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Glasser: This is Susan Glasser for The Global POLITICO. Delighted to be back here with Paul Wolfowitz, our guest for this week. Paul, you’ve jumped back into the fray as it were with what appears in hindsight to be an extremely well-timed intervention in the Wall Street Journal, saying Donald Trump should go ahead and do something in Syria, should intervene militarily in some way to respond to the chemical weapons strike. Miraculously enough, perhaps, he surprised much of the world by going ahead and taking your advice and doing so.
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Wolfowitz: I’m not sure he took my advice, but I think he did the right thing. Let’s put it that way. I was afraid that he was going to think he could get away with saying it’s all Obama’s fault. And I happen to think that’s 90 percent correct, but it’s not a basis for going forward. So I use that, I think, marvelous Yogi Berra line, “When you get to a fork in the road, take it.” Which apparently comes from giving people directions to his house where there was a fork and both forks end up at his house.
Glasser: Can I tell you a story? I live on Highland Avenue. I grew up on Highland Avenue in Montclair, which is the road that Yogi Berra lived on. And, indeed, there is a double fork—
Wolfowitz: That comes back together?
Glasser: —that goes up to Highland Avenue from Upper Mountain Avenue, and you can go either way, and you’ll get there, although truthfully you should take the left-hand fork. [LAUGHTER] My parents still live there, half a mile away. So I was delighted that you began that piece with Yogi Berra. And in a way it’s kind of a Yogi Berra-like presidency, right? You know, there’s no one particular guide except the quirky personality of Donald Trump at times, it seems. How do you navigate understanding who this guy is when it comes to foreign policy?
Wolfowitz: Well, it’s certainly unpredictable, as an understatement. But at the same time you have in his national security team two individuals who are nearly the opposite, who have a long consistent record of thinking clearly, strategically. I’m talking about McMaster and Mattis. Then you have another uncertainty factor in Rex Tillerson, except by all accounts and I think so far [he has] demonstrated for the most part a pretty smart guy. And I think he’s picking up in important ways on dealing with this issue. And I think this latest line of saying that what Putin’s signing up with Assad is signing up with a loser, that it’s bad for Russia as well as bad for the world, I think is a good way to put it. It may not get through any better than telling him that what he’s doing is criminal and immoral, but I think at least may resonate a little bit better with people around him.
Glasser: Now, it’s interesting. So you wrote this initial piece, and then, boom, Trump let the Tomahawk missiles fly. You then followed it up by saying, well, this is a good start in effect, but now you need to pursue a broader basically diplomatic offensive as well as military offensive to get Assad out of power. Now a lot of people would say, “How has regime change as a policy worked out for you, Paul Wolfowitz, in the Middle East?” Is that really a viable policy? I mean, Barack Obama, that was his policy, to get Assad out of power, and he didn’t find—
Wolfowitz: Well, it was his pronouncement, but he didn’t do anything to make it happen. And I think to be fair to John Kerry, poor John Kerry was left to negotiate something with no leverage whatsoever. I think a better, more useful model to look to actually—although every historical “model” had its limitations because every new situation is different—but it’s worth thinking back to 1995. After three years of dithering, first by the Bush administration and then by President Clinton, to do anything about the catastrophe that was taking place in Bosnia, which I think left something like 200,000 people killed, mass graves for which Clinton was still apologizing 10 years later, finally under pressure from both Senator Dole and people in the Congress and internally from former ambassador, the late Richard Holbrooke, Clinton decided to take military action.
And suddenly the picture switched dramatically for Milošević, from feeling that he could get away, literally, with murder to suddenly having to fear that he was going to lose a war. And that changed the whole environment for negotiation. And it seems to me that that’s the first thing to think about, is that what has been created: The U.S. now has an opportunity for a completely different environment in which to negotiate, where the calculations of not only every Syrian whose fate may be tied to Assad, where also Putin’s future is at stake, where also the calculations of Iraqis who have been sort of, I think to some degree, forced to go along as quasi-proxies of Iran, now suddenly comes forward with these pretty remarkable statements from even Muqtada al-Sadr saying, “Assad has to resign. This genocide has to end. We can’t have it start in Iraq again after Mosul.” I mean, some of those statements are amazing.
But bear in mind—because Americans tend to forget this—Assad’s father was responsible for the single worst act of terrorism against the United States, the attack on the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1982, followed by another attack on the American Embassy in Lebanon. All of these happened when Lebanon was basically under Syrian domination. The son has continued that marvelous record by shipping foreign fighters, suicide bombers into Iraq. He’s responsible not only for the deaths of huge numbers of Americans but much larger numbers of Iraqis, and I don’t think the Iraqis have forgotten that. I don’t think they believe that he’s a Shia to whom they owe some kind of religious loyalty whatsoever.
Glasser: What I’m struck by—and these are clearly possible avenues and ways in for the new Trump administration, but what evidence do you have that this is anything that is actually of interest to Donald Trump? You talked about the future of Iraq, for example. Trump has said, basically, the Iraq war was a terrible mistake and that we should have just gotten in, taken the oil, and gotten out. So why would he care?
Wolfowitz: Look, he’s said a lot of things. He’s changed a lot of things. Look, I think the main thing here has to be getting people to think of the possibilities, to think of the opportunities. I don’t think anyone would deny that he’s opportunistic, and I don’t think anyone would deny that he would like to be the greatest president in modern times, or huge or—you pick your adjective. And I think to achieve a Dayton-like peace settlement in Syria would not only be something that would be widely acclaimed, it would be hugely in the interest of the United States because it would stem these refugee flows which are very dangerous. This is a complicated thought to express, but the fact is that I think if you look around the Arab world, there are more young Arabs who are angry at the West because of Syria than who are angry at the West because of Palestine. It’s become the cause of, “See how the West treats Arabs.”
So I think the national interests of the United States are at stake here in a way that is easy to dismiss. In a way, it’s almost counterproductive that—I’m not criticizing him for saying this—but that Trump’s reaction seems so focused on the murder of babies. It’s a humanitarian tragedy. It’s disgusting from that point of view, but I think it’s also important not to confuse it as pure sentimentality. There are big national interests at stake here, and I think a lot could be achieved.
Glasser: Well, you think that it’s not pure sentimentality, but the record so far is not clear whether, in fact, it was that that actually drove the strike on the part of Donald Trump. But obviously we can talk about Syria more, but let’s just talk about the reaction here in Washington a little bit and what it tells us about the state of foreign policy. A lot of people were amazed at how quickly Trump was able to turn a group that had been his fiercest critics, which are traditional Republican military-interventionist types—hawks, neocons—into cheerleaders for this limited Syria intervention. We don’t really know yet what it means. A lot of people are talking about it. Your friend Elliott Abrams wrote a piece in which he actually said, “Today was the day that Donald Trump embraced the mantle of Leader of the Free World,” capital L, capital F, capital W. Was this overheated rhetoric? I mean, are you—
Wolfowitz: I think Fareed Zakaria said “he became president.”
Wolfowitz: But do me a favor; drop this word neocon because no one knows what that word means.
Glasser: I know it’s infuriating to you guys.
Wolfowitz: You know, it’s peace through strength and promotion of freedom. It’s the foreign policy of Ronald Reagan, Harry Truman, and John Kennedy. So that’s where we should be.
Glasser: Labels aside, call it The Blob, if you will, which is what Barack Obama’s adviser, Ben Rhodes, called it. Are the affections of The Blob so easily won that all Donald Trump has to do is launch 59 Tomahawk missiles and everybody is cheering him?
Wolfowitz: Let me try to speak for myself. As I’ve said already, I think there is a fantastic opportunity here. It’s only a first step, it’s only an opportunity. If nothing is done to follow up on it, it will start to seem a little bit silly in retrospect; certainly the enthusiasm will seem silly. But more importantly it will look like a lost opportunity in retrospect. I mean, imagine if we had simply walked away from Bosnia after that first, initial military strike and not done anything and the war then continued. I mean, that would be the model of what not to do in Syria, I think. And it fortunately wasn’t done in Bosnia.
Instead you got the Dayton Accords, which was a very complicated negotiation. It produced a result that could not have been defined in advance. That’s one of the things I think people need to understand when they say, “Well, what’s going to come after Assad?” There is no way to know that until you sit down with people who have an interest in defining what comes after Assad. And in my view you’ve got, a bit crudely speaking, two groups. And, frankly, we’re too crude about trying to define everything in terms of a religious difference that no American can explain to you, which is, “What’s the difference between a Sunni and a Shia?” when in fact they may care much more about who was killing whom 10 years ago, or three years ago in this case.
But you’ve got the group of people who have been fighting Assad now for five years, six years. It’s amazing.
Glasser: It’s amazing that it’s been that long.
Wolfowitz: It’s amazing how long it’s been running on. And who don’t believe they can survive in Syria if he’s still in charge. Might be persuaded with a different sort of—with a regime composed of somewhat similar people but not such bloody-minded, awful people, and with him gone to be an example of what not to do as a Syrian leader, that they might be able under certain conditions which probably include some degree of territorial autonomy. You can’t define this until you sit down with people.
And then the other group are people who I think genuinely believe that if Assad goes, they’re going to be in danger of being massacred by Sunni mobs. And they are heavily minority; they’re heavily Alawite, heavily Christian, but in general just people who fought on what I would call the wrong side of this battle. So you need to find some middle group that provides assurance to both. That can’t be done until you sit down with them and sit down with them in a pretty intense negotiation.
And I would say also that I don’t know how you’d—one of the first questions would be, “Who do you sit down with?” And I think these big gaggles in Geneva probably are not the place to try to get that kind of work done; something more focused and, I would say, that has more involvement from local countries, particularly our allies in the region and very definitely including Iraq.
Glasser: Although certainly there’s a strong sense among a lot of people in the region that it’s the involvement of the outside countries in the Syrian war that has perpetuated and allowed it to go on for so long? You know, you have the involvement of the Saudis and the Qataris and the Emiratis and people backing their own factions, not to mention, of course, the Iranians next door, and that that might have been in this vacuum-like situation, especially earlier on in the war, what caused it to be such a confusing mess in the first place.
Wolfowitz: No question about that. And in some countries that you might list and some that you just listed you might want to leave them out of the negotiation to start with. At least start with people that genuinely share an objective of bringing peace to Syria. And I think you can write Iran off that list right away, unfortunately.
Glasser: Well, that’s a pretty small—I mean, if you want to talk about being genuine, you pointed out in your piece—and I think lots of people would agree with you. You said in your piece that the United States is in a good position here because, in fact, we don’t want anything, a long-term military presence there or carving out a piece of this. But that’s not the case with the Russians; it’s not the case arguably with the Iranians, and potentially it’s not the case with others of our Sunni Gulf Arab allies. Who is an honest broker in the Middle East today?
Wolfowitz: Well, one of the things I tried to emphasize in that second article is to a surprising extent Iraq is in that position. Iraq shares our interests in a peaceful Syria. They don’t share Iran’s interest in a Syria that’s dominated by Iran. I think that’s a reasonably good bet to place. Nothing is certain in that part of the world in this life, and there are leaders like Maliki who might in fact be tools of Iran. But I think even Maliki was much more willing to confront Iran when he had the U.S. at his back than he was later on when we walked away from him.
So I think you need a very intimate dialogue with selected partners who really think—I think the most important thing is agreement on the fundamental premise that peace in Syria is in the interest of everybody. I think the Saudis would say that. I think the UAE would say that. I think most Iraqis would say that. And it actually would be not a bad thing if it became a political issue in Iraq: “Are you for peace in Syria or are you for Iran in Syria?” Let that be part of Iraqi politics.
It’s fascinating that both Abadi, who is the very moderate prime minister, and Muqtada al-Sadr, who has been a pain in the neck for years, have said the same thing. Of course, Sadr says foreign countries should get out of Iraq and Syria.
Glasser: Right, but putting aside Syria for a second, I do want to talk about Iraq and how viable of a state do you see it being. After the fight in Mosul is done, there certainly are plenty of people who believe that this is when a real new political crisis could really get under way in Iraq as people put aside—in the short term they’ve worked together to fight ISIS and the Islamic State in Mosul: the Kurds and the militias are there along with the Iraqi army itself. There’s a lot of people who think it could all fall apart now, that politically Abadi might be seen as a moderate prime minister, but he might also be seen as a weak prime minister who is constantly under threat of having his own party pull the rug out from under him.
Wolfowitz: I find it bizarre that I’m in a position of quoting Muqtada al-Sadr favorably, but in that same—
Glasser: I wish our listeners could see the big smile on Mr. Wolfowitz’s face.
Wolfowitz: He also warned about the danger of genocide, and I think he used the word genocide in Iraq after the liberation of Mosul. I don’t know if he used the word liberation for the fall of Mosul. To have that kind of concern coming from him—we talked about opportunists. I’m sure he’s an opportunist—that must mean that he senses something within the Iraqi society that would, even for Iraq, like to see some end to all of this, that they’ve paid a terrible price, I think, for many things, including the sectarianism that drove the Sunni population into the arms of ISIS.
So, I would say what happens in Iraq going forward probably depends a lot on what role the U.S. chooses to play. And if we walk away, as we walked away five years ago, six years ago, I think the results will be much worse than if we stay there to insert leverage and support for sensible positions and let people know that if they do take sensible positions they will have support from the United States.
Glasser: So you think it is possible that Iraq could splinter apart after the fall of Mosul, depending on what the U.S. does?
Wolfowitz: I do, actually. And in a way splinter apart is the fear that it’ll break up into pieces. I’m much more fearful that it will descend into chaotic violence. And I think probably the key to avoiding that is—I say this with hesitation because there’s something a little weird in a world where people sitting in Washington can come up with prescriptions for how to make peace in a strange country a long way away when it’s been through such a traumatic experience. But I think there has to be some significant degree of local autonomy and local security so that Sunnis don’t have to fear Shia, Kurds don’t have to fear Arabs. There are limits to how much you can, at this stage in history, force Iraqis to live in peace side by side.
Glasser: You’ve said a couple of observations in the course of this conversation so far that are clearly critical of Obama’s policy when it comes to the Middle East and expressed some hopes for what Trump could do differently. What are some of the lessons that you take away from the Bush administration’s foray into the region? And it’s almost painful in a way to go and look back at some of the speeches, some of the writing, some of grand vision that George W. Bush expressed in his Second Inaugural for a new period of democracy and human rights across the broader Middle East. Obviously, that’s not the world that we’re living in now. What are some lessons that you take away, both from your own and the Bush administration’s experience in the Middle East that could apply to Trump and then also from the Obama era and what it did wrong from your point of view?
Wolfowitz: I think one pretty dramatic lesson—and the irony is that you could have taken this away from the later experience in Vietnam, when we went away from this search-and-destroy business—where we probably created more enemies than we killed—to a genuine counterinsurgency strategy that recognized the most important thing in a counterinsurgency is to provide security for the population. And interestingly, one of the people who sort of—I don’t know if rediscovered is the right word—who applied that idea that population security comes first, even before General Petraeus came to Iraq, was General McMaster, who was then just a colonel running a very important but difficult area in northern Iraq. So there’s a man who—
Glasser: Tal Afar.
Wolfowitz: Tal Afar, yes. He understands that perfectly. So does General Mattis, Secretary Mattis now. And I think that’s something not to be forgotten at all and something that needs to be worked on with any new Iraqi military that we train to be more effective than they were when ISIS went after them a few years ago.
Glasser: Is nation-building dead, though, as an American foreign policy?
Wolfowitz: I think nation-building—I’m not sure what it means, but I would say also—my second observation would be to say I think it was a mistake to think of Iraq on the model of Japan or Germany. One of my colleagues, the late Peter Rodman, wrote a, I thought, prescient memo back in, I think, before we went into Iraq, saying the model for Iraq should not be Germany or Japan, it should be France, where there was an indigenous leader named de Gaulle who gave French an alternative between the radicals, namely the communists who had been in the resistance, and an American occupation force.
France was not a defeated country. Germany and Japan were. It was a completely different situation. And I think on the whole for a country as complicated as Iraq—well, we’re past the point where anybody would, anyway, accept an American proconsul in Iraq. So it’s a question of how to maneuver the Iraqi leadership to follow better policies. And we do have a model there. I think it’s a model that worked dramatically. When Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker was Bush’s last ambassador to Iraq and General Petraeus was there commanding the U.S. forces, the two of them—they had offices, I think, in the same building deliberately. I think every night they would go to Maliki when he was, I think the way they put it, too tired to fight back. They would tell him about things going on in his country that he didn’t know about because the U.S. had a knowledge of the situation that exceeded what he had. And basically tell him, “You need to fire this general. You need to stop these corrupt practices that are going on in this province.” They were very specific about what they told him to do and by and large very successful.
Glasser: But a lot of people would say that’s the problem not the solution. Right? A lot of people would say, “OK, we get it that American engagement at that level might be able to produce, in a tactical sense, better results or less corruption, more information, more transparency, but the point is that we can’t be micromanaging another county’s affairs.” And interestingly, both Barack Obama and Donald Trump—obviously they’re very, very different people. They communicate in a very different way. They use different language. But in a way they’ve both expressed the sentiment of a broad swath of the American people in both parties that they don’t want our best and brightest, they don’t want David Petraeus sitting there whispering in Maliki’s ear, that they think that that’s not a good use of American resources. And that’s what I think they mean by, “We don’t want to be involved in any more quagmires in the Middle East.” Why would we be doing that?
Wolfowitz: Well, you’ve brought in a lot of words in one—
Glasser: Fair enough.
Wolfowitz: You know: “quagmire,” “micromanage.” I mean, I would say all of those things are very different. And it doesn’t take great resources to have a good ambassador and a good general go and meet with the leadership of a country and try to steer them in the right direction, recognizing, by the way, that this is not American dictation. You’re steering a guy or woman, maybe, sometimes. You’re steering a leadership that has their own reading of their domestic situation but can be reinforced in a good direction or a bad direction by some advice from Americans.
00:24:17 And I would offer, in that respect, I think over a course of many years, not anything quick, the U.S. and South Korea did very much what you’re sort of complaining about here with no American lives lost. It was not a quagmire. It was a long-term commitment and a long-term engagement and involvement. Not always successful. Sometimes we got ourselves involved with some ugly people like the former president Chun Doo-hwan, who was called the Butcher of Gwangju. That tells you a lot about the kind of people you had to deal with. But we dealt with him. We eventually persuaded him, actually, to step down voluntarily and to honor his commitment not to try to seek a second term, which I’m sure was in his mind when he took the first term.
00:25:03 So that’s the kind of influence the U.S. can exercise. And the alternative is to let a very important, critical part of the world go to hell literally and lose American influence, allow hostile actors to take over what is—we may not like to talk about oil, but this is the engine of the world economy. And if it’s dominated by the wrong people, the consequences here in the United States are very serious.
Glasser: To be clear, I wasn’t characterizing my own views as much as the politics of this.
Wolfowitz: I know you weren’t.
Glasser: And right now you have a new president and the last president not putting a big emphasis on the need for human rights or democracy-building as a pillar of American foreign policy going forward.
Wolfowitz: To take your absolutely fair point, but whether it’s your view or it’s the general sentiment of the tide, which it certainly is, I don’t think we’re up to heroic ventures in the Middle East. I think the point is that a lot could be done with relatively little. And when Trump said recently, “We’re not going into Syria,” of course it’s ironic because we already have 500 troops on the ground in Syria, courtesy of his predecessor. And they need to be there, because I think taking ISIS out of Raqqa is important in the U.S. national interest. I’m assuming what he meant is we’re not going to have an American occupation of Syria like we did in Iraq.
And, by the way, I don’t think we should have had an occupation in Iraq. We should have just had a military presence. That’s a different matter. But I think the point is we can do an awful lot in Syria with leverage from the outside. He’s talked about safe zones. Creating zones in Syria where Sunnis don’t have to then flee to other countries would be a big step forward, and it doesn’t have to be done with an American ground force. At least I don’t think it does.
Glasser: Help me understand—because you’ve worked with many presidents—what we should make and how seriously we should take President Trump at what he says, given he’s now changed his position on many different issues, not just whether to intervene in Syria, but he called NATO “obsolete.” Now he says that NATO is indispensable. He’s called China a “currency manipulator.” A week later he says, “No, it’s not anymore.” What is the weight that we should attach to presidential statements, especially in their first terms? And how do you personally—what’s your decoder ring for trying to understand what’s coming out of this White House?
Wolfowitz: That’s an interesting question. I make no pretense to decoding the statements of this president. I would say in general probably we attach far too much weight to the words of presidents as divorced from their actions. And very often, especially I think in the last couple of decades, it seems to me there has been a tendency to think once the president has made a speech we have a policy. You only have a policy if it’s followed up with a strategy to implement it and with actions that implement that strategy. And that’s why I think in many ways it matters much more what Secretary Mattis and Secretary Tillerson think it means than what the president had in mind when he said it.
Which reminds me of this comment that I heard a lot by domestic political analysts about Trump on the campaign trail, that his critics take him literally but not seriously, whereas his supporters take him seriously but not literally. I think I understand what they meant by saying that. And I think Mattis and Tillerson will take him seriously and perhaps not—we already see that they don’t take him literally. They know that they can—and this is very interesting.
I mean, I don’t know of a president who has tolerated—if that’s the right word—such strongly differing statements from his Cabinet officers on national security issues from his own public pronouncements, which tells you something about how he takes those statements himself, it seems to me.
Glasser: Well, that’s an important point. The other thing I was thinking of when you mentioned Mattis and Tillerson and, of course, H.R. McMaster at the National Security Council, right, there’s an old Russian saying—I lived there for four years: “The cadres decide everything.” This was Stalin’s phrase. And I’ve often been thinking of that.
Wolfowitz: That’s from a man who decided everything himself.
Glasser: Right. Well, ironically. But the cadres, right? You know: A.Did Trump have cadres of his own who really believed in his vision of the world as he had articulated it? It seems like the answer is no or at least not sufficient to fill up an administration. So now he’s hired a national security team that more or less reflects a more mainstream Republican view of foreign policy, perhaps a muscular one, but certainly not a neo-isolationist one. Do you think they have an uncommonly high level of power in this administration, given the inexperience of the president?
Wolfowitz: I think it’d be a mistake to think that he is not going to assert strong views when he feels that something is not where he wants to be headed. And I think that probably puts a lot of severe limits on long-term American military commitments in that part of the world. I also think it can be explained to him what a more limited commitment might look like and why it could be used usefully. So I do think, by the way, in trying to understand his reaction to the chemical weapon attack, it’s partly humanitarian and sentimental. But I think it’s also—I have this feeling it hit him in the gut that this is a test of American seriousness and strength, and he doesn’t want to fail that kind of test. I think that fits our understanding, you know, my outsider understanding of his personality. And maybe he has sent a message to other people who might be inclined to think he doesn’t have to be taken seriously.
Glasser: Right. So it’s not actually some abrupt break, as it seems, but actually it could be argued—and I agree with that—that it’s consistent with what we already know of his personality.
Wolfowitz: And, after all, you can’t go denouncing Obama’s red-line retreat as much as he has and then have your own red-line retreat.
Glasser: So have you ever met Donald Trump?
Wolfowitz: I haven’t.
Glasser: Have you talked with anyone in his White House since they have been set up and trying to figure things out?
Wolfowitz: I have some. I know McMaster quite well from before. And Mattis actually was my senior military assistant when I first came to the Pentagon in 2001, and I worked with him quite a bit later on in his various later capacities, including in Iraq. So I know them pretty well, but I haven’t—I’ve occasionally emailed them, but I have not had direct contact with them.
Glasser: What should we understand about General Mattis in his new role that might not yet be widely understood publicly?
Wolfowitz: You notice that he asked the president to stop calling him “Mad Dog.” I think that tells you actually quite a lot about him. I think he is genuinely a peacemaker. I think he would like to be known as somebody who brought peace through strength. I think he has some deep thinking about how you do that. And I think he’d be a great partner for a good secretary of state, and I hope that’s what Tillerson will be and what he will he see he has there.
Glasser: Do you know Tillerson?
Wolfowitz: I don’t know him at all. I know some people who—it’s interesting. The people I know who know him best, and they wouldn’t say they know him well, had him as a client for an investment bank many years ago. And they said he asked very penetrating, very good questions without any arrogance at all, which is an interesting set of qualities to have.
Glasser: Well, it might be an asset in dealing with Donald Trump. We’ll see, I guess. You know, it’s interesting how low profile he’s been and this seeming downgrading of the State Department. A lot of people, in particular at the Defense Department, your old haunt, have been speaking up and saying that’s a mistake. Do you have a viewpoint on these proposed cuts, very deep cuts, in the State Department?
Wolfowitz: Well, my hero, George Shultz, said it was a mistake too. And it is a mistake to think that the secretary of state’s role is just an internal role or just a negotiating role. It is very much a public diplomacy role. And when I wrote about what the U.S. needs to do next with respect to this opportunity that I think has been created through the Syrian action, I put a lot of emphasis on public diplomacy.
And let me put in a little plug here. I think public diplomacy also can support a healing of Iraqi-Saudi relations, which got very bad and should not have gotten so bad, partly because of a myth that the Saudis were opposed to the rebellions that took place in 1991 when, in fact, I think, tragically, the United States ignored their advice to support the rebels. But there’s a lot to be done publicly by a secretary of state and by the department.
And I think part of what we’re seeing though is a man who is relatively new to these issues and may therefore realize there’s more room for mistakes than for constructive action, plus with very, very little in the way of his own people. I think one of the urgent priorities—and this is a cliché by now—is both Defense and State need to staff up with people who have some of the trust and confidence of the White House and professional skill and capability, whether that means they’re career people or they’re what George Shultz called “non-career professionals”—that is what I was happy to hear him call me.
Glasser: A non-career professional? But there clearly has been somewhat of a loyalty test imposed by President Trump himself. He really didn’t take the criticism in the campaign well from this national security world, especially. And he’s personally vetoed people for jobs because they were against him in the campaign. You were critical of him in the campaign. You even said at one point that you were thinking of voting for Hillary Clinton. Did you go through with it?
Wolfowitz: No, but I didn’t vote for either of them. That’s a separate subject. But I would say this—
Glasser: Wait a minute. I want to just follow up. Why didn’t you vote for Hillary Clinton in the end? She would have given you a foreign policy more to your liking, right?
Wolfowitz: I’m not at all sure she would have gotten this one right, for example, just the one right now, so—
Glasser: Oh, I disagree with you on that one. Don’t you think that many of her advisers were the ones who were Democrats publicly supporting Trump for the very first time with this, on Syria?
Wolfowitz: Let’s not do counterfactual history.
Glasser: Fair enough, but you didn’t vote for her. Why didn’t you pull the trigger for her?
Wolfowitz: Look, my big reservation about Trump, and I said it, was that he was sort of like Obama on steroids, particularly with respect to Russia and Ukraine. And I really can’t forgive her for that reset. I mean, I don’t think her record on Russia was what she would like to rewrite it as having been. And it looks as though maybe when confronted with an evil Putin, something is coming out of Trump that we didn’t see before.
But the real—I mean, I didn’t get personal about criticizing him, and I think one of the things we’re dealing with now is people who unfortunately were very personal in their criticism. And I don’t like loyalty tests. I wish he could find a way to get past that, but maybe he will.
Glasser: So I’m glad you brought up Russia. You were an early person who saw in the collapse of the Cold War both the opportunity for the United States as a lone superpower in the world and what that would mean, but also you were pretty prescient in warning people that the outcome of democratization and a Russia that joined the West was not preordained and was not inevitable even if it seemed to be going that way. How does it look from this vantage point now, when clearly we’ve been marking this anniversary since the collapse of the Soviet Union, 25 years? It didn’t turn out the way a lot of people hoped that it would. Why were you already skeptical in the late 1980s and in the first Bush administration about where Russia might end up?
Wolfowitz: I was both skeptical and optimistic. I mean, I thought there was a lot still that could be accomplished of a positive kind. And I was in some ways overly optimistic, I think, about Boris Yeltsin. And I think what sort of turned things bad in Russia was his own corruption and his family’s corruption, which then brought in this former KGB guy to protect Yeltsin from his own misdeeds and at the same time to put Russia under the thumb of a really criminal kleptocracy.
And I think that’s what Putin runs in Russia today. And I think that a good deal of what we’ve encountered in the last few years has been his unhappiness with the fate of his comrade in Ukraine, not wanting to see him go the way of the kleptocrat in Kiev. And if you trace when Russia started getting belligerent and very difficult, it seems to me—and including in Crimea—a lot of it began when he saw the threat to him from the Ukrainian people-power and decided, “I’m going to make sure that Ukraine doesn’t succeed, and I’m going to be tough in the eyes of my own people because that’s the way I became president in the first place, by bombing Chechnya into smithereens, and now I’m going to take Crimea back, even though it was formally conceded under an agreement.”
People forget this, and Obama never mentioned it that I know of. Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons in exchange for its territorial integrity, including Crimea, actually gave the Russians a naval base as well.
Glasser: Well, that’s right. And Russia guaranteed that was the exchange, in its borders.
Wolfowitz: And guaranteed it even as recently, I think, as 2010, and then turned around and it’s shredded, tear it to shreds.
Glasser: So is any reset possible ever with Russia? I mean, you’re saying now that you voted not for Hillary Clinton because of her efforts during the Obama administration to reconcile with Russia. Never mind you didn’t vote for Donald Trump because he said during the campaign he was going to openly embrace Vladimir Putin. Is that—
Wolfowitz: Let’s not make too much of how I voted or who I voted for.
Glasser: Fair enough. But my point is more on the question of Russia and whether you believe there is no possibility, period, full stop, while Vladimir Putin is president to reset relations.
Wolfowitz: I happen to agree with a lot of Democrats and also with former Vice President Cheney that Putin’s interference in our elections was something very serious, to be taken very seriously. And I think what he was after was not simply to elect a favored candidate. And it’d be ironic now that he got somebody who is much harder on him than Hillary might have been.
Glasser: Cheney called it akin to an “act of war.” Do you agree?
Wolfowitz: He used words like that, but he wasn’t saying it should be responded to with military action. But certainly it required more than just expelling 39 diplomats and closing down a couple of resorts that they had in Maryland or wherever they were. I don’t think those sanctions that were imposed amounted to very much. But I think what could really make a difference is two things, one which is largely in the control of the government and may not happen, but I think this was Tom Friedman had a sort of humorous column in which he speculated on the idea of announcing more details about Putin’s own corruption. Because I think that is his Achilles’ heel. And you can say, “Well, everyone in Russia knows it.” It’s one thing for everyone in Russia to know it, and it’s another thing for the U.S. to come out with hard facts about it.
Glasser: Yes. Look at the protests in Russia just a couple of weeks ago.
Glasser: Which came after Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader, produced a documentary, which was viewed by many Russians around the country on YouTube, that was talking about allegations of corruption against Dmitry Medvedev. And that alone seemed to be a motivating force in bringing thousands of young Russians into the streets in a very unusual way.
Wolfowitz: And it happens in spite of the virtually complete control of the mass media by the regime. You know, former President George W. Bush has said jokingly, when somebody confronted him about Putin’s popularity, he said, “I could be popular too if I owned NBC.”
Glasser: Now, all right. We are—
Wolfowitz: I think it’s also important for the media to recognize that if Putin interfered in our election it was mainly by manipulating our own free press. And our free press could do a lot, I think, to put much more focus on him as being the killer, that, ironically, it was Bill O’Reilly that confronted the president with that fact. And it was one of the most unfortunate things, I think, that Trump has said in the last couple of months was to say, “Well, we kill people, too.” We don’t kill people the way Putin kills people. And there should be no equivalence there. But I think calling attention to why was it so important to him to murder Litvinenko, poison him in London? Was it because Litvinenko was talking about the fact that Putin may have been responsible for those terrible bombings in Russia in—
Glasser: —1999 that helped bring him to power?
Wolfowitz: Exactly. There could be more attention to that in our own media, and it would penetrate into Russia.
Glasser: In many ways, the Russiagate scandal as it’s been unfolding here in Washington is almost more about America than it is about Russia, right? It’s about our own political process and whether the Republican Party is going to come to terms with this intervention in our election and how seriously to take that.
Wolfowitz: It is. And I think Americans should recognize that what Putin wants to do is to discredit our system of government because he wants to present his own system to his own people as somehow superior or at least there’s not a better alternative out there. And I think restoring the integrity of our system is very important, I think, for our impact on the whole rest of the world. And it affects American interests outside as well.
Glasser: So I think Russia in some ways is a good point to end on in the sense that we talked a little bit about your thinking way back at the end of the Cold War about what this period in history would be like. It has come to be dominated in many ways not only by the U..S.. but by the U.S.’ adventures and misadventures in the Middle East and the role that you have played. Looking back in hindsight, do you—a lot of people worry, well, this is the end of whatever that post-Cold War era was, a lot of people are worrying that overall we’re seeing the breakdown of the institutions that have led us since World War II. You were the president of the World Bank. Do you buy in to any of this sort of almost apocalyptic fears for the decline of the West? Is that the moment that we’re in?
Wolfowitz: I wouldn’t say I buy into them. I share some of the fear, but I think it’s a big mistake to write ourselves off so prematurely. I think we’re facing very serious enemies/competitors—I would use the world enemy with more reservation—both in Europe in the form of Russia, in the Middle East in the form of Iran, in East Asia in the form of China. Every one of those regimes is itself threatened by the idea of freedom. If we give up the Western idea of freedom, we’re giving up one of the most important diplomatic tools in our arsenal.
Glasser: A big note to end it on. Thank you so much, Paul Wolfowitz. This has been a stimulating and wide-ranging conversation. And I’m really appreciative that you took the time to join us. I’m appreciative to all of our listeners at The Global POLITICO. I hope that you will subscribe to the podcast, rate us, give us feedback. And, of course, you can email me any time at [email protected] I’ve heard lots of great suggestions from all of you on what other guests we should have on. And I hope you’ll keep them coming. And thanks again to all of you for listening, and to you, Paul Wolfowitz, for joining us this week on The Global POLITICO.
Wolfowitz: Good conversation. Thanks, Susan.
Glasser: Thank you.
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