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SPIEGEL ONLINE Interview with David Frum: "The Bush Administration is Caught Half-Way Across a Bridge"

President George W. Bush's former speechwriter David Frum coined the phrase "Axis of Evil." In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE he accuses the White House of serious mistakes in Iraq and in the war on terror.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Frum, five years ago you coined the now world famous term "Axis of Evil."

David Frum: A presidential speech is always the work of many hands. When the president makes the decision to accept it, these are his words. We were in the middle of a very big debate. Did the United States and the Western allies have a problem with al-Qaida, or did they face a larger threat from Islamic extremism combined with weapons of mass destruction? The president took the view that this is a bigger problem, that we are dealing with a whole network of countries who together will develop over time access to terrible weapons. He was trying to broaden people's focus in that speech.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Apparently it was intended to evoke memories of the Axis Powers in World War II.

Frum: In my mind there was a very precise World War II analogy. President Roosevelt believed that Nazi Germany was much more dangerous than Japan. He saw the broader implications. But when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, many isolationists thought we could not afford to deal with Germany. After 9/11 the administration realized that the United States faced a broader problem: Islamic extremists.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Initially, only Iran and Iraq were slated for membership. What prompted the inclusion of North Korea, a country which has no significant Muslim community?

Frum: With the concerns clearly defined, it was very difficult not to mention North Korea since they are such a blatant case. But I think there was one critical failure: Not to consider at all Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: That sounds like a really late excuse.

Frum: If you are looking for states that sponsor terrorism, I think there is no state in the world that has a worse record than Pakistan. And if you are concerned about the spread of extremist ideology, there is no state in the world that has a worse record than Saudi Arabia. So, if you are going to criticize what we did and said five years ago, the question should be how can you omit Pakistan and Saudi Arabia?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The simple answer is probably: Because they were and they are close American allies.

Frum: There was too much readiness to believe that Pakistan wanted to completely cooperate with the West, and that is a big part of the problem in Afghanistan. And if terrorists ever get their hands on a really terrible weapon, the history of that weapon will ultimately be traced back to Pakistan. Saudi Arabia has been very helpful in many ways, but if you are thinking about the people who put gas bombs on German trains, they get their ideas from teachers paid by the Saudi government.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: We don't remember anybody in Washington proposing to deal with Saudi Arabia instead of Iraq.

Frum: I would say that the story of the Bush Administration is the story of an administration caught halfway across the bridge; they did not want to face up to the magnitude of the problems. Its policies are premised on the assumption that we have a firm alliance with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. If it had been possible in 2001 to address the problem of Saudi Arabia, maybe there never would have been an Iraq war.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: This sounds hard to believe. So what would have been the appropriate reaction -- attacking Saudi Arabia?

Frum: No, not at all. But we should have faced up to the truth about what Saudi Arabia does and what it pays for. And the US and the other democracies do have the strength to demand that Saudi Arabia change its ways. It would not be too much to demand, for example, that the Saudi government cease financial support to religious missions beyond its own borders. No American administration has ever been willing to acknowledge the nature of the Saudi problem.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Did the president actually like the phrase "Axis of Evil"?

Frum: Very much. The first phrase that came out of my word processor was "axis of hatred." All of these different countries had different ideologies. What united them was their hatred of the Western world.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you think the President ever regretted the choice of words?"

Frum: President Bush is not a man for regrets, but the phrase does leave him with a problem. He committed himself in the most solemn possible way to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and yet the administration has no policy, even now. So he has this loose unguarded commitment without a policy to make it a reality.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Back then it sounded like a scary unoffical task schedule for his presidency, and today Iraq is in chaos, North Korea a nuclear power and Iran obviously on its way. So is the doctrine still valid?

Frum: The fact that there has been little progress does not make the goal less urgent. It is my sense that, whereas five years ago Europeans often criticized Americans for trying to do too much, today they worry that Americans are doing too little.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The feeling in Europe seems to be much more, that by attacking Iraq, America lost the credibility to deal with the much more serious problems like North Korea and Iran.

Frum: That is a criticism that looks very powerful, five years later. One of the things the Bush Administration believed in 2002 was precisely that because Iraq was the weakest link it would be the easiest to deal with. The administration's plans were all premised on the idea that Iraq could be a success story, fairly quickly.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does the president have to give up his goals for Iraq?

Frum: The goals have been shrinking inevitably. If there is a suppression of the violence and some kind of accountable government with some kind of Western orientation, people will see this as a very, very big success. And maybe that should have been the goal all along. What the president believed was that the people of the region were eager to shed the extremism, to create a positive model to oppose the negative model offered by al-Qaida. That turned out to be much too rosy an assumption.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Today, among the most fervent critics of the war in Iraq are the neocons, among them your friend Richard Perle. He said that if he had known how many mistakes the Bush Administration made, he would have been against the invasion. Are you distancing yourself from the war you supported so loudly?

Frum: That's a very difficult question. Let me say that terrible mistakes were made. There was discussion about handing over power to an Iraqi provisional government immediately. But we never did. The other plan that might have worked was a truly massive invasion with 300,000 men, and you had better prepare to stay a long time. The decision between these two plans was not made, so we ended up with an American occupation with only as many forces as were intended to support an Iraqi provisional government ...

SPIEGEL ONLINE: ... because there were many optimists among the neocons, who even did part of the so-called planning in the Pentagon, who even predicted a "cakewalk."

Frum: Whenever you discuss politics, it is always better to use individual names rather then the term neocon. The real misunderstanding was: Military war planners assumed that the United States could move in and encounter a functioning bureaucracy in a functioning state. It was the Japan parallel, that a thin layer of military people at the top working through a bureaucracy would be sufficent to run the country. But under the pressure of the sanctions of the 1990's the state collapsed and Saddam reverted to establishing a kind of feudal tribal regime. There was a sheik, and he was loyal, so he gave him Land Rovers and money. There was a sheik and he was not loyal. So he killed him.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The much too rosy assumptions even lead to the decision to kick out the members of the Baath party and send the Iraqi army home.

Frum: There are a lot of mysteries about the war, and one is where did those orders come from. Donald Rumsfeld insists he did not give them. Yet, Paul Bremer insists that he was carrying out an order given to him by somebody else.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So do you come to the same conclusion regarding the Iraq disaster as Richard Perle?

Frum: I am not going to use that kind of language. All I will say in answer to that question is that I absolutely believed that Iraq was very close to acquiring weapons of mass destruction. And I have to think that the president shared that belief.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is Bush "the last neocon in power," as Bill Kristol recently wrote?

Frum: The story of the Bush Administration is a story of absorbing certain doctrines that are called "neo-conservative," but entrusting them to be executed by people who did not believe in those doctrines. And by always limiting the applications of those doctrines, so as not to touch on the really deep American commitments to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. If Bush were a neo-conservative, as everybody said, then his response to 9/11 would have been that this originated in an extremism that the government of Saudi Arabia has whipped up in order to protect itself from the consequences of its own corruption.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Has the Iraq chaos discredited the essentially correct vision of democracy for the Middle East?

Frum: No, the idea will go into hibernation, but it will be back more powerful than ever. The diagnosis that the problems of the Middle East are traceable to the failures of the way they govern themselves strikes me still as very deeply true.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But isn't there proof now that you shouldn't try to change the political landscape by force?

Frum: Force is always the last resort. But if you use it there has to be real democratization afterwards.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your colleague, Joshua Muravchik from the American Enterprise Institute argues that the neocons should now make the case for bombing Iran.

Frum: It's not a good idea to begin talking about things that would shatter the unity of the Western approach to Iran. It's not necessarily true that bombing is the only answer. We are learning more and more every day about the economic vulnerability of the Iranian regime.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What will history say about this president?

Frum: On his tombstone could be written: "He tried a lot." He dreamed big. But it's a dangerous question because presidents are like stocks, their reputations rise and fall. He will get marks for being willing to take on the problem of Islamic extremism more broadly. He will suffer for having underestimated Iraq. That will be held against him.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Did you ever regret personally having coined the "Axis of Evil" phrase?

Frum: Speech writers are more vulnerable to vanity than any other group of people in Washington. Events don't happen because I write a speech. I am allowed to write a speech because events are going to happen. To say I have regrets would be a little conceited, because that would imply that I made more of a difference than I really did.

Interview conducted by Georg Mascolo


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David Frum

The Canadian author served as President George W. Bush's speechwriter from 2001 to 2002 and coined the phrase "Axis of Evil," which Bush used in his 2002 State of the Union address. In 2003 Frum published "The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush" -- the first insider account of the Bush presidency. Today Frum works at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank in Washington.

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