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Inspecting Iraq

January 9, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Some analysis now from Robin Wright, the chief diplomatic correspondent for the Los Angeles Times; Terence Taylor, a lead weapons inspector during the 1990s — he is now the executive director of the Washington office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies; and Joseph Wilson, who was acting U.S. ambassador to Iraq when it invaded Kuwait. He’s now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Robin Wright, how important are these developments today?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, it’s really just the first step. The United Nations has said that Saddam Hussein has not answered all the questions, dozens of questions left outstanding from the 1998, the moment when the U.N. inspectors left.

But they’ve also said there’s no smoking gun. So we’re still at an impasse. This is really the beginning of a process, and I think one of the things we saw that was so interesting today was the growing chorus of voices — including some from the United States — saying, look, this is a process that’s going to take time, and don’t anyone assume that Jan. 27 is going to be the decisive moment after which we will or will not go to war — that this is still weeks away, maybe even a couple months away.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Taylor, help us understand what the term “no smoking gun” means. How do you interpret that, when you heard Hans Blix say that?

TERENCE TAYLOR: Well, maybe he used the term rather loosely, but I don’t think we’re going to find the inspectors pulling up a floor board and finding a scud missile under it.

But I think it’s accumulating a great deal of information from different places, comparing results from different inspections. It’s a very painstaking process from my own experience.

So you don’t just stumble across these things unless you get lucky occasionally. So it’s really finding hard evidence, new evidence.

Don’t forget there’s a mountain of evidence already; this process didn’t start with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441; there was a mountain of evidence pointing towards existing weapons of mass destruction programs before this.

JIM LEHRER: So in total, same question I asked Robin Wright, how important was this today, as a step, as a development?

TERENCE TAYLOR: Well, as a development it’s a pretty disappointing development, really. Dr. Hans Blix himself said that they hadn’t answered any of the big issues that the U.N. Security Council was concerned about.

So on that front there’s been no question of advancement over the so-called full, final and complete declaration. So that’s disappointing from that point of view. One has to remember it is the onus on Iraq to deliver up and show, not on the inspectors to play cat and mouse.

JIM LEHRER: Amb. Wilson, how do you read what happened today?

JOSEPH WILSON: Well, I think actually it was pretty important in the sense that it shifts the question of war or no war from a date certain, some day in the few days after Jan. 27, to something more aligned to the failure of the inspection process.

And that that then, I think, gives us the opportunity, we and the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, an opportunity to rally world opinion in the event of continued noncompliance on the part of Iraq, rather than just rushing into something that would be seen by a good part of the world as America acting in an imperial and aggressive fashion to rid itself of Saddam Hussein and his government just because we wanted to, and not because there was the so-called “smoking gun.”

JIM LEHRER: So explain why you say that, because the process clearly is not going to end on Jan. 27, based on what was said today. You read it the same way Robin Wright does, that this is a beginning -certainly not we don’t even see the end in sight at this point?

JOSEPH WILSON: I think we’re a little further than a beginning, but we’re not quite at the end. I think there will be all the sorts of steps that Mr. Taylor suggested. We have a mountain of evidence. We have to be able to answer the outstanding questions, and clearly the Iraqis have been less than forthcoming on compliance with that.

We will want to keep the credible threat of force out there; we’ll want to intensify the inspection efforts and intensify Mr. Blix and ElBaradei’s dialogue with the Iraqi authorities to get the information that we need, remembering of course that the onus is on the Iraqis to produce.

Now I don’t think anybody should believe that the Iraqis are going to produce every bit of evidence that they have. But at the same time, I think we ought to be able to narrow those differences between what we think they have and what they say they have in a meaningful way before we determine whether or not it is necessary to take military action.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Robin Wright, Ari Fleischer, the president’s press secretary, said – we just ran the clip – he said, we know they have these weapons, no matters whether the inspectors have found them yet or not.

So what does that, and there’s also – there was a report today that the United States is, in fact, going to share some intelligence information with Hans Blix and has begun to do that, although they still -anyhow, what’s your reading of this, what’s going on in that particular case?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, the process is taking some very deliberate steps. And one is that the United States and some of the other countries that have intelligence on Iraq’s weapons programs are beginning to turn it over to the United Nations.

Now they’re not doing this all in one great batch, they’re doing it in steps in part because there has been a lot of leakage in the past, and Iraq has managed to get information about what the weapons inspectors were going to do. So the United States is kind of testing the process to see how leak-proof it is. In the meantime, though –.

JIM LEHRER: You don’t have to be specific here, but give us the kinds of things they might be doing, the U.S. might be telling the inspectors.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, so far I’m told that most of it focuses on chemical and biological weapons. And it has to do with sites of development, scientists who are involved in the process and who might be available for interviews to provide corroborative evidence.

So you’re beginning to see this part of a process. In the meantime though, the United States is trying to increase the pressure on Saddam Hussein with the military buildup and hope that there is — this generates, along with the inspections process on the ground, kind of accelerates the process, whether it’s, you know, folks around Saddam Hussein taking their own steps to — against Saddam Hussein, or inspires the scientists to recognize that their future also depends on their kind of cooperation.

There needs to be some catalyst to break the impasse, and that’s really what the game is all about right now.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Mr. Taylor, that the scientists, getting the scientists to talk – it was mentioned today in fact – we didn’t have it in our clip but it was mentioned today — that Hans Blix and his folks wanted to talk to some of the inspectors, that they couldn’t talk to them alone, the Iraqi government insisted on having people present.

There was a kind of source story that went out on the wires today that there had been a proposal to take these scientists to Cypress maybe and talk to them there. Tell us how important that is.

TERENCE TAYLOR: Well, that’s a difficult question. I think Dr. Blix all along has been uneasy about this business of taking scientists out of the country. Cypress is of course the place because that’s the forward mounting base for the inspectors going into Iraq. It’s a challenging thing these interviews.

In my experience we had some very successful interviews in Iraq, even with Iraqis present, and in particular if you manage to create conditions where the interview took place without prior notice. These were by far the most successful.

But for people leaving the country, they’ve got to agree to this, and it may not be the people you really want that are coming forward. And the people you want to talk to may not just necessarily be the high level scientists. A great deal of information can come from people lower down the chain, too.

JIM LEHRER: But is it — based on your experience, is this where you really can get some good information? If in fact they are hiding something, are these scientists the folks you’re going to get the information from?

TERENCE TAYLOR: Well, there’s a chance you might, it depends on how secure they feel when they’re giving the information and whether the information of course is accurate or not.

If these people are prepared by the Iraqi government before they actually give their interviews, it’s not going to be very successful. And I think interviews outside the country do have some difficulties surrounding them.

Of course, a kind of detection like Khadir Hamza, who used to run the Iraqi nuclear program – he defected, I think, in 1993 – that’s the kind of defection you really want that gives you new information.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Amb. Wilson, let’s come back to Robin Wright’s point just now – what the gain is now – that there is this kind of – there’s an impasse and something’s got to give, and – well, you heard what she said – military vs. the inspectors, U.N., this and that, and whatever. What’s your overview of that?

JOSEPH WILSON: Well, I think it’s imperative that we keep the credible threat of force there to ensure that Saddam is focused – Saddam and his people are focused on the problem at hand and don’t think that they can actually get away with a reverse into the cheat and retreat strategies that they employed against the inspection regimes of the 90′s.

It will encourage some around Saddam to think about their own future, which may, in fact, encourage the sorts of defections that Mr. Taylor is talking about, and at the same time, it may force Saddam to think about whether when the question comes down to surviving – dying with his chemical weapons or surviving without him, perhaps he will make the decision that survival is better and be more forthcoming in compliance with 1441.

JIM LEHRER: Is your feeling that it’s all strategies at once at this point, in other words, we’ll try this and try this and try this and see which one works?

JOSEPH WILSON: Well, I think the administration has been pretty successful in marshalling the arguments, in marshalling the international political will for what Ken Pollack in his book calls “coercive compliance.” And I think that’s about where we ought to be.

What we don’t want to do now is overplay our hand, and by that I mean do something that will be perceived globally as unilateral, will be perceived in the region as imperial, and may have the sort of negative backlash that we certainly don’t want if we are looking for the sorts of outcomes I think we are looking for in the region.

JIM LEHRER: So it’s a kind of a delicate situation. We need to be prepared to go to war and have the world, particularly the world in Saddam Hussein’s country, believe we’re ready to go to war but also be prepared not to if we don’t have to and at the right moment. Is that what you’re saying?

JOSEPH WILSON: I think that’s exactly right. I think the one thing that people who have gone to war know is the only thing you can really predict about a war or the only thing you know for certain about a war is when you fire the first shot. Everything after that, best laid plans often go awry.

In the case of this particular war with Iraq I think everybody understands we have overwhelming military power. We will win the first battle, but the subsequent occupation and pacification and democratization of Iraq is a far different prospect and one that we ought to look at with a certain amount of skepticism at our ability to pull it off.

JIM LEHRER: All right. And, meanwhile, Robin, the United States is working with the U.N. Security Council, which means the major powers of the world, to try to keep everybody on board. How is that going thus far? Even as of today, we heard what the Germans said; we heard what the Russians said. What’s your reading of that?

ROBIN WRIGHT: I think you see around the world a great deal of pressure on leaders, including our good friend, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, not to rush into anything, and that’s why you’re seeing a lot of talk about give the inspectors time.

A recent poll this week in Paris found that the anti-war sentiment is growing; 66 percent of the French population is opposed to a war. And so if you give the process a little bit more time and also the United States is trying to build a coalition – this is really critical to its success in the region, the post war process, and how history views what the U.S. does, and the Turks, for example, are playing hard ball with us in terms of the conditions for allowing ground troops or use of air bases for any kind of military incursion in Iraq.

And so there’s still a lot of work to be done. So giving the United Nations weapons inspectors a bit more time doesn’t hurt what the U.S. is trying to do.

JIM LEHRER: But is it fair to say and accurate to say that as we speak tonight there are no major breaches in the coalition?

ROBIN WRIGHT: There are no major breaches, but there’s not much of a coalition yet. It’s only beginning to take form.

We have, you know, indications from Britain and the Australians and the Bulgarians and the Romanians, you know, those on the periphery.

But what we really want is something that is robust, that includes all members of the Security Council.

JIM LEHRER: Well, I didn’t ask that correctly; I didn’t mean a military coalition so much as a diplomatic coalition for the process up to this point. Everybody is still on board for the process, right?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Thank you all three very much.