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Vernon Loeb
Nation-Building, At Its Very Corps, (Post OpEd, March 9)
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National Defense
With Vernon Loeb
Washington Post National Security Reporter

Wednesday, March 19, 2003; 1 p.m. ET

Questions about Homeland Security? The Military? The latest developments with Iraq?

This week, Loeb will be joined by Post staff writer Dana Priest, who covers intelligence and national security issues. Priest's new book, "The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace With America's Military" (W.W. Norton). The book chronicles the increasing frequency with which the military is called upon to solve political and economic problems.

Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

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.

Vernon Loeb: Greetings all. On the brink of war, I'm very excited about having my friend and colleague, Dana Priest, with us today to answer questions about the war and national security, and also talk about her new book, The Mission, which is all about the U.S. military and its role as the most potent military AND diplomatic force in the U.S. government. Dana is now covering intelligence, my old beat, but she remains a real authority on the military, and particularly on Special Operations. Her book has been really, really well reviewed and is doing great in the book stores. If you haven't read it, or seen it, I urge you to check it out, not because Dana is my colleague, but because the book offers an important and unique take on the military. So let's get going.

Dana Priest: Hello out there. So nice to be here and, really, I am not paying Vernon anything for all that. He's just a great colleague. The book has been out for three weeks now and I've just finished a coast to coast book tour. People seem highly interested in understanding more about their military, which was the whole reason I wrote THE MISSION. So let's go...

Central Pennsylvania: Dana,

I really was provoked by your March 9 piece in The Post. I heard somewhere that the U.S. Army is a broadsword, not a surgical instrument It does its primary job well; but the aftermath is for the diplomats, and perhaps more importantly, the infrastructure and development specialists. It's been years since the Kosovo conflict, yet there is still a problem that just can't be fixed by American infantrymen, no matter how good their intentions are. The sewing machine passage was priceless- of course they don't have them at the barracks, yet they are considered the go-to people on these matters!

Dana Priest: There are 100 pages of sewing machine-type examples I could repeat to you now. The main point is that Americans (myself included) don't have a good idea of what it looks like to send young infantrymen to do nation-building. They try hard. They often come up with the right solutions. They just aren't the ones to carry out the messiness of rebuilding civil society. I'm reminded of Secretary of State George Schultz's idea that the US should "tend to the world" like a gardener. If you tend it will the military, you'll get straight rows of the basics, but not beautiful roses.

Indiananpolis, Ind.: Either of you can comment but it's more directed toward Dana Priest: There really doesn't seem much of a history in the GOP that supports some of the heavy lifting (nation building) etc that will be needed after the big fighting is done. Especially when it comes to putting up the money. Yesterday, Rep Duncan R-Tenn. gave a statement in the HOUse cautioning AGAINST foreign aide after the fighting is done -- basically he said get in, win big, get out. I don't think he's alone in the HOuse thinking like that.

This concerns me. Does it concern you?

Dana Priest: Duncan's argument is an old, old one and it is precisely this thinking that keeps the military in these countries for a long time--he just either doesn't realize it or won't admit it. Fact is, you pay a lot to keep men and women and their tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles--not to mention their go-to-war arms and personal gear--in Kosovo. Nearly everyone involved in foreign policy matters agrees now that it is unwise, and not in US national security interest, to just walk away from post-war countries. I sense that even conservative Republicans are coming to this notion, at least the ones who are talking to me about it. I have to say, though, the dems have never proposed anything really significant either. You can't expect people just to give more money to the State Department, as is. There needs to be significant reform and accountability there too.

Alexandria, Va.: Dana, how did you build your expertise on military and SpecOps? I'd love to do the kind of work you do, but I have no direct military training, although I've got a few "connected" people and read/process a lot.

Dana Priest: I had no military experience, that's for sure. But I built an expertise the way most reporters do....just stick in there, try to be fair, try to maintain good relations even with people your stories criticize in print, try to stand back and see the big picture once in a while. Covering the military was a great experience, there are so many different angles to it, and so many great people who are willing to explain what they do and are flattered that anyone even wants to know.

Clarksburg, Md.: Saddam's not stupid. He's ruthless and cunning. Is there a fear that he learned from what happened 12 years ago, and has something up his sleeve? I fear that he will lure us into a trap of sorts. Like letting us get into Baghdad and doing something horrible. Any thoughts?

Vernon Loeb: I, too, fear, that he's got something up his sleeve, like chemical weapons, or human shields, or destruction of the oil fields. Saddam wins, basically, by just hanging on, hunkering down in Baghdad, luring U.S. forces into an urban fight, and then hoping the international community and outrage over war and civilian casualties, if there have been major incidents. I don't think the strategy will work, but it's the only one he's got, short of exile.

washingtonpost.com : News coverage of U.S. plans for attacking Baghdad often make reference to a strategy dubbed "Shock and Awe." What is this strategy? Who developed it? And what does it mean for the attack that we are virtually certain to see in the coming days?

Vernon Loeb: Shock and awe is generally used to refer to the intended effect of the U.S. bombing campaign. Because new satellite-guided precision munitions can be pre-programmed with target coordinates, a single fighter aircraft, on a single sortie, can strike four or six different targets with precision, without ever having to see them on the ground. Multiply this by 700 or 1,000--the total number of aircraft in theater--and you begin to understand how many targets can be struck, simultaneously, across the entire country, thus producing "shock and awe" on the part of the Iraqis, and hopefully, breaking their will to fight. In World War II, bombing was basically sequential. Hundreds of planes flew over one target and dropped thousands of bombs. Maybe one of them would finally hit the target. Then the planes would move onto something else. Now, with precision air power, bombing is parallel, with hundreds of targets being hit simultaneously. The effect of this, the air power theorists argue, is extremely disorienting on an adversary. And in the case of this war with Iraq, it is hoped that the "shock and awe" of the opening air strikes will go a long way toward taking down the Iraqi regime.

Arlington, Va.: Vernon and Dana,

I don't know what I should be more worried about: the fact that a farmer can shut down an artery with a tractor and a threat, or a mayor's office that "wants to move this along". Chilling.

By the way, excellent piece on "peacekeeping," Dana!

Dana Priest: It certainly is an inconvenience and totally bizarre in the context of war and Orange Alerts.

Merritt, N.C.: Can you give me a quick update on our nation building in Kosovo. History, success, problems? How much of that will apply in Iraq?

Dana Priest: Update is the US has about 3,500 troops still in Kosovo. The UN is struggling with its job of governing. Everyone is still waiting for a decision on Kosovo's political status (independence or not). For more info, see the International Crisis Group's latest report. you can get it off their Web site. Yes, there are lots of lessons. Post-war Afghanistan showed that the powers that be in DOD were either ignoring them (among the most important is that there must be security first, before development and reconstruction will come). I've heard there has been lots more thought going into Iraq; but the job will be a lot bigger and the troops aren't getting anything but the most basic peacekeeping training. So stand by.

Vienna, Va.: I am part of the 30 percent minority who is against this war. If Saddam has chem/bio weapons, it seems logical that he will(a)use them for defense especially since he is aware that Bush wants to kill him or (b) already dispersed the materials into the hands of others to use against us after his death, or (c) a combination of both a and b.

Neither scenario seems good. The White House is saying that Iraq definitely has them and lots of them because we know what the US companies sold Iraq in the 1980s.

Instead of working with the UN after 911 to address terrorism on a global scale with all its' complexities (Turkey for example lost some 30,000 people last year because of Kurdish terrorism and other countries suffer too), the US takes this strange "my way or the highway" approach.

I see this action by the White House as the beginning of a horrible spiral of events that could eventually become nuclear (especially when North Korea gets into the picture). Very scary stuff.

Vernon Loeb: Thanks for your comment.

Arlington, Va.: How difficult do you think it will be to locate and capture or kill Saddam Hussein? Apparently no one ever really knows exactly where he is at any point in time. Won't it be exceedingly difficult for us to find him along the lines of trying to find bin Laden? How long could the hunt drag on? I get the feeling this isn't all going to happen as quickly and smoothly as the president would have us believe.

Vernon Loeb: The goal is not necessarily to find and capture Saddam. The goal is to overthrow his regime, seize control of the country, and gain control of its weapons of mass destruction. If Saddam goes underground, that would be OK for the time being. I agree that it will be difficult to find him. And I also agree that things will be messier than President Bush would want. War never goes according to plan, even when things work well. We, as a nation, are going to have to accept a lot of uncertainty and confusion, and probably some setbacks, over the coming weeks and months ahead.

Cumberland, MD: Dana --

I think your book demonstrates very well that the US is NOT equipped for Nation Building-- it is the wrong mission for our military --I really have serious question as to whether the US Taxpayers should be expected to finance Nation Building -- when it is obviously in other countries interest too to do more in Nation Building than we currently ask of them. What method can we use to compel their participation -- earmaking for Foreign Aid only if the do Nation Building etc? Why don't we use more financial and economic muscle to compel their participation in Nation Building?

Dana Priest: Earmarking sounds good to me. But how about starting from the premise that we will pay for it either now (in an upfront, coordinated way) or later, when, as is the case in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda and Taliban reconstitute themselves and the USG will go in again to clear that up again. Nation-building has to be multinational and I think the will is there for that, and maybe even the money. In fact, lots of countries have strong histories of donating for nationbuilding (the Nordic countries, Japan and Canada are a few).

wash, dc: it seems like it would be as hard to conceal preparations to defend against a major invasion as it would be to conceal preparations to mount one, yet i've heard very little about what actual preparations Iraq seems to have been making. are we about to invade against "nothing?"

Vernon Loeb: No, we're not about to invade against nothing. Some preparations are being made by Iraq. Troops have dispersed and abandoned their barracks, so they're not sitting ducks for air attacks. The Republican Guard are consolidating around Baghdad. There have been reports that oil spigots are being opened in the southern oil fields. And, possibly, artillery shells armed with chemical weapons being distributed to the troops. But having said all that, there are already reports of Iraqi military units surrendering. I think much of the Iraqi military--perhaps nearly all of the regular military--will surrender. And there are even indications that the Republican Guard are wobbling and preparing to abandon Saddam.

Washington, D.C.: I appreciate the double entendre in the title of your book ~ "...Keeping Peace with America's Military". It really captures a fear that all of us have, as taxpaying citizens, need to keep "...Peace with America's Military" that if we don't want America's military to be at war with us -- either as citizens or on the Hill -- then you'd better tow the DoD line. If you don't swallow it fully, you're unpatriotic.
Are we heading in the direction that so many other countries have headed, like Pakistan, where the military (a la Rumsfeld) drives everything from foreign policy to the environment? Witness: In the name of national defense, EPA needs to give us an exemption to drop bombs in areas where there are endangered species ...

Dana Priest: Well, you've read a little bit more into the subtitle than intended. Civilians, I believe, have largely abrogated their responsibility to stay informed about the military, to use it when appropriate and refrain from using it when it is not. I don't think we'll ever, ever get anywhere close to Pakistan. Rumsfeld, in fact, has tried to pull the reins back. The big question is: what will take the military's place? A vacuum? Or something real and powerful and civilian.

Boston, Mass.: Is it possible the Hussein and his sons would try to make a mad dash for Syria or some other state as things turn bad?

Vernon Loeb: I'd say that's possible, but not likely, at least here in the short term.

Austin, Tex.: For Dana: Who should be doing reconstruction-type work? Are other militaries with a strong tradition of peacekeeping (eg Canada) much better at it? The UN (if they're still speaking to us)? Should there be some kind of high-powered, more professional Peace Corps?
For Both of You: Some people apparently hope that the idea in the future is going to be for the US to take the lead in the fighting and then for other countries to concentrate on the aftermath. Even if that makes practical sense, doesn't it make us look really bad?

Dana Priest: There are many, many experts in reconstruction and political development out there. The problem is, there's been no great demand to pull them together into a rational system. Just a thought: why not start with a US military model, with a US Peace and Reconstruction Corps that does what the military does--contracts out services to businesses and NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and forms coalitions with other governments as often as possible, and even elevates the UN to sit over everything, when appropriate and when everyone is convinced they have the resources and political will to get the mission done. We usually have clear goals in war. Why not clearer goals in peace (with reasonable benchmarks, given the process is naturally longer and success is more difficult, but not impossible, to judge). As for the second part: It seems that American leadership is not just crucial in war, but also in peace. Whether that means we have large numbers of Americans on the ground, I don't know, but we can't simply hand things off completely and hope they'll get done. Besides, why go to war with all its risks and tragedies, if there's no certainty you will accomplish the political ends you seek, with are achieved in the aftermath.

Washington, D.C.: I haven't read your book yet so I apologize if you've already addressed this: How much military can we afford? When do we start to break the bank?

Dana Priest: This is really an "in the eye of the beholder" answer. But we are breaking the bank, if deficit spending is any indication.

Boca, Fla.: If Saddam has surrounded Baghdad with armored divisions, will the US drop depleted uranium munitions on the city? If so, what are the long term health implications for civilians and occupation forces of exposure to aerosolized depleted uranium?

Vernon Loeb: The U.S. won't drop depleted uranium from airplanes. But it could fire DU shells from tanks to penetrate armor. I'm not an expert on the health effects of DU, but the Pentagon just held a long briefing and published a transcript, which you can find on defenselink.mil, in which officials that there have been no harmful health effects linked to aerosolized DU.

Silver Spring, Md.: How do you think the war the US is about to wage on Irag (without UN support) will affect Russia and China's support with the North Korea situation?

Vernon Loeb: That's a very good question, and I'm not sure the answer is clear as yet. It probably depends how things in Iraq go. If the war is a success and the U.S. emerges from the conflict stronger and with greater prestige, then the impact would probably be minimal. If the U.S. is weakened by the conflict, who knows. North Korea with nuclear weapons, though, isn't in anybody's interest. As your question implies, it is precisely this type of calculation that has to be considered before going to war. I, for one, believe North Korea will pull another one of its provocative stunts shortly after the invasion begins.

Darnestown, Md.: Regarding Shock and Awe. Isn't it really just a 21st century Blitzkreig? How would it differ other than technology?

Vernon Loeb: That's probably a good way to think of it. Maybe blitzkreig squared. But even at their most potent, the Germans couldn't come close to attacking that many targets simultaneously, and hitting them all dead on. Bombing in World War II was a wildly inaccurate affair. The ability of a single B-2 stealth bomber to fly in under Iraq's radar and strike 16 different targets is way beyond blitzkreig.

Palm Desert, Calif.: Dana,

What is your opinion as to how soon the "Iraqi Opposition", those groups that have been outside the country, will come in to participate in the rebuilding of governmental organizations after the military action is over?

Dana Priest: They are no doubt in there already and poised to try to get in there in a big way right away. But the USG is asking them to hold off, saying initially that there will be no provisional government of exiles but now reconsidering the establishment of an Iraqi council of some sort. The problem is how to allow deep Iraqi participation without setting off big conflicts between the groups vying for power.

Herndon, Va.: As a Vietnam war vet (now a Department of State employee) I tend to have a dim view of "nation building." It's comparatively easy to get in, and usually, very hard to get out. I agree that State has its problems, but one reason we usually come out poorly in budget requests is that DOD can com"we can take this objective" - while State is geared for negotiation and compromise.

Dana Priest: I agree the case is harder to make and the objective is much harder to achieve. DS, however, really doesn't represent itself well on the Hill. In fact, while DOD has dozens of officers lobbying on the Hill and working for members of Congress, the State Department didn't even have an office there until last year. No one really understands what you do; and one reason is the department makes it difficult for the media to write those kinds of stories. I once suggested to a top SD official who had complimented me on a series I had done about the regional commanders, that I would like to do the same for ambassador. He was mortified. But notice how we are all now screaming "what happened to diplomacy!" on Iraq, North Korea, Iran, the list goes on.

Gullsgate, Minn.: Priest and Loeb--sounds like a broadway duo so softshoe this one: News quotes out of Kuwait early today report troops have already walked into the DMZ and beyond, so I assume maybe we'll get the word from the White House at an 'appropriate' time. Also noted is one reporter-team running into a lost American soldier who had headed for the washroom and instead, almost got lost in the desert dust storm. Looking at those gas masked men and women covered with safety suits and masks--I do wonder how they can move efficiently? Like Halloween when you stumble into the bushes while headed to the neighbor's door to play tricks or tricks? It was spooky then. Must be scary as heck for even the most hardy of soldiers, trying to see the enemy, like, where the hello am I? Seriously we do have a logistics problem in first maneuvers and then urban warfare in Baghdad? It scares the heck out of me from my comfortable office-- just thinking of what we are orchestrating here on our youth, willing or able or just stuck there for whatever reasons? But I suppose, if we bury our minds, it will be easier to bury our youth?

Vernon Loeb: Thanks for your comment. I think most Americans, be they for or against the war, on some level share your anxiety right now.

Dana Priest: .

Piscataway, N.J.: Are you as optimistic as President Bush is about the war?

Vernon Loeb: No, I'm not. Even if it goes well and ends in two or three weeks, it's going to be messy, I believe. And the aftermath will last for months and probably years, and be even messier still.

Dana Priest: .

Baltimore, Md.: There has been way too little coverage of a speech by Senator Byrd, widely circulated on the Internet through e-mail, wherein the Senator argues that the policy of preemptive war fundamentally changes what the United States of America stands for.

By engaging in this preemptive war, I gather that many other nations will forever look at the U.S.A. differently. Also, other nations might argue, if preemption is good enough for the U.S.A., it's good enough for us.

Are you concerned that this war, this policy, this Bush Doctrine, will forever alter international relations?

Dana Priest: Many people have asked me about the Byrd speech. It was definitely thought-provoking as so many of his speeches are.It didn't get more coverage because no one else--his colleagues in the Senate for example--did anything with those thoughts. As for the view of the US in the future. Obviously we'll have to wait and see. You have made one side of the case. The administration would say the world will see and understand the repercussions of attacking the U.S. and will be discouraged to do that ever again. we'll see.

Quantico, Va.: Dana,
I think your deficit spending response above doesn't answer the correct question, which creates exactly the problems your excellent book discusses. "How much military can we afford" asks how much a particular tool costs. The correct question is "Can I afford to build a house"? If you decide to begin a project, then you will need to purchase tools, though there is great flexibility in the ones you choose. If you can't afford the tools, then you can't afford the project in the first place. As you've intimated, can America afford NOT to have a military that can execute the missions our policy presently requires.

Dana Priest: Okay, but it's still highly judgmental. For example, Sec. Rumsfeld believes the Stryker (the wheeled vehicle that will replace some tanks) didn't go far enough in transforming the army. But you're still going to fund the Stryker because the Army and its protectors on Capitol Hill disagree--for all sorts of reasons. What the U.S. needs to get the job done is highly subjective. I would say that if we continue to use the military in peacekeeping the Army should have many more MP and Civil Affairs units. But I don't think anyone is necessarily going to force that to happen.

Cumberland, Md.: Dana -

I think you make the point that the U.S. military should not be in Kosovo or Bosnia -- it is the wrong mission for them and we were entrapped in by Clinton. How can we get out? Why can't we insist that the Europeans do more in their own backyard or live with the results?

Dana Priest: Actually, I prefer to have the military there if the only other option is having no one there. That definitely gets you no where, and it would be foolhardly to walk away from the goal of real political stability--that's why we spent billion on the 1999 air war in the first place. I just don't think the road to stability leads through the Pentagon.

Tirana, Albania: Both: How deep are divisions among Iraqi sunni, iraqi shia' and kurds? Will they be able to overcome their divisions and establish a democratic Iraq?

Vernon Loeb: I think the divisions are deep, indeed, and I think there is going to be a lot of bloodletting and revenge killing in Iraq. Then we'll see whether the factions can be united to form a democratic government. The Bush administration is optimistic that that can happen. A lot of other experts on Iraq are much less optimistic. I, for one, hope the administration is right, but I have my doubts. Only time will tell.

Dana Priest: ditto here.

Washington, D.C. Capitol Hill neighborhood: On Iraq after the war - if actual unfettered elections were held after the war, would a fundamentalist regime take over? If so, would they be apt to support terrorists, either anti-U.S. or Palestinian?

Vernon Loeb: I don't think there's any way of knowing, but that's certainly one scenario that's got to concern U.S. policy makers. I can't imagine any government being elected in Iraq that is going to be pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian.

Arlington, Va: Were you optimistic about the mission in Afghanistan?

Or Desert Storm?

Vernon Loeb: I suppose I wouldn't be a good ground commander. Going to war always seems to make me exceedingly nervous, because there are always so many unknowns at play. Having said that, I was more optimistic about the eventual success of both Afghanistan and Desert Storm than I am about the current Iraq invasion. And it's not so much the combat phase that concerns me, but the aftermath. I hope I'm wrong, and that I'm worrying for nothing. You must remember: one of our basic missions as journalists is to apply healthy skepticism to what the government is saying.

Arlington, Va.: I'm belatedly joining the chat and wanted to ask Dana (whose reporting I admire greatly) if her book addresses the topic of the US' regional CINCs stepping into the diplomatic void in many respects and involving themselves in nonmilitary issues during the 1990s. Marine General Tony Zinni was often involved in these sorts of issues. The Post did a superb piece on this in 1999 or 2000, but there seems to have been little follow up; I've long been concerned about the military overstepping its mission by involving itself in such matters. Any thoughts/comments?

Dana Priest: Easy one: One third of the book is about the commanders. The book agrees with your concerns.

Cumberland, Md.: Would it not have been just as messy to leave Saddam in power and have the risk that one of his sons would get power when Saddam died of old age? Wasn't Iraq always headed for problems and a potential military intervention sooner or later?

Vernon Loeb: Yes, it certainly would have. The question for me has never been, do we need to disarm Iraq, but what is the best way of doing it--that will have the best chance for long-term success. I think Saddam Hussein is a monster who is perfectly capable of giving chemical, biological or nuclear weapons to al Qaeda. And the day he is gone from power will be a good day for the Iraqi people. But since the U.S. has chosen this method and this time for deposing him, without U.N. or broad allied support, it will fall primarily on the United States to ensure that the Iraqi people are, indeed, better off.

Arlington, Va.: Didn't General McArthur and the military do a pretty good job of "national building" in Japan in 1945. I not as convinced as you that the military cannot repurpose itself after combat to provide "nation building" operations...at least initially.

Dana Priest: Initially I would say the military can do a good job. Reconstruction, tamping down violence and initial security are all jobs they are good at. It's the next step that's hard: policing, judicial work (courts, jails) and standing up a new political process. That's where it gets tricky.

Vernon Loeb: Well, we're over the appointed hour, and didn't come close to getting to all your questions. My apologies. We were typing as fast as we could. We'll be back real soon, maybe later this week, to continue this dialogue. Cheers.

Dana Priest: It's been fun "chatting" with you as always. These are, indeed, fascinating, frustrating days ahead of us all. I hope to meet again with Vernon during the war. Hopefully the war will end quickly and we can chat in peace.

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