General Scowcroft, by removing Saddam Hussein President George W. Bush planned to promote democracy in the Middle East. Now the first signs of democracy are emerging. Was Bush right? Were his critics -- people like you and us -- wrong?
Scowcroft: Whether the president or his critics were right really isn’t that important. It was a difficult time, both within the United States and in terms of relations with our European friends. But that's over. Iraq is an important country in a region that's important for both sides. If Iraq were to descend into chaos, the Europeans would feel the effects just as much as we would.
SPIEGEL: Which is precisely why the Europeans now have other priorities. They're concerned about stability in the region, while the United States would rather talk about freedom and democracy.
Scowcroft: America has never seen itself as a national state like all others, but rather as an experiment in human freedom and democracy. Only very gradually did we understand that we -- like any other country -- have clearly defined national interests. But the idealism on which our way of thinking is based keeps poking through again, sometimes less, sometimes more intensely. It comes across well as a political idea. But it gets tricky when you try to convert it into reality, and that's exactly where we are now. Just look at Iraq.
SPIEGEL: Is a democratic revolution taking place in the Middle East, the so-called Arab spring?
Scowcroft: It's been around for a while. It stems from generational change within the Arab leadership, along with general unrest in the region. Of course, the words of the president have also encouraged many who, until now, have suffered under authoritarian regimes without any outlook for change. Spring has arrived, at least to a certain degree.
SPIEGEL: Is this spring the direct result of the elections in Iraq?
Scowcroft: Every bit helps. The elections were certainly encouraging.
SPIEGEL: Are you saying that democracy can be forced with the tips of bayonets?
Scowcroft: No. After all, we didn't bring democracy to Germany in 1945; Hitler destroyed democracy there first. Reestablishing a democratic state only became possible after his removal. Saddam's ouster will not necessarily lead to the same result, since Iraq lacks democratic traditions. Democracy doesn't just consist of holding elections.
SPIEGEL: You predicted that a massive military campaign in the Middle East would compromise the ability of the United States to combat terrorism, because it would cause the US to lose many friends. Has America lost friends?
Scowcroft: I'm afraid that the United States is more isolated today than at any other time in my memory. My point was not that we didn't have to remove Saddam at some point. He was evil to the core and he had ambitions in the region that would have created huge problems for us sooner or later. My point was that removing Saddam should not have been our highest priority. Fighting terrorism should have been our number one concern, followed by the Palestinian peace process. Resolving both problems would have helped us deal with Saddam. Now we could lose the kind of support in fighting terrorism that's absolutely necessary for us to prevail.
SPIEGEL: But we're also seeing some movement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Another example of a fresh spring breeze?
Scowcroft: That's almost entirely the result of Yasser Arafat no longer being in the picture. Neither the United States nor Israel were able to work with him. His death has created more latitude for action and negotiation.
SPIEGEL: Neoconservatives at the Pentagon are comparing the elections in Iraq with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Are they right?
Scowcroft: The Iraqi elections were an important first step. There will have to be many more before we can be truly optimistic. The only thing we can depend upon is hope. At least we don't have to recover from another catastrophe that the elections could easily have led to.
SPIEGEL: Like many Europeans, you were afraid that they could lead to civil war.
Scowcroft: The risk is still there. Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds must learn to see themselves as Iraqis first. This is a tremendous task, as we are seeing right now. Many Sunnis, who are still stuck in the Saddam era mindset and believe Iraq belongs to them, are trying to prevent a new country from developing at all. And the Shiites, who are now in the majority, believe Iraq is theirs. This way of thinking has to change before a new system can function properly.
SPIEGEL: Do you still hold out any hopes for a way out of the chaos?
Scowcroft: I am hopeful, but I'm not sure whether I can be confident just yet. A while ago, our senior military commander in Iraq was talking about a five-year period. This may be a bit too optimistic, but it's still a lot longer than the periods being mentioned just a year ago. I believe realism is taking hold in Washington.
SPIEGEL: The United States wants Germany to provide more assistance for stabilizing Iraq. What should the Germans do?
Scowcroft: NATO should send a contingent, not as a combat force but to provide security for a larger United Nations presence. The UN could help the Iraqi government get on its feet and help the United States withdraw a bit more. Germany shouldn't have any trouble accepting this. After all, we're talking about the UN.
SPIEGEL: But it would have to be troops?
Scowcroft: NATO troops. The Iraqis need help establishing a government. We have to provide them with security. It will take some time before the Iraqi military will be able to do so. If NATO becomes involved, other Arab countries could also be more willing to provide troops. There can be no reconstruction without security. Right now not even the energy supply is working. We're rebuilding power plants, but the insurgents keep blowing them up. They're also sabotaging the oil pipelines on a weekly basis.
SPIEGEL: The American president has been courting the Europeans again. Is this a sign that Bush wants a multilateral approach to conflict resolution in his second term?
Scowcroft: Take a look at the way things have developed -- from before the Iraq conflict until today. By now, people in Washington are able to assess more realistically what works, how fast it works and which methods are the most suitable. The president has changed quite a bit since his reelection.
SPIEGEL: What brought about this change?
SPIEGEL: Practical insights into the problems at hand. He now understands -- better than in his first term -- that the differences between us and Europe really aren't that fundamental. They're annoyances that were puffed up -- by both sides -- into emotionally charged enmity, and they're counterproductive, no matter how you look at it. Progress is only possible if the United States and its allies work together. And it just so happens that we are beginning to realize that we need help to achieve our goals -- a lot of help. We have different ways of looking at things, but our goals are practically the same.
SPIEGEL: Take, for example, the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear weapons ambitions. The US and Europe want to prevent the mullahs from building the bomb. Are you convinced that this approach is working?
Scowcroft: There is at least a chance that it's working. And it's certainly worth the effort. If we fail, we won't be worse off than we are now. The Iranians aren't as aggressive as we sometimes think. Perhaps they won't destroy all their nuclear facilities, but we could achieve an open-ended ban on enrichment activities. That's something we could deal with pragmatically.
SPIEGEL: Do you believe that the US government would be satisfied with that kind of an outcome?
Scowcroft: So far the changes in the president in his second term have been mainly of a rhetorical nature. The government's current Iran policy provides us with the first indications of a substantial change in direction. The reasons are obvious: What are our alternatives? They're not very appealing. We're probably in favor of regime change. But regime change in Iran has to be brought about by the Iranians themselves. If the Iranian people get the impression that they're being forced to do something, we could even be strengthening the mullahs' position. That's why I believe that working with the Europeans offers the best way to resolve this issue.
SPIEGEL: More generally, how should the United States deal with undemocratic allies in the region, countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt? Free elections there could lead to radical Islamic regimes.
Scowcroft: That's one of the practical problems you encounter when you try to incorporate a vision of freedom and democracy into political decisions; our government is wrestling with this issue at the moment.
SPIEGEL: The same kind of approach already failed once before in Algeria, for example.
Scowcroft: That's right. More than a decade ago, when the Algerians were encouraged, if not pressured, to hold elections, it was already foreseeable that an Islamic group would win, a group whose declared goal was that there would be one election and then no more elections. Then the army assumed power and a civil war began that would last for years. These are the practical problems one has to address when promoting this kind of thing.
SPIEGEL: So are we left with nothing but permanent confrontation between the West and radical Islamists?
Scowcroft: The radical elements in Islam are very dangerous. They want to achieve a return to the Islamic purity of the Middle Ages. It’s a defense mechanism against the cultural onslaught of Western civilization. You can imagine the frustration that leads to this kind of radicalism when you think about Islam in about 1400 AD. Much of what we know about mathematics and trade comes from the Arabs. Then came stagnation, and now they're the West's whipping boy. This is a problem that cannot be solved overnight, and certainly not militarily.
SPIEGEL: How then?
Scowcroft: Just as it took al-Qaida a generation to fully develop, it could take us a generation to reverse this development. We must find out where the roots of terrorism lie. How can we destroy them? Simply killing everyone who is already a terrorist today won't solve the problem.
SPIEGEL: Or locking them up indefinitely in Guantanamo. By the way, how compatible is America's claim to moral certitude with this prison camp?
Scowcroft: The Europeans must finally understand the incredible shock triggered by the attacks of September 11. Europeans are familiar with terrorism and violence. We have not experienced a true conflict on our soil in a hundred years, and especially not one that involved 3,000 dead. The thought that it could happen again was a heavy burden for the government. They believed that they had to do everything within their power to prevent this.
SPIEGEL: Doesn't that, and things like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, detract from the Bush administration's idealistic claims?
Scowcroft: No. An idea can be as flawless as can be, but its execution will always be full of mistakes.
SPIEGEL: Gen. Scowcroft, thank you for speaking with us.
The interview was conducted by Georg Mascolo and Hans Hoyng in Scowcroft's office in Washington.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan