Interview with Madeleine Albright "Iraq Was a Really Badly Planned Operation"

With the US bogged down in Iraq and Iran defiant over its nuclear program, US foreign policy makers are faced with numerous challenges. SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke with former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright about breeding terrorists in Iraq, the Iran crisis, and how the alleged Haditha massacre became possible.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Ms. Albright, America's image in the world isn't in great shape these days. Things are looking especially bad in Iraq with daily reports of violence, the country teetering on the brink of civil war, and now a scandal erupting over an alleged massacre  perpetrated by the US military in the town of Haditha. Are you happy that you are not Secretary of State right now?

Albright: It is a mixed feeling. Things are really in bad shape. If the Democrats were still in power, they wouldn't be in this kind of shape. On the one hand, it's a little bit of a relief not having to deal with it. On the other, though, it is somewhat frustrating having to watch it. If you really care about the foreign policy of your country and spent a lot of time taking care of it, being confronted with the question as to how long it will now take the US to regain its reputation abroad is difficult. I am afraid it's going to take awhile. Reputations of countries are very hard to put back together.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In your new book, "The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs," you write that you previously underestimated the importance of religion in foreign policy. Has the Bush Administration developed a better understanding of the foreign policy implications of religious faith?

Albright: They certainly know that religion plays a role. Are they doing the things that I suggest need to be done in terms of religious leaders being resources in negotiations? I don't have that feeling. Foreign Service officials now have to write a report about what is going on in a country in terms of religious issues. A certain sensitivity has developed in the way people use terms.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Turning the tables, if a foreign country was writing a brief about the importance of religion in US policy, what would it say?

Albright: It would make very clear that the US is a very religious country. It would also point out that separation of church and state is part of our credo, but that it is hard to understand since our money says "In God we trust" and every President says "God bless America". If they were writing about the current administration, they would say that we have a president who is a very strong believer and they would probably write about the influence of the Christian Right.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: President Bush is often described as a fundamentalist. Do you share this view?

Albright: I have a hard time with terms like fundamentalist, extremist, radical -- these are all very difficult adjectives. President Bush is a highly religious man and says he is a born-again Christian. He has quite a different view of religion than the two presidents I worked with, President Carter and President Clinton.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: When it comes to US foreign policy at the moment, all eyes are on Iraq. The Bush Administration has long said that the Iraq invasion was part of the war on terror, but the situation there seems to be getting more desperate by the day. Is the US losing the war on terror?

Albright: We certainly aren't winning it. Even Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has admitted that we don't have any way to measure whether we are capturing or killing more terrorists than we are creating. There have been quite a few people that have been captured and a number of cells that have been disrupted. But now, Iraq has turned into a very comfortable breeding ground for everybody who hates us.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is the breeding ground created merely by the American presence in Iraq? Or does it have more to do with US foreign policy hubris and scandals such as Abu Ghraib and now Haditha?

Albright: Probably a little bit of everything. We know that during Saddam Hussein's time there was suppression of the Shia by the Sunnis and a great deal of resentment was built up. There are also terrorists of opportunity who have moved on from places like Afghanistan and Chechnya into Iraq. And then there is the American presence, which I see as both a problem and a solution. On one hand, without the security we are providing there would be an even greater chaos. On the other, though, there are clearly people who don't want us there. I don't think that was properly considered when thinking through the possible consequences of this war.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: To make matters worse, there is a resurgence of violence in Afghanistan. The US ambassador in Kabul Ronald Neumann recently warned that the country may be in for a "bloody summer."

Albright: What has happened in the last couple of weeks in Afghanistan is very bad. It proves the point that many of us have been making -- that Iraq was a war of choice, not of necessity. We should have kept our eye on the ball in Afghanistan; that job was never finished. Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai is a terrific person, but he is little more than mayor of Kabul in terms of his control over the country. By moving into Iraq we didn't really do enough in Afghanistan, and now we have problems in two areas.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You think it was the wrong move to invade Iraq?

Albright: When I was Ambassador at the United Nations and then Secretary of State, Iraq was something we talked about practically every day. I said exactly the same things about Saddam Hussein that President Bush said. I believed there were weapons of mass destruction there. But I never thought they posed an imminent threat. We had imposed sanctions and we were bombing pretty heavily in the no-fly-zones. I thought we had Saddam Hussein in a box. So I didn't understand the "Why now?" of the invasion. And then I didn't understand the "What next?" There were a couple of briefings at the Pentagon, and when I asked what the timeline for the turnover from the coalition forces to the Iraqis was, they had no answers. When I asked about whether there was any plan for using international organizations, they said no. This was a really badly planned operation.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: More and more people in the US are saying it's time to cut losses and get out of Iraq. What would you do?

Albright: It is not a good idea to set a specific date. We did that in Bosnia -- we said we'd be out in a year and we couldn't meet that deadline which undermined our credibility. We should be guided by the idea that we have to move out without setting a specific date -- but with every passing day it should be sooner rather than later. Overall the American military has done a brilliant job. But there are those who say it is affecting their psyche which is what makes things like Haditha possible. It is very hard to understand why that happened. Some of it probably comes from fatigue and the difficulty of distinguishing friend from foe. I think that must be ... if you put yourself in the position of not being able to figure out whether somebody ... everybody looks the same or isn't dressed in any kind of uniform and you are attacked by somebody and you have no idea who it is and.... That's not to make excuses for anybody.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The longer the war goes on, the greater the chances that more incidents like Haditha will take place?

Albright: I am not a psychologist, but it seems that way.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you see parallels between the current discussion on Iran and the rhetoric leading up to the Iraq invasion?

Albright: I don't. I truly do not think that there are people within the administration who want to go to war with Iran. Knowing what is going on in Iraq and knowing how over-stretched we are -- and then looking at how Iran has their nuclear facilities spread apart -- I don't think anyone thinks a war would be an easy situation. Of course they say the military option hasn't been taken off the table. But I prefer to believe there has been a learning curve and that the situation is not similar to Iraq.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: President Bush recently proposed direct talks with Iran -- which Iran then rejected because of the conditions attached. It seems like the situation has developed into a game of cat and mouse.

Albright: I think there is a lot of brinkmanship going on. It doesn't look like either side knows exactly where it is going.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is there a realistic way to prevent Iran from possessing the nuclear bomb or do we simply have to get used to the idea that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinedjad will eventually get what he wants?

Albright: Pretty much everybody is saying that we allow Iran to get the bomb. The question now is between an experimental enrichment program and an industrial enrichment program. The US is not willing to accept anything, the Europeans are willing to accept an experimental program and the Russians are even ready to accept an industrial program.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Which side are you on?

Albright: I would prefer that they didn't have anything, but it is very hard since they are members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is very hard to say that they can't have a peaceful nuclear program. The grand bargain which was part of the NPT has broken down -- there hasn't been enough disarmament among those that have nuclear weapons as the treaty calls for. Instead, there has been discussion of a new generation of nuclear bunker busters by the US.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you see a new spirit of cooperation developing between the US and Europe or are they still going their separate ways?

Albright: I think it's more ad hoc. There are issues on which there is cooperation. There is a clear attempt of having more cooperation on Iran. But in the US there is still a lot of doubt about where Europeans are going.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder recently advocated an end to the boycott of the Hamas government in the Palestinian territories. Do you agree?

Albright: No, I don’t. We have a law that one can't have direct talks with Hamas. What needs to happen is assistance to the Palestinian people through non-governmental organizations or through the United Nations. Hamas really does need to make a choice between espousing violence and adopting democratic methods. But I am very troubled by the lack of assistance to the Palestinian people, because that creates chaos. Were I secretary of state at the moment, I would be trying to figure out some way to expand the definition of humanitarian assistance to do more.

Interview conducted by Henryk M. Broder, Charles Hawley and Carsten Volkery

Mehr lesen über Verwandte Artikel
Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.