Negroponte at Large, Part III

And we’ll start right in, in this third installment, with Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. “I was sitting right behind Colin Powell,” says Negroponte, “when he gave that briefing.” Negroponte is referring to Secretary of State Powell’s presentation to the U.N. in February 2003 — the presentation on Saddam Hussein’s WMD. Negroponte was U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Also sitting behind Powell was the CIA director, George Tenet.

Negroponte says, “In the pictures from that day, you have Powell, plus two Greek Americans. When the Greek newspapers run one of the photos, they say, ‘Oh, two Greeks!’” The secretary of state is almost an afterthought.

Look, says Negroponte, “we all believed there were WMD. There was no effort to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes, as far as I’m aware.” Powell had gone over the material — the evidence — endlessly at Langley. And the night before his U.N. presentation, he, Tenet, and Negroponte went over it thoroughly in New York — “up on the twelfth floor, in my office at the U.S. mission. We rehearsed this whole thing, talking back and forth, questioning this and that.” Powell “made a good-faith effort,” but U.S. claims “turned out to be wrong, so there we are.”

I ask, “Will we ever find out what happened to the WMD? Did they go to Syria?” Negroponte says there are stories about Syria, but we will probably never get to the bottom of them — or to the bottom of the WMD. “We looked, God knows,” and the U.S. spent a great deal of money, in that search. “I spent quite a bit of time with Duelfer when I was in Baghdad about what he was doing and what his report was.” That would be Charles Duelfer, of the Iraq Survey Group. “There was no doubt that Saddam had the intent and the desire, but, you know — it just wasn’t there.”

So, I ask, were we right to go into Iraq? “Look,” Negroponte says, “I’m very much the realist and the pragmatist. I was not party to the decision, but I saw it coming, and when we went in, and after we’d been there a while, I felt, ‘We have to deal with the situation as it is. We’ve done it, and we have to make the best of it.’ And I ended up making a personal contribution — volunteered to go.” As ambassador, that is.

I ask, “Is Iraq the most dangerous place you ever were?” He says, “Iraq was much more dangerous than Vietnam. I wandered — literally wandered — around the country,” and “I was an unarmed civilian. I never armed myself, in three and a half years there.” (This is Vietnam, we’re talking about.) “The cities were secure — there was some urban terrorism, but very little.”

Negroponte remembers the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Saigon in March 1965 — 22 people were killed, and more than 180 people were wounded. What happened was, a terrorist parked a Citroen and ran off. The police realized what was happening, and fired at the guy. People in the embassy rushed to the windows to see what the commotion was about. And when the bomb went off, they got a lot of glass — a lot of glass in the face.

Negroponte happened to be out of town at the time, elsewhere in the country. “Some buddies and I felt so bad about it” — some buddies who were also away from the embassy. “We thought we should have been there, for some reason. We visited our friends in the hospital. One guy lost sight in one of his eyes. Anyway . . .”

For the most part, says Negroponte, “Saigon was a normal city. It was almost a normal city. It wasn’t normal — but there was life there. In Iraq, the cities were utterly insecure, and the guerrilla warfare” — urban guerrilla warfare — “was intense.”

And, “yes, Iraq was the most insecure place I’ve been in . . .”

“How would you like to see the Iraq War turn out?” “Well, I’m encouraged by the way it’s going — I hope it doesn’t fall apart once we leave, but it sure is a lot better than people expected a couple of years ago. We were all holding our heads in February ’06 after the bombing of the Samarra mosque. That was terrible. The sectarian violence in Baghdad that ensued was just — tragic. And alarming. Somehow we weathered that,” and Iraq has a chance.

The Sunnis boycotted the first election. “I was there, and we were very pleased about the election, but the one blemish was that the Sunnis boycotted.” Later, “when they wanted to buy back in, I think that was a say of saying, ‘Well, maybe this democracy stuff’s got a chance!

“You know,” continues Negroponte, “the vision of a democracy in the heart of the Middle East is alive! It’s a little like Latin America,” which we were talking about earlier. “Democracy is not consolidated. But it’s there.” And what is vitally important is “to keep the hope of freedom alive. So many times in history, when freedom has been threatened, there has been a chance to continue on. Look at empires, look at the Greek Church, which kept the hope of freedom alive during 400 years of Turkish rule. Look at the Catholic Church, which kept the hope of freedom alive in Eastern Europe, especially in Poland. As long as we’ve got a player on the field — it’s good.”

I am taken with that expression: “As long as we’ve got a player on the field . . .”

I tell Negroponte that I visited Iraq last fall — and that I couldn’t help thinking of Vietnam, all the time I was there. Especially the aftermath of Vietnam — our withdrawal from the country, and the horrors that followed. “Well, that’s my nightmare,” says Negroponte: “that we get out too quickly and sort of preemptively . . .” Here he pauses. “. . . give up.”

Negroponte says that he used his Vietnam experience, some of it, when he was in Baghdad. “I always argued in Iraq that the biggest mistake we made in Vietnam was to start Vietnamization too late.” Here he talks about LBJ, Paul Harkins, “Westy,” Creighton Abrams, and certain fateful decisions. And he says that, when he arrived in Iraq, they gave him “a so-called reconstruction budget to look at.” Everyone was quite concerned with reconstruction. In truth, “we were in the middle of a full-blown insurgency.” So the term “reconstruction” didn’t ring right, in Negroponte’s ear. We needed billions toward security. Iraqi forces needed to burgeon. And that happened.

“You have to get the security situation under control. How can you do the other stuff” — the electrical grids and so on — “until you’ve got a modicum of security?” Negroponte mentions Afghanistan too. The army there — the Afghan Army — needs to be beefed up, he says, just as Iraqi forces were. And that is happening, however slowly.

How about Iran and nuclear weapons? “I think that’s what they want, I think that’s what they’re headed towards, I think that’s what they’re going to get.” Shortly after Negroponte became director of national intelligence in 2005, his office estimated that Iran would have a weapon sometime between 2010 and 2015. “I don’t believe that that assessment has essentially changed,” he says today.

But don’t we have the means to stop the Iranians? Negroponte: “I think we can delay them — through sanctions, through import restrictions, through working with other countries. But definitively stop them? Even if you used coercive means, I think it would be quite difficult by now.” In 1981, Israel took out Iraq’s nuclear reactor, ending Iraq’s nuclear program for some time. Iran is a different story, however: Its nuclear facilities are likely to be many and dispersed. “Iran is a big country with a substantial scientific community,” says Negroponte, and the country “has aspired to nuclear capability since the time of the shah.”

Bear in mind, ladies and gentlemen, that Negroponte was DNI — the head of American intelligence — only two years ago. He knows more than other people do. And when Negroponte said (in effect), “They’re gonna get the bomb, and they can’t be stopped” — for the first time, I thought: “Well, that’s it. There’ll be a nuclear Iran.”

I hope that proves wrong.