Toward the start of the second Persian Gulf War, I found myself in a room with R. James Woolsey, CIA chief during the first two years of the Clinton administration. A television was turned on, and we both watched a news report on the latest development in the North Korea nuclear drama. How much longer, I asked him, could this administration wait before dealing with North Korea and its efforts to develop nuclear-weapons material? A little while, but not too long, he said. Until after the Iraq war? Yes, Woolsey said, we can take care of things then. (That was when the prevailing assumption was the war in Iraq would take about as long as a Donald Rumsfeld press conference.) And, I wondered, is this a challenge that can be taken care of with, say, a well-planned and contained bombing raid, one that strikes the nuclear facilities in question? “Oh, no, ” he said. “This is going to be war.” War, full-out war, with a nation that might already have a few nuclear weapons and that does have 600,000 North Korean soldiers stationed 25 miles from Seoul, with 37,000 US troops in between? “Yes, war.” He didn’t flinch, didn’t bat an eye.
Woolsey is something of a prophet of war. And the Pentagon wants him to be part of its team running postwar Iraq.
On April 2, Woolsey made headlines by telling students at UCLA that the Iraq war was part of “World War IV.” Speaking at a teach-in sponsored by campus Republicans and Americans for Victory Over Terrorism, a pro-war-in-Iraq group founded by William Bennett, Woolsey remarked, “This fourth world war, I think, will last considerably longer than either World Wars I or II did for us. Hopefully not the full four-plus decades of the Cold War.” He cited three enemies: the religious leaders of Iran, the “fascists” of Syria and Iraq, and Islamic extremists like Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. He called for the United States to back democratic movements throughout the Middle East, which “will make a lot of people very nervous,” particularly Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the Saudi Arabia oligarchs. “We want you nervous,” he said. “We want you to realize now, for the fourth time in a hundred years, this country and its allies are on the march and that we are on the side of those whom you–the Mubaraks, the Saudi Royal family–most fear: We’re on the side of your own people.” In other words: crusade, anyone?
Woolsey’s comments won him several minutes on the cable news networks. But a quick check of clips showed that he has been saying the same for months, using the exact same words. For instance, last November, during a speech before an audience assembled by conservative provocateur David Horowitz, Woolsey told the crowd “that we are in World War IV” and “I don’t believe this terror war is every really going to go away until we change the face of the Middle East.” Given his much-promoted diagnosis and prescription–correct or not–the other Woolsey news-of-the-week seemed even more bizarre than it had originally appeared.
A few days before CNN blared, “Ex-CIA director: US faces ‘World War IV,” The Washington Post reported that the Pentagon, in concocting its postwar plans, had proposed installing Woolsey as head of Iraq’s information ministry. The State Department had derived its own list of former ambassadors and experts to oversee Iraqi governmental agencies once the war ends (presumably with a US victory). The Pentagon didn’t fancy State’s list–too many midlevel types and bureaucrats. It wanted more prominent Americans in charge and its own guys. The Pentagon nominated Woolsey for the information slot. The White House sensibly said, no way.
Woolsey’s bring-it-on desire to confront much of the Arab world aside, whoever in the Pentagon suggested tapping any former CIA head to run any part of a post-Hussein government should be shit-canned. How might this look to Iraqis and the Arab public? Were the Pentagon schemers unaware of the reputation the CIA has in the Arab world and throughout most of the globe? The folks next door in Iran probably still remember well how the CIA supported the brutal secret police of the Shah they booted. And how many Iraqis (and other Arabs) would not believe that Woolsey’s appointment was not part of some conspiracy? Moreover, how much credibility would a CIA vet–who headed an agency that occasionally produces covert propaganda–bring to this sensitive position that demands the trust of the public? Answer: none. And placing Americans at the helm of individual ministries might in and of itself stir objections within Iraq and among allies. As Adnan Pachachi, who was foreign minister in the government deposed by Saddam Hussein, told the Financial Times, “It makes no sense for the US to involve itself in the details,” “It’s not what the Iraqis want and what the international community wants. It’s not even what the US’s allies want.”
That Pentagon officials would even consider placing a CIA man in charge of the Ministry of Truth is evidence their judgment is severely impaired. This was not merely a wacky idea that got floated by some outsider; this was a serious Pentagon proposal that required White House intervention to kill it. A safe bet would be that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz vetted the list that included Woolsey. According to the New York Times, Wolfowitz is controlling the selection process, handpicking his proteges and former officials for the various ministries and earning the sobriquet “Wolfowitz of Arabia.” ( The New York Times also noted that “Wolfie’s people” are “thought to be particularly fervent about trying to remake Iraq as a beacon of democracy and a country with a tilt toward Israel.” The latter mission is a surefire way to win over the Iraqi public and convince Arabs that the United States is in Iraq only to “liberate” its people, not to advance its own strategic interests.) Retired General Jay Garner, the Pentagon-named civilian viceroy who will oversee the de facto cabinet ministries while reporting to General Tommy Franks, must have glanced at the list as well.
What were they thinking? Can these guys be trusted to run postwar Iraq? The problems with Woolsey include not just his CIA past and his present-day advocacy of an all-out showdown in the Middle East. He is also a well-known champion of the Iraqi National Congress, an exile group run by Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi businessman who has been out of the country since 1956 and who was convicted in 1992 of defrauding his own Jordanian bank. (Chalabi claims he was set up.) And Woolsey’s law firm, Shea & Gardner, is a registered agent for the INC, though Woolsey says he does not participate in his firm’s work on behalf of the group. The INC, a Pentagon favorite, has not been a model of democracy and transparency, angering other exiles in the past for not revealing what it did with the financial assistance it received from the US government. And the State Department and the CIA have not been fans of the INC and Chalabi. Whatever Chalabi’s and the INC’s flaws, it was misguided (read: dumb) for the Pentagon to ask an American firmly identified with what will be just one faction vying for power in postwar Iraq to run, in essence, the Iraqi media.
Still, Woolsey may end up with a role in the occupation government. The White House vetoed embedding him at the top of the information ministry, but news reports say the Pentagon might assign him another senior position. And what’s next? Ken Lay to head up the new Iraqi energy ministry? Trent Lott, the cultural ministry? Richard Perle, the new Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations?
A postwar job for Woolsey the Would-be Conqueror would be unnecessarily provocative. During the occupation, the United States should conduct itself with humility and sensitivity (especially since it seems, once again, to be shoving the United Nations aside). These are not qualities for which the Pentagon is renowned. To many within Iraq and elsewhere, the message conveyed by any Woolsey appointment will be, Washington has sent the CIA to take over Iraq. So why do it? Does Woolsey alone possess the needed skill set? (Which American will be in charge of the new Iraqi intelligence agency?) But credit the Pentagon with loyalty, for it appears to be sticking with one of the most prominent cheerleaders for war in Iraq (and perhaps beyond) and standing by a grand tradition of war. To the victor go the spoils. In this case, no matter how ridiculous or counterproductive that may be.