10 Years On, Paul Wolfowitz Admits U.S. Bungled in Iraq

10 Years On, Paul Wolfowitz Admits U.S. Bungled in Iraq

By Toby Harnden - March 18, 2013

The former deputy Pentagon chief, Paul Wolfowitz, a driving force behind the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, has conceded that a series of blunders by George W. Bush’s administration plunged Iraq into a cycle of violence that “spiralled out of control”.

In an interview with The Sunday Times to mark the 10th anniversary of the Iraq invasion, he said there “should have been Iraqi leadership from the beginning”, rather than a 14-month occupation led by an American viceroy and based on “this idea that we’re going to come in like [General Douglas] MacArthur in Japan and write the constitution for them”.

He accepted that too many Iraqis were excluded by a programme to purge members of the ruling Ba’ath party, that the dissolution of the Iraqi army was botched and that the “biggest hole” in post-war planning was not to anticipate the possibility of an insurgency.

“The most consequential failure was to understand the tenacity of Saddam’s regime,” he said.

Wolfowitz, 69, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington since he stepped down as World Bank president in 2007, has a somewhat diffident manner but he became animated as he reflected on the lead-up to the invasion and its aftermath.

He portrayed the Bush administration as deeply divided and he was fiercely critical of Colin Powell, the then secretary of state.

It was “outrageous” and “a joke” for Powell — who reportedly used to speak of a “Gestapo office” at the Pentagon — to have suggested that the case for the Iraq War was concocted by Wolfowitz and a cabal of fellow neoconservatives within the Bush administration, he said.

“I don’t think I ever met with the president alone. I didn’t meet with him very often. Powell had access to him whenever he wanted it. And if he was so sure it was a mistake why didn’t he say so?”

Wolfowitz called for Saddam’s overthrow during the 1991 Gulf War and was the first senior official to advise Bush, days after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, to seek regime change in Iraq.

He denied that he was “the architect” of the Iraq invasion. “It wasn’t conducted according to my plan.”

His desire, he said, was to train Iraqi exile troops to take part in the invasion and then avoid the “illusion” that Americans could run the country better than Iraqis. “Most Americans needed a translator, which in itself was a terrible weakness because translators were either vulnerable to assassination or they were working for the enemy.”

Wolfowitz’s familiar shock of greying hair — mocked by Michael Moore in the anti-war documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, which uses footage of him trying to smooth it down with spit before a television appearance — is now almost white.

But he believes it is still too soon to pass judgment on the wisdom of the invasion of Iraq, which began 10 years ago this week.

“We still don’t know how all this is all going to end,” he said. “With the Korean War , it is amazing how different Korea looks after 60 years than it looked after 10 or even 30.”

The Iraq counterinsurgency strategy implemented in 2007, two years after Wolfowitz had left the Pentagon, was “impressively successful in a relatively short space of time”, even though the situation “had spiralled out of control and we’d had sectarian war”.

There would have been a high price to pay for inaction over Saddam, he insisted. “We would have had a growing development of Saddam’s support for terrorism.

“We would very likely either have had to go through this whole scenario all over but probably with higher costs for having delayed, or we’d be in a situation today where not only Iran was edging towards nuclear weapons but so was Iraq and also Libya.”

Wolfowitz lambasted those who accuse Bush of lying about Iraq. The conclusion that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction was “the consensus judgment of the intelligence community” and of most Democratic senators — “Hillary Clinton certainly was one of them”.

He added: “The falsehood that the president lied, which by the way is itself a lie, is so much worse than saying we were wrong. A mistake is one thing, a lie is something else.”

Before the invasion, Wolfowitz was an admirer of Ahmad Chalabi, the controversial Iraqi exile who has since broken with the US government.

Asked if he thought Chalabi, whose Iraqi National Congress is said to have supplied much of the information to US intelligence that prompted the invasion, had been straight with America, Wolfowitz replied: “I don’t think anybody in that part of the world was completely straight with us. They all had their agendas.”

By implication, Wolfowitz is critical of the US military, some of whose generals suggested sending in as many as 300,000 troops. “I don’t want to get into the finger-pointing business but we had sort of forgotten everything we’d learnt 30 years before about counterinsurgency . . . this was not the kind of war you win by overwhelming force.”

His biggest fear now is that war weariness will prompt America to abandon Iraq and leave Syria’s rebels to their fate, just as the Shi’ite rebels in southern Iraq were allowed to be crushed by Saddam in 1991.

“If those rebellions had succeeded, we would never have had that second [Iraq] war . . . that is the lesson we should be applying in Syria today.

“Instead, somehow people are afraid to do anything to help the Syrian rebels lest we end up with an invasion and occupation of Syria. But that isn’t on the table.”

Over the years, Wolfowitz has quietly visited grievously wounded troops at Walter Reed military hospital outside Washington as well as the families of those who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Asked whether the deaths and injuries of troops weigh on him, he paused before responding: “I realise these are consequential decisions. It’s just that they’re consequential both ways.

“I don’t want to start to reopen this whole debate about 9/11 and what our overall response was and the fact that we haven’t been hit again.

“But at the core of it to me is we faced a very serious threat. I think we’ve done remarkably well at preventing a recurrence.” 


Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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