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interviews: edward walker
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Walker is the president of the Middle East Institute. He has served as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs in the Clinton administration, as well as ambassador to Israel and Egypt. He helped the State Department organize the Future of Iraq Project, a series of meetings between the U.S. government and Iraqi opposition leaders that planned for the postwar period. In the years before the war, he also facilitated contact between Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress and the U.S. government. In this interview with FRONTLINE, conducted on July 11, 2003, Walker explains the relationships between the Bush administration and the various Iraqi opposition groups and details the interagency disagreements over reconstruction planning.

What was the initial involvement of your institute in the Future of Iraq Project?

We were advising people in the State Department on setting up the project. There was a small grant that was given to us to help in that process, the initial setting up of the idea and the context for it. ...

The State Department decided they wanted to do it, with a little pressure from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee?

There was some pressure from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. There was some pressure from the Pentagon on this. There were several concerns expressed about the position that the INC would have in any such conference. There were many people around in the Senate and over in the Pentagon who wanted to see them take a leading role ... and [they] didn't want to see people like myself involved.

If there had been a greater degree of confidence between the Pentagon and the State Department, they could have worked in tandem a lot better than they did, instead of going off in different directions.

Part of the reason was that we had been, while I was still assistant secretary, actively trying to encourage the former officers and others who had Sunni credentials, to engage and to become part of the opposition. We were having some success at that. ...

We wanted to get these guys engaged as people with solid contacts still back in Iraq, where we might be able to actually get a coup established. ... This, remember, was early in the administration, before any kind of military option had been considered. We were still looking at the possibilities of overthrowing the regime from within. To do that, it seemed to us at the time it would have been far more sensible to get the people that had the context that could do that inside. That's inside the military there, inside the Republican Guards there.

Let's back up. What was this plan?

At first, there was no structured plan. I would be reluctant to say that this was a coherent program. This was just the beginning of trying to help in a process of identifying people that would have real power and real contacts and real persuasive capabilities inside Iraq.

The CIA was doing other things separately which I'm not going to get into. But this would have been consistent with the general direction that the previous administration was taking. ... It has always been difficult to do this, and we didn't really get much traction on it.

You weren't able to make headway -- because?

We weren't able to make headway because first, Sept. 11 occurred, which deflected the entire concept of what to do about Iraq, and made the president convinced we had to act more aggressively and more quickly than he had been convinced before.

Second of all, because it's terribly difficult to get to a guy like Saddam Hussein, who had such a great security barrier around him. You're talking about trying to overpower him in a short period of time with defected military units, presumably with support from the outside. At that time, we didn't have a clear picture whether we would be able to give -- or were willing to give -- that kind of support. So it was hard to put it all together.

I'm unclear on the timing of this. You're involved in--

The timing starts with the Clinton administration, at the end of the Clinton administration. We were working with the INC first of all, and I was assistant secretary. We made a proposal to the NSC that we give the INC the opportunity to put people inside Iraq -- in order to prove themselves, to show that they had support within the country, and to develop support and linkages within the country.

They had been outside for a long time, and they needed to have that kind of linkage if they were going to ever be of any real help to us. That plan got shot down, largely because, I think people were afraid it would be a one-way street for military intervention -- our military intervention. The military, our military, wasn't prepared for that at that time.

In the Clinton administration-- ...

That's correct. The Clinton administration wasn't prepared for that. So that plan was shelved. I think the INC was disappointed, because they had been clamoring to get some kind of active role in the process of liberation of Iraq.

They felt abandoned or betrayed by the State Department?

They certainly did not have warm fuzzy feelings about the State Department. But they were being encouraged by others -- even in that time -- in the administration, and certainly in Congress, to think that they could take a larger role than many felt they were ready for.

The INC has had some problems. The largest problem is that it is an overt organization receiving funds from the government which were publicly identifiable. They had to meet certain accounting practices and so on. It's not very easy when you have that kind of an open operation to do the kinds of things that we were really talking about.

Which were covert operations?

Which were covert operations. So it was not -- it was not really -- probably was never a good idea in the first place.

Who told Chalabi that you were not going to be able to go through with the plan?

I can't remember if I had to tell him or -- probably I did.

But you had conversations with him about it.

Oh, yes, sure.

Well, tell me about those.

He was interested. He thought that they could with the minimal amount of equipment -- they pitched this plan -- that they could put people into Iraq in various places. They would be in sort of an overt operation. It wouldn't be involved in anything like sabotage or anything like that. It would be simply to identify friendly faces, to establish some links inside Iraq, and then come out. They felt they had people who were--

To lay the groundwork for an uprising?

To lay the groundwork for an uprising.

To find out who you could count on as an agent inside?

Exactly. They had people that go back and forth across the border, so they felt they could do it relatively safely. They wanted some basic equipment like laptop computers and a few things like that. Clearly, if they had been able to do this, they might have provided valuable intelligence as well. But that wasn't the primary purpose.

But what did you tell Ahmad [Chalabi]?

We had to tell him there was no approval of this proposition, that we had pitched it and we weren't able to get approval.

Is this the beginning of a split inside Washington over supporting Chalabi or not supporting Chalabi?

Actually, there was a lot of skepticism about Chalabi before. That's one of the reasons that I wanted to see this happen, because either he would be able to do something as he claimed or he wouldn't. But it would be very clear at that point. I suspect he might have been able to do something. But he never got the chance.

You know, he had before been pressing for combat training for his people. That had been denied by the Clinton administration consistently. So this was a way to move beyond that. We also tried to provide him with security training, so that he would be able to increase his own -- not only personal security, but the security of his organization -- because it's wide open, and it was very much subject to penetration by Iraqi intelligence.

... This is a quite remarkable guy, Chalabi, who spent years cultivating friends in Washington and lobbying.

Yes, absolutely.... Extremely good politician. He's very personable. He is also very determined. He knows what he wants to get, and he goes after it. He managed to convince people he had a concept of how this would happen and where he could take the lead -- overthrowing Saddam Hussein with the least risk to American forces.

He had a concept. I'll call it a sort of a rolling incursion into Iraq. You establish a foothold and then you build support from various troops around and you build that up and you keep going. I never saw any detailed plans for this, but it didn't seem to be reasonable in the context of Iraq, the way Saddam Hussein was set up. But certainly nobody could say it was impossible without having some kind of a test of the situation. ...

So he spent a lot of time in Washington proposing this plan to various people?

Absolutely right. Yes. I think some people were impressed with it, because among other things, it left the United States in a back-up role as opposed to the lead role. It had an Iraqi flag running in front of it. I think people at the Pentagon were afraid that it would very quickly deteriorate into a situation in which we were the lead -- which we ultimately did anyway.

What year was the effort you're talking about? He had an effort go bad in about 1995, 1996.

That's correct, 1995, 1996. That didn't go bad because of him. I mean, that was the genesis of one of the problems that we had on Iraq. Why people didn't want to get into that situation again is that he had engaged in an effort, it was running reasonably well. ... An uprising -- and they were having some success. It was led out of a Kurdish area. But they just ran out of steam ultimately. They didn't have the strike force that could really go to Baghdad. They needed support from the United States, and we refused to give it to them.

But we'd encouraged them in the first place.


Then we didn't carry through.

But different groups of people, of course. I mean, you had the agents in the field who were told to set this up and to try and make it work, and so -- but then, in the final analysis, they had the rug pulled out from under them. ...

I think that Ahmad has been underrated. Here's a man who went through this very difficult situation, combat in 1996, exhibited considerable courage and organizational capability, and has been fighting for a free Iraq for many, many years now. I never have doubted his personal loyalty to the cause or his desire for a free Iraq. I think that's exemplary. I also have great respect for his political acumen and his capability. I think he could have been a bit better at bringing others into what he was trying to do from other types or elements of the Iraqi opposition group. I do think that we probably could have used him better than we did.

His record in banking. His conviction by the military tribunal in Jordan. Should that be a concern? That we're backing a guy with a--

Well, I have no idea about the validity of the charges. He denies them. But you know we're talking history there. We're talking today, now. There have been people with rather checkered histories who have turned out to be quite effective leaders. So, no, I don't think that's what the criteria should be.

I think the criteria is, can he be broad enough and reach out enough and embrace others in Iraq so that it doesn't look like an expatriate or an exile group running the country; that it looks like an Iraqi group with Iraqi nationalists and with national interests at stake here; that he doesn't look like a clone of the United States? Because that wouldn't be good for him, or for us, either.

So in 1999, you're toying with another effort?


You decide to back out of this. But at this point there's not bad blood between -- I mean, who's--?

We always have had some disputes with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff who wanted to have a very active program of supporting the military capabilities of the INC, and had allocated money for that purpose -- a lot of it to the Pentagon. [All t]hey were given was excess equipment, old typewriters and stuff. That didn't please the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff. They felt that that wasn't the purpose or the intent. They wanted to see actual training going on.

This was always one of these situations that gets sort of bifurcated -- a program where too many cooks are spoiling this particular broth. You couldn't get a common position from the State Department or the Pentagon and so on, on just what we're going to do with the INC. But in general, the skepticism won out about the organization. Now keep in mind, the State Department started the damn organization.

So Bush comes to office, Bush II. The relationship between Chalabi and the Pentagon changes?

Correct, yes, immediately. ... Chalabi had cultivated contacts with a number of the people in the Pentagon. They were of a similar orientation. But the primary thing that happened -- I think the critical thing that changed between the two administrations really had nothing to do with Ahmad -- and had to do with the approach of the new administration. One, that Saddam Hussein was dangerous, that it was a danger, that it was more imminent than the previous administration had decided. But the principal decision was that they were not afraid or not opposed to using U.S. ground forces or U.S. air cover for an operation in Iraq.

Once you come in with that context, that mentality, it changes the equation completely. If Ahmad or anybody else is out there in front running a coup attempt or a revolution, if you will, it is far more likely that the United States will back it up.

Even before 9/11?

Even before 9/11 ... there was a lot of talk. The fundamental idea was there. But what had not happened before Sept. 11 was there was no credibility for the administration, so you couldn't generate the kind of support inside Iraq that you needed. This was always a problem. Nobody [in Iraq] was going to stand up against Saddam Hussein if they didn't think they had a safety net. The United States is the only one that could provide a safety net. The United States was thought not to be willing to do so, because of 1996, and because of 1991, too. I mean, we had a reputation.

Twice betrayed.

Twice betrayed. We had a reputation. So it was virtually impossible to convince anybody that we would be seriously there. I think the new administration felt that it would be there seriously, but it couldn't convince anybody on the ground. September 11 actually changed everybody's opinion, because I think then people, maybe Saddam Hussein didn't take him seriously. But most other people took the president seriously when he was talking about this.

The INC becomes more active.

The INC becomes active. It has a much more friendly response at first. But then, as you start moving towards a decision for active military engagement, the INC fades out of the picture to some extent. Once our military gets engaged, it's not really very conducive to having non-professionals around.

In other words, they want to do it themselves.

They want to do it themselves, sure.

Although there was some effort--

There was an effort. They brought Ahmad in, but it was after the main fighting was going on.

Do you know much about that event?

No, I don't.

That's a controversial little event.

Yes, I know.

It's not clear whether or not he was welcome or--

I think that our military always needs to have a fair amount of independence when it's doing its thing, as it was at that time. Having somebody else to protect and to keep an eye out for is always a problem. So maybe there were some who didn't really want to see this. Also there was no conviction that the INC really combined enough of a mass in Iraq to be able to play a key role in the reconstruction of Iraq.

They are certainly a part of that process now. In this new organization that Paul Bremer's setting up, they will be a part. But they will only be a part, and you'll have security in there. The Shiite organizations in there, and Sunni organizations and so on -- which has been where we were trying to go three years ago.

With the Future of Iraq Project.

Yes, the Future of Iraq Project, and even before that.

With the consulting work, and the work you were doing?

And the work we were doing, yes. It was trying to bring more elements into this mix so that it would be more credible.

So how does it evolve to a state where you have this almost debilitating struggle between the State and Defense Departments over the future of Iraq -- not the Future of Iraq Project, per se, but just the planning for postwar reconstruction - that, in some ways, leads to this disorder we have on the ground today?

Right. I think that one of the problems of course is that when you get into a military conflict, everybody's attention has to focus on one thing, and that's winning the conflict itself. So by that time, if [the planning] hasn't been done, it's not going to get done for a little while. ... The planning and having a concrete proposal for getting in--

Now a lot of people felt that, I believe, that you really couldn't tell what was going to be needed, because you didn't know how the fighting was going to go. To a certain extent, that's true. But I think that that was only a part of the reasoning.

I think that there's been a suspicion sort of between the two departments -- State and Defense, or at least elements of State and Defense. I'm not sure that it exists at all between Powell and Rumsfeld, by the way. I think it has its origins at lower levels, primarily. I can tell you that, from my own experience when I was in the NSC meetings and so on, this was not a hostile engagement between individuals. Now, granted, a lot of water's gone under the dam since. But they were all working in tandem towards the same objectives, and most of our work at that time was on Iraq.

We were doing many different papers and studies. Joint Chiefs were engaged. We were doing position papers. That was done really with a great deal of solidarity. So I don't know, and I'm not prepared to say that there is this so-called rivalry at the top. But it definitely exists at the next level down, or the next levels down.

We've now circled back around to the Future of Iraq Project. So his contract comes to you to begin, or to continue the work you've already been doing.

But it's setting up, trying to get -- what we were trying to do originally was just to pull together a group of people, Iraqi people, including the INC and the Shiite organizations, the Kurdish organizations, into a comprehensive host. So they could start to consider where Iraq's going to go.

But this is part of the Iraq Liberation Act, this money that's coming?

That's correct. ...

So it got pulled away from you. But it still goes forward, and much like you had planned it.

It goes forward because State takes it over. Yes, basically right. It goes forward. There are committees set up to consider each aspect of the future life of Iraq and how you could deal with it in the immediate days thereafter; then how you would try to organize a program so that it could be increasingly turned over to Iraqi control.

Was this good postwar planning?

I don't know. You never can tell, because it never got put into effect. But it was certainly intensive. It involved an awful lot of very bright people, many of whom have the credentials in economics and banking and agriculture and so on, that you would at least have to take some count for what they had to say. As far as I know, it never got into the actual operational stage.

But you expected it to? It was not just an idle exercise?

Not at all.

This was a real effort to plan?

Right. To be there on the ground the day after and ready to go with some people designated already who could come in as Iraqis -- who had the experience, who knew the situation -- and work with some Iraqis that were already there, and ensure the continuation of a governing structure.

So this is a real project to plan postwar Iraq. What happens to it?

Well, as far as I know, there may have been some elements that were pulled into the Garner planning, and so on, that took place, or the proposal. But for the most part, I think it sits on somebody's desk somewhere -- or is gathering dust somewhere.

Should we care about that? Is that an outrage in your view?

No. ... I'm not at all sure it was the right project. I don't even know whether the advice was good advice. But why I think it was an outrage is that the United States government didn't have something ready to go the day after. It didn't have a clear-cut concept of how it was going to proceed and that we could put in play immediately.

It was the vacuum that has created the biggest part of the problem, the fact that there was no plan for security. I mean, one would have thought that when you're planning such an operation and you're counting on having the oil revenues coming in to help pay for the operation -- or not the operation, but the reconstruction itself -- that one of your first objectives would have been to secure the oil fields and the pipelines, et cetera, et cetera.

Although the British did that originally, it seemed to have disappeared. It evaporated, that security. So the looters came in and took over. ... A major sabotage on the pipeline.

You would have thought having had as the objective -- the elimination of his capability to create nuclear weapons -- that nuclear sites would have been an immediate target of securing and making sure that there was no looting or stealing of nuclear materials which could be used by terrorists. That didn't happen either.

To be fair to these guys, in the fog of war ... it's understandable, to a certain extent. But I think there was some real gaps in the program. If there had been a greater degree of confidence between the Pentagon and the State Department, they could have worked in tandem a lot better than they did, instead of going off in different directions--

Some people would say that's an understatement, given the amount of arguing that was going back and forth. And this isn't me making much of it. I mean, when I talked to Richard Perle, he said, yes, it was a debilitating process.

Yes, it was. It still is, to that extent. Except that right now you have a unifying figure in L. Paul Bremer, who has been given the authority to direct the operations, which is what they should have had from the very first day. It just didn't exist. ...

What's at stake in Iraq?

Oh, I think an enormous cost will be at stake if we don't see this through. There are several things to this. First of all, if we walk because we're losing some soldiers to terrorists, we're going to validate terrorism for years to come. The one thing that we have done wrong in this country is when we have reacted to terrorist events by taking a hike. We did it in Lebanon, we did it in Somalia. One could argue that we did it in Iran.

It only encourages people to believe that all you have to do is kill a few Americans and you can get away with anything. That is the worst lesson we can be teaching anybody. ... We need to stick to this. We also need to stick to it for our credibility. We have promised a lot. We have promised democracy. We have promised Iraq to become an Iraqi state, an element of the Arab world, a leader of the Arab world; not an American clone.

Those are important things that people are taking seriously. We have to deliver on them. So I think an enormous amount is at stake in terms of our credibility in the rest of the world and credibility in the area itself, and in terms of our own self-defense of the American people.

Did Americans understand what they were getting into, do you believe?

No. No. I think that there was a belief that there was an imminent attack on the United States, a potential attack on the United States with nuclear weapons and other things. What do people see when they say weapons of mass destruction? They see nuclear weapons. They don't see chemical weapons or biological weapons.

Well, it's even questionable whether those are mass destruction weapons.

I think certainly chemical weapons are not a mass -- they're a battlefield weapon. They're not very practical anywhere else, or as a terrorist product.

But what you're saying is there's a tremendous amount at stake.

Now there is, yes.

But we didn't sign up for this, as a country?

I would argue that the American people are pleased that Saddam Hussein is gone. While they may have not totally been aware of all the reasoning, or maybe the reasoning wasn't even the right reasoning, that the ultimate outcome will be the defining element as to whether this makes sense or not.

But it's going to take sacrifice if we're losing one soldier a day and maybe two.

It's going to take sacrifice. That's right. It's going to take sacrifice, once you accept that you have an obligation or a need to extend the protection of Americans beyond American waters, which is what we're talking about. Terrorism is an international phenomenon. It's not a rogue state phenomenon; it's all over the place. If we're going to protect Americans, we have to do it in an extended way.

Iraq is one of the elements of it. Maybe not, certainly not the only element of it. We have problems in a lot of other places -- everywhere that terrorists can hide with some impunity, even when the host state or the nominal sovereign state doesn't have sovereignty. Certainly places in Pakistan. Certainly in areas of Yemen. In places in Africa. You can even go up into the northern parts of Canada and sometimes find remote places where you could have training camps or something. We've had them here in our own country.

These guys who did 9/11 were trained in this country. So we shouldn't think that it's a simple matter to deal with this problem. But it's going to take fortitude, and it's going to take some sacrifice in terms of coin and in terms of lives if we're going to win this battle. Iraq is a part of that. If we walk away now, we're going to give every terrorist in the world the encouragement that Americans will walk under pressure.

It seems, in fact, that if we walk away from Iraq, we've done more to create a failed state and therefore the conditions for terrorism than to prevent it.

Absolutely correct. And we have encouraged the others -- fundamentalists or terrorists -- to engage more actively against us.

So the question is whether or not Americans knew what they were getting into, and therefore are willing to continue to make the sacrifice.

Well, it depends. Most Americans don't think a whole lot about foreign policy or foreign affairs. I mean, let's be fair.

But when American soldiers are dying, they do.

They do. But that's sort of after the fact. We got into Vietnam without Americans really being aware of what was going on. We did the Gulf of Tonkin thing. We have gotten into a lot of places when American soldiers died. I would venture to say that practically nobody had ever heard of Somalia until we had a soldier dragged through the streets.

So part of the problem is that Americans don't pay much attention. I guess it's normal. They're more concerned about their own neighborhoods, communities, their school systems, and so they should be. But it puts a high degree of emphasis and importance of the oversight elements of our society. The oversight elements being our Congress, which I don't think exercised this oversight thing properly in this case. The media, for a large part, until fairly late in the game, weren't asking all the questions they should have been asking. Those are two key elements of the oversight mechanisms.

I don't believe that our system is based on confidence that the president of the day is always going to tell the truth. We have survived a number of presidents who have not. It's because of these checks and balances that we have.

Did the president not tell the truth?

He told the truth as he understood it. I don't have any doubt about that. I don't suspect our president of being disingenuous. But I do think that maybe some of the information he was given was not -- some obviously was not correct.

The intelligence was handled sloppily?

It was handled sloppily.

Not maliciously -- or dishonestly?

Look, the people that I know -- I know the people. I like George Tenet. He's not a malicious man, he's not a sloppy man. These guys do what they can with the information available at the time. They have to make assumptions, because the information is never -- very seldom is it -- conclusive. So you get contradictory statements. Now in the case of some of them -- one in particular--


Niger -- you had intelligence analysts saying this is nonsense, over at State, and others were saying, "Now wait a minute. This has got something to it."

Months before it shows up.

Months before it shows up, yes. So then, in the process, we sometimes think of our procedures as being better than they actually are. The president doesn't get everything all the time. It's an overload....

It's not all vetted.

It's not all vetted. The overload is incredible.

It's also subject to political spin.

Of course, it's subject to political spin.

God save us.

Well, we stumble through. ... And we don't do badly on the whole, if you come right down to it.

But we are at a very crucial point right now in Iraq.

Yes, I think so. We are.

If we can't get things to settle down, the political will is going to weaken here.

Yes, and particularly as we move into an election period. I think our biggest vulnerabilities are that our system doesn't have the capability -- or doesn't have the right kinds of forces and organization -- to handle a situation like Iraq.

You talk to the guys on the ground there. I've seen the quotes, "We're not trained for this." Every single general officer I've ever talked to says, "No, they're not trained for this." They say they're not equipped for it. They aren't. They aren't equipped as a police force. They aren't equipped to do civic action.

What we really need to do is start thinking much more seriously, if we're going to be engaged in this kind of thing -- as we obviously are and have been -- let us start thinking about training a different force, not a combat force. Training a different force for peacekeeping jobs, for the kind of operation we're in, in Iraq. For helping other countries standardize or deal with their problems, like when they don't have control over their whole country. A capability that we drastically need in this new environment, but we don't have.

But this was a president who campaigned promising not to get involved in nation building.

That's correct. That was before 9/11, and before, I think, full recognition of the insidious nature of terrorism and the fact that it is all around. That it's going to take a concerted effort on the part of us to help states avoid the kind of instability, the failure that leads to terrorism and the growth of terrorism, and gives them the opportunity to reform, to recover and to mount new operations.

Can there be a democracy in Iraq?

Sure, there can.

Are you optimistic?

Yes, if we've got the fortitude to stick with the problem. It's not going to happen overnight. It's not going to happen within the first months or days or weeks or maybe even years.

Democracy is something that has to grow from within. I mean, you can't impose it. People have to, first of all, understand what it is. Secondly, they've got to accept that they aren't going to always be in power. They've got to be--

It's not just an election?

It's not just an election, and probably that's the last step. We always put too much emphasis on elections. You have to have a free press so that you get the checks and balances that we have here. You have to have political parties that are free and can compete with one another, and understand that if they are kicked out one day, they have a chance to come back the next. If you don't have that attitude--

So they don't come back with guns?

So they don't come back with guns. Then you have to have a civil society. You have to have community groups. They have to be free to organize. Unions. I mean the whole panoply--

Rule of law?

Rule of law. That's hard to put together, but it's not impossible to put together. ...

Why are some people afraid of the word "democracy?" Because of the simplistic interpretation people have given to it, and the fact that all you have to have is an election. In a lot of these countries, you have an election, it'll be one election. That'll be it, because the wrong guys will win, and they will not have another election. ...

That's why I say this is something that has to be built from the ground up. It takes time, and it's got to have certain protections in the system so that it can't be perverted by people.


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posted october 9, 2003

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