Threat and Response
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TERENCE SMITH: To discuss potential regime change in Iraq, we’re joined by Trudy Rubin, columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer; John Diaz, the editorial page editor of the San Francisco Chronicle; Jay Bookman, columnist and deputy editorial page editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; and Joseph Perkins, a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
TERENCE SMITH: Joseph Perkins, let me begin with you. You’ve just heard the President, the Vice President, others making the case. Have they persuaded you that it’s necessary for the United States to intervene militarily to displace Saddam Hussein?
JOSEPH PERKINS: I’ve been persuaded for sometime now. So they don’t need to persuade me. They need to persuade the masses of the American people. Let me say this. The polls show that a majority of Americans fully appreciate the threat that Saddam Hussein represents and are supportive of military action to oust his regime in Baghdad.
TERENCE SMITH: Jay Bookman, what’s your view? Is it necessary and the thing for the United States to do?
JAY BOOKMAN: I don’t think it’s necessary at this moment based on what we know. It’s always possible that more information will come out. But as of today, no, it is not necessary. It would probably cause us more problems than it would cure.
TERENCE SMITH: What sort of problems?
JAY BOOKMAN: What would happen in… I mean the Saudis today came out and said that we can’t use their territory. Jordan has come out against it. Turkey has come out against it. They are fearful of what the reaction will be in a very fragile, unstable part of the world. I trust their judgment. They know what’s going on there.
TERENCE SMITH: Trudy Rubin, what’s your view particularly when you hear the arguments as outlined by Vice President Cheney?
TRUDY RUBIN: I think there’s a long way to go in making the case for this. Let me start by saying, having spent a lot of time in Iraq, including right up until the bombings started, having come back afterwards and seen what Saddam did to his own people, I would be delighted, as would most of the world, to see him gone. But what I find unsettling is the way the administration has gone about leaking, hinting and dropping bits of information. This is not just your usual war.
When the Gulf War occurred, people knew why America had to fight. Kuwait had been invaded. This was a reckless act by a reckless man. In Afghanistan, I think most Americans understood it instantly. We had been attacked on our soil and Afghanistan was harboring the criminals. This time, Saddam, yes, is making weapons of mass destruction but we don’t have the direct connection with terrorism. This is a new kind of war, a preventive war.
And for that reason, I think the United States has to very carefully explain to the American people why this is necessary, which I don’t think it has done fully, and then what the costs are. I think that that part the American public is still very much unaware of.
TERENCE SMITH: John Diaz has the threshold been reached in your opinion? Is it justified and necessary for the United States at this point?
JOHN DIAZ: Terry, I don’t think the administration has made the case. There’s no question that Saddam Hussein is a tyrant, that he’s a source of instability in the Middle East and potentially a threat to other nations. But there’s a big distinction between being an actual threat and a potential threat. Historically, this country has really found war justified only when either we’ve been attacked or we can see an imminent threat to the country.
That may be the case in Iraq, but the administration has not made it at this point. They’ve not been able to establish that there’s any connection between Iraq and 9/11, and they certainly have not shown that these weapons of mass destruction are really at this point an imminent threat to the United States.
In fact, we had General Myers before our editorial board last week, and he talked about we know that Saddam possesses some chemical and biological weapons and has interest in nuclear weapons, but there is a big difference between having some of those weapons and having the capability to really pose a threat to our country or some of our allies.
TERENCE SMITH: Joseph Perkins, what if the United States has to do this alone or largely alone without the support of allies or others in the region? Would you still support it?
JOSEPH PERKINS: Well, I’ve heard those fears expressed. Let me say this. You know, I hear these recriminations about attacking Iraq. I would pose it this way. I believe that Saddam Hussein today represents as much a threat as Osama bin Laden did on September 10. And we can either meet that threat now or we can meet it later. Let me say also, I do believe that the administration has to make the case to the American people. We want to bring along our European allies including France, which has given succor to our enemy in Iraq, and also our Arab allies.
JOSEPH PERKINS: One thing that we have found in previous military actions is that victory is the mother of all alliances and I believe that the Arab world as well as our European allies will fall into line once it becomes obvious that we mean to meet the threat that Saddam Hussein poses to the stability of the Gulf region and to the people of the United States.
TERENCE SMITH: Jay Bookman, what about that? Do you think the others will fall into line as Joseph Perkins suggests?
JAY BOOKMAN: No, I don’t. The only nation that has… the only major nation that has expressed any support for us is Britain. Even there, Tony Blair’s Labor Party is very nervous about that so I’m not sure even we can count on British support. If you look back during the Gulf war we had Saudi Arabia and Japan funded much of that battle, much of that war. We had active bases all… nations surrounding Iraq. None of that is true this time. If we do this, we are doing it alone. It’s interesting that we cite the United Nations’ resolutions as a reason Iraq’s failure to abide by them is a reason to invade. The United Nations is against our taking military action in this. So on one hand while we cite that as a reason for going in, on the other hand we choose to ignore it if we do decide to invade.
TERENCE SMITH: Trudy Rubin, should that be a pre-condition, the support of either important allies or the United Nations?
TRUDY RUBIN: I think that the United States should be doing more to try to get allies on board instead of assuming that once the decision is made they’re going to clamor on board. For example, the issue of Saudi Arabia. Saudi air space is incredibly important. Now Prince Faisal said that ground bases wouldn’t be available but I know that military people are very worried about not having air space and they’re worried about the… not having all bases available in the Middle East for this kind of war.
TRUDY RUBIN: Now, one of the issues involved here is whether you let the Israeli-Palestinian conflict go on as is and handle or try to handle Iraq first. I think the administration could have done a lot more, taken a much more active role to try to get some peace talks going simultaneously with being very harsh on the issue of Palestinian terrorism. But they have taken a different track. And I think that will create real problems if we go forward with the Iraq war.
I also think that there’s even a remote possibility we could get a Security Council resolution endorsing some kind of military action for Saddam’s having failed to get rid of weapons of mass destruction. But then we would have to be cultivating allies especially Russia in a way that I’m not sure we’re willing to do.
TERENCE SMITH: John Diaz, is that necessary, some sort of international expression of support?
JOHN DIAZ: Well, that was essential to the success in the Gulf War, and I think not only do we need to get support of allies but I think consent of Congress is important here too because we have to be very clear eyed about how we’re going to define victory in this war with Iraq. Regime change may be a reason for going in but that is not necessarily going to mark the end of the war when the opposition rushes in to Saddam’s palace or palaces and takes over the country. This is a country that is very factionalized, that is much more complicated to govern than Afghanistan, and I dare say that if we do go to war with Iraq, the long-term solution is going to involve a word that President Bush did not much like to use during the 2000 campaign, and that’s “nation building.”
TERENCE SMITH: Joseph Perkins, if this becomes a situation in which the United States takes a preemptive strike, in other words, to effect a regime change, it moves first, and does so militarily in another country, would that give you any pause?
JOSEPH PERKINS: No, it would not. No, it would not. I think that we need to do it. I share the reservations that the other panelists do about what happens after we effect a regime change. I think that was one of the failings of the Gulf War, and that is that after the war was concluded we did not march into Baghdad and replace Saddam Hussein and our Arab allies are, I think, understandably wary that once we have supplanted Saddam that we won’t be around for the clean-up.
JOSEPH PERKINS: That’s some of the fears expressed in Afghanistan, but I think that this administration recognizes that and I think that they have taken that into account in terms of the overall plan towards Iraq. I mean, we want a different regime in Baghdad and we want… I mean, I believe Iraq could become a model of the Middle East. It was before Saddam Hussein became the dictator. And I believe it could become the first truly democratic republic in that region of the world. I think that a lot of Arab states would like to see or at least a lot of citizens of Arab states would like to see that regime or that government move in that direction.
TERENCE SMITH: Jay Bookman, that would sound something like nation building.
JAY BOOKMAN: Yes, it would.
TERENCE SMITH: A phrase that this administration did not support. When you think about that and you think about the possibility of having to occupy and in effect rebuild the country, what do you think about that?
JAY BOOKMAN: I think that’s a incredibly difficult proposition. We would be there for years with thousands of soldiers. The expense would be great. The exposure of our troops to terrorism, all kinds of attacks, guerilla attacks, would be extreme. Mr. Perkins mentions Iraq as a model. I think it’s important to note that what’s happening in the world right now is we are coming to grips, I think, for the first time with the idea that we are an empire, that America is unchallenged in any sphere of influence in the world.
What we are in the process of defining is how we govern that empire as a nation, and I think it’s… if we engage in a cold-blooded invasion of another country, unprovoked, that… it will set a model for how we act as an empire in the future. So I think there’s a lot here at stake, not just the fate of Saddam Hussein and Iraq in this particular thing. We are deciding what kind of nation we are and how we’re going to rule this empire that has come to us.
TERENCE SMITH: Trudy Rubin, you talked about the need for the administration to make its case to the American people. What about Congress? Should that be a precondition to get the specific approval of Congress?
TRUDY RUBIN: I think it should be a precondition I can tell you that when I was in Baghdad before the bombings started for the Gulf War, the Iraqi regime and Saddam Hussein did not believe that the Americans were really going forward with this until the congressional vote happened, which was practically on the eve of the bombing.
So I think that it is very important if we were to do this that Congress be seen and the public be seen to be behind it. And I just would like to add one thing about nation building and empire building. I think that if we were to go in there– and this is something that legislators are worrying about, you could hear it at the Biden-Lugar hearings last week– we really would have to think through very carefully what is the role we wanted to play afterwards because we, even now in Afghanistan, have made clear that we don’t want to be involved in nation building. And if we’re not, then we shouldn’t be going in.
TERENCE SMITH: Trudy Rubin, and the rest of you, thank you very much.