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Vernon Loeb
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National Defense
With Vernon Loeb
Washington Post National Security Reporter

Wednesday, Feb. 26, 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. 26 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: Hello everyone. Let's get started.

Charleston, S.C.: Has your level of concern about N. Korea and what they might do increased since they're latest actions while Powell was in South Korea?

Vernon Loeb: Absolutely. While the missile North Korea lobbed into the sea was a short-range missile and not that big a deal, the fact that Kim Jong Il's weird regime did this suggests that its very provocative and unpredictable behavior is continuing, perhaps even escalating, as D-Day in Iraq rapidly approaches.

Boston, Mass.: Vernon, something that I think is not getting a lot of attention in the press is the fundamental difference between our attack on Iraq in 1991 to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait, and what the Bush administration is proposing to do this time around.

Part of the reason desert storm went so well for us was that the objectives were so limited. But completely sacking the regime in power and installing a U.S.-led provisional government is a different story.

I'm concerned that the threat of both civilian and U.S. military casualities is far greater in this scenario, and that grave dangers from terrorist attacks against the occupying forces in Iraq, and Americans everywhere, will persist long after the shooting stops.

Limited strikes on specific targets determined to be part of Iraq's WMD program, along with continued enforcement of the no-fly zones and economic sanctions, in combination with the buildup of forces in the region ready to strike if Saddam steps out of line, seems like a much more feasible plan; a plan that might help salvage our relationships with key allies. But this would not satisfy the apparent vision of this administration for a radical shift in how we conduct foreign policy.

Your thoughts?


Vernon Loeb: The distinction you make between now and 1991 is certainly valid, as are all of the concerns you raise. And I know more than a few people in the U.S. military, though nowhere near a majority, who share your views that continuing aggressive containment would be a better way to go for the moment. But I do not think the key decision makers in the Bush administration will be swayed by your argument. They have, I believe, already made the decision to go to war.

St. Mary's City, Md.: One thing among many that I found particularly astonishing in the Bush administration's recently revealed plans for a post-war Iraq was a statement to the effect that at some point, our allies and the UN might be invited to provide support. Having completely trashed the UN, alienated some of our best allies (Germany, France), and eroded emerging relationships with some of our newer "partners" (Russia, China), how can this administration imagine broad international support and assistance during a prolonged occupation in hostile territory?

Vernon Loeb: You're absolutely right, the U.S. is going to need a lot of peacekeeping and humanitarian help in post-war Iraq. But don't think they won't get alot, even with the tense relations with France, Germany and others. The NATO countries are actually pretty supportive of the U.S., with the exception of France, Germany and Belgium. And the new Eastern European NATO members are strongly supportive. It will, indeed, be interesting to see how much coalition support the U.S. will get. I doubt the coalition will end up paying for most of the war, as it did back in 1991. The U.S. will get stuck with most of the (huge) bill. But I think the U.S. will be able to count on quite a bit of troop and governmental support.

Cumberland, Md.: Do you think Swedes and other anti-war Scandanavia diplomats should be given positions like head of UNMOVIC where their reports could result in a war? Doesn't their bias cause them to "slant" their reports to support anti-war activists?

Vernon Loeb: I have no problem putting the Scandanavians into key U.N. positions. I have a lot of respect for Hans Blix and the Swedish diplomat who headed UNSCOM back in 1990s, Rolf Ekeus. And, whatever their biases may or may not be, the Bush administration does not feel unduly bound by the reports these diplomats file.

Washington, D.C.: Vernon,

Dick Morris asserts in today's column that U.S. actions in Iraq will be more like a coup than what happened in '91, with emphasis on limited civilian casualties. Do you agree, and do you think U.S. military planners can pull off a surgical operation?

Vernon Loeb: I know the U.S. government hopes it can trigger a coup, and would much rather have that than a full-scale invasion. But I am skeptical that the CIA can pull it off. The CIA has been trying to foment a coup in Iraq for the better part of a decade, without success. There's some hope that the certainty of Saddam's demise, once a U.S. air campaign/ground invasion begins, will embolden those within the regime to dispose of Saddam for their own preservation. But again, I remain very skeptical about that and feel the U.S. military will have to forcibly take down the regime. That, in and of itself, could be fairly surgical. On the other hand, it could be fairly messy, as well. I spoke to one general yesterday who thought the war could actually last longer than two months. We'll just have to see.

Arlington, Va.: How can Bush say with a straight face that the UN has to back his plan or will be irrelevant? Any irrelevance will have been created by Bush himself since he's stuck in his balck and white, my way or the highway philosophy. I'd say that the UN going along with being forced by Bush to do his bidding would make the UN irrelevant, not standing up to him and not letting him have his way that he for whatever reason feels entitled to.

Vernon Loeb: Thanks for that comment.

Atlanta, Ga: This is a quasi-political question perhaps. But I was wondering if the general level of concern you hear from these chats reflect the general tone you hear as you go about you day doing your job talking to people who are probably much better informed than we are?

Vernon Loeb: I think it probably does. The sentiments expressed in these chats probably tends to run a little more strongly against the war than I get from those inside the government. The senior Bush administration folks, of course, are strongly in favor of disarming Saddam by force. The military, while certainly willing to carry out the mission if ordered by the president, has mixed feelings, and concerns. But I think even the ardent supporters of a war are concerned about all of the things that could go wrong, even if the war generally goes well. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld keeps a list in his desk drawer of all the things that could go wrong, and it's apparently a pretty long list.

Olney, Md.: Recent news reports indicated that the militry has enhanced the weapon previously known as the "Daisey Cutter." Previous uses were bunker blasters, airfield clearance etc.
It is obvious we plan to use a new suite of weapons this time around. Given Sec. Powell's comment that we don't plan to severly damage the Iraqi infrastructure.(It was not clear if he was speaking of the personnel or the material infrastructure.)Are we considering the use of the neutron bomb or some variant?

Vernon Loeb: I have heard nothing to suggest the U.S. is considering the use of tactical nuclear weapons. I would not be surprised to see the military drop a few 15,000-pound "Daisy Cutters" on Iraqi troop formations early in the war as a warning to other Iraqi forces: If you fight, the U.S. will hold nothing back. The amount of "shock and awe" created by one of those things going off is immense.

Washington, D.C.: I keep thinking of how we tried to install a "democratic" government in South Vietnam early on in the war and what a failure it was. It makes me very nervous to think of who the Administration wants to "install" as the new leader of Iraq. What are your thoughts on this issue?

Vernon Loeb: I agree that the U.S. has never been very successful when it comes to overthrowing regime and "installing" leaders more to our liking. It's certainly worth remembering the Vietnam experience as the administration contemplates regime change in Iraq. It's not, of course, a perfect analogy, in any way. But your point is well taken: Installing regimes to our liking is very tricky business. I think one obvious difference is that the U.S. contemplates holding elections in post-war Iraq, and letting the Iraqi people choose a leader. But even this is certainly easier said than done.

Arlington, Va.: Have you heard any analysis or expert opinions regarding the reaction OPEC will have if the U.S. uses Iraqi oil for its own benefit (i.e., domestic consumption, reconstruction cost offset, etc)?

Vernon Loeb: I really don't think the U.S. is going to try to use Iraqi oil for its own benefit. In fact, I heard Rumsfeld yesterday state categorically that the U.S. would not do that--that the administration believes Iraqi oil belongs to the Iraqi people. Now, if Saddam torches the oil fields and it costs $20 billion to $30 billion to repair them, I think Iraqi oil might finance the reconstruction. But that's different than a U.S. grab of Iraqi oil.

Charleston, SC: What does North Korea want? Why are they doing what they're doing?

Vernon Loeb: That's the $64,000 question. If we only knew. I guess on some level the regime wants respect in international affairs, and wants some assurance that the Bush administration will not wage preemptive war against North Korea, once it finishes with the first member of the Axis of Evil. But that's just a guess.

Somewhere, USA: Re: Regime Change: And let's not forget that we maintained the Shah of Iran for many years, and that effort certainly didn't end well.

Vernon Loeb: Another good bit of history to remember.

Brookline, Mass.: The comment from Arlington about Bush's remarks on the relevence of the UN is so valid, yet I haven't seen any columnists write about it. Why do some of the most simple and obvious things get ignored? It is in fact the Bush administration that is threatening to destroy the UN's relevence and usefulness. How does bullying weak Security Council members who need our assistance look to you?

Vernon Loeb: The Bush administration believes the UN Security Council would lose relevance if it refuses to pass a resolution authorizing the forcible disarmament of Iraq. I certainly do not think that is a universally shared view, and it's legitimate to make the opposite argument, as you have. Time will tell what effect all of this will have on the U.N. And I would agree with you that the pundit class certainly has no lock on wisdom.

Spokane, Wash.: What do you think of the "Virtual March" on Washington that the Hollywood celebrities are organizing today?

washingtonpost.com: Live at 2 p.m. ET 'Win Without War' organizer David Cortright discusses the "Virtual March"

Vernon Loeb: I think it's great that people are expressing their views about war in Iraq, however they do it. I do not believe a virtual march by Hollywood celebrities will have much effect on the Bush administration. Congress may be another matter. But the possibility of going to war, and the inevitability that war will end up in the deaths of U.S. soldiers, Iraqi soldiers and Iraqi civilians, is something all of us need to be aware of and fully debate, before any decision is made.

Torrance, Calif.: Hi Vernon,

What's the status of the Chinese spy investigation at Los Alamos? Is the investigation still active? Has the FBI made any arrests?

Vernon Loeb: Gee, I haven't heard anything about the Chinese spy investigation at Los Alamos for months, maybe years. I think it's over. And as best as I could ever figure, there was never any evidence that the leak of classified nuclear warhead dimensions came from Los Alamos. Last I knew, the counterintelligence people had moved on, and were looking at hundreds of defense contracting sites as possible sources of the information.

Piscataway, N.J.: Saddam Hussien has a few doubles that look just like him. Is it possible that Dan Rather interviewed a double of Saddam or the real Saddam?

Couldn't the U.S. Intelligence agency put a GPS locater on Mr. Rather?


Vernon Loeb: What a great question. I actually had not thought of that. I'm assuming Saddam wouldn't have passed up his big chance to be on network TV to one of his doubles, but who knows. As for the prospect of the CIA wiring Dan Rather with a GPS receiver, I'm sure he wouldn't have worn one for them, and I'm sure the Iraqis made sure he wasn't wired up. Just a guess.

Cumberland, Md.: Do you think that the war could be delayed past the end of March -- perhaps forcing the US to postpone action until fall?

Vernon Loeb: Good queston. I think it could be delayed until early April, just to accommodate last-minute diplomatic moves and final force assemblies. But I think that is unlikely. And if it were delayed, it would take place in April--not October or November. The Bush administration will not wait that long, absent full disarmament by Saddam.

Cumberland, Md.: Isn't the problem with any sort of containment option in Iraq, is that after a few months or years, the French start whining and want relaxation of sanctions? Thus containment never works as our so-called European allies try to weaken it over time.

Vernon Loeb: That is the Bush administration's problem with containment. You've stated it well. President Bush just doesn't think the U.N. will ever succeed at disarming Saddam.

Baton Rouge, La.: Any comments about this "assassinate Saddam" story? Seems very unlikely that the opportunity would arise, but what if it did?

Vernon Loeb: You are right. The opportunity seems very unlikely. If it did arise, the U.S. government, or someone acting on the government's behalf, would take it, I believe. Gladly. The Clinton and Bush administrations have authorized lethal operations against Saddam.

Arlington, Va.: There was a very interesting article on today's front page about how many Arabs who used to support the US are now very disillusioned and fear what is going to happen in the aftermath of our invasion of Iraq. Do you get the feeling the Administration is tuned in to these feelings, or do they really just not care what anyone thinks about what they are planning to do?

Vernon Loeb: Both, probably. The Bush administration, in the final analysis, does care what people in the Arab world think of the U.S. And the administration believes that creating a democracy in Iraq will have a tremendously positive impact on Arab opinion across the Middle East, and will put real pressure on Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria and Egypt to democratize, as well. That's one of the administratin's main arguments for going to war in Iraq.

Cumberland, Md.: Do you think that war is inevitable?

Vernon Loeb: Yes.

Washington, D.C.: What do you make of the report that the UK has only 6 of 100 promised aircraft to Kuwait so far?

They say they can't fly through air space over Isalmic nations, but that should slow the route by about a day, and they've been on board for the big win for over a year. I think they're afraid of the terrorist counter-attack that Iraq is sure to mount in retaliation for this war.

Vernon Loeb: I hadn't heard that, and in the end, it won't matter much. The U.S. has more than enough air power to devastate Iraq without the Brits. And remember, deploying planes isn't as slow a process as deploying armored divisions. If they promised 100 planes, I bet, in the end, those planes arrive.

Washington, D.C.: Putting aside Iraq for a moment, what is the Administration policy regarding nations acquiring/developing WMD and/or nukes. Does the administration assert the right to take preemptive military action against ANY country that seeks to acquire such weapons?

Vernon Loeb: No, I think the new National Security Strategy says the U.S. will take preemptive action against states developing WMD--if they are hostile to the U.S. and have active links to terrorist organizations. So Iran, for example, could be the subject of preemptive action, but not, say, China.

Ashland, Ohio: In between what years of age can you be drafted?

Vernon Loeb: None, as far as I know. Back in Vietnam, the draft pertained to men between the ages of 18 and_I'm guessing here_their early- to mid-20s.

Piscataway, N.J.: Do you think the United States will use the E-bomb on Iraq? The Pentagon has mixed feelings about using it from what I heard.

Vernon Loeb: I just don't know enough to say. I've certainly read lots of stories about how the military has tested this high-energy pulse weapon that fries computer networks. But I don't know if it's ready for deployment, and I don't know whether they have rules of engagement, and I don't know whether they will need it. Sorry.

Piscataway, N.J.: Do you believe this war with Iraq could change the world? Such as our relationships with France and Germany? Could this war effect our economy so much that it could change our lives here at home?

Vernon Loeb: This is a scary question. I guess if the administration succeeds at ovethrowing Saddam and creating a democracy in Iraq, that would in some way change the world. The war could also have a lasting impact on our relations with France and Germany. And if the war pushes the deficit to, say, $400 billion or $500 billion, that could certainly effect our economy and change our lives to some extent here at home. So I guess my answer is, yes, yes and yes. Gulp.

Vernon Loeb: And on that note, I've got to run. Thanks for all those great questions. You've proven once again, if there was any doubt, that all wisdom does not reside with the media. Cheers.


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

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