With Vernon Loeb
Washington Post National Security Reporter
Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2003; Noon ET
Both the U.S. and U.N. Security Council are looking into Powell's case that Iraq is concealing weapons of mass destruction. Powell provided audio and visual evidence of Iraq's chemical warplants and the concealment of biological and chemical weapons. What will be the next step for the U.S. as troops prepare for war?
Post staff writer Vernon Loeb will be online Wednesday, Feb. 12 at Noon ET, to discuss military defense and changes in national security issues.
The transcript follows.
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. We have another very busy day, as I suspect will be the case from now until the end of March or April. So let's get started.
Indianapolis, Ind.: IF we attack Iraq without formal support of NATO how will this complicate matters to resolve our concerns with N. Korea?
Isn't this a problem where we much rather have NATO support?
washingtonpost.com: NATO Still at Impasse On Assisting Turkey (Post, Feb. 12, 2003)
Vernon Loeb: Of course we would rather have NATO's full support, though we don't need any support from NATO, quite frankly, to wage the war successfully. Where we'll really need NATO is in the aftermath, when thousands of peacekeepers are needed. And, politically, it's nice to have support from NATO. And I suspect we will, absent France, Germany and Belgium. I'm not sure NATO support or a lack thereof really effects are handling of the North Korean problem, which is on the other side of the world and effects a different set of allies, namely South Korea and Japan.
Washington, D.C.: While I've enjoyed riding my bike and taking visitors to Gravelly Point, every time I fly into and out of National Airport I worry about how exposed the plane is to that open grassy area and what some enterprising people might do to the unprotected underbelly of the aircraft. Have they heightened security anywhere in that area?
Vernon Loeb: I don't know specifically, but my hunch is that it would be pretty hard to get out there with a Stinger missile slung over your shoulder.
Venice, Calif.: If Iraq shoots missiles at Israel, how do you suppose Israel would respond? Also, if Iraq uses chemical or biological weapons against the U.S., how will the U.S. respond?
Vernon Loeb: First, I would expect Israel to respond with their missile defenses, which_along with U.S. systems like Patriot 3_could conceivably protect the country against Iraqi Scuds or other missiles. However, even if the missile defenses are successful, I would still expect Israel to respond in some fashion militarily. Senior Israeli officials have been quoted as saying that they believe it was a mistake for Israel not to have responded in 1991. The U.S., of course, will be doing everything in its power to keep Israel from responding. As for a chem-bio attack against U.S. forces, I think the U.S. would respond overwhelmingly in some fashion, but not use tactical nuclear weapons, an option the Pentagon has left open. Part of it would depend upon how many soldiers Iraq managed to kill.
Baltimore, Md.: Have you met with much ambivolance over the Iraq/N. Korea situation in your discussions with people in the Intel/Defense community? My friends in the military are less than thrilled to be heading to Iraq. Don't get me wrong, they'll do their jobs. But their enthusiasm is noticablly less than during Iraq and Gulf War I.
Vernon Loeb: I get exactly the same sense, both from military and intelligence people I talk to. They'll do as ordered, they think they'll be successful, but they're not all that enthusiastic about it. I agree with you completely.
Arlington, Va.: This morning there was a story about how the FBI had signals that something was going to happen in Oklahoma City on the day that the Murrah Building went and didn't share this with anyone. In these days of Orange alerts, is the info-sharing getting better?
washingtonpost.com: Ready or Not? A Capital Question (Post, Feb. 12, 2003)
Vernon Loeb: I think there is some evidence that it is getting better, given the catastrophic failure on 911. The Bush administration's creation of the new terrorist analysis center that brings all of the agencies together is probably a step in the right direction, and certainly an acknowledgement that intelligence hoarding was a huge problem and couldn't continue if the U.S. is to get serious about fighting and preempting terrorists.
Washington, D.C.: Between the extremes of the peace activists and the warmongers there seems to be a rising chorus of middle-ground foreign affairs thinkers, statesmen, and defense experts who are giving the issue of Iraq (and other challenges before us) a lot of considered thought. The emerging consensus seems to be that inaction on the one hand, and all-out war on the other, both seem too risky, and we should try some form of beefed-up "inspections with teeth" first, coupled with more humanitarian relief for the innocent Iraqi citizens caught in the middle. What do you think of this line of thinking, and does it have any hope of taking hold? What would that course of action imply for North Korea?
washingtonpost.com: Diplomat Says IAEA Sends N. Korea Issue to Security Council (Post, Feb. 12, 2003)
Vernon Loeb: I personally agree that there is nothing wrong, and probably a lot to be gained, from a middle course, with some sort of more muscular inspections regime for another month or two. However, I do not think this line of argument is gaining any traction inside the Bush administration, and thus I believe it will commence military action--a war on Iraq--in early March, if not sooner.
Philadelphia, Pa.: Almost immediately after General Powell spoke at the UN, it was revealed that one of his prime pieces of evidence---which he had represented as current intelligence--was actually a description of Iraq in 1990-1991. Doesn't this raise serious doubts in the Security Council about whether or not the rest of his information can be trusted---and what does it say about the vetting process in the White House that is supposed to ensure that intelligence is accurate and reliable?
Vernon Loeb: No, I don't really think it raises serious questions for the Security Council, and I don't think it says all that much about the vetting process. In any 90-minute presentation, there will always be one or two points that aren't quite right, or perhaps even flatly wrong. Indeed, it turns out some of the British paper on Iraq was actually plagiarized. The reason I don't think the little error you sight was all that important is this: Nobody who is serious about disarming Iraq disputes that the regime has weapons of mass destruction, and is hiding them. The real question is, how bst to disarm Iraq, not whether Iraq needs to be disarmed.
Mansfield, Pa.: Ok...assuming there is a war...how confident should I be that it's going to be done with quickly? Is there likely to be the kind of mass uprising from the Iraqi people that Bin Laden has called? The Bush Administration seems confident that the military part of this will be over quickly. I'm not so confident. How about you?
Vernon Loeb: I don't feel so confident, either. I put the odds at about 70-30: There's an 70 percent chance the war will go very well and be over quite quickly, in two to three weeks, without very many civilian casualities, and no need for a bloody urban fight in Baghdad. In other words, Saddam Hussein either flees, or is toppled internally, once this thing begins. The military is very confident that it can devastate the Iraqi military, and the administration thinks there's a good chance that U.S. forces will be seen by most of the Iraqi people as liberators, not invaders. Now, there's a 30 percent chance it won't go all that well, that Iraqi nationalism is a more virulent force, that the Special Republican Guard will put up a fight, and that some climactic showdown in Baghdad might be necessary. And there's probably a 5 percent chance that things could really go wrong, with the war triggering another major al Qaeda terrorist attack here or abroad, as well as insurrection in other parts of the Middle East and Arab world. That's the way I handicap things, and even a 5 percent chance of a worst-case scenario leaves me feeling very nervous about the war.
Cumberland, Md.: Why should anyone think that more "muscular inspections" would gain anything but more time for the Iraqis to cheat, lie and deceive? Blix doesn't use all the authority he has now, why should we think that someone as weak as Blix would use more forceful tools?
Vernon Loeb: You raise a good point. Richard Perle, head of the Defense Policy Board, was saying this morning at a breakfast that Blix is no match for Saddam, and basically believes that he needs Saddam's cooperation (which he will never get)to be effective. However, on the other hand, more muscular inspections could increase the odds of actually finding something--catching the Iraqis lying and deceiving. And once that happens, the whole game could change in the Security Council, and perhaps a war could be waged at that point with the backing of a UN resolution. And thus the occupation of Iraq could be undertaken with full support and cooperation from the international community. I personally think it's worth the gamble of another month or two. I thought Tom Freidman made this case eloquently in his column in this morning's New York Times. By going to war now, the administration is essentially saying: The situation is so serious NOW that some numbers of Americans will have to die disarming Iraq. Since American deaths, even a small number, are in my opinion a certainty, I see no harm in going a little while longer with more muscular inspections, no matter how weak Blix is.
Colchester, Vt.: A new BBC shows that only 10% of Britains support a war with Iraq without a new UN resolution authorizing the use of force.
Blair absolutely needs a new UN resolution, but events of this week make this unlikely in the near future with three of the five permanent UN Security Council members supporting the extension of inspections.
Since it is hard to imagine the leader of a democracy going to war with 10% support, is the Bush Administration planning for the possibility that Britain will not be able to take part in a war against Iraq?
Vernon Loeb: The U.S. would much rather go to war with Britain than without Britain. Without Britain, it's unilateral. With Britain (and Australia and a bunch of other NATO countries, but especially Britain), it's not. Britain is also the only major NATO country that's of value to the U.S. militarily. They can fight with us. Their military and their fighting spirit is basically as good as ours. But their military compared to the U.S. miliary is tiny. The U.S. spends 10 times what Britain does annually on defense. And the U.S. military can easily fight a war against Iraq without any British military participation whatsoever. The main reason the administration wants Britain on board is political, not military.
Washington, D.C.: Do you feel that the al Qaeda-Iraq connection evidence is so flimsy that it rises to the level of conspiracy theory? Or is it more like the Communist monolith delusion that led us into the Vietnam quagmire?
Vernon Loeb: I don't think it rises to the level of conspiracy theory. I think that overstates the case. But I also think the administration overstates the connection, or the linkage.
Cumberland, Md.: "How the war goes" seems to me to be irrelevant -- we didn't ask these questions in WW II and while Saddam isn't Hitler he is right up there with the bad guys so isn't the real question is do we want to give the "new Hitlers" a "pass" and let them stay in power?
Vernon Loeb: I disagree somewhat, because the situation, if we don't go to war, is not exactly analogous to Hitler storming through Europe. With inspections on-going in Iraq and much of the world united by the U.S. in insisting upon Saddam's disarmament, I don't think there's all that much Iraq can do in the short term to threaten the U.S., or anyone else in the world. In other words, Saddam is effectively contained, at least for the moment, not marauding his way across the Middle East.
Somewhere, USA: Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, but...I can't help getting the feeling that President Bush has had this showdown with Iraq in mind since long before inauguration day.
Remember on the campiagn trail, he said the military should be preapred to "fight and win wars" and he blasted President Clinton's decision to release oil from the strategic reserves as a way to deal with rising energy costs. That oil, of course, will be used to power the vehicles that are going to spearhead the invasion of Iraq.
Am I giving in to my conspiracy theorist alter-ego? Or do you think it's plausible that this war ahs been in the cards the whole time - and that there was nothing Sadaam or the U.N. could do to stop it.
Vernon Loeb: No, I think 911 is what changed Bush's thinking and made him believe the disarmament of Iraq was a critical objective that had to be undertaken forthwith. Absent 911, I do not believe we would be going to war with Iraq right now.
Arlington, Va: You wrote: "more muscular inspections could increase the odds of actually finding something--catching the Iraqis lying and deceiving."
Haven't we already caught the Iraqis lying and deceiving many times? How many more times will it take for some of these countries like France and Germany to accept what has to be done? Personally given their abysmal track record, I don't think any amount of evidence will ever sway them. Do you?
Vernon Loeb: Well, maybe yes. I agree with you that we have caught Iraq lying and deceiving many times, and I agree completely that Iraq is lying and deceiving. On the other hand, when something as momentus as war is being proposed, countries like Germany and France believe that everything possible under the sun should be attempted before exercising the war option. So, going the extra mile on inspections could convince them, and actually finding WMD could, conceivably, lead to the peaceable disarmament of Iraq, as Bush says he would prefer. I think France and Germany believe it's worth a try before going to war.
Arlington, Va.: Do you think the White House will start dealing with north Korea any time soon? Do you think there are cultural differences at work that the administration just doesn't "get"? For instance is the current policy of not even talking to the North Koreans while calling them names a big factor in them Koreans "losing face"? I think our current posture towards the Koreans is a huge mistake with very dire ramifications down the road.
washingtonpost.com: Diplomat Says IAEA Sends N. Korea Issue to Security Council (Post, Feb. 12, 2003)
Vernon Loeb: I agree with you that the North Korea situation could indeed have dire ramifications down the road. I do think the administration will have to start dealing with North Korea. But the preconditions it places on resumed talks seems to keep them from taking place. I worry about what North Korea will do once the war begins in Iraq.
Washington, D.C.: A couple of weeks ago you commented on the significance of the 101st Airborne being deployed. Could you repeat your interpretation of that action.
Vernon Loeb: The 101st Airborne Division is a critical piece of the U.S. invasion force, because it is air mobile--able to move 4,000 troops 100 miles in a single operation involving over 200 helicopters. This is not going to be a plodding, armor-through-the-desert invasion like the Gulf War. This is going to be a vast, "vertical envelopment," with U.S. forces flying right over enemy formation and landing right in the Iraqi's "center of gravity." And in that kind of campaign, the 101st in the essential ingredient.
Arlington, Va.: On Hardball last night, Chris Matthews played clips of several Bush's speeches regarding terrorism. In one, Bush mentioned that the United States had become a battleground - but he said it with a smile on his face. Very un-nerving.
Their solution to terrorism: attack a country and replace the power-base.
I don't see how this will solve anything. The problem isn't the power-base. The problem is the people and their perceptions of the United States. I am still waiting for that film that shows millions of Afghans waving the American Flag and thanking us for liberating them.
There are a lot of complex issues ranging from countries in South America to Korea to Syria, and involving multiple interventions by the US, Britain, Russia, France and Germany. As I see it, the only solution to terrorism is to isolate the root causes and work out tactical solutions by consensus. Not easy, but it's better than our country becomming a battleground.
Vernon Loeb: You make a lot of excellent points that re
Vernon Loeb: Sorry, I pressed the send button by mistake before finishing that last response. What I was saying was, the questioner made a lot of good points that required no response from me. I would only add that the U.S. cannot win the war on terrorism with the military alone. And if the military is the primary weapon to fight the war on terrorism, the nation's security will only decline.
Salisbury, Md.: Will President Bush ask Congress for a formal declaration of war against Iraq? If not...what role do you expect Congress to play in the next few months?
Vernon Loeb: I think Bush already believes he has authority from Congress, in the form of the resolution passed last year, to go to war in Iraq. So Congress will be watching, and debating, and getting ready to shell out huge amounts of money to pay for the war. And on that note, appropriately enough, I've got to go up to the Hill and hear Rumsfeld testimony before the House Appropriations Committee's Defense Subcommittee. Thanks again for all the great questions. Sorry I couldn't answer them all. But keep sending them. We'll do this again next week.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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