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Dissention and the Iraq War

March 19, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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KWAME HOMAN: It began on Monday with a speech by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I’m saddened, saddened that this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we’re now forced to war, saddened that we have to give up one life because this president couldn’t create the kind of diplomatic effort that was so critical for our country.

KWAME HOLMAN: Yesterday, Republican leaders in Congress lined up to denounce Daschle’s remarks. House Speaker Dennis Hastert released a statement saying: “Those comments may not undermine the president as he leads us into war, and they may not give comfort to our adversaries, but they come mighty close.” Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum questioned the timing of Daschle’s comments.

SEN. RICK SANTORUM: …Particularly when our troops are about to step off. It was unfortunate, it was disappointing, it was uncalled for, and I hope he thinks better of it and retracts his statement.

KWAME HOLMAN: And at the White House, spokesman Ari Fleischer, in a statement, said of Daschle: “He’s essentially blaming Bush for the fact that we may be on the verge of war.” Later in the day Sen. Daschle said he would stand by his comments.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: But I do think we have to be honest and open in a democracy. I think to do anything less is unpatriotic. And I’m going to continue to speak out where I think I have a responsibility to do so.

KWAME HOLMAN: And then this afternoon West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd, the Senate’s most vocal critic of Pres. Bush’s Iraq policy, spoke once last time before the expected war.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD: The case that this administration tries to make to justify its fixation with war is tainted by charges of falsified documents and circumstantial evidence. We cannot convince the world of the necessity of this war for one simple reason. This is not a war of necessity, but a war of choice.

KWAME HOLMAN: Arizona Republican John McCain followed Byrd, disagreeing with what Byrd had to say, but not questioning his right to say it.

JIM LEHRER: And that brings us to Brzezinski and Mead. Zbigniew Brzezinski is a professor of American foreign policy at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He was the national security adviser during the Carter administration. Walter Russell Mead is a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. His recent book Special Providence is an historical look at the U.S. and the world.

Dr. Brzezinski, how do you feel about dissent at a time like this?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Just for the record, let me add I’m connected also to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

JIM LEHRER: Sorry about that.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: On dissent, it seems to me as long as we’re not yet at war, it’s perfectly appropriate for people to disagree as to whether the policy of diplomacy was conducted well or not — whether we should be going into war or not — but if you are not a pacifist and therefore totally against war, once war starts I think particularly in the early phases, our attitude has to be one of wishing for quick success, for complete success, for as bloodless a success as possible.

JIM LEHRER: Walter Mead?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I basically agree with that. I think when you are in a war as a citizen of a democracy, you do have a right and a responsibility to say something when you have strong moral convictions. I think Abraham Lincoln opposed the Mexican War and lost his seat in Congress I think as a result. But you also have to think about — we’ve got — all around you are people who have family members and loved ones who are fighting; this particular war, both Houses of Congress have endorsed it. It’s being done legally. Unless you are a pacifist and opposed to all war, I think once the shooting starts, you need to kind of take — and give it a rest.

JIM LEHRER: Much has been said about — moving on here now for a moment — much has been said about the risks that are involved in this enterprise when it begins – if it begins later tonight, it begins tomorrow, it begins over the weekend — there is very little chance now that it isn’t going to begin. When you look at it, Dr. Brzezinski, what do you think the president is risking either for himself or for us or for the world? How do you view it in risk terms?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: If we’re talking specifically about risks, I think the short range risks are perhaps to his credibility. For example, if there are no weapons of mass destruction — they are not used, they are not there — that certainly would damage his credibility. There are short range risks if they are used, and are very damaging to our troops, a lot of casualties. There are risks if the military operation bogs down in part because of weather, in part because of unexpectedly strong resistance. The longer run risks I think are the more likely ones, namely that we may get bogged down in Iraq; that our position in the region will become more difficult, that the United States itself will be more a target of terrorism and that American leadership world worldwide will be de-legitimated. Now, these are not predictions, you asked me about risks — those are the risks. And I think it will be very important to see what we can do in some cases when we have a choice to avoid them.

JIM LEHRER: What would you add or subtract from the list?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I would add maybe the risk that we don’t take full use of the opportunities that may come with the victory. I mean, if the war is as short and as relatively bloodless as we’re hoping, and if the Iraqis welcome the Americans into Iraq, here is a real opportunity for the president to in a sense give a lie to some of the anti-American propaganda that’s going around. We have seen him moving toward some kind of a renewed peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians — that is very important. I think moving U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia, as soon as that’s feasible, is a powerful signal — being very transparent in how we handle the oil and humanitarian issue for the Iraqis so that we’re clearly not stealing their oil, and then using the opportunity to try to rebuild bridges with some of the allies who didn’t stand as close beside us as we might have hoped in the crisis. But I think failing to capitalize on the potent for success may be one of the great hidden risks of the conflict.

JIM LEHRER: More so than — you agree with Dr. Brzezinski — that’s a bigger risk in some ways than the short-term risk?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Right, war of course is if full of risks yet uncertain — I mean, when the Civil War started — you know — half of Congress rode out to Bull Run to watch the quick and glorious battle that would lead to the collapse of the Confederacy. And it was a four-year disaster. Things happen in war that you don’t expect. No battle plans survive contact with the enemy. So there are all — you know, the god of war is a very, very unpredictable fellow. And we don’t know what is going to happen. The risks are enormous.

JIM LEHRER: Have we been told about the god of war enough do you think?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: We probably have been saturated too much with the advanced technology of war and the implicit message being that we’re so vastly superior that we may not be prepared for sudden shocks but I think the probabilities are quite high that militarily it’s going to be essentially a very one-sided conflict. And it may not even last all that long. What Walter mentioned about the missed opportunities I think is a very good point. I think we face an enormous challenge of very great complexity with the risks but if we prevail quickly we have a major opportunity which we may squander because I’m not sure that we’re really in the mood to do the good things that Walter mentioned. Are we really serious about moving on the Israeli Palestinian peace issue? Are we really serious on the other issues?

JIM LEHRER: Why do you say that?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Because we’ve been so stand-offish; we’ve been so passive. I think it’s quite evident, for example, that the president’s statement last week on the road map for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was essentially precipitated by requests from Blair that he say something like this to help Blair and to convince the Europeans that we’re serious about peace. If we win quickly, we might very well take the attitude, well, there is nothing to it. You see it was very easy — we really don’t need to do these things.

JIM LEHRER: You share those apprehensions?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: I do, and I also think there is a good chance we may be distracted by other members of the axis of evil or other festering international crises. You know, when this Iraq thing is over, there is still North Korea; there is still Iran; there is still al-Qaida, there are failed states. There are still terrorist groups trying to get a hold of weapons of mass destruction. So I think what we are going to see in the aftermaths of Iraq is that the United States is going to face a kind of a possibly an overload, sensory overload of so many crisis, so many problems the Bush administration seems to be more comfortable with dealing with the securities side of the situation, and sometimes less interested in the slow, sometimes frustrating diplomatic processes that some of the other problems require. So it’s going to be a real test of their statesmanship. It’s going to be a real test of our ability as a people.

I mean in a sense, if we fight and win this war the way we hope we’re going to, then a lot of that talk about America the superpower, the hyperpower, America the leader of the world, the unipolar nation in a unique moment of power is going to seem very, very true to a lot of people. And I don’t know that all of us have thought through just how much responsibility comes with that kind of power.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Can I just add something to that?

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: You know, we look at the American military performance since World War II. We haven’t really won any war decisively yet. Korea was a standoff. Vietnam was essentially a defeat. Somalia was an embarrassment. Kosovo was kind of a victory with accommodation and Milosevic only feel months later. The first Iraqi war left Saddam in power. Yes, we won in Grenada; we won in Panama, but these are hardly big victories — it’s like putting a NFL team against a high school team. If we win big this time, there could be rather dangerous hubris, kind of a feeling, gee, we can do anything we want so we go after Syria or we go after Iran next. And there may be pressures for to us do that. And then we’ll forget about the agenda that Walter and I have been talking about.

JIM LEHRER: You both — you share that concern — right, the hubris concern, if we’re too successful too quickly?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: I think hubris will be a factor. I think also is fear will be a factor. That Sept. 11 really did have a powerful impact on the American mind. And people have been deluged ever since with stories of terrorists here, there, with various kind of attempts, duct tape, all of this kind of thing. And I do think that the combination of relief at the victory and war and pride in our forces plus this underlying fear could lead to unwise policies, I’m not predicting that it’s going to happen but I think it’s a real possibility.

JIM LEHRER: A lot riding on this?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Everything is riding on this. Ultimately our global leadership is riding on this. It’s not Saddam that is the issue; it’s whether America can lead, lead constructively and in a way that others respect it.

JIM LEHRER: Gentlemen, thank you both very much. And as the days continue, we’ll be talking to both of you together like this again and again and again. Thank you both.