in the eyes of people eventually like Osama bin Laden, like paper tigers.

And what was the lesson learned in Washington about that?

I think there was a shudder. ... We were the greatest power in the free world, and we were invincible. There was a certain naivet among Americans that we stood for what was right, and we would win at the end. But suddenly we began to see that we were not perfect as politicians in terms of our foreign policy, and in terms of even the way we could fight wars; that we could be defeated by a poorly armed peasant military.

What's happening in the Middle East while we're preparing ourselves for whatever we're going to do to organize and fix that part of the world?

Well, if you look at the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the early 1980s conflicts between the United States and Islamic extremists in Lebanon, you see this defining period that has prevailed ever since. For Americans, Islam is increasingly viewed as dangerous. Muslims are ones who are out to kill Americans. For the United States, we see what's happening in the Islamic world, in policy terms, as a threat to us. We've misread profoundly that much of what's happening in the region is an attempt to get rid of some of the world's last tyrants and dictators; that it's no different than the kind of challenges and anger that's brewing in Eastern Europe and southern Africa against apartheid, against military dictators in Latin America; that we're on the edge of this historic transformation. But because it has involved attacks on the United States, we take it personally. We don't see it in terms of grand historic transformations, the historic moment.

Does Saddam Hussein fit our paranoia or fear about Islamic fundamentalism in the late '80s?

The irony is that the greatest threat to Saddam Hussein at home is from his own Islamic extremists. A group called Al Dawa was often the most active force against his regime, organizing assassination attempts. It's one of the ironies that there was this commonality between the United States and Iraq that played out during the Iran-Iraq war, when Secretary of Defense [Donald] Rumsfeld currently, then on behalf of the Reagan administration, goes to Baghdad to better relationships with Hussein. This is a tremendous irony, because this was one of the most anti-Israeli governments in the region. By that time we felt more threatened by Iran and didn't want to see Iran win this war, so -- the enemy of my enemy is my friend -- during the 1980s, because of this common agenda, we actually befriended Saddam Hussein. And the United States played an important role in helping Iraq win that war. We provided intelligence to the Iraqis, satellite images of where Iranian troops were deployed, that allowed Saddam Hussein to know where and how to target, and in some of those operations, his forces used chemical weapons. The United States, Egypt and Jordan provided the kind of training in knowing how to deal with the "human wave" assaults. And in one case involving a major offensive Iraq eventually launched, we helped effectively plan it.

For the fundamentalist movement -- they know he's been our friend and everything else -- what do they think of him? And when he takes Kuwait, what is the impact of all of that in the region?

Throughout the 1980s there wasn't as much of a clash as there might have been between the diverse Islamic activists throughout the Middle East and South Asia and the United States, in part because there was one place in the world where they had a common agenda, and that was in Afghanistan. And during the last great battle of the Cold War, Osama bin Laden and the United States were de facto allies. Where that began to come apart was in 1990 and 1991, when more than a half million foreign forces deployed in Saudi Arabia to try to liberate Kuwait from Iraq's grasp. And Osama bin Laden, who had gone home after the Afghan war and disappeared, emerged again to charge that the royal Saudi family had betrayed the nation by allowing the deployment of infidel forces who were acting and operating in ways that were offensive to Muslims. And this gave him a new cause. And so Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was a turning point for reasons that had nothing to do really with Kuwait itself.

So a seed gets planted; something gets started.

And no one understood at the time how explosive that issue was going to become. And, of course, that then led to the confrontation between the Saudi royal family and bin Laden. He eventually was stripped of his citizenship when he refused to repent and forced into exile into Sudan. The United States, a former ally of bin Laden, supporter of his cause, squeezed the Sudanese government to deport bin Laden. And that sealed the deal for bin Laden to shift his target from changing the regime in Saudi Arabia, challenging the tyrants, the monarchs and the corrupt leaders of the region, and, for the first time by any Islamic group,it extended across the ocean against the United States.

The grand context for everything that's happened in the region is really this overpowering quest in the Islamic world to go through the same thing everyone else in the world has gone through, and that's to get rid of the bad guys. And the United States has never quite understood, be it Republican or Democratic administrations, what's going on in that region.

The United States has come under attack so often, in large part because we are seen as the main props that keep a lot of these bad guys in power. In the aftermath of the Taliban's ouster, the country with the worst human rights record in the world is Saudi Arabia, our close ally, referred to by both Republicans and Democrats as moderates. ... We are increasingly seen as backers of the most corrupt violators and abusers of human rights throughout the Islamic world.

When we've fulfilled the U.N. mandate and we've moved the Iraqis out of Kuwait, and then we don't go to Baghdad to take Saddam Hussein, how is that seen in that part of the world?

The Middle East is riddled with conspiracy theories, and there were many in the region who actually believe the United States wanted to keep Saddam Hussein in power, in part as a strongman that could counter any Iranian regime, and because we were afraid that the company might fall apart without him, which would have a spillover effect in many countries, including our important allies.

There was, at the time, this growing neoconservative kind of idea, and the organizing event seems to be not so much going to Baghdad as not supporting the Kurds in the North and the Shiites in the South -- the president encouraging them to step up to Saddam, but them being sacrificed by the helicopter gunships. Am I right about that?

Absolutely. The most important opportunity after Saddam Hussein withdrew from Kuwait was missed completely when the United States, after calling on Iraqis to rise up against Saddam Hussein and do for themselves what the United States and its coalition did not have a mandate to do, after calling for all of this, the United States allowed Saddam Hussein to use his helicopter gunships to put down uprisings in the South and in the North. Tens of thousands were killed as a result of that decision. And it emasculated the opposition movement in Iraq in a way such that they were never emboldened, and never powerful enough, and never trustful enough to take action against Saddam Hussein, in the end forcing the United States to go back and do it itself.

The United States had a long history of promising to help Iraqi opposition groups, promising to help the Kurds in the North, and failing to follow through. And so there wasn't a lot of trust, even though there was a lot of hope that the United States would eventually do something. The Kurds gave us opportunity time and time again, and we kept walking away from them.

Help me understand the emergence of Dr. [Ahmad] Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress.

Ahmad Chalabi emerged in the early 1990s as an attractive figure who was well connected with conservatives in Washington. Educated at the University of Chicago, he had a mentor shared by other of the neoconservatives, particularly [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz, and he easily plugged in to those who had their agenda. This was a meeting of the minds, a natural alliance. And he helped define the neoconservative agenda arguably more than any other foreigner.

What was it he said? What was it that made Iraq even matter to these guys?

The United States, in the aftermath of the Cold War, was looking for a grand organizing principle, and there were neoconservatives who had a couple of different ideas. One, represented by Paul Wolfowitz, looked to transform the region. They believed they could, by introducing democracy or pressing for a radical political and economic change, could get rid of many of the bad guys who prevailed and make the Middle East like the rest of the world. Then there were another group of people, represented to a certain degree by [Undersecretary of Defense for Policy] Doug Feith, who believed in the idea of draining the swamp, ridding the region of the bad guys by the use of military force if need be. ... Ahmad Chalabi played to both of them. And Iraq, in many ways, represented the kind of vehicle to accomplish both of those, to get the ball rolling. This was a bad guy. He had issues with the international community. He was in defiance of U.N. resolutions. And whether you wanted to oust a regime -- and there were grounds to make that case in Iraq -- or whether you wanted to transform the region using Iraq as a model, as a catalyst, to show how it could be done and how change could benefit the people, this was a case that Ahmad Chalabi could play to.

So the ideologue and the idealist. That's really a distinction between the two of them, isn't it?

Wolfowitz is the idealist who has visions of transforming the Middle East and democratizing it. He's a former ambassador to Indonesia. He has very good Muslim friends. He doesn't look at the Islamic world as the enemy. He understands what's happening in that part of the world.

Doug Feith is the ideologue who has strong pro-Israeli sentiments and helped develop the foreign policy agenda of former Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, and looks at the region from the perspective of someone who's pro-Israeli and sees the kind of threats that Israel faces in the Arab world.

When does Colin Powell enter your radar screen?

Colin Powell was national security adviser for Ronald Reagan and came in to clean up the mess after the Iran-Contra debacle. And, of course, he is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the invasion of Kuwait. He's quite a player.

Ironically, it is the military that is most reticent to use force when it comes to Saddam Hussein. Colin Powell knows the challenges that the United States will face. He was one of those who understood why we couldn't go to Baghdad in 1991, and he knew the difficulties, if we decided to go to Baghdad in 2002, what problems the United States would face, both politically and militarily.

As somebody who knows the region, and somebody who knows about all the characters, what do you think is going to happen when the George W. Bush administration begins?

Well, the first eight months of the administration was focused almost entirely on missile defense. The administration was not as focused on terrorism. Ironically, it was the State Department and the CIA that were much more sensitive. The State Department puts out the terrorism list; the CIA accumulates the intelligence. And I think there was a really profound concern. Remember, the State Department and the CIA have a lot of holdovers. You put a new superstructure on in terms of the appointees at the top. You had all those foreign service officers, and of course George Tenet was still at the CIA, and he was the one who had made the loudest noises about the dangers from bin Laden and Al Qaeda. So they were still focused on him.

But the administration had its agenda and its priorities, which were focused completely on missile defense, to the point that on September 11, Condi Rice, the national security adviser, was scheduled to give a speech at Johns Hopkins University focused entirely on missile defense and how it was the cornerstone of defending the United States.

The Bush administration didn't get what was happening. Ironically, a Republican administration, given what happened when President Bush's father was vice president, all of this playing out in Lebanon, it didn't understand that the attacks that we had seen in the 1990s were only the beginning.

Inside the Defense Department, about this time Wolfowitz, Feith and others are kind of pinning the tail on Saddam. They continue to argue for, plan for, hope for Saddam, Saddam, Saddam. Did you know?

I didn't think that the Bush administration was inevitably going to attack Saddam Hussein during the first eight months of the administration. There weren't the grounds to do it. It was a 9/11 world that made it possible, creating that link with Saddam Hussein and terrorism, making it possible for the United States to launch a military attack. After 9/11, the world stood behind us in dealing with the Taliban in Afghanistan and trying to destroy the camps that bin Laden had in Afghanistan. And that created the environment that the United States could take the case to the United Nations, make the argument that Saddam Hussein was part of the larger war on terrorism and that he had to be dealt with.

And in the midst of all of this, Ahmad Chalabi is answering questions any way anybody wants them.

Throughout the 1990s, Ahmad Chalabi used whatever resources he had -- intelligence through defectors, his connections with the neocons -- to argue the case that Saddam Hussein had to be ousted, that he was that pivotal a player in the region, whether it was to protect Israel, to deal with terrorism, to deal with weapons of mass destruction, to create security for the oil-rich Persian Gulf states, which the United States and its allies are dependent on -- that there were so many reasons to deal with Saddam. And as we're now learning, the kind of intelligence he provided on which the United States was so dependent was either fabricated or exaggerated.

He tends to be more powerful than reason would normally suggest. He hadn't been in the country for 46 years. Why would we believe anything he has to say?

Chalabi is well-spoken, smart, and he has a kind of common agenda for many in the Bush administration. They were willing to look beyond his conviction in Jordan on 22 counts on embezzlement from the Petra Bank, one of the largest banks in Jordan. He was fined $100 million and several years at hard labor. The United States is willing to look beyond that because he was so charming, he was so well-spoken, and he had the common goals that the Bush administration shared.

He's out of pocket at the moment because he's not a major player in the interim government, but he still has the intelligence files. He went in and got the files from the Mahabharat. He went in and got the Baath Party files. And U.S. officials are complaining that he has not turned a lot of the stuff over yet. He can still play a major role. There are a lot of other stories looming out there yet to be reported about his shenanigans.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was within the administration a real push from the Defense Department side to move on the state of Iraq and Saddam Hussein virtually right away. Does it surprise you that that level of dialogue and specificity would begin right after 9/11?

The Bush administration from day one was clearly intent on making Saddam Hussein sweat and perhaps eventually forcing him from power. Contingency plans are one thing; having the environment supportive of carrying out a military intervention is another. And that wasn't available to the Bush administration and would not have been, arguably for a long time, except for 9/11.

Afghanistan created the illusion that we could launch a war very quickly and succeed, and change the environment in a region. One of the great myths is that the United States won the war in Afghanistan. In fact, we provided the air power, and the war was played out on the ground largely by forces that didn't have the kind of support they needed to challenge the Taliban. Neither one was a very sophisticated army, but the air power made all the difference. We destroyed the bases, we destroyed a lot of the arsenals, and we allowed the Northern Alliance and Afghan coalition to move on Kabul. American forces didn't take Kabul.

Remember, this was a war that many predicted we could get bogged down in for a decade, like the Soviet Union did. When we won so quickly and decisively and changed the dynamics in the region, that gave us the illusion, the impression that we could do the same thing in Iraq. And in fact the same thing happened in Iraq. We went in militarily, and it was to an important degree the Iraqi military's decision, individual by individual, not to fight, to lay down arms, to go home, not to be party to this conflict, either because they didn't believe in Saddam Hussein, or they didn't want to fight the mighty United States military. ... And because we won those two wars so decisively and quickly, much faster, again, in Iraq than anyone anticipated, with less resistance than anyone anticipated, and no use of chemical weapons, there was an illusion that again, we were going to change the dynamic in Iraq just as quickly. And again, we didn't understand.

When we do what we do in Afghanistan, what is the lesson being learned and observed and acted upon by the Islamic world?

Let me look at it a slightly different way. The unintended consequence and arguably deadliest consequence of the U.S.-led intervention in Kuwait in 1991 was the emergence again of Osama bin Laden with a different agenda that targeted the United States. The most dangerous, unintended consequence to emerge from the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq in 2003 is a new grand antipathy, hatred, suspicion, anger at the United States right across the Islamic world, the sense that we are not out to change the region in ways that benefit the locals. We are instead trying to create a lot of governments that will be friendly to the United States, that will allow us to use military bases for our own purposes, that will secure oil resources for our own uses, that will not change the region in ways that open up politically or economically. They think we are selling them a bad deal. Many of them suspect we are being deceptive, dishonest in what our real goals are.

And the long-term danger of that is that we end up with the kind of clash of civilizations, confrontation of cultures, that most specialists in the region, most foreign policy analysts thought could be avoided. We thought we understood what was happening and that that could be avoided. But because of this deepening suspicion, symbolized by things like Abu Ghraib, did we come in to benefit Iraqis? No, we came in to abuse them and to humiliate them. The unintended consequence of Iraq may well be a generation or more of deepening hostility rather than transformation.

In the run-up to the war, between Afghanistan and Iraq, who was warning of such things, powerful people who were trying to get their voices heard? Was Powell thinking about these kinds of things?

There was a spectrum of ideas and positions within the Bush administration, and the State Department and the CIA were pretty much in synch in warning about the dangers, what it could unleash, not necessarily from a long-term perspective, but certainly in terms of the kind of dangers, the anger that it might unleash. The attacks might intensify. They might make the United States more vulnerable rather than safer.

In contrast with Afghanistan, dealing with postwar Iraq was going to be a huge challenge, and Powell understood that the United States couldn't do that alone, that we would need a lot of support in rebuilding Iraq, and that to go in alone militarily might make the postwar peace more difficult. And so I think from the beginning he believed that you had to have a coalition. He was the one who argued in 1990 to have a huge coalition to confront Saddam Hussein the first time. He believed that we needed that in Afghanistan, and we got it to a certain degree. We got international approval for a war. He believed we needed to do that again on Iraq, both because of the initial military operation and, more importantly, for the postwar peace.

Help me with the development and articulation of the Bush Doctrine by this administration. How did it get started? What were the primary elements?

Well, the four most important elements of the Bush Doctrine are first, preemptive strikes to eliminate challenges to the United States before they threaten or attack us. The nascent principle was there before 9/11, but it was really developed after 9/11. Secondly, that the United States would act unilaterally if need be, without allies, if need be, if we believed we were engaged in a just war. Third, the idea of democracy promotion, changing the region, creating a catalyst, a model, then helping others to follow suit. And finally, Iraq as that next phase in the war on terrorism, by eliminating Saddam Hussein, thus getting rid of what was advertised as a capital, like Kabul, for terrorist groups.

How does the Bush Doctrine play in that part of the world?

The Bush Doctrine doesn't have many backers anyplace in the world. We lost a lot of allies because of our policy of preemptive strikes and unilateralism, traditional allies in Europe and some in Asia. Didn't play well with the Middle East, obviously, either.

Unilateralism hasn't played very well. We look, at the end of the day, in some ways, rather isolated, because the coalition we formed to go into Iraq includes countries really on the periphery: Honduras, El Salvador, the Philippines, Albania, Bulgaria. This is not a mainstream coalition with a lot of credit in the eyes of the international community. We have a few countries -- Italy, Australia, Britain -- but a turning point for the United States was when Spain walked away.

For 60 years, much of the Arab world looked to the United States as an honest broker in its conflict with Israel, and in some cases as a model for the kind of change many of its people would like to witness. It provided the goals. Iraq may well be a turning point after which many in the Islamic world no longer see the United States as an honest broker, and they may no longer look at the United States as a model. And the impact of that could very well be the clash of civilizations, the failure to connect; that where they once looked to the United States as a champion of freedom, they may now fear the United States as a champion of aggression, of self-interest, that at the end of the day will not provide either principles or protections for more than a billion people.

When did you know Iraq had a bull's-eye on it?

I knew we were inevitably headed toward a confrontation with Iraq when President Bush went to the United Nations in the fall of 2002 and laid down the gauntlet. The previous month he held the critical meeting with his national security team, talking through the options. And that was the moment that Colin Powell won, one round anyway, and that was convincing the Cabinet and foreign policy team to allow one go at the United Nations to try to get formal international backing for that last pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, and if not, then to oust Saddam Hussein. And the decision was made in August, and it was clear by September 2002 that the Bush administration was intent on following through on what had been on its agenda from the day it took office. ... When the Bush administration made clear that it was not willing to succumb in any way to the pressure or the compromises that Russia, France, Germany and China -- four important members of the Security Council at the United Nations -- wanted, it was pretty clear that the war was going to happen.

The ideologue and the idealist seem to have prevailed even inside the Pentagon.

And the vice president. The two most important parties in convincing George Bush to go to war were the Pentagon and the vice president. Dick Cheney was an early backer of Ahmad Chalabi. Both he and his wife had a relationship with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, a conservative think tank that had often been a forum for Ahmad Chalabi. He was the one that helped facilitate introductions for Chalabi and his cronies around Washington and believed in a lot of the intelligence that Ahmad Chalabi was providing to the administration.

What was the nature of the intelligence?

The most important intelligence, or the most controversial intelligence, provided by Chalabi through some of his defectors, was on weapons of mass destruction. And of course Ahmad Chalabi and the INC had also provided a lot of the intelligence to other intelligence services around the world. And so it was not just the United States who believed that Saddam Hussein still had weapons of mass destruction. So did France, which was opposed to the war. So did Russia. ...

Secretary of State Powell played an important role in his February speech at the United Nations Security Council, outlining the full list, with the graphics beamed large on screens on the floor of the Security Council. And if you look in hindsight at the intelligence, it's not all that impressive. It was quite dramatic at the time, the way it was presented, but it really didn't amount to a whole lot. But those pictures of the mobile biological and chemical labs were really quite pivotal in arguing the scope of the dangers that Saddam Hussein represented.

Tell me why Colin Powell so forcefully presented the case that day at the United Nations.

Colin Powell was the most powerful voice within the administration cautioning against the dangers of going to war and the cost -- human, political, diplomatic. At the end of the day, however, Colin Powell is a team player. He had been at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and he fought wars, and he wasn't going to walk away from the administration on the eve of going to war, which was not only abandoning his commander in chief, but also the troops, many of which he still knew. Colin Powell also looks at the military, and to a certain degree the Republican Party, as the two vehicles that turned his life around, from being an average student in college, giving him opportunity, discipline, education, and allowing him to become a major player [in] the Pentagon, the State Department, and in shaping post-Cold War foreign policy and principles around the world. ...

Powell, as the secretary of state, is the voice of the administration and the liaison with the international community. He was obviously the one to go up there. Plus, of all the players in the Bush administration, he has the greatest popularity and credibility. And so having him do it provided a sense of comfort, I think, to those who might be skeptical but interested in hearing the United States' argument, maybe even prepared to consider going along.

If it had been Rumsfeld, I think you would have seen a very different kind of reaction. But Powell had gone to the CIA and had spent three days, late into the night, looking at the assortment of available intelligence. And much of it was rejected as not sufficient. And they picked a cross section of examples, including intercepts -- give people a sense of voices, human beings talking about these things -- to use. At the end of the day, when you look back at the specifics of some of the things that were said, they're very circumstantial. No one said, "Oh, we have 1,500 chemical shells stored at this facility." It was all encoded, very cryptic, and none of it altogether convincing.

When do you know, as an observer of that part of the world, that this isn't going to turn out so well in the long run?

I've covered the Middle East since 1973 and that war, and I was always nervous. I actually questioned my own values. Did I not understand what was happening? Good friends I have who share my values were hawkish and arguing it was important to launch this war. And I kept thinking, why don't I get it? Why am I so worried? Because it was clear to me, having lived in Beirut, having spent a lot of time in the Middle East, that this was going to open up Pandora's box and unleash forces that we never anticipated, arguably making it more dangerous for us, more dangerous for our allies, more dangerous for the countries on which we rely for oil.

To me it was this moment when they pulled the statue and it didn't fall. I thought this is an omen; I'm not sure we're ready.

Well, I also knew what kind of planning was going in for the postwar period. And it was the moment that it became clear that the Pentagon was taking over and jettisoning all the plans that the State Department had made for the postwar period, and we're putting in people who had limited experience in the region or an agenda, including people who were the allies, the most loyal allies of Ahmad Chalabi, into Baghdad, [I knew then] that we weren't going to be prepared. ... It was clear that the United States was initially intent on giving Ahmad Chalabi every opportunity to become the Spartacus of Iraq, to march from city to village to town all the way to Baghdad, accumulating the forces. This is what he had sold us on, that he could, given the opportunity, move in, take over, unify Iraq, ensure that it would not break up, and get the ball rolling. The turning point, of course, was the fact then instead of being cheered, he was jeered, and the Americans had to move in and actually protect him and get him out of the situation. Ahmad Chalabi, at the end of the day, has not proven to have any significant support inside Iraq.

The United States learned very quickly that many of the principles on which it had built its Iraq policy just had nothing to them. ... We also had this naive illusion that Iraqis would celebrate one night, and maybe go out on the streets after the fall of Saddam Hussein and go back to work the next day. We didn't understand the dynamics of a repressive regime, and what it would unleash.

And what did it unleash?

One, it unleashed a lot of people who felt that this was the moment, after decades of repression, this was their moment to get something, whether it was some light bulbs through looting, or some pieces of copper from wiring, or chairs and desks and televisions, in some cases cars from people who abandoned Baghdad, Saddam Hussein's party loyalists. Then it unleashed a new militia, the remnants of Saddam's regime who formed their own military, informal military force initially, that subsequently became more organized and became a major challenge to the United States. It unleashed the kind of open environment that allowed foreign fighters to move in, create yet another force to challenge the United States. It allowed the emergence of Islamic extremism, something we'd never seen in Iraq because it was the one force that threatened Saddam Hussein the most. By opening up the system, we allowed the introduction of a lot of components who would end up challenging us and making life very difficult and forcing an ongoing occupation when the United States hoped it would be able to get out very quickly.

You write in one of your stories that Abu Ghraib is a metaphor for relations between the Islamic world and the U.S. In what way?

I covered this part of the world for now more than a quarter century, and I have never been scared until I saw those pictures of Abu Ghraib. And I began to think how deep the impact was going to be among Iraqis, among Arabs, and much more importantly, the wider Islamic world, and how the kind of clash of civilizations that we all thought we could avoid might now be inevitable and might now define the next quarter century.

I believe ultimately, in the pattern of historic change, that this part of the world will go through a transformation. My fear is that it's been delayed in a way that will be much more violent, involve an enormous confrontation with the West, particularly the United States, and will delay the change for a long time.

The U.S. response to 9/11 generated extraordinary sympathy throughout the world, arguably more than the United States had had in terms of real sympathy, real support, in a long time, with Le Monde, the French newspaper, saying, "We are all Americans." With Iraq, we expended that goodwill, that sympathy, that support and that belief. We have lost important allies. They are more suspicious of us. The principles of spreading democracy have even been discredited. And this is something everyone in the West shares. Everyone wants to see the opening up, the empowerment in the Islamic world, but the idea, because of the way we went about it, has alienated people and made them suspicious, whether it's in Paris or Berlin, or Beirut and Riyadh, of what we really want and how we might do it. ... And it's not just Iraq; it's the way we have dealt with our postwar promises, and that we failed them, that has deepened this antipathy and suspicion about the United States.

What happens to the "axis of evil" now that we've failed so miserably at one prong of it?

Well, the vulnerability of the Bush Doctrine really is reflected in the so-called "axis of evil," a phrase that was added kind of late in the day in the evolution of that State of the Union speech. The fact is that the United States always had three very different policies in dealing with North Korea, Iran and, of course, Iraq. And there was never any question that the United States was going to move immediately from Iraq, across the border, into Iran; that, in fact, diplomacy was much more likely to be tried with both of them.

You think we will actually turn our sights towards Iran in the next administration?

It's interesting to listen to some of the language being used by some people within the administration now, focusing increasingly on Iran, not necessarily to pressure it militarily with any kind of ground assault, but it's interesting that there's talk of Iran's nuclear weapons and a threat it may pose to Israel and to American interests. That's beginning to bubble on the horizon in the same way Iraq did in the early days. But I don't think, because of the limitations on the Bush administration in terms of military forces, in terms of financial resources, and in terms of American public will, that there is any chance that the United States will go to war against either of the other two nations short of some extraordinary act of aggression by either one of them.

Maybe one of the beneficiaries of all of this is the United Nations.

Well, this shows the fallacies of the Bush Doctrine, the fact that the United States can't go it alone, even when it uses its powerful military. It really does need the rest of the world. At the end of the day, its political program in Iraq failed. It didn't have the credibility or backing of the majority of Iraqis, including some very powerful politicians and religious clerics. And as a result, the United States, after two failed attempts of forming a new government, had to turn to the United Nations to go back to Iraq and create a government that allowed the United States' occupation to end.

The thing that interests me, because I'm an historian by training, is this whole idea of how this happened in the search for the grand organizing principles of the post-Cold War world. The Clinton administration never came up with them. ... The Bush administration came in very ambitiously trying to set the principles, as well as the tangible priorities: What do you take on first? That was represented in the missile defense, and then after 9/11 with the idea of the war on terrorism. ... But the grand search for principles, we're not there yet. We found, in fact, only what doesn't work.

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posted oct. 26, 2004

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