A Democracy Worth Reclaiming

An interview with former ambassador to Iraq Joseph Wilson. He's down on our foreign policy but upbeat about America.

Joseph Wilson in the limelight last year.

Joseph Wilson in the limelight last year.

Former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson was a diplomat for 25 years, but it took the Bush administration to bring him into the public eye. At government request, Wilson traveled to Africa in 2001 to investigate claims that Iraq had been buying yellow-cake uranium. He reported back that the reports were false—months before the purported sale was cited, in the State of the Union address in 2003 and elsewhere, to justify a U.S. invasion of Iraq. Last July, Wilson went public with the information from his trip and the subsequent apparent distortion by the Bush camp. Coincidentally, a short time later, someone in the White House leaked to the press that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA agent. A federal grand jury is now investigating the leak. Wilson served in the U.S. Foreign Service from 1976 to 1998. Among his posts: deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 1988-91; acting ambassador to Iraq during Operation Desert Shield; ambassador to Gabon; and director for African affairs at the National Security Council in 1997-98. As an experienced hand in the heart of the U.S. diplomatic community, Wilson was ideally suited for the uranium mission. His outspokenness in its wake, against all his training, underscores the radical nature of the Bush administration. Diplomats don’t usually sound off like this.

We interviewed Wilson recently in anticipation of his appearance at McCaw Hall on Friday, Feb. 6, as part of the “American Voices” series sponsored by Foolproof Performing Arts and co-sponsored by Seattle Weekly.

Seattle Weekly: Let’s start with today’s news. How much have you had a chance to look at the Hutton verdict? It seemed like the Bush administration used Blair’s dossiers rather than releasing its own evidence at a number of points, and I’m wondering, as a result of that, whether some people here are going to view today’s verdict as a vindication for Bush as well. Or whether it’s too totally far afield.

I think it’s too far afield. The fact that we used the British claim on uranium doesn’t obviate that the uranium claim was false. It did not rise to the level of inclusion in the State of the Union address. We spend $30 billion a year, at least, on our intelligence apparatus. A good part of that money is spent on the analytical side, just to make sure that these rumors do not end up in the decision-making process. The agency did everything it could, as did the Defense Department and as did our State Department, to try to ensure that the allegation that Saddam was trying to purchase uranium from Niger was thoroughly studied. There were three reports done, of which mine was one, all of which concluded that this was not possible, that it did not happen. Yet those weren’t factored into the decision to include those 16 words into the State of the Union address.

Now the British claim that they have another piece of information, but that information has never seen the light of day. They say that it hasn’t seen the light of day because they were not permitted to share it with the United States, which means our $30 billion intelligence apparatus did not have an opportunity to vet that information to determine whether it was accurate or not.

Has it been particularly unusual in this administration that there seems to be a remarkable disconnect between what gets produced out of the State Department and the diplomatic community and the intelligence community, and what the political decision makers at the top are claiming? We still have Vice President Cheney saying there are weapons of mass destruction, even after David Kay has been converted by his experiences in Iraq.

Well, it’s not only weapons of mass destruction. It’s also on terrorism, after everybody else has said there’s nothing on this, and the question is, what is the vice president basing his assertions on? It’s all been discredited. It is clear that they’ve set up within this administration an unprecedented shadow government with offices in a number of different departments, notably this Office of Special Plans in Defense, the operation in John Bolton’s office—he is the undersecretary for disarmament/arms control—as well as this parallel National Security Council in the vice president’s office. The people who play in this all circumvent established communications networks and talk directly with each other, and as Sy Hersch reported in The New Yorker, stovepipe information directly up to the policy makers before analysts have had a chance to vet them.

To what extent, in the case of Iraq especially, were weapons of mass destruction a genuine security concern, and to what extent was this a solution in search of a problem?

To the extent that it was important for the international community to persuade itself that Saddam had been effectively disarmed and to impose a monitoring program to ensure that he didn’t rearm, that was a legitimate international objective. Now, the real question is whether you had to invade, conquer, and occupy Baghdad in order to achieve that objective, and I think it’s clear that we didn’t. It’s clear that, in fact, the inspections that had taken place in the 1990s were very effective at taking down his regime—a combination of our no-fly zones and sanctions, which, even if they had been modified, could have put limits on what he could bring in militarily—were far more effective than this administration wanted to give credence to. The traditional reason to go to war is to defend your country against an imminent threat. Even using the president’s watered-down version of what we were going to use our military forces for, against a grave and gathering danger, it’s hard to see where and how Saddam Hussein posed a grave and gathering danger to our national security.

Between Iraq, Libya, and North Korea, and the movement away from the use of some of the multilateral institutions, are we better or worse off than we were three years ago in terms of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction?

If we allow the atrophy of international institutions rather than strengthening them, then we will revert to a world which I think is far more dangerous, a world in which neighbors will act much more like Pakistan and India in that they will create their own capability, their own defense capability, their own ability to defend themselves against perceived threats to their own national security, [instead of] a world in which you have things like nonproliferation treaties and chemical and biological weapons treaties. It’s as simple as that. The rule of the jungle will come to be the law of the land.

I also want to draw in your experience in Iraq a little bit. We have Bush in the State of the Union address pledging to “finish the historic work of democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Has that work even started? And if so, why does it seem to be going so poorly?

It’s great rhetoric, but the fact of the matter is that democracy is long-term, and a difficult, difficult task, made even more difficult when it’s imposed at the point of a bayonet like this. We don’t know very much about Iraq. Certainly our military knows even less than our diplomats, of which there are not too many there. The best line I’ve ever heard about democracy is that it’s a bit like an English lawn. You have to seed it, you have to fertilize it, you have to water it, and to make it look really good you have to rule it every day for 600 years. Now I’ve done democracy in Africa for 25 years, and it is tough. It takes a lot of institution building, it takes a lot of precedent setting, it takes a certain respect on the part of the population for the institutions and the laws that have been passed, it requires the spirit of compromise—none of which is in place in Iraq. I think the chances are very good, particularly in the way this administration is headed, that what we’ll see is we are going to cut and run about as quickly as we can. I believe that will lead to either a violent breakup of the country or the imposition of an autocratic rule from one concession, one group, the Shi’as in particular, over the rest of the country.

A couple of observations. First, within Iraq, it seems like the civil society institutions that were there, that weren’t Ba’athist to begin with, the U.S. is trying to avoid anyway, because primarily they’re Shi’ite, and primarily they’re religious in nature. They’re trying not to work through those frameworks. Beyond that, we had the release of CIA warnings recently, but it seemed an awful lot like what was being said 13, 14 years ago, before the first Gulf War.

(Joseph Wilson snorts softly.)

I’m wondering how difficult that would have been to foresee, that you would have this imminent risk of civil war set in motion by what we started.

Not only do I believe that it would have been easy to foresee, had they asked anybody who had any experience in the region, but also the question I ask myself is whether or not it’s not an acceptable outcome for this administration that Iraq, in fact, blow apart into three countries.

What motivation would be strong enough that Iraq blowing apart would be an acceptable cost?

Well, there’s a strong sense in the government and, in fact, around the world that the Arab world is not working as it is currently constituted, and that, as Tom Friedman [of The New York Times] likes to write, you need to shake it up a bit. The term people like to use is “to redraw the political map of the Middle East,” which I think essentially means re-creating the Arab world in this pre-Ottoman state: much smaller demographic units, much less strong, much less of a bloc, thereby allowing others to take advantage of inherent tensions and divisions between and among Arabs, and essentially weakening the Arab world.

How much of the motivation for this invasion and for that kind of scenario are economic in nature—not necessarily just oil and resources, but more broadly?

Well, I don’t think it was oil.

I don’t either. That’s why I’m asking.

What I do think on the oil thing, though, is that my experience is that once you have vested commercial interests in place, that they will trump strategic interests every time. So that while I think that they did go on what these guys thought were strategic reasons, that the vested interests will begin to shape how we deal with this going forward. Now, in terms of broader commercial interests, it’s hard for me to see how the expenditure of now what must be $150 billion dollars . . .

And probably much more, yeah.

. . . and probably a lot more, and the breaking of our army, which will need to be rebuilt, and the damage to our international credibility. It strikes me as difficult to understand how that benefits us in the short or long term. The Afghan pipeline is not something that I think anybody thought was worthy of a war. There are alternatives—they may be longer and they may go in different directions, but I think that really this has much more to do with a broader, more strategic view of our role in the region. The way that it impacts oil, I think, is the extent to which we are better positioned, in the minds of the people who brought us this war, to defend the oilfields if necessary.

Given that we’ve heard reports from Paul O’Neill and others that a lot of this was just sort of dropped into place as a pre-existing obsession when 9/11 happened, to what extent would this have happened in any previous administration?

I don’t think any other administration would have taken as their playbook in the aftermath of 9/11 the Project for a New American Century. I think what you would have seen was unanimity up to and including the passage of 1441, the UN resolution, and then I think a different administration would have taken a much different tack. A different administration would have been able to accept yes for an answer from the Iraqis and from the United Nations when the inspectors were back in there and were doing their work. The realists in the world would have seen it in our mutual interests to expand as necessary and enforce 1441, to ensure that you had, in fact, disarmed Saddam and put into place a subsequent monitoring operation so he wouldn’t rearm.

If there were a new Democratic regime in the White House after November, where would we go from here to shift away from the New American Century playbook?

Clearly, the candidate that I support has said that within the first 100 days he would convene a summit of the world’s leaders to get focused back on the war on terrorism. I happen to believe that now that we’re in there we have an obligation to try to stabilize the situation and provide for an orderly transition, but I do think that we need to do it in such a way that does have the international imprimatur and does spread both the burden and the responsibility—not because it will cost us less, but because if you ever hope for the Iraqis to buy into your vision of the future, it has to be seen not as a foreign occupation, but as a global effort to come to their assistance in a time of need in the aftermath of 30 years of Ba’athist tyranny, and three wars, including Shock and Awe.

Beyond that, the United Nations and some of these other institutions have far more experience and expertise for that sort of nation building than we do.

I think that’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. That’s what we have it for. It serves our interests to have the United Nations. The idea of guys like Richard Perle, that somehow you replace the United Nations with Central Command, is just ludicrous on the face of it.


As we’ve already seen, just in Iraq, we don’t have the military resources to impose our will on other countries indefinitely.

With all the emphasis on Iraq and the anti-Americanism it has inflamed around the world, what has happened to the War on Terror in terms of the actual threat of a further attack on U.S. soil, and is that the most important thing we should be worrying about? What cart’s driving which horses?

I think the good news is that in large parts of the world, where there are responsible governments, there is an understanding and a common definition now of what constitutes terrorism, and as a consequence, there is something there to work with. On the other hand, the fact that we have now alienated a population of close to a billion people, all the Muslim population from Mauritania to the Philippines and most places in between, I think means that there is a much greater threat going forward. Not from Al Qaeda per se, but from Al Qaeda-like groups that may emerge in the future, standing on the shoulders of these [groups] who have gone into decline or been destroyed by the armed forces.

The trick is changing the hearts and minds of people. By what we’ve done in Iraq, we have succeeded in doing that but not in the way that we intended. We have taken the arguably very complicated, very complex set of emotions that the Arab world and Muslims have had about the United States, which have included a certain amount of envy, a grudging respect for what we are as well as dislike of our policies toward Israel and Palestinians.

You see that in other parts of the world also, in terms of respect for our internal institutions.

That’s right, and the rest of the world, I think what you see is people that understand, nations that understand that they cannot defeat us militarily, and as a consequence, they will adopt other self-defense mechanisms against what they fear about our unleashing the dogs of war willy-nilly. Those self-defense mechanisms will be largely economic in nature, they will be things like they will make it more difficult for our businessmen to get contracts in their countries, and things like that. And we’re seeing some of that already.

To what extent has this administration ceded a responsibility in terms of the development of Israel and Palestine over the past two or three years?

I think that the key to beginning to solve the problems in the Middle East is the Arab-Israeli peace process. The fact that this government has been AWOL from that process since it came to office has been a disgrace. We were 98 percent of the way to a solution. Yasir Arafat undermined it, very clearly. His having started the intifada was a tragedy of epic proportions for the Palestinian people, for the Israeli people, and for the Middle East. But we do not walk away from a difficult problem just because it’s difficult, and that is what this administration did. It went AWOL.

One of the rules of diplomacy is to occupy space and time between and among antagonists while the facts on the ground change to become more amenable to a solution. You do not walk away from it unless you are prepared to see a situation go from bad to worse, and the situation in the Middle East has gone from less than a dozen Palestinians and half a dozen Israelis killed in 1990, 1991, to a situation now where you’ve had 600-plus Israelis killed and well over 2,500 Palestinians killed. There’s no excuse for that.

The solution, if there is a solution, in the short term, is to put a much heavier emphasis and a much heavier political will behind a mediation process that will involve having a presidentially appointed Middle East mediator, upstanding, someone who can get the president on the phone whenever he wants, somebody who can speak to Sharon and Arafat and everybody else, and they will understand that that word is coming directly from the president of the United States. And that person would have to be there all the time. Condi Rice can’t do that.

Last question. With all of these grim issues, what gives you hope within all this?

One of the things that has given me hope is having had the opportunity to go around my own country. I’ve been to Iowa several times, New Hampshire, Maine, New York, Massachusetts, California several times, I was supposed to be in Arizona today. I find that there is still no finer people than the American people, and there is no better system than the one that we have. And it is well worth fighting for and it is a democracy that’s well worth taking back from those who have usurped it and taken it into their own hands.


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