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interview: dennis ross

What is the debate that is ongoing in Washington right now over the direction to go in terms of Iraq?

I think the debate is being misportrayed right now. I think the debate is being simplified into, we're going to go after Iraq, or we're not going to go after Iraq. There are those who say we need to go after Iraq because we're not going to be able to deal with the scourge of terror unless we do, and there are those who say it'll tax the coalition too much; [that] we won't be able to hold everything together. What underlies this is a different kind of premise. There are two points of view, and while Iraq is an element that expresses itself in these two points of view, it's much more an excuse than the key factor driving it.

On the one hand, there's a view that basically is much more unilateralist in terms of suggesting how we should proceed -- unilateralist from the point of saying, "This was a colossal attack on the United States. The only way that it can be understood internationally that we responded effectively is if it's clear that we're prepared to proceed on our own." The unilateralist argument, I would say, does not mean that those who make it feel that we should go alone. But they believe that we're more likely to have the coalition we need if everyone understands that we're prepared to go it alone.

The other side of it feels that we really have to do this in concert with others, and that means having a broad coalition. Anything that would threaten that coalition is something that you have to be very careful of. Not to oversimplify ... but the people who are the coalition types, who are more inclined towards a multilateral approach, also still may want to pursue a comprehensive set of objectives. But they're more inclined to do it sequentially.

So the real difference between the two is one side is more unilateralist in its orientation -- not because it's against a coalition, but because it feels the enduring coalition we need will come from those who understand we're going to act, and they will then adjust to that reality -- versus another side, who see we need a broad coalition to create an aura of legitimacy about what we do; therefore let's focus on first things first -- the Taliban, Osama bin Laden -- because that doesn't strain that coalition. Don't take on other issues that will bring into question at least some who might otherwise participate.

Dennis Ross was special Middle East coordinator in the Clinton administration and director of the State Department's policy planning office during the George H. W. Bush administration. He tells FRONTLINE that while many argue that a U.S. attack on Iraq would destroy the solidarity of the coalition against terrorism, he believes the political "bandwagon effect" will play a crucial role: if the U.S. appears to be successful, it will be easier to sustain the coalition. He was interviewed in mid-October 2001.

But the way it's been defined in the press, at least to this point, is that the Wolfowitz folk -- Rumsfeld, to some extent, and Cheney, to some extent -- are believers in the fact that you're missing the point if one doesn't understand that Iraq is the real focus here, for many reasons, and there's lots of evidence that is played out. Is that not the case?

There is a feeling that you're not going to be able to resolve this scourge of terror if you don't deal with Iraq, and there's a particular moment now, because we're mobilized. Forget the rest of the world; we're mobilized, we understand the affront is so egregious that we have to act. And underlying this perception is an assumption that maybe the moment won't last, so you should act while you have the moment. I think that's what moves them. ...

But doesn't [the multilateral view] also include the idea that, if you lose your coalition, you lose your ability to fight the fight?

There's a very strong impulse on the part of those who believe in the multilateral coalition, a multilateral approach, that if we lose the context of legitimacy in which we act, if we lose an environment where we have very wide consensus about doing this, we'll find it harder and harder to succeed. That's why I think that they are inclined not to strain that coalition.

So what is the worry over the idea that the United States might decide to go after Saddam Hussein and go back to Iraq?

With the broad coalitionists -- for want of a better term -- I think their view is that you'll lose those in the Arab world who otherwise would be your partners, because they're not prepared to join with you right now against Iraq. Those who were prepared to join with you against Iraq a decade ago felt an immediate threat from Iraq, which is why they were prepared to do so. Today they don't feel that threat; they don't think their own publics would be with them, and therefore they're much less inclined to support a move against Iraq at this point -- at least, certainly, much less inclined to publicly support a move against Iraq. ...

Are the broad coalitionists correct? What does happen to the coalition if, indeed, the second target in our war is Iraq, or possibly the first target?

My own view is that you have to look at this with one other factor in mind, and that's the success of your initial moves. I believe that influences whether or not the coalition hangs together or not, more so than the target. In other words, if we succeed in removing the Taliban, if we succeed in getting Osama bin Laden and his network, then that sends a message to everyone else that we're serious and we will be successful.

There is, in political science theory, the notion of the bandwagon effect. I think in the Middle East in particular there's a notion of the bandwagon effect -- there's a tendency to go with the winner. If we look successful, we're going to find it's easier to sustain the coalition. If we do not look successful, it doesn't matter. We're going to find it's much harder to sustain that coalition.

There's two parts to this coalition: there's the U.K. and France and Russia and others, the Western powers, and then there's the Arab allies. Let's talk first about the Western allies. How does a decision towards Iraq affect that coalition?

At this point, it may also strain that coalition. It's not difficult for everybody to take on the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, because there's a consensus that they're beyond the pale; they're irrational. Therefore everyone can understand there's an important need to do something, and if they're the ones responsible, do it against them.

When it comes to Iraq, there are different agendas that may be at play. Certainly the French and the Russians in particular have been mindful of looking at potential economic opportunities down the road with Iraq and feeling that Iraq can be contained without acting militarily against them. ...

We know where Baghdad is. We don't know where the cave is that bin Laden is in. How does that affect the debate or the possibilities of making a decision one way or the other?

I do think that does affect, to some extent, the psychology of those who might be debating this issue internally, because I think the one thing that unites both is the premise that we do need to have some demonstrable sign of success -- not only because of what it means to us psychologically, but because of the impact it has internationally. You're going to have very few states that continue to act as sanctuaries for terrorist groups if they see that regimes fall because of it.

So on both sides of this debate there's an impulse, "Let's be successful." Now, it may well be that some believe that Iraq is a larger target, both in terms of its impact, but also the significance of taking out Saddam Hussein would have that much more of an impact, and it would be easier to do. ...

One wild card in all that, of course, is one of the things you said that would point us towards Iraq, and possibly even flip priorities: the connection to biological. Intelligence folks back in Iraq have always talked about the weaponry as a weapon of last resort. Do they have a blackmail weapon, a potential very, very damaging weapon that they could use against us in case we do go full-bore at them?

I don't know the answer to that. But I think that if they were in a position to do that, they would want us to know. It can't be surprise; otherwise it doesn't have the effect. It would be designed, as you put it, to inhibit us or intimidate us from going after them. You can't be intimidated unless you know there's a factor there that you have to take into account. At this point they deny it, so rather than trumpeting it, they deny it. ...

We've talked to the INC representative, and there is a feeling that the Saudis and others are not very interested in us going after Iraq, and would in fact cause lots of problems for us as far as the coalition, if we decided to go in that direction. Their feeling, and others that have said this, is that because they don't particularly want to see a democratic Iraq, because that causes an example which doesn't make them look very good next to. What's your take on that?

I don't read it that way. I see it much more driven by the immediacy of a threat versus what looks to be a more abstract threat, a more distant one. In 1990, the immediacy of the threat was overwhelming. Today, rightly or wrongly, they don't view him as an immediate threat. They have in the back of their mind, "If he ever becomes a threat again, we always have you to call on at that point." Right now, because they feel that there's an image in the Arab world that we punish the Iraqi people, and that is seen as somehow unacceptable, they don't want to be associated with that imagery because that, they think, will put pressure on them.

How much pressure?

Well, you're dealing with regimes that are not exactly comfortable and confident in their rule. So what we might think objectively speaking isn't meaningful pressure for them is, because they don't have the kind of wherewithal to have a cushion, in their eyes. And if they see something that makes them potentially vulnerable, they don't want to deal with it. ...

In this situation, can we go it alone? Should we go it alone?

It depends on what one means by "going it alone." Certainly if you want to choke off the money for groups, we can't go it alone. If you want to create international watch lists so these guys can't travel from one place to another or they get arrested if they do, you can't go it alone. If you want to get rid of sanctuaries, you're going to find it pretty difficult to go it alone. When it comes to the use of force, it's nice to have support. That's where you're going to find the main tension.

There are points where being prepared to go it alone makes it more likely that others will take you seriously, and will decide it's less risky to be associated with you. Part of the problem in the Arab world is also a sense that we're not serious, that we don't sustain anything we do. If they sign up with us, we get them out on a limb, but [if] we decide to call it off at a certain point, they're still out on a limb. So being successful on the one hand, sending an unmistakable sign of seriousness on the other, is also a way to help generate a coalition.

That isn't to say you discount sensibilities. But it's also to recognize that there is a strong impulse to go with this if they're satisfied that we, in fact, will see this through. ...

As far as you see, does attacking Iraq solve our problem? To what extent does it solve the big problem?

I think it's part of the solution. If you took care of Iraq but you didn't take care of the other, you'd still have a problem. If you take care of Osama bin Laden and his network, but you don't deal with Iraq, you still have a problem. So I think you are going to have to deal with it one way or the other, and I don't see Saddam Hussein as being someone who is going to change who he is. I see very little prospect of that. To think that you won't be able to deal with Iraq at some point is probably not realistic.

But again, you also have to think about first things first. I don't have a problem with a comprehensive set of objectives in a sequential approach. I also don't have a problem with the idea in the sequential approach that, if you succeed in the early going, you'll find that it becomes easier to do some of the other things you want to do. ...

If there was one piece of evidence that would turn the tide in the administration's view of the necessity of turning towards Iraq, what is it?

There may be two different things that would create that change in direction, which I think is what you're really asking. One is that it turns out that the trail of evidence on September 11 leads to a direct Iraqi connection; you know, the talk about Atta having met with Iraqi intelligence agents. [If] we end up picking up different threads that make it pretty clear that Iraqis were key to facilitating movement, organizing the plan and so on, that would have an electric effect, because given the catastrophe that was here, an Iraqi connection to that would trigger a direct response. I don't think it would lead to a lot of discussion.

The other would be if it turns out that the DNA signature of the anthrax basically corresponds to what we know about what's been developed in the Iraqi labs. Same thing, because it brings them directly into conflict with us in a way that can be only described in terms of being terror. ... I suspect, with regard to the anthrax, there's always going to be a degree of ambiguity that might tend to militate against as immediate and as pronounced a response as anything like the Sept. 11 would have. ...

We did an interview with Jim Woolsey the other day, and he stated that, basically, one of the reasons we're where we are is because of ten years of "feckless" policies versus Iraq. What's your attitude about the way we have dealt with Iraq?

I do think there is a problem in terms of what our policy towards Iraq has been, because there's been a big gap between what our stated objectives were and what our actually policy was. The efforts made against Iraq didn't fit what the objective was. As time went by, we scaled down the objective to containment, but early on, we had a very different kind of objective. It gets back to a point I made earlier about others, especially in the Middle East. We talked in a way that suggested we were going to get him. We acted in a way that made it clear we would not. ...

What was the Arab nations' point of view towards, for instance, President Clinton's response after the attempted assassination on President Bush?

They might have viewed that as the moment at which we should do something that was more sustained. What we did was [go] after the intelligence, those we thought were behind this, and hitting their building. Again, that as a punitive response as opposed to something that was tied to a longer-term objective.

One of the big pieces of evidence that keeps coming up, and will be coming up over and over again, is the tie-in to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. That is one of the big pieces of puzzle that people say you must understand if you understand how we missed Iraq's involvement. What's your take on that?

I think all of that is linked back to Ramzi Yousef and a strong feeling that we didn't pursue where that path was going to lead. People like Jim Woolsey say we didn't pursue it because we didn't want to know where it was going to lead. I don't tend to view it that way. I tend to view it as being more of a case of, we had a series of assumptions, and we acted on those assumptions.

I take the view that one of the things that we need to do right now is to have a very serious post-mortem of what our assumptions had been on terror -- not in the last year or two, but in the last ten years, across the board. Where have we been right, and where have we been wrong? When we've been wrong, why have we been wrong? What is it we didn't pursue that, in retrospect, it now looks like we should have pursued? What is it that these groups seem to develop about their understanding of us that we lacked in our understanding of them? ...

We're talking about an event in 1993. Isn't a little late to do a postmortem after this Sept. 11 event on something that took place after 1993?

You may not start with 1993, but you may have to work back with it. In 1995, one of those who was originally part of that whole plot was arrested in the Philippines and turned over to us. And he made it clear that one of their objectives was to hijack a plane and crash it into the CIA building. That was something that was, obviously, discounted. Where do you start your postmortem?

That's interesting, especially if that same individual is tied into Iraqi intelligence.

That's true. But we don't seem to have drawn conclusions like that, and I can't tell you why. I was not a part of those kinds of explorations or examinations. But I do think you probably do need an independent group to go and take a look at everything. ...

There are two exiles from Iraq who state that they were at Salman Pak. The point that they're making very strongly is that Iraqis, for many, many years, have been training terrorists -- not only Iraqi terrorists, not only Iranian terrorists, but other fundamentalists, others from Arab nations. The hint is perhaps bin Laden's folk. How does that change or add to the debate? And is evidence like that essential to understand in this debate?

One of our problems is, at this stage, we don't know what we don't know. That's an endemic problem when you've had a strategic surprise, a colossal failure. At this stage, there's all sorts of information that's fed in. You don't want to overreact to a strategic surprise by suddenly embracing things that are also, frankly, not credible. But you don't want to discount things that were discounted simply because you operated on a set of assumptions that turned out to be wrong.

These are the types of things that ought to be pursued. But when it comes to Iraq, we discovered the biological weapons that they're engaged in because of the defection of Saddam Hussein's son-in-law. The inspectors didn't turn it up. So to feel highly confident that we know what we need to know at this stage, I'd be highly skeptical. Anybody who wants to exude confidence about what we know after Sept. 11, I think you've got to approach with a reserve of doubt.

When you're at war, you don't need the evidence that you need to bring a terrorist to a courtroom and convict him. But that also leads to the possibility of mistakes made -- large mistakes. What is the overview on that question, and how does one carefully weight this information coming through so that you end up with the right end?

It's like anything else. When you want to validate a proposition, you want to see if there's other ways to corroborate it; are there other ways to validate it? If you're getting one bit of information from only one source and it's not corroborated from any other source, then at least you have a reason to be reserved in how you view it.

In almost every case, you're going to find that there are different ways to connect the threads. I think we're going to find after Sept. 11, as time goes by and when a serious post-mortem is done, we're going to see -- just like any case of strategic surprise, whether it was Pearl Harbor or it was the 1973 war -- we're going to find all the indicators were there that we needed. Maybe not as many as we would have liked, but all that we needed, but we discounted them or we misread them based on a set of different assumptions.

You have to also reassess your own assumptions. Which assumptions did we have that seem to have been borne out, and which assumptions did we have that seemed to just be wrong? Is there a correlation between some of the wrong assumptions and some of the people who provided information that we discounted? And if it turned out that there is, then you go back and you look at those who provided information and say, "Maybe in fact what they had to say we should have taken far more seriously."

You've sort of led us back to the importance of the coalition as far as intelligence, it seems.

When it comes to intelligence, you've got to have a coalition. There's no two ways about it. But here again, let me make one point that I think is important: There are some in this coalition who will limit whatever they do no matter what the circumstances are, for their own reasons. ... So the threshold on how high they'll go in terms of really being a vocal, visible, overt part of the coalition is going to be limited regardless.

The threshold below which they go will also be limited, because Osama bin Laden and this network and other networks that they're related to are a threat to them. We didn't create that threat; that threat is there, and we know it's a threat to them. So there's going to be a level of cooperation regardless. Even if the environment isn't great, they're still going to cooperate at a certain level.

Certain kinds of cooperation, for example, in the intelligence area, can be done with no visibility. So, yes, we need the cooperation in intelligence and law enforcement, but that's not highly visible; that doesn't put them under stress. And it responds to their own self-interest. When they work with us against Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban, it's not a favor done to us, it's an act of self-defense, and we need to understand that. So some coalitions will exist without enormous effort on our part; some coalitions that require greater visibility will become much more difficult.

Is it in regard to their own welfare to help us in regards to Iraq?

If they decide that Iraq is becoming more of a threat to them again, yes. If they decide that they're less certain of that, then they'll be more reserved and be more distant. On the other hand, none of them would cry crocodile tears if Saddam Hussein were to disappear. ...

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