ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
We heard the White House take on Iraq this morning at an event called Radio Day. Under a tent on the north lawn, administration officials hopped from one radio interview to the next. Musical talk shows. I spoke with Stephen Hadley, President Bush's National Security Advisor, and I asked Hadley about today's New York Times' editorial, which runs the length of the page. It's called Trying to Contain the Iraq Disaster.
I'd like to begin first by asking about something they write, that Americans can only look back in wonder on the days when the Bush administration believed that success would turn Iraq into a stable, wealthy democracy, a model to strike fear into the region's autocrats while inspiring a new generation of Democrats. Have you personally and has the administration marked down its expectations of the war in Iraq?
Mr. STEPHEN HADLEY (National Security Advisor): I don't think so and I think it is certainly the goal of the president. I think the interesting thing is that it continues to be the goal of the Iraqi people. They have, after all, established probably the most Democratic constitution in the Arab world. You have a situation where Sunni, Shiia and Kurds are trying to share power and put together a government of national unity that is virtually unprecedented in the Arab world.
They're taking on some of the most difficult decisions about how to operationalize that, how to deal with the sharing of oil. How to deal with federalism so the communities have some autonomy. These are very difficult issues. It's going to take them a long time to get there, but I think the interesting thing is that the Iraqi people continue to set that as a goal for themselves.
SIEGEL: When you say a long time, are you thinking about decades to achieve these aims that the U.S. went to war for in Iraq?
Mr. HADLEY: Look, you know somebody once said and the president has noted the fact that democracy is always a work in progress. What was it that we wanted to do with the Iraqi people? We wanted to get them on a start in moving towards a democracy that would be an authentic Iraqi democracy that would have the support of its people and would have institutions that could carry that forward.
We're not there until they complete the architecture of democracy. That's, you know, that's always a work in progress. But the question was, can we get them started on that path and they clearly want to continue down that path.
SIEGEL: Getting them started is the aim?
Mr. HADLEY: Absolutely. Absolutely.
SIEGEL: Three and a half years ago, did you really think that at this point we would only be talking about getting them started? Weren't there hopes for greater progress towards stability and democracy at that time?
Mr. HADLEY: I think it has gone slower than we would have liked and slower than Iraqis would have liked. I think we underestimated the extent to which nearly four decades of Saddam Hussein rule, playing ethnic groups against one another, systematically executing elites, forcing them out of the country, left a really bereft politics, and if you look at the various evolution of governments going from the governing council to where we are now, there has been enormous progress. There's real politics there. Leaders who actually have a call on various groups in Iraq. But it's taken a long time.
SIEGEL: Well in addition to the real politics, there's also real violence taking place, real sectarian violence.
Mr. HADLEY: And those are related. Obviously, I think as Ambassador Khalilzad once said, particularly the Sunni and the Shiite have really not accepted themselves as real partners in a unified Iraq. That process still is ongoing. And I think until that basic political bargain is made and then has some traction down into the grassroots, you're going to see violence continue.
SIEGEL: Another point from the New York Times editorial. The Time editorialist writes, “Mr. Bush can take the step of firing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. There is no chance of switching strategy as long as he is in control of the Pentagon. The administration's plans have gone woefully wrong, and while the president is unlikely to admit that, he can send a message by removing Mr. Rumsfeld.”
Let me put the other side to you. By not removing Mr. Rumsfeld, is the president saying that things have not gone wrong and that the Pentagon has planned well and managed the situation well in Iraq?
Mr. HADLEY: Well look, the president has said on a number of occasions that there have been things where we have had to change how we're carrying out our overall strategy and our overall policy, which is to try and get Iraq on this evolution that we talked about. There have been things that we've had to do differently and there will continue to be things that we will have to differently and adjustments we have to make.
But you know, I've been reading a lot of these editorials for the last two days, and what strikes me is there is a sameness about them, and I don't say that by any way critical, but if you get the people when they say well, what is the way forward, they say basically three things.
We need a political bargain among the various constituent groups that involves a lot of autonomy but also has a central army, a central government and uses oil to bind the nation together. Second, Iraqis need to do better on their security forces in taking more responsibility. And third, the international community needs to step up and do more. That's a thematic that runs through all of these. I say it is also a thematic that is central to the president's policy.
SIEGEL: To his administration policy.
Mr. HADLEY: The point here is there's no bold, out-of-the-blue dramatic departure. The elements of what we need to do and what Iraqis need to do are clear. The problem and the challenge is the actual execution.
SIEGEL: Back to the Times editorial. They use a word that may not be part of the administration's approach. They say the United States should begin its own negotiations with the Iraqi leadership about a timetable for withdrawing American troops, making clear that America's willingness to stay longer will depend on the Iraqis' willingness to make real compromises. Are we telling the Iraqis now within X number of years, the U.S. is on the way out unless you make good and come up with those political agreements that you've been working towards?
Mr. HADLEY: You know, you don't need a timetable to be able and willing to say to the Iraqis look, if this is going to work and succeed, you have to step up and make some very difficult choices.
SIEGEL: But is Prime Minister Maliki actually making the tough decisions that have to be made?
Mr. HADLEY: They are beginning to. I think they've got to do more, and they've got to do faster, but I think if you talk to Prime Minister Maliki, he would say to you the same thing.
SIEGEL: Do you assume that by the time this administration leaves the White House, that there will be stability and security in Baghdad and throughout Iraq?
Mr. HADLEY: I think what you can expect is that we will have governmental institutions that are democratic, a compact that has been reached between the three major communities, that they have greater economic prosperity and stability. Is there going to be peace? Is there going to be the end of any violence? Of course not. This violence is going to go on for a long time. We know that about terrorism, we know that about -
SIEGEL: Years after the entry into Iraq.
Mr. HADLEY: I think you're probably still going to see some levels of violence. You know, it takes a long time for these things to get completely out of the system. But what you hope for is a situation where Iraqi governmental institutions and Iraqi security forces can manage and contain the violence so that it does not threaten the integrity of the Iraqi state and the ability of the Iraqi state to bring prosperity and economic life to these people. That's a reasonable goal.
SIEGEL: Well, Steve Hadley, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. HADLEY: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Stephen Hadley is President Bush's national security advisor. I spoke with him this morning at the White House. To hear more of the interview with Stephen Hadley on what he thinks about Iraq's neighbors, Iran and Syria, you can go to our Web site, NPR.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.