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Editors’ Views on Iraq

April 15, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: We’re joined by four editorial page editors: Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal Constitution; Bruce Dold of the Chicago Tribune; Frank Burgos of the Philadelphia Daily News; and Robert Kittle of the San Diego Union Tribune. Welcome to you all.

Well, Secretary Rumsfeld made it official today, stepping up the troop levels in Iraq. Frank Burgos, what did that say to you?

FRANK BURGOS: That the Bush administration has given up the fantasy that they could win this war cheaply, cheaply emotionally and cheaply with military strength. They say that the facts on the ground will determine what kind of troop levels establish in Iraq and the truth of the matter is politics for too long has been establishing that.

The facts for a long time have said that we should be sending more troops there to stabilize that region. And I’m happy that finally the Bush administration has recognized a reality that many people have said that more people are needed.

MARGARET WARNER: Bruce Dold, do you see it that way, that this is a reality that the Bush administration should have acknowledged sooner?

BRUCE DOLD: I think the reality changed, actually we urged them quite a while ago to put more troops in, I think they should have all along, but the reality changed in the last couple weeks. You have an uprising there, and they recognize they need to deal with that and they also recognize that the United Nations isn’t ready to step in and provide much assistance at this time.

MARGARET WARNER: Cynthia Tucker, what is your view of just what happened today, and also I know there are a lot of military bases in Georgia, what impact is this extended war, the extended deployment having on your newspaper’s local community?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Well, there are many military bases in Georgia. The third infantry mechanized is based in Georgia, which has done a lot of the heavy lifting in Iraq.

Our readers in metro Atlanta, therefore, are perhaps more acutely aware of what’s going on than readers in many other places. Just last week we had two young men from the Atlanta region who were killed in Iraq. And so I think that military families, while most of them still support the effort in Iraq, are beginning to worry — that their fathers, sons, brothers, husbands, are going to be away, oh, and daughters and wives as well, are going to be away much longer than they expected, because the president and the Pentagon did say earlier that these troops would begin to rotate out by now. And I think families are disappointed to learn that that’s not going to happen.

MARGARET WARNER: Bob Kittle, San Diego, Southern California is obviously also a great center for military bases and installations. What impact is this extended war having there?

ROBERT KITTLE: Well, actually in San Diego County, we have profiles virtually on a daily basis for the last few weeks of marines from Camp Pendleton here from the first marine expeditionary force who have been killed in Iraq. So these deaths are felt very acutely here. But I have to say that the military community in San Diego, and it is a large one, I think takes this in stride.

I think these young men and women who are involved in the military as well as their families accept that casualties are part of this business. It’s, it’s a deplorable thing all the way around, but I don’t see any shift here in public sentiment that we have to see this through. And I think the military families would be the very last to think that we need to pull out of Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: Bruce Dold, I want to ask you about two things Secretary Rumsfeld said today and put them together. On the one hand, he expressed great confidence in the military mission saying it’s noble work and in the end will be successful.

On the other hand, as we just heard, he did express surprise at the growing toll of U.S. deaths at this stage of the occupation, saying I certainly would not have estimated that we would have the individuals lost that we’ve lost in the last week. How do you read that?

BRUCE DOLD: I don’t know any war that has played out according to the book. They’re willing to concede that they didn’t anticipate some things that they anticipated, some obstacles that didn’t come through. I think they’re just saying this is how wars tend to play out.

The president was very resolute in his speech the other night, and he said June 30 is going to come and on June 30 Iraq is going to have a bill of rights and on June 30 we’re going to turn over power. And I think he has set a barrier, he has set the marker for himself. I don’t know that we can judge the administration today, but I think you’ll have a lot to judge them on on June 30.

MARGARET WARNER: Frank Burgos, were you surprised by Secretary Rumsfeld’s surprise?

FRANK BURGOS: I’m surprised that he admitted surprise. Bruce is right. No war goes by the book. But Secretary Rumsfeld, President Bush, others in the administration painted a scenario to the American public as to what this war was going to be about, what this war was going to look like. And what it looked like, from their point of view, was we were going to be treated as liberators, treated as saviors in Iraq, and many people said that wasn’t going to be the case and hasn’t been the case.

The idea that Iraq is analogous to Japan or to Germany after World War II is just insane. We didn’t have in Germany insurgents, we didn’t have terrorists going after the allies after the war was over. They were in ruins and they were happy to have a stabilizing force there. Iraq is not like that at all. And it’s not close to the quagmire of Vietnam, but the night is still young.

MARGARET WARNER: The president, as you said, he also was asked about some of these expectations that weren’t borne out, and Bob Kittle as we know in the press conference Tuesday night, he declined to acknowledge any mistakes or in anticipation or in expectations. Did you think those were unfair questions or what did you make of his reaction to those questions?

ROBERT KITTLE: Frankly, I don’t think any question really, very few questions are unfair for the president. However, that particular question, why is it that you don’t admit that you make mistakes, sounded like, you know, a question shouted in an argument in a bad marriage. That’s not the kind of question that yields much information, and I for one don’t blame the president for putting on a shirt and say gee I made a lot of mistakes.

Mistakes have been made, problems have arisen that were not anticipated. As Secretary Rumsfeld said earlier in the broadcast, a number of mistakes that were anticipated have not occurred.

So I don’t think that kind of question gets us very far, and unfortunately I think it kind of plays to the kind of personal attacks on the president that now are part of the presidential campaign, and I think that’s unfortunate, sort of personalizing and demonizing the president.

MARGARET WARNER: Did you see it that way, Cynthia Tucker, that that question was beside the point? There was a lot of commentary afterwards.

CYNTHIA TUCKER: They certainly didn’t demonize the president. They merely asked the president if he was willing to acknowledge that many of the things he said before the war started have turned out not to be true. And should he have done some things differently.

Not only did he not acknowledge that, his descriptions, he didn’t answer any questions really, and he didn’t even acknowledge really that facts are different on the ground today.

He talked about staying the course. I agree completely that we need to stay in Iraq until the job is done, until it’s stable. But if you’re driving down a one-way street the wrong way, might you not change direction? Who are we going to turn the government over to on June 30? We have no idea.

And so I don’t think the questions that the president was asked were in any way unfair, were in any way demonizing him. But his failure to even acknowledge that things have gone differently from the way he predicted, was not at all reassuring because it makes me think he doesn’t have a strong plan for making sure the country is stabilized sometime in the next year or two.

MARGARET WARNER: So Frank Burgos, did you hear or do you feel he has a strong plan for turning over sovereignty in Iraq for making this the success that he says it must be for America’s security?

FRANK BURGOS: By June 30? I know people who have better plans for their 4th of July picnic than George Bush has presented to anybody regarding turning over the keys to the kingdom on June 30. We don’t know who is going to be in charge in Iraq. And one of the problems I have with the president’s presentation during the press conference is that he didn’t seem to acknowledge that anything was different than what he thought it was when we embarked on this.

We’re still looking for weapons of mass destruction, in fact, despite the fact that his own expert David Kay says they’re not there. He’s still mounting that argument. I don’t know what reality President Bush is in, but it’s not a reality I think many of us travel in.

MARGARET WARNER: But, Bruce Dold, what he said was we are going to stay the course, this is a test of wills, we have to win this, we are going to win this. Did you find that persuasive?

BRUCE DOLD: You know, I think if the Bush administration didn’t have to worry about political considerations, you know, they might be willing to say Iraq will have a good outcome, eventually it will have a good outcome. There’s been a very high price for it, and in fact this is probably the first and last preemptive war we will wage because of the price that we’ve seen.

He doesn’t say those things because there’s an opposition ready to jump on him for that, you know, that’s the kind of frankness I think people would like to see, bought you got to understand it’s a political equation. Now, you know, his election may well come down to a referendum on Iraq. It will not come down to a question of whether he is resolute in fighting terror, it will not come down to whether he is committed to seeing Iraq through.

MARGARET WARNER: But briefly –

BRUCE DOLD: Go ahead –

MARGARET WARNER: I was just going to say — but briefly, are you saying that you think the June 30 handover date in this whole blue print is unrealistic?

BRUCE DOLD: No, not at all. We’re talking about handing over decision making power in Iraq, and you can find people, there are good people in Iraq, it’s an educated society — they will have a leadership in place I believe on June 30 to do that. The question will be, the security apparatus, and how the U.S. can eventually wean itself from the major role in that security apparatus.

MARGARET WARNER: Bob Kittle, I’d like to ask you about something else that the president said when he was explaining the rationale and why America has to stay the course, and one he said fighting in Iraq is really fighting terror worldwide and essentially U.S. security.

The other thing he said though is that this is “an historic opportunity to change the world, freedom is the Almighty’s give to every man and woman in this world and is the greatest power on the face of the earth, we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom.” Your reaction?

ROBERT KITTLE: I think that is a very, very ambitious goal, Margaret. But I don’t think that it is one that we should shrink from. Clearly this is the president who during the campaign, the presidential campaign in 2000 disdained nation building; he now has taken on a nation building task that is larger than we’ve seen since the end of World War II.

However, I think the notion that freedom is a universal value, that it can be embraced and will be embraced and that the world will be better off and the United States will be better off if the right conditions are established to allow freedom and representative government to blossom, I think that’s worth fighting for. And in this case it may well be more than the American people signed on for in the beginning when we viewed this as simply a war to get rid of Saddam Hussein.

However, having gotten rid of Saddam Hussein, we cannot stop there or we do indeed allow Iraq to become a seed bed for terrorism worldwide. So we have to see this through, and while those are lofty and noble sounding principles that the president articulated, I don’t think they are unrealistic.

MARGARET WARNER: Cynthia, do you see I as a worthy goal, an achievable goal?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: I see it as very unrealistic, I see it as naive even. What if they had democratic elections and decide to put a theocracy which is hostile to the United States in power? There is absolutely no reason to think that the United States has the capacity to plant a Jeffersonian democracy in a country that has absolutely no history of Jeffersonian democracy. However, it is true that since we have now created instability in the country, we have to stay long enough to at least create a stable government. If it’s a benign dictatorship, that would be fine with me, as long as it is not openly hostile to the U.S., and I think that’s probably the best we can hope for.

MARGARET WARNER: Maybe a little more briefly, Bruce Dold, but I want to get you both on this, worthy goal, realistic, unrealistic?

BRUCE DOLD: Absolutely worthy goal, and not unrealistic at all. It may have been unrealistic to think that the people could defeat the British army and set up the longest lasting democracy in the world, but we pulled it off. South Africa is now celebrating ten years of freedom and democracy for all of its people, something we may not have thought was going to happen 10 years ago. But I think there is every reason to think that Iraq are will be in the same situation ten years from today.

MARGARET WARNER: Frank Burgos, finally your thoughts on this big goal?

FRANK BURGOS: It’s the only goal that we have available to us right now. We’re in this, we destabilized a country, it is our responsibility to stabilize it. The best way of doing it is to get as much international help as we can, particularly from the U.N. — it’s unrealistic to think we can do it by June 30 -or a year from today. I think we’ll have to be there for a long time, and that’s where the analogy of Vietnam becomes unfortunately fairly apt.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you all four very much.