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

Wednesday, May 28, 2003; 1 p.m. ET

Post military reporter Vernon Loeb was online Wednesday, May 28 at 1 p.m. ET, to talk about the latest developments in national security.

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 everybody. Let's get started.

Underwater in Crofton, Md.: Good Day

I have just recently started to take part in your chats. They are very informative and I look forward to them each week. My question -- I hear many rumblings in the news about Iran. Yesterday a commentator questioned whether or not we should "go in" like in Iraq. If I am not mistaken, isn't their leader a "reformer" elected by the people of Iran? Do we always need to use the military option in a place like this or is Iran a nation that will hunt for terrorists like its leaders say?

Vernon Loeb: Those are good and complicated questions. First of all, I think we're a long way from going in militarily. And you're right to suggest that the military option isn't the only option and usually isn't the preferred option. I've heard a lot of people in the military say it should be the last option. Yes, Iran does have a "reform" president who is a counterweight to the clerics. And both the Clinton and Bush administrations, to varying degrees, have hoped that Hatami is someone they could work with to further the cause of reform and democracy. Both have been disappointed. The latest run of stories about the Bush administration's growing frustrations with Iran have indicated that senior administration officials have basically given up on working with Hatami. As for Iran hunting down terrorists inside Iran, few in the administration think that's likely to happen, and thus they have taken to considering alternatives, such as a clandestine program to destabilize Iran's government.

Arlington, Va.: Problem: Al-Qaeda is in Afghanistan.
Solution: US goes in and overthrows them. Result: Lawlessness still reigns, warlords still rule, and Al-Qaeda is still a presence.

Problem: Iraq has WMD. (still to be proven)
Solution: US goes in and overthrows Sadaam.
Result: Lawlessness in Iraq, attacks still occuring, and the US still has not been able to provide basic social services (not that surprising, since we can barely do that in the US)

Problem: Iran harbors terrorists and is actively trying to produce nuclear weapons.
Solution: Bush is pounding the war drums.

When are people going to learn? Afghanistan has faded from everyone's mind and yet we still do not have a handle on that situation. Then we do the same to Iraq. We win (the battle, we'll lose the war) and already we're turning towards Iran. Is the administration this short-sighted. Their actions leave me both amused (for their lack of forward planning) and disturbed (lying to the American public (see Iraq's WMD and terrorist links)). When's it all going to end?

Vernon Loeb: Thanks for that comment.

Springfield, Va.: Dear Mr. Loeb:

The Secretary of Defense should now be in a strong position to push all the money he can get toward his concept of defense "transformation." Instead, he seems simply to be adding transformation spending to "traditional" defense spending while Congress is in a spending mood. Do you suppose this is because his failure to sway Congress about transformation before 9/11 has left him unwilling to try again?

Vernon Loeb: I'm not sure why Rumsfeld hasn't been more "transformational" in his approach to redirecting Pentagon spending. With the exception of the Crusader artillery system, he is basically funding every single big ticket military development program he inherited from the Clinton administration. This may be because some of those programs, like the F-22, or the Comanche stealth helicopter, or the V-22 helicopter/plane troop transport, are, in some ways, transformational. And part of it may be that the seemingly endless supply of money in the defense budget has enabled him to get by without making hard choices--everything gets funded. And it may be that he realizes that to fight the Navy, say, on more submarines or destroyers, would entail fighting the shipbuilding industry on Capitol Hill, and that's too tough a fight to win.

Laurel, Md.: Our terror alert has been Orange since last week, although this particular increase has been minimally noticeable. What are the root causes at work here:

1. There have been enough of them now that relevant agencies know what to do with minimum disruption

2. This particular alert was motivated by increased activity overseas, so there's nothing particular to react to here

3. This is a sort of "lite" alert that doesn't seem as serious as the others. Maybe there should be another level between Yellow and Orange, and that's what we're in now.

4. People have become jaded about these elevations and see them as just a PR ploy.

Vernon Loeb: Thanks for that comment. I think people are, indeed, becoming a bit jaded about the relevance of the color-coded alerts, which is unfortunate, in some respects.

San Francisco, Calif.: According to news reports, the Air Force wants to do away with its A-10 Warthog aircraft despite the important role it played in providing ground support in the war in Iraq. What is your opinion on this issue and what is the Bush Administration likely to do concerning the A-10?

Vernon Loeb: I don't know whether the Bush administration, writ large, has an opinion on the A-10. And, as you suggest, its immediate fate will probably be influenced by the lessons learned in Iraq--and in Afghanistan--where the plane proved valuable in flying close air support and protecting troops on the ground. With all of the new emphasis on air-ground fusion, close air support, jointness and combined arms, it seems an odd time to be talking about phasing out the A-10. But at some point money will catch up with the Air Force, and it will have to make some tough choices about the F-22, the Joint Strike Fighter, maybe a new bomber, and now the new tanker lease, in terms of where all the money will come from. There is not enough money to do all those things, and continue to support the A-10. Something has to give. And in a service dominated by F-15 and F-16 pilots, I would bet that the A-10 will give long before the F-22.

Austin, Tex.: 1. Is the US facing something that is now or is about to become an organized resistance in Iraq?

2. I admit I opposed the war, but I was ready to admit that maybe I was wrong when it was quick and successful. If the administration had handled the aftermath as brilliantly as the military did the campaign, they would have convinced, literally, the rest of the world. Now it appears to be I-told-you-so time. Does the administration realize how badly they're in danger of blowing it, even assuming (optimistically) that the situation can be turned around at this point?

Vernon Loeb: I think the Pentagon--which made sure that it was in control, not just of the war, but of the peace--is realizing that things are not going particularly well, and are in fact, quite dicey in Iraq and probably getting worse. There has been a significant shift in Rumsfeld's rhetoric over the past month, I'd say. He's gone from saying reporters were exaggerating, to saying security has got to be the number priority, and we're there for as long as possible with as much force as possible. But even with that now as the official position, there's a question about whether the U.S. can recover from the looting and the initial period of drift. We'll see. I don't think things are looking particularly promising right now.

Alexandria, Va.: Is the Orange Alerts going to become a little like the Boy Who Cried Wolf? There been 4 of them now and nothing has publicly happened. Of course that is a good thing. But how long until the public just tunes out an Orange Alert? Will we only pay attention if we go to Red Alert?

Vernon Loeb: There is a real danger in people becoming inured to these increases in the terrorism alerts. I think the lesson to the government needs to be that it should be very discriminating about when it increases them, and it should probably try to go further in terms of explaining its thinking about the increases, instead of merely saying it is responding to credible intelligence and increased chatter.

Vienna, Va.: Dear Sir,
Do you perceive any conflict-of-interest issues with the President's father making huge profits from his defense-related stock holdings, stocks which have risen in value due to the fact that his son's personal wars have depleted the inventory of said weapons, thereby increasing demand and stock prices?
Many Thanks,
Curious in Vienna

Vernon Loeb: Not really. I think Bush II is going to war out of ideological conviction, not to help Bush I's defense stocks. Bush II also canceled the Crusader, the high-tech artillery piece owned by the Carlyle Group, the investment bank that Bush I served as an advisor.

Bethesda, Md.:

I thought our military performed brilliantly, despite the critics. I also found this past war with its low casualties a great validation of the big money we spend on military projects- I'm thinking of Abrams tanks, stealth bombers, anti-missile tech. etc.. Has the pentagon pointed that out to the critics and liberals who have opposed just about every weapon system that saved lives (our guys and even the enemy's)? Thanks.

Vernon Loeb: Oh yes, I think the Pentagon has been making that case, loud and clear. I am a bit confused, however, at your reference to critics and liberals. As far as I can tell, there are no liberals opposed to Bush's large increases in defense spending. None. In fact, there seems to be amazing bipartisan consensus about America's need to spend more than $1 billion per day on defense. I would agree that the weapons purchased with that money performed quite well--brilliantly, perhaps--in Iraq. However, before anyone gets too carried away, I think Iraq was a miserable, third rate opponent. As one savvy military officer commented to me recently, "Anything we would have tried would have worked." He called the Iraqis a "flintstones" opponent.

Alexandria, Va.: I seem to remember the Air Force was reluctant to send A-10's to Saudi Arabia for Gulf War I as well. If combined-arms and jointness are key to Rumsfeld's transformation of the military, the A-10 would seem to be the bird of choice. Relatively cheap, durable, and mission-focused.

The Navy has partially abdicated its ground support role with the virtual elimination of tube artillery from its ships. Now the Air Force is considering the same. If I were the Army, I would consider following the Marines example, and expanding my air arm to include fixed wing aircraft. Maybe they can get a deal from the Air Force on some used A-10's

Vernon Loeb: Good point. Former Air Force chief of staff Tony McPeak agrees, and told me recently that when he was in office, he offered to trade the Army the A-10 for the Patriot missile defense system. I think it would make sense for the Army to fly the A-10, just like the Marines fly the Harriers, especially now that the war in Iraq has raised some survivability issues with regard to the Apache Longbow. Giving the Army the A-10--now that's transformational!

New York, NY: C'mon Mr. Loeb, you can't honestly say there's no conflict of interest when the defense contractors, oil companies and family friends of the President are the only ones reaping the benefits of this "war on terrorism". Iraqis aren't exactly living the high life, Afghanis are in a worse boat than the Iraqis, Iranians are about to be in that boat; and yet, oil and defense stocks are on the rise. Oh, and don't forget the hundreds of thousands of Americans in the military who are going to be even more underpaid because of this tax cut, and the millions of unemployed who are being ignored while the President picks fights around the world.

Sorry about the soapbox, but this is getting ridiculous.

Vernon Loeb: Thanks for that comment, and I hear what you're saying. I just don't believe that Bush II went to war for oil or defense stocks. Yes, his policies have worked to the benefit of both. That is clear. And if a majority of Americans agree with you, they should by all means vote Bush out of office. But to use the term conflict of interest implies that one did something to benefit another, and, again, I don't think that was Bush the younger's motivation, that's all.

Burke, Va.: What do you guys do when you are convinced the administration is lying?

Vernon Loeb: We write stories about it.

Virginia: Israel supported Iran during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. Do you think Israel will support an U.S. invasion of Iran like they did on Iraq?

Vernon Loeb: That's quite the hypothetical. First of all, I don't think the U.S. is going to be invading Iran. But if it did, my guess would be that, yes, Israel would be supportive.

Cambridge, Mass.: I am a big fan of your chats, and I appreciate the opportunity that you provide readers to gain insight into your opinions.

Question: Has there been any reaction across the pond with regards to the latest talk about Iran? We went to war with Iraq with the bare vestiges of international support, and our only significant ally was UK. What kind of support/opposition would you expect with regards to any covert/overt action in Iran?


Vernon Loeb: Thanks for those kind words. I think it's the guys on the other side of the pond who are driving this talk about Iran. And having been through two wars with them since 911, when they talk, I tend to listen. Rumsfeld and company believe in using American power to solve America's problems, particularly the terrorism problem. You may quarrel with their ideology, but you have to take seriously the fact that they tend to do as they say. Having said that, I just can't believe they are going to be venturing into Iran, with either military force or covert action, any time soon, given just how totally full their hands are in Iraq (not to mention Afghanistan). They could try to ratchet up intel and Special Ops activity in Iran, but the track record of that kind of stuff working is pretty dismal. As for an invasion, I can't believe they could seriously even consider that for the duration of the first Bush term, given the state of affairs in Iraq.

Burke, Va.: This is a follow-up on the lying question. It looks to me that the administration lied about the presence of WMD's and their possible danger to the US. It also looks like the people were misled about Saddam Hussein being responsible for 9/11, yet I haven't seen much about this from you guys.

Vernon Loeb: I beg to differ. I could send you at least 20 articles from The Washington Post challenging their assertions on WMD and al Qaeda links to Iraq. No, we tend not to call the Bush administration "liars," since it's hard to know when someone is lying, as opposed to when they may be misinformed, or whatever. But we have challenged official assertions on both those fronts. I would venture to say that The New york Times, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal have done the same. I'm less certain about television. But I'd bet that everything you know about problems with the administration's claims about WMD and al Qaeda links comes from the media. Are we perfect? No way. Are we susceptible to be spun, and used? Absolutely. Guilty. I just don't think you can say that we have dropped the ball on trying to hold the administration accountable on WMD and al Qaeda links to Iraq.

Montclair, NJ: Special ops in Iran? Look at 1953: short term success, long term unmitigated disaster. I think that infiltration is the root cause of all the problems in the Middle East now. When Iran threatens the west's interests, CIA action is NOT the way to go. That legitimizes the clerics.

Vernon Loeb: Thanks for that comment. This is what I was alluding to when I said covert action has had a dismal track record.

Cumberland, Md.: Do you think anything useful will come out of Bush's Middle East summits?

Vernon Loeb: I hope so, but I remain skeptical. I guess it's good that Bush is now trying to create a sense of "momentum" in the peace process, as my colleague Glen Kessler wrote this morning. But creating momentum requires more than holding a meeting. So we'll see if the administration can both create, and then sustain, some momentum.

Herndon, Va.: Mr. Loeb: Your comments on the A-10 are right on the mark. The USAF, bless them (from on old Army-Vietnam era type) have ground support way, way down on the list of priorities. Even before our time, remember the U.S. Army/USAF fight over missiles, with the Army claiming it was artillery writ large, and the AF saying it was long-range bombing by different means. Someone, somewhere, has to make sure the ground troops have the air support they need. What will replace the A-10? I'd guess that question isn't high up on the USAF "to do" list.

Vernon Loeb: You may have noticed that the Air Force now calls the F-22 the F/A-22, implying that it has a new and important ground attack role. This has caused a lot of skepticism among Army guys like you, who question whether the Air Force is really going to be using a $200 million fighter plane to do what the A-10 does for a pinned down Army squad on the ground.

Arlington, Va.: Who do you think will be the next Chief of Staff of the Army?

Vernon Loeb: I'm told Jack Keane, the current vice chief, is being pressured by Jim Roche to take the job, and is reconsidering, though I don't think he is now leaning toward taking the job. If he bows out for good, I'm told the next three candidates are Lt. Gen. John Abizaid, everyone's rising superstar (though I bet he replaces Franks at Centcom), Lt. Gen. Doug Brown, number two at SOCOM, and Pete Schoomaker, retired head of SOCOM. How to bring about revolution, if not revolt, in the Army: Install the secretary of the Air Force and a Special Forces retiree!

Bethesda, Md.:

In response to your question on liberals/critics I don't mean to sound too ideological but I do remember LOTS of liberals complaining about President Bush's spending on missle defense in just the last 2 years even though that research was applied to the patriot anti-missile systems. I also know many members of Congress (Maxine Waters, John Conyers Cucinich ect.) who complain about military spending when black kids are starving in the streets and our schools are crumbling down. Those are the people I'm thinking of- that's all.

Vernon Loeb: Good point, but I'm thinking of liberals like Kerrey and others running for president, and Carl Levin, who chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee, and DID NOT oppose Bushes top line increases in defense spending. Will any Democrat running for president stand up and say he or she is opposed to the defense build up? Will they say they are opposed to it as long as it is being deficit financed? I haven't heard that yet from them, and I'll be surprised if I do.

Vernon Loeb: Well, I've gone way over my hour time limit. Those were great questions, and we can keep on talking next week. Thanks a lot.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company