Charles Duelfer | The Search For Truth In Iraq | Page 3

Impeachment and Foreign Policy Redux

In February 1998, I was in Baghdad discussing the ongoing disputes between Iraq and the UN weapons inspectors with Saddam’s key deputy Tariq Aziz. (I was the deputy chairman of the UN WMD inspection group called UNSCOM.)  It was late night and Aziz had his usual Cohiba cigar filling the room with bluish smoke. The intended topic, appropriately, was chemical weapons. 

Aziz cleared his throat and said, yes we’ll get to chemical weapons, but would I indulge him in a different question, drawing on our long mutual dialogue over the years.  I nodded and he proceeded to ask me, “Mr. Duelfer, what is an intern?”  

The Lewinsky affair had recently broken in Washington.  It was huge news.  Throughout 1998 the two dominant issues consuming Washington were the Lewinsky affair and the contentious disputes over access of WMD inspectors to sites in Iraq.

The Iraqis did not understand the Lewinsky business.  How could the last superpower be disabled by an affair with some 20-something in the White House?  This was beyond Saddam’s comprehension. 

However, in subsequent questioning after the 2003 war, when I was head of the Iraq Survey Group we explored extensively their thinking and policy making with Saddam and his top lieutenants.  It became clear that while Saddam did not understand why an inconsequential intern could hobble the president of the United States, he did understand the White House was distracted and weakened—especially as scandal turned to impeachment.  Baghdad took key decisions throughout the summer and fall of 1998 that ultimately led to the end of UNSCOM’s inspections in Iraq and four days of bombing beginning on December 16 by the US (with support from the UK, but with no consensus in the UN Security Council).  It turned out to be a good move by Iraq.  Inspectors were gone, and sanctions, while not formally lifted, were definitely crumbling. 

In the midst of the bombing, President Clinton was impeached by the House in a vote on December 19.  However, President Clinton was not removed from office as the senate did not even come close to the 2/3 number voting to convict.

Twenty-one years later, another president is subject to impeachment proceedings.  The outcome and debates are much the same when you go back and read the press coverage.

What is not covered in the press are the calculations of foreign powers calculating whether the Washington is weakened or distracted.   Iran, North Korea, Russia, China and virtually every nation on the planet are evaluating what the effect is on President Trump and US foreign policy.  Is it a time to take advantage, to press ahead?  Does it mean they should hold still until an outcome is clear? 

Will the White House be more or less inclined to act militarily since that has typically be a good diversion.  Cynics (and who isn’t in Washington) must ascribe some element of that to the decision to execute a drone strike on Qasem Soleimani.  The same was said of the Clinton White House and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright firmly stated that the decisions of foreign policy were made independent of the turmoil in te White House. 

It’s safe to say that our opponents around the world will see this as weakness on the part of the United States, not just one political party over another.

On a light-hearted note, if you’re sick of the blather about impeachment, watch the dark comedy movie, “War the Dog.” Robert DeNiro plays a spin-doctor brought in by the White House whose occupant was caught in a scandal with an underage girl in the Oval office.  The spin-doctor concludes that the best way to distract attention from the scandal is to create a war.  Dustin Hoffman plays a Hollywood producer who cooks up script and scenes for a war in Albany.  The media is taken in and there are twists and turns but the most amazing thing is that the movie came out in 1997—before the Lewinsky events.  Life imitates art.

Posted in Iran, Iraq, United Nations, WMD | Leave a comment

Qasem Soleimani – Some Aspects

The United States (over two Administrations) and the international community expended much effort rolling back ISIS in Iraq and Syria. This included attempts to kill the leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi–ultimately successful just last October. ISIS killed a few Americans. Qasem Soleimani and his al-Quds force (part of the Iranian Revolutionry Guard Corps, IRGC) killed hundreds of Americans over the years in Iraq. Why did the US only act now on Soeleimani? What’s the difference?

There are a few key reasons. First, al-Baghdadi was not part of a recognized state. Soleimani ran a key part of the Iranian government. Only recently (April) did the US designate the IRGC to be a foreign terrorist organization. Only then was Soleimani in a legal position akin to al-Baghdadi.

During the Obami Administration, the focus of US Iran policy was the nuclear deal. Everything else was secondary. They did not like Soleimani, but did not want to risk the nuclear deal no matter how odious the his work in Iraq and elsewhere.

During the Bush Administration, there were a tangle of Iraq and Iran issues and Soleimani’s primacy as cause of the problems was not yet so clear. In retrospect, it would have been less problematic if they had dealt with him one way or another.

Other aspects:

Iraqi miscalculation? Soleimani was killed after arriving at Baghdad airport (personal note: very close to where I lived through 2004 whilst running the Iraq Survey Group–and saw the effects of Soleimani’s efforts against US forces–including at Baghdad airport). Why did he not think he was at risk?

Clearly Iran knows a lot about US drones–they have shot them down on multiple occasions. They must have some knowledge of drone activity over Iraq and they must have some knowledge about US tracking activities. They missed something very important. Either they assumed the US did not have the will to attack him–they misinterpreted how far they could go. Or, they underestimated US ability to track him. They will have a lot of internal questioning about that.

Retaliation by Iran has been clearly stated and is expected. There are a range of options. Killing Soleimani was personal. The US killed one of there top people. Iran will likely focus on US-specific interests, not broad strokes like attacking the Saudi Oil infrastructure as they did last September. There are many exposures the US has around the world. It is also worth noting the asymmetrical vulnerability the US has to cyber-attacks. Iran can attack any US commercial entity, like banks, and create more domestic disputes within the US.

Iran will be attuned to President Trump’s political circumstances. He is being impeached. Ironically, there are similarities with President Clinton’s impeachment in 1998. At that time the US and Iraq (under Saddam) were at loggerheads over weapons inspections. Both the impeachment and inspection problems came to a head in December and Clinton ordered a 4-day bombing exercise when inspectors left Iraq. Iraq acted throughout the period calculating the weakness of the Clinton administration during the domestic impeachment proceedings. (They described this to me and others after the last war.) Iran will certainly be taking stock of the domestic debates in Washington and seek any advantage they can exploit.

There is some potential bright side to this. President Trump said Iran has never won a war nor lost a negotiation. He clearly does not want another war, but does not want to be pushed around. The willingness to negotiate may (or may not) affect the extent and persistence of Iranian response. Potentially back-channel or track II discussions could be valuable.

Completely complicating this is Iraq. What happens there is now subject to US-Iran dynamics. Likewise the potential progress in Yemen and other flashpoints in the region.

Posted in Intelligence, Iran, Iraq, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Donations from Convicted Sex Offender Offend MIT–What about China?

The New Yorker posted a story on 6 September 2019 that described financial links (donations) to MIT’s highly regarded Media Lab from the now infamous sex offender Jeffery Epstein. The next day the President of MIT, L. Rafael Reif wrote a letter to the MIT community that included the following: “…the acceptance of the Epstein gifts involved a mistake of judgment. We are actively assessing how best to improve our policies, processes and procedures to fully reflect MIT’s values and prevent such mistakes in the future. Our internal review process continues, and what we learn from it will inform the path ahead.” MIT went on to hire a law firm to do a thorough examination of the facts. The director of the Media Lab, Joi Ito, resigned on September 7.

On 9 September 2019, President Reif wrote again about the review saying
“Once we have the results, and once our separate internal review of our current processes on gift acceptance is complete, we will be able to understand what happened and what needs to change.”

MIT is trying to apply moral standards to their income (donations) in the case of a sex offender. This is a relatively simple problem. MIT likes to think it solves tough problems. If MIT is going to determine their hierarchy of values relative to a convicted sex offender, then what of MIT’s relationship with China?

President Reif wrote in his usual “Note from the President” in the MIT News alumni journal that the competition with China cannot be won by blocking China’s access but by making sure that we sufficiently fund our own research (presumably at MIT).

This is an old argument and there is no categorical answer. Yet it is clear to the intelligence community among others, that China has progressed through government directed efforts to steal intellectual property, suck up as much advanced knowledge as possible through open sources (student and faculty deployed overseas), etc. American schools and universities welcome Chinese students and fellows because they pay full fare–and a lot of it.

I think it would be interesting for MIT to develop a policy on acceptance of resources from China–a country that is decidedly not just a competing country in the global market place. Yes, it is good to re-consider receiving funds from a sex offender. But why not consider the issues associated with MIT’s relationship with a country that has a large number of its citizens in re-education or detention camps? The NY Times of 19 November 2019 describes internal China documents addressing the plight of millions of Uighurs. Hong Kong is another story. The growing number of bases in the South China sea is another. The continuing cyber theft and intrusions in this country is another. Competing arguments to President Reif’s position should be considered. Are MIT’s policies aiding and abetting a substantial threat to the United States? Certainly looks that way.  The implicit argument that MIT should receive more funding from the US government has a wiff of the self-serving.  It would be a valuable exercise to just determine how much aid MIT gets from China and how much China gets from MIT.

Funding sources, their morality, and the outrage from the self-identifying intellectuals of Cambridge are not new. There have always been outraged members of the MIT community who shun the receipt of funds based on their source. In the 60’s and 70’s there was great debate and protests about defense contracts and even the CIA. Are there no Uighers advocates in Cambridge? Are all the Chinese students there too concerned about the source of their tuition to say anything?

Tough problem. MIT should not ignore it.

Posted in China, MIT | 2 Comments

Quandaries: Deep Fakes and Cyber Conflict

The Council on Intelligence Issues* held a seminar on “Intelligence Operations in a Digital Age” this week. The discussion covered many current issues, but lingered on couple of looming problems with no satisfactory answers aired among a broad group of senior former intelligence officials,

Peacetime Offensive Cyber Operations. The first had to do with offensive cyber operations. There is an ongoing debate about whether such operations should be conducted under defense department authorities (Title 10) or intelligence authorities (Title 50). This has implications for who has oversight in Congress (Armed Services or Intelligence committees) and what authority process and chain of command is required within the administration. That’s complicated but manageable (the debate of drone strikes aired this in the Obama administration).

But what struck me, as a real problem, is that while cyber operations against countries like Iran, North Korea and even Russia and China may be preferable to kinetic operations, the US has a marked asymmetrical weakness.   If we hit them, they can respond by hitting US commercial systems. Iran has demonstrated this ability by hitting US banks some time ago. As a policy matter, will the USG conduct a cyber operation against an adversary (e.g. as a response to attacks on allies shipping in the Gulf) when the response may cause the private sector hundreds of millions and undermine confidence in US systems (esp. banking)?

Moreover, when the favorite US policy “stick” of choice—sanctions—is applied, those on the receiving end could logically respond with their own cyber operations against US private industry. This can be a powerful deterrent. Iran seems to be thinking along these lines. Others, like Russia may do the same—especially if such cyber responses can be cloaked with reasonable deniability.

Defining and determining what’s real. More troubling was consideration of the problem highlighted during the last US presidential election, i.e. foreign efforts to shape voter actions in the US elections. This is a logical extension of the long history of covert actions by various countries to shape outcomes, but combined with the ubiquity of Internet communications today, is a huge problem. With technology offering the opportunity to create false stories and images that are very difficult for average people to distinguish from reality, shaping decision-makers (voters) can be accomplished with remarkable success. Classically, the chief problem in covert action operations is measuring whether the action does in fact have the desired affect. Today, if a country can systematically target stories to select types of voters and gain access to daily tracking polls (or even design their own surrogate) they can have as much if not more affect in shaping election outcomes as the major political parties.

To save the United States from this paralyzing phenomenon, shouldn’t someone be able to, in near real time sort fake from real? There are two very difficult problems: One, technically it takes time and an offensive operation could flood the US with a large number of targeted stories (think of the algorithms that target you with customized ads to your email account).   The second problem is who would do (police) this and why would we trust their judgment?

At the seminar amongst intelligence alumni, the thought was whether the intelligence community (IC) could do this. In principle, it seemed possible given the time and resources. But who would, trust the IC? In my own experience, the IC lost enormous credibility when it got the Iraq WMD estimates badly wrong. In producing the so-called Duelfer report afterwards, I took several steps to try to overcome this, including making the entire report unclassified, including all the background data, and not writing an executive summary. The idea was that an independent reader could consider the data and come to their own conclusion. This was successful, but it was a static case.

A rolling set of stories and data coming in all over the country to various subsets of American voters can not be evaluated and judged in realtime—especially as election day approaches.

Is there another part of the government that could perform this function? I doubt it. Could the companies that current owe their vast wealth and market dominance to their ability to shape messages to consumers provide this service (Google, Facebook, etc)? Possibly they could have the expertise, but the task is labor-intensive and who would trust them? Could journalists do this? They don’t have the resources other that in select cases, and which journalists would you trust—the range of quality and objectivity of individuals who identify themselves as journalist varies wildly.

These are two major problems for our country—especially the second. And the government is not designed to address them. In fact, the fractious political environment seems to make this a major problem no one will wish to raise. It calls into question the outcome of any election—no matter who the winner is.

*The Council on Intelligence Issues provides a critical and unique function for former intelligence (largely CIA) officers—providing post government legal assistance. Unlike virtually any other government employees, former CIA officers can be subject to post-government legal actions that stem from their performance of their jobs. This is one of the reasons for officers to retain their cover even after leaving the service. They can be sued, warrants issued for their arrest, and otherwise attacked—even by their own countrymen. Government legal assistance to former officers may or may not be available, and even if it is, the government’s interests and the individual’s interests may not be aligned.  Incoming officers rarely hear about this type of risk to them and their families the vagaries of political correctness in the world evolve.  Current actions can be judged by some future set of standards that are unforeseeable now.


Beyond a “thank you for your service” you can be left on your own.

Posted in Allies, Cyber Threat, Intelligence, Iran, journalism coverage, NSA | Leave a comment

Mueller Report – Duelfer Report

A few commentators have made some comparisons between the Mueller Report and report on Iraq WMD in 2004 which was dubbed the Duelfer Report.  There are a few similarities and many key differences.

Both were produced in a highly charged political environment.  The Mueller report affects the prospects for the Trump presidency (and some would suggest its legitimacy).  The Iraq WMD report came out in October 2004 just before the heated election contest between John Kerry and President George Bush–and in the midst of a war that was starting to look really ugly.   Both were subject to major political examination in Congress.  Both were issued in an environment where there was going to be enormous skepticism among the audience.  Both involved intelligence matters, and both were complicated,

But there were key differences.  The Duelfer Report did not assess the actions of US actors (intelligence community, political leaders, etc.).  It addressed the Saddam Hussein regime and its relation to WMD.  Others would investigate such questions as malfeasance on the part of the intelligence community or whether political leaders inappropriately pressured the Intelligence community.  (This task was ably done by the commission chaired by Senator Chuck Robb and Judge Laurence Silberman.)

The Iraq WMD investigation did not have the obligation to make legal judgments…it “only” had to establish facts.  The collection of data was in some ways similar to Mueller’s efforts, though gathering data largely from non-US citizens was categorically different.  Of course the environment was physically dangerous.  Four lives were lost and several were badly wounded.  We operated in a devastated country in midst of an insurgency.

I made some decisions concerning our work and the report of our work that contributed to the enduring credibility of the report and long term utility.  They may be useful in other circumstances.

First, it was clear to me that we had a unique opportunity to record for history the details of how the Saddam regime worked and why.  This was an opportunity that went beyond the relatively simple question asked by some, “Did Saddam have WMD or didn’t he?”   I defined the task more broadly, to record the relationship between the Saddam regime with WMD over time.  He had, and used, WMD at certain points, and at other points he did not.  Moreover, where was he going in the future.

To this end, we collected and reported a lot of data about the workings of the regime and its interactions domestically and internationally.  Moreover, we included as much raw data as possible.  This was going to be a document studied not just by current politicians in Washington, but by historians, and, Iraqis themselves who were intimately involved in the events.  I wanted to be sure they would not find factual problems.

Very early in the process, I determined that the report would be unclassified and all the included material would have to be declassified.  This was difficult but essential.  The US intelligence community had suffered a major blow to its credibility about Iraq WMD and if there was anything we held back, it would shake the confidence in our report.  And gathering the data had been expensive in lives and treasure.  I did not want the validity of the effort to be challenged.  (Note:  We did not have the serious constraint faced by Mueller concerning releasing grand jury data affecting American citizens.)

Another decision I made was to not have an executive summary.  In response to critical questions on this (especially from some Senators), I stated that it was a complicated picture and I believed that the truth would not fit in the equivalent of a bumper sticker.  I should also point out that no one else wrote a summary of the report as happened with the Mueller report with political consequences.

As it turned out the absence of an executive summary made testifying before Congress somewhat easier since members and staff who sought to bolster one of their own views or another would have to pluck their own segments out to support their own biases, but they could not attribute such conclusions to me.  And, while it remains to be seen it Mueller will testify before congress, this was never question for me.  It was inevitable.

I also decided that the report should be completed and released before the election.  This was important since if it were released afterwards, then all would assume that was for a political reason and that would taint the credibility of the overall report.  I did not want to do anything that would damage the credibility of the work produced by so many and at such a cost.

Finally I would emphasize that President Bush and his White House team supported all these decisions without complaint or criticism.



Posted in Intelligence, Iraq, Uncategorized, WMD | Leave a comment

US Intelligence and the Press

Yesterday, George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government hosted an interesting discussion moderated by Michael Morell and four prominent Washington journalists regarding coverage of intelligence by journalists.  The journalists were Andrea Mitchell, long-time NBC correspondent who has covered everything in the last forty years; David Ignatius who has a similar depth of experience with the Washington Post; Peter Finn another long time journalist at the Post and currently their national security editor; and finally, Suzanne Kelly, formerly with CNN who the founder of the specialized national security web publication “Cipher Brief”.

There was discussion of the usual tension between government secrecy and first amendment freedoms specially blessed on the press.

Then, keying on the issue now prominent from the Julian Assange case, Morell politely asked the key question facing the press today:  Who is a journalist (and implicitly receives the special protections of the first amendment)?  The panel largely dodged the question.  Peter Finn came closest to candor by saying that it was an open issue, but one thing for sure was he did not want the government to define who was a journalist.  Then quickly turned to something else.

This is a critical question.  The journalists on the panel would be hard to dispute as real journalists.  They have lived by the standard ethics and principles of old school journalism.  But who defines a journalist?  Today you can “self-identify” as many things.  Pick up a paint brush, put on a beret, and presto, you’re an artist!  And with that you get artistic license!

Journalism similarly lacks formal certification criteria.  Get a lap-top, write a blog and you’re a journalist.  Or, use a cell phone and  create a You Tube product.  All the editorial standards and editorial oversight that the experienced journalists on the panel yesterday referenced are out the window.

Old time journalists are trying, with justification, to preserve their independence and first amendment rights, but the hoards of others who have no loyalty to ancient journalistic ideals of fact-checking, sourcing, etc. swarming the new media.  Perhaps the Post, Times, and NBC  do strive to retain old standards rather than just generate clicks as the seasoned news veterans described at the panel yesterday.  But that certainly doesn’t look like the future to me.

There is an inevitable crash concerning who qualifies as a journalist.  If the media does not establish criteria that are sustainable in court, then it may well be that government does need to step in.  This an issue that cannot be dodged.  “Journalists” are going way beyond reporting facts and are now actively seeking to shape outcomes–not just for their own interests but for foreign interests.  There is a crisis in journalism–it would be interesting to see more reporting on it.

Posted in Intelligence, journalism coverage, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Space News – And National News

Tuesday this week, in a speech before the National Space Council, Vice President Pence announced that the US would land its astronauts on the Moon again within five years.  He said:

“And I’m here, on the President’s behalf, to tell the men and women of the Marshall Space Flight Center and the American people that, at the direction of the President of the United States, it is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the Moon within the next five years.

And let me be clear: The first woman and the next man on the Moon will both be American astronauts, launched by American rockets, from American soil.”

This strikes me as a big deal.  The Trump Administration has been consistently vigorous in pushing American space programs both government and private.

The three major networks all carried a space story on the evening news–but not the commitment by the US to return to the moon in five years.  No, edging out that story was the cancellation by NASA of the first “all women” spacewalk because they discovered that one of the spacesuits they had on the space station did not fit the astronaut.  Now, admittedly, this raises some concerns about NASA mission planning.

But what is it about this space story that makes it a headline while the announcement of the commitment to return to the moon is not?



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The Value of Allies – It’s Personal

In his resignation letter, Secretary of Defense General Mattis called out the importance of Allies for US national security.  I expect his eloquent statement will be long-quoted by those involved in foreign policy.  But I bet it resonates even more with individuals who have  served the US in almost any capacity overseas–military, intelligence, diplomats, Peace Corps, USAID, etc.  It’s personal.

I’ve worked with the French in Chad, Brits various places, Aussies in Iraq, etc.  The value of having kindred spirits who can be called upon (or vice versa) when the unexpected happens is invaluable.  Out in the field, you need friends.  Whether its another embassy that can help or other views to inform decisions or reports.  The US and allies who share overarching principles are invaluable.  In a pinch they can save your life–and vice versa.

Remember the role Canada played in helping some of our embassy staff escape from Iran during the revolution.  They took a big risk.  There are lots of other examples–some will never be public.  Some probably never known at “policy levels” of either government.

If you have served the US abroad–it’s blindingly obvious allies are vital.

In Washington, perhaps other short term arguments may obscure fundamental points.  Mattis reminds us that alliances of governments who share long-standing ideals and principles are the core to international security.  Maybe we pay more in NATO, but don’t for a second think we don’t get a lot of benefit.  Sure we should argue for greater contributions when others begin to take things for granted.  But the benefit we get should be remembered.

Lost in the news yesterday was an example. The US Justice Department indicted two Chinese individuals for theft of data by hacking.  It would be meaningless but for the fact that several other countries stepped forward with similar steps.  We have been attacked for over a decade by the Chinese is this way.  We will need allies to effectively turn this around.

Maybe something good will come of Mattis’ resignation if it serves to remind everyone of the elemental need to have as many on this planet who share our common ideals.  For those who have served abroad, its also personal and obvious.

Posted in Allies, Iraq, NATO | 2 Comments

Syrian CW Use – Why? There’s a good reason

Many have wondered why Syrian would continue to use chemical munitions recognizing that the international community would condemn such actions. After all, they received some measure of positive recognition when acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013 and allowed the OPCW inspectors to supervise the removal/destruction of their (large) declared CW capacity. They did a good job though it is now apparent that Syria retained a limited capacity in contravention of their treaty obligations. So why incur all the wrath of the international community just to use some limited chlorine (possibly also sarin) barrel bombs? After all, (and the Russians) have been bombing extensively with conventional weapons to great effect.

They answer may be the extensive tunnels that Jaesh al-Islam seems to have had in Douma. Clearing insurgents out of tunnels is not an easy military task. A uniquely effective tool could be Chlorine gas. Conventional bombing will drive insurgents (and civilians) into basements and bunkers. Chlorine is a perfect response to that. It is heavier than air and sinks to lower levels. Using chlorine will flush insurgents out of their tunnels and remove their last bastion of protection. It was shortly after Basher al-Assad used chlorine that the last insurgents agreed to evacuate Douma.

And now the presence of insurgent tunnels is beginning to become know.

Chlorine and barrel bombs seem to have been the perfect weapon for this military problem.

Sadly, I doubt Bashir al-Assad will be deterred from using this potent weapon in similar circumstances in the future. The airstrike of last Friday night may have sent a message, but it was mixed. It seems we launched over one hundred cruise missiles, some very advanced and NO ONE WAS HURT! That seems a peculiar measure of merit.   Possibly there was some damage to buildings that may have been associated with chemical weapons fabrication, but the fear of upsetting the Russians constrained targeting to the point where on the order of a quarter billion dollars of our most sophisticated munitions are expended with the caution that no one should be hurt. Bashir al-Assad’s uses weapons with exactly opposite purpose.


The Russian certainly are protected the regime—sort of a variation of Saddam’s use of civilians as human shields.


Following last years strike, the White House put out a detailed compilation of the essential data that supported their assessment about Syrian CW use. This time they have not yet. The French have issued a fairly detailed paper. More could be done.


Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, an expert in dealing with UN inspectors, will continue to offer alternative explanations and arguments. He will challenge UN inspectors and assert that they have not proved their case. Lavrov, did this with great panache when I was deputy Chairman of the UN Iraq weapons inspection team called UNSCOM (Lavrov was the Russian ambassador to the UN). He would have to think that little green men could have dropped chemical agent from flying saucers, or, if you found that unlikely, then the weapons inspectors themselves were at fault. But certainly there are many other explanations for the data presented by west. Washington needs to counter this in a more compelling manner.






















Posted in Russia, Syria CW, United Nations, WMD | 1 Comment

Kim Jong Un – We have no clue what motivates/deters him….

The September 18, 2017 New Yorker had a very good article about Kim Jong Un by Evan Osnos.  He made the point that we really have no idea what motivates him (or perhaps more importantly, would deter him).  And, or course Kim Jong Un will have the same problem viewing Washington.  We experienced similar ignorance about Saddam in 2002-3.  Only afterwards did we learn a great deal about his incentives, goals, etc.  Wisdom can come late and at great cost.  It’s important to recognize that we are very ignorant about what Kim sees as a plus or a minus–and vice versa. Below is a letter I sent regarding this article and published in the New Yorker of October 16, 2017.


I directed the Iraq Survey Group, which detailed the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and, more important, the internal dynamics of Saddam Hussein’s regime (“On the Brink,” September 18th). Reading Evan Osnos’s report about Kim Jong Un and North Korea, I noticed some striking parallels. Saddam made assumptions about President Bush and Washington that were wildly off the mark; he did not know what motivated Washington, and Washington did not know what motivated him. So it is now with Kim and Donald Trump. Osnos notes that there is no U.S. Embassy in Pyongyang. Similarly, the U.S. closed its Embassy in Iraq in 1990 and reopened it only after the invasion of 2003. This dramatically limited the number of Americans who had any contact with Iraqis inside Iraq. The quality of U.S. decisions—and the understanding of the public—suffered from that. The same will be true of North Korea.

Charles Duelfer

Fairfax, Va.

Posted in Iraq, North Korea | 1 Comment