'The War Behind Closed Doors'
With Michael Kirk
Friday, Feb. 21, 2003; 11 a.m. ET
What's really driving the Bush administration to war with Iraq?
FRONTLINE's "The War Behind Closed Doors," airing on Thursday, Feb. 20, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), asks whether the publicly reported reasons -- fear of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction or a desire to insure and protect America’s access to oil -- are only masking the real reason for the war.
Award-winning producer and documentary filmmaker Michael Kirk was online Friday, Feb. 21, to talk about Iraq and what he learned about the Bush administration's policy. The transcript follows.
Kirk, a former Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard, was Frontline’s senior producer from 1983 to 1987, and has produced more than 100 national television programs. He was online earlier this season to talk about "The Man Who Knew," and during the 2001-2002 season to discuss "Did Daddy Do It?"; "American Porn"; "Gunning for Saddam"; and "Target America." Other films include "The Clinton Years," a week-long co-production with ABC News on the presidency of Bill Clinton that aired in January 2001; "The Choice 2000," comparing the lives, beliefs and experiences of Vice President Gore and then-Gov. George W. Bush; "The Killer at Thurston High," the first comprehensive TV profile of high school shooter Kip Kinkel; and "The Navy Blues," a 1996 Emmy Award-winning look at the post-Tailhook Navy.
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Knoxville, Tenn.: Is this film a documentary? One which attempts to convince or sway the viewer to accept a certain point of view?
Michael Kirk: The goal of the documentary is to inform and state as clearly as possible the facts, order them in a way that makes the communication understandable and watchable, and hopefully useful.
Alexandria, Va.: Wonderful program, except that I felt like I was on a train that never got to the station. Has Powell changed his mind on Wolfowitz's strategic thinking, or has he been trapped by his insistence on a UN resolution which now has been violated by Iraq, as you seem to suggest, or is it that he is, finally, only a tactician in the service of Wolfowitz's strategy, as you also suggest? And what was the role of the French ambush, if any?
Michael Kirk: I do think many inside the administration believe Secretary of State Powell enjoyed a moment of preeminence between last August and October. But the president has apparently grown impatient with Secretary Powell's tactics, and his influence inside the Oval Office has waned. It would be hard to believe that Secretary Powell would find himself in agreement with the strategic thinking of Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz. If the secretary is in the service of anyone, it is no doubt the commander in chief, the president of the United States. As to the French, one of the things some in the administration say is that Powell and others misread the mood at the United Nations, and misread the politics of Old Europe vs. New Europe and France's worries about its place in the new constellation.
Austin, Tex.: Have you found that the horrible events of 9/11 opened a window for Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz to implement the agenda of their think tank, Project for a New American Century, especially by following their report of "Rebuilding America's Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century," submitted two months before the 2000 election? Is this just a little too much Manifest Destiny?
Michael Kirk: There's no doubt that one can find the roots of the Bush Doctrine, as currently articulated, in just a few places. One of them is the draft policy guidance written by Paul Wolfowitz in 1992. The other is under the Project for a New American Century, "Rebuilding America's Defenses." Another is in the regular writings of a number of key administration figures during the 1990s.
Alexandria, Va.: This is in regards to what wasn’t included in last night's documentary.
I never really understood why the evidence in "Gunning for Saddam," specifically I'm referring to Salman Pak and other related evidence, hasn't received wider play. Does the aerial reconnaissance refute this, has Sabah Khodada been discredited, was the intelligence too old to put forward?
Michael Kirk: Last night we made a decision facing the tyranny of time and space not to explore the formidable amount of evidence about Saddam Hussein's arsenal and activities. Which is not to say they don't exist or are not important.
New Haven, Conn.: Has the Bush administration brought the issue of war with Iraq to the American people and to the world under a banner of terrorism and false pretense? Are they aware of the pain and disturbance they have caused in the lives of the average person?
Michael Kirk: As we said in our program last night, from the first evening on 9/11, the president broadened the mandate of the war on terror to include those who harbor terrorists. Certainly, the neo-Reaganites in his administration believed that provided sufficient justification to include Iraq and Saddam Hussein as a target for their efforts.
Washington, D.C.: Mr. Kirk, can you give your view on why the print press and The Washington Post in particular, ignored telling ahead of time that your great piece was coming up last night and why they usually even ignore reviewing or reporting on such excellent reports? One has to suggest that The Post at least doesn't believe in serious history as a background and counter-argument to its strong support for going to war.
Michael Kirk: Far be it for me to be critical of The Washington Post's coverage of this particular topic, since I relied heavily on the reporting and the generosity of The Post's most formidable reporters: Karen DeYoung, Dan Balz and Bart Gellman. As to whether the Post takes seriously my fervent desire that it promote my television program, that has to be taken up with the Style editor.
Hoffman Estates, Ill.: How much influence has Israel the Israeli lobby in the U.S. been on pushing this administration to war with Iraq? Israel seems to be the biggest winner if we go to war. For one thing, it will use the war as cover to remove Yassar Arafat permanently.
Michael Kirk: I don't know. I never heard anything like that in the course of my reporting.
Cheverly, Md.: What role has White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card played in the push for war?
Michael Kirk: Chief of Staff Card attends many of the meetings. His position is frequently solicited and offered.
Fountain Valley, Calif.: What response have you had from the Bush White House?
Michael Kirk: No response and no response expected.
Nebraska: I'm curious as to your thoughts on the president's relationship with the media.
It appears (to me at least) that President Bush avoids any possibility of having to respond to detailed questions (or follow-up questions) about his claims that Iraq presents a imminent threat to our country. In public speeches he continues to make vague assertions connecting Iraq to terrorists, and repeatedly speaks of "protecting the American people," but he never connects the dots. And reporters (on the rare occasions they have access to him) rarely press him to give detailed answers. Is the press afraid of him? Does the White House have a strategy to freeze out any reporter that asks him a tough question or criticizes his dissembling (as it did with Dana Milbank)? What's your take?
Michael Kirk: I don't cover the White House on a regular basis, so I'm not a member of the White House press corps, so they may well have better insights on significant problems and access to the president. For our part, I deal with the public record, speeches that he's made, documents I can unearth, and off-the-record conversations with people who know -- almost none of whom are easily forthcoming about anything. It is a very tight ship they run, in terms of information, and I think that includes how open and candid the president is.
Having said that, this administration is in complete contrast to the Clinton administration, which leaked, in which sources often said completely contradictory things, and which had its own different kinds of trouble with the press.
Helena, Mont.: The program was absolutely frightening. This may sound terribly naive, but the policy of preemptive strikes sounds to me exactly what the Japanese did to us at Pearl Harbor. Playing it out, we could apply this to absolutely any country at any time, as long as whoever is President at the time can be convinced that, at some point, however distant, that country could be perceived as a threat. How could a policy like this have any credibility with any rational decision-maker? It sounds like the perfect recipe for turning the whole world against the U.S.
Michael Kirk: Well that is the counter argument to it. Simply stated, that's the counter argument to the policy. The authors of preemption and prevention would argue that if appropriately used, preemption will not be necessary that often, because potential enemies will never go there because they know how forceful we can be and that we're willing to pull the trigger.
Arlington, Va.: I just happened to switch over to you program and enjoyed it very much. It reminds me a bit of Bob Woodward's recent book he came out with. Did you interface with him during any time of the production of your project?
Michael Kirk: I sincerely enjoyed reading Bob Woodward's book. But no, I did not interface with Bob on this particular subject. But we interviewed and used information from Woodward's colleague Dan Balz.
Vienna, Va.: I don't see what the big deal is here. There is no "war behind closed doors." Why make up reasons to get rid of Saddam's regime? There are enough REAL reasons for doing so -- in spite of the foolish opposition from the French and Germans. And never mind today. There were enough real reasons for getting rid of him years ago, but we just didn't have the will to do it.
The Bush administration isn't giving us a snow job here. They mean exactly what they say. Saddam is indeed a major threat to world peace and the security of this country, and unless he is disarmed or stripped of his power, he has to go, period.
Michael Kirk: The war behind closed doors was between elements inside the Bush administration led by Secretary of State Powell to stop unilateral efforts to strike Saddam without coalitions and in the face of not having fully exhausted containment. And at a deeper level, our story was about the larger war, which is over the foreign policy of the United States with Iraq as the first effort toward preemption. My belief is that they really see Iraq as a first case study, and as a warning to North Korea and others in the Middle East. So it is much larger than just the case against Iraq.
Atlanta, Ga.: I just watched the Frontline broadcast concerning the new American strategy on the world and particularly and the Iraq and the power/influence issues facing the president. The focus was entirely on the conflict between the moderates and conservatives on a new world doctrine. No mention was ever made about PM Tony Blair and their ardent support. This is a very liberal government of the British, which is supporting a very conservative policy toward Iraq. There seems to be far more to this issue than merely the two different totally American ideologies that Frontline would have one believe. Why is Tony Blair, a liberal, so adamant about Saddam Hussein's removal? What do the British, a very liberal country, see or know that they would risk aligning themselves with the Bush doctrine on Iraq? Britain has long had much better on the ground intelligence services than the U.S. What do they know and how is that shaping what is happening now? The Frontline report is very interesting and does help one better understand the people and their individual views. However, I feel that the Iraq issue is far more complex and sinister than simply a power struggle between two policy camps with in the White House. The British involvement and influence in this process I found greatly missing from Frontline's analysis, which causes me to question the credibility of the entire thesis. Please comment.
Michael Kirk: Point taken... and as important as Britain's role in decisions about a potential war with Iraq may well be, the fact is, long before Tony Blair voiced his position, elements of the United States government and indeed the president of the United States were signaling their intentions to go to war with Iraq. They are not mutually exclusive. But for our story, we chose to focus on the American policy initiatives. No doubt exploring England's position would also have been an interesting, if different television program.
Chicago, Ill.: How much of a role does oil REALLY play in this war? Is the U.S. SO reliant on Mideast oil?
Michael Kirk: Oil, the attempted assassination of the president's father, the relationship of Saddam Hussein to the first World Trade Center bombing, and many other factors explain some of the reasons some people might be willing to argue for war with Saddam. We believe the primary reasons are much larger than any of those: A new doctrine and a new foreign policy that places America in a preeminent posture vis-a-vis the world.
Dubuque, Iowa: You portrayed Powell as a bit of a loner in the current scheme -- who are his key allies in the administration?
Michael Kirk: I think Secretary of State Powell operates independently inside this administration, especially on this subject. He no doubt has allies on a variety of other issues, but about this, he seems to be in a loop of his own.
Potomac, Md.: "War Behind Closed Doors" made it seem like Wolfowitz was the principal, if not only author of the Global Defense Strategy (the Plan), whereas it appears that he was second to the principals Cheney and Powell in the early '90s. It was Cheney's (and Powell's) concern to maintain Defense Dept. funding which was in jeopardy as the Cold War started to fade with the onset of the Soviet Union's collapse. That's when the preemption concept and the ability to fight wars on two fronts came into being. Cheney was the central figure in the initiation of that Plan aided and abetted by Powell. Wolfowitz's plan was seen as so extreme that it was rejected at that time. The Frontline failed to show the preeminent roles of Powell and especially Cheney who was their boss. This is a serious oversight in the program if not the heart of the entire issue. Wolfowitz was a party to the Plan eventually but Cheney and Powell were the pre-eminent players which should have been very clearly portrayed. Why was this important aspect omitted?
Michael Kirk: We disagree, based on information others gave us about the genesis of preemption as a doctrine and the role of then-Secretary of Defense Cheney, which has always been complicated and defies easy description. And they all worked for a president, George H.W. Bush, who especially in an election year, wanted nothing to do with preemption.
San Diego, Calif.: Unfortunately and as usual, something happened that made it impossible for us in San Diego to watch this program. It's not the first time a controversial program was either not aired or like tonight, suddenly inaccessible. The program finally came on 10 minutes before it was over. Prior to that, it was nothing but snow and others with different cable companies confirmed this as well. Oh, and it is certainly not a coincidence that this is the big military town that has deployed most of the soldiers to the Gulf recently, now is it? Of course not.
Michael Kirk: You can view the full program online at the Frontline Web site.
washingtonpost.com: To find out if the show will re-air in your area, click "schedule" on the left-hand side of the screen and type in your ZIP code to find your local PBS station.
New York, N.Y.: Has Bush's team analyzed contingencies -- worst case scenarios, etc.? What are they going to do if all hell breaks lose as the war goes on?
Michael Kirk: That I am certain is a question they ask themselves with some regularity. They would have to be examining a variety of contingencies, and surely an experienced soldier like Secretary Powell would have raised some of these issues in the councils of power.
Chicago, Ill.: Conflict can lead to confrontation and be a positive driver. In your research, did you get a sense that tension in the Bush administration is creating an environment where the best possible decision can arise? Or is the administration's internal conflict destructive? Can the president manage such conflict?
Michael Kirk: Every administration, if it's lucky, is populated with intelligent, opinionated and forceful thinkers. Often, the best ideas emerge under those circumstances. The question is whether those people feel free to give a president their honest counsel. My sense is that in the days right after Sept. 11, the people in the Bush administration were pulling together their most forceful arguments and trying to set the nation on the right course. Whether the policies that have emerged from those discussions are the right ones will be demonstrated soon enough.
Tampa, Fla.: Why did you make the PNAC look so warm and fuzzy? Their goal is world dominion, and it is a chilling prospect. I turned it off after 20 minutes. I felt it was a commercial for the neo-conservatives. Good use of public television, huh?
You should be ashamed. You could have done a lot of good.
Michael Kirk: Obviously, I disagree that we were doing a "commercial" for anyone. Explaining the positions of people who have for more than 20 years been near the center of power in America is our obligation. And one we take very seriously. And that would include the new-conservative points of view.
New York, N.Y.: What was the prime motivation for Colin Powell's unusually hawkish presentation to the United Nations?
Michael Kirk: Perhaps he believes it, and knows after more than 12 years, something the rest of us don't; perhaps he was being a team player in the administration; perhaps, as a former soldier, he was following the orders of his Commander in Chief; perhaps, having made the argument to the president that the United States must work through the United Nations, he was giving that institution his best shot. Or maybe it's all of the above.
Aurora, Ill.: What do the members of the Bush administration see as the most likely fallout from a failure to win UN approval of a "use of force" proposal?
Michael Kirk: I don't have any idea what they see. But I think looking at their actions and taking them at their word, they are prepared to act in concert with the 40 or so allies they say they have signed up in a coalition of the willing.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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