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Rationale for War in Iraq

July 16, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Now, to an assessment of the Bush administration’s rationale for the war in Iraq. For that we turn to James Schlesinger, he was director of the CIA during the Nixon administration, and secretary of defense during the Nixon and Ford administrations. And Madeleine Albright, she was secretary of state during the Clinton administration. Welcome to you both.

Mr. Schlesinger, we just heard General Abizaid talk about the prospects of a guerrilla war. Is this something that this administration should have expected?

JAMES SCHLESINGER: Well, the military establishment expected it. They expected to encounter resistance at the end of the normal military campaign, and if you listen to the reports of people from the field, the resistance is no greater than they anticipated. What the hopes were within the political establishment here, I cannot testify to.

GWEN IFILL: Is there a distinction between the hopes that were in the political establishment and the reality of what was happening in the field Ms. Albright?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I was going to say that if the military establishment thought it, they certainly didn’t convey that as far as I can tell to the political establishment. And the political establishment did not convey it to the American people who kind of thought that this was going to be easier and that while the war itself might have taken longer than people had thought, or actually was shorter than people had thought it was going to be, they, we have not, I think, been told the problems that are encountered now. And one of the issues always was not why this war, but why now and what next. And it’s that what next, I think, that has been very troubling in terms of lack of answers.

GWEN IFILL: And so the what next when we talk about open ended deployments and dangers, daily dangers, loss of American troops, the president responding bring ‘em on when asked about these dangers, all of this is something you don’t think this administration was prepared for?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, they certainly didn’t tell to it the American people, and I have to say I cringe every morning when I listen to the news and hear about the fact that one more American or three more Americans and British troops have died because I don’t think that we were prepared for that, or were not told enough about what the war would cost, both in terms of lives and in terms of treasure.

GWEN IFILL: Should she be cringing, as a former secretary of defense, or is this something that should have been expected no matter what was being said by the politicians?

JAMES SCHLESINGER: The war cost us less in terms of lives than we anticipated, because the war was far briefer than had been anticipated. The post-war period, there was resistance expected, it’s no worse than was anticipated, at least by the military establishment, and on the intelligence side there was a pretty good description of the kind of problems that the Fedayeen would represent after the war.

Now, as Mrs. Albright says, this was not conveyed fully to the American people, and in the work that we had done at the Council on Foreign Relations we urged the administration to lay out the full costs and the fact that we would have a lengthy stay in Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned intelligence, which takes us naturally to what is happening right now on Capitol Hill, which is that the senators are presumably talking to the CIA Director about what has happened with the intelligence, especially the intelligence leading up to the war. You’ve been following this, I presume. I guess I have to ask first of all, how does this happen, how does intelligence that turns out to be faulty, about whether Iraq was buying uranium from Africa, how did that get into the State of the Union speech, how could that happen?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, you know, I think that the problem here is that every White House obviously operates differently. But ultimately it is the responsibility of the White House, the people close to the president and the president himself about what is in the State of the Union message. I know from my experience that the preparation of the State of the Union message is very long, it involves all the departments. We in fact as a joke used to call it state of the onion because it had so many layers to it.

And all that material is provided to the White House, who then puts it into a speech, and it goes through many, many iterations. And ultimately the responsibility for what’s in the speech is at the National Security Council, at the people that are close to the president, and the president himself, so kind of blaming speech writers or the intelligence community for this I don’t think is appropriate.

GWEN IFILL: Do you find it at all troubling, Mr. Schlesinger?

JAMES SCHLESINGER: I think it’s clear that the intelligence community, and particularly George Tenet conveyed in October of last year that the intelligence community did not think there was sufficient evidence to say that the Iraqis had sought to purchase yellow cake from Niger. But having said that, it’s then the White House responsibility to see to it that what was denied in a speech in October did not reappear in a speech in January.

GWEN IFILL: But it’s not the White House saying we made a mistake this week, it’s the CIA Director saying it?

JAMES SCHLESINGER: George Tenet was a good soldier, he fell on his sword, I think that it’s plain that the agency’s performance in all of this has been quite commendable.

GWEN IFILL: If the agency is to be defended in this case and George Tenet has merely fallen on his sword, is there still someone who should be taking the blame who is not?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I’m not sure that pointing fingers and all that is particularly useful. What I did not find useful was blaming the agency for this. It happened. I think it’s very unfortunate. You asked about the rationale for the war. I think if you go back and you look at history, it often happens, Dean Atchison, for instance, wrote about how they hyped a lot of the danger after with the threat of communism in order to sell a program. It happens.

What troubles me more now is this finger pointing aspect of it. And Dr. Schlesinger knows about this as well as anybody. The material that comes in from the intelligence community is caveated in many different ways. There are many different opinions within it. If you want to know more, you can ask more questions. I gave very much the same kind of speeches about why Saddam Hussein was bad, but whenever –.

GWEN IFILL: Which this administration does not hesitate to cite, by the way.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Absolutely, when it’s useful to them. But I think that what is important here is we questioned the agency about material that I used and I tried to make sure it was always right, I had material declassified when I was at the U.N., in order to show the palaces that Saddam had built. But that’s different from trying to make your intelligence fit your theory. And I think that’s where some of the problems have come about.

GWEN IFILL: Is that what’s been happening here which is that the administration was trying to make the intelligence fit a theory?

JAMES SCHLESINGER: I don’t think so. The administration or some figures in the administration, as Mrs. Albright indicates, went out to the agency and asked questions. Sometimes the people, the analysts who are quite good, and I should emphasize that, think that they’re college professors and they should not be challenged, they should not be questioned. The reality is that they, policy makers ought to be questioning. You want to have a good interaction between the policy makers and the intelligence analysts. And that’s what happened.

Now, the intelligence product was a quality product. The intelligence community got correctly the nature of Saddam’s regime, the degree of resistance that was going to be encountered, that it might collapse very quickly. What the intelligence community could not do was to describe the post-war situation. Now, that intelligence was taken by the administration — as Mrs. Albright indicates, these are the policy makers, they have an agenda, they have a program to sell. They make their judgments about what our policy should be, and of course they emphasize those aspects that fit into the story.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s take a step back to what the overall rationale was. Basically three parts, we needed to disarm Saddam or find the weapons of mass destruction, we needed to remove Saddam Hussein from power and we needed to stop him from being able to develop nuclear weapons. That’s roughly what the arguments were. How do those arguments now stand up in knowing what we know at this point about what Saddam, who has not been found, about the weapons, which have not been found, and now about this uranium which apparently never was purchased.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I think the nuclear issue is the most debatable one. They clearly had had a nuclear program, but there was the question about where it was at the time that the rationale was being offered. And Mr. ElBaradei who is head of the International Atomic Agency, had said they weren’t having that program. So that one for me was the weakest.

I have, we believed, and I have been quoted many times about the fact that in 1998 when the inspectors were kicked out, we were concerned about the fact that Saddam was reconstituting his weapons of mass destruction, and he was without inspectors there for three and a half years, which is why I believed it should have been important to let those inspectors continue their work.

As I have said many times, I understood the rationale, the why of the war, but the why now, to me was a real question and the what next. And the why now came as a result of people saying, okay, there is a direct and immediate threat to us. And that rationale, I think, has not been proven.

GWEN IFILL: Is it important that we have not captured or located or even killed Saddam Hussein?

JAMES SCHLESINGER: It would certainly be desirable to capture him or kill him. We have not done so. He may or may not be directing the, what has been described by General Abizaid as a guerilla -type warfare. We should try to capture him. I think we may sooner or later get him. I think it even more likely that we will find clear evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Recall that the amount of weaponry that was left over after the UNSCOM inspectors got through in 1998, could have been contained in about three railroad cars.

GWEN IFILL: Evidence, I just want to clarify, evidence of the weapons themselves or evidence that there were programs to produce the weapons?

JAMES SCHLESINGER: Evidence of the weapons themselves could have been contained in three railroad cars. Now in addition, we are now finding documents which we are working our way through, which will I think lead us, assuming that the weaponry is still there, to those weapons.

GWEN IFILL: Given the debate that’s now going on about the prewar rationale and the postwar management of the war, the postwar war, where do you think the administration’s credibility stands at this point? We are already beginning to hear Democratic candidates for president begin to criticize the president, call for George Tenet’s resignation, et cetera.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, credibility is an issue and that is one of the problems when you actually make a statement that you can’t back up — I find it very interesting, Secretary Powell did not use that statement. There are two parts of the credibility. One is whether the weapons of mass destruction will be found, because that was basically what we were trying to get support for from the coalition. So it does not help our credibility abroad.

And the worst part about this is I feel, you know, I can understand what happened to President Bush, but the problem here is that we have other fish to fry, other very serious issues, in North Korea, what is happening with Iran, and once the credibility of the president of the United States is questioned it undermines us generally in the position in the world. So I am concerned not for political reasons, for American reasons, about the credibility.

JAMES SCHLESINGER: I think that’s right. I think that it is a mistake to challenge in a way that undermines the president’s credibility. Now Mrs. Albright is quite correct with regard to European opinion, but our credibility is much higher than it was before in the Middle East and the Arab world because we have won a stunning military victory. And it conveys the clear message, the United States is a very powerful country, it does not pay to attack or thwart that country, and if so you will pay a price.

And the net result is that Osama bin Laden, who said before the war, the people when they see a strong horse and a weak horse will naturally gravitate towards the strong horse. He described the United States as a weak horse. That message no longer sells in the Middle East.

GWEN IFILL: But coming full circle back to this question of questionable intelligence, one of the defenses that this administration has mounted is that the British gave them this information and that’s why they repeated it. The British are not saying that’s so, in fact they are still standing by the information they say they provided. Does the United States risk its credibility with its chief ally in this enterprise by having laid blame at its door for something they won’t even claim?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I think that it doesn’t help, especially since Tony Blair has gone out of his way to be a really good ally. And he’s having a very difficult time as a result of it. And it’s part of what I don’t like that is going on is the finger pointing — not me, it’s George Tenet, it’s Tony Blair.

GWEN IFILL: So Tony Blair comes to the United States tomorrow, comes to Washington, meets with the president — what does the president say to him in the wake of all this?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, he ought to say thank you for supporting me. But I don’t think we’ll clearly have a very intense discussion about where this intelligence information is from. But I think it’s a much wider issue here. I agree with Dr. Schlesinger about the problem here of credibility, it’s obviously very bad in Europe but it’s a mixed message even in the Middle East, we don’t know what Iran is up to, whether they believe that it’s actually probably better to get a nuclear program because we don’t attack countries that have them, we attack countries that we think might get them.

GWEN IFILL: What’s your take of our relationship with the United Kingdom?

JAMES SCHLESINGER: Well, I think that he should as Mrs. Albright said, say thank you to Tony Blair. I think that as we agreed before, that particular 16 words should not have been in the speech. And if we think something is true, we should say that it’s true, we should not say the British have learned or the British have told us or whatever. In the Middle East, one notices that the behavior of the forces on the Lebanese border has been much more circumspect since the victory of the United States in the Middle East and other nations are treating us with care, including Iran.

GWEN IFILL: James Schlesinger and Madeline Albright, thank you very much for coming in.