Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2004; 12:00 PM
Washington Post foreign policy reporter Peter Slevin comes to the Web to discuss the latest developments in U.S. foreign policy -- from the State Department to the frontlines in Iraq, join Slevin every Thursday to discuss the diverse factors that shape U.S. foreign policy and how it impacts our lives and the world.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Peter Slevin: Hello, everyone. Sorry I'm a few minutes late. Lots of questions. Let's get started.
Yesterday the group Diplomats and Military Commanders for Change release a statement highly critical of the Bush administration's foreign policy, and called for his defeat in November. Given that the signatories have been involved in foreign policy at high levels, and come from varied political backgrounds, do you think this will have an effect on the election, or is it too much an inside-the-beltway event?
washingtonpost.com: Retired Envoys, Commanders Assail Bush Team, (Post, June 17)
Peter Slevin: It is, indeed, an impressive group. More so because it includes a number of respected Republicans who say they have soured on President Bush because of his handling of foreign policy.
The members of the group have told me they've been deluged with interview and speech requests since the story broke in the Post and the Los Angeles Times on Sunday. They're now trying to figure out how to keep up their early momentum.
Will their statement make a difference in the election?
November is a long way away, but I believe that national attitudes are formed cumulatively. The criticism they've added to the debate -- particularly at a time when many Americans are growing more glum about Iraq and national security -- is another chink in the administration's armor.
Everyone has seemed to forget George Bush's comment amid great fanfare of "Bring Them On." Isn't that what has happened in Iraq?
Be careful what you wish for it may come true.
Peter Slevin: That's a phrase and a sentiment that made military commanders -- and a lot of other people -- wince. It is worth recalling.
I would bet the farm, or anything else, that if Saddam is turned over to the Iraqis, he will be free in a month or less, and running the country inside of a year. Any takers?
Peter Slevin: That very possibility worries the Bush administration and complicates the task of giving Iraqis control of Iraqi prisons and prisoners.
Since shortly after the war, the administration has been consistent in saying that it would turn detainees over to Iraq only when U.S. authorities were confident that Iraq could handle the job.
If Hussein got away, it would be a huge blow to the White House -- remember Tora Bora? -- and that makes me think the Bush administration will be extra careful on this one.
Ellicott City, Md.:
Bush now states there is an al Qaeda/Saddam connection. Comments?
Peter Slevin: President Bush and, especially, Vice President Cheney have long insisted there was a Hussein/al Qaeda connection -- and have used words to leave listeners with the (wrong) impression that Hussein was somehow connected with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Cheney earlier this year said the evidence was "overwhelming."
The 9/11 commission yesterday said there were contacts, but no "collaborative relationship" between al Qaeda and Iraq.
Asked about it this morning, President Bush said this:
"The reason I keep insisting that there was a
relationship between Iraq and Saddam and al Qaeda, because there was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda."
Then he shifted to more comfortable ground, saying that Hussein was a "threat."
First we tell the world there were WMD, and there weren't. And now Cheney keeps insisting there's a link between Iraq and al Qaeda, when the 9/11 commission, the CIA, the FBI and others say there wasn't.
Have you seen any impact about this from foreign governments? Have they talked about a "credibility gap" on the part of the U.S.? Have we seen indications that they are less willing to believe what we tell them, or they don't trust America's word anymore? I'm not asking about popular opinion or "anti-Americanism," but rather whether in the foreign policy government-to-government area there has been an impact or not?
Peter Slevin: You ask an important question, it seems to me. The more the administration's case against Saddam Hussein is seen as full of holes, the more difficult it will be for the Bush administration to persuade other countries to act on the basis of U.S. intelligence.
There is a credibility gap. I've heard foreign diplomats question U.S. intelligence on North Korea and Iran, two places where the Bush administration is taking a harder line and trying to win the support of sometimes skeptical allies.
Any number of intelligence specialists have said publicly that the Bush administration has done the profession and U.S. interests great harm.
Farragut West, Washington, D.C.:
Handing off some authority to a provisional Iraqi government on June 30 seems to be a smart political move for the Bush administration. This will help them to convince many U.S. voters that were making progress. Will the Iraqi public buy it?
Peter Slevin: That's the 64,000 dinar question.
Much will depend on the ability of Ayad Allawi, the interim prime minister, and his colleagues to deliver results. He's a formidable political figure, but if the goal is to show that the Iraqi government is not simply an extension of the U.S. government, Allawi will likely be handicapped by his support from the CIA and the fact that the Bush administration played a significant role in his selection.
Back in 1998, both houses of Congress overwhelmingly supported a regime change in Iraq. The issue for them was the perceived weapons of mass destruction that Saddam either had or was trying to get. Why do you think the president needed to resort to the link with terror when he had so much support to change the Iraqi regime otherwise?
Peter Slevin: Because, on national security matters, the White House has made the "war against terrorism" its raison d'etre. You see it in President Bush's rhetoric to this day.
The increase in attacks on Iraqi civilians... is it because the enemy is working harder before the June 30 deadline, because the U.S. military has become so casualty averse that we're holed up on our bases, or because they've adopted more lethal tactics?
Peter Slevin: It's hard to say, though signs--identified by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and others--point to increasing violence in anticipation of the June 30 handover.
Overall, the bad guys seem intent on derailing not just the U.S. occupation, but any Iraqi institutions that might follow. Today's car bomb targeted new Iraqi security forces. Earlier this week, explosions hammered the oil industry. Prominent political leaders have been targeted, and killed.
One school of thought holds that U.S. troops hurt themselves by launching searches that killed innocents or destroyed their homes. The counter argument is that the tactics are the only thing that can stop the insurgents and their brothers in arms.
How do you answer the question on the legality of the "War" on terrorism? If only Congress can declare war and there has been no formal declaration, does this not create some legal and constitutional questions? I know the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution in October of 2001 giving the President authority to do what was necessary to defend America. But I am still at a loss as to the legal definition of war?
Peter Slevin: In this case, the war on terrorism is a war if the president says it is. Think "war on poverty" or "war against drugs." And distinct from a more usual, literal concept of war as a massing of military might, e.g., the world wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq I and Iraq II.
Even in the case of U.S. mobilization, disputes continue to simmer over the meaning of the War Powers Act and the powers of Congress to intercede.
Washington, D.C. - HOLD ON!:
The European press has been reporting since winter that bin Laden was captured by the U.S. and is being shuttled from camp to camp, and that the administration is going to triumphantly announce his capture in time for the "event" to bump Bush's numbers before the election. Why no such coverage here, especially when numerous irregularities about documenting exactly who is in custody have been uncovered?
Peter Slevin: Doesn't pass the smell test. Sorry.
(Though given the news that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved hiding a "ghost prisoner" from the International Committee of the Red Cross, truth sometimes seems as troubling as fiction.)
Based on the 9/11 Commission and recent events, it appears that not only has the Bush administration completely failed at fighting terrorism, they have at best been dupes of radical Islamists.
Invasions and inhumane treatment have served as a recruitment tool for al Qaeda and others. An agent of the Ayatollahs (Chalabi) provided false evidence to destroy Iraq, a secular country not aligned with al Qaeda. (unique in the region for being secular, although not in brutality towards its citizens) Bush has ruined the 60 year-old alliance with Europe, and undermined democracy at home.
I mean, could this have worked out any better for bin Laden if he himself were appointed President in 2000? The Bushies have turned the U.S. into a rogue state, nearly alone in the world, and should face trial in the Hague for their actions. Can the reputation of the U.S. ever be fixed, or have we completely crossed the line now?
Peter Slevin: Without addressing each aspect of your interpretation, it's safe to say that if Osama Bin Laden intended to rattle the United States and create a recruiting boom for radical Islam, he must be rubbing his hands now in glee.
And that, according to the 9/11 report, is exactly what he hoped to do. The chain of events since then has been nothing short of remarkable, some intended by the White House, many not.
Has Al Sadr basically beaten the U.S.? For someone who a few months ago was wanted for murder, and who has led a militia against U.S. troops, I find it fairly shocking that he is just roaming free and going to set up a political party to participate in the upcoming elections.
Peter Slevin: It sure looks like a win to me, if the United States continues to back away from the insistence on arresting him for the killing in Najaf of Abdul Majid al-Khoei. An arrest warrant issued by an Iraqi judge remains unserved.
The U.S. calculation is that Sadr and his militia will be less dangerous if he decides to play in the political arena.
Chapel Hill, N.C.:
Is there any chance that our NATO allies will send the additional troops to Afghanistan that Karzai is asking for? What do people in the state and defense departments think about the implications of the trouble NATO is having in coming up with troops to staff the force NATO has committed to sending to Afghanistan?
Peter Slevin: I wouldn't look for signficant increases in NATO forces. The allies feel stretched thin and underappreciated already.
As for the implications, the situation simply reinforces the realization that the world has become a very, very busy place that the Bush administration cannot handle alone.
Thoughtful people in the State and Defense departments also look to Afghanistan and understand that even when the United States has friends willing to do some of the heavy lifting, it's never easy.
How do you see the role of Iran and their wanting to be considered a nuclear state playing out in the presidential elections? Do either Kerry or Bush have a position on Iran and ways to get them to stay on board with the concept of nuclear non-proliferation?
Peter Slevin: You might take a look at Jim Hoagland's column on today's op-ed page. He framed the issues nicely and threw the question back to President Bush and Sen. Kerry, suggesting that the candidates' answers to Iran would say much about how they see the world.
Both candidates have Iran policies, though one of the biggest challenges they both need to face is how little leverage the United States and its allies have right now.
Suppose they can get the IAEA to refer the case to the U.N. Security Council. Then what? A resolution seems unlikely; and a resolution that would somehow persuade the Iranians to give up their nuclear program seems even more improbable.
Do you think the European Union will eventually become a great power source for the world?
Peter Slevin: Not in the way of "great powers" in history. Consider how difficult it will be -- indeed, already has been -- to develop unified policies on financial and foreign policy matters. The EU, if it can hold itself together, will be a player, but I'm mindful of the obstacles.
Is there a move to start blaming the Iraqis for not fighting for themselves now? I got whiff of such a sentiment in Safire's latest column.
Peter Slevin: I've seen some of that, too. With the handover, there will be more people saying it's up to the Iraqis now to solve their own problems of politics and security.
I heard that in New York last week when I covered the latest U.N. resolution and I can see it coming in the U.S. political debate.
To: Brookline, Mass
I'll take that bet.
If Saddam were released, I am more likely to believe he would be assassinated withn a month than running the country within a year.
Peter Slevin: Headline: "Hussein Refuses Liberty, Opts For Safe Cell"
I've just returned from six weeks in London, Paris and Scandinavia, to find the Stephen Oken execution (or not) front page news. Even with Iraq and the Middle East, it has been my experience that the greatest antagonism directed towards the U.S. is a result of the death penalty, which has been banned in most of Europe for decades and which Europeans oppose almost to a person. They do not understand how a supposedly "civilized" country can even contemplate what they consider to be an act of barbarism. Since I agree with them, I've never been able to come up with a satisfactory answer. Can you help?
washingtonpost.com: Justices Clear Way for Md. Execution, (Post, June 17)
Peter Slevin: I was struck by the headline on the Post story about the case on Monday, something to do with the family feeling that "justice" has been denied because the killer hasn't been executed.
You're right about the curiosity and frustration of Europeans when viewing the U.S. death penalty. I suppose the short answer is that the death penalty exists because enough Americans see it as a deterrent and a ticket to that very American concept of "closure."
For a view suggesting it might be neither, I commend my colleague David Von Drehle's powerful book on the death penalty, "Among the Lowest of the Dead."
Of course, that doesn't solve your dilemma.
What troops, Mr. Slevin, would you expect the so-called allies to send? They have no troops that are not already deployed in the world. It is just the way their citizens want it. That is a job for the United States. Their job is to complain. The U.S. often "goes it alone" because no one else has a military to speak of, nor does the UN control a credible force that can handle major peace keeping operations, never mind enforce on an international scale collective security.
Peter Slevin: You've put your finger on a valuable line of thinking in the United States -- where many people are frustrated by the tasks the U.S. military undertakes and the small amounts other countries invest in defense and international peacekeeping. There are so many layers to the issue; thanks for writing.
Peter Slevin: The time has fled, but let's do it again next week. Same time, same place. Thanks for tuning in.
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