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Historical Perspectives: Ultimatum to Iraqi Leader Saddam Hussein

March 17, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: President Bush speaking from the White House.

Some perspective now on what the president just said from four historians. From Boston University: Robert Dallek who has written extensively on the American presidency and the history of American foreign policy; and Professor Emeritus Howard Zinn, author of “A People’s History of the United States and The Politics of History,” among others. Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations; and Diane Kunz, a diplomatic historian, formally at Yale University. She’s the author of “Butter and Guns: America’s Cold War, Economic Diplomacy.”

JIM LEHRER: Robert Dallek, has there ever been an ultimatum issued by a president of the United States like the one we just heard?

ROBERT DALLEK: Well, this is unique, I think. I’ve never quite seen like this before nor as a historian can I remember anything of this sort.

We have had preventive wars before. The Bay of Pigs was an operation the United States endorsed. That was a preventive operation. We were afraid that Castro was going to subvert the hemisphere. We helped topple Mosaddeq in Iran in 1953 but we didn’t give out the kind of speeches that Mr. Bush has just given.

It was an effective speech, I thought, but of course it’s not going to convert opponents who see lots and lots of questions that are going to come up in future days about this war.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Mead, just as a matter of history… hello? I’m sorry. Mr. Mead, just as a matter of history — was some made tonight?

Do you agree with Robert Dallek, a president of the United States looking at the television camera and telling the leader of another country you have 48 hours to get out of there?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: I think it’s a new departure. It shows how public diplomacy is changing real diplomacy, that increasingly the business of nations is taking place in public.

So you have the president of the United States making a public ultimatum to a foreign leader. It’s a remarkable development.

JIM LEHRER: Howard Zinn, do you agree?

HOWARD ZINN: Oh, I absolutely agree this is unique. And, it’s a shameful moment actually in American history, the idea that we are going to attack a nation that is not attacking us, that is not attacking anybody else.

This certainly is a very different moment in our history. And we really ought to think very carefully about how the reputation of the United States is going to be damaged for a very long time to come by what we are now doing.

JIM LEHRER: Diane Kunz, do you agree, a shameful moment in U.S. history?

DIANE KUNZ: Not at all. I think this is an evolution that grows out of the September 11 tragedy in America combined with the changing nature of international diplomacy in the post Cold War world.

JIM LEHRER: What about the point that the others were talking about as well — that a president of the United States looking out and telling a leader of another country, you must leave your own country.

Is that… do you agree with Walter Mead that that’s just the way things are right now, that that’s how things will be conducted from this point on possibly?

DIANE KUNZ: I think what’s interesting to remember is that what President Bush is doing is building on Wilsonian principles. Woodrow Wilson taking the United States into war in 1917 said, “We are going to war, we will expend our blood and treasure in order to safeguard principles.”

And, here is President Bush tonight again saying, “We are doing this at least in part for the betterment of the Iraqi people, risking our soldiers’ lives to create democracy in a country that has never known it.”

JIM LEHRER: So, Robert Dallek, as Diane Kunz is saying, it’s not that different actually.

ROBERT DALLEK: I think it’s different in that the United States has such extraordinary power. We’re going to be able I think in a matter of days to overwhelm the Iraqi military, but what’s difficult about all this is people around the world are so antagonistic to us for doing this.

In a sense they’ve turned Saddam Hussein into something of a hero, and Bush has become a kind of villain in – there are polls around the globe asking people who is the greater threat to peace, Mr. Bush or Saddam Hussein? It’s a very disturbing development. So this kind of diplomacy, which has given us in a sense in some ways a black eye, is worrisome.

JIM LEHRER: Whatever you think of what he said in terms of content, do you think he made his argument effectively tonight to the American people; this is why we’re doing it, et cetera?

ROBERT DALLEK: Yes. I think he’s been making this argument for quite a while. I don’t think people who were opposed to the war are going to be converted by what he said.

I think people who support him find confirmation in his language and in his words. And I think we’re going to see in this country and around the world an explosion of tension and division over what the United States is doing.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that Walter Mead?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: No, I actually think that in a way just as the stock markets have been going up as it looks like the crisis is going to be resolved quickly that probably we took much more damage in the run-up to war than we’ll take in the war itself.

I can’t predict the military course of action, but I think the president and many others now feel that further delay just creates more international tension, and the best thing we can do now is to move on and hopefully when the war is over and people see that the president was serious, as I believe he is, about the promises to build a better Iraq and have more freedom and more prosperity for average Iraqis and also as more evidence of the crimes of Saddam Hussein — the torture chambers and other things the president spoke of — are found and made public, I think we’ll see probably a swing of world opinion back toward the United States.

JIM LEHRER: Did you think he made an effective argument for his case tonight, Walter Mead?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Yes, I did. I think there are some ways that the argument could be made more strongly.

For example, I think the closest connection between Saddam Hussein and the events of Sept. 11 is that the cost of containing Saddam Hussein involves keeping U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. That destabilizes Saudi society. It creates a lot of tension in the Islamic world.

Actually Osama bin Laden formed al-Qaida because he broke with the Saudi government and became disgusted because they were allowing a permanent U.S. force.

If Saddam Hussein had kept his cease-fire agreement or if he had fallen from power in 1991 there wouldn’t have been that U.S. presence, there would never have been an al-Qaida. There probably would never have been a Sept. 11. The danger of doing nothing, of allowing sort of the poison to go on was growing, and I think the president could have made a stronger argument that the most peaceful, the safest course, is to act decisively now. But, even so, I think it was a good speech.

JIM LEHRER: Howard Zinn, what did you think of the president’s case for war?

HOWARD ZINN: Well, as Robert Dallek, says it’s the usual case but the one thing that is missing in so much of the discussion is that we are going to kill a lot of people in this operation. It’s all well and good to talk about the promise of a different Iraq, a democratic and free Iraq, a promise which is very dubious considering the history of the United States.

It’s a history in which it has not been very good at creating democracy, a history in which it has rather supported dictatorships around the world, but we are going to kill — and think of it this way — we talk about Saddam Hussein and what he’s doing to the people of Iraq — we are going to kill the victims of Saddam Hussein. The civilians of Baghdad are going to be living under terrorism.

We are concerned about terrorism. War is terrorism. The people of Baghdad are going to be terrorized. Shock and all, we are going to unleash enormous numbers of bombs on the cities and villages of Baghdad. Now we can’t… that is certain. What is uncertain is the future. When you face certain horrors in war and uncertainties about the outcome, morally you cannot go along with this war.

And I think that’s why most of the world is outraged at what the United States is about to do. They are right. President Bush is right now the greatest danger to world peace. He is also the greatest danger to our young men and women whom he is sending into combat. Those who die, not just those who die in Iraq, but those people in our armed forces who die, they will die because President Bush has grandiose ambitions for American power in the world. They will die because of oil. They will die because of politics. They will die because of the need of the United States government to expand its power. Those are not good reasons for people to die — there or here.

JIM LEHRER: I take it then you disagree with what Walter Mead just said that over time public opinion throughout the world will swing to the Bush position and the American position?

HOWARD ZINN: Nobody knows how public opinion will look. Predicting the future and predicting public opinion, we don’t know what is going to happen in the future.

We do know what is going to happen immediately. And what is going to happen immediately is that the United States is going to be really endangering the people of the United States, not just the people of Iraq because even the CIA has said that the threat of terrorism will grow if we go to war.

The United States government, by going to war, is making the American people less safe, is putting us in greatest danger. For Bush to talk about national security doesn’t make any sense. He is endangering the security of the United States just as he is endangering the security of the people in Iraq. I might say one more thing. Iraq was a real danger… just one more sentence.

If Iraq was a real danger to the world, then why is it that all the countries around Iraq and why is it that the countries of the rest of the world do not want to go to war? Why is it that the most powerful military country in the world with oceans on both sides is going to war against Iraq? The reasons are not the ones given by President Bush.

JIM LEHRER: We only have a couple minutes left. Let’s go to Diane Kunz and see if she would like to answer that question. How would you answer Howard’s question?

DIANE KUNZ: Well, the first point I’d like to make is the reason there’s going to be a war in Iraq if there will be one will be Saddam Hussein.

It is Saddam Hussein for 12 years who has refused to disarm, who’s refused to get rid of weapons of mass destruction. He still has an opportunity to leave. So to say that it is American government’s fault that there may be a war in two days or five days or whenever is just ludicrous. Moreover, I think what President Bush — made the point today and I hope he makes it more clearly is that the preeminent issue for the next 20 years is how many countries will have weapons of mass destruction and how many individuals will be able to get those weapons of mass destruction illegally?

And what President Bush is trying to do, I believe, is to make it very clear that the price for the proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons will be extremely high. In this way, he is definitely safeguarding American and world security.

JIM LEHRER: What about Howard Zinn’s point though that meanwhile some Iraqis and possibly some Americans are going to die?

DIANE KUNZ: Well, this is impasse to which Saddam Hussein has brought us. When we ask… the slogan “war is not the answer.” Well, it depends on the question. And right now, if the United States backs down, we will have sustained, as Winston Churchill said after Munich, defeat without war. That is the worst-case scenario.

JIM LEHRER: Is there any one of you who believes that Saddam Hussein will actually leave in the next 48 hours? Mr. Mead? Mr. Dallek?

ROBERT DALLEK: I’m hoping so.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: No, I don’t think there’s any chance. But I’d like to say in terms of the killing of civilians that the sanctions regime actually kills one to five thousand civilians — children under five — a month which is the number of people who… civilians who died in the Gulf War. The status quo is not peace in Iraq. The status quo is a slow war and civilians are dying. So I think ending the slaughter of civilians is a legitimate goal of the government.

JIM LEHRER: This is a discussion that is only beginning tonight. Thank you all four for joining us. We will continue this on this program and elsewhere in this country and in the world.