Today's date:
Summer 2002

On American Power

Paul Wolfowitz, the US deputy secretary of Defense considered the top hawk in the Bush administration, spoke in his Pentagon office to NPQ editor Nathan Gardels on April 29.

NPQ | According to historian Paul Kennedy, American military preponderance is the greatest history has ever seen-bigger than the next eight military powers combined, bigger than the Roman or British empires in their time.

Some, like former President Clinton, have suggested this power be used "to make the world safe for interdependence." From a strategic perspective, what is the objective of so much American power?

PAUL WOLFOWITZ | All those statistics about how much power we have are not very helpful. On the one hand, American power is more than you suggest. What is remarkable is not just that we have such substantial capabilities on our own, but that the most militarily competent countries besides us are our allies, and even Russia is beginning to move from being no longer an enemy to a potential ally.

On the other hand, the Romans didn't have to worry about terrorists with nuclear weapons or similarly potent threats, of which Sept. 11 was just a small illustration, against which a preponderance of military power is not so effective. In other words, there are equalizers out there that are pretty nasty.

More importantly, this is not the Roman era when you could use military power to enforce your will on subject nations. Nor are we politically of a mind to do so.

Military power for us is much more a defensive tool.

The greater power of the United States is not its military power but its economic power. And more powerful still is our political strength-what we stand for. All around the world, even in countries where regimes hate us, the people admire our kind of system.

So, ultimately, the important point is that it would be very congenial for us to have a world where people are free to govern themselves. Of course, there are differences of interest between countries, but because of the way we define our interests, there is a natural compatibility of interests between the US and other countries. The trend toward self-government takes things in our direction.

NPQ | In other words, the point of American military power is to protect and promote the capacity of people to freely govern themselves?

WOLFOWITZ | It is sort of like a protective fence around freedom. It allows us to set certain boundaries; it disallows large armies crossing borders. At least for the time being that does not seem a major threat because of US strength. And it allows us to go after terrorists in Afghanistan in an impressive way.

NPQ | The usually pro-American European politician, Chris Patten, aired his worries about America's "unilateralist instinct" after President Bush's "axis of evil" speech. But if America sees a "clear danger" and wants to stop it from becoming a "present" one, what is wrong with acting unilaterally in defense of the US?

WOLFOWITZ | I suppose one gets defensive because "unilateralism" has a bad odor. But the president has been very clear from the beginning that we were attacked and are going to take the measures necessary to defend ourselves. This is not an attack on Kuwait; it is an attack on the US. We will work with those who work with us.

But ours is also not a notion that we can or must go it alone. That is why we reject the unilateralist charge.

It is interesting that this comes from Patten who had his own view, which I had a lot of sympathy with, about what to do when he was governor of Hong Kong. He persisted even though the British foreign office kept undercutting him. Now, he seems a bit more in the other camp.

The fact is, we are getting a lot of cooperation. The issue is not one of unilateralist versus multilateralist, but whether the US leads or not. This president is leading by saying that while we lived with Al Qaeda for 10 years before they struck, we are not going to stand in the future for hostile regimes pursuing weapons of mass destruction and supporting terrorists.

This was an invitation to our friends and allies to come forward and say what they would do about this problem, not to say "it is not a problem." They may want to call us unilateralist if they ruled that out.

But there are different means to get there. The president was by no means ruling out diplomacy. Indeed, if you want diplomacy to work you need leverage. That is Diplomacy 101. You don't get the kind of regimes we are talking about to change by having nice conversations with them.

It is no accident that it was only after the State of Union speech that the North Koreans responded to our indications of more than a year ago that we want to talk with them. You see now also signs of positive change in Iran, coming from quarters that used to oppose it entirely, motivated by the same concern-that is, if they don't ?nd a way to get right with the US it could be very bad.

There is a long road there. But is simplistic to say it is either "multilateralist" or "unilateralist" just as it is too simplistic to say it is either "diplomacy" or military power. The two go together.

A lot of the European reaction was to the president's State of the Union speech. Since then they have come to understand that the US is not about to go off and do a lot of crazy things. As time goes on, they have come closer to our position. That is what leadership is about, and that is what taking your allies seriously is about. And that is what we do.

NPQ | America has been attacked on its own soil. Does it make you the hawk everyone says you are to seek to defend America by unilateral means if no one goes along? Wouldn't it be irresponsible for the deputy secretary of defense to do otherwise?

WOLFOWITZ | I don't like the label "hawk" because it suggests someone who is eager to go to war at any time with anybody. That certainly is not me. I am totally unapologetic. What we have done in Afghanistan is totally right. You can't respond to the Sept. 11 kind of attack by going around and taking international public opinion polls. Leadership is convincing people that what you are doing is right. The president is right to say that we can't continue to live with this specter of hostile countries supporting terrorists and threatening us. We have to do something about it. If there are political and diplomatic ways to achieve that, I prefer those to the use of force. That does not make me a dove, either. The result we want is one that protects the American national interest.

NPQ | The "axis of evil" speech apparently did not move Iraq, however. Though President Bush has not made a decision what to do on Iraq, it has been reported that the Pentagon has plans to attack next year. When the president makes his decision, is the military prepared?

WOLFOWITZ | The military is prepared for all kinds of things. We continue thinking, planning and preparing. Obviously, we are prepared not only if the president makes a decision, but also if Saddam Hussein does something stupid.

NPQ | The United Nations is preparing to send inspectors back to Iraq. Do you have any faith in that process at all?

WOLFOWITZ | There is a fundamental problem here: Even when we had effective inspections going on before, the Iraqis obstructed them every time they got close to something. The only reason we got as close as we did was because Saddam's brother-in-law, who was in charge of the weapons programs, defected and gave us a lot of intelligence.

You have to recognize that we are starting anew with more than four years of no inspections. There have been lots of opportunity to hide weapons. And there is no brother-in-law in sight.

So, to try to make an inspection regime that was consciously watered down a few years ago acceptable to Iraq now...the standard has to be UN Resolution 687 that required him to get rid of weapons of mass destruction six months after the Gulf War. The fact that he still has them is a violation that has to be ended. It is going to take a lot more than inspectors wandering around the desert aimlessly to demonstrate he no longer has them.

NPQ | Certainly, isn't Saddam one of the beneficiaries of (Ariel) Sharon's incursion into the West Bank-and the US green-light for it-because it has made it impossible for the US to build up a diplomatic, no less military, coalition against Iraq?

WOLFOWITZ | We have two challenges. One is to deal with the Arab-Israeli problem in the short term in order to reduce violence and in the long term to find some way to a political solution because that is the only solution that will really work.

At the same time, we have a problem defending our own security, dealing with this very dangerous nexus between weapons of mass destruction and regimes that may support terrorism. We have to pursue both. Progress on one will help with the other; and difficulties with one will create difficulty with the others. There is no alternative but to move ahead as strongly as we can on both.

There is no question in my mind that if Secretary (of State Colin) Powell hadn't gone to the region, the situation would have become a lot worse. There was real potential for this war to spread to Lebanon and Syria. There was real potential for Sharon to go much deeper and even arrest Arafat. Against what were unrealistic expectations for that trip, Powell accomplished a lot.

NPQ | Has Sharon hijacked the war on terrorism launched by George Bush? Where do the interests of the US war against terror intersect with Israel's? Where does it depart?

WOLFOWITZ | (Pause) The core of the problem is that this tactic of "homicide bombing" has created enormous difficulties for any hope in the peace process, but also for clarity about what we stand for in terms of fighting terrorism. It is simply wrong for some people, and far too many Europeans, to suggest that some terrorism is okay, to distinguish between good and bad terrorism.

It is at the same time important for us to remain clear that the ultimate solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem has to be a political settlement-essentially based on UN Resolution 242-on a Palestinian state. And in some form or another, Israeli settlements-according to some an issue close to Sharon's heart-have to be addressed.

The obstacle to all of that is, in fact, the suicide bombers.

It would be nice if we heard a little more on that from the Europeans, who have enormous influence over Arafat. Arafat may not care about how much his people suffer, but he does care about his standing in world opinion. It would help if we heard more from Europeans about how suicide bombers are an obstacle to a Palestinian state. An end to the occupation was on the table two years ago at Camp David. The only way to get it back is to end the terrorism.

NPQ | True as that may be, Europeans and others argue that Sharon's objective from the get-go was to undermine Oslo and destroy the prospect of a Palestinian state. Does the US depart from that point of view about Sharon?

WOLFOWITZ | Why don't they talk about how the objective of the suicide bombers was to destroy Oslo? Oslo's greatest chance was at Camp David. And Sharon had nothing to do with the failure of Camp David.

If we could get the kind of political process started that the president wants, then Sharon would have to come clear one way or the other. If they want to put Sharon in the position of obstructionist to peace, that is not possible under conditions of suicide bombing.

NPQ | There are now many calls-from the Saudis to the Europeans-for peacekeepers to stand between the Israelis and Palestinians. Can you imagine any scenario in which US troops would be used there as peacekeepers?

WOLFOWITZ | If there were real peace to keep, then I suppose yes. But there is a tendency when there is a problem that is otherwise insoluble to call for peacekeepers. That is what we did in Lebanon 20 years ago, and the result was terrible, with hundreds of US Marines killed by a suicide bomber.

We did it in Bosnia-but after a peace agreement-and the result was positive.

So far all I hear is a sense of desperation: "Don't just stand there, do something." But that is not always the best advice.

NPQ | When you spoke at a pro-Israel rally in Washington earlier this year, you were booed for voicing concern about the suffering of innocent Palestinians. What did you make of that?

WOLFOWITZ | I didn't expect it. My feeling was-and it should be said that it was a minority of the crowd-that this is what happens when violence inflames passions, though there is much more dehumanization on the other side, I'm afraid. It illustrates why it is so hard to get a political process going until you calm the violence.

NPQ | Around the world, many people looking at the US conclude that it is becoming an "isolationist hegemon"-withdrawing from the ABM treaty, the Kyoto treaty, probably the International Criminal Court and some even suspect, down the road, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty after the new Pentagon plans to modernize its nuclear force. Some, like former Defense Secretary (Robert) McNamara, even worry that the new American nuclear posture will encourage proliferation. And then there is the national missile shield to mainly protect America. Is there any credence to this fear?

WOLFOWITZ | That is nonsense. We are presently engaged in the deepest nuclear reduction the US has ever made, going to levels probably lower than when McNamara was secretary of Defense.

To say that we are scrapping the non-proliferation regime, that we are not interested in controlling nuclear weapons, is not a serious comment.

Yes, there are some agreements out there the US did not do a good job of negotiating. To go to Kyoto and sign a treaty that 97 our of 100 US senators voted against is not a good way of representing US interests. Nor is it good for multilateral activity if you let something go that far that is so overwhelmingly opposed at home.

In the end, the reason I don't buy the idea that the US is unilateralist is because the US is fighting for things that most of the world-specifically the Muslim world-aspire to. I was ambassador to Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world. My experience there convinced me that they want to live in the kind of world the US aspires to build.

A lot of the problem in the Muslim world is that so many countries are run by tyrannical and corrupt regimes. To want to change that does not make us unilateralist. It makes us the allies of the great majority of the world's people.

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