An Interview with Dr. Mowaffak Al–Rubaie, Former National Security Advisor of Iraq

by Forum Staff

Note from the Editor: This interview is part of The Fletcher Forum’s “Iraq War Special Series” commemorating the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.

Dr. Mowaffak al-Rubaie is a distinguished Iraqi statesman and policymaker. In 2003 he was appointed by the Coalition Provisional Authority to the Iraqi Governing Council. Subsequently, in April 2004, he became National Security Advisor, a post he held until April 2009. During this period, among other endeavors, he headed the National Reconciliation Program to reconcile Iraq’s warring Sunni and Shi’ite communities. After that post, Dr. al-Rubaie was appointed an MP in Iraq’s Council of Representatives, a position he held until March 2010. Between 1979 and 2003, Dr. Al-Rubaie lived outside of Iraq in London. A graduate of the Baghdad School of Medicine, he also studied at King’s College Medical School and gained Membership in the Royal College of Physicians. In the 1990s, following the Gulf War, Dr. Al-Rubaie was a leading member of the external Iraqi opposition. 

In a conversation with The Fletcher Forum, Dr. Mowaffak Al-Rubaie reflects on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War. Dr. Al-Rubaie shares his thoughts on the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the occupation, the rise of sectarian politics in Iraq, bilateral relations with Iran, and the future of his country. 

FLETCHER FORUM: Dr. Al-Rubaie, you were and continue to be a local supporter of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Have you been surprised by the view held by many in the United States that the war was a mistake?

AL-RUBAIE: People look at the invasion not on its own merit. They confuse the invasion with the occupation that followed. The invasion was right on its own because it brought down Saddam Hussein who was the most brutal, ruthless dictator; I compare him to Hitler, and the Ba’ath party to the Nazi party. So, the invasion itself, in bringing down Saddam and liberating 30-odd-million Iraqis, was absolutely right, and it was well worth it. And if we had to do it again, we’d do it exactly the same way because Saddam could not have been removed otherwise. He was a threat to the world, the region, and to his people. Saddam had a proven record of using chemical weapons against his people—he gassed 5 million in Halabja—and against Iran, during the eight-year war with Iran. Critics can split hairs over the justification for the invasion of Iraq, but in my opinion it’s all a semantic discussion. The real issue is whether or not the world is safer without Saddam. He conducted three wars in one decade. We, Iraqis and Americans, have jointly made a lot of mistakes, thousands of mistakes, with Iraq’s security, economy, and politics on three levels: strategic, operational, and tactical. But if you assess the great achievement of removing Saddam Hussein, I think it’s well worth it. And if you plot these achievements and failures together in one plot—security, economy, and politics—you’ll see the trajectory is going up. Unfortunately, not in the way we’d like it to, but that’s due to four overarching reasons. First, the majority of the Sunni Arab community took up arms against the invasion because they lost their power, status, and wealth with the fall of Saddam. Second, we, the new political elite, lacked experience and were not prepared to rule Iraq. Third, there was a regional plot against Iraq by each and every country surrounding Iraq to ensure that the post-2003 experience of a democratic federal Iraq was a failed experiment. Fourth, the coalition made a serious mistake when it left the country after April 9, 2003, for more than three and a half months, creating a total vacuum, which was filled by international terrorists and jihadists from all over the world. But the greatest mistake of all was that the coalition transitioned from invasion—and the very good cause of removing Saddam Hussein—to occupation.

FLETCHER FORUM: What, in your mind, were a few of the biggest mistakes made by the U.S. government after 2003, and did you discuss the potential drawbacks to policy decisions like de-Ba’athification with senior American officials at the time?

AL-RUBAIE: During our meetings with the Americans in 2002—first in London and then in Salahaldeen, Kurdistan—we, the Iraqi opposition, worked incredibly hard to convince them before the invasion that the best way forward would be to form a transition government of people from the outside (Iraqi expats) and people from the inside that would take over immediately after Saddam Hussein was removed. But the American officials were not convinced. I don’t think they had a plan for the day after Saddam’s capitulation, nor did they have any nation-building plan for after the invasion. Before the invasion, the original idea was to remove the upper echelons from power—the 20,000 senior Ba’athists, including the ministers, armed officers, and the top guys—while keeping the whole government and state of Iraq intact. The Americans viewed it as a pyramid with Saddam at the top, the government beneath him, and then the state of Iraq. Well, they didn’t know that this pyramid was upside down. Once they removed Saddam, the whole state of Iraq collapsed, not just the government of Iraq, but everything. The infrastructure just vanished. The civilian side of the government just went back home. The whole structure collapsed, and the Americans had not seen that coming.

But who was going to rule the country? Iraq was a nation totally dependent on Saddam Hussein, I would say on the level of addicted to Saddam, because he was all they had ever known for thirty-five years. They had depended on him for their food, water, salaries, and security, and suddenly he was gone. Who was going to now provide these things? The Americans had left the country, and the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, which was meant to facilitate the reconstruction of Iraq, didn’t have the authority to rule the country. Until July 13, 2003, when the Iraqi Governing Council was formed, Iraq experienced a total vacuum. For more than three months we experienced severe looting which left the country physically ruined. As a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, I asked Paul Bremer, Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), to distinguish the CPA’s authority from that of the Governing Council, in order to delineate responsibilities. Bremer told me that he had inherited all the power of Saddam Hussein, all the power of the occupation, and that power which he thought appropriate. I asked him, what’s left for us? What is the role of the Governing Council? To form an interim government and to prepare the general assembly to draft the constitution? “You are my advisors,” Bremer said. He had a vision—a seven-point plan—in which Iraq would remain under the direct mandate of the United States for three years. But instead of revising the plan when it became clear in the summer of 2003 that Al Qaeda and the insurgency had filled the vacuum, he trashed the entire plan. That was a major mistake.

De-Ba’athification, at its core, was correct, because we needed to remove the fascist, sectarian ideology. But we should never have handed this de-Ba’athification process over to a politician for implementation. Of course a politician would start settling scores and using de-Ba’athification to his advantage. Some people started calling it de-Sunnification. Additionally, exiling these Iraqis was wrong. Now de-Ba’athification has run out of time, its lifespan has ended. While the concept of de-Ba’athification was right, it wasn’t executed correctly.

FLETCHER FORUM: There is a perception in the United States that Bremer and the CPA ordered the Iraqi army to dissolve, which fueled further violence and this security vacuum. What is your assessment, and do you think the disbanding of the Iraqi army had already begun on its own?

AL-RUBAIE: When Paul Bremer and the CPA ordered the dissolution of the army, it was simply a confirmation of the reality. A few days after April 9, 2003, I went to the military bases with General Jay Gardner to find that people had moved into the army barracks. Army officers and the police had taken off their uniforms, put on their civilian clothes, and went home. They were free, and to them freedom meant no longer being a soldier, or a policeman. The army dissolved itself. But, had this not been the case, then yes, we should have dissolved it and built a new one. How could you reform an army whose doctrine was that of expansionism? In addition, the army was full of very senior Ba’athists. How could this army have defended the country and worked with the occupation forces? We did build our own army with the support of the coalition, and it was very difficult. But where we went wrong was in the pace of rebuilding. By the time Bremer left in June 2004, we only had 500 security forces in training. That’s it, 500 after a full year. That was a huge mistake.

FLETCHER FORUM: You had the opportunity to interview Saddam Hussein extensively after his capture. Did you get a sense from him of why he chose to not comply with UN inspections for WMDs?

AL-RUBAIE: Yes I did, and this is very interesting. I said, “We don’t have WMDs,” and he said “No, but we have the potential and capability.” I said, “You don’t actually have the WMDs. Why didn’t you allow the United Nations inspectors free reign in order to prove to the world that this country doesn’t have WMDs?” “Well,” he said, “if I do this, the Iranians will know and I would be weaker than the Iranians.” Saddam was not looking to the Western world; his calculation is not our calculation. I was really stunned by his logic. “Why did you go to Kuwait? Why didn’t you pull out from Kuwait at the last minute when half a million American soldiers were sitting on the border waiting to liberate Kuwait? You could have really embarrassed George H. W. Bush, which he confirmed in one of the memoirs when he was quoted saying ‘the nightmare was if Saddam pulls out that night.’” Do you know how Saddam responded? He said, “They would have attacked us anyway because there is a Zionist plot to destroy Iraq. Iraq is not allowed to flourish and prosper, to be secure in the region. The Zionist plot will chase Iraq wherever. They will find an excuse to attack us.” The logic is beyond my understanding.

FLETCHER FORUM: When you gained access to Saddam Hussein’s documents and files, what were you most surprised to learn?

AL-RUBAIE: First, I learned that our assessment of his regime was wrong. We thought that Saddam’s regime and the state of Iraq was solid, strong, and that the army was well-disciplined. But the reality is that the regime was an empty shell. Everything was built on fear; it was a true Republic of Fear. The shock-and-awe strategy was an unnecessary use of force based on a faulty estimate of the regime. But we lack of on-the-ground information, real information. Maybe a surgical strike would have been enough to remove Saddam, but we were thinking in a completely different way. We have since discovered that there was no real state of Iraq.

Second, I did not recognize or realize how deep Iraqis’ anger ran. I understood that the people had been persecuted along sectarian and ethnic lines. They had lived under the tyranny of Saddam Hussein for so long that the people did not feel that this government, this state, this entity called Iraq belonged to them. So if they don’t own Iraq, they might as well destroy it. And they really did destroy the country with looting. Until that moment, neither I, nor the coalition, appreciated the depth of their anger. For the first time, we realized that the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people had been ruined. Saddam Hussein had dehumanized them, caused daughter to report father to the authorities, son to report mother. Thus the greatest challenge in Iraq is to rehabilitate people—the minds and hearts of the Iraqis. We must instill in our citizens a sense of social responsibility. I have traveled to very poor areas of Iraq that lack roads, but the hundreds of young unemployed men won’t take responsibility and build these roads, which they use daily. “No, I’ll wait for the government. This is the government’s job,” they say, and they will wait for months and months. This attitude manifests in Iraq’s social life, even in the offices of our government. There is no sense of communal responsibility.

FLETCHER FORUM: You have called for a new Iraqi nationalism and a greater move toward national unity. What would be the characteristics of this new nationalist mindset? How do you heal the hearts and minds of Iraq’s people?

Al-RUBAIE: Before 2003, Iraq had a very clear identity as an Arab, Muslim state. After 2003, we lost direction—disoriented in time and place and person. Now, we need to reflect on our new nationalism, our new Iraqism. Each community, religious and ethnic, exercises its unique cultural identity, but we have not yet found a new Iraqi identity. I had hoped that the constitution would act as a social contract for the three major communities, but it obviously hasn’t. We must rewrite and reform this constitution because the three communities were too entrenched in their interests and wrote the constitution to strengthen the rights of their community, not of the nation. The new Iraq should be a civil Iraq, not a secular Iraq, because in my part of the world secular means anti-religious. State and religion run parallel and complement each other. In the future state we envision, religion should not have a supervisory role, but rather an advisory role. If we say Iraq is part of the Arab world, will that alienate the Kurds? There are so many arguments, but this discussion on the new identity of Iraq is good and healthy. However, we must come to a conclusion so we can live and cohabitate together.

FLETCHER FORUM: How do you think the United States has handled the ongoing Sunni-Shia rift in Iraq? Do you think the U.S. has a constructive role to play in this regard of Iraqi nationalism, or does the U.S. appear to have taken sides in the aftermath of the Arab Spring?

AL-RUBAIE: At the outset of the invasion, the U.S. was perceived to side with the majority Shia. That perception is gone now and has been replaced with the perception that the U.S. is siding with the Sunni, thus fueling the sectarian polarization in the region.   There are some very important steps the U.S. can and should take to prevent Iraq from becoming a lost cause. If we were to leave Iraq alone, it will either disintegrate into Kurdistan, Sunnistan, and Shiastan, or it will become a dysfunctional, or failed state. Either of these two outcomes will haunt those who invaded Iraq. It is the moral duty of the United States to take the following three steps to ensure the success of Iraq so the American people can be proud that they invaded.

Number one, get rid of the “April Glaspie syndrome,” by which I mean the U.S. Ambassador should be proactive and have a clear vision for an independent, successful Iraq. Unlike Ambassador Glaspie, the current and future U.S. Ambassadors must be proactive in promoting legislations. In particular, there are three important legislations from now until Iraq’s next general election. The first is the “two term” legislation, which would limit the President, Prime Minister, and Speaker to two terms in office. Second, is the Federal Court law, because as of right now the Federal Court is perceived to be under the influence of the Iraqi government? Third, is the election law, which must be reformed. Take, for example, my case in which I won 1,799 votes in Baghdad but didn’t make it to Parliament. A friend of mine got 360 votes and yet he’s in Parliament because the Prime Minister can give his “excess” votes to whomever he wants. Our laws enable this practice of political party a patronage.

Number two, the United States, or the Ambassador, needs to serve as the mediator between Arabs and Kurds, between Sunnis and Shi’a. The Americans provided the buffer system, but now they need to do the mediation. The UN is trying to do this, but it cannot take the lead since the UN’s mandate stems from Resolution 1770 which is contingent upon the request of the government of Iraq, and the government of Iraq hasn’t requested the UN’s help.

Number three, the United States should continue to work to build real democratic values in Iraq. The U.S. has a vested interest in promoting democracy, and there are people in Iraq who worked with the U.S. and truly believe in democracy. But the U.S. doesn’t have friendships; all its friends are disposable. The United States should go back and identify 100 or 200 real democrats in Iraq and provide them with soft-power training in order to promote these real democratic values: give them advice, guidance, access to media, and election support. These soft power tools will ensure that they have influence, and so the U.S. will have friends in Iraq that can promote democracy and keep away from religious and sectarian politics.

FLETCHER FORUM: What do you believe the future holds for Iraq’s relations with Iran? How does the situation with the Iranian exile group MeK (People’s Mujahedin of Iran) influence bilateral relations?

AL-RUBAIE: The Iranians are obsessed with the MeK, and the MeK’s presence in Iraq is a very contentious issue. I think the sooner we solve this problem and get them to leave Iraq the better. Some argue that we ought to leave it unresolved as a bargaining chip with Iran for later, but we don’t believe this is how you build good relationships with neighbors. We want to have a very good relationship with Iran, but on equal footing. They ought to respect our independent sovereignty and our unity, and we will do the same in return. We have no intention of returning to the eight years of the Iran-Iraq war. We want to have economic, cultural, religious, and business relations with Iran. We want our investment in Iran to be such that an Iranian security officer would think twice before intervening in Iraq’s internal affairs because Iran’s economic interests would be harmed. So, we hope to create a mutual interest between our two countries. We should not be confrontational towards Iran, but we should not allow submission policies towards Iran. We should have our own policy in the region, which reflects Iraqi interests.

I honestly believe opening Iraq to Iran is seen as a national security threat to Iran because they would experience the freedom, democracy, media, and free access to Twitter, Facebook, and the Internet; they would see that it’s a different world here. So, if I were sitting in Tehran, I would consider it a national security threat. Opening Iraq to Iran is much better for us, but this will be misconstrued by our Arab brothers. You see, Arabs have a phobia of Iran and they want us to be defendants of pan-Arabism and Arab nationalism. We’re not going to be, nor will we be, the Arabs’ proxy fighting Iran. We’re not interested in that. We recognize that Iraq is in a very precarious position because we’re on the fault line between non-Arabs and Arabs, Shi’a and Sunnis. It’s an unenviable position, a very challenging position, but that’s why Iraq is a unique country.

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