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Keeping a Watchful Eye

Pentagon’s No. 2 Man Monitors Iraq and Capitol Hill, As June 30 Handover Looms

With American servicemen continuing to battle Iraqi insurgents, a military prison abuse scandal still unfolding, the June 30 deadline for transferring power to a native government looming and Congress contemplating more funding for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, officials at the Defense Department are engaged in a delicate balancing act.

Front and center in the aggressive pursuit of President Bush’s war on terror is Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who has been a regular presence on Capitol Hill, justifying the administration’s efforts in a seemingly endless string of hearings.

In an interview with Roll Call Executive Editor Morton M. Kondracke, Wolfowitz said that while he fully expects opponents of America’s mission in Iraq to continue to do everything in their power to disrupt a peaceful handover of power, he remains optimistic that democracy will ultimately triumph, pointing in particular to recent progress in bringing other nations into the process.

A transcript of their discussion follows.

ROLL CALL EXECUTIVE EDITOR MORTON M. KONDRACKE: You’ve submitted a request for $25 billion to finance the Iraq war for part of 2005. People in the administration are saying that it might cost $50 billion and other people are estimating even $80 billion. Why not ask for a bigger amount than $25 billion?

DEPUTY SECRETARY OF DEFENSE PAUL WOLFOWITZ: Because the $25 [billion] is simply to make sure that we can get into the early part of the next calendar year — in other words, the second quarter of the fiscal year, [so we can avoid] having to take important accounts down to zero and disrupt things like the restructuring of the Army. With all the uncertainties that surround war and surround these estimates, it’s going to be pretty hard to know until then.

Let me put it around the other way, we’ll have a much better idea in the January/February time frame of what we’re really going to need for fiscal year ’05. The $25 billion is not five months of expenditures or half of a supplemental, it’s just to get us into that zone early next year when we think we’ll have a reasonable fix on what ’05 will be like.

ROLL CALL: Some people say that you are trying to push this dollar figure off past the election.

WOLFOWITZ: No, it’s that if you try to sit here and predict what you’d need all the way to the end of September of next year, you would almost certainly either be way too high or way too low. I mean the chances of [being] accurate from this distance are next to impossible. By the way, the first year we tried to do something like it was for Afghanistan, for [Operation] Enduring Freedom. We went up asking for a $20 billion contingency war fund, as I recall, and I may have my facts slightly wrong here. But, we were basically told, “That’s a blank check. You don’t know what you’re going to really need and don’t expect us to give it to you now. Come back for supplemental.” Well, I think there is some sense in that. We’ll come back for a supplemental; we’ll come back early next year when we’ll really know whether it’s $50 billion or $80 billion and, hopefully, maybe it’s less than either of those numbers. But, there’s no way to know now.

ROLL CALL: Members of Congress are constantly complaining that the administration doesn’t listen to them when it’s fashioning its Iraq policy. How do you plead?

WOLFOWITZ: We’re listening to everybody and take people’s views very seriously. We had actually quite a good hearing the other day with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where, in fact, the ranking member, Senator [Joseph] Biden [D-Del.], made some helpful suggestions about a NATO role, even if that role is only symbolic, and some helpful suggestions about getting people out to process the detainees in Iraq faster. And, we came back here and put some people to work thinking about those ideas. So, we’re frankly ready to listen to everybody. Although, there are so many different sources of advice, I suppose you’re never going to satisfy everyone.

ROLL CALL: Can you think of an example of a Congressional idea that you’ve actually adopted?

WOLFOWITZ: Give me an example of something that represented a Congressional consensus. I’ll tell you something where we’ve listened to a lot of people — and that was a major change — … [and that] was the acceleration of the move towards sovereignty. When, if you recall, last summer the plan was to continue the occupation until the end of next year when they would have a constitution and a government elected under the constitution. And, I think there were many Members of Congress, as well as members of the international community and many Iraqis who were saying that’s too slow of a time table. And, I can’t identify for you specifically whether we were listening to a Senator, or to an ambassador of another country, or to the Iraqis. We were hearing it from a lot of different directions and we paid attention.

Similarly, I think there’s been a general call for more involvement in the United Nations. I want to say that we’ve never been opposed to a U.N. role but I think that certainly some people might have been reluctant to get someone like [U.N. envoy Lakhdar] Brahimi as deeply involved as he has been. I would hasten to say that I’m not one of them. I liked what he did in Afghanistan and I liked what [the late U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira] de Mello did last summer — it was very important. So, I’ve certainly been very positive about that. But, certainly, the strong push from both sides of the aisle in the Congress to have more U.N. involvement has been one of the things that helps to carry the day when it gets debated in the administration.

ROLL CALL: [Presidential candidate and] Senator John Kerry [D-Mass.] has joined a lot of other people in saying that we need more troops. Now, does the transfer of troops from Korea represent a change in policy in the administration toward more troops?

WOLFOWITZ: The policy has always been to listen to the commanders in the field and not to rubber stamp their request, but I don’t know of a single case where General [Tommy] Franks or now General [John] Abizaid has asked for more troops where the secretary has not approved them. And, the situation not just with Najaf and Karbala in particular but also to some extent Fallujah has put a greater demand on our troops. That’s why the 1st Armored Division had to be extended and yes, bringing in the brigade from Korea is a way to cover that requirement. People seem to want to decide abstractedly on some number of troops irrespective of the situation, irrespective of what commanders ask for, just to say, “more troops.”

The truth is, you can get to a point where the commanders will say, “Don’t give me more troops. You’re creating force protection problems for me. You’re creating logistics problems for me.” I remember [1st Marine Division] General [James] Mattis was quite eloquent earlier when he was down in Najaf and Karbala he sent home some 17,000 Marines early because he didn’t need them and having them around was, in his view, a burden and a risk.

By the way, I think it’s a point worth emphasizing, especially to Iraqis, that it’s healthy, in my view, that if there’s a debate in this country, it seems to be between people who want to keep our troops and people who want more troops. We’re not talking about pulling out of Iraq.

ROLL CALL: Kerry’s other idea is to have an international high commissioner for reconstruction which the administration seems to be resisting. What’s wrong with that idea?

WOLFOWITZ: I would want to study it before I said it’s wrong. But, I think that the heart of the matter is we want to move as rapidly as possible to Iraqis being in charge of their country. There’s enormous talent and expertise in that country.

Just the way in which they managed to keep the crumbling infrastructure stitched together in spite of all of the sanctions the country was under and the misallocation of resources by Saddam Hussein I think tells you these are people who have a pretty considerable talent to run their own country. Whether some kind of international high commissioner would be helpful to them or not is a question that’s worth addressing. But, let’s not hasten to put Iraq under the trusteeship of the United Nations at the expense of it being truly sovereign.

ROLL CALL: And another proposal is that our troops should be operating under NATO imprimatur. We would still have an American commander but there would be a NATO sponsorship of all this. Is that possible?

WOLFOWITZ: Well, that’s one of the ideas that Senator Biden put forth in the hearing the other day and I think it’s certainly something that, in principle, we would welcome pretty strongly. I went to Brussels in December of ’02 in anticipation of a possible war in Iraq and one of the things I stressed as a possible NATO role would be specifically contributing to reconstruction and stability operations. I like the idea even if it’s somewhat symbolic, that is, even if it does deliver large additional impact of having the symbolism of NATO formally being involved there. But, I think that the issue is that some of the countries are still, at best, sitting on the fence with respect to the future there.

ROLL CALL: Kerry’s overall criticism of Iraq policy and administration foreign policy in general is that it’s arrogant and dismissive toward allies. Is there not a way that this administration could have been or still could be getting along better with the allies and doing better by world opinion?

WOLFOWITZ: Well, look, there are always debates. I remember how much criticism we heard from allies of the Clinton administration first over Bosnia and, even more dramatically, over Kosovo.

And, those were relatively easy operations with no casualties and none of the serious consequences that go with real war. I would say, on the whole, we’ve had an impressive level of support from more than 30 nations. We’re looking for more and we would welcome more.

We certainly think that this is not a project that only the United States has interest in; we really think the whole world, including the whole Arab world [has a role]. But, you can’t achieve a result as big as what needs to be achieved in Iraq if you compromise about everything and if you go for consensus on everything. We’re trying to bring as many people along with us as we can.

ROLL CALL: Are you at all concerned that the American public is beginning to turn sour on the war? Something like 53 percent in the Gallup polls now say that it wasn’t worth it and 56 percent say that it’s going badly. Does that create morale problems both for the Iraqis and the troops?

WOLFOWITZ: Well, you know, the president the other night laid out a pretty clear way forward with his five steps. The first of which was handing over the authority to the sovereign Iraqi government. We’ve just had, I think, a huge success in the last few weeks, assisted by bringing in the United Nations, with a new interim Iraqi government named with some pretty impressive, capable people and with a lot of participation by many different elements of Iraqi society. … So, we’re already, I think, moving further forward. The election is at the end of the year which I guess was the fifth step in the president’s plan, a major event which the enemy is clearly going to target hard in the coming months.

That sort of brings you back to where we, in this department, are most concerned and that is building capable Iraqi security forces. And, there were some real setbacks in April partly because [the security forces] weren’t ever envisioned to be ready for that kind of fighting that early. I think already the new prime minister has come forward with his own ideas about strengthening Iraqi security forces.

I think it’s going to contribute a lot. So look, we’re still fighting a war as well as trying to win a peace and you can’t do that on a time table and you don’t do it according to opinion polls. But I think the troops out there … are very committed to this mission and understand its importance. And, I think that the American people understand that it’s important.

ROLL CALL: Both the president and now you say that you expect the handover on June 30 to be attended by an increase in violence. Do you have intelligence as to the extent of it? Are we talking about 1968 Tet-style offensive or something on that order?

WOLFOWITZ: I didn’t put it specifically on June 30. I mean all you have to do is read the horrible letter that this Al Qaeda associated character, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, sent to his friends in Afghanistan, which we intercepted, which lays out a strategy. Basically, he says that when Iraqis eventually run this country it will be suffocation.

So, the strategy that he lays out there is to create as much chaos and mayhem as you can and try to provoke a civil war between Shia and Sunnis or drive Iraqis out of the security services.

And, I think that they’ve been working hard at it in the last couple of months. I expect that their efforts will intensify as we get closer to elections. But, no, you can’t predict these things. The one thing that I think we do know, though, is that as much as Iraqis are showing increasing unhappiness for the occupation and that’s a good reason for it to end on July 1, impressive numbers of them, even among Sunni Arabs, still believe that it was worth it to get rid of Saddam Hussein.

ROLL CALL: Now, after June 30, if the new Iraqi government says to the United States, “We don’t think that you should go back into Fallujah or Najaf.” Do we listen to them? Or, do we do what we think we need to do?

WOLFOWITZ: Well, we’ve been listening to them already. I mean, the outcome in Fallujah was shaped quite considerably by Iraqi views. I think, being a fully sovereign government, we certainly will listen to them. It’s interesting, I think, that in his remarks [last Tuesday], [new Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad] Allawi said that, “We, Iraqis, do not want our country to remain under occupation. … We will of course strive to deal effectively with the security and terrorist threats alone but this seems impossible in the present circumstances, that we will need the participation and support of the multinational forces.” …

ROLL CALL: If Syria, Iran and Egypt look at what we’re doing in Iraq, are they inclined to move toward democracy?

WOLFOWITZ: Well, it depends on who you mean. If you mean — “Are the leaders of those countries inclined?” — they’ve shown very clearly where their inclinations lie and it’s not in that direction. The question is whether Arabs can get a chance to show the world that they’re capable of representative self government and in a responsible way. And, we’re taking major steps. Come back to the president’s plan. It doesn’t happen overnight and even his plan of five steps will only take us to the beginning of next year. But, just what’s happening now, it’s a novelty in the Arab world, I think, to have the kind of debate that Iraqis will be engaging in … and, it’s going to be a novelty to have a genuine, free election. And I think it’s having its effects already. When this really vicious enemy that’s out there is defeated and things begin to move forward more peacefully, I think it’s going to have an even bigger effect.

It’s not a domino effect, let me hasten to say. Nobody ever said that it would have that sort of automaticity to it. It didn’t in East Asia and it won’t in the Middle East.

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