This is the fifth of a six-part series of conversations with Daniel Ellsberg that were conducted earlier this month. My questions are in boldface, Ellsberg's responses are in lightface. Topics and dates of future and past postings can be found at the end of this interview.
Based on your knowledge of history - and particularly Vietnam - what parallels do you see now with the war in Iraq?
There were certain aspects of what was going on with Hussein that seemed obvious to me were lies right from the beginning. Even so, I did assume he had some WMD's. It seemed plausible enough that they would have kept some; we knew they had them before - not nuclear but chemical and biological. Saddam seemed to be acting in an evasive way, at least the way it was reported, not cooperating fully with Blix and the others. And our government seemed so sure and so precise about that, that I didn't think they'd stick their necks out to be that positive on the WMD's that they didn't have some fairly solid evidence. So I was assuming they did have that.
What seemed absurd from the very beginning was to say that that constituted an immediate danger to the United States. If they retained even a large quantity of chemical weapons and biological weapons, there seemed no reason to think that they would use those weapons unless they were attacked. By the same token, if they were attacked, it seemed all too plausible that they would use them - in fact, almost certain. It made the decision look, in that respect, terribly reckless to me, almost insane.
Moreover, the idea that there was a connection with Al Qaeda ... well, that I didn't have an independent judgment on, but everything I was reading suggested that that was very implausible.
Those two judgments both seemed to me to just totally undermine the idea that it would serve our security interests to be attacking Saddam, and that there was any immediate, compelling reason to do it.
Where India and Pakistan and North Korea had nuclear weapons, where Russia had tens of thousands of poorly guarded nuclear weapons and other material, this was indeed a very dangerous world and I couldn't see Saddam Hussein on the list of major dangers-- especially when it came to Al Qaeda's getting WMD's - certainly not at the head of the list.
It seemed to me we were being lied into war. Again. And the parts of my book that dealt with the Tonkin Gulf and the entry into the Vietnam war seemed so timely, I asked my publisher permission to put several chapters of my book on the web before the Senate vote. So I put the first chapter and part of the second and third on the web at the same time so that we could say: People, look at the Tonkin Gulf resolution.
I thought that their case for going to war was so thin and implausible that Bush was unlikely to do it unless he ginned up a more immediate attack of some kind. I was very apprehensive at that point, that there would be a Tonkin Gulf-like incident. I was very worried that Hussein's anti-aircraft gunners would actually succeed in shooting down one of our planes and that we'd use that as an excuse to invade.
We were doing flyovers there that were quite provoking.
You're right. We have heard more that they had a full campaign going on. We were virtually at war at that time. I was afraid that Bush would do whatever it took to get one of those planes shot down. Meaning, you realize, that I believe that our president was capable of putting our people in harm's way and getting some of them killed in order to get us into war, like the president I served Lyndon Johnson,. It turned out that this president was, contrary to my belief, willing to go in there even without a Tonkin Gulf-type incident, just on this crazy claim that he was authorized by previous resolutions.
What were your primary concerns at the beginning of the Iraq war?
I was very worried about two things: That there would be a big stand in Baghdad, which didn't occur, and that that would lead us to just level the city - what we did to Fallujah later, I thought that would happen to Baghdad, so I was worried about that.
Second, that they would turn up at some point with gas against our troops and I was very worried that that would lead us to use nuclear weapons. Bill Arkin in the LA Times said that there was a group reporting to Rumsfeld and the Pentagon that was tasked with picking out targets for nuclear response to their use of biological and chemical weapons against us. It seemed to me if they had them, they were bound to use them. I was very worried at that point that they might use them against our troops or against Israel - and we'd get a first use of nuclear weapons against that, by us or Israel. That's one of my worries that didn't come about. Why not? Of course, because they didn't have any WMD'S at all. Had they had any (which, of course, we claimed to believe that they did - and I suspect, by the way, that the top people did believe that they did even though they weren't getting much evidence of that), they would have used them.
We seem to have problems learning from history, don't we?
A very sad thing, and it isn't just Americans. When I try to draw lessons from history and pre-history, I've reached some unhappy conclusions about the nature of our species. Not just about Americans or capitalists. And part of it is that our concern for other people is very selective and very easily manipulated by leaders and by propaganda. And people are capable of being very little concerned about masses of deaths and suffering of other people - foreigners, far-away, invisible, not related, different languages, different religions.
They can be led by leaders to be concerned about that, but it's also very easy to distract them from it, into not being very concerned about it at all.
And it's very hard for Republicans to learn from Democrats. And the Vietnamese, I think, didn't learn all that much from having been invaded. They went into Cambodia and didn't really do very well. The Chinese went into Vietnam and got a bloody nose.
The Soviets really reproduced our Vietnam experience in Afghanistan. The only difference is the weather. I must say, that was one case where I wasn't wrong. I looked at that situation very early on when a lot of people were saying the Soviets would not have their one hand tied behind their back. They won't have problems with the press and the public, so now they're going to do it tough, the way the Israelis would do it.
So even despite the fact that they didn't have any of those domestic factors that we did, they didn't do any better and they were just as brutal as we are in Iraq.
Here's another one that didn't turn out as costly for us as I thought it would: our own invasion of Afghanistan. I thought we'd have the same trouble as the Soviets. That really didn't work out, but why not? First of all, the U.S. very much limited its penetration of Afghanistan. It's left almost the whole country, except for Kabul and Kandahar, to the warlords. It hasn't been ambitious at all about controlling most of the country. I didn't expect them to leave it at that. In retrospect, why did they? Because they were preparing for Iraq, which I have to say is another one I didn't foresee particularly. I didn't know about the Project for a New American Century. I didn't know the neo-cons at that point. I don't recall looking at Iraq particularly at all in 2001 or early 2002.
People say, Of course, we don't plan to stay in Iraq. We just plan to stay until there's a democratic government, a democratic government that will ask us to stay in our bases there and which will be friendly to Israel, and assure US that women's rights will be observed and so forth, but above all that the contracts will be recognized that we're signing now for all the deals about oil. We don't have to be there indefinitely, all we need is a government that is friendly in all these respects, as Chalabi promised us.
Well, that's a recipe for staying forever. Even if this administration lets go of all the other conditions, I don't believe they'll give up on the bases and the oil. Nor will its successors, Republican or Democrat. So I think that's what we will be doing, staying forever. Unless the rest of us, outside the government, force change on the leadership of the Democrats as well as the Republicans, which will be difficult and take a long time.
And that's why there's such a resistance to naming a timetable and calling everybody traitors who want a timetable.
Absolutely. Those same words were used to Nixon throughout his time on Vietnam. People were asking him to set a timetable. The weeks that I was copying the Pentagon Papers in October of 1969, a bunch of us at RAND were also putting forth a proposal to get out in one year, by 1970. Nixon was saying, no, no, no, no, that way they'll be able to wait for us to leave and then move in. We can't do that. And he was giving all the arguments that Bush is giving now. In fact, I wonder if Bush has actually opened the old drawers or brought down one of Nixon's memoirs from the shelf or something and simply copied the speeches, because that's what he's saying.
I'm still convinced - though most people aren't - that Nixon didn't mean at all for Saigon to be Communist in 1975 or 1978 or 1980. The reason he was rejecting the notion of having all American troops out by setting a deadline, setting a timetable, was not because he objected to that particular timetable or to having a timetable, but because he had no intention of giving up American presence altogether. Ever.
And that's where I think we are today. What are the secret intentions or plans of the White House, specifically of Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld? I think it is not their intention or expectation or willingness to see a total removal of U.S. influence and presence in Iraq. Ever. In light of that, I don't think what people need to face up to is what I regard as a likelihood that this war is going to go on much longer than two years or four years or eight years. I think that figures like 30 and 40 and 50 years should be considered. That's what they have in mind. When I say that, I'm not talking just about their hopes or expectations, because of course Nixon had hopeful expectations that were frustrated. I'm talking about intentions that I think may very well be fulfilled by Democrats as well as Republicans, intentions to hold on to bases and oil at all costs. I'm not at all confident that Democrats will be willing to give up those bases.
But the point is people need to start facing up to the fact that when Bush talks about being out of there, he's either lying or being incredibly wishful. Again, we come back to the question, can Bush possibly be persuaded that he really is going to get all he wants and that Chalabi is going to be vindicated in the end? I don't know. I can't figure Bush out, when it comes to his expectations. But I think he is determined to get what he wants, and realistically that won't let him reduce our troops all that much while he's in office.
You honestly think we'll be there for 50 years?
The oil in the region won't run out much before that. This administration wants to run the world, and controlling the Middle East oil spigot is crucial to their hopes. And I don't think later administrations will be eager to be seen as having given up on strategic assets we've just acquired by conquest.
The game here is empire and that's been going on for a long time, about 5,000 years probably, with not much difference. I've read the Nuremberg documents at RAND. I had on my shelf the ten-volume set of the trial of the major Nazi war criminals. We got those because Hitler's headquarters in East Prussia were overrun by the Soviets and had all these amazing documents you normally never get. Very, very unusual. I suspect that the documents of the Sumerian empire or the Egyptian empire or the Assyrian empire would look very, very much like these. But we don't have them. We don't have documentation like this, except for the Pentagon Papers.
My long-run hope for the Pentagon Papers was that they would give people a picture of how empire is run, the kind of decision-making that goes into it, with all its limitations and vulgarities and ruthlessness, and that might wake us up from wanting to be an empire. That was not achieved.
A good example of not learning from history seems to me to be Bremer's recent claim that the U.S. didn't foresee the insurgency.
When Shinseki was calling for hundreds of thousands of troops long before the war. What was that for? It wasn't necessary for our blitzkrieg, it was to prevent or deal with an insurgency.
I think it's clear that Powell was worried at the time about the scenario that has happened now, with his reference to the Pottery Barn rule and all. It appears there was some dissent from him and his number two, Lawrence Wilkerson.
I cannot believe that Wilkerson is saying things that Powell disagrees with. See, Powell says, Oh, I love Lawrence Wilkerson, but I don't agree with him. Bullshit. Larry Wilkerson totally carried the ball on this one. He's voicing both of their thinking. But Powell is not willing to cut his ties at all with the administration, he's backing them up. Not on the torture so much, but he's backing them up on the NSA taps.
Reminiscent of McNamara to a certain extent on Vietnam.
From 1966 on, I think that McNamara felt that it was totally a losing proposition and that we ought to get out. But looking at their unwillingness to criticize their bosses, to take issue with the president, or even with their colleagues at high level on the whole. I got the feeling, as I said before, that these people really want to be channeled from the after life as advisors, as consultants.
If, as you've said before, you fear us going into Iran, won't we have to have a draft? Won't that create so much protest they can't move forward with their plans?
No. First of all, the draft didn't stop Vietnam. It went on and on and could have gone on longer. I think we were very lucky in a number of ways that it didn't go on a lot longer. Anyway, it wasn't the draft, it was the large casualties and that was a result of Westmoreland's search-and-destroy missions and attrition strategy. That was known by many of the generals and they weren't willing to take a stand and take responsibility for reining him in on that. They were very critical of his strategy and the great American losses that we were suffering, but they wouldn't tell him not to do it.
If they had stopped that and really changed the strategy and gotten the U.S. casualties down greatly, they could have stayed in Vietnam and they would not have been forced out of it, because Americans are very tolerant of bombing and they're very tolerant of foreigners dying.
And that appears to be Bush's strategy for the next year.
That's what he hopes for.
He's going to go to air power and pull some troops out.
And Americans will go along with that.
Yes, they will.
The American people ... I have to say, I've been very dismayed at the degree of acceptance there has been of the torture. An encouraging sign is of McCain and the other 96 or so who went against it, that was good. But you know, will we or will we not let Bush get away with his signing statement, that he's not really bound by the bill? How much of the torture will now be outsourced to Iraqis? And will Americans get very upset by that?
And the torture is clearly inflammatory and self-defeating, feeding the hatred of America. Why is that so hard to understand?
We're talking about a species thing, a resistance to foreseeing that violence has dangerous consequences, that it leads to reciprocation. The "cycle of violence" is not just a cliché. The idea that violence breeds violence, that violence breeds hatred, rage and revenge, some kinds of violence more than others - that terrorism against civilians, and torture, breeds rage and hatred. And that makes people suicidally angry. They're ready to die in order to take other people with them. Humans - especially males in power - resist knowing all that, or learning it, when they turn to terrorism and torture.
I think that's one of the great dangers on this torture. For example, my understanding of the fall of the shah in Iran in 1979 was that you had a system in Iran - which was, of course, a great ally of the U.S. - using torture very, very extensively. Their secret police were torturing everybody who came into their grip, advised by both literal Gestapo people - old Nazis who were hiring out to teach torture methods - and they had CIA advisors who were major in building up the shah.
The shah looked very bad to me and he was one of our dictators, he was our Saddam Hussein. They were two links in a chain. The shah falls and now we have to have a shah-like person in Iraq to fight Iran. So Saddam Hussein was a successor to the shah in the region, as our base to fight Iran.
What made the shah unviable in the end was that he had tortured so many people over there that they were just enraged. They wanted a different system. His torture was a crucial thing in his downfall[:] at the hands, by the way, of a non-violent movement. As the Iranians kept pointing out to me in public meetings, we're not pacifists, we're not non-violent ...we just don't have any guns.
My attitude at the time - because I'd been impressed by the practical aspects of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. - I felt yeah, and if you did have guns, I think the shah or his successors would still be there. The army would have had no compunction about shooting as many people as it took to stay in power, if people were shooting at them. But the Iranian Army sickened finally of shooting their own unarmed brothers and huge crowds of women and children. We don't know how many they killed, certainly more than 10,000 and possibly as many as 100,000. But eventually they got to the point where they said, "We aren't going to shoot these people anymore," and the shah was brought down by that.
What led to that was not just wonderful organization by Khomeini, but a tremendous revulsion at the shah's regime for the torture that he'd been carrying out.
Again, why can't we learn from that?
In the minds of the people in the Pentagon, they all looked at this movie, "The Battle of Algiers," and apparently they look at that as a kind of textbook for how to defeat terrorists. Except that what a "successful" campaign against the terrorists in Algiers did, based on torture, was to totally alienate the many, many Algerians who would have been glad to stay in the French system and thought of themselves as French - they spoke French, liked French culture. But you could not side with the French after the atrocities of the Battle of Algiers. So the French won the battle and they lost the war.
Yet Bush is now talking about drawing down troops.
Nixon was doing what Bush is doing now: He was using the word, "withdrawal," "I'm withdrawing." Meaning, really, "I'm reducing." We haven't done much reduction yet in Iraq, but I do expect some reduction to happen.
Bush's strategy, I'm sure, will be to fool people to say yes, we're on our way out, we're going down and everybody wants to think we're going down to zero when he doesn't have that in mind any more than Nixon had it in mind in 1969 or 1970. Nixon had no thought of going down to zero. A combination of events brought him to that, finally, by 1973. But it was against his will and it was against his expectations.
Well, I don't think Bush has any idea that we'll ever be out of those bases and he would regard that as a total failure, a failure he does not intend or expect to preside over. And I'll go further: I don't expect him to either. I don't expect his successor to do it.
I'm working. I'm hoping that among other things we'll get out of Iraq, but I don't have much confidence. I think there's a chance or I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing. I want to enlarge that chance, and I think enlarging that chance can be done. But I admit I think it's much less than an even chance. The odds are, I think we will one way or another hang onto the bases in that oil-rich country indefinitely, for a very long time. We'll let go of New Jersey before we let go of Iraq. Because the oil's pretty exhausted in New Jersey.
What is happening in Iraq is very like Vietnam, with the difference of the oil there and the strategic location and relation to Israel.
And that's what will stop us from getting out, whereas in Vietnam there were no resources?
We had virtually no strategic stake in Vietnam and there was nothing to keep us there except the fears of our politicians of being called losers, unmanly, weak. After ten years of resistance in Vietnam and at home, it was possible to get us out. In Iraq - where those same fears will apply again - the stakes of other kinds are very large - profits, and above all, I think, control of oil as a lever for world power, leverage over the world, control of the energy sources in general.
What would your recommended response to 9/11 have been?
Well, the only reason for calling it a "war" was a very bad one, and that was to justify unconstitutional actions - illegal actions - which the president tells himself are justified in war, when even he can't convince himself they're justified otherwise.
It was a terrorist attack, which obviously called for coordinated, worldwide international and domestic police measures, going along with calling that a war very implausibly, against a very amorphous opponent and non-state opponent, literally stateless with no fixed address - going along with that was dubious right from the beginning and has turned out to have very negative consequences since he seems to believe wrongly that the commander in chief in wartime of the armed forces is literally a dictator.
It was a major, dangerous terrorist attack, by an amorphous, non-state collection of adversaries with no fixed address. It called for coordinated, worldwide international and domestic police and intelligence measures, with our department of defense and its military measures playing some role but not at all the leading, major role implied by "war."
Of course, we now know that Bush intended from the beginning to use 9/11 as an excuse for a real war in Iraq run by the DOD, which was probably his main reason for invoking the image of "war" right after 9/11. But the fact that everyone went along with that dubious description of our terrorist danger turns out to have had some other very ominous consequences, since Bush seems to believe that the U.S. commander of chief of the armed forces, in an endless "war against terror," is literally a dictator.
Within days of 9/11, we've just learned, he secretly suspended indefinitely the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution by authorizing unlimited warrantless wiretaps, against explicit legislation forbidding this. He thinks, and his shameless (or fascist) house lawyers tell him, that he got authority to do this when Congress - except for Barbara Lee - delegated to him the decision to make himself a wartime commander in chief.
Also, it's not a properly declared war.
Yes, but he could say that he did manipulate without too much trouble something like an undated declaration of war from Congress. That's to the shame of Congress, but they carry responsibility for that. It's not as though he didn't get any vote of confidence on this. Unfortunately, I think he's not off base when he says that Congress did effectively authorize a war with Afghanistan and Iraq. They used language that could certainly be extended to say we're in a state of war. He was appealing rhetorically to the notion that to say that the effort against terrorism was anything but a war was to exhibit some kind of weakness or lack of will to deal with the problem. But in fact terrorism isn't a problem that can be mainly solved by military means. If this was looked at appropriately, military means would probably be part of the solution, but a relatively minor part of it.
To call it a war immediately has several very concrete effects. Institutionally, it puts the Defense Department at the center of decision-making and implementation and that was very inappropriate, downplaying State, CIA and the FBI. Second, when we go to war, we bomb. What we did to Fallujah and what we're doing routinely all the time now is very much the American way of war, and that means trying to maximize the use of air power relative to the use of ground troops.
That's what we were doing in Vietnam under Nixon and that could have had a good deal of effect on prolonging war if Congress had let them keep that up. I think if our air power had persisted in supporting the ARVN, the Saigon forces, the war could have been kept going, could have killed a lot more people there, and Saigon wouldn't have been Ho Chi Minh City until several years later if we'd done that.
I think they're thinking of that exact example in Iraq, but it's very different situation now. We don't have ARVN. The heart of ARVN, the office corps in Vietnam, was a quite large, coherent officer structure trained by the French when the French ruled there. These were people who were committed to a persistent rule by foreigners. It was very hard for them to pose as patriots; they had a long record of collaboration there. They were a coherent colonial fighting force, fighting against the independence of their country. They didn't have a lot of future by defecting to the communists.
You had an army there that was trained. The troops were younger and they hadn't on the whole fought for the French, but they were people who chose to get a very small salary and sleep in beds and with their families nearby rather than their alternative, to live in the tunnels under our bombing.
In Iraq, we don't have a generations-old colonial army to turn to, to support with air power.
The question that really arises in this case is, who is it exactly we are training and what are we training them for? Whose side will they end up being on when they're trained? There's reason to think that Shia and Sunni militias are going to the army not just for the economic incentives, but to get training and to get weapons so they can organize, after which they'll fight for whoever they choose to fight for, based on various incentives.
I'm thinking of the example of trained people in the police in Fallujah who just deserted en masse. There's every indication now that people that we have trained and are paying are forming death squads against the Sunni resistance, the Sunni who we want to compete with them and to be part of the government. The Sunni likewise. Who knows what training they're getting?
When we add up the number of people we've trained, you don't end up with a number who are prepared to fight for American control of their country or against people who are resisting it. We don't actually have a clue who we're training. It's as if the Viet Cong had all enlisted in the ARVN in order to get weapons. But instead of doing that, they simply captured or bought the weapons from ARVN. They didn't bother to get American training, which they didn't feel was really relevant to their needs, the guerilla army. We weren't really good at training a guerilla army and theViet Cong were the best in the world, their trainers were the best so they didn't need it.
Twenty years from now the resistance to the American bases will not have to join our payroll to get trained.
Because we're training their trainers?
Well, we're training them now and they'll have 20 years of guerilla war behind them. On the contrary, people will go from all over the world to get trained by the Iraqi resistance, as they are doing now, and that does not mean going to people on the U.S. payroll. They'll have very experienced guerilla war terrorist operators by then, they'll be as good as the Viet Cong. It takes a while, you know. The VC had been at it since 1945. By the time we got there in 1965, they didn't need training from us.
In fact, we could have used some of their training.
Absolutely. If we wanted to win the war, join their side.
Schedule of Ellsberg Interviews at Daily Kos
Part I, January 20, 2006 - The Pentagon Papers and the Overlooked 1968 Leaks: Covers Ellsberg feeling that the Pentagon Papers ultimately proved ineffective in what he was trying to accomplish, but that leaks he did prior to them in 1968 were much more effective.
Part 2, January 21, 2006 - Judith Miller, the New York Times and Government-Controlled Press: Ellsberg speculates that Miller was "on the team" for the CIA - something he witnessed of several reporters during Vietnam - and that to a greater or lesser extent than the public realizes, we are dealing with a controlled press in this country.
Part 3, January 22, 2006 - The Cult of Secrecy in Government and Its Undermining of Democracy: Ellsberg discusses the undermining effects of government secrecy on the working of a practicing democracy, overclassification and the problems of signing oaths of secrecy to get clearances, which routinely leads to lying to Congress and courts during the course of investigations.
Part 4, January 27, 2006 - Whistleblowing and Effective Activism: Ellsberg talks about the hows and whys of whistleblowing - and importantly, when it's NOT worth the personal price - as well as what average American citizens can do to effectively put pressure on the government for change.
Part 5, January 28, 2006 - Iraq/Vietnam Parallels and Other Foreign Policy Fiascos: Ellsberg analyzes the obvious parallels between Vietnam and Iraq, as well as the two major differences - oil and strategic geographical importance - which he believes will keep us in Iraq for as long as 50 years.
Part 6, January 29, 2006 - Bush, the Next 9/11 and the Approaching Police State: Ellsberg discusses ... well, the title says it all.