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National Defense
With Vernon Loeb and Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writers

Wednesday, May 7, 2003; 1 p.m. ET

Post military reporter Vernon Loeb was online Wednesday, May 7 at 1 p.m. ET, to talk about the latest developments in national security. Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest will not be joining today's session.

Loeb covers military defense and national security issues. Priest covers intelligence and recently wrote "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.

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. I just covered a briefing this morning by Army Lt. Gen. William "Scott" Wallace, commander of V Corps in Iraq, and he painted a rather optimistic portrait of reconstruction and stabilization operations in Iraq. His view certainly differed markedly from much of the press coverage coming out of Iraq. This may be one of the things we want to talk about. So let's get going.

Washington, D.C.: What do you make of Secretary Rumsfeld's decision to tap those in charge of IF for top leadership positions in the services? Did this derail plans already in progress?

Vernon Loeb: It's an interesting and bold Rumsfeld move, taking top battlefield commanders from the war in Iraq and making some of them the vice chiefs of staff of their services. It's clearly an attempt by Rumsfeld to infuse some warfighting spirit, and some lessons learned, from the war directly into the service bureaucracies, which are responsible for training and equipping forces for future wars. To the extent this move derails service plans already progress, Rumsfeld would probably answer that's for the better.

Portland, Ore.: These Shiite Muslim clerics are a clever bunch. I read they are going to the administration to lobby for their form of government (religious based) to be formed in Iraq. And from reading the article they seem calm, articulate, and very determined to create a government modeled after Iran.

How much of a problem could this be for the U.S., since we've come out pretty strong that we won't allow such a political system to be formed in Iraq?

Vernon Loeb: Time will tell. As you suggest, the U.S. is not going to allow Iraq to become a conservative, Shiite government on the model of Iran. And I certainly think it's wrong to believe that that is where a majority in Iraq want to go. I think there are divisions within the Shiites in Iraq, including secular Shiites. Then there are the Sunnis and the Kurds and other groups, none of whom have any interest in a fundamentalist Shiite government. I get the sense that Rumsfeld and other Pentagon officials are concerned about the political power of some of the Shiite clerics, but not overly concerned.

Ashland, Ky.: How does the general's take on security and reconstruction efforts in Iraq differ from the press coverage? Since you didn't ask the question 'yerself?

Vernon Loeb: Well, while the press coverage that I've read has focused on increasing instability and on how some Iraqis are filling power vacuums in ways that are less than optimum, Gen. Wallace said conditions are improving throughout all of northern Iraq. Here is what he said:

"I'm not particularly concerned about security in Baghdad at all, other than the general notion that we are still seeing criminal elements on occasion. We are still occasionally experiencing what we believe to be celebratory fires. We will occasionally receive small arms fire on some of our patrols or our fixed installations.

But in general terms, the security situation in Baghdad is improving every day. And in fact, I talked to General Blount, the commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, over a relatively long period this morning, and he confirms that the security situation is relatively stable, particularly compared to what it was yesterday or a week ago."

Pickens, S.C.: It is reported that President Bush has a 71 percent job approval rating, but still it doesn't seem easy to find many folks who think George W. Bush is the man to lead the country's economic efforts.

Do you believe, Vernon, that the security of our Nation is SO threatened that we can allow the President to flex his military muscle while continuing to play "tax cut" games with the congress and the sagging economy?

Vernon Loeb: It doesn't really matter what I believe. I think Bush's approval ratings would indicate that the American people aren't all that alarmed by his handling of the economy. But I agree with you that, come the election in November 2004, the state of the economy will be far more important to voters than the state of Iraq. And I also agree that Bush has, thus far, been far more successful at fighting wars than at managing the economy.

Indianapolis, Ind.: I'm interested in learning more about what's going on outside of Baghdad. And I'd like a better understanding of how in the world that nuclear site was looted. Do either of you have recommendations (aside from The Post which is a pretty good source)?

Vernon Loeb: I think press coverage will gradually improve from all parts of Iraq as stability improves, U.S. forces move throughout the entire country, and journalists gain more freedom of access across Iraq. Unfortunately, it's probably a story you're going to have to assemble over time. You might try supplementing U.S. coverage with British and other foreign coverage via the Web.

Ashland, Ky.: And to follow up: Why do you think the media reports not coincide with the General's view?

Vernon Loeb: To an extent, I think the media is accentuating the problems, and Gen. Wallace is accentuating the progress he sees being made. Both can be right at the same time, to a degree.

Cumberland, Md.: I read today, I believe in a U.K. paper, that the president may unilaterally lift Iraqi sanctions. Have you heard any talk like that?

Vernon Loeb: I haven't, but I don't think Bush can unilaterally lift UN sanctions. He can unilaterally lift U.S. sanctions, but not UN sanctions.

San Francisco, Calif.: Do you see a danger of the U.S. winning the war and losing the peace in both Afghanistan and Iraq? U.S. blunders in Afghanistan allowed warlords to gain power while the Taliban is also gaining in strength. Blunders included restricting international security to only one Afghan city and our shortchanging the government of Afghanistan. We won the war in Iraq, then lost the peace and had to fight a war there again. Now we seem to be about to lose the peace there again. Your comments?

Vernon Loeb: I think winning the war and losing the peace is a danger in Afghanistan and Iraq, as you say. I don't think the U.S. has lost the peace in Afghanistan. The situation is precarious, but slow and gradual progress is being made, and probably for as long as 11,000 coalition combat forces remain to confront remnants of al Qaeda and the Taliban (including 8,000 U.S. soldiers), the country can avoid collapse. Iraq is much earlier, still, in the post-war process, and it remains to be seen how skillful the Pentagon will be at managing the peace. But I certainly think Rumsfeld and company would agree with you that losing the peace is a real danger--and one that must be avoided, to maintain U.S. credibility in the region.

Oxford, U.K.: I attended a forum on Iraq last night with representatives of the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Iranian and Kuwaiti embassies, along with the former British ambassador to Iraq. One thing on which the Kuwaiti and the Iranian agreed was that the growth of Iraq's civil society was impossible with the continued presence of the U.S. military. In America, though, it seems that those people most worried about Iraqi democracy, and even those who opposed the war, want the military to stay as long as possible. Do you think the military presence in Iraq is a necessary condition for democracy? If it is, is the military being active enough to build functioning democracy and civil society?

Vernon Loeb: You pose a most thoughtful question. I think the presence of the U.S. military is necessary to create the stability that is, in turn, necessary for the creation of a democratic government. My sense is that the U.S. military could be more active right now in trying to create those conditions, as the British military has been in Basra and the south.

Kensington, Md.: I saw in The Post article today where we might soon release a number of the "enemy combatants" which we've been holding without charge all this time. Any idea whether the three children (between 13 and 15) held at Camp Delta (in violation of several international agreements) will be among them? Don't feel bad if you were unaware of them -- I only know of their captivity by reading foreign media (of course).

Oh, and long live the glorious Empire of the Free! (almost forgot to say it, sorry, won't happen again)

Vernon Loeb: Do I detect a hint of cynicism here? I understand your strong feelings about holding people for so long without charging them. I must say, I don't know whether the juveniles being held there are among those to be released, and I just tried to find my colleague John Mintz who wrote the article, but he's not around. I'm sure you're absolutely right about the foreign media paying more attention to the juveniles in custody than the U.S. media has. Rumsfeld's position is that the juveniles being held are terrorists and murderers, and that to describe them as "juveniles" or "children" is to absolve them of responsibility for their crimes. I have no idea whether that is a defensible position or not, since I have no idea why these juveniles were apprehended in the first place. Personally, I feel that if Rumsfeld is correct, they should be given legal counsel, charged and tried in a manner similar to that used in the United States for trying juveniles charged with serious crimes.

Wheaton, Md.: When Bush and Sharon meet this month, do you thing Bush will reaffirm strong commitment to Israel and our mutual security interests in the war on terrorism?

Vernon Loeb: I think he will probably do precisely that.

Boston, Mass.: Any word on those Weapons of Mass Destruction that Iraq has?

Vernon Loeb: None yet. The latest report is that the U.S. military has found one of those mobile bio weapons laboratories, but it appears to have been cleaned with bleech, and is thus without traces of bio weapons.

Hollywood, Fla.: Why hasn't anyone in our government been made to answer the question of why the only thing we secured was the oil fields? There is an AP report this morning of cholera in Basra. Undoubtedly it is occuring in Baghdad and elsewhere. It is appalling to think that there was no forethought to securing hospitals. Watch FEMA in action. Where's the FEMA for Iraq? What is the press silent on asking this?

Vernon Loeb: You are right to be aggressive is asking this question (by the way, I think the Oil Ministry was also secured). But I think the media in general, and The Washington Post in particular, have also been aggressive in trying to hold the U.S. government accountable for not doing more to secure the hospitals and the antiquities museum.

Austin, Tex.: Speaking of learning lessons from the British....

Reading coverage of the war and its aftermath, I get the impression that the U.K. military, while inferior in size and less equipped than the U.S., is extremely capable. Perhaps -- dare I say it -- even more disciplined and professional than their U.S. counterparts. They seemed to handle dealing with civilians in Basra especially well. Also, apparently there was mumbling among British forces about "trigger happy Yanks." Maybe because of Northern Ireland.

Your comments? Are there things we could learn from the UK military?

Vernon Loeb: There are absolutely things the U.S. military can learn from the British, who have seemed far more interested in aggressively pursuing stability operations and civil affairs work--in short, in establishing direct relations with Iraqis and their leaders--than U.S. forces have. At least, that's been the conclusion of many observers, including some within the U.S. military. In terms of troop discipline and command leadership, I would certainly say that British forces are the equal of U.S. forces, if not, in some ways, superior.

Forestville, Md.: I read in yesterday's Wall Street Journal that Northrop Grumman stole papers, and contracts, from Lockheed Martin in the late '90s that may get them the "Kiss of Death" from DoD. Is this dangerous to our country, having one really big dog as the only source of missile and satellite systems (I think that was all that was done)?

Vernon Loeb: I'm not sure you've got your contractors right. I don't think it was Northrup Grumman that stole the papers. But in general, I think the military's reliance on an increasingly small number of major defense contractors capable of building aircraft, ships, submarines and space vehicles has enormously negative implications.

Cooked Documents: The New York Times' Kristoff had an interesting column based on Seymour Hirsh's New Yorker piece about the cooked documents implicating Niger's role in enriching uranium and selling it to Iraq; this was a key piece of evidence used to go to war. Are journalists generally OK with this? I mean, I hate to say this, but I have seen very little aggressive reporting about the fact that the president of the United States used blatantly fake documents (and documents that were known to be fake for at least a year), to go to war and kill thousands of people. No doubt the regime was horrid, but if we use stunts like this on a regular basis then what stops other countries from doing it also?

Isn't this an impeachable offense? Again, the State Dept KNEW it was fake, and therefore, the President KNEW it was fake as well.

I am still not sure if Art imitates Life, or if it is the other way around. After all, the Fox series "24" is about using cooked evidence in order to go to war with Middle Eastern nations.

Vernon Loeb: Thanks for that question. I also thought the Kristof column was excellent. I don't think journalists are OK with public officials knowingly using false documents to support war claims, which is why a bunch of papers have already reported this story. It's unclear to me precisely who knew what about the bogus documents as they were being used to justify war in Iraq, but I agree with you that that is a legitimate subject for press and congressional inquiry. I think it's fair to say that if the Clinton administration had done that, there would now be a congressional inquiry underway. And there probably would be now, if the Democrats controlled either house of Congress.

Piscataway, N.J.: How strong do you think the Iraqi military will be once law and order are restored in Iraq? Might Iraq order U.S. military weaponry? Will Iraq eventually be a powerful military in the region?

Vernon Loeb: It's not unreasonable to think, if and when Iraq becomes a self-governing country again, that it would wants its own military, and that that military might again become fairly powerful by regional standards. But this, I think, is a long, long way off.

Vernon Loeb: Well, the hour is up already. Thanks for all your questions. I look forward to doing this again next week.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company