James Fallows Interview (2005): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

U.S. Foreign Policy and the Bush Administration: Conversation with James Fallows, National Correspondent, The Atlantic Monthly, March 28, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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The Bush Administration's Blinders

What distinguishes this leadership group from what has come before? You served in the Carter administration as a speech writer. There seems to be something qualitatively different. Is that a correct perception?

To my mind, this does seem to be an unusual administration, and I do think the biggest difference from past pattern is at the very top two, or perhaps top three, positions. We have a strong secretary of defense now, or we've had with Secretary Rumsfeld, but there have been strong secretaries of defense before, for example Robert McNamara. [Rumsfeld] was matched with a strong but losing secretary of state, Colin Powell.

I think the real differences have been the dynamic among the president, the vice president, and the national security advisor. President Bush, from what one can tell from a distance, is a man of great self-confidence and willingness to take big risks in life, to make big, dramatic gestures, but who has virtually no curiosity about the details of certain cases. He seems to view the executive's responsibility as making big yes/no, one-or-a-hundred type decisions. Things that are more detailed than that are forwarded to the underlings. They're to be delegated.

You can see what he's reacting against, in the case either of Jimmy Carter, my one-time employer, who would famously assign the White House tennis courts or look at the thrust of weight charts of the B-1 bomber. So, he didn't want to be in that category. Nor Bill Clinton, who would stay up all night talking about the details of this or that policy. President Bush clearly views it as a strength to say, "We're going this way, let's not think about all the little minutiae." When that is combined with a situation that is dense, tangled, unpredictable, with hundreds of years of history, it leaves one prone to radical misjudgments of the circumstance, not simply on the prewar intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, but also the sense of how would a country like Iraq respond to a foreign occupation force.

So you have a president who doesn't care about details, and you have a vice president who's taken on a very dark view of the world, so far as one can tell from his speeches. I should say that when I worked for Jimmy Carter, we followed the Ford administration; Dick Cheney had been Gerald Ford's chief of staff. He was the main transition person. There couldn't have been a more bipartisan, open-minded, non-vindictive type of person than the Dick Cheney of that period, but he seems different [now].

The third person in the mix, in my view, is Condoleezza Rice in her role as national security advisor; personally very, very close to President Bush and seemingly unwilling to do two things that have been the heart of that job in the past. One is making sure the president has the whole range of information that he might need to make a decision. The other is reconciling differences between departments. Neither of those happened, and so President Bush's apparent preference to know only the big choice and none of the details had no corrective from his national security advisor.

In one of your pieces -- I should mention to our audience that it's worth going back and looking at the pieces that you've written for the Atlantic Monthly since 9/11. One of the points you make in one of those pieces is that defenders of the Iraq war, before the war, emphasized not what the future might look like, but rather the past, using cases, for example, like Japan and Germany, which any comparative analysis would say aren't the same thing. Talk a little about that.

One of the articles that I found very fascinating to do -- this was in the summer of 2002, during the build-up towards the war in Iraq -- was an article for the Atlantic which we published as "The Fifty-First State?" The idea was to talk to people who'd been involved in past occupations and say, "Assuming we go to war and assuming we win the military part of the battle very easily, what happens then, what can we expect?" And there was a huge amount of lore and advice that turned out to be accurate about what would happen in Iraq.

One interesting strand was how very, very different this experience was likely to be than either Germany or Japan, the two great past occupations, because they'd been beaten in total war. They were very different societies from what Iraq was going to be. But there seemed to be, within the administration, an unwillingness to look much past Germany and Japan. "It worked there, it'll work here too." Of course, there was no insurrection either in Germany or Japan after World War II, because they were thoroughly beaten countries after four years of total war -- or more than four years.

There was at the working level of the administration a very careful and very successful effort to anticipate what sorts of challenges the United States might face in Iraq, and we can go into detail if you'd like. At the very top level -- the president, the vice president, and the secretaries of the departments -- there seems to have been either a deliberate or an inadvertent refusal to pay attention to any of that, and therefore being caught by surprise when things started to be difficult in the occupation.

Talking now along this line, from one of your pieces it's very clear that the government was doing a pretty good job about thinking of where we were going and what the consequences would be. The key here is that they were cut out from the decision-making process.

Yes. Let me give you first an anecdote and then the background theory.

The anecdote is, Jay Garner was the first American viceroy in Baghdad after the fall of Baghdad, and he heard about a man named Thomas Warrick, a State Department professional who for the previous two years had been supervising something called the Future of Iraq project, which was a vast, dozens-of-volumes type study, mainly by Iraqi exiles, of what to expect in the petroleum industry or what to expect for the justice system. Thomas Warrick was the director of this whole project. Jay Garner hired him for his team to work in the occupation, and then he got a phone call from Donald Rumsfeld saying, "You have to fire Thomas Warrick." Garner said, "What are you talking about? This man has been supervising our effort." And Rumsfeld told him, "My orders come from high enough that I cannot question them," which must mean either the president or the vice president.

So, there was a willful decision from the highest level of the government not to take advantage of this report, which Garner was also told not to read.

The larger point is that there was a huge amount of effort from the State Department, the CIA, the Army War College, the Army itself, the Marine Corps, to say, "Here's what we have to prepare for." But essentially, all that was just wasted, because it didn't connect with the actual policy machine.

The story is that in the nineties the American government learned a lot, the military learned a lot, the State Department learned a lot, after dealing with going from a disaster like Somalia to places like Bosnia and Kosovo. There was a learning curve going on, but all of that was brushed aside. Why do you think that was? One point that you touch upon is the notion that they didn't want dissent about the course of action that they were taking, and so it was part of the momentum and the logic of their imposing this decision on a democratic political system.

Right. I mentioned earlier that I thought the war in Iraq couldn't have happened unless all the stars came into alignment, and something similar is the case with throwing away all the prewar preparation.

In terms of public discussion before the war, the administration, I guess understandably, didn't want a lot of focus on how hard it would be to occupy the country afterwards because each time you discuss that, you weaken the enthusiasm for going to war. You say, "Yeah, we need to go to war, but suddenly we're going to be in charge of this country." That's for the external discussion.

Internally, there seem to be other factors. One was, a lot of the lessons of the nineties, by definition, were Clinton administration lessons, especially the Balkans and Somalia, too, and there was a sense that, "these Clinton people, it's the fact that they were weak and they were indecisive; that made them have their problems, so we're not going to learn much from that."

There was also an argument being given the Bush administration by Mr. Chalabi and others in his group, saying, "Look, this is going to work well. It's going to be like the fall of the Soviets, it's going to be like the Czech Republic after the disappearance of the Soviet Union. Get rid of the Soviets and then things will be fine. It'll be not a big problem. Iraq is a well trained place, it's potentially rich." So, there was that.

There was, I think, probably a genuine belief -- again, Paul Wolfowitz, number two in the Defense Department, had been heavily involved in the 1980s in Asia with bringing democratizing movements to the Philippines and Korea, and elsewhere. So, his belief was that you give people a chance at democracy and basically things start going well, as opposed to start going poorly. Every force was pushing towards saying, "Let's not look at the bad side here. We need to do this because of WMD, it'll be good to do it, and things will work out." There was a sense that things would go well rather than poorly.

You make a point that there was also among the Republicans a sense of triumphalism, that was their reading of the history of the Reagan administration and of bringing the Iron Curtain down.

Yes. A lot of the people in the Bush admin -- I mean, it's interesting, the long pedigree of the people now in the second Bush administration: many of them worked together in the Ford administration. Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, and Kenneth Adelman and others were working in the Ford administration. They learned two interesting lessons from the Reagan years. One was the importance of the big, controversial, dramatic gesture: proposing the "star wars" SDI initiative, putting theater missiles in Europe, having the Iceland summit with Gorbachev. Those were big gestures by Reagan to shake up how things were configured, and in the minds of these people they all worked well. So, that was one thing that they got.

The second lesson they took from the Reagan years is that both the Europeans and the domestic Democratic opponents would cry, and whine, and stamp their feet, and wring their hands, but in the long run they would bow to strength. When they saw that these things worked, they would come along. So there was almost a predisposition to say if the Europeans are whining (and they would put it in that way, "whining" as opposed to "protesting,") that's a sign that actually we're on the right course. If you place the mental picture being partly Ronald Reagan, partly Winston Churchill, jaunty, confident, assertive, going the right direction, that was the inner picture that the Bush administration was having.

They were able to act in the context of what seemed to be a collapse by the opposition party. What is your analysis there? Is that a correct description? What are the factors? Were the Democrats still fighting the Vietnam War?

Partly yes, they were, and that's part of the problem. As an observed "market failure," in the year before the war, public opinion polls always showed that the public had more doubts about this war than the Democratic Party did in Congress. That is, the Democratic Party, the opposition party, wasn't fully representing the opposition that was there in the public. So, the question is why.

One theory would be that the Democratic Party in Congress was more farseeing and more public spirited than the public. That would be one explanation. Other explanations would be, first, that Democrats ever since the Vietnam years have been chronically fearful of seeming weak on defense. This is their great vulnerability. The way they can always be "mao-mao'd" is making them seem weak on defense.

Another factor, a related factor, is that in August and September of 2002, when the crucial votes about going to war in Iraq were being taken, the Democrats in Congress deliberately decided not to oppose the administration, and the reason was they thought in the upcoming midterm elections they would look weaker if they opposed the administration on this, and that if they got this issue out of the way, they'd be able to talk about medical care, and job loss, and things which they thought of as their issues. It was a crass and stupid decision, because they were not able to oppose the administration and they lost big in the midterms anyway. That's the part that makes it stupid.

I have a question about the structure of our government. We had always hoped that the division of the powers would give us a check and balance system that would prevent something like the wrong war at the wrong time and the wrong place. But when you look at the record of the Congress in the Democratic years, Clinton was president and he signed the regime change law with regard to Iraq. One wonders whether in reaching for consensus, everybody buys into the middle, which makes you vulnerable if somebody wants to move away from the middle and take an action based on that legislation.

Yes, that's a very fair and shrewd reading of things, and it's part of the Democrat long-term national security problem. It's also part of something that happened in the buildup to the Iraq war. We all now know the WMD fears were completely false and exaggerated. Many people suspected that ahead of time and many people like me were writing that, but in the buildup to a war, if the administration says, "If you knew what we knew, you'd understand how dire the threat is, " that's a very, very difficult thing for elected leaders to resist. Because how can they stand up to it? They can say, "We don't think it's right," but in the end, you have to expect Congressional people to bow to that argument. You can't use it twice for boy-who-cried-wolf reasons, but the administration used it once and it had an effect.

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