Currently a fellow at the Hoover Institution, Paul Wolfowitz previously served as director of policy planning at the State Department, as US ambassador to Indonesia, as under secretary of defense for policy, as dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, as deputy secretary of defense, and as president of the World Bank. He is perhaps best known as a policymaker during the war in Afghanistan and the first and second wars in Iraq, and that is what we delve into in great detail in this episode. Wolfowitz gives his views on what the United States got right and got wrong in both Iraq and Afghanistan, recounting the data available to decision makers at the time and the decision-making processes. He also gives new details on why the Bush administration believed Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and determined an invasion of Afghanistan was necessary after 9/11, and how the idea for the surge in Iraq was conceived and executed.

To view the full transcript of this episode, read below:

Peter Robinson: In withdrawing from Afghanistan last year, president Biden said that our involvement in that country had "bogged down." As for our involvement in Iraq, former President Trump said during the 2016 campaign, "obviously the war in Iraq was a big fat mistake." Our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, two enormous blunders. Or were they? A policymaker who played a central role in both, Paul Wolfowitz, on "Uncommon Knowledge" now. Welcome to "Uncommon Knowledge." I'm Peter Robinson. Born in Brooklyn, Paul Wolfowitz grew up in Ithaca, New York, where his father taught statistics at Cornell. Dr. Wolfowitz earned his undergraduate degree at Cornell, then a doctorate degree in political science from the University of Chicago. Although a student during the 1960s, Paul Wolfowitz found himself influenced by events of the Second World War. In particular, the loss of his father's family in Poland during the Holocaust and the use of atomic weapons in Japan. He chose to dedicate himself to international affairs. Now a fellow at the Hoover Institution, Paul Wolfowitz has served as director of policy planning at the State Department, as ambassador to Indonesia, as under Secretary of Defense for policy. As Dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, as Deputy Secretary of Defense and as president of the World Bank. Paul Wolfowitz is perhaps best known as a policymaker during the wars in Afghanistan and during the first and second War in Iraq, our subjects today. 9/11, let's start there, Paul. September 11th, 2001, terrorists flew jets into the Twin Towers in New York and into the Pentagon in Washington. The terrorists also intended to send a second jet into Washington, but passengers fought back and the jet crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. In one morning, just under 3000 Americans lost their lives. Where was Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, on the morning of September 11th? How did you learn the news? What do you recall thinking?

Paul Wolfowitz: I am embarrassed to say I was in the building. The reason I'm embarrassed is when we first saw the planes headed for the towers, my first reaction was this is aeronautical mistake. My boss down the hall, Donald Rumsfeld, rather immediately thought, no, this is terrorism.

Peter Robinson: He thought it immediately?

Paul Wolfowitz: I think so.

Peter Robinson: When you say you were in the building, you mean the Pentagon?

Paul Wolfowitz: The Pentagon, yeah. On the side from their evil point of view, the side they should have hit. Fortunately for the rest of us, they hit the reinforced new side and that's where the plane went into flames and the whole building, it's an enormous building, shook and again.

Peter Robinson: You could feel it.

Paul Wolfowitz: You could feel it. There are occasionally earthquakes in Washington. I thought maybe this is an earthquake. I'm embarrassed to say that. But they very quickly evacuated us. Then Rumsfeld security came out and fetched me into the building where we were sitting in the command center as the building filled with this sort of sulfuric smoke. And I said to him, finally, Mr. Secretary, 'cause you don't call people in those positions by their first name. The guys in uniform and women in uniform can't. I had to tell him, don't tell people to be nice and call you by your first name. So I said, Mr. Secretary, you need to get out of here. And he said, no, Paul, you need to get out of here. We can't both be here. So I got sent up to the old Cold War headquarters, which were 30 years out of date, old line telephones. And you by the way, you couldn't call, make a phone call in Washington 'cause all the cellular networks were jammed. And my poor daughter spent, I don't know how many hours, uncertain whether I was alive. And I had another experience like that, which to be honest, brought home to me what the families of our service members go through every day of the year for a year that they're deployed, not knowing what's gonna happen to them and dreading the time that somebody's gonna come up to the front door and notify them and it was something bad. It's very, very tough on the families and they deserve all the recognition that we give them.

Peter Robinson: All right, I take you through that because that is the background to everything we're going to discuss. Afghanistan, the Taliban regime had permitted the terrorists to use Afghanistan as a harbor or base for training. The United States invaded Afghanistan in October, just weeks after 9/11. And in November the Taliban had been forced outta the capital of Kabul. And on December 9th, they were forced from their main base in Kandahar. How did we make that decision to invade Afghanistan? It was made quickly, relatively quickly. There's some weeks that elapsed, but only weeks. And how did we so quickly mount a successful operation? It is striking. We will come to the notion that things bogged down to use President Biden's phrase, we'll come to that. But in those first weeks, it appeared to be just an astonishingly rapid success, military success.

Paul Wolfowitz: I think it was stunning. And I think when we met with the president Camp David, two days after 9/11, nobody quite expected that the Taliban could fall that quickly and be forced out of Afghanistan. But it was a combination of really heroic special forces guys on the ground. They were all men. There are some women in this picture too, any rate. They were put on horses by one of the Northern Alliance Anti Taliban forces; at least one of them had never ridden a horse in his life. But they were doing this and they were calling in from the front lines. B52 strikes and B52 strikes shake the whole ground around you. And some of these were in what they called danger close, which is closer than you should be calling in a strike on yourself. But it enabled the ragtag Northern Alliance troops to just wipe out the Taliban and drive them all the way out of even.

Peter Robinson: Okay, so you mentioned B-52 and when I hear the words B-52, I think of Mash and Korea and Vietnam. This is a gigantic, and frankly, in some ways old fashioned airplane. It is a big truck up in the air that drops enormous pieces of ordinance combined with that, we have special forces. It feels to me as though they, the whole Pentagon, which in Vietnam demonstrated an inability to think on the ground, if I may. And in Afghanistan we get rapid learning, thinking, adjusting, and innovation. it's as though it wasn't conducted from the Pentagon of Vietnam, but from Silicon Valley or something, so how did that happen?

Paul Wolfowitz: I think first of all, special forces are special for a reason.

Peter Robinson: Is that our best?

Paul Wolfowitz: Very incredibly the best and motivated and incredibly intelligent, smart guys. But there was also, I think, an important lesson learned from a different war, which I guess you wanna get to, which was the first Gulf War.

Peter Robinson: Yes.

Paul Wolfowitz: Because during that war, I was kind of the action officer for trying to keep Israel out of the war. And part of that meant.

Peter Robinson: Let's go to this, hold onto that thought. Let me just set this up because let's go to the first Iraq war. I started with September 11th, 2001. The first Iraq war takes place in 1990. Let me just set it up if I may, but we'll come right back to your thoughts. In August, 1990, Saddam Hussein, the leader of Iraq, sends a force of a hundred thousand into the little but very oil rich country of Kuwait. He overruns the country in a matter of hours. In January, 1991, president George H. W. Bush, the old man, not the son, leads an international coalition that includes half a million American troops in invading Iraq. First we have an air campaign, then we begin ground operations and the ground operations move very fast. 100 hours we sweep north into Iraq, we destroy and scatter all the Iraqi opposition. Iraq rapidly withdraws from Kuwait, chased them out of Kuwait essentially. And in February, president George H. W. Bush declares the ceasefire that ends the war. All right, we'll come back to this because there are questions of should he have gone after Saddam Hussein? We'll come back to all that. But there we have in August, 1990, an enormous force, half a million Americans go in and again, they succeed quickly, all right.

Paul Wolfowitz: Can I correct one thing you said please? You said they go north, they actually went northwest and the reason they went west.

Peter Robinson: They threw a hook.

Paul Wolfowitz: A hook. And the person who first came up with the hook idea was a, I think subsequently a senior fellow who's of Hoover named Harry Rowen.

Peter Robinson: Harry Rowen, the late Harry Rowen, a colleague of ours here.

Paul Wolfowitz: Yes, and he brought that idea to me as under secretary. And I took it to Cheney and Cheney took it to the military. If they had gotten it from me, they would've said, oh, you simply don't understand. No, not so personal. But they, unless you're the Secretary of Defense, they're not gonna do what you tell them to do. But when Cheney said, I wanna see what you can do going west, they kind of had to at least give it a try. And in the end they discovered that the objections they were coming up with were not, did not make it impossible. So we went around to the west.

Peter Robinson: And this is to flank them rather than to take them head on.

Paul Wolfowitz: Yeah, so they were running out of Kuwait almost before we started into Kuwait.

Peter Robinson: I see, I see, all right.

Paul Wolfowitz: And to me it's also an illustration of the difference between acting on a very quickly created plan and taking some time to work through the plan. Bush 41 worked through a plan and got a good one by that time he was finished and I would say the same of his son in Afghanistan.

Peter Robinson: So back to the lessons of the first Gulf War that you bore in mind in Afghanistan.

Paul Wolfowitz: Which is that if airplanes are bombing from the air looking for mobile targets, in that case we were looking for scuds in Iraq, those were their intermediate range missiles, ballistic missiles. And the planes weren't doing very well. But when you put special forces on the ground, they could direct the planes to the targets. But the trouble in the first war was they couldn't communicate very well with the pilots. So the pilots didn't know the coordinates of what they were supposed to be hitting. I remember just before 9/11, meeting with General Jack Keen, who was then the vice chief of Staff of the Army. And I said, have we fixed that problem at all? He said, oh yes, we fixed it. Well it turned out we'd fixed it up to the nines so that the communications between the Air force and these horseback soldiers in Afghanistan were almost instantaneous.

Peter Robinson: And where, so the horseback soldiers are with the northern alliance. They're deep in the continent of Asia. And where were the bases from which the B-52s were flying,.

Paul Wolfowitz: They call it CONUS, continental United States.

Peter Robinson: They flew all the way from this country.

Paul Wolfowitz: Refueled.

Peter Robinson: Really?

Paul Wolfowitz: Really.

Peter Robinson: All right. That's just astonishing, men on horseback calling in detailed instructions to planes that are fueling and taking off from the continental United States.

Paul Wolfowitz: And flown by the grandchildren of the original pilots. Those planes were so old.

Peter Robinson: Amazing, all right.

Paul Wolfowitz: So sometimes the Pentagon does get things right.

Peter Robinson: Yes, no, that lesson is kind of woven through here because they also get things wrong. And what we wanna tease out is what are the circumstances under which these things go right. All right, January 29th, 2009, president Bush leaves office and President Obama is sworn in. We'll come back to Afghanistan as the conversation continues. But at that moment as President Bush leaves office and President Obama takes over, we'll come to Iraq again. But at that moment, what was the view of the conflict in Afghanistan? We had achieved a quick victory in late 2001 and we're still there in 2009. And what was the view of our involvement in Afghanistan as the Bush 44 administration ends?

Paul Wolfowitz: That it was still a very fragile situation because we really didn't have a government there that was capable of functioning on its own. They were very dependent on us. And secondly, they were very vulnerable to infiltration from Pakistan. What I think underestimated in both of these conflicts is that we never took out the sanctuary in Pakistan. Pakistan was supposedly an ally, but a very treacherous one. And we never did anything about the Iranian sanctuary or the Syrian sanctuary in Iraq. And of course those were our enemies at the war and still are. So it's kind of a cliche about insurgencies. If they have a secure sanctuary outside, it's very hard to defeat them.

Peter Robinson: All right, back to Iraq one again. Hussein takes Kuwait in August of 1990. We invade in January, 1991. We succeed quickly. We drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. I returned to the question that still lingers, but we left him in power.

Paul Wolfowitz: Huge mistake.

Peter Robinson: Well, hold on now, here is then Secretary of State James Baker and he's speaking, he's quoted here in 2001 quote, "the armchair generals love to say, why didn't you take out Saddam? They don't understand that the only way would've been to occupy that big Arab country in contradiction of everything we'd promised the rest of the world." We built a genuinely international coalition by telling the world that we had a limited objective. And that was to liberate Kuwait. If we then went on to take out the Iraqi regime and bring down Saddam Hussein, we would've been doing something for which our allies had not signed up.

Paul Wolfowitz: There's a very important correction to this and I don't know why Baker left it out. I was with him on his first trip to the region after the ceasefire, which I think was terribly premature thing declared by us. We had a discussion on the plane on the way over where he indicated skepticism about these rebellions that had begun in southern Iraq, conducted in the south by the Shia. And then a bit later in the north by the Kurds.

Peter Robinson: Rebellions against Saddam Hussein.

Paul Wolfowitz: Yes, against Saddam. And I remember saying that the Shia of Iraq were Arabs and not Persians. They were not about to be dictated to by Iran. And one of his subordinates said, correctly but misplaced, that Hezbollah and Lebanon are Arabs and not Persians, but they also are very anti-American. But I said, you shouldn't just assume that, the important point here is not what I said. It's that when he got to Saudi Arabia, the first meeting was with Prince Saud Faisal, foreign minister and Bandar, Prince Bandar, the ambassador to Washington, who was kind of like a second foreign minister. And in that meeting, which I attended, I didn't attend the one with the king. But in that meeting, those two Saudi leaders spent, I'd say half an hour or 45 minutes beseeching Baker to support the Shia rebellion in Iraq. Most people don't know this, it's a fact. It's uncontradicted fact. I published it in several languages, actually, not ones that I speak like Farsi, but I wanted to make sure it got out there. But unfortunately it's still not believed. But it's absolutely correct.

Peter Robinson: Were they saying, were Faisal and Bandar saying support the Shia, our co-religionists? Or were they saying take out Saddam Hussein?

Paul Wolfowitz: It's interesting, they were saying Saddam Hussein is like a wounded snake, you have to cut off the head. That means you've gotta support these rebellions. And then they said, and one might say, I don't like, not entirely honestly, let me be diplomatic. We are not afraid of the Shia of Iraq. The truth of the matter is they're much more afraid of the Shia of Saudi Arabia, but nevermind. The point was to them the most important thing was getting rid of the evil man who tried to take over the whole Gulf. And if that meant cooperating with Shia, that's what it should be done. And we just blew them off and ignored them. Instead we went ahead with a ceasefire, allowing Saddam even to fly helicopters. Even though he then began using them to slaughter the Shia from the air. It was unnecessary. And if I had to take a lesson from that experience, it is, if you have time, take time, don't rush. We allowed ourselves to be rushed because of the American press talking about the so-called Highway of Death because we were bombing a lot of fleeing Iraqi troops that were harmless.

Peter Robinson: It looked as though we were slaughtering people.

Paul Wolfowitz: It looked that way.

Peter Robinson: If you watch the evening news, that was the way it looked.

Paul Wolfowitz: And all we had to do was stop killing them. Instead of the Highway of Death from Kuwait back to Iraq, we opened the door for a Highway of Death from Iraq down to Southern Iraq, from Baghdad to southern Iraq. We allow the Republican guards to move freely and start slaughtering Shia. And we watched this from the South Bank of the river. And some of our soldiers I talked to since we're dismayed that we didn't do more to help them. And believe me that Shia remembered it. They remembered it 20 years later.

Peter Robinson: All right, Iraq part two so to speak. I know you well enough. We've had conversations about this that you, you have persuaded me that the correct way to think about it, Iraq is almost as one war in two phases, so to speak. All right, Iraq, part two. You write of a meeting at Camp David just a few days after the terrorist attack of 9/11 and we decided to go into Afghanistan right away, the conversation shifts to Iraq. "Secretary of State Powell, Colin Powell, secretary of State Powell warned that taking on Iraq would make it hard, if not impossible to assemble an international coalition." Rumsfeld countered that and here you quote Donald Rumsfeld, "A coalition that is unwilling to take on Iraq is not a coalition worth having." So we have a basic disagreement between the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense. How did it come to be that the president chose to invade Iraq, all the same?

Paul Wolfowitz: It's interesting because I didn't know about this until I saw someone's notes at the time I was writing that article. He'd had a meeting with his National Security Council when I was up in the remote location and not in the meeting. So I was not Rumsfeld's note taker in that meeting.

Peter Robinson: Sorry, this is a meeting chaired by the president.

Paul Wolfowitz: Yep, one day after 9/11. And Rumsfeld was talking about the fact that this is a much bigger war than just Afghanistan and we need to make a point of going after terrorists, wherever they are. And said Iraq is one of the places that we should pay attention to. First of all because Saddam Hussein has just basically threatened us saying, I think the phrase that was in his open letter to the American people said something like, you are reaping the thorns which you have sown and if you don't shape up, I'm paraphrasing. If you don't shape up and behave yourselves, there'll be more coming more like this.

Peter Robinson: You deserved 9/11.

Paul Wolfowitz: And effectively deserved 9/11. And when he brought this up with the president, Bush's reaction was, we'll take care of Iraq later, right. And but not with just a statement. Meaning not the way Clinton did with what were called pinprick attacks. I want a new government, were his words, which means what we eventually did. But I think in his mind, and I would in hindsight absolutely agree with him, it wasn't so much the coalition that he had to worry about. It was difficult to put the coalition together. In that sense, Powell was right, but not because of Afghanistan. For Afghanistan, it was actually easy. In that respect, I guess it was worth postponing. More importantly, I think the American people thought of Afghanistan as where it came from.

Peter Robinson: Yes.

Paul Wolfowitz: And so from a political point of view, I think he really needed to take the country with him and he really needed to act in a convincing way with what was most commonly perceived as the real problem. Whereas Iraq was harboring terrorists, supporting terrorists, funding suicide bombers in Israel. But we didn't count Israel because they weren't killing Americans. Just that we didn't count the Pakistanis funding terrorists in India 'cause they weren't killing Americans. But I think it had to be seen more broadly and that this was a man who trained terrorists who had projects for creating his equivalent of the Army US DARPA, or the Advanced Research Project Agency was perfecting roadside bombs in the name of counter-terrorism. Excuse me, it's not counter-terrorism, it's terrorism. And it was probably aimed more than anything at the Kurds and his domestic opponents. So the man was dangerous.

Peter Robinson: And hadn't we discovered after or as a result of the first war, we got a window into what he was up to. And we had discovered that he did have weapons of mass destruction. He had programs underway, did he not?

Paul Wolfowitz: Absolutely, absolutely. In fact, I think what's interesting is in 10 years before that war in 1981, the Israeli Air Force took out the first step in his nuclear program, which was a reactor that was gonna produce plutonium that could be used for bombs.

Peter Robinson: And that was in 1980?

Paul Wolfowitz: 81, 81. And I actually remember there were people within the Reagan administration who felt we should condemn Israel for this attack. I never thought that. And I came to be good friends with an Israeli general named David Avery, who planned and executed the attack. It was quite brilliant from a tactical point of view. But we had to bomb it again in 1990, 10 years later when it was us, we bombed it again and took it out 'cause it was almost functioning all over again.

Peter Robinson: So he had made two for a poor country such as Iraq, very expensive attempts to set in place a nuclear program, to set in place the fundamentals of a nuclear program.

Paul Wolfowitz: And he built on it because when we got there after that war, after the ceasefire and inspectors went in, they discovered not just the nuclear program, they were pursuing nuclear weapons by three routes. One of which was this nuclear reactor business. The other one was centrifuges. And the third one is something called electromagnetic separation, which was the first technique that we used at Oak Ridge during World War II. In other words, they were deadly serious about getting to a nuclear bomb. And if it hadn't been for Saddam's mistake of invading Kuwait a couple years too soon, he might have had a nuclear weapon when he did.

Peter Robinson: And then did we learn anything about biological weapons during the first war, the first Iraq war that we then bore in mind in deciding to go in the second Iraq war? Was that a factor?

Paul Wolfowitz: Yes, but it took us a while to learn it. He had a very active biological weapons program, which included developing anthrax and the inspectors that went into Iraq thought there was something there but they couldn't find it. Then one of his close relatives, it's dangerous to be a close relative to Saddam, decided to defect to Jordan and told us, go look in the chicken farm near my house and you'll discover the documents that lay out our biological weapons program. And this was not a brand new idea by the way. In the 1990s during the Clinton administration, there was a great deal of focus on the biological threat. There was something called the Hart-Rudman Commission, which looked at this. And there was a very scary exercise done at Johns Hopkins called The Dark Winter, which showed what would happen if smallpox were revived. And we had an epidemic of smallpox. It's one of the hardest things to deal with and almost impossible. So there was in the nineties under Clinton, a lot of attention to the fact, theoretical fact that there could be a biological threat. And then what people sort of forget is that one week after 9/11, some members of Congress and some journalists started getting letters with evil powder in them. And those were anthrax spores. So the whole idea of a biological threat became very, very vivid, at least to the people in the White House, not necessarily the whole country 'cause it wasn't, the two weren't clearly associated. And to this day it's not entirely clear, I believe who sent those letters, although they think they don't.

Peter Robinson: May I just interrupt for? People will see this, kids will see this show. We're recording this at Stanford University and Stanford freshmen this year will have been born after 9/11 and have no memory of the invasion of Afghanistan. So what I'm hoping that this conversation achieves is something to indicate what it was like, what happened just before you were born. And when you mention that the possibility of anthrax became a vivid possibility in Washington, I suddenly remember I was here at Stanford one day when the whole campus got put on alert because someone believed he'd seen anthrax. It turned out to have been a crumbled saltine cracker. I'm not making this up, it turns out. But the level of nerves was such that the campus got shut down. People in hazmat suits approached this crumbled saltine. And people felt that way all these years ago in the month after 9/11. I just wanted to second to your point, as they say. And that has been totally forgotten.

Paul Wolfowitz: And a lot of the people who as you point out, never even forgot 'cause they they weren't even born at the time.

Peter Robinson: They weren't there in the first place, all right.

Paul Wolfowitz: One thing I hope that maybe we can work on a little bit with this interview, with this conversation is that someday when this is less political, historians will look back and ask the question I think has to be asked, but historians don't like asking it. What would the world be like 10 or 20 years later if Saddam had still been in power?

Peter Robinson: We'll come, we will ask that. And by the way, by the time the Iraq war becomes non divisive, Paul Wolfowitz and Peter Robinson will be playing golf in a different realm. That's not gonna happen anytime soon, Paul, back to the sequence of events that leads us into Iran. President Bush, knowing that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, knowing that Iraqis attempted to assassinate his father, knowing that Saddam Hussein had made not one, but two very serious attempts to develop fissile materials for nuclear weapons, knowing that he had slaughtered his own people, Shia and-

Paul Wolfowitz: Tens of thousands.

Peter Robinson: And later Kurds, knowing that he had used chemical weapons again on his own people. President Bush, sorry.

Paul Wolfowitz: I just insist on saying his subjects, they weren't his people, but his subjects.

Peter Robinson: His subjects, his subjects. President Bush decides to go in and in this war we commit about 150 force troops. And that's to me a striking fact in itself. A decade earlier, we felt we needed half a million to contend with Iraq. And now the number's down to 150,000 as a military matter, what does that shrinkage in forces suggest that suddenly, that we had felt much more confident of smart weapons. Why a smaller force the second time around?

Paul Wolfowitz: I think it's best summarized in a phrase, I think it came from General Tommy Franks, it might have been Rumsfeld himself. Speed kills, it kills the enemy. If you can move faster than they can react and therefore going in with huge armored formations that are unnecessary and slow you down is not the way. So it's true they aim to go to Baghdad, perhaps some would say too fast, leaving a lot of uncontrolled territory behind them and not bring in a huge force that would occupy Baghdad. But I tend to agree with Baker in many ways. And the quote you had before that occupying Iraq should never have been our goal. So I think you get in this argument about whether the force was too light or not. The fact is because it was so light and moved so quickly and it did that because of the close coordination between air power and ground power, they didn't need to drag along slow moving artillery behind them, for example, they had the air force overhead.

Peter Robinson: But it just seems to me worth emphasizing that twice within a matter of months, the United States military performed brilliantly, brilliantly three weeks to total success in Afghanistan. And about the same amount of time from the invasion of Iraq to the fall, Saddam Hussein scampers out of town and Baghdad falls. And that magnificent moment things would go sideways as I say. But that magnificent moment when people in Baghdad itself topple the statue of Saddam Hussein, we'd won, we'd won. The notion that the mission was accomplished wasn't totally mistaken, fair? Am I right about this or am I getting a little carried away?

Paul Wolfowitz: From a strictly military point of view, you're right.

Peter Robinson: Strictly military point of view, okay.

Paul Wolfowitz: Sort of, can I?

Peter Robinson: Yes, of course.

Paul Wolfowitz: Bring in an actual .

Peter Robinson: Know more than I do Paul, that's why you're here.

Paul Wolfowitz: Well I'm telling you about something I didn't know, but I got a phone call from a friend and it was the same day as the statue came down. So April 9th of 2003.

Peter Robinson: We go in March and by April 9th that statue comes down.

Paul Wolfowitz: And by the way, there was a two year interval between Afghanistan.

Peter Robinson: All right, sorry.

Paul Wolfowitz: No, it's important because I think we spent far too much time hassling about what the objective should be if we do Iraq and never resolving it. But we finally resolved it just by doing it. But anyway, this friend said you need to read the Washington Post. A retired colonel named Gary Anderson has it all figured out. And Gary Anderson was a retired marine. And what he said, he wasn't an arabist, but he said if I were Saddam Hussein, I would plan on fighting the Americans after they get here with an urban guerrilla war. And which is exactly what we then were running into. I hadn't quite run, what we began to run into pretty soon. And so I brought Gary Anderson on as a consultant and I asked him to go to Baghdad and talk to people there for me. This time we already had an American led occupation government, which I think was one of our biggest mistakes. And he started talking to people about, in Vietnam how General Abrams had turned things around by a so-called inkblot strategy that focused on creating areas where civilians were secure and comfortable so that they could rat out the enemy for us. And intelligence about the enemy was the thing we desperately needed. He spoke about this in Baghdad and someone said, that's Vietnam, you're talking Vietnam. This is not Vietnam, and showed him the door.

Peter Robinson: Someone in our military command structure.

Paul Wolfowitz: Well actually it was a civilian in that case, but I think the military was equally oblivious. Our military didn't like to be told about Vietnam. It was, they thought they were over the Vietnam syndrome.

Peter Robinson: All right, so what happens next in Iraq, of course I'd be interested to know the date, where you date the trouble. We have what looks like a brilliant victory, as you said a moment ago in purely military terms. And then things go sideways. We have an insurgency, we have urban, it doesn't remain urban, it spreads out across the whole country of the IED, the insurgency. And it's bloody and ugly. And we seem unable to do anything about it until years later when we have the surge again, we'll come to the surge in a moment, but when do things go wrong? Where do you date? Baghdad falls in a matter of weeks and things are already beginning to go wrong to those who have eyes to see.

Paul Wolfowitz: I think Gary Anderson predicted it, but I don't think the eyes, it took them a while to get organized, let's put it that way. And I think what I remember very clearly is Barbara Fast, major general in charge of military intelligence and Baghdad or in Iraq for us. And some of her staff members would do all-nighters plotting everything we knew about where the terrorists were and where these attacks were happening and developing a, they called it the human terrain. Complete picture of where the insurgency was. Which also by the way pointed to the fact that a lot of it was based out of Damascus, which is where a lot of the senior Iraqi leadership had fled. And where they had.

Peter Robinson: Safe harbor in Syria, across the border into Syria.

Paul Wolfowitz: Including billions of dollars, I was told at that time in Syrian banks. So they were funding the insurgency, a lot of the foreign fighters were coming in through Syria. In fact, I later was given a passport of a couple that were killed in the south by the Marines. And on the entry page for the entry visa, purpose of visit, to perform jihad.

Peter Robinson: Stamped and go through.

Paul Wolfowitz: And there were terrorist training camps in Iraq, that was no secret, a place called . They were training them by the hundreds of thousands. But there was a sort of skepticism, I would say that because there was no, and this is the way gorilla operations operate, there was no centralized command and control. It was a lot of individual cells operating, which probably is what also we're seeing, the Israelis are seeing it today in Gaza. I don't wanna make a comparison, but at any rate, it's the way they operated. So you couldn't see a centralized command and control except to some extent in Damascus.

Peter Robinson: Paul, could I, you mentioned Colonel Anderson's view that if he were Saddam Hussein, he would essentially surrender Baghdad and then start the fight. Were we, in some basic way, snookered? I mean if you look at Napoleon's march to Moscow, that looks like a brilliant military victory too. Until you realize that it was the Russian intention all along to fall back and fall back and fall back and give him Moscow. And then we start the counter attack. Did we just make a mistake in planning? Was it actually a brilliant military victory or was it a genuine military victory? And the other side began improvising in the?

Paul Wolfowitz: Peter, I think it's a great question. And I think what I would say is, a couple data points that point to what you're suggesting. One is that we were getting intelligence, I don't remember when, but I think quite early that Saddam was telling his generals, once the Americans get inside a certain ring, then I'll bring out my secret weapon. And they inferred that to mean a nuclear weapon. But I think you can also interpret it as his secret weapon was exactly to have an urban insurgency. And it said that his real hero wasn't Hitler. His real hero was Stalin, which is the Soviet model that you're talking about. There's another data point, which is, I think it was in October of 2002, six months before the invasion, he announced that he was gonna release all prisoners as a gesture of magnanimity. And our intelligence experts interpreted this as Saddam attempting to gain popular support. I said, you must be outta your minds. This isn't how this man, this man gets popular support through terror, not by releasing people. A photographer for the New York Times named Tyler Hicks, I believe, and I think you can find this maybe still online, went to the Abu Ghraib prison, notorious prison that we later messed up on, to take some pictures. The Iraqi guards tried to confiscate the film from his camera. So he handed him the battery, brilliant man. He got these gruesome pictures including pictures of where the political prisoners were trapped inside because they shut down the gate. So the political prisoners couldn't get out and they crushed themselves. People were crushed to death in the rush. Some months later, after we were in Baghdad, I asked an Iraqi dentist who was a blogger at the time, I said, do you have any idea why Saddam was releasing the prisoners? And I said, some Americans think it was to gain popularity, oh no, all you had to do was listen to radio Baghdad 'cause he was saying at the time the Americans will never take Iraq intact. So I think to some extent it was part of a strategy of exactly, you couldn't burn Iraq the way they burn parts of the Soviet Union.

Peter Robinson: But you could release the killers.

Paul Wolfowitz: Exactly.

Peter Robinson: To the surge. We're going at lightning speed here, Paul. I don't know, it is television. I feel bad about it because it seems as though every month-

Paul Wolfowitz: I hope I'm not down in the weeds too much.

Peter Robinson: No, no, no. So things go wrong, there's an insurgency. We seem unable to do anything about it. And then we have a surge. In January, 2007, president Bush announces a plan. It's two parts. One is more people, more troops. President Bush announces a plan to increase troops in Iraq by 20,000. And then the second part of this is the inkblot, I'm not sure I'm using the correct term, but it's a new tactic, the inkblot tactic. Tactics that David Petraeus, who becomes our commander in Iraq, understands. And he stabilizes Iraq at last and brings about a semblance of order and peace to the country. All right, now as I understand it, the notion for the surge is largely the suggestion of General Keane who by then was retired. Jack Keane suggests it to a member of the vice president staff, Scooter Libby. Scooter Libby takes it to Vice President Cheney, Vice President Cheney takes it to President Bush and President Bush gets on the horn to the Pentagon. If I understand the general chain, that's the way it worked. But what means is that the Pentagon, which you've already described, is an enormous building with a budget at that point of half a, I think by then it had already crossed, it's much more now of course, but at that point it was already half a billion dollars more. This is the largest organization in human history with troops and civilian contractors and weapons of every kind you could possibly imagine. And that Pentagon does not come up with a surge. It comes from outsiders and gets effectively imposed on the Pentagon. Is that roughly correct? Is there even a shred of truth in it? Because it requires explanation, if there is.

Paul Wolfowitz: I'd say there's more than a shred. But I think the, to give credit where it's due, the key figures you mentioned there, general Jack Keane, who would've been chief of staff of the Army except his wife.

Peter Robinson: His wife was ill as I recall, yes.

Paul Wolfowitz: We pleaded with him three times and he said no for good reason. And then General Petraeus, I mean two brilliant military minds who spoke with the authority.

Peter Robinson: Tough, intelligent, experienced. So they were, the Pentagon did produce these men too?

Paul Wolfowitz: Absolutely, yep. And Petraeus was sent to Fort Leavenworth to work on basically counterinsurgency doctrine. And I don't think it was meant as a big promotion, but the common-

Peter Robinson: Excuse me, there's a war going on over here. David Petraeus understands counterinsurgency tactics and he's told, no, don't go here. Go to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and write a book.

Paul Wolfowitz: That's not what you do with somebody you're trying to move into leadership. So it really took the combination, I think. And by the way, there are a lot of other people who played a hand in this whole change of strategy. And it's a case where success is a thousand fathers, failure is an orphan. But certainly having Jack Keane embracing Petraeus and promoting Petraeus, I think made all the difference in the world. And certainly it did, I think with the vice president and I think with the president. And again, he spoke with the authority of a man who had four stars on his shoulder, which is a big deal in that world. One important point though, that name surge gets applied to it because it did involve an increase in troops. But you said, I think correctly, 20,000 that's on top of 140,000. It was a marginal, it wasn't huge. But the big thing was the change in strategy and the idea that the mission of the post surge forces was mainly to go into bad neighborhoods and make them safe for Iraqis that wanted to cooperate and turn in the enemy. It was the same model that Abrams used in Vietnam as I understand it from the history books.

Peter Robinson: Okay Paul, I'm gonna bear down on this one more time. We come to the question in a moment of how can a democracy handle complicated long-term far away wars? Those are the usual questions. But I'm just so struck that we were at war and for two and a half or three years the war was going sideways and the President seemed to permit it. Maybe he didn't know what to do. The Secretary of Defense, your boss Don Rumsfeld, I'm very sorry to report that I was in Washington once in the middle of all this and heard him deliver a speech in which he talked about the so-called revolution in military affairs, which had more to do with remodeling the acquisition process in the Pentagon than with actual combat that was taking place at the time. There is just this weird sense that for years as our troops were under fire and people were being killed and tens of thousands of Iraqis were dying, the people in charge of American democracy and the American armed forces fumbled, twiddle their thumbs, that can't be right.

Paul Wolfowitz: I was frustrated as can be. I think that word surge is a bad one. And it's part of what the problem was, which is military guys were saying, some commanders were saying if we try to put more troops into action, it'll break the army. Meaning they couldn't sustain the numbers and General Keen's response to that, which was mine too. What's gonna break the army more, putting in more troops or losing a war. And that I think was a big part of the argument, especially when it got to the President. But something that I think probably is common to the extent it happens in military history, to change a strategy, you have to admit the one you're on is wrong. And it's very hard to say that. It's very hard for any commander to say, the way we're fighting is a mistake, that had to be said. It had to be said. And Rumsfeld was one of the people who should have said it and didn't like hearing it. It's failing and we are failing. And I think, I don't know, I don't know my civil war history as well as I would like, but at some point President Lincoln understood that if he stuck with McClellan's strategy, we would lose the war and he would lose the election, which would lead to losing the war. So he not only fired McClellan, he brought in an entirely different kind of general and he understood that his strategy had failed. It's a very hard thing to accept.

Peter Robinson: What was the famous quotation when somebody was complaining to him that drank too much? I'll get it a little bit wrong, but it's, I can't do without this man, he fights.

Paul Wolfowitz: That's absolutely true. And he supposedly also said, tell me what Brandy drinks and I'll give it to all my generals.

Peter Robinson: Yes, exactly. And then General Marshall, as I recall, he advances Dwight Eisenhower over a number of generals who were senior to him in the seniority rankings to put him in charge of, well, Eisenhower gets in before enormity begins to be planned, but he advanced a general whom he believed to be capable. All right.

Paul Wolfowitz: So important.

Peter Robinson: What we got right and what we got wrong. We're discussing a bit of what we got wrong. Let's return to Afghanistan. And in August of 2021, president Biden orders a final withdrawal of all American troops from Afghanistan. A withdrawal that I think it is fair to say, turned into a route, after being present in Afghanistan for 20 years, two decades and spending at least half a trillion dollars. I think the figure was higher than that. And there are lots of different ways to add it up, but it's at least half a trillion dollars. The United States appeared to have achieved nothing. The government we supported fell in a day and the Taliban recaptured Kabul before we had even completed our withdrawal. So may I give you a brief multiple choice test. Was it a mistake to go in the first place? Was it a mistake to get out when we did? Was it a mistake to stay that long and attempt to engage in this is to put it crudely, nation building, where lay the error?

Paul Wolfowitz: I think we had to go in, I think after 9/11 we had to fight terrorism and that was the place the fight had to start even though I thought there were other places that were important. But for many reasons they had to start there. So I think your second part is, should we have stayed that long? And I think the answer to that is we were steadily coming down.

Peter Robinson: Steadily shrinking our presence there?

Paul Wolfowitz: Yep. And the two men who were responsible for taking it out entirely are Donald Trump and Joe Biden. It was a terrible agreement arrived at by Trump and his ambassador, who signed a deal with the Taliban, basically said, if you don't shoot at us, we won't shoot at you. That means the Afghan army is fair game.

Peter Robinson: I see.

Paul Wolfowitz: I think that's where things began to unwind.

Peter Robinson: The Afghan army that we had been training and attempting to build up.

Paul Wolfowitz: Training, and probably this was a mistake also. We trained them to depend on American air power so that they were used to picking up the phone and calling for an airstrike. And once this agreement was signed, the airstrikes didn't come if Americans weren't under attack. Although some commanders felt terrible about this and worked their way around it. But basically, you might argue, and I would be open to this, but I don't know enough to say it for sure, that if we were gonna build an Afghan army, we should have avoided one that depended so much on American air power. But having built one that depended on American air power, we should not have yanked that air power out when it could have been sustained with minimal effort and minimal casualties. The Afghans by that time, were doing almost all the fighting in it. We abandoned them.

Peter Robinson: Iraq, time being what it is, I can only ask for sort of summary statements here, Paul. I'm sorry.

Paul Wolfowitz: I'm not good at that, I'm sorry.

Peter Robinson: No, well, in December, 2011, president Obama declares the formal end of the American mission in Iraq, withdrawing most of the remaining 39,000 US troops. Now as ISIS gains strength in Iraq, president Obama sends relatively small numbers of troops back. Today, American troops in Iraq still number some 2,500. So well here's a summary question for you. If you could name three things you wish we'd done differently in Iraq, what would they be? Beginning with the question of whether we should have invaded in the first place or not. Now that we know what we know.

Paul Wolfowitz: Look, I think we were talking about an unusually vicious regime. Very anti-American, very supportive of terrorism, no prospect of it getting better when Saddam died 'cause its two sons were monsters even more so. And when I hear people say, well, Saddam was a bad guy, but the world is full of bad guys. I know they have no idea what Saddam is like. And if I then say, this bad guy invented punishments that are worse than death and they couldn't imagine what's worse than death, I said, well how about having your daughter raped and spreading the video of it around the neighborhood? Or how about dying in a barrel of boiling oil or being sent left to savage dogs? He terrorized his own population and he spread the news all around the gulf that he was not somebody to trifle with. Very, very monstrous man, I think if he-

Peter Robinson: So we come to that question of alternative forms of history. If we had not invaded, if we had just, what was the phrase at the time, I think Madeleine Albright said we had him in a box, we had surveillance.

Paul Wolfowitz: The box was crumbling on its sides because of the sanctions that were containing him supposedly were breaking down and they were on the way out, everyone saw this. And by the way, even though we didn't discover the stockpiles that we thought might be there, the CIA thought might be there, it's been conclusive that the programs were still there and available to be started up again. And he would've, as soon as the sanctions were lifted, that was his goal too.

Peter Robinson: So if we had not gone in by let's choose a decade later, he would've killed more of his own people and become a serious danger to us, is that fair?

Paul Wolfowitz: I think so.

Peter Robinson: Is there a reasonable, certain, how did?

Paul Wolfowitz: I think he would've had a nuclear weapon probably, I don't wanna put times on it, but certain-

Peter Robinson: As fast as he could have.

Paul Wolfowitz: As fast as he could have. And he was getting a lot of help externally. He was getting centrifuges for example. I believe. I think we would've seen not one, but two emerging nuclear powers in the Persian Gulf. And anyone who thinks we're better off in a competition between Iran and Iraq doesn't know how that competition produced a war in 1980 that left 800,000, sorry, not 800,000, a million I believe is a number or 900,000.

Peter Robinson: The Iraq Iran war?

Paul Wolfowitz: Iraq Iran war, 300,000 Iraqi dead and 600,000 Iranian dead mostly by chemical, many of them by chemical weapons. We would've seen a rerun of that, but at a much worse scale with possibly nuclear and more likely possibly biological. And the other thing is, we would've seen Saddam intervening everywhere he could, including in Syria to support Assad. Not because he liked Assad, but because he didn't like seeing governments overthrown probably even now in Gaza, he'd be intervening. He was that kind of man.

Peter Robinson: So we are coming out with my last few questions. It has become the standard view even among many Republicans, that the war was a blunder, that the wars were blunders, but particularly that Iraq was a blunder. We said we were going in because, well let's just, here's a clip I'd like you to look at very briefly.

- Look, bottom line, there were no weapons of mass destruction. They said there are weapons of mass destruction. I was against the war when it started.

- Do you think the president of the United States, George W. Bush lied?

- Well look, I'm not gonna get you to vote, but that's okay.

- I'm just giving you another shot.

- Lemme tell you something. I'll tell you very simply, it may have been the worst decision going into Iraq. May have been the worst decision anybody has made, any president has made in the history of this country. That's how bad it is, okay. Here's what's happened. We have spent $2 trillion in Iraq and fighting Iraq. 2 trillion, 2 trillion, thousands of lives, right? We have wounded wars who I love all over the place. These are the most incredible, these are braver than all of us in this room put together. I look at the attitude and I work with them and these are great people. We got nothing, we have nothing. We're not even there, we can't even make a phone call right now.

Peter Robinson: So how do you answer that?

Paul Wolfowitz: First and simply, president Bush did not lie. The man who first brought that accusation out, a man named Joe Wilson, was lying himself. President Bush repeated what he'd been told accurately, accurately repeated what he'd been told.

Peter Robinson: By the intelligence agencies.

Paul Wolfowitz: By intelligence agencies. There was a misreading and a belief that there were stockpiles there and there weren't. But as I said a few minutes ago.

Peter Robinson: The capability.

Paul Wolfowitz: Capability was there and it would've come back once the sanctions were lifted. That was clearly Saddam's strategy. As to the question of what's left and whether it's worth anything, I think it's much better to have an Iraqi government with all its faults. And as is typical in that part of the world, not just that part of the world. I mean not single out a part of the world. It's got its problems of corruption, it's got its problems of Iranian infiltration. But on the whole, it's one of the more democratic Arab countries. They have regular elections, they have people who stepped down when they lost the election and they are on relatively good terms with the weaker countries of the Persian Gulf. The wealthy oil states. It's very far from paradise, but it's much better than it would've been if you'd had a paranoid megalomaniac running one of the most important countries in that part of the world.

Peter Robinson: Last question, last question. We've got, last question is about your life really. I said in introducing you that you decided for reasons of history and I think a kind of sense of personal morality. What was the right thing to do that you would devote yourself to international relations? Somewhere listening to this, there's a young Paul Wolfowitz, there's a kid in college, maybe he's even like Paul Wolfowitz, to the extent that he has an unusual talent for mathematics, he or she, and now this kid faces a choice you didn't face. This kid faces a choice between joining an artificial intelligence startup or some other tech startup, which wants to sell its product around the world. And this tech elite is internationalist rather than specifically American, many of them. That's one option. And the other option is the Paul Wolfowitz option. Dedicate yourself to the United States and its foreign policy. What should that young listener be considering?

Paul Wolfowitz: It's interesting because in many ways, I almost became a molecular biologist. I almost went to MIT for a PhD in what could be called molecular biology.

Peter Robinson: You'd have been richer.

Paul Wolfowitz: That's for sure.

Peter Robinson: And you'd have been saved a number of attacks, Paul.

Paul Wolfowitz: But look, when I was in high school I heard people sing endlessly better read than dead. And when you mentioned Hiroshima and you mentioned the Holocaust, to me, those are the two poles that the world has to try to avoid. And we've done surprisingly well considering the predictions that were made back in, I guess when the Soviet Union first got its bomb in 1948. I think I've got my dates right. And for that matter, I believe after 9/11, somebody as wise as Gray Malison even predicted there might be a nuclear weapon in the hands of terrorists before we knew it. I really think the US has a special role to play in steering the world between the poles of absolute tyranny, totalitarianism, which is certainly alive and well in parts of the world now and wants to expand and the equally horrible outcome of a nuclear holocaust. And to be honest, I made the choice I made as much as anything because I realized when I had spare time, I was reading politics and history. I wasn't spending time in the chemistry lab even though the guy I was working with was amazing, so.

Peter Robinson: United States of America still matters?

Paul Wolfowitz: I think, look, I think it matters in many, many ways. We need to get our act together in ways we haven't done, in which we are not making progress on, but I hope we will. I remember the pessimism about our future back in the 1970s. There were lots of reasons for it and within 10 years we were sort of.

Peter Robinson: The Berlin Wall had fallen by 1980.

Paul Wolfowitz: Exactly, yeah, exactly. So I think it's important to have an educated and wise public and smart public. And as I think about the sort of issues we've talked about here, I was thinking maybe something what sophomores, I was gonna say sophomores 'cause they're the ones who are supposed to know everything. I believe that's what the name means, what sophomores.

Peter Robinson: It's where the adjectives sophomore comes from.

Paul Wolfowitz: I guess so, what sophomore should know about Iraq. And I think there's a lot that we need to relearn. And I hope, I mean, you're pessimistic about when we'll ever have an apolitical look at these issues. But I think it's very important to get past it and into what we can really learn from the actual history.

Peter Robinson: Paul Wolfowitz, thank you.

Paul Wolfowitz: Thank you, Peter.

Peter Robinson: For "Uncommon Knowledge," the Hoover Institution and Fox Nation, I'm Peter Robinson.

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