James Fallows Interview (2005): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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Jim, welcome to Berkeley.
Thank you very much, Harry. It's nice to be back here again.
Let's talk a little about the way the U.S. has responded to the events of 9/11. How would you characterize the overall response of the Bush administration?
Well, before giving my own opinion, I should say that from the Bush administration's point of view you're exactly right in saying that everything since September 11, 2001, has been of a piece: first war in Afghanistan, then war in Iraq, then the network of domestic activities. So, if you believe as the Bush administration does that going to war in Iraq was the way to get to the root of the problem, then what they've done makes sense. If you don't believe the war of Iraq helps in that cause -- in fact is a distraction or worse, as I do (I think it was the wrong approach) -- then you think there's been a huge strategic gamble by this administration which one hopes will turn out well but might turn out quite badly.
Let's break that apart. What do you think they got right, if anything?
I did admire President Bush's stance in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, where he gave the best speech of his career, one of the best speeches of any president, on September 20, 2001, when he went to the Congress and spoke about how we needed to pull together as Americans, and this wasn't a war against Muslims individually, it was a war for freedom and justice, and all that sort of thing. There in the immediate aftermath of the attack, he struck the right tone.
Second, in going to Afghanistan, the only dispute [I had] is how long it took to get there. Everybody realizes that's where the base for al Qaeda was, and where the Taliban was supporting them; the question is after that. They were right in the initial tone in going to Afghanistan. After that, the problem is the things that weren't done and the things that were. The things that weren't done, for example, were a different approach to energy so the U.S. was not such a hostage to what happens in Saudi Arabia; a different approach to the Middle East standoff so we weren't so hostage to the PLO/Israeli situation; a request for shared sacrifice which didn't come, so that now it's just the people in the military bearing the brunt. Everything else took second place to preparing for war in Iraq, and that's the crux of it. If you believe, as the president does, that was the heart of it, it's right. If you don't, then you think that was a huge, missed opportunity.
They compromised our position in Afghanistan by rushing to the next war.
Yes. There's the incidental -- by which I don't mean it's small, I mean it relates to an incident -- fact that at a time when there could have been pressure to close the noose on al Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden in particular, during the battle of Tora Bora. That's when already the center of gravity was starting to shift towards preparations for Iraq. I interviewed a lot of military people immediately after that and they talked about how the Special Forces troops, the NSA satellites, the linguists who were expert in languages of that region, were beginning already to be shifted to preparations for Iraq.
Also, the pressure was not put on either Pakistan or Saudi Arabia at that time to really, really help crush al Qaeda, because both of them were necessary for the preparations for Iraq. So, that's when there began to be the tradeoff where Osama bin Laden was less and less the target and Saddam Hussein was more and more the target.
Is there a simple explanation of why they decided to go after Iraq? We know that they've given a lot of reasons, the reasons have changed over time, but the bottom line seems that they wanted to get Saddam and they perceived a threat which harkened back to an earlier period, namely the nineties, when if you had terrorists, they were mentored or being sponsored by a rogue state.
You said, "Is there a simple reason or a real reason?" What's fascinating about this is I don't think there is a simple reason. I think it wouldn't have happened the way it did, it couldn't have happened the way it did, were it not for about twenty-five different parts all lining up in alignment.
For example, you had the same cast of characters who'd fought Saddam Hussein the first time, in the first Bush administration, all back for the second Bush administration. You had the perception, for whatever reason, there was a threat for WMD. You had the personal factor of the president whose father had been threatened with assassination by Saddam Hussein. And this, I think, was the most powerful reason: you had the argument developed during the 1990s by Paul Wolfowitz and others that in the long run, if you wanted to have peace in the world, you had to "clean up" the whole Arab situation, the Arab Islamic world, and you had to make a good example of Iraq. So what we're now hearing after the war as the justification was the strongest single one before the war too. It's just not what they told us.
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