The U.S. has lost the war and "should pull out very fast"
So says John Brady Kiesling, a former career foreign service officer who resigned from the State Department in early 2003 in protest over the Bush administration's impending invasion of Iraq.
Kiesling, who resides in Greece, just returned from a speaking tour in the U.S. to promote his new book, Diplomacy Lessons: Realism for an Unloved Superpower. It's on my reading list, along with ex-diplomat Craig Murray's memoir, Murder in Samarkand.
And countless other titles, of course. But I have a particular interest in Kiesling's book since I did an interview with him over three years ago for the Slovene newspaper Delo. It was published in Slovene translation in Sobotna priloga, a magazine supplement that accompanies the Saturday edition of the paper. The original English version is posted below; many of Kiesling's comments about Iraq have proved prophetic.
At the time the interview was published, Slovenia was being pressured by American government officials to sign a bilateral agreement granting immunity to American nationals from prosecution before the International Criminal Court. To its credit, Slovenia, which had signed and ratified the Rome Statute, refused (although to its disgrace, Slovenia's government has betrayed the nation's founding principles and its citizens by caving in to American pressure on a number of other international issues. But this is a long story, to be told on other occasions.)
Although in an earlier post I spoofed my own efforts over the years--hell, I'm old, better make it over the decades--to make the world a fairer and more peaceful place, characterizing them as mostly exercises in futility, I like to think that publishing this interview when and where I did may have made a small positive difference to the outcome. An arm-twisting American "immunity team" had descended on Slovenia on June 2, 2003, and set a June 30 deadline for signing a bilateral agreement--or else. Of course, the "or else" consisted of largely empty threats, but even though Slovenia as a nation was in a strong position, its foreign minister, the execrable Dimitri Rupel, had time and again displayed his penchant for kissing American ass, and speculation was rife at the time that once again he would embarrass the nation he was supposed to be serving and faithfully execute the bidding of his American masters instead.
The Kiesling interview was published June 14, 2003. In it I asked Kiesling about his views of the ICC. He was strongly supportive, and went on to give Slovenes some advice on how to hold firm in the face of superpower bullying. Who knows, maybe his words instilled some Slovene government officials with the courage and confidence they had previously lacked.
Here is the full text of the interview:
Looking for signs of intelligent life in American foreign policy
Interview with former American diplomat John Brady Kiesling published in Delo, June 14, 2003
In early February of this year, credulous leaders from the Vilnius group of countries, helpfully coached by American neoconservative lobbyist Bruce Jackson, were coming to the conclusion that America’s “compelling” evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and links to international terrorism called for urgent and forceful intervention. About the same time, seasoned American diplomat John Brady Kiesling was watching events unfold from Athens with a sinking heart.
Kiesling had long suspected that the Bush administration’s case for war on Iraq was bogus. He worried that it would bring neither security to Americans nor freedom to Iraqis. A career diplomat with a master’s degree in Ancient History and Mediterranean Archeology and years of field experience in southern Europe and the Caucasus, he was particularly sensitive to the damage that such a war would inflict on America’s relationships and alliances abroad. As Political Counselor at the American Embassy in Greece, he was expected to persuade Greeks to back a policy in which he himself had no confidence. The set of “talking points” provided to him and his colleagues to make the case for war were, he recalls, “pretty pathetic” and unlikely to convince “an audience of sophisticated people who have some experience with the world, who are profoundly nervous about the Middle East and terrorism, and who would like to see some signs of intelligent life in American foreign policy.”
Unfortunately, the Bush administration values loyalty from its members above all else, including intelligence. It was clear that no dissent on Iraq, whether it came from European allies or the State Department’s own experts, would be tolerated. And so, after nearly twenty years of conscientious service, Kiesling felt he was left with no other option. “I concluded that if I resigned I would at least have the right to speak out and be heard, for at least fifteen minutes anyway,” he told me in a phone interview from Greece.
Since the publication of his eloquent and heartfelt letter of resignation on February 27 in The New York Times, Kiesling’s voice has been heard for perhaps longer than fifteen minutes. In the months since his resignation, he has, by contributing numerous interviews, lectures, speeches, and articles, helped to open up a much-needed debate about the troubling direction of American foreign policy under Bush. Currently at work on a book about the role of America in Europe and the world, Kiesling parts company with the Bush administration on more than just Iraq: the current U.S. stance on the International Criminal Court, he said, makes him “furious.” And he confesses to having “a guilty secret”—a belief in the European Union as “a successful force for democracy and development,” in striking contrast to the United States, which, he has said, “as far as most of the world is concerned…currently has no useful vision to offer.”
In his letter of resignation, Kiesling wrote that “the policies we are now asked to advance are incompatible not only with American values but also with American interests.” Other State Department resignations followed his own, and there is no telling how many more sympathizers still work within the system. One day, perhaps, an American government led by a different president will conclude that it is wiser to listen to such voices of reason than to unleash toxic and unwelcome policies on an apprehensive world.
Your resignation was prompted in part by the realization that the White House never really wanted inspections or diplomacy to work, that it was determined to go to war no matter what. At what point did this become clear to you?
I went through ups and downs on this. I was very down in September of last year. Then when we decided to go to the United Nations, I thought that the UN would be able to stop this war, or convert it into something legitimate. All of our Iraq diplomacy throughout 2002 consisted of the drumbeat of weapons of mass destruction. No other arguments were being made. And that argument struck me as incredibly flimsy. I tried to make the best of it, but from a political point of view it was stupid to go ahead on that basis if we could not provide our allies with evidence that was better than what we had. So that made me nervous—the fact that we were pushing so hard with so little convinced me that something was going wrong.
The decision to go to the UN made me feel a little better. Certainly it gave us time. But the whole inspection process was kind of a roller coaster itself. The American public heard only about the deceit and the evasion, while Saddam’s own people were pledging full compliance, but I’m not sure the American people heard that part of it. It was clear that the certainty that the US would intervene militarily if he didn’t comply was causing Saddam to gradually open up, and that process meant that there was no urgency to go to war at all. The only urgency came from our military build-up in the region.
It’s hard for me to tell at exactly what point I realized that the war was going to happen no matter what. There was something in Bush’s facial expression on television one moment in early February that told me it was all over. It had been all over a long time before then, but my remaining faith disappeared then.
Now that the war has actually been waged, how would you assess the current situation? And what happens next?
All the plans we thought we had have evaporated. I don’t know that [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz and company were actually dumb enough to believe that [the leader of the Iraqi National Congress] Ahmed Chalabi had sufficient viability and credibility to serve as any sort of a leader, but certainly once they got in, they discovered that he didn’t. So now they’re improvising and fumbling. And while they fumble, the center of gravity is moving toward those few groups that know what they want, like the hard-core militant Shia theocrats and the people who want an autonomous Kurdistan. The Sunni are caught in the middle, with no real legitimate leadership of their own, but terrified to be caught between the Kurds and the Shia. We went in with the understanding that the only viable solution was a state with a federal structure, with the northern part dominated by Kurds, a central part dominated by Sunni, and a Shia-dominated south. If that’s going to happen, the borders had better be set pretty quickly before the groups can start fighting over them. I think the framework needs to be put in place. There’s no earthly mechanism that would cause the contending factions to be able to settle on a federal constitutional structure on their own, left to their own devices. I’d argue that we need to have the United Nations come in and bless the process. We need to diffuse responsibility for the new shape of Iraq as widely as possible, because if it’s an American plan, it will not last. It will crumble because it has no legitimacy at all, whereas if there is a broader international political fig-leaf, there will be enough vested interests in maintaining stability to keep it propped up at least long enough to give the population a breathing spell.
The sad fact is that anything that has a “Made in USA” stamp on it makes the local population puke. They’re simply not going to tolerate it. But we need to find a way to live up to our responsibilities while creating a structure that has some claim to legitimacy, that isn’t simply imposed by US force on an unwilling and hostile population. Frankly, I don’t know how to do it. If I knew how to do it, I might have been more easily persuaded of the need to take out Saddam Hussein. But I really don’t.
The Kurds don’t want to be worse off than they were, so a federal state is the minimum they will accept. I’m not sure the other parties will be as happy with that. But if it’s a good enough package, with lots of money and guarantees of democratic rights, they might accept it. In the Shia territory this means basically coming to terms with a theocratic Shia federal state. We will either have one with US blessing, or one without US blessing, but we’ll have it regardless.
We’ve been hearing a lot lately about how American foreign policy has effectively been taken over by the Pentagon, with the State Department relegated to a very minor role. Administration officials Paul Wolfowitz at the Department of Defense and Richard Armitage of the State Department recently denied the existence of any conflict between the two departments. But what is the reality from your perspective?
The reality from my perspective is that these are very powerful men with a lot of ideological similarities who certainly would never stoop to saying anything nasty about one another in a meeting, and certainly not with the president watching. But there is a very sharp competition going on, and within that competition, the State Department has won an occasional battle but has always had to pay for it, whereas the Pentagon has been much better at winning and not paying for it. There’s definitely tension and conflict between the two departments.
Is the Pentagon winning?
It certainly was, but I get the feeling that since the war in Iraq ended the Pentagon has pulled back quite a bit. Iraqi reconstruction has to be paid for, and the bureaucratic logic of the situation is that the Pentagon would have to pay for it, and the Pentagon would prefer to spend its money on tanks and weapons and so on. So Rumsfeld is going to try to find a way to gradually pull the Pentagon back from involvement in Iraq, but that’s hard. And I think that gradually the United Nations is going to have a role, and the State Department, and AID [United States Agency for International Development, a government agency providing economic and humanitarian assistance worldwide], and all these other organizations that Rumsfeld has nothing but contempt for. But Iraqi reconstruction is such a mess, and so expensive, and he will not cover himself with glory from it, so he doesn’t mind farming it out to others.
How should we interpret the replacement of retired Army Lieutenant General Jay Garner by ex-State Department official Paul Bremer as chief administrator in Iraq? Some say that this is an indication that the State Department is getting more involved again, while others point out that Bremer’s primary affiliation is to the group of known neoconservative ideologues that so dominate this administration, and it doesn’t really matter which department he’s from.
Bremer reports to Rumsfeld, that’s very clear. Bremer’s own ideology is actually pretty slippery. He is a very shrewd bureaucrat who adopts whatever ideological coloration is required. He endeared himself to Rumsfeld by being a real counter-terrorist hawk, and of course that’s an easy way to win brownie points in Washington under any circumstances. So what Bremer really thinks, I don’t think anybody really knows. If Bremer is successful in Iraq, Rumsfeld will take the credit. If Bremer fails, Rumsfeld will remind everyone that Bremer is really a State Department guy.
Recently we heard Rumsfeld say that Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction may have been destroyed before the war, and Wolfowitz said that the weapons were used as the main pretext for war in Iraq primarily “for bureaucratic reasons.” This has sparked demands in both Britain and the United States for investigations to find out whether the administration manipulated intelligence and lied to Congress and the public about the threat posed by Iraq. Do you think anything will come of this?
Well, what can they say? They did manipulate. Rumsfeld and all these people had talked themselves into absolute certainty that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. They don’t know much about the Middle East, the intelligence was pretty ambiguous, they misread Saddam, and they thought it was fine to fudge the evidence, assuming that once they went in they would find something. They miscalculated badly. And so they deserve to be hung out to dry, because the whole doctrine of pre-emptive strikes, even assuming you agree with it, requires that you act only on good intelligence, and our intelligence was crap.
But do you think the people responsible will be held accountable in any way?
I’m fairly skeptical, but I think they’ll be a little more cautious in future. That’s about the best that I can say now. Unfortunately history tells us that the people who do best are the ones who don’t apologize for having lied, they just keep on doing it. But this has really added to the political cost that Tony Blair is going to pay. I suspect that Bush will pay a lesser cost since the American public is not nearly as curious about it.
How badly has the US damaged its relations with the rest of the world over Iraq?
The damage is fixable. The only problem is that the way we fix it is by showing a competence and perseverance in Iraq that I don’t think we have. If we fix Iraq, and make it better than it was when we broke it, then people will judge us more kindly. Also the president’s personal commitment to the Middle East peace process is important. I don’t want to be too cynical about it—but given his reluctance to pay attention to this process before, it’s clear that Bush was genuinely shocked by how much of a mess he made in Iraq, and is now trying to make up for it and redeem himself. I hope he succeeds, but I’m not that optimistic. The Middle East peace process is very, very difficult. The United States has to try, because nothing will happen without the personal prestige of the American president and the wealth and power of the United States government being brought to bear on the issue. The personal prestige of the American president works better when the president has a slightly clearer idea of what’s going on, but who knows, maybe he’s learning.
So you wouldn’t rule out progress in the Middle East peace process during this presidency? Or do we simply have to wait and hope we get something better in 2004?
I don’t rule anything out. I think that it’s possible that we can move the Middle East peace process a stage down the road toward a Palestinian state, but it will require a huge amount of attention over the next few months. I think President Bush has made a personal commitment to Tony Blair to make this effort, and I believe Bush does take this kind of personal commitment seriously, even though he doesn’t take telling the truth to the American people very seriously.
Your resignation from the State Department in February of this year was the first public resignation since 1994, when five State Department officials quit their jobs because they were frustrated by the Clinton administration's inaction on the crisis in the Balkans. You shared this frustration. But did you also consider resigning at the time?
Not at that time. I was always on the fringe of the Bosnia policy. As a Romania desk officer, I was providing moral support and helped with some of the drafting of the dissident activities. My involvement with Bosnia was purely voluntary, and if things got too intense I had the option of stepping back. I was appalled and disgusted at what was going on, but I wasn’t up against any moral crunch, and I didn’t think I had the seniority to really make a difference.
How did the change in US policy towards Bosnia come about? What finally led the US to intervene?
Basically it seemed to come down to too many dead bodies on television. Prior to that Clinton’s feeling had always been that the situation was too difficult and messy for him to want to get involved. There was a permanent bureaucratic battle going on, though the battle lines kept shifting. The State Department and part of the Pentagon were in favor of intervention, but most of the Pentagon felt it would be a quagmire, so the military tended to give assessments that were unrealistically negative—that it would require too many troops and cost too much money and so on.
Wasn’t the lack of a clear exit strategy also cited at the time as a reason not to intervene?
Well, anytime there’s a clear exit strategy, it’s because someone is lying. Exit strategies never really work, but you have to be able to convince skeptics, particularly in the US Congress, that we’re not going to be there forever.
Some people argue that even in the absence of an Iraqi arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, there was a compelling moral case for military intervention and regime change in Iraq. You were one of the earliest advocates of intervention in Bosnia, yet you opposed war in Iraq. What is the difference between the moral argument for intervention in Iraq as compared to that in Bosnia?
I would argue that certain kinds of humanitarian disasters generate a kind of legitimacy. To put it brutally, enough blood on the pavement generates legitimacy. When people are dying in large numbers, and there is a real prospect that military intervention will save lives, then this creates a moral obligation for the international community to act. There can never be a full accounting of costs and benefits, but in the case of Bosnia it seemed to me that the status quo was evil and many thousands of people were dying unnecessarily, and that we could stop it at a relatively small cost and offer something better.
There were times in Iraq’s history when equally terrible things were taking place, and we did absolutely nothing. The moment we chose to intervene in Iraq was actually not one when Saddam Hussein was slaughtering his own population with any particular enthusiasm. The short-term costs of the war would certainly be worse for most Iraqis than the continuation of the status quo, and the long-term situation was based on a whole bunch of imponderables, most of all on the willingness of the United States and the international community to pay billions of dollars that we don’t and won’t have in order to make things better. There was not enough blood on the pavement to generate a kind of moral momentum to intervene. You could argue that the time to intervene was when Saddam Hussein was gassing the Kurds at Halabja, but he was our ally at the time.
How many more people inside the system share your concerns, and what issues or actions would be flashpoints for them?
I think if we started any new wars against Syria or Iran, there would be a large number of resignations, because it would mean that all of our Middle East policy had collapsed in a heap. Also our relations with our allies would be even more seriously damaged than they already are. I’m not expecting war with either of those; I think we’ll see some saber-rattling but not actual war.
What about some kind of covert action in Iran?
My strong belief is that we’re living in a fool’s paradise if we think that there’s the kind of motivated opposition that we could work with in Iran the way we worked with the Contras in Nicaragua. Iran is a little more civilized. We could make a mess there, but a mess in Iran doesn’t actually serve our interests. At the moment there is basically a status quo state that is not very strong and doesn’t have control over all of the activities within the country, but if we were to destabilize it, there are thousands of Iranians who would love to do us harm, and if control broke down, they would be far freer to do it. Covert action aimed at the destabilization of the current regime would be an insanely stupid thing to do.
But is there sufficient awareness of this among the people in the US administration responsible for promoting one policy over another?
I don’t know. I think so. The Europeans have much better ties to Iran than we do, and I think they could give a more realistic assessment. I don’t think Tony Blair is ready for another bruising of the kind he’s gotten so far over Iraq. I think we’re smarter than to do that. I hope we are.
What are your views on the International Criminal Court? As you know, the United States is pressuring a number of countries, including Slovenia, to sign a bilateral agreement granting immunity to American citizens before the ICC. Do you think this administration’s objections to the ICC are justified?
The US view of the ICC is one of this country’s greatest embarrassments. I hated dealing with it when the issue came up. The whole point of the ICC was that in the course of the 1990s enough truly horrible things happened that we and the rest of the civilized world concluded that we needed some international body to try war criminals and serve as a deterrent to future war crimes. We all agreed with this, and then suddenly the issue was hijacked by the worst kind of American rabble-rousing populists, you know, the UN-bashers and the like. President Clinton basically shirked his responsibility on this one. He saw that it was politically a losing issue. So we ended up making a mockery of our principles—at least what I thought were our principles; at this point it is clear that the rejection of the ICC is perfectly in keeping with the principles of certain members of this administration.
The International Criminal Court was a courageous attempt to move international law a step forward. Then the United States lost its nerve, for completely spurious reasons. We had already gutted the ICC to the point where there was no plausible threat from it to us. It was not going to be taken over by hostile UN Assembly members and used to embarrass Henry Kissinger. We have a system that will punish war criminals and the primary jurisdiction lies with the individual states. It was not our finest hour; our position on this issue made me furious. I understand why some states feel compelled to give in to US pressure—that’s normal when you’re a small state and a large superpower is behaving childishly and irrationally—but I’m embarrassed for the US.
Slovenia seems to be holding firm on the issue for now, in large part due to the intense counter pressure applied to the Slovene government by civil society, which is strongly supportive of the ICC and increasingly critical of current US policy. Do you have any advice for countries on the receiving end of this administration’s bullying and manipulative tactics?
The key thing to remember is that all of the countries who are joining the European Union in this tranche have nothing to worry about. The United States does not have any meaningful bullying power which it cares to exercise. It will use guilt, it will use threats, but there’s not a lot that it can really carry out. On this particular issue it would be helpful if the European Union would be a little bit clearer, but then the EU is trapped, too: they are not sure how nasty the US is willing to be on this issue, and they don’t want countries to suffer unnecessarily. So the EU has basically decided that it’s up to the member states to make their own arrangements, but they have signaled to the accession states that whatever they do had better be “EU-compatible.”
I would say that Slovenia can get away with just making earnest noises and doing nothing. There are other countries that are more easily browbeaten; Romania, for example, is in a more awkward position. Romania tried to have the best of both worlds by signing an agreement very rapidly with the US and then saying that they had to wait for EU permission before ratifying it.
This is not an all-or-nothing issue for the United States, and a country like Slovenia, because it doesn’t need a US troop presence for peacekeeping or anything, can say to the US, “Look we are loyal friends of the United States, but we are also loyal friends of international law, and a good friend does not ask another good friend to violate their principles except in a time of supreme emergency, which this is not.”
So far the only concrete threat that has been made publicly is the withdrawal of 4 million USD in military aid.
The point is that this military aid is in US interests as well as Slovenia’s interests, and everybody knows it. It is not in US interests to weaken the bonds of affection between the US and other militaries. So even if it’s cut off, it will be restored eventually. If Slovenia politely says that it is too difficult for a democracy like ours to sign this agreement, the long-term consequences will be minimal.
Does the NATO alliance have a future, and if so, what is it likely to look like?
The original purpose for NATO is gone. There’s no question about that. That said, I think NATO is helping the European integration process, and as such may have a few years left to run. There is a major philosophical question as to whether NATO should be turned into an instrument of either the United Nations, which the US would not let happen at this point, or else of the community of nations, and serve as a highly competent organized planning and logistical body that will make military intervention, when it’s required, as effective, cheap, multilateral, and surgical as possible. NATO does have incredible infrastructure for intelligence, for planning, for communications and the like. I’m happy to put it to use, but it needs to be put to use within an international framework. That’s the big question. In a reinforced international community, where the UN is made more disciplined and stronger, NATO could be quite helpful. But that vision is not one that most Americans would share at this stage.
Is there a danger of NATO, under US domination, turning instead into what International Herald Tribune columnist William Pfaff termed last fall as “a self-financing foreign legion for the Pentagon?”
If the European Union develops a little more unity and discipline, so that the American voice in NATO is not quite as dominant, then I think that NATO has a lot of useful work to do.
What does diplomacy at its best look like?
Diplomacy is essentially the tending of human relationships. Our current theory of foreign policy is that we don’t need relationships because we’re powerful, so we can either demand that people do things or we can pay them to do things. And this is of course nonsense. Human nature doesn’t work that way. People do what you ask them to because they know you, they trust you, they have some sense that your interests and theirs coincide. And the job of a diplomat serving in, say, a country like Greece, where personal relationships are really everything, is to have contacts with the whole of the meaningful spectrum, and that’s not just politicians, but also academics and journalists and occasionally with real, ordinary people for a reality check, and certainly with the business community. There needs to be a point of reference, so that when Greeks think of Americans, they think of American diplomats and recognize that we have a shared tradition and shared interests and shared values, and that when things need to happen, I pick up the phone, the ambassador picks up the phone, we make a request, and they say “we’ll do it because we trust you.” Personality is crucial, and one of the most bizarre things I saw was Warren Christopher, who, although he was a very decent person, didn’t like talking to people. He didn’t establish empathy with people, and as a result our diplomacy was much weaker. Whereas with someone like Richard Holbrooke, though I have some doubts about him, there was no question that he invested his personality in real relationships, and he used those relationships to get people to do things they would not have done in the absence of that relationship.
In closing, is there any particular message that you would like to convey to Slovenes?
The basic point that I would like to make is that the European Union is a grand and visionary thing, and it’s a great experiment that I and a lot of Americans strongly endorse. It is crucial that Europe and the United States stick together. Our relationship goes through ups and downs, but in the long run our interests are the same. Both sides have to work permanently to tend the relationship.