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A Deadly Attack in Iraq

August 19, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: For more on today’s attack and the situation in Iraq, we get three views: Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters, who retired from the army in 1998, was emerging threats officer for army intelligence; John Mearsheimer is co-director of the Program on International Security Policy at the University of Chicago. He’s written extensively on security issues. And Thomas Friedman is the New York Times foreign affairs columnist. He just returned from a week- long trip to Iraq.

So, Tom, in your travels, I wonder if you had an opportunity to visit the U.N. outpost in Baghdad and what you think the role of the U.N. was supposed to be there now?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: I was actually at the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad three times just a few days ago, Gwen, and met with Sergio de Mello, the U.N. representative there who tragically was killed today.

The U.N. was there in a purely humanitarian mission. You know, it’s tragically ironic we’re having this debate in this country – you know, should we have more U.N. troops or more American troops? And for the people out there, the people who are opposing us there, this is utterly irrelevant. They’re opposed to the U.N. and they’re opposed to the United States. They’re opposed to any civilization there.

These are people who clearly want to wreak chaos and havoc. And they’re certainly doing a good job of that.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned that you’re familiar – you were friendly with Sergio de Mello. Tell us, he had a history that began before this justice tour of duty in Baghdad.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: He was in East Timor, supervised the transition there. He was in Kosovo, in Bosnia. He had really served all over the world on U.N. humanitarian missions. He was the U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights and was someone who was seen as a very possible successor for Kofi Annan – an enormously decent and humane man.

One of the things I remember most about our conversation that really struck me was how complimentary he was to Paul Bremer, the U.S. representative there. The two had worked together very well. He made a point of saying that Bremer was a good listener and was really ready to listen to a lot of ideas that were coming from de Mello and the U.N.- one of the most important of which was the importance of getting Iraqis out front much more than we’ve done so far.

GWEN IFILL: Even though the U.N. and the U.S. at least on the record didn’t seem to be cooperating that much.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: They’re working pretty well on the ground there.

GWEN IFILL: Ralph Peters, how big a setback are today’s events for the overall occupation?

LT. COL. RALPH PETERS: Well, in the long run it’s going to be a much bigger setback for those who attacked the U.N. In the short term, it’s certainly a tactical victory as 9/11 was an operational victory for the enemies of civilization, as Tom would say.

But the echoes will reverberate against the terrorists, against the Ba’ath hard liners and I think you’re seeing a couple things happen here, Gwen. The initial strategy that the Ba’athist hard liners and the visiting terrorists from abroad tried against us was to attack our forces head on. It failed very badly. Their losses were enormous. We largely dismantled what remained of the organization, and now they’re trying a new strategy because the first one failed so badly, they’re trying to hit soft targets instead of going after the U.S. forces directly. They’ll still try to assassinate soldiers.

But now they’re going after pipelines, water mains, hotels, and I think they’re misreading us as we’ve often misread the people in the Middle East of course. But the first misreading was to assume that you kill Americans, Americans go home – the Mogadishu model; that didn’t work. So now they’re trying to drive a wedge between the coalition and the U.N. and other powers that might help reconstruct Iraq.

At the same time, they’re trying to create an atmosphere of fear where NGO’s won’t want to go in. So they couldn’t stop the U.S. forces or the Brits so they’re trying to stop the progress of reconstruction. And we’re also seeing a very important transition in that U.S. operations against the Ba’athist hard liners have been so effective that now the international terrorists are moving into the ascendancy. It will be a long process and the Ba’athists are still there. But increasingly the danger is from al-Qaida and related organizations.

GWEN IFILL: John Mearsheimer, if it is true that strategy is shifting and they’re trying to attack not only the United States’ interests but also anyone who is friendly with the United States by attacking soft targets like today’s, what is your sense of where the occupation stands right now?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Well, two points. First of all, I think that they’re not shifting their strategy. What they’re doing is augmenting their strategy. Up to now they’ve been pretty much going after American troops and to a lesser extent British troops but over the past weekend they’ve started going after infrastructure targets in a big way and now they went after the U.N. headquarters. And this is in addition to continuing attacks on American troops.

Ralph’s point that we have beaten back the Ba’athists and we’ve beaten back the bad guys and they can no longer attack American and British troops I think is wrong.

Furthermore, as he points out, what’s now happening is that Jihadists are coming across the border into Iraq. I think with the passage of time what you’re going to see is more and more foreign terrorists augmenting the locals.

And what’s going to happen with the locals in my opinion over the passage of time is that they’re going to grow in numbers. And they’re going to grow in numbers for two reasons. Number one is that the United States’ military is playing hard ball with the locals. And that’s going to have a negative effect on their attitudes towards us. And we’ve seen all sorts of evidence of that.

Furthermore, there’s no way that a country like the United States, a great power from the developing world, can come in to a country in the Arab and Islamic world and occupy it for any appreciable period of time. The people are going to resent us greatly because they’re going to want to determine their own fate.

So with the passage of time not only are we going to have more resentment because of our tactics on the part of the American military but we’re going to have more resentment simply because we’re occupying an Arab country.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask Tom Friedman, you were on the ground, from your reporting on the ground and the people you talked to there, which seems to hold more water for you, the notion that we have now beat back the Ba’athists and we’re in a position now to hold off this next attack on soft targets or is that, as John Mearsheimer seems to be suggesting, all is lost?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: I don’t think we’re… we’ve defeated the Ba’athists yet and I don’t think Ralph said that. It’s an ongoing thing. I don’t think all is lost either.

But what is going on, Gwen, is a dangerous process. The process is that by hitting these targets – the electricity, the pipelines – and hitting us, what they’re doing is forcing us into a crouch. They’re forcing American troops behind higher and higher walls, behind more and more barbed wire.

The U.S. forces in Baghdad are now building a wall around the compound in central Baghdad, which we control, that is identical to the wall Israel is building in the West Bank. In fact it looks like they have the same architect. So it’s forcing us behind walls. At the same time by not getting the infrastructure up and running, it’s creating more and more frustration among Iraqis. What it’s doing is it’s making our ability to partner with them that much more difficult.

Now what is the answer? I think there is an answer. It’s what I would call more Americans out back and more Iraqis out front. We need to be investing more people, more resources in obviously getting this infrastructure up and running. At the same time, we need to get Iraqis and we need to be challenging them but we’ve got a governing council. They have to get out and take more responsibility.

They’re close to naming cabinet ministers. That’s very important. We’re now training police. We’ll soon be arming them. We’re training brigades. We have got to get off the streets and let them for the reasons John Mearsheimer suggested and I do agree with this – we are radioactive in this part of the world. Unfortunately this isn’t Germany 1945. I do believe we have time but we don’t have the kind of time because we don’t stand astride the world certainly not that part of the world like we did in Europe after World War II.

GWEN IFILL: Ralph Peters, he mentions the fence that the Americans are building around the U.S. compound, but no such security was in place at the United Nations in part because they wanted to project a welcoming attitude. Does the United Nations, should the United Nations, have a more aggressive role after an event like this or a less aggressive role as the United States has been pushing for?

LT. COL. RALPH PETERS: In fact, this is a moment of truth for the U.N. because they were attacked directly. I think the U.N. is a very complex organization and the whole occupation is complex, of course. But many in the U.N. have lived in a dream world, imagining that they’re everybody’s friend and they wouldn’t be attacked.

A friend of mine was actually the security officer in Baghdad. He’s been trying to implement more security precautions, but the U.N. attitude is no we don’t want to be behind walls. We don’t want to be behind wire. And so there are always these balances. Well this time, tragically, the U.N. called it wrong.

So the U.N. has to decide whether it will show some backbone, honor its dead, by increasing its humanitarian programs in the country, increasing cooperation with the coalition or whether behind a barrage of rhetoric they’ll in fact back off which would mean the terrorists win.

And I speak ever more of terrorists because I think John Mearsheimer and I just disagree on where the progress is because I think the occupation is progressing better than we had any right to expect. But one thing that is certain is – it has become a cliché to say that Iraq is attracting Islamic fundamentalist terrorists the way a flame attracts moths. That’s true. But we all have to remember that when that happens the flame wins – not the moths.

GWEN IFILL: Here’s the question. Why is that? Are they being attracted there because of the absence of Saddam Hussein’s regime which the U.S. had a hand in bringing down or are they attracted there because of the presence of the United States, which is just making – just inflaming passions.

LT. COL. RALPH PETERS: I think Tom would certainly have comments on that. One is, it is seen as he infidel intrusion by the Islamic extremists. Two, it’s a way to hit the great Satan America closer to home. But actually it works out quite well for us because with the terrorists rushing into Iraq and getting themselves killed by and large by our forces who are fighting them very effectively, we don’t have to deal with them here in Manhattan, Washington or Miami.

So we took the war on terror to our enemy’s camp, to Afghanistan and Iraq. It doesn’t mean it’s easy. This is going to drag on for a very long time. But we’re on the enemy’s ground. They don’t like it. They’re coming out trying to kill us. We’re killing them. That’s why it’s a war.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Mearsheimer, we heard the president talk a lot today about terrorism as being at the root of today’s events. That was his take on it. You just heard what Ralph Peters’ take. What is yours? Is al-Qaida a presence in this and why?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: I think this whole argument is delusional. First of all there was no terrorism problem for the United States with Iraq. The administration went to enormous lengths to make the argument that Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were linked at the hip. The fact of the matter is they produced no evidence to support that. So the idea that going into Iraq was part and parcel of winning the war on terrorism has not been borne out by events.

But, in fact, what has happened now that we’re in Iraq is we’ve forced al-Qaida and the remnants of the Ba’athist Party or of Saddam Hussein’s regime together. What’s happening is that al-Qaida people are now coming into Iraq and attacking American forces because it’s a target-rich environment. So we’re actually enlarging the terrorism problem, in fact, making our terrorism problem worse not better by going into Iraq. This just makes no sense at all.


THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Well, I don’t want to get… re-argue the war, okay? I do believe that this is a part of the world that is having a population explosion. There are more 15-year-olds in the area from Morocco to the border of India than any other part of the world I believe.

If we don’t partner with them, find a way to partner with them in some way to produce decent government, not perfect, not democracy but decent government with decent hopes and decent prospects, in a world without walls, Gwen, if you don’t visit a bad neighborhood, it’s going to visit you sooner or later. That’s what 9/11 was all about.

At the same time, we have to be smart about it. And we have to step up to it. There’s no nation building on the cheap, okay? And that’s what we’ve been doing here. This was an ill planned occupation in my view. We were not ready. We were not ready with the resources. We are not ready with the Iraqi partners. And we do not have an infinite amount of time. I believe we better get our act together and that means more resources to fix the infrastructure and getting Iraqis out front. They know the good guys from the bad guys.

GWEN IFILL: Ralph Peters, how to get the act together?

LT. COL. RALPH PETERS: Patience first of all. I’m in screaming agreement with Tom. This is important. We’ve got to do it right. It requires resources far more than we’ve committed. It will require an international effort. But Iraq is the Arab world’s last best hope.

If this… if a reasonably effective government, as Tom said not a perfect one, it’s not going to turn into Iowa but if we can’t help the Iraqis construct for themselves a reasonably equitable sort of functioning democracy it’s not going to happen anywhere in the Arab world, and that’s bad news not just for Arabs but for all of us.

GWEN IFILL: And, Mr. Mearsheimer, you have a chance to get in one last thought.

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Well, I think the idea that a great power like the United States is going to come across the Atlantic Ocean and invade and occupy and create an empire in the Middle East is again delusional.

The history of the 20th century is littered with fallen empires, the British Empire, the Dutch Empire, the French Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian Empire and even the early American empire.

One of the principal lessons we should have learned from the 20th century is that great powers cannot occupy and create empires in the Arab and Islamic world. And we made a huge mistake going in there earlier this year and there’s no way we’re going to get out without paying a god-awful price.

GWEN IFILL: John Mearsheimer, Ralph Peters and Tom Friedman, thank you all.