The World According to Bob Inman

How should we change the U.N.? Why didn't we plan for the peace in Iraq? Where could the terrorists strike next? The intelligence and national security guru has the answers you're looking for— and a few choice words about that leak.

IT WAS GOING TO BE A DRIVE-BY war—or so the armchair generals predicted. But a year after the invasion of Iraq, the United States is still mired in a conflict without end, battered by mounting fatalities (more than 460 since the statue of Saddam Hussein in downtown Baghdad was toppled on April 9 in must-see- TV fashion) and baffled by the whereabouts of those weapons of mass destruction. And even if we turn the reins over to the Iraq Governing Council by our July 1 deadline, the trouble may be only beginning: Just as winning the peace has been harder than winning the war, disengaging from what comes next may be more difficult and destabilizing than we assume. And that’s without the distraction of the other global challenges now festering, including Osama bin Laden’s disappearing act, the tinderbox that is North Korea, and the uncertain role and future of the United Nations. All of which raises the question of whether our approach to foreign affairs is working effectively—or working, period.

Bob Inman knows the answer, and it would be surprising if he didn’t: The 72-year-old, a native of the East Texas town of Rhonesboro, has spent half a century immersed in matters of national security and military intelligence. A graduate of the University of Texas and the Naval War College, he spent 31 years in the Navy, retiring with the permanent rank of admiral in 1982. While on active duty, he served as Jimmy Carter’s director of the National Security Agency and Ronald Reagan’s deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and in 1985 he chaired a commission that presciently studied the growing terrorism threat overseas. In 1993, over the objection of his family, he agreed to be Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Defense but quickly reconsidered, hightailing it to Austin before his confirmation hearing; otherwise, for the past two decades, he has steered clear of public life, preferring to sit on corporate boards (including SBC Communications), invest in start-up technology companies, and nurture the next generation of strategic thinkers (in August 2001 he was named the Lyndon B. Johnson Centennial Chair in National Policy at UT-Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs).

But the man described by Omni magazine as “simply one of the smartest people ever to come out of Washington or anywhere” continues to have strong opinions about the issues that have always consumed him, and he aired them when we sat down in his office in mid-January.

From your vantage point, what is the state of international relations? Are we on the right track or the wrong track?

I think we’re in a very turbulent time. Our overarching strategic vision from the late forties forward was the containment of communism. Parallel to that, an essential element of ensuring success was to help friends’ and former foes’ economies recover and to build an international trading system that would keep the non-communist economies growing. Then, suddenly, came the end of the Cold War, after which we continued on a path of growing those economies, though we’ve become far less generous about helping along those that were much farther down the ladder, ones that didn’t work or had never worked.

We failed to recognize that the intense competition between communism and the non-communist world suppressed a lot of ethnic, religious, and tribal strife. Once that overriding mandate was no longer there, we had the breakup of Yugoslavia, the stress in Ethiopia and Eritrea, the civil war in Angola. Somalia came apart. Steadily, over ten years, instead of a new world order, we saw the development of a much larger new world disorder. We were busy saying, “We’re not going to do nation-building,” and for some pretty good reasons we went through a phase of lack of enthusiasm for working with the U.N. But when you look back at Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and now Iraq, and then lay alongside them Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, and Liberia—places where we played much less of a role, where we elected not to play a role or, if we did, we sort of put our toe in the water and then pulled it out as quickly as we could—it seems that our approach has been wrong. The structures put together to manage our international relations through the Cold War have not worked in the post-Cold War world.

Define the strategy that we employed for the period before the end of the Cold War.

We had military alliances: U.S.-Korea, U.S.-Japan, U.S.-Philippines, U.S.-Australia-New Zealand-Greenland. We also had, for brief periods of time, the Baghdad Pact and SEATO—neither ever worked, but at least for the eastern and western flanks of the Soviet Union we had bilateral or multilateral agreements for implementing the use of force. After the Cold War ended, many of the new problems that popped up were in the Middle East and Africa and Central America—areas that weren’t covered by those alliances, areas we either elected to ignore or tried to avoid or where we dabbled, sometimes unwisely, in covert operations.

Should we have anticipated this shift? I think we should have. When it was clear the Cold War was over, that was the time to ask, “What is the structure that’s going to deal with the new challenges?” Instead, I’m afraid, there was a big sigh of relief: The war is over; we don’t have to worry about that. It probably should have begun in the elder Bush’s administration, although he didn’t have much time. If you remember, the Cold War began to break down in 1989, but you had another two years until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Candidly, I didn’t see much effort in the two Clinton terms to deal with these issues either. Certainly President Clinton was bright enough to understand them and grapple with them, but I remember that in those early months he didn’t even want to have National Security Council meetings because he’d be seen trekking past the pressroom to go down to the situation room. You remember James Carville saying, “It’s the economy, stupid”?

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