Robert Jervis Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

American Foreign Policy in a New Era: Conversation with Robert Jervis, Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Politics, Columbia University; November 17, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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The Bush Administration's Response to 9/11

Let's look at the responses of the Bush administration to these events, and in particular what became known as the Bush Doctrine. Let's put on our Realist IR cap, and help us understand what you see as the assumptions of that doctrine and whether it merits an A or a C, or what grade.

There are several elements and I want to save one of the most important for last because several of them fit with Realism. Preventive war, I think, we've carried to an extreme, but it's a traditional Realist thing. Act now while you can, it'll be harder to act later. The unilateralism has roots in America but is, again, understandable given the structure of the system, the attempt to spread a form of order and discourage peer competitors, by which we mean not only China but a united Europe -- standard Realism. I think those are good things that this administration has carried to an extreme. I don't think they were needed. I think a more cooperative approach would've done the trick.

The other element is the one that boggles the mind of any Realist, but it's very American, and that is spreading democracy around the world. This is anathema to Realists, that is, not that Realists don't like democracy, but they believe the international system is very important and that countries react to the system, the external environment, much more than to their domestic environment. Realists believe by and large that democracies aren't going to behave that differently from non-democracies, and also tend to believe you can't spread democracy by force, and also worry if you make Egypt a democracy, oh, be careful of what you wish, you may get it. That is as likely to be some sort of "Islamic fundamentalism." This drives Realists up the wall, including me.

To help our audience understand this, Realists see the units, in a way, as black boxes.

Yes, billiard balls is the phrase,

Billiard balls, right. What that means is that the color of the billiard balls does not matter in winning the game. What matters -- and I guess here we'll have to move the metaphor along a little further -- is your relative standing, what you're able to do to them, whether you're able to balance their power, what sort of threat they pose. But it doesn't matter, whether you're a democracy in the Middle East or whether you're a dictatorship.

That's right. Exactly. The schools of thought become straw men, but they're useful straw men because they get at important things. Realists looked at the Cold War and said "The Soviet Union's immoral, deeply, and the U.S. much less so, but their international points of behavior are very similar: Vietnam, Afghanistan, their nuclear strategies, the same use of covert action, you name it, their international behavior is very similar." So, there's a democracy.

The other side of the coin, Bush says we must demolish evil in the world, and he said that in the first speech after 9/11. Realists think, "We're never going to demolish evil." Evil is partly in our nature, and you don't have to believe our Bible to think that most people have impulses for evil in them. DNA, unless we get genetic reconfiguration, that's going to be there. The international system encourages this. Furthermore, the attempt to abolish evil is going to make the world much worse, and democratic regimes do evil all the time.

So, what are the basic contradictions here in this policy? We've made clear that it doesn't fit with the way the world works.

The doctrine does have a real contradiction, and contradiction does matter. It doesn't bother only us theorists. I talked to one person who had a mid-level position in the administration in the fall of '02, and I said, "I understand these three elements but the first one in this security document definition is democracy." He said, "Oh, Bob, no one around here takes that seriously." Well, he was wrong. And those things will come to contradict each other out in the real world. Now, most of us were surprised that the U.S. has pushed democracy as hard as we have in the Middle East. We haven't pushed it on Pakistan yet, but we could easily get to a position where that does contradict the other elements. And it is unclear how in the next three years the administration is going to handle that mixture.

Now at the core of this, once you go down this road, is -- and let's use an interpersonal analogy here -- if I fear that you're going to attack me and I want to attack you first or prevent you from doing that, as all of your work in the social sciences would point to, we really are very dependent at this point on information. I have to know what it is you intend, what your capabilities are, what is the history of the way you've acted toward me, on and on. So, as soon as you go to the public and say this is about weapons of mass destruction -- and we know that the administration did that, according to what Paul Wolfowitz told Vanity Fair, because there was the greatest consensus in the government on that issue -- but once you do that, you have to act on information. And so, you have to gather that information, which leads us to the other big problem here.

Yes. As you know, as background, I consult for the CIA. I want to say that clearly because some people think you shouldn't, which is fine, but I believe that you can talk about it, it's legitimate, and I don't want anyone saying, "Oh, he covered what he does." So, I have looked at the WMD issue in the Iraqi case for the CIA. In fact, most of the story is public, and through government reports that are either whole or in part declassified, and I'll have an article coming out in Journal of Strategic Studies [about this]. But when you step back for the specifics on what was wrong, the main thing that hits you time and time again is ...

Why the information was so bad.

Yes. It's very, very hard. That has really got to be the starting point. You know, you'd think it's sort of easy to find a country with nuclear weapons. Well, it isn't. They're trying to keep it secret often, or they're trying to bluff you. North Koreans have said they have nuclear weapons. Do they? Well, I've talked to the people who know the most about it in the U.S. government, and they smile, not because they can't tell me what they know -- they can -- but because they can't be sure. They've said it. I mean, how would you know? You'd know if you had an agent who was high up in the program. You'd know maybe if you had someone who was a technician who'd gone in there and patted the bomb and said, "Oh, it's warm. Okay, there's plutonium in there." It could be an elaborate bluff. It's very hard to know that. And in the Iraq case it was all sorts of inner games he was playing, Saddam Hussein; it was very hard to penetrate. So, you need good information and you can't get it, and decision makers psychologically have to pretend they have it because they have to persuade people and they have to act, and they can't psychologically face up to how little they know.

You've studied this and it's very clear that one of the things going on here was that everybody had the same assumptions and they were essentially sharing almost the same pieces of information. So, we had no B team, no team saying, "Let's challenge what's being said." We had no way to think out of the box. Is that a fair summary?

It is. According to Hans Blix, the only person he knew who doubted [WMD programs] was not him. He thought they had them but serious programs, but the only person he knew who doubted it was Chirac. He said Chirac said that, and Blix looked startled, then Chirac said, "My intelligence service tells me they have it but I don't believe them. These intelligence services, they intoxicate each other."

That is part of it, and it became so deeply rooted in conventional wisdom that almost none of the opponents of the war challenged it, partly because it didn't make sense. If Saddam didn't have an active nuclear weapons program, why was he committing suicide? Why didn't he not only let the inspectors in but welcome them (which he didn't), show them everything? He could've shown that he didn't have nuclear weapons, the same way that Libya, when they made the agreement, pretty much convincingly showed what it had. Why didn't Saddam do it? The Duelfer Report has some answers, not very convincing, but at the time, if you produced what we "know now" and put it on a decision makers desk, he or she would've laughed. It seemed wildly implausible.

But this comes out of the Duelfer report, that one element amidst all of his irrationality was not letting his potential adversaries in the region know what he didn't have.

Yes. It looks like one of the things he wanted [was] to deter Iran, but in the whole scheme of things, if I had been his advisor I would have said, "Boss, Iran is third order on your problems, and anyway, Iran isn't going to attack, and if it does the U.S. actually will have to protect you." So, the idea that he would do this to protect from Iran partly shows how cut off from reality he was. So, the intelligence made a lot of errors, which I'll [discuss] for the session this afternoon and in my article. But boy, this was a harder one than many of the others, but the essential point is intelligence is going to be wrong a lot. Decision makers have trouble understanding the limits of that because it's very scary to sit [and say], "I'm going to make a war and peace decision on the basis of information that's what, 60 percent reliable?"

Now there's an irresponsibility here within the political system, if not fully in the Bush administration, in the sense that, first of all, if they had said, "We're going to go in because democracy works," then they wouldn't have needed the intelligence -- and you point that out. So, you would not have to have the evidence. Then you also point out that if Bush had been honest and said, "Well, look, we really don't know this but because of 9/11 I'm really worried, this is my job, I'm going to ... ," but he didn't do that. So, now what everybody in the political system seems to be doing is looking for a whipping boy so that they are not accountable when the next election is held. Is that fair?

I think that is. Now maybe because I do consult for CIA on a number of things, I have perhaps excess sympathy for them, but the Senate report which really rips them up one side down the other overdoes it. I mean, there are things wrong, but the CIA's a marvelous whipping boy. First, it can't fight back because they're not allowed to go in public and it's great for Bush, the Democrats can dump on them, everyone likes to, so they're everyone's favorite whipping boy. It's frustrating for them.

I want to draw on a picture of yourself that you've shown, asking all these questions, and this big question of the politicization of the decision to go to war. What does an analyst such as yourself, looking at this -- what was it about the administration, and what it was doing that created a perception of imminent threat? Was that an impression that they just created, or did they actually believe that? Even if you have the definitive answer, help me understand how you would try to sort this out, if you're going to write a paper in a few years.

Clearly, they created the view. They very consciously, as many have pointed out, linked 9/11 and Saddam in ways that were extraordinarily clever. I have a whole file on that. It's really brilliant, the way they did this -- totally dishonest but really brilliant, brilliant in the sense that when you say to them Saddam and 9/11 aren't linked, they could say, "We never said they were." But they use 9/11 and Saddam in the same sentence. They would make paragraphs that moved from one to the other. I'm in awe, I assign these speeches in my class. It's incredibly powerful political rhetoric, and we know that right after 9/11 the public opinion showed that the public didn't see any connection, and that as Bush and his colleagues put out the line it was believed. So, this was an extraordinarily effective selling job. We know also they pushed intelligence hard, not on WMD, they didn't need to. That's where a lot of the critics kept things confused. Where they pushed very hard was on this connection.

The connection?

Between Saddam and al Qaeda. What we also know was that CIA said no, no; then they came back, said "Look at this," and they said no. I believe CIA. Now the national intelligence officer who was in charge and who has recently left the government, a political science Ph.D. named Paul Pillar who led this and refused to cave. They said, "There is no evidence for this. The things you point to are dribs and drabs, they're unconvincing," so they stood up to that but of course, they couldn't make this public. Did Bush and his colleagues believe it? I guess where I come down from my psychology, not so much this book but in a later book -- it's called motivated bias -- they talked themselves into it in a way in which it will be very hard to unravel what they "truly believe."

I have an article coming out in Political Psychology about sincerity of beliefs. It's very hard -- I don't think the document trail will tell us, and they won't tell us, and they won't even know a year later what they believed. This is going to be one of the abiding mysteries, how they came to believe what they say, because I think they'd pass a lie detector test on it. How they came to believe these things and whether they really believed the Iraq/al Qaeda connection in the face of a large amount of evidence. I don't know.

Is there an element here that in a way they were Realists but either misguided or C+ students? I want to get back to this whole question of, well, if you have terrorism, you have to have a state that actually was a patron so they were coming from that position. Right?

I think that's very important. Before 9/11 they paid no attention to terrorism -- well, almost none -- and to the extent they did it was exactly that, the linkages to states. Their foreign policy was heavily state-driven, and I think that predisposed them to see state to state sponsorship, and that though Bush abandoned a lot of his pre-9/11 views, that one may have stuck with him. But really, Iraq remains a mystery and my terrible fear is that the next generation is going to believe we fought Iraq for oil and Israel, and I do not believe that is true. I can't say I could disprove it, I don't believe it, but looking back, people are going to say, "Well, can't have been WMD." I don't believe if they believe the al Qaeda connection -- could they really believe that we could transform the Middle East by this? Think what's left. It's a wrong explanation and I think it will produce a sort of cynicism that isn't helpful, but I bet in ten years that'll be the conventional wisdom.

What I'm hearing you say when we look at your structural argument is that this behavior is what one could expect from a hegemon. To what extent was this group -- whoever they are, the nationalist conservatives or the neo-cons, this group of people that Bush gathered around him -- to what extent were they a major break with the foreign policy tradition that had developed since the beginning of the Cold War?

It's a very interesting question. You had a book by Stephan Halper and Jonathan Clarke on this question. It's a mixed picture. The spreading of democracy does have deep roots in the U.S., and again, Wilsonianism and Reagan -- this belief was an important part of Reagan. Reagan's view of the Soviet Union changed not as its foreign policy changed but as he saw the cracks opening domestically. So, in that way I do believe they pick up on this.

But there was, I believe, a deep pragmatism in the Cold War, and always a fear that the American public would get too riled up at various stages, and a realization that you moved incrementally and that you didn't try to abolish evil, that in the end evil collapsed itself. In that way, I think they are a break. One of the things, though, that's very hard to understand is Cheney and Rumsfeld, because they're children of that era and they're the ones that are particularly puzzling.

Can we bring in your argument from before, namely that internationally there's no balancer, and that if we take the Realist argument, apply it domestically, which may not be appropriate, there's no balancer, especially after 9/11, no opposition party or group saying no?

Yes, that is part, and that's why -- I don't think Gore would have invaded Iraq, but eventually, given this, the U.S. would've done things that were most unfortunate. But Cheney and Rumsfeld were both experienced in the Cold War and had, I thought, some forms of moderation drilled in; but no. I think it's a combination of fear and opportunity. They did have fear, and even if they half made up the al Qaeda connection, they could at least say, "Disprove it." Well, you could never disprove it. So, there was a strong element of fear and this combination of fear and opportunity. Right? That's very, very powerful.

Mission. A mission, yeah. And so, I guess the question is, looking down the road, where will the balancing come? Do we wait twenty or thirty years for China to rise? Is it that there will be a reaction, an inner balancing within the political system? Is that where we have to look?

[To quote] Yogi Berra, my favorite one: "Prediction's difficult, especially about the future." But yes, I think the Bush doctrine will collapse, I think it is collapsing. There's a very good article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs by John Mueller, and if you ever get John out here, you've got to do him. He's just marvelous. book coverHe's, among other things, an expert on public opinion. He points to the inevitable fall of support in the article titled, "The Iraq Syndrome" that there's going to be a pulling in of horns in a way that will be good and will be simultaneously be bad. I think that this is inevitable, we probably are not going to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons -- we could set them back another ten years by bombing; I don't think we're going to do it but I can't be sure. I think you'll find the American public isn't going to support adventures and you will get, as Ken Waltz would predict, nuclear weapons spreading because when Iran gets them, others will get it, and that will increase the cost for the U.S. of intervening. That's the way that combination of the U.S. pulling back, others engaging in self-protection and self-aggrandizement -- you could argue a world would be better if the U.S. could do a consistent Bush doctrine, consistent hegemony. Domestically the U.S. cannot follow a consistent policy. So, whether that other world's going to be better than a real Bush world, I don't know, but we can't have a real Bush world. The U.S. domestic system will not support it.

On that note, Bob, I want to thank you very much for coming back to Berkeley this week, and also, thank you for being on our program. Thank you, and I want to show our audience your book again, American Foreign Policy in a New Era, which I read and heartily recommend. So, thanks a lot, Bob

Well, thank you, Harry -- really enjoyed it.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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