Speaking to an audience of roughly 60 Stanford University students and community members on February 7, 2008, former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage described the challenges facing the United States in the coming decade in all parts of the world.
Afterwards, he sat down with the Review for an exclusive interview. The following are excerpts, edited for clarity, from that interview.
Stanford Review: There’s an understanding in government service that if there’s a policy that you don’t agree with, or you think it’s being badly managed, you can either shut up and do it, or you can get out…
Richard Armitage: Or you, no – if you disagree with the policy, you can quit. If it’s a matter of morality, you must quit. You can disagree with the policy and say nothing, that’s your right…It wasn’t a matter of morality. Policies, generally, unless they’re moral, are matters of difference of opinion. Then you can speak or not speak.
SR: How hard did you and Colin Powell—the media’s “realists”—try to convince the president?
RA: We thought we had convinced the president. Prior to 9/11, Secretary Powell was able, over the objections of many in the administration, to get smart sanctions on Iraq. The reason, I think, some in the administration didn’t want this is they were afraid it would work. But then 9/11 came along and kind of shuffled the deck again. We went back as hard as we could to avoid war, not to oppose the war…It was not that Powell or I opposed the war; we both tried to avoid it. And that’s why Powell prevailed over the president in September of ‘02 to go back to the United Nations and announce that he would seek another Security Council resolution. And the president did that and, after, the secretary told him that if Saddam Hussein accedes this resolution, there is no war, there’s no military action. The president said he understood. You don’t think that was a fight? It was a horrible fight.
SR: How much of it was Rumsfeld and how much of it was the “neocons”?
RA: It’s hard to tell. They were all in the same organization. I would never call Mr Rumsfeld a neocon. But that was a constellation in the Pentagon and the vice president’s office that made things very difficult.
SR: There are two arguments about the surge. One says that had we done all this sooner, things would’ve been better. The other says that things had to get bad before they could get better
RA: Gosh, you know, I think if I were a family member of someone who was lost, that I wouldn’t like either of those arguments. My argument is the one that Secretary Powell made with some success, if you read Tommy Franks’ book, and that is we needed to go in more closely resembling the Powell doctrine….A basic tenet of warfare is you have to have an infantryman with a bayonet to bend an enemy to your will, and we didn’t have sufficient mass to bend the enemy to our will….We should’ve gone in with a large footprint and consolidated things first. As soon as the looting started, you’ll find, that’s when things really went south because people realized, “Hmm, no rules.”
SR: Why do you think the president’s HIV/AIDS efforts have received so little attention?
RA: Couple of reasons. This is really unfair to the president. He loved Africa. He deeply felt it. He felt deeply about infectious diseases, HIV/AIDS. But it’s like any other human endeavor….Bad news trumps good news. It’s one of those things. Second of all, it was so much more than any president had ever done, Republican or Democrat, in Africa, and I think there’s a reluctance in certain quarters in Congress, certainly the Democrats, to give him any credit for it.
SR: Is our dependence on foreign oil a problem?
RA: If you ever hear a US politician saying, “We’re gonna be independent of foreign oil,” turn him off. You’re being lied to. It’s impossible. You cannot be independent of foreign oil. You can reduce your dependence and you can have alternative forms. It is impossible to have energy independence. The first time you hear that, turn off the television or the radio, because you’re being lied to.
SR: David Walker, comptroller of the United States, compared the United States to the Roman Empire last year, suggesting we were on an “unsustainable” path in many respects, and that we should remember that Rome eventually fell. Do you buy this?
RA: Where we’re different from the Roman Empire and where Walker didn’t give us credit is that we have a transparent open system of changing our leaders and trying to make them accountable to the people. And when we have fiscal irresponsibility and all this, the leaders are held accountable. So, these are all things that are different from the Roman Empire and they are significant differences. And it’s why I thought it was interesting, and you can get overextended…but these are matters that have to be resolved or that can be resolved by a transparent process called elections and governance. So it’s a major difference…
SR: Is the apparent growing civil-military split in our society going to be a problem, as fewer and fewer Americans have any connection to the military?
RA: We’re going to see. And I’ve been thinking about this a little bit lately. We’re coming up to our second generation of an all volunteer force. The first generation was a wild success, no question about it. We’re seeing now, at least this is what the armed forces recruiters tell me, immediately after 9/11, to a large percentage, the people who signed up all said, “I had an uncle who served” or “I had an older brother who served.” So they all knew somebody. That’s no longer going to be the case. So we’re going to test the proposition.
SR: Many have said that after 9/11 there was no call to national sacrifice. Now, the war is a tertiary issue for most people and a substantial portion of the populace even thinks 9/11 was an inside job. What do you make of this?
RA: I applaud the argument that if you’re going to declare a global war on terror and to say to people that we’re always at war, that we’re all at war, then there has to be a buy-in by the American public, and there has been none. So this introduces a cynicism in our society. I don’t credit the bullshit black helicopter, ‘inside job’ stuff. It’s absurd. But there is a cynicism that exists…“Well, are you sacrificing? No? Well, I’m not either. Someone else’s kid.” So I buy that. If you’re going to have a global war, there’s got to be a buy-in. I mean, if only a tax, for heaven sakes.
SR: Noticed that you gave money to Straight Talk America, which is John McCain. Is that your man for president?
RA: Then you haven’t seen enough of the donations. I’ve given him more! Yeah, I work for him.
SR: Are you an advisor?
RA: Yeah, foreign policy advisor.
SR: What’s your favorite book?
RA: My favorite book? The latest favorite book is The Coldest Winter by David Halberstam, couldn’t put it down.
SR: What kind of books do you read to stay current?
RA: Every night there’ll be a serious book—either a biography or a history, as well as just a shit-kicker—by my bed. You can quote me.
Interview was conducted by Tristan Abbey, Editor-at-Large. For the complete article, stay tuned for the next print issue.