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Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz Interview with New York Times

Presenter: Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz
April 18, 2002

(Interview with Eric Schmitt, NY Times)

[Initial segment of interview deleted due to ground rule.]

Q: Again, thank you very much for your time.

We really were interested in the speech and kind of the timing of all of this obviously coming in the midst of what's going on in the Middle East, Secretary Powell's trip. I wondered if you could maybe just start with the origin of the speech. I heard you were asked on Friday to come up with something within basically 48 hours for the Monday rally.

Wolfowitz: Yeah.

Q: Talk a little bit about how that evolved. Who asked you and when did you get the word?

Wolfowitz: Karl Rove called up and said we just had a meeting with the president and he wants you to speak to this rally, and it became clear that the "wants you to" was very firm. So it was Friday afternoon and we basically had 48 hours to get it done.

Q: What was your assignment? Did you know about the rally at the time or did you have --

Wolfowitz: Actually it was the first I heard of it. I did not know it was happening. The whole thing I think was pretty spontaneous. And I guess to this day I don't know the thoughts that went into the pros and cons of speaking there. I could guess --

Q: It's interesting that Karl Rove called you and not Condi Rice.

Wolfowitz: No, actually, I said isn't there anyone else who could do it? He said no, Condi's the only other choice and she was in the meeting and you weren't. [Laughter]

No, I think he was a messenger.

Q: So when you, did they give you any sense of how they wanted you to address this group, or was that really up to you?

Wolfowitz: I think it was up to me to figure out and we worked pretty much all weekend, different phases, came up with -- when I say we it definitely includes me. I had a draft that I took home Sunday night and worked a long time on. And Monday morning gave it to Steve Hadley and Rich Armitage for clearance, and both of them said it was fine.

Q: Did they change anything?

Wolfowitz: No.

Q: Was there anybody, anyone at the White House or State or even here at Defense that thought you maybe shouldn't speak, that this was putting you in a difficult position?

Wolfowitz: No, I don't think so.

Q: Any reservations expressed by the secretary here or --

Wolfowitz: I in fact told Rumsfeld and he said go do it.

Q: We'll talk a little bit about the crafting of this speech. I was told you were going to get a brief down at Fort Bragg, I guess. You were juggling a lot of --

Wolfowitz: I spent most of Sunday down in North Carolina.

Q: Getting, what was it, a briefing on special operations?

Wolfowitz: Special operations.

I had been invited to give a keynote speech to their annual commanders conference but I saw the program and I saw the three hours preceding me were going to be the two Special Forces commanders who have been in Afghanistan briefing on what they had done so I said let's go down and hear them. That's much more valuable than going down and giving a speech. I have to tell you it really was incredible. What these guys have done is incredible, and their ability to articulate and explain in a sophisticated way is extraordinary too.

Q: I know a lot of people interpreted you as being the envoy or the emissary for the president in the speech as an attempt to kind of mollify some of the conservative critics who had challenged the administration's Middle East policy [inaudible] the Israelis [stopped] their campaign there.

What's going through your mind as you draft your remarks in terms of trying to strike that balance? Addressing a group with a pro-Israel solidarity speech, but a group that's also, a rally that puts them critical with Secretary Powell's Middle East peace effort.

Wolfowitz: I'm not sure it was. I think there were a lot of different views out there, some more vocal than others. And in fact the organizers very specifically said it's not a rally to criticize the administration. I think if it had been we wouldn't have gone. And it was described as, and I think it was a rally to show support for Israel and a concern for Israel, which clearly the president shares. And I think it's important both for that audience, but actually also for the foreign audience, that is to say the Israeli audience in this case, well actually the whole foreign audience, to make it clear that he shares that concern. At the same time this made my job more difficult than any other speaker at the rally. I had to try to present the whole range of our policy and not just the part that is sympathetic to Israel. And I guess that's what drew the strong audience reaction.

Q: What was your reaction to that? You're obviously one of the most pro-Israel figures in the administration, identified as such. What did you feel like --

Wolfowitz: You know, can I say I don't like that label? I'm pro-American I think. I think everyone in this administration is sympathetic and supportive of Israel and every one of us also understands that we have interests that aren't necessarily the same as Israel's.

But I believe very strongly that quite fundamentally it is important to recognize the humanity of both sides in a conflict. That's why I said what I said. I also think that's U.S. policy. And I also knew that passions have been stirred to a point that that would be a difficult passage for the crowd. I suppose there was a little more audience interaction than I anticipated. But I knew it would be a hard thing for some of them to hear.

I would also say no one was going to cheer that line in that crowd, but there were an awful lot of people who came up to me afterwards from that crowd who said thank you for saying that. It was important to say that also.

Q: You've obviously done a lot of speeches. Have you ever been booed before?

Wolfowitz: I've never spoken to 100,000 people before, either. It's not as memorable as last Monday, that's for sure.

Q: How closely do you -- let me ask you this --

Wolfowitz: I think the worst I've run into is a groan from a student audience. [Laughter]

Q: What is your position on Israel? Your personal position?

Wolfowitz: It is the administration's. There really isn't daylight, and there isn't daylight within the administration. I think we have -- with respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict per se, I mean isolated from the larger context and you can't, but looking at it on its own I think there is a huge challenge of on the one hand balancing our opposition to terrorism and our support for Israel's security with on the other hand the clear recognition that the long term solution has got to be a political solution. I think you see that balance in the president's remarks from a couple of Thursdays ago when he announced he was sending Powell out there. I think you see it in everything Powell's been trying to do. I think you see it in the administration's policy. In a certain way that same dilemma or the need to balance I think is reflected in the relationship between the Arab-Israeli conflict and the larger war on terrorism.

Q: The former depending on the latter?

Wolfowitz: I actually believe they interact with one another and I think any progress you can make on either one helps you with the other.

There's no question that if the Messiah came tomorrow and we could settle the Arab-Israeli conflict it would simplify many of the challenge we face in the larger war on terrorism. I also think there's no question that every time we score a victory against terrorism in the larger context it helps to reduce the effectiveness of terrorism as a weapon in this specific conflict.

I deeply believe that terrorism is the cause of the continuation of the conflict. It's not only Israelis that suffer because of the terrorism, it's the Palestinians who are suffering. And why certain people think that advancing the Palestinian cause to undertake acts that not only kill innocents on the other side but make peace harder to achieve, that's beyond me. I don't understand it.

Q: I think the conventional wisdom here in Washington at least is you can't get to the next big phase of the war on terrorism that's been articulated by the president, going after axis of evil countries, particularly Iraq, without necessarily settling the Middle East conflict first.

Wolfowitz: It's a very complicated world. Let me give you an illustration that's outside the Middle East, if I could for a second. That's North Korea.

For a year we've been saying we would meet anywhere, any time without conditions and the North Koreans have basically been stiffing us. Then the president makes his State of the Union message and all kinds of people say oh, this is terrible, it will obstruct diplomacy in Korea, and now we're starting to hear the North Koreans would like to talk to us.

The world works in funny ways. I think what the president was doing in the State of the Union message was to lay out a problem and lay it out with the kind of clarity and determination that I think had two effects. One, to make people think about the problem and to think about it in different ways; and second I think in all kinds of ways to recalibrate people's positions around the world because people know they don't jump to our orders, that's clear. But on the other hand when the United States sets a direction that sets other people's directions.

If that seems like a roundabout answer to your question, what I'm -- it is in a way. The point is we haven't defined yet what the answer is to that problem, let's say the Iraqi problem. The president defined what the problem is, we are thinking through what solutions, what policies there can be, and in the mean time the world changes in certain ways. It opens up some options, makes others more difficult. It's not an accident that Iraq sees a great interest in fueling the Arab-Israeli conflict because it certainly makes things more difficult, but I don't think it's an either/or.

Q: Why not? How do you -- the vice president went to the region, visited basically every Arab country, many of them our allies. [This would be] bad timing. So how is it you can continue to plan apparently for that contingency?

Wolfowitz: Because there are what, 40 million Iraqis, I don't know the exact number, who are living under a horrible regime. None of them think we should wait until the Messiah comes to the Middle East.

I think the president's basic message is that the combination of hostile regimes that support terrorism that also have weapons of mass destruction is just something we can't continue to live with indefinitely. And how long is too long? I suppose every extra month and year that goes by the danger grows and the danger remains. You just have to find ways to deal with it and we're working on that.

Q: Aren't there practical considerations, [basing ranges], that are much --

Wolfowitz: Those are the kinds of things we're working on.

Q: -- to work through when the environment is as volatile as it is right now.

Wolfowitz: Yeah, and it's also more difficult to deal with the Middle East when you have Saddam Hussein out there literally throwing bombs.

Q: So is that one way, that's one of the arguments you can use when you're talking to these allies? We understand it's a difficult time for you --

Wolfowitz: I think one of the most important arguments with any country, allies or others, is the sense of American determination, and the president really has shown enormous determination and resolve.

You see it in all kinds of little ways and in some big ways. I mentioned the North Korean example. People change their behavior based on what they think we're going to do.

Look, I guess I'm being a little bit coy because I'm not about to discuss the state of planning on Iraq or make predictions about what we'll be doing in the future, but I just think we just can't afford to let one problem, no matter how acute it is and how serious it is, to paralyze us and make us incapable of doing --

Q: The president was clear about this in the interview he gave to the British in India just a week or so ago and in his speech yesterday at VMI. He reiterated this is not going to slow you down or stop you. But I guess as you've said it, it raises the barriers. Somebody's thought a lot about this [inaudible]. How do you think about this? Is it --

Wolfowitz: No, I mean I guess the way I think about it is let's figure out what we can do as effectively as possible to ease this crisis in the short term and hopefully get some kind of political process restarted. I think part of that is doing what the President did, again, two Thursdays ago I guess it was. Fill in the date for me. You know which remarks I mean. Where he among other things in launching Powell did try to lay out more clearly, although he's laid it out before, but our vision of what an outcome ought to be.

I used a phrase in my speech on Monday about terrorism being the single greatest obstacle to the Palestinian state that the whole world is prepared to recognize. That was another line the crowd didn't much care for. It happens to be true. It happens to be true that the world, including Israel, is prepared to recognize a Palestinian state. The biggest obstacle to getting a real negotiation going for the last 18 months has been this horrendous level of terrorism, and it makes it more difficult for us also because it puts us in the policy dilemma of wanting to move forward but not wanting to be rewarding terrorism.

So --

Q: There are those that are you are, just by dealing with the Palestinians.

Wolfowitz: There are people who will always -- look, when you're trying to balance, and go back to where we started from, we're trying to balance two different policy objectives, and I think actually most serious policy issues I know require some degree of balancing, and when that happens you're never going to make people who have a one-dimensional view of the problem completely happy with you. If you can make some progress, that's the [major] thing.

Q: The secretary's back now. What's the next step?

Wolfowitz: To figure out the next step. I think, I don't know if you've met with the president yet but clearly there's got to be some very serious deliberation based on what he's brought back and what he's learned. I think he was given an incredibly difficult assignment and it seems to me he has at least lowered the temperature somewhat, particularly relative to what it might have been if he hadn't gone. And I think the first thing is to find out what he recommends in the way of next steps.

Q: Tom Freedman yesterday in his column called once again for a definitive Bush peace plan that would include an introduction of either NATO or U.S. forces. What's your view on that?

Wolfowitz: I don't want to start getting in the way of diplomacy by [inaudible] things out. It does seem to me, we've gone from Camp David where there was one of the most detailed plans in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at Camp David plus Taba afterwards. That was rejected. Then we've been through all the horrors of the last month. I'm not against, let me make it clear, I'd love to see an effective final settlement of this issue, but I think the idea that we need a more detailed grand plan as opposed to we need people to calm down and have a ceasefire and stop killing each other and sit down and talk to one another, so I'm a long way from seeing where peacekeepers fit into a plan. But if someone shows me how it happens, I think it's worth considering anything that might work in the situation.

Q: But again lowering the temperature on that facilitates maybe --

Wolfowitz: It does, yeah. But it also facilitates --

Q: More planning, open doors on the other side in the larger war on terrorism?

Wolfowitz: It would do that but I also think it's the prerequisite for making some progress on the peace process.

Q: Just to close the loop on the issue of practical limitations in [basing], what's the minimum that you would need --

Wolfowitz: Eric, I can't start talking about military requirements.

Voice: You're so persistent.

Wolfowitz: That's why he's a good reporter. [Laughter] That's why it took him six months to get my interview --

Q: To get it right.

Obviously you are Jewish yourself. Talk a little bit about your growing up and what growing up Jewish in your household meant to you. I know you lived in Israel I think for a brief time when you were --

Wolfowitz: My father had a sabbatical year there.

I suppose for starters an enormous sense of gratitude to the United States. My father was actually an immigrant from Poland and his entire family that didn't emigrate was wiped out.

Q: In the Holocaust?

Wolfowitz: Yeah. I think, and it's -- I also think that that sense of what happened in Europe in World War II has shaped a lot of my views about politics and foreign policy in general. I think it's a very bad thing when people exterminate other people and people persecute minorities. It doesn't mean that we can prevent every such incident the world, but I think it's also a mistake to dismiss that sort of concern as merely humanitarian and not related to real interests, because I think the, go from the dark side to the bright side, the bright side of politics which is the ideals of freedom and democracy and those kinds of nobler passions, if one can call then that, have been some of the most powerful engines of change in the last 50 years. It's those forces that brought down the Soviet Union and not [real politic], so I guess I'm getting from the past to the present awfully fast. But I really -- The history of World War II had a big impact on me.

Q: What about the history --

Wolfowitz: Also, by the way, the way it ended. I remember reading John Hersey's Hiroshima when I was a kid, and not long after that reading some equally grisly technical accounts about the effects of nuclear weapons. I think one or the things that ultimately led me to leave mathematics and go into political science was thinking I could help to prevent nuclear war. That's another form of very bad --

Q: What about the creation of the state of Israel and Israel's survival during those post-war years? Is that something that --

Wolfowitz: I was too little.

Q: -- not you but your family. Was it a motivation for your father going, spending that time --

Wolfowitz: No, he was a mathematician and there was very good math to be done there.

He was a passionate newspaper reader but not very political other than that.

Q: -- a Zionist?

Wolfowitz: No.

Q: Growing up you didn't identify yourself with --

Wolfowitz: No. In fact I remember one of the difficult things to resist in an Israeli high school -- now they have a much greater sense of separation. Back in the 1950s they thought if you were Jewish you had to live in Israel and every week I'd have an argument with my friends about why that wasn't true and why I wasn't going to live in Israel, that I was an American.

Q: Let me fast forward quickly and talk about your experiences as Ambassador to Indonesia. A very different experience, obviously, the world's most populous Muslim nation.

Wolfowitz: Let me correct you. The largest Muslim population of any country in the world. They don't like to be called a Muslim nation because Islam is not the state religion. Sorry. I just have to do my propaganda.

It's because Indonesia and Turkey are the only two Muslim majority countries where Islam is not the recognized state religion, and they are very proud of it in Indonesia.

Anyway, the largest Muslim population in the world.

Q: But that experience layered on over everything else that you've [had], how did that shape your world view, even today as you --

Wolfowitz: I think something I would say that includes that but some other things as well, and for a very long time I've been impressed by the importance of moderate Islam and I suppose that partly starts with the sense that if there's going to be peace been Arabs and Israelis there have got to be Muslims who see the value of peace. And for me when Anwar Saddat went and spoke in the Knesset, and I didn't understand Arabic at the time, but I found just the opening words made me want to learn it, it was such a powerful, emotional moment. The speech itself which I quoted in my speech. I memorized chunks of it, and the lines I quoted were lines I think are very very powerful ones. It's an interest that goes back actually to that period which is also when I started getting very familiar with Turkey. I've had a 25 year interest in Turkey which I think is a very important country, is a model of a Muslim majority country that is struggling.

I think reasonably successfully you can be democratic and progressive economically and tolerant.

I ended up almost by accident as ambassador to Indonesia, but --

Q: How did that happen?

Wolfowitz: In the sense that it looked like an interesting opportunity and my wife was an anthropologist with a background in Indonesia, so I sort of took it on that grounds and just fell in love with the country in a way I hadn't really anticipated. And part of what was so engaging about it was the very open-minded, tolerant attitude towards a lot of things including religious matters. There's a large Christian minority which is very influential and very comfortable. They're not quite as good about how they deal with Chinese. The Chinese are the real minority. But even so you have, I remember prominent Muslim leaders in Indonesia who spoke out against persecution of Chinese. I found that a very moving and powerful example.

And I still think today that a lot hangs in the balance in Indonesia because they're struggling in an attempt to accomplish a democratic transition in the midst of an economic typhoon and now on top of it this war on terrorism or the whole terrorist issue heightens the Islamic dimension of political issues in Indonesia.

But still basically it's, I think, a country that can be, if it's successful, and a wonderful example of what a tolerant approach to religious --

Q: What did you draw from it in terms of learning about the Islamic world?

Wolfowitz: Is its diversity. And I think both those two countries and quite a few experiences with others including Arabs makes me convinced that -- and I can't say this is based on polling data. It isn't even necessarily based on the current state of mind, but I think most of them really would like nothing better than to be able to live in a free democratic, prosperous country.

I'm maybe more optimistic than most people on that score because of partly what I've seen in East Asia over 20 years, when I became assistant secretary for that region 20 years ago, I'm getting old here. Japan was the only democracy in East Asia. Over that period of time, including some policies that I'm proud to have been associated with, the Philippines made a transition to democracy, Korea made a transition to democracy, Taiwan made a transition to democracy, Thailand has basically made a transition to democracy, Indonesia has made a transition to democracy although it's not yet sort of fully stabilized perhaps, but it's dramatic. That's incredible progress in a region where 20 year ago there was a certain fatalism that yes, they're economically successful, but --

If you were writing books about how Asians liked to be ruled by tyrants, seriously, that it was in their culture, it's not in their culture I don't think, and I don't think it's in Middle Eastern culture to be ruled by tyrants either. It's their misfortune that almost everywhere you look you have somewhere between authoritarian to outright totalitarian regime.

Q: To kind of come back to how this ties into your world view, you've obviously demonstrated unabashed enthusiasm for certain American power and influence, for championing American values as a way to advance global security. This sounds like --

Wolfowitz: Well, --

Q: Your approach, looking at Asia and --

Wolfowitz: Let me say those are your words, they're not my words. My words are a lot closer to what I heard the president say as a candidate during the foreign policy debate when he said that, and I'm paraphrasing, that we shouldn't go around the world telling other people to do it our way, we should try to empower them to do it their way.

I do think there's something about American values that is not imposed. Take the Philippines. I think it's a good example. We recognized in supporting a change of government in the Philippines that one of the consequences might very well be that we would lose the bases. We were empowering the Filipinos to run their own affairs in the belief, which I think was a correct belief, that we would be better off if they ran their own affairs that if they were governed by a corrupt dictator who was opening the door frankly to a communist takeover.

I think, this is not to say the United States is sort of the first altruistic country in history, but I think our interests are defined by our values in a way that makes them much more consistent with other people's interests. So it's not a matter of, I've forgotten the words you used that I reacted against, but it's not a matter of saying that we can dominate the world or have the world run our way. It's rather I think a matter of saying that if people are -- if people are really liberated to run their countries the way they want to we will have a world that will be very congenial for American interests.

Q: But hasn't it been your position to assist in that process wherever you can? Whether --

Wolfowitz: I don't know about wherever you can. Where you appropriately can. It doesn't mean -- the wherever you can phrase I don't like because I think you have to have some limits of realism. I generally think evolution is better than revolution. And it is possible to create instability of a sort that doesn't create progress. I think unfortunately there's a lot of truth in the notion that many countries require a higher level of economic development than they have now to really have a self government as we think of it. And certainly democracy is not just holding elections, or at least liberal democracy which is really what we're talking about.

On the other hand do I think it's probably in American interests to help democratic movements around the world? Yeah, I do. I was on the board of the National Endowment for Democracy which is an institution set up to do that. But what I don't like is the sort of preachy version of we know better than other people, we will tell them what they have to do and we will lecture them all the time. I don't think that's the right approach.

Q: But using that influence in all ways, just as we're seeing in the war on terrorism including the military, [inaudible] a hallmark on [inaudible]. If you're not afraid to use American [inaudible] use of American power, in that sense military power to accomplish these goals.

Wolfowitz: Well, take my examples again. I don't like militarizing everything. The Philippines, Korea, Taiwan, --

Q: The fly-over in the Philippines had a very important effect.

Wolfowitz: But the main instruments weren't military. The main instruments in the Philippines were clearly political, and I would say also in Korea they were political. And I think it's sort of an ironic truth, to the extent the military played an influence in Korea it was because I think we gave them security within which they could have a fairly raucous political debate. I think that American security commitment was important, but it wasn't that we used military influence to change things.

In fact I'll give you an example that I think tells you why I -- I was trying to think of why don't I like this.

In the middle of the crisis at the end of the Marcos period when he had stolen the election but he was still sitting in the presidential palace, there were people here who suggested that it was now time for the United States to stage a military coup and one person even said we just should avoid the mistake we made in Vietnam of allowing Diem to be killed. I thought the mistake we made in Vietnam was having a military coup in the first place. I think it would have been a terrible thing if we had had an American-sponsored, CIA-plotted, whatever you want, military coup that would replace Marcos with some other aspiring Marcos. And maybe we were partly lucky, but it came out so much better because it was a Filipino solution and it was a democratically elected president who took over. So I think, I know we're sitting in the Defense Department, I know people like to put certain labels on me, but I really believe military power is just a small piece of American power and the greatest power we have I think is what we stand for, what --

Voice: We're going to have to wrap it up.

Q: Did we see limitations about [inaudible] the limited progress Secretary Powell has made, the change of events, the failed coup in Venezuela?

Wolfowitz: Sure, there are enormous limitations even on our power, absolutely. And that's another one of those factors you have to take account of in policy. I agree. I'm sure some of the mistakes we have tended to make are when we over-estimate our own power and influence.

But I think if you look at our record over 50 or 100 years actually, we've matured as a country in that respect.

Q: Do you feel mature in kind of your era? I mean is this, the time is right for your ideas in particular and the way you've approached kind of a world view? This president, this time --

Wolfowitz: Well, I feel very good about this president. I feel this is a very important time. And I do think, I love those words at the end of the State of the Union message, where he says our goal is to build a better world beyond the war on terror.

But when you use phrases like it's your time -- I mean I think over-reaching is really bad. And [inaudible].

I think there are some opportunities here to substantially not just deal with the danger but definitely change the world for the better, but it's still going to be the world, it's still going to be human nature, there are still going to be enormous numbers of messy problems.

Q: Thanks a lot for your time.

Wolfowitz: Thank you.

[Final interview segment deleted due to ground rule.]