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Vernon Loeb
Powell Accuses Iraq of Undermining Inspectors , (Post, Feb. 5, 2003)
U.S. Hastens to Assess Pair of Iraq Findings, (Post, Jan. 17, 2003)
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National Defense
With Vernon Loeb
Washington Post National Security Reporter

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

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

Post staff writer Vernon Loeb was online Wednesday, Feb. 19 at 1 p.m. 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. Let's get started.

Cumberland, Md.: When do you think the war will start?

Vernon Loeb: Between Mar. 1 and Mar. 15, more or less.

Cumberland, Md.: Do you think that Blix will be tougher in his Feb. 28 report to the U.N.? Or will he contnue to take the Iraqis' side?

Vernon Loeb: I hardly think he took Iraq's side on Feb. 14. I think Blix is calling them as he sees them, and I hope he will continue to do so. Obviously, he has a vested interest in making the inspections process work, and obviously he thinks more time is necessary to make that happen. To the extent that the Bush administration has lost patience with that approach and simply now favors getting on with the war, it won't be happy with Blix's approach. But in fairness to Blix, he has also been hard on Iraq--indeed, he has basically said they are continuing to deceive the U.N.

Indianapolis, Ind.: I read about Secy. Rumsfeld's desire to reduce the number of Reserve and Guard Units being called up based on the Total Force concept out of oncern that these folks--and their families--are overburdened and he wants to reduce this strain on the Guards, the Reservist and their families.

That said:

Wasn't Total Force created so we could have an all-volunteer force?; isn't Total Force as it's being used currently working the way it was designed to work?; and how will changes made to reduce the use of Reservist and National Guard units effect the burden on our full time all volunteer forces?

Vernon Loeb: I think you're right, Total Force is being used the way it was envisioned to be used post-Vietnam: That is, a major mobilization of U.S. forces for war would not be possible without mobilizing the guard and reserves, and in so doing, mobilizing society at large for the war. The problem now is that the U.S. military, since Sept. 11, 2001, has been more or less in a constant state of war, with no end in sight, and this constant state of mobilization is very hard on citizen soldiers who have jobs and families to maintain. Rumsfeld wants to transfer many of the essential war-fighting support element, which now reside in the guard and the reserve, back to the active-duty force, so that force won't be so dependent on the guard and reserve. In doing so, he will be liftening some of the burden from the guard and reserve. But I think war in Iraq, and a major post-war occupation of Iraq, coupled with the on-going global war on terrorism, will cause severe strains on both the active-duty and reserve forces.

Cumberland, Md.: Whats your view on the likelihood of a second UN resolution?

Vernon Loeb: I think the Bush administration will only go for a second resolution if it thinks it can get nine votes, which at the moment isn't clear. The administration doesn't think it needs one to go to war. But now British Prime Minister Tony Blair is saying quite clearly that he thinks a second resolution is necessary, and this could have a big impact on the administration, given the importance of Britain as a war ally. I know that's not a very clear answer, but suddenly, the diplomatic track is getting very complicated again, it's impossible to say exactly how things will play out.

Cumberland, Md.: How long do you think the war will last? Will we capture Saddam or what will happen to him?

Vernon Loeb: I think the war will probably last anywhere from one week to one month, although it's possible it could drag on longer than that. The main U.S. objective is to remove Saddam's regime from power and take control of the country's weapons on mass destruction. If the U.S. can kill or capture Saddam in the process, that would be preferrable to having him slip away and become a problem at large, like Osama bin Laden. But the main objective is not killing or capturing him. It's removing the regime from power. I don't think Saddam on the loose would be quite as big a negative as bin Laden on the loose is.

Springfield, Va.: Have you seen the article in "The Independent" (U.K.) reporting that three giant cargo ships are being tracked by U.S. and U.K. intel, with suspicions rising that the ships are actually Iraqi vessels with WMD onboard? It is a fascinating piece, and quite troubling. What can you tell us?

In other news of the high seas, what do you make of the deployment of the French carrier, in light of its obstinacy over the use of military action to disarm Iraq?

Lastly, why haven't there been more reports of naval interdictions -- in light of the report that the U.S. is aware of a virtual fleet of boats and ships controlled by UBL's al-Qaeda network? Thanks for your good work.

Vernon Loeb: We're told that the report of the three mystery ships is bogus. I don't know anything about the deployment of a French aircraft carrier. Presumably, it's not going to Iraq to help the U.S., which is going to have five of its own carriers in the Iraq theater and wouldn't need any French help. As for the interdictions, I don't think the Navy is shyabout interdicting suspected terrorist ships. But it's intelligence is limited, and this limits the number of ships it is actually forcibly boarding.

Frankfurt Germany: As an American sitting with my German colleagues who constantly ask me why is the US in such a hurry to attack Iraq I find myself at a loss. I do believe that Hussein is a threat but how immediate is more of a question in my mind and one to which I have no ready answer. I also have no answer when they ask me why the difference in US policy between Iraq and North Korea. I just buy another round and shrug my shoulders(which I have found to be exceedingly effective). Any insights would be much appreciated.

Vernon Loeb: I find myself asked the same questions. I think President Bush feels very strongly that Iraq's production of weapons of mass destruction and the possibility that Iraq will give these weapons to al Qaeda represents such a grave threat that the U.S. must act preemptively. Bush said it again yesterday--the costs of inaction are greater than the costs of a war, given the lessons of Sept. 11. A lot of people may not agree with that, but it's not that hard an argument to grasp. I think Bush basically feels that Iraq will never disarm voluntarily, and that war is the only way to disarm Saddam Hussein. This being the case, the sooner the war can be fought and won, the better. And once that happens, the administration will turn its full attention to North Korea, where there is no immediate military solution to the problem. That, as best I can understand it, is where the administration is coming from.

Indianapolis, Ind.: I'd like to hear some solid predictions on how this Administration plans on dealing witht the tremendous strain on our people in uniform. I hear plenty admitting it exist; but no solutions.

Do you have any predictions on how they will deal with this continuing burden?

I know people in the military and the strain on them and their families is becoming visable.

Vernon Loeb: I think its quite possible that the administration ultimately consider increasing the size of the active-duty military, because I very much agree with you, the strains are real and mounting. If something doesn't give to relief the pressure of near constant and massive deployments, many experts fear the administration could break the force, both active duty and reserve. And if that happens, the only way to maintain the all-volunteer military would be to lower acceptance standards.

Vienna, Va.: The fact that Bush's approval rating for handling the aftermath of 911 is so high perplexes me.

If he had addressed the nation by saying that we have a serious global problem that needs to be immediately resolved by the UN, NATO, OAS and the Arab League. And if he had very visably lead the way to developing and implementing constructive solutions to a very complex problem, then I would understand a high approval rating.

But by putting us in a cyclone of disparate actions that are only destablizing populations and governments worldwide, I hardly understand why Americans see that as a good thing.

I was particulary taken aback when he called the President of North Korea (a nation with nuclear weapons) a pygmy. And then kept pushing him personally. Sure, that is helpful.

Vernon Loeb: The only thing I might add to your observations is that Bush's approval rating has been falling, as the surge of patriotism and support for the President in the wake of Sept. 11 give way to a far more complex reality.

Somewhere, USA: I'm curious as to why Americans, when mentioning the help we gave France in the two world wars, fail to mention the support we gave the French in Indochina? Any idea on your end?

Vernon Loeb: I think the whole Indochina thing turned out so badly for both France and the United States that both nations would just as soon not bring it up.

Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Hey, how about that Turkey? The U.S. and some NATO members go to bat to provide defensive forces to absorb a possible Iraqi nuisance counterattack and how do the Turks respond? They demand a bigger bribe! In essence they want moola in order for us to spend money and lives to defend them. Have they go the United Nations mambo down pat or what? Maybe it's time you and your employer abandon your Turkish cabal and get onboard the Kurdish Express like I've been urging you onto for months now. After all, "think" tanks don't always call it right, either. Thanks much. Signed. Vietnam Era Veteran.

washingtonpost.com: Turkey Conditions Troop Deployment On More U.S. Aid (Post, Feb. 19, 2003)

Vernon Loeb: Thanks for those comments. I don't think the administration will be climbing aboard the Kurdish Express, but I do think the Turks' hardball could seriously damage their long-term relations with the U.S.

Arlington, Va.: Why do the talking heads (and a few WP columnists) talk about the US being isolated and warning against us "going alone" when over 30 nations are allied with the US, including 13 of 16 NATO/EU countries? Seems to me that it is France/Germany/Belgium who are isolated.

Vernon Loeb: You make a good point. But even some of those governments that are backing the U.S.--Britain, Spain, Italy, to name three important ones--are facing serious backlashes among their own people. You're right, the U.S. isn't exactly isolated, but the administration's war plans have triggered a major rift with France and Germany and engendered virulent anti-American sentiment around the world.

Arlington, Va.: While the lion's share of debate regarding Iraq focuses on whether we should attack or not attack, there has not been a sufficiently comprehensive debate(at least publicly)about why using resources to support a two year (best case) occupation of Iraq is more important than tightening port security, preparing first responders for a chemical or biological attack, or addressing the growing problem of North Korea. Indeed, not only has the government pushed these items lower on the priority list, it is burning an alarming amount of diplomatic capital to push forward with Iraq. The case justifying our RIGHT to attack Iraq has been made reasonably well. The case for whether or not we SHOULD has not. Your thoughts?

On a side note, why can't mainstream peace activists and democrats push harder using this argument rather than the standard "War is bad" platform that is so easy to dismiss as weak willed.

Vernon Loeb: I agree that the debate over whether we SHOULD attack Iraq has not been sufficient, given the factors you quite eloquently cite. But I think this debate is increasing, as more and more Democrats start to raise these issues. Certainly, the debate is taking place in the quality press. Read the op-ed pages of both The Post and The New York Times today and you will find excellent articles delving the very points you raise.

Bethesda, Md: I have no doubt that Saddam Hussein has WoMD - but does he have a delivery system to get it to the US? Wouldn't some type of chemical or bio bomb dissapate into the atmosphere? It would have to be awfully large to have the effect of a nuclear weapon, wouldn't it?

Vernon Loeb: Iraq does not have a delivery system capable of getting its weapons of mass destruction to the United States. It's missile capabilities don't even come close. Of course, it would be possible for Iraq, or al Qaeda for that matter, to stage terrorist attacks using chemical or biological weapons--releasing Sarin gas, for example, on the Metro, as terrorists did in the mid-1990s in Tokyo. In fact, the whole rationale for a war againsty Iraq is the belief that it could give chemical or biological weapons to al Qaeda, which could then stage such a terrorist attack. But in terms of Iraq delivering WMD to the U.S. using a missile or drone, I think that is way beyond Iraq's current capacity.

Massachussetts: One week to one month, you say? I think of war and I think of a long, messy "campaign" of sorts. What makes you think it will be so brief?

Vernon Loeb: Well, to some extent I suppose I'm swayed by the people I cover in the Pentagon, and that is basically what they forecast. And when I say one week to one month, I'm talking about the active combat phase of any war. That is, after a month, the Iraqi regime would be out of power, and the U.S. military would be in control of Iraq. The feeling at the Pentagon is simply that Iraq's military is a shadow of what it was in 1991, the elite forces won't fight hard to protect Saddam Hussein, and that the regime, lacking any semblance of public support, will rather quickly collapse. The post-war situation could well be a long and messy undertaking.

Rockville, Md.: With regard to the proposal of the French and others that "more time" be given to inspection, I would like to understand what can be gained by that strategy. Do they expect to find a smoking gun to justify war? Do they hope that with inspectors present Hussain will not do anything bad? If so, what will he do after inspectors leave? As long as he remains in power, he can cause harm. How does "more time" help that problem?

Vernon Loeb: You have just made the Bush administration's argument quite well. I think the French and others willing to give the inspectors more time do so on the belief that, with enough time, Iraq's weapons of mass destruction can be uncovered and destroyed, and that while the search is on, Saddam Hussein is effectively contained. And since that possibility exists, there is no need to go to war. That is the counter-argument.

Silicon Valley, Calif.: What have you heard on the likelihood that in the fog of war Saddam's own military officers and scientists will take small but lethal quantities of chemical/ biological weapons and barter for either better terms from the US or money from terrorists?

Vernon Loeb: That is a frightening possibility, and one that the U.S. will try to guard against by taking control of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction as quickly as possible.

Baton Rouge, La.: I have pretty much concluded that reinstation of conscription is going to happen sometime over the next three years or so. I know about Rumsfeld's and others' arguments, but if the military is over-extended, if over-reliance on reserves is increasingly an issue, and if the world situation in general continues to be dreadful, something is going to have to give.
If you think I'm wrong (and I imagine you may), I would love to know why.
I like your chats.

Vernon Loeb: I think you're probably wrong, because the military doesn't want a draft. The military needs high quality, well educated and highly motivated people to make up its forces, not draftees who lack all of those qualifications. I also think reinstituting the draft would be political suicide for any administration, and this will keep it from happening.

Silver Spring, Md.: The post-war aftermath could be a long and messy undertaking

Well, yeah. And what makes the Pentagon or anyone else think that we're going to do a better job of it than we have anywhere else in the world?

Any news on the new, improved Afghanistan? Oh, wait, we haven't finished the job there either have we?

Vernon Loeb: I am detecting a note of skepticism here. I think the thought of ruling Iraq in the aftermath of a war makes the military quite nervous, as well.

Falls Church, Va.: I am surprised at those who suggest that we give inspectors more time . . . it seems pretty obvious that the only thing that has motivated Saddam to "cooperate" with inspections so far has been the presence of the US Military just across his border. While this has resulted in some "cooperation" we can't leave those guys (and gals) - the U.S. Military - sitting in the desert forever and as soon as Bush moves to bring them home, Saddam's cooperation ends.

Vernon Loeb: I agree with you that the presence of U.S. forces on Iraq's border is the only thing that keeps Saddam even mildly cooperating with the inspectors. On the other hand, I was in Kuwait over the weekend, and one U.S. Army general said without reservation that we can keep our forces there for months, if necessary.

Alameda, Calif.: How long doe US military experts estimate it will take to subdue Tikrit? Is this a 6 month seige?

Vernon Loeb: Hardly, I think the Pentagon believes it can devasate Tikrit from the air, and then capture it on the ground in a matter of days.

Vernon Loeb: Well, I've gone over my alloted time. Thanks for all your questions. We'll do this again next week.


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

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