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”? NSC meetings would mean Clinton wasn’t focusing on the economy.
Was the problem a failure of intelligence or something loftier—a failure of vision?
It’s something loftier. The fundamental issue is, What role is the U.S. going to play in the world? As I go around the country and talk about terrorism, I’m asked this over and over. And I say, “Well, what has replaced containment? Should we be the moral policeman to the world? Should we withdraw within Fortress America?” There’s no consensus. Which then gets you to, Do you revise U.N. agreements to change how you might organize and manage military interventions? And you’ve got some things at work that we don’t control: the decision of the European Union to add military components, its expansion from 15 to 25 countries. If that continues, what’s the role of NATO? So there is a large range of issues about the structures that should be in place to deal with the outside world. In the absence of those, you do it ad hoc, because you don’t have any other options.
You’re not a fan of ad hoc.
I’m not a fan. Ad hoc only works for a period of time—the shorter the period, the better it works. There are too many things that can go wrong in trying to hold together an ad hoc arrangement. Look back at the Gulf War. President [George H.W.] Bush, Secretary [of State James] Baker, Secretary [of Defense Dick] Cheney, and particularly, National Security Adviser [Brent] Scowcroft did a terrific job of putting together a coalition to remove Iraq from Kuwait. They weren’t sure they could sell it to the Congress, so they first went to the U.N. and got a mandate simply to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. And then they went to the Congress and barely got through the Senate. The conduct of the war itself was swift and successful and elegant, with minimal casualties, but it is clear that if we had decided to try to change the regime in Baghdad, the coalition would have fallen apart. There was no way you could have kept Syria, Egypt, and others on the team.
They get a lot of heat for not going to Baghdad, but they didn’t have the option of going because of the nature of the ad hoc arrangements that had to be put in place. I don’t buy the criticism today of the first Bush administration’s not finishing the job, which in some people’s minds made it necessary to go in again this time. The job that they set out to do they did, and they did it very effectively. Now, you can go back and quarrel with the original mandate that they asked for at the U.N., but that’s what they could get—that’s how they could put together a coalition.
You mentioned Rwanda a little while ago. Why didn’t we do something about the genocide there?
It was too hard a problem. You had no command structure, no base structure, and nothing to let you respond swiftly and have a reasonable prospect of success. You surely don’t want to plunge into a total unknown, where your troops could just get slaughtered.
What kind of a coalition could we have in place that would allow us to do something in such a situation?
I think, as you look at the world ahead of us, that the U.N. needs to be substantially restructured. At a minimum we have to change the Security Council—we probably have to bring in India, Brazil, and Japan, and maybe a couple of others. I’m not prepared to kick the French out, as much as they irritate me. You may need a supervoting majority in the process, to be able to make large decisions about critical issues, particularly those in which force might be involved. I would give up the veto—it’s doubtful that the Americans would agree to it, or at least it would be a hard sell.
But I think we still need regional organizations. You have to ask, What’s going to be the structure in the Middle East, Africa, Asia? I would also argue that we need collective security agreements, though we may or may not be a party to them; that depends on what we decide about the role we’re going to play, because it governs how much we spend in the process and how broad the base of our intelligence is. Getting from here to there is a huge challenge.
Speaking of the U.N., how did you feel about our decision last year to go into Iraq?
In a general sense, I think the idea of the U.S. unilaterally using force all over the globe is a recipe for disaster. In a specific sense, I was vocal, sort of quietly, in being opposed to the war in Iraq. There was no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a very bad guy. No doubt that he had, at some point in time, chemical and biological weapons and delivery vehicles.
You say, “at some point in time.”
At an earlier point in time, I’m certain that he had them. What he did with them—and if he’d gotten rid of them, why wouldn’t he say so?—remains one of the great puzzles of the time. My objection was that I kept saying, “What are you going to do after you win?” and I never got an answer that gave me any sense of confidence.
Whom did you ask the question of?
Folks who have some influence on or involvement in setting policy. From them it was always, “Don’t worry about it. [Iraq Governing Council member Ahmed] Chalabi’s a wonderfully reliable guy. The exiles are going to be warmly welcomed back in. They’re going to take over, set up a government, run it.” I didn’t believe it. Plus, I looked at Iraq as having a great potential for being like Yugoslavia. You’ve got Sunnis, Kurds, and Shiites. It could easily break apart on religious and ethnic grounds. It’s going to take strong leadership from a strong central government to keep that from occurring.
Why do you think the administration didn’t do more planning for the peace?
You have to understand the history that preceded the war. The original plan for military action for the purpose of regime change in Iraq was developed for President Clinton, but it was put on the shelf. One could debate whether Monica Lewinsky was the principal reason for deciding not to undertake it. Then, when the Bush administration came into office, there was a group in the Defense Department who was very committed to the idea and very articulate about it. [Deputy Defense Secretary Paul] Wolfowitz. [Former Defense Policy Board chairman Richard] Perle. To some degree the vice president and, to a lesser degree, [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld. And so they began to plan for it. That dramatically accelerated after 9/11, as the group at Defense wanted an assault on Iraq as an option for responding to the terrorist attacks. After listening to all sides, the president took a different tactic: a much larger commitment, not just to regime change but to a war on terror, to going right to the roots of terrorism by going after those who had precipitated the events of 9/11. That led us to Afghanistan. But the campaign was continuing inside Defense for regime change in Iraq, which fit into the broad framework of the war on terror. The argument was over priorities and timing.
Well, it was also over the question of whether there was a direct or even indirect link between Iraq and 9/11.
There was no tie between Iraq and 9/11, even though some people tried to postulate one. The issue of weapons of mass destruction got piled on to bring on yet another constituency, another community. Iraq did support terror in Israel, but I know of no instance in which Iraq funded direct, deliberate terrorist attacks on the U.S. By contrast, we know with certainty that Iran funded the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. So if you’re looking for a country funding attacks on Americans, Iran would have been the next priority.
I’m very confident that the planning for the military operations in Iraq, the decision-making structure, and the operations themselves were all done superbly. If there’s a criticism, it is that they were not sufficiently optimistic about how quickly we might win. My sense is that they expected somewhere between 35 and 45 days to take Baghdad, and we did it in 22. And those 10 or 20 days made a difference because of how unprepared we were for what came afterward. As best as I can track, the planners at Central Command and at the Joint Chiefs, along with the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, did not examine the prospects for peacetime Iraq in any detail until the last couple of months before the war started. Separately, the State Department had been looking at what would happen, but because of the bitter rivalries between Defense and State, the State group was excluded from the planning process. This was a real structural weakness.
Did you ever get over your initial objection and come around to supporting the war effort?
I have a strong view that when the president commits troops, the proper role for retired military is to either support the president or be quiet, because the people you’re impacting, the soldiers, are in harm’s way.
I’m assuming, then, that you’re not a co-chair of the Wesley Clark campaign in Texas.
I am not.
So once we’re in, we’re in, and you support it.
Yes, but I think you start looking for how you can get out. The path we were on appeared to be generating strong opposition, so we promised to be out by the end of June—not in the sense of the troops being out but from a governing point of view. We were going to turn over authority to the Iraq Governing Council. But then the Ayatollah al-Sistani says, “Nope, I want an election,” which he thinks the Shiites will probably win. And suddenly we’re back to figuring out how we deal with this problem.
Grade the president in a broad sense on how he has managed the many challenges that we all acknowledge he’s had to deal with.
One of the notable features of his time as governor was that he kept a relatively limited agenda. He settled on four or five things that he thought were important, got what he could get, and declared victory. Nothing that I saw in his six years here indicated that he had a capacity to deal with a large range of problems simultaneously. So my expectations were set pretty low. And, in fact, we still see that his basic impulse is to settle on a few things that he thinks are the most important and devote most of his energies to those. The war on terror is chief among them.
I’ve been told he has been a very good student of foreign affairs from the moment he decided to run—you know, “Hey, I need to learn about this”—and that he devoted time to understand what he could. But it was not natural for him. I thought the Kyoto treaty was a terrible treaty, but I thought the way the administration handled it was poor. They created animosities; they seemed to be peremptory about their views of the rest of the world. Instead of dismissing it with the sweep of a hand, why couldn’t they cover it with a little sugarcoating? “Well, gee, if we could just make a few changes, we could agree to it.”
On the other hand, he has a good feel for relationships. The relationship with [Russian president Vladimir] Putin got off to a good start. The China relationship got off to a disastrous start, but if you look at where we are compared with where we were, I have to say our relations with China really have come a long way. I would like to see that same effort to try to interact with Brazil.
It sounds like, on balance, you give President Bush a fairly good grade on foreign affairs.
I do. The one note that is discouraging to me, where he’s made a fundamental mistake, is the announcement of his policy of preemption. Every president has had it in his bag. More than one has tried to use it. But you don’t announce it, just as you don’t admit covert operations up front.
With your CIA hat on, talk to me about the Valerie Plame leak.
There are three kinds of leaks. There is the disaffected employee who didn’t get the job or the promotion that he thought he was due, so he leaks documents that can be embarrassing to the administration. There’s the person trying to sell a program, a policy, or a weapon system, or to defeat somebody else’s. This leaker engages in a kind of disinformation, because he usually distorts the facts to make his case. The most damaging leaks to intelligence sources and methods are the third category: The official in the executive branch, or in rare occasions in Congress, who wants to impress his friends at dinner or his favorite journalist with how much he knows. He includes sensitive information, and it shows up in the press. The damage is done.
And the Plame link is in that last category?
I take it that as a member of the intelligence community, you regard the Plame situation with—
Distaste and dismay.
What do you think happened, and what do you think will come of it?
I believe that her husband [former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Joseph Wilson] enjoyed the limelight as a critic of the administration. And the instant reaction of the people who felt personally offended by this was to lash out and, in that sense, to sort of disqualify Wilson’s reliability. “Well, after all, it’s his wife who got him out there.” “Oh? Who’s that?” Now, how many people actually knew that his wife was involved in covert operations? That narrows the circle.
Do you believe the president knows who leaked her name?
No, I doubt it.
Should the person be prosecuted?
He or she should be held accountable. Whether you prosecute comes down to whether it was a deliberate effort to expose her or an inadvertent revelation.
With regard to homeland security, what would you be focusing on right now if you were still in a position to influence policy?
Weaknesses in our transportation system: ground maintenance, cargo, flights on which our standards don’t apply; I’m thinking of aircraft coming from outside the U.S., where the same security measures aren’t in effect. Beyond that, I worry about the huge number of containers that are not inspected but come into this country every day. We’re steadily increasing our ability to examine them at the major ports, but we’re not there yet. I’m old enough to remember the explosion at Texas City and the tremendous number of casualties that resulted. Let’s say a ship was coming into the Houston Ship Channel and you set off an explosion just as it was passing the refineries. You could probably block the channel and start massive fires. It’s not easy to pull off, but then again, if you look at the potential damage and the impact that you could have . . .
The last thing I want to ask you about is politics. Do you think a presidential candidate’s foreign policy experience or service in the military ought to be either a qualifier or a disqualifier in terms of fitness for office?
We went through a long period after World War II in which every one of the presidents had had military service of some kind. We’ve moved into an era now where a large percentage of the population has not had that experience, so I don’t want to say that every candidate has to have that kind of background. But I think 9/11 has changed fundamentally the public’s view of what matters. It isn’t just the economy anymore. It’s also, Is he going to be able to deal with the outside world?
We alluded before to General Clark, whose view of the war effort you don’t share. Senator John Kerry, the Democratic front-runner, is also a former military man. Do you begrudge him his view of the war as well?
Clark and Kerry are different in that Clark had a career in the military and has moved on and now carefully selects from that long career. Kerry was a soldier. He was in the military at a point in time. He served, he came back, he was opposed to what he was involved in, and he took an active role opposing it. I wasn’t enchanted with his opposition, but he showed some personal courage in doing as he did when he was in the service.
Do any of these fellows on the Democratic side intrigue you from the standpoint of what they’re selling?
I don’t think we have a lot of substantive debate or discussion at this point.
Let me put it another way. Would you be comfortable if we had another four years of this administration?
I would hope that in a second term, if there is a second term, given what he’s learned in four years, the president would take some different approaches.