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The War of Words

August 27, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Now for a reaction to Vice President Cheney’s speech and the growing debate, we are joined by William Hyland. He was deputy national security advisor during the Ford administration, and editor of the journal Foreign Affairs during the 1980s and early 1990s; Ellen Laipson, the president of the Stimson Center, a Washington research organization, which studies international peace and security issues. From 1993 to 1995, she was the director of near eastern and south Asian affairs on the National Security Council. Welcome to you both.

Let’s try to walk through Mr. Cheney’s arguments yesterday. It was a fairly detailed case for U.S. war against Iraq. Let’s talk about one thing at a time. One thing he said, he asserted that Saddam Hussein, Mr. Hyland, possesses weapons of mass destruction. Is there proof of that?

WILLIAM HYLAND: Well, I think as far as gas, chemicals, there’s a lot of proof of that. He’s had them for a long time, they were discovered during the inspection, back in the 90s after the war. The real question is the nuclear, does he have nuclear weapons. Cheney came very close to saying he does.

And there was, of course, evidence over the years that he did. His son-in-law, who defected, said that he had a nuclear program, he went back and he was murdered by Saddam.

So I think the administration has a pretty good record, but they haven’t put out all of the evidence, and some of it may be based on rather sensitive intelligence. But sooner or later they’ll probably have to put it out.

GWEN IFILL: Ms. Laipson, he did come awfully close to suggesting that Saddam Hussein possesses some sort of nuclear capability. Is that enough?

ELLEN LAIPSON: Well, I thought one of his arguments actually was that we don’t really have the luxury of waiting to know for sure whether he has nuclear weapons or not. If we were to wait till the day after we were 100 percent sure, then the initiative would be on Saddam’s side and that he would have the ability to deter us and our allies from taking action.

So I think part of the premise of the Bush administration’s logic of preemption is that you may not be able to wait until you’re 100 percent satisfied. The administration seems to be saying they are satisfied, but the intention is there.

GWEN IFILL: But is that good enough?

ELLEN LAIPSON: To go to war with Iraq? I think we are not yet convinced that the American public believes that there’s an imminent threat to the United States. One thing that I thaw was implicit in Vice President Cheney’s speech was that the reasons to do this go beyond just American interests, it was a little bit about American leadership that we may have to do things occasionally that are for the interest of the world not just for the immediate interest of the United States. I don’t think the speech gave very much to think about in terms of why Saddam is a threat to us and our way of life.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about that. Another point that the vice president made in his speech was that he stated pretty flat out that there was a connection between terrorists and Iraq, and Saddam Hussein. Donald Rumsfeld has said of course there’s al-Qaida in Iraq. Do you think the case has been made?

WILLIAM HYLAND: No, they haven’t made the case in terms of al-Qaida, although they’re beginning to. I think they discovered some al-Qaida cells up in northern Iraq. But they’re making the case that if, as Ellen said, if we wait and he displays some nuclear weapons, then the entire Middle East is under his thumb — not just Israel, but other Arab countries.

So I think that’s why Cheney made the speech today, because of all of the debating in the press by former officials who are saying let’s wait, let’s go to the Security Council. The president probably wanted to get someone at a high level out there saying we can’t wait, because if we wait until the day we discover that he has nuclear warheads for those scud missiles, then we’re going to be in very deep trouble.

GWEN IFILL: So this turns on timing. He’s saying it’s important to do it now and we’ll find the evidence later, is that a correct reading?

ELLEN LAIPSON: I think that that’s absolutely right. I think that we want the time to be of our choosing, not of his choosing. On the other hand, the thing that’s a little bit irreconcilable is the time it will take to do all the consultations, that the president and the vice president have talked about, making sure that our allies have been consulted making sure the countries in the region are on board, which as you pointed out earlier, they’re not. That does take time.

So I think the administration must be struggling with how to get this done on a timetable that’s of their choosing and yet still feel that they’ve done all the necessary consultations.

GWEN IFILL: Also as part of the timing former Secretary of State Baker was talking about the notion that the U.N. Security Council should be involved in this. Is that something —

WILLIAM HYLAND: Cheney more or less put that to rest by saying that’s just the way for Saddam to gain time, that will fit into endless debates and so forth, Security Council resolutions will be watered down. Then we’ll re-abide by them and so forth.

I think that Cheney was in effect saying the only consultation that really matters at this point is with the Congress, because of people like Tom DeLay, who are saying you better come up here, and Henry Hyde also, to Republicans saying you better come up here before you go to war.

So I think that’s important and that Cheney was more or less saying if we get diverted into the Security Council or if we get diverted into an inspection regime, as some countries want, we’ll just be wasting time.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about the inspection regime. Is it not worth it any more to negotiate a new inspection regime with Iraq, have they shown such bad faith all along that we should just be moving ahead?

ELLEN LAIPSON: I think the consensus is emerging that that’s the case — that the Iraqis have even in this latest round indicated less than full willingness to comply even when certain U.N. officials have tried to help them and coax them along to a position that all sides would be comfortable with.

I think the professional inspectors are also quite wary of going back in, do not want to seen as having been manipulated or duped by Saddam. So I think across the board people are growing a little more skeptical and resigned to the fact that the inspection served their purposes in the early 90s. It’s very hard to resurrect an inspections regime that would have the vigor and the credibility that the inspections had early in the 90s.

The administration has also, I think, evolved in its own thinking, I think as recently as perhaps six months ago they were willing to do some of this, perhaps theater at the U.N. Security Council, and my sense is there’s diminishing patience for that kind of an approach.

WILLIAM HYLAND: I think so. But we shouldn’t discount the shrewdness of Saddam Hussein. He’s no fool, and he knows that if he makes enough right moves at the right time that the United States does not have a solid coalition.

So if he may try to maneuver and suggest a new regime of inspection, or he invited someone there the other day and he sent someone off to China and Syria and so forth. So I think Cheney was trying to preempt, not the war, preempt diplomatically that Saddam would begin this kind of maneuvering to say well, come and look, you can come here, and interesting in the speech, Cheney cited historical anecdotes where in 1995 we thought that we had gotten all of his biological and so forth, and then suddenly his son-in-law defected and led us to a huge cache of unknown weapons and so forth.

So I think Cheney is trying to say watch out. You think inspectors will go in there like Jim Baker is saying, they won’t be any good.

GWEN IFILL: Without taking into account today’s developments, without Egypt, without Saudi Arabia willing to give us basing rights or flyover rights to launch this attack, without other Gulf nations like Qatar and others, all are being very outspoken in their objections to this plan — how does the United States, aside from winning public opinion over domestic — win public opinion over internationally with allies in that region?

ELLEN LAIPSON: My sense is the Europeans, it’s, we’re further along in a reaching some level of agreement with them. I think the Europeans have come to the view that Saddam is a menace to the stability of the region. The hard part is to pursue a proactive Iraq strategy at the same time that the Arab-Israeli arena is still in a lot of turmoil.

The Arab states I think have demonstrated that they’re clearly not comfortable today. It is my impression that if you can have more quiet and discreet conversations with them, that would somehow give them a higher level of confidence that we’ll stay engaged and that we have the intention of bringing Iraq back in and making Iraq a more integrated country in the region, that perhaps slowly but surely we’ll persuade them, given the mood and the expression of concern that some of the Arab states have, though, I don know if we have the time to do all of that, that hard work that needs to be done.

GWEN IFILL: Well, that’s the question. If you don’t have the time to seek U.N. Security Council approval, if you don’t have the time to seek some other congressional approvals, but you do have the time to try to nurse your Arab allies along, does that fit with the plan that Vice President Cheney seemed to be laying out yesterday?

WILLIAM HYLAND: I don’t think so. I think he was laying out a scheme or a plan, strategy, that said we can’t spend too much time on this — that if we waste time, we strengthen Saddam, and if you argue that, well, let’s wait until we have absolute proof, then he is so strong that you may not be able to act at all.

So I suspect the mind set of this administration is if we have to go it alone, we’ll go it alone. We shouldn’t be too troubled by Arab allies, or even European allies since they are not likely to come on board anyway.

GWEN IFILL: Is that the only option here?

ELLEN LAIPSON: Well, I think the other risk that the administration may be willing to take is that even if the Arabs may not be on board initially, if we succeed, then they’ll be on board.

But just to get to your question, I think there may be some expectation that we are exhausting all of the nonmilitary options before we go to a full scale war. It’s possible that some of the other options that are available, working much more actively with various opposition groups, including paramilitary support to them, a more concerted political cultural economic strategy, maybe we’d show our intentions.

GWEN IFILL: Well, I guess that’s the next question, which is whether, to answer Henry Kissinger’s question about seeing what happens after an invasion, does it sound like, from what Vice President Cheney outlined yesterday, that enough thought has been given to what happens next, or that enough thought has been given to what happens first, which is fomenting opposition within Iraq?

WILLIAM HYLAND: I think maybe they haven’t thought that the administration has not thought through what happens if you win. Suppose you defeat the Iraqi military, which is likely, and Saddam disappears somehow, then who governs Iraq — people from London, people from some other faction — the military — former officials? I think, and you keep the country as an integrated unit because the Kurds who live in the north of Iraq could easily say this is our chance, let’s go for independence. It’s pretty hard to imagine the United States fighting against the Kurds, who have been our friends, supposedly, up until this date.

But I think the administration probably is focused on first things first, is if we go to war, how do we do it. Do we go to the Congress, and get their support, and then what kind of military plan. I haven’t heard much about a military plan that sounds effective.

GWEN IFILL: Have you heard anything that sounds effective?

ELLEN LAIPSON: No, and I think that the administration is talking about we want Iraq the day after to be democratic, I think that’s a bit of a leap into the future. The opposition folks that we talked to keep insisting that Iraqis are so ready to shed the dictatorship and will embrace democracy, but I think we have to prepare ourselves for a period of some uncertainty.

The one piece of the military story that may be is worth a little bit of attention is an expectation on the part of some Iraqis that we would militarily occupy the country until they’re ready to take it over themselves.

GWEN IFILL: Okay, Ellen Laipson and William Hyland, thank you both for joining us.