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Weapons Report

December 18, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: For the latest developments on Iraq, we turn to Terence Taylor, a lead weapons inspector during the 1990s. He is now executive director of the Washington office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Eliot Cohen, director of the Strategic Studies program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. And John Mearsheimer, co-director of the program on International Security Policy at the University of Chicago.

Eliot Cohen, we’ve seen some of this before — what we saw happening today, which is to say Britain speaks very strongly and then the U.S. follows the next day or within a week.

What was the significance of what Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, and Tony Blair, the prime minister, had to say today?

ELIOT COHEN: Well, I’m not sure that there is really an enormous amount of significance to it.

I guess it seemed to me if there was one thing that was predictable and to be expected it was that the Iraqis are going to cheat once again. We’ve had a tremendously long and unambiguous record of the Iraqis being deceitful in terms of ‘fessing up to what their weapons of mass destruction of programs are. We know previous [inaudible] inspections they put a tremendous emphasis on maintaining them; they’ve got these very elaborate systems to deceive us about them, to deceive the inspectors, to stay on top of the inspectors, so I don’t think there is any surprise.

You know, it does seem to me we are headed to a confrontation. And I think this is just really another step on the way that was chartered by the president this past summer.

GWEN IFILL: John Mearsheimer, another step today also when Secretary Powell says we are not encouraged they have gotten the message or will cooperate. Parse the words the secretary said today for us.

JOHN J. MEARSHEIMER: Well, I think first of all, it’s quite clear that the administration believes that the declaration that the Iraqis have submitted is filled with omissions and it’s false — but that does not mean that the Iraqis are not cooperating with us.

When the resolution was written, Resolution 1441, it had two parts to it. It said that they could make false declarations, but even if they made false declarations, that by itself was not sufficient to provide for material breach, which would be a cases belli.

GWEN IFILL: Or cause to go to war.

JOHN J. MEARSHEIMER: They also had not cooperate with the inspectors. Up to now they have been cooperating with the inspectors, they have had pretty much free reign inside Iraq. So I think until there is a breakdown in cooperation with the inspections it’s going to be very hard to get a material breach.

GWEN IFILL: Terence Taylor, Mr. Mearsheimer says it’s possible not to tell the truth in these documents but still be considered to be cooperating; do you see it that way?

TERENCE TAYLOR: No, I don’t: I find that an extraordinary interpretation.

I think here with this so-called full, final and complete declaration this was a legally binding obligation that Iraq had to meet in declaring its past and present programs.

And I think they have failed in a most fundamental way with failing to make a proper declaration; that is if we are to believe obviously what has been said in London and Washington today. We don’t know fully what is in there, but it seems as though it’s just recycled information.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we don’t know fully what is in there — you’re right — Mr. Taylor. But we also don’t know fully why the United States says that they don’t believe that they are being truthful. The United States and Britain have both suggested that they have evidence that there are other things going on that Saddam Hussein is that is not admitting to.

Do they have to come clean with what they know, the US and Britain, in order to bring our countries on board?

TERENCE TAYLOR: Well, I think it’s pretty clear that Iraq needs to answer the outstanding issues. All these outstanding issues were agreed by the UN Security Council back in 1999 after the inspectors were, inspections ceased in 1998. So a whole list in each of the areas, nuclear, biological, chemical, and missile, where Iraq was required to deliver the correct information, verifiable and accounted information and they failed to do so.

If they haven’t answered those questions even, then I don’t think this is a viable document and a document on which one can proceed with inspections.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Cohen, what do you think about that? Will the US or Britain ever have to reveal what they say they know about Iraq really has?

ELIOT COHEN: Well, I think we actually will reveal things, although it will be primarily for political reasons.

I think first there is just a factual matter. I looked quite carefully at the UN Resolution 1441 before coming over here. In fact, the first paragraph says the Iraqis are in material breach as they’ve been for quite some time because they were supposed to agree to the unconditional destruction of their weapons of mass destruction.

And it further says that omission or misstatements constitute further material breach. So I really don’t agree with my colleague, Professor Mearsheimer. They are in material breach; this is further material breach, but the point is, you know, there are plenty of reasons thus far to know that the Iraqis are developing weapons of mass destruction and the cases belli already exists.

If you look at say President Clinton’s speech which he gave on December 16, 1998, before launching a four-day air operation that we and the British conducted against Iraq, you’ll see he says we already have actionable reasons to use force against Iraq. Of course we did. Not terribly effectively — but we did so. So you don’t need anything more than you’ve already got.

For political reasons I suspect that we probably will put some more things out on the table.

GWEN IFILL: Let me give Mr. Mearsheimer a chance to defend his point.

JOHN J. MEARSHEIMER: I think that’s a misinterpretation of what actually happened in the United Nations leading up to Resolution 1441.

First of all, there is no doubt that as Eliot Cohen points out that paragraph one says that in the past, they have been in material breach.

But the question is what have they done since the resolution was passed that might constitute material breach. And Secretary of State Colin Powell, his deputy, Rick Armitage and the British ambassador to the United Nations, Jeremy Greenstock, all said explicitly that false statements by the Iraqis by themselves did not constitute material breach.

There also had to be a lack of cooperation with the inspections, which there has not been up to this point.

And, this I would submit is the principle reason that the Bush administration today and tomorrow when it will say that the Iraqis have made false statements will not declare it’s in material breach because to declare that the Iraqis are in material breach involves proving number one they provided false information and, number two, that they are not cooperating with the inspectors, and that hasn’t happened yet.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. So, Mr. Taylor let’s assume for a moment that the US does what it has been signaling madly that it’s going to do, and declare these documents are false and misleading and, therefore, constitute some form of material breach, depending on how you define that.

Let’s assume that happens. Then what? We heard the White House officials said today this is Saddam Hussein’s last chance. We’ve heard the president said zero tolerance on that. What happens?

TERENCE TAYLOR: Well, we are now engaged in a political process where the United States and the United Kingdom want to get the support of the other members of the Security Council.

I agree with Mr. Eliot Cohen they are already in material breach, but clearly they want to be support for what further action follows.

But I find it hard to imagine without some new information turning up or being delivered to the inspectors that we will be engaged in a long inspection process because I think cooperating with the inspectors is an easy matter for the Iraqis to actually do on the ground. They’ve done it in the past and they’ll do it again. So I think there will have to be some substantive action but the first step is to get everyone in the Security Council to agree — if this is the case — that this declaration just doesn’t measure up to what is required.

GWEN IFILL: Until that happens Eliot Cohen, until all of the members of the Security Council agree, is the prospect of war on the backburner?

ELIOT COHEN: No, it’s not backburner at all. I think what is going to happen is we probably will go to war. It will be in somewhat ambiguous circumstances; we may very well not have everybody on the Security Council on board.

But again if you look closely at the resolution — which I would urge people to do, you can access it on the Web site — all that the resolution says is that the UN Security Council is going to convene to discuss further breaches.

I think it’s really more important in a way we step back and say what is the situation that we have? The situation that we have is this is a regime, which has devoted enormous effort to develop some of the most terrible weapons known to mankind of the they’ve repeatedly lied and deceived and cheated about it. They are clearly bound and determined to develop these things. The inspections regime collapsed four years ago. Everybody who was involved in the previous inspections regime, which were tougher than what we have now, will tell that you it was a very difficult thing to do — that the Iraqis had intelligence all over them; that they got to be very good at concealing things.

So really there is only two choices. Do you go to war and try to overthrow the regime and remove the weapons of mass destruction, which is a dangerous thing to do — or do you say, well, we know they probably have them and we’re going to rely on deterrence. That is a fundamental choice, those are both risky choices, I know where I would come down, but that is the fundamental choice. I think it’s a mistake to get too caught up in the legalistic process, the US does not need UN authorization to use force.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me Mr. Mearsheimer about that, because we’re waiting to see what the US says tomorrow. We’re waiting to hear what Hans Blix says tomorrow about these documents and waiting to hear further down the road what the inspectors say they have found at the end of January.

Do you think that, do you agree with Mr. Cohen that these are all legalistic steps leading us to war?

JOHN J. MEARSHEIMER: In part they are, but these legalistic steps were all designed to create a situation where the United States could get allies to fight against Saddam Hussein.

The last thing the United States wants to do is go to war unilaterally against Iraq. What it wants is allies and that is the reason we’ve gone the UN route, but to get allies on board we had to pursue a legalistic process.

And the reason we’re having this debate over exactly what paragraph four says is because our allies have forced us to have that debate. And they made it very clear that they were going to put a set of strictures on us that made it impossible to go to war with them unless Saddam did certain things.

GWEN IFILL: Has there been — let me interrupt because I’m curious — has there been any movement on that? We’ve been hearing this from the beginning we needed allies in order to act. Have minds been changed? Is there any sign of other people being convinced to go along with the US on this since we went to the UN?

JOHN J. MEARSHEIMER: No, I think there has been very little change in the attitudes of countries like France, China and Russia. They basically have no interest in going to war and they’ve gone to great electrics to put strictures on the United States that make it impossible to do that.

Whether the United States can get around that remains to be seen; a lot depends on whether, number one, they can prove that Saddam actually does have weapons of mass destruction and has been deceiving us and, then, they have to get the situation where Saddam does not cooperate with us.

In the absence of those two things, I think it’s going to be very difficult to get allies, to get this through the United Nations. Therefore, it will be difficult for the United States to go to war because it doesn’t want to do this unilaterally.

GWEN IFILL: And, Mr. Taylor, as a former inspector yourself what does Hans Blix and the inspectors on the ground — what do they have to bring to the table in order to start the change the minds of allies to go along with the US or to stop this process cold?

TERENCE TAYLOR: Well, I don’t think they can do it themselves, I think the external matters like the unity of the Security Council and the threats of the use of force are the key issues here if the inspectors are to have any chance of success.

They don’t at the moment, I think, have sufficient resources to get around the country to all the different sites to produce the information it will take them a very long time. Of course, they could well be given new information by the US or the United Kingdom or a number of other country that is might help them in their work, but I would like to recall the words of Foreign Minister Jack Straw of the U.K. — he said in his remarks that the Iraqis by failing with this declaration have rejected the pathway to peace.

I think that’s a pretty strong statement.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we will leave it on that strong statement. Terence Taylor, Eliot Cohen, and John Mearsheimer, thank you very much for joining us.