A Conversation With John Kerry

Interview by Bob Woodward
Sunday, October 15, 2006

In the months before the 2004 presidential election, The Washington Post's Bob Woodward sought to interview Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic nominee, about how he might have conducted foreign policy in the 18 months between Sept. 11, 2001, and the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. For his book "Plan of Attack," Woodward had interviewed President Bush on how and why he made decisions during that same period. Woodward gave the Kerry campaign a list of 22 questions based on Bush's actions, asking how Kerry would have responded at each key decision point if he had been president. Kerry declined the interview at the time. More than a year later, on March 7, Kerry agreed to be interviewed by Woodward and answer the 22 questions. Below is an edited version of their two-hour conversation .


John Kerry: Let me start at the beginning, because if I were president and we had been attacked as we were attacked on 9/11, I would have, first of all, created a kind of war cabinet similar to what other presidents have done historically, going back to Roosevelt and others. . . .

Now, you may have an executive committee within that . . . like President Kennedy did. But your war cabinet itself needs to be especially plugged in . . . so the right questions are on the table and the right questions are asked and the right discussion takes place. I mean, if you go back and look at Eisenhower, Eisenhower is smart in that he played less than fully briefed, so to speak, and he would let the staff fight it out in front of him and not let on what he believed or where he wanted to go. I think it's particularly important presidentially not to indicate your policy right up front unless there's such a clarity to it. For instance, in response to 9/11, there's clarity. We've got to go kill al-Qaeda. . . . In fact, I would have thought about starting that war differently.

Bob Woodward: In what way?

I believe that during that particular period of time you knew that they [the Taliban and al-Qaeda] had bad habits. They didn't believe that we would necessarily invade. . . . That is an enormous advantage with which to begin any planning. So they are running around in caravans, which we can see from technical means. They're talking on cellphones, which we can follow with technical means. It gave us time to put assets on the ground.

There are all kinds of things that we could have done with respect to pinpointing their whereabouts.

This is after 9/11?

Absolutely. And my instincts would have been much more inclined to have used feint as subterfuge to indicate you might be doing one thing when you're really doing another. . . . I would have been inclined to have used a greater covert effort to put the pressure on Osama bin Laden, at which point I would have been prepared to move major track divisions into position, whether it's the 101st, the 10th Mountain Division, 82nd Airborne, etc.

. . . Now, I know we had SEALs at Tora Bora. And they wanted to go. I mean, who wouldn't have wanted to go get Osama bin Laden?

[T]he bottom line is there wasn't even a sufficient strategy to do that. I would have guaranteed there was. Period.

What would you have said to your central commander, who's the guy on the ground, about planning for an Iraq war?

First of all, I would have had enough people around who understand and define to me adequately the nature of the threat that we now face. . . . And that requires a pretty extensive outreach effort which includes, in my judgment, not just the Joint Chiefs of Staff and your national security adviser and your intelligence director, but it really includes. . . . President George Herbert Walker Bush, President Jimmy Carter, President Bill Clinton, you know, President Ford, Brent Scowcroft, Zbig Brzezinski, Jim Baker, George Shultz. I mean, you start running the list. I would have had all of those people to some evening sessions, sat up there in the Yellow Room and sat around and said, "What are we facing here? What are the challenges? What's the most important thing we do? How do we win?" Once you define the war on terror, then you can really understand what you've got to do. I think these guys rushed to a definition of the war, saw it the way they wanted to see it, clouded by ideology, and then went out and made people do things accordingly. . . .

It's incomprehensible to me. I mean look -- go back to that period. On that November 21st date [Nov. 21, 2001, when Bush first asked Rumsfeld to look at the war plan for an attack on Iraq], we had not yet fought Tora Bora. . . . We were deep in Afghanistan with an enormous priority to kill al-Qaeda. And we also had a very tentative Pakistan that was fragile, which was a country with nuclear weapons, which we were just moving to the place of sort of participation with America. . . . So my instinct, absent evidence of intelligence, would not have been to ask the secretary of defense for war plans on Iraq. I would have said, "Do we have sufficient troops on the ground to trap Osama bin Laden?" . . . It would not have moved me to take the eye off of Osama bin Laden and the fundamental goal, which was destroying al-Qaeda. . . .

You would have gone to Bush's father, even?

Oh, absolutely. You kidding? I would have said, "Come down here and spend the evening at the White House. Let's talk. I want to talk to you. Tell me about your decision. Tell me all the things that went through your head when you were thinking about going into Iraq and you made the decision finally not to go."

In August '02, Powell asked for a two-hour dinner alone with Bush. Condi Rice is there and he says, "The consequences have not been fully examined and if you invade . . . 'you break it, you own it.'" What would you have done at that moment, if you were president?

If I were president and my secretary of state came to me and said, "Mr. President, you're on a bad track," I would slow the baby down and find out if I was on a bad track. Or I'd fire my secretary of state. . . . I mean, if a guy with Colin Powell's credentials who's been chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who'd risen up through service to other presidents, who's been to war, and who is your chosen secretary of state, came to me and said that, I'd say, "Okay. What do we need to do? Where are we? What are the downsides? What haven't we done?"


Do you think that the idea of lumping North Korea, Iran and Iraq together is, from a policy point of view, possible or wise, as Bush did in his 2002 State of the Union?

No, it's neither wise nor possible because they are different challenges, different cultures, different historical backgrounds to those challenges. And in the case of the Middle East, we really had an opportunity post-9/11. This is what I think was so important. This is what I saw staring us in the face as I went through 2004 . . . a remarkable opportunity to reconnect to the post-9/11 goodwill of the world, which in my judgment this administration squandered. And that goodwill was perhaps one of our greatest assets. Had we taken that goodwill and built it into a larger strategic concept -- I mean, you can go back to Woodrow Wilson. . . . And then you go to Roosevelt. You go to Kennedy . . . and Eisenhower. They all had a larger strategic concept, which -- this is important -- had the ability to bring the world to our side.

Bush thought this was a strategic concept.

This was an ideological concept, not a strategic concept. . . .

I mean, this is what I would have wanted in first discussions. What are we up against? What is this all about? Did these guys just attack us because this is part of Osama bin Laden's strategy for a greater caliphate in the Middle East, or are they attacking us for other reasons? . . . And it seems to me that the transformational aspects of it require a much more massive kind of public diplomacy, global cooperation on religious issues as well as on economic issues and human rights and other issues, as it did the barrel of a gun. These guys could only see it in the context of the military piece.


[I]t wasn't really until three months before the war starts that Bush got involved in aftermath planning. And the question is, when do you start, even if you're contemplating war, which clearly they are, when do you start the ball rolling on aftermath?

Day One. And that is not a Monday morning quarterback comment. That is such a fundamental prerequisite to the concept of contemplating going to war, particularly where you are going to occupy another country. One of the first questions, I'd sit there with a bunch of people at the table, I'd say, "Okay, assuming we go into Iraq, what happens after?" Nobody ever doubted this was going to be short and we were going to win. So we knew we were going to win, so once we're in Baghdad, what happens? Who's going to run the country? Will there be electricity? What are the war plans? Can we protect the pipelines on the oil? What's the ability to make sure people have food? Are you going to guard the ammo dump so you make sure there isn't looting?

Remember when Rumsfeld said, "Oh, looting happens."

"Stuff happens."

I was stunned by that. And I said they're going to rue the day that they allowed this stuff to get out of control because they sent a message, "No control." And our kids were being blown up by the very weapons that they didn't even think about securing on the way in. There should have been an elaborate -- in fact it was an elaborate plan and they chose to ignore it. Colin Powell and the State Department had a fairly elaborate plan and I've talked to people who are involved in the making of it.


In November-December '02, Rumsfeld's making major force deployments to the area but he says we can't do a big one because it will tell the world diplomacy is over. And he said, "We're sending these forces and they're going to be in top fighting shape for about two or three months but then it will start to degrade." Your reaction?

One of incredulity that a president would even allow that argument to be persuasive and that a secretary of defense would make it in the first place. And shame on all of them for that. That is insulting to Americans and to all of us, the notion that you have to send people to war simply because you put them there. This is just, you know, it was their rush to war.

And then when Rumsfeld in January started telling the president, "You're losing your options." And you know, you get to a point where we're asking our allies, particularly the Saudis, to make commitments and it's not feasible to back off.

Well, you could always back off it if you haven't committed the troops and there's a reason to back off. I mean, if you don't have intelligence to go to war and you go to war for weapons of mass destruction, you damn well can say, "I'm not giving the order to fire." What is the shame in going back and saying, "We have new intelligence that indicates something different and I intend as president to exercise my responsibility to the world and to our troops to make sure we've exhausted that."

Do you get in a bind, though, where to credibly threaten force you have to deploy all kinds of troops and then once you've deployed them you get into --

The purpose of the deployment of the troops is to get the weapons of mass destruction under control. If at the last moment something indicates to you either there aren't weapons of mass destruction or you have a way to get them under control, you don't use the troops and you don't have to. I mean, those are the tough judgments. Look, what are you going to do? "Oh, gee. We're locked in. We don't have sufficient evidence but I'm going to send this kid from Illinois to die anyway?"


Can a president afford to have doubt in a time of war?

Well, you better have your doubts before the war. And you better explore every doubt before the war. But once you've committed, you better not have a doubt. You better know what you're doing and you better be committed to winning and do everything in your power to do that.

Do you think they had a process of doubt?

No. Clearly they didn't, and that's a reflection of the president.

But Bush says, when I asked him earlier, I said, "You never get everyone to agree on the use of force."

I'm not looking for everybody's agreement. You're never going to get everybody to agree.

What are you looking for?

What I'm looking for is the broadest possible vetting and examination. And let the debate take place in front of me and I'll make my judgment. But nobody will have any doubt that every question was asked. Nobody will have any doubt that the alternative theories were examined, that history was examined, that culture was examined, religion was understood, that the dynamics of the region were explored, that people who've lived there have been inquired of. When I get to that decision I can explain it and there's only one rationale, not a whole bunch of shifting rationales. That's the way you take a nation to war.


I asked Bush in December '03, "How do you think history's going to judge your war?" And that's when he said, "We don't know. We won't know. We'll all be dead."

I think history nowadays judges things much more rapidly, number one. And number two, certain things lend themselves to pretty rapid judgment. Vietnam is an example of that. . . . And history is going to judge this very, very, very rapidly, I think.

And severely?

I think history is going to be very, very tough on not just the way the war has been managed, but on the way in which the decision to go to war was carried out. It's going to be a low moment . . . in the presidency in history.

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