It Depends on What You Mean by Imminent Danger
Condoleezza Rice, National Security Advisor to US President George Bush, sat down with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels on Feb. 26 at the Ronald Reagan Library in California for a tour d’horizon of US foreign policy.
NPQ | The South Korean national security advisor Ra Jong Yil believes that in order to escape isolation, “North Korea will disarm like South Africa did,” or now Libya. Yet Bill Clinton’s defense secretary, William Perry, for example, believes the North Koreans will never give up their weapons.
What is your view of Pyongyang’s motivations, and your response to its statement that if the United States “gave up its hostile policy” it would negotiate to disarm?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE | We’ve heard that line before—that it is our hostility somehow that puts them in need of security guarantees. The US does not have hostile intentions toward North Korea and has said so many times. It is not the US that is poised to strike at the heart of Seoul. The North Koreans know we don’t have aggressive intentions against them.
I don’t know what motivates them. But the policy course is the same. If you want to test the North Korean intentions to engage in complete and verifiable elimination of their mass destruction weapons—which is the only way they will ever integrate into the international community—then you do exactly what the US is doing. You put together an international coalition—the six-party talks now going on in Beijing—where the North Koreans have to face not only the US but also China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. We’ll see how far we get. We’ll know more about their motivations as the talks unfold.
The good news is that, in the six-party context, the North Koreans cannot play sides off against one another to take the pressure off. To go this way is the most important decision we have made.
NPQ | Abdolkarim Soroush, the Iranian scholar some call “the Martin Luther of Islam,” has said that “one of the unintended consequences of the US overthrow of Saddam and the wider influence of the Shiites in Iraq may well be to enhance the democratic prospects next door in Iran.” That is because the overall balance of power has shifted among Shiites toward the so-called Najaf grand ayatollahs of Iraq, such as Ali al-Sistani, who oppose theocracy and favor separation of mosque and state. Do you see this?
RICE | He has a very good point. We are not unaware of the tremendous potential of this Najaf and Karbala influence. Many of the mullahs do not believe that the theocracy in Iran is appropriate. If we can help the Iraqis build a state with a constitution that recognizes the important role of Islam, of course, but also the freedom of other religious practices, that there shouldn’t be a theocracy in Iraq, then, yes, it will have a very important impact on Iran. It is one of the reasons the Iranian mullahs are so concerned over what is happening in Iraq; it is one of the reasons we warn them not to try to engage in destabilizing actions in Iraq.
It is unfortunate that what has happened in Iran now is a further isolation of any liberal tendencies—which is clearly where the people want to go.
So you have the unelected few suppressing the desires of the many. To the degree that these Iranian mullahs begin to understand that the democratic process in Iraq makes them less legitimate, it is a good thing.
NPQ | The National Security Strategy the Bush administration published in 2002 argued for a preemptive strategy “against forces that present an imminent danger of attack.” Iraq was the first test of that strategy.
Given what we know now from David Kay and others that no stockpiles of WMD seem to have existed when the US invaded, did the Iraq threat meet the test of imminent danger set out in the National Security Strategy?
RICE | The biggest problem we have had since Sept. 11—given the shadowy nature of terrorist networks, proliferation and the links between the two—is that you never know when something is imminent. You have to begin to change your notion of “imminent.” Now, what President Bush said in his State of the Union speech was that “we could not afford to wait” until the Iraqi threat became imminent. After 12 years of trying to get Iraq to live up to its promises to comply with United Nations resolutions, a final resolution, 1441, said it had one last chance to comply. Only then did we take action to enforce.
Did that meet the criteria of preemptive action? The world had been more than patient with Saddam Hussein.
NPQ | The test, then, is “that we can’t wait for imminence,” not “imminent danger,” as the strategy document says?
RICE | What I said is that it is hard to know how to define “imminent danger” in a world in which you can’t see what is coming at you. Did we know Sept. 11 was imminent?
We didn’t know it on Sept. 10. We didn’t know it at 7a.m. on Sept. 11.
What you can’t afford is to let threats gather because you don’t know when they will become imminent.
NPQ | As it turns out, weren’t the UN inspectors closer to the mark on what Iraq had than the administration? One former UN chief inspector, Rolf Ekeus, argued well before last year’s invasion that inspectors had destroyed 95 percent of Iraq WMD programs by 1998, and it made little sense for them to use whatever remained in chemical precursors and growth medium for weapons because they would deteriorate unless used. Would you agree the UN inspectors had it right?
RICE | With all due respect, the UNSCOM final report in 1999 said that Saddam had “unaccounted for” stockpiles. What had happened to the biological media? Had it been used to make weapons?
We don’t know. UNSCOM said “unaccounted for.” I remember Hans Blix saying (to the Iraqis) “mustard gas is not like marmalade, you ought to know what you did with it.” So what the weapons inspectors were saying was “we can’t tell you what happened to the difference between what we found and destroyed and what they are capable of making.” That is what they said.
In fact, the David Kay report demonstrates that the inspectors were not close in their last effort. If Hans Blix had found any of the hundreds of prohibited activities and laboratories, we would’ve been back before the UN in one moment to talk about “material breach.” The fact is Saddam Hussein was able to deceive the world effectively over a long period of time. He had the intent. He had the capability. And he had used his weapons before. It was time to deal with that problem. We weren’t in a position to rely on his goodwill and take a best-case analysis.
NPQ | The original democrats in Russia like Mikhail Gorbachev and his top aide Aleksandr Yakovlev worry that President Vladimir Putin is taking their country back to the old Soviet ways. Yakovlev even calls it “the restoration of the nomenklatura.” You are an old Soviet hand. Does Russia worry you these days?
RICE | There are reasons to be concerned. And we’ve communicated that to the Russians.
Let’s keep it in context. Russia has come a long way from the Soviet Union.
People do say what they think. It is a more open economy than we could have imagined back then.
But we are concerned because there is a strong presidency without countervailing institutions. The Duma is not effective. People worry about the independence of the judiciary. The independent electronic media have been compromised with state ownership.
Yes, there is a danger that the absence of countervailing institutions will leave too much power in the Kremlin. That is a problem for Russia because, first of all, they won’t have the most creative economy or people if there is not an open society. Second, it is a problem because the deepening of relations between the US and Russia depends on convergence of values.
If Russia is ever going to become a consolidated democracy, civil society—from private associations to political parties—will have to develop.
Those are what really make democracy work.
NPQ | Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Bush administration agree on the goal of limiting production of fissile material to stop proliferation. Yet ElBaradei says that the US nuclear-modernization plans—bunker-busting nukes, for example—undermine the essential bargain of the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), which is that non-nuclear states will forsake arms if nuclear powers move toward disarmament. What do you say to that?
RICE | President Bush has done more to denuclearize than anybody else has.
The Treaty of Moscow makes deep cuts in American- and Russian-deployed nuclear forces. This changed the whole view of arms control. We didn’t go through thousands of negotiated pages. We just did it. And then the Russians just did it.
The fact that we are building missile defenses further enhances denuclearization because it reduces, so to speak, the demand side (of the need for more missiles).
There has not been any decision made on what further nuclear development the US might undertake. That simply has not been done. There are only studies.
The real issue is that we are taking on the most difficult problem of proliferation: the “bargain” of the NPT—the most important treaty we have in the nuclear field—wasn’t holding. The idea that somehow North Korea, Iran, Libya and Iraq were deterred by the thought that others might be interested in denuclearization was clearly not the case.
The NPT is in very deep trouble. Fortunately—because President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair decided they were finally going to enforce the word of the international community vis a vis Iraq and because our intelligence agencies were able to start unraveling the A.Q. Khan network—we are beginning to rebuild some confidence that the NPT might hold.
The IAEA is having a somewhat easier time getting the Iranians to play ball, although I have to say the Iranians still try to wiggle out of every agreement they make. We finally have the first real reversal in a long time with the Libyans deciding they are going to get out of the nuclear business.
It was not working for the signatories of the NPT to plead for conformance to the norms of non-proliferation. We needed someone to get tough on enforcement. Because we have gotten tough on non-proliferation, we have breathed new life into the NPT.
NPQ | Many people just can’t believe that A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani scientist, acted alone without the knowledge of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and the military. Are you convinced Pakistan is under control, as Musharraf says it is?
RICE | A.Q. Khan was not just a lone scientist. He was unusual because he was a national hero. He may have been a special case.
The main thing is that we are getting very good cooperation from Pakistan in unraveling this proliferation network. A.Q. Khan’s customers ought to be getting very nervous. The North Koreans who are sitting there saying they don’t have a highly enriched uranium program must now realize there are other sources of information about their program.
Prior to Sept. 11, the strategic orientation of Pakistan was headed in a dangerous direction. Relations with the Taliban were close. Extremists were gaining power in the country. Extremists were being supported in Kashmir.
After Sept. 11, the US actually went to Musharraf and told him he had to make a choice. His choice was to be on the right side in the war on terrorism. As a result, there has been a tremendous strategic reorientation there. Pakistan now has better relations with Afghanistan and with India.
More Al Qaeda operatives have been caught with the help of Pakistan than anywhere else. Musharraf has given a couple of extraordinary speeches in which he said a modern Pakistan and extremism cannot exist in the same body.
He is trying to reform his educational system.
It is not perfect. But if you look at Pakistan’s orientation three years ago and today, it is like night and day.