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Obstinate Orthodoxy (Post, March 31)
Post Editorial Page
War in Iraq Special Report
Fred Hiatt Columns
War in Iraq Live Online transcripts
Live Online Transcripts
Talk: washingtonpost.
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Live Online Transcripts

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War in Iraq: The Editorial Page
With Fred Hiatt
Editor, Washington Post Editorial Page

Thursday, April 3, 2003; 3 p.m. ET

U.S. forces have advanced on Baghdad, engaging the Republican Guard amid more rounds of bombing. Yet two weeks into the U.S.-led war on Iraq, the military and the Bush administration have found themselves playing defense on their progress and probable outcomes of the conflict.

Washington Post Editorial Page editor Fred Hiatt was online Thursday, April 3, to talk about the war and the view of the war from the editorial board.

The transcript follows.

Hiatt joined the Post in 1981, and became part of its editorial staff in 1995. During his tenure at the newspaper, he has covered Fairfax County and Virginia politics, and defense and national security. He served as co-bureau chief in Tokyo from 1987-90, and in the Moscow bureau from 1991-95.

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.



washingtonpost.com: Good afternoon everybody. Thank you, Mr. Hiatt, for joining us.


Richmond, Va.: Fred, I read the Post daily (they finally started home delivery down here) and my views on Iraq are quite close to the editorial pages. The irony is that the best case for the war is as a vindication of collective security, yet we are doing it in defiance of many allies. I'd like to get past the jingoism (which I really dislike)and understand why nations like France, Russia and Germany view the Iraq danger so much differently than we do. You've lived abroad: Do you have a take on this?

Fred Hiatt: I'm glad you're getting the paper in Richmond! As to your question, which is a good one... I think it's a combination of things. Sept. 11 shook us up in a way it didn't shake up Europeans. Many Europeans feel they've been living with low-grade terrorism for a long time, and that we're overreacting. And some European politicians I think saw this as an opportunity to check American power. Many Europeans also remember the terrible things war can do, and they think America is too quick to go for a war solution.


Washington, D.C.: I have seen very little coverage of the potential conflicts of Lt. Gen. Jay Garner. Does the paper plan to do any pieces mentioning in some detail his potential business and policy conflicts?

Fred Hiatt: This would be a good time to explain that I'm in charge of editorials, letters and the oped page, and I have no influence over the kind of coverage the news side chooses to do. The Post is very serious about that separation.


washingtonpost.com: Thanks for joining us, Fred. Can you talk about the process of putting together the editorial page? Writing the editorials themselves, deciding the stance that the paper will take on a particular issue, etc.?

Fred Hiatt: How long do you have? We have a board that meets most mornings, with about 7 or 8 people. We discuss, sometimes argue... then each person goes to work on an editorial. That usually involves a lot of independent reporting. Toward the end of the day, written editorials end up in the computer, and sometimes we discuss them further. "I don't think that's what we agreed on," that sort of thing.


Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: While coalition forces close on Baghdad and cities in northern Iraq, President G.W. Bush is once again focused on...tax cuts for the wealthy. See Washington Post online article. Is this a guy with a one track mind or what? The President "of all of us" needs to have a consciousness awakening, don't you agree? The world is bigger than just war and warbucks. Creating a new American economy, fighting international terrorism abroad, securing our country from threats foreign and domestic, and financing "Democracy in Babylon" cannot possibly come from a myopic and mindless policy whose only attribute is to turn the very rich into super rich. The age of the robber baron was in its twilight a 100 years ago. Coolidge and Hayek are dead. Someone needs to tell the President. Thanks much.

Fred Hiatt: We've taken a very strong editorial position against the tax cuts. We thought even before the war they were a mistake, given the looming Medicare and Social Security obligations the government will face. Now with unknown war and reconstruction costs, the policy is doubly irresponsible, in our view.


San Francisco, Calif.: I agree with The Washington Post Editorial Board on some positions and disagree with it on others; your editorials are always worth reading and sometimes they are even convincing.

Fred Hiatt: Thanks. Can't ask for much more than that.


washingtonpost.com: What is the likelihood that the Bush Administration will return to the United Nations and other anti-war allies to administer post-war humanitarian aid and a establish a civil government? What are the biggest challenges they will face in doing so?

Fred Hiatt: We published an editorial this morning on the subject. At the moment the administration seems inclined to give the UN only a marginal role (if the UN will take such a role), but the debate continues; Tony Blair is committed to bringing the UN back for the reconstruction effort. Our view is that Iraqis should be in charge as soon as possible, but in the transition there should be a sizeable role for the UN; it won't do the US any good to be seen as a unilateral occupier.


Somewhere, USA: Hello.

I am ashamed that it is becoming more and more difficult to differentiate your editorials from the Washington Times' editorials (as well as the stories). I used to like the Post, but now, like all the others, it seems you've become lapdog to Bush. You take what the Pentagon tells you as gospel. You never question Bush's decisions.

Criticizing an unjust, illegal war is NOT unpatriotic; although your op-ed sections seem to make it that way.

Fred Hiatt: Well, this makes up for the comment from San Francisco. Actually, we've been critical of various aspects of Bush policy on the war, including his failure ahead of time to more clearly articulate the likely costs and risks of war. Our position on Saddam Hussein and the dangers he poses is unchanged from the days when Clinton was president... And I agree: criticism is not unpatriotic.


washingtonpost.com: Post Editorial: After The War (April 3)


washingtonpost.com: With the national focus on military strategy and discussions of post-war Iraq, do you find it difficult to find space for opinion pieces and letters dealing with domestic issues?

Fred Hiatt: Yes. We try to make room for pieces and letters on domestic issues, and local issues, and global issues other than the war--there's a lot going on out there. But our space is limited, and it is frustrating that we can't get more in.


Folsom, Calif.: Have you ever had a relative detained without benefit of counsel -- like what's happening to detainees at our "Gitmo Gulag," and to some Iraqi civilians by U.S. forces?

Fred Hiatt: No. But we've editorialized that there ought to be some process for detainees to challenge their status. It's particularly disturbing that U.S. citizens are being designated "enemy combatants" and then are locked up without even benefit of counsel.


Topanga, Calif.: As an old soldier I am disturbed by the sanitized gloryhole version of the War we get on TV. For instance the latest is we have "destroyed" a whole division yet all we get are reporters faces,long shots of tank columns and maybe an occasional Iraqi body. From what I know of war,this is a whitewash of its horror and only serves to keep my kids persuaded that war is more like a patriotic video game when the incredible weight of how our technology is savaging the enemy goes muted in vague dispatches such as "we destroyed a division."
Why is the "imbedded media" so happily cheerleading? Simply because our reporters seem along for the ride doesn't mean a thing when all we see is victory and none of the evidence of just what a heavy bombing run can do to entrenched soldiers and buildings?

washingtonpost.com: Is there a chance that embedded journalists can sacrifice objectivity by being at the front lines?

Fred Hiatt: Just my personal opinion -- I'm not in charge of the "embeds": I think for the most part they're doing a great job, and we know a lot more about what's happening than we would if they weren't there. By definition each only sees a narrow slice, and it's up to editors here to knit a coherent picture... The "sanitizing" effect of TV pictures of bomb blasts, etc., is a question that worries me to: will people think it's just like a video game? I don't know. On the other hand, we're also seeing plenty of wrenching pictures of civilian and soldier suffering...


Washington, D.C.: The Washington Post editorial page has largely been "liberal" historically -- correct me if I'm wrong. What accounts for the hawkish turn it's taken?

Fred Hiatt: Actually, I think the page has always been "independent," as it says on our masthead, and not easy to label. On defense issues during the Cold War, we tended to be fairly hawkish; on civil rights, fairly liberal.


Bethesda, Md.: Can you explain why the summary on the back page of the Post's "War in Iraq" section consistently underreports the number of Iraqi POWs? For many days, official sources have given the number as at least 8,000-9,000. However, during the same period the number reported in the Post has been stuck in the 3,500 range (increased this morning to 4,500).

It is worth noting that even these numbers probably understate the reality of the situation, since it is not mentioned that the Coalition forces are not actively seeking to take prisoners but are instead allowing large numbers of nonhostile Iraqi forces to simply "melt away" rather than be captured.

Fred Hiatt: I don't know, but I'll pass your question on to someone who's in charge and, if there's a mistake, can fix it. It may be they're being careful not to rely on anonymous sources and only use what's been officially confirmed.


Washington, D.C.: Since you buy the Bush administration's rationale for the war in Iraq, do you also buy the assertion that we don't need UN involvement for post-war Iraq rebuilding?

Fred Hiatt: No, as I said earlier, we think it would be a mistake to exclude the UN.


Boston, Mass.: Mr. Hiatt,

What happens if we find no evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

Fred Hiatt: Well, I will be surprised. I can't imagine any explanation for the chemical suits American troops have been finding amid Iraqi arsenals other than that Iraqi troops knew their armed forces might use chemical weapons. But there's not much point in speculating on what we will know soon enough.


Austin, Tex.: Do you guys ever have much contact with the editorial boards of other major papers (apart from, I assume, reading what they write)?

I'm just curious in general, and in particular because I wonder how it feels to be in a distinct minority among big East-Coast papers regarding the war.

Fred Hiatt: There's not much formal contact, though there is an association of editorial writers. I talk occasionally to friends on other papers, and I try to learn from other newspapers' editorials.


Bronx, N.Y.: Sir,

While I appreciate the news reporting of the Washington Post in recent months, I am curious about the selection of letters to the editor. In particular, I have noticed that there is rarely, if any, criticism of columnists, particularly Charles Krauthammer, published in your newspaper. Even when he openly contradicts himself in his columns, as he did recently with his recent comparisons of the present Iraq conflict and the Kosovo war, letters catching him are simply not published.

My question is this: How much control do the columnists themselves at your paper have over the letters that are picked for publication? Or, is there just a bias in the staff that selects the letters?

Fred Hiatt: The columnists have no say over the letters that run. I think the explanation is probably just one of space. People write letters responding to all parts of the newspaper -- not just the editorials and oped pages. We try to publish letters that broadly reflect the thousands of letters we receive, but also that cover a wide variety of topics. (Hint: Shorter is better.)


San Francisco, Calif.: Should the United States support democratic movements throughout the Mideast, or should we continue to support sheikdoms like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait?

Fred Hiatt: We've written that it's in the U.S. national interest to support movement toward democracy throughout the Arab world (and everywhere else too for that matter). Tactics may differ from country to country.


New York, N.Y.: I asked this question earlier in the Charles Krauthammer chat, and I'd be curious of your take. How much of a concern is it that the regime might fall but that Iraqi forces would continue to fight autonomously in the cities even without a command and control system? He dismissed it as unlikely, but it seems like a not-so-farfetched nightmare scenario to me.

Fred Hiatt: It's always impossible to know what true public opinion is inside a totalitarian nation like Iraq, where fear rules. So everyone's opinion on how people would react to "liberation" or "occupation" has been just that--a guess. It seems to me the regime's strategy has been to draw the American and British forces into situations where they end up killing civilians, thus tilting Iraqi opinion against them. Early pictures from towns that have been truly freed of Saddam's control suggest that a lot of people are glad to see the Americans. But will that be the same in Baghdad, or Tikrit? Too soon to say. We ran an oped yesterday predicting your nightmare scenario, by a retired colonel.


Alexandria, Va.: This is an imponderable question, I suppose, but I'd still be interested in your speculation. If Katharine Graham and Meg Greenfield were alive, do you think they would have had any different take on Iraq than you and the current publisher?

Fred Hiatt: I was writing editorials on Iraq in 1997 and 1998 when my boss was Meg Greenfield, and our take then was pretty much the same as it is now.


Alexandria, Va.: I bet a lot of those unpublished letters are pretty darn interesting. Why not post some of them on the Web site?

Fred Hiatt: Yes, we'd like to. Here's the problem: before we publish any letter, we do our best to make sure the author is who he or she says s/he is, that there's no conflict of interest we don't know about, etc. So it's fairly labor intensive. But in principle I'd like to put a lot of those letters on the web, and maybe some of the op-eds too that we don't have room for in the print edition.


New York, N.Y.: Why can we spend $75m plus on rebuilding Iraq, and $3b plus bailing out the airlines, yet we can't fund homeland security needs or fulfill our education requirements?

Fred Hiatt: I don't look at that as either/or. Seems to me this country ought to be able to help rebuild Iraq AND take care of its own education needs. The percentage of GDP being spent on defense right now is not all that high in historical terms.


washingtonpost.com: Post Op-Ed: Saddam's Greater Game by Gary Anderson, April 2, 2003


Burke, Va.: I am not anti-war but I am one of the "doubters" who has become disgusted by the Post editorial page's jingoistic support of the White House. The vice president and Donald "McNamara" Rumsfeld prepared us for a quick, easy, conquest where the Iraqi military would quit en masse and the people would greet us as liberators. How wrong were they, not to mention, the total absence to date of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction which was the reason we went in. Remember just a few weeks ago when the same leakers used the Post to tell us that the capture of Osama bin Laden was days away? Were they lying or just inept? Why hasn't the Post called them on this rampant hypocrisy?

Fred Hiatt: As I said before, we continually urged the administration before the war to level with people about the potential costs and risks. They didn't. Maybe that's why people seem so impatient. It's only been two weeks! A little soon in my judgment to begin talking about quagmires.


Harrisburg, Pa.: I submitted this question to Howard Kurtz earlier this week, and he dodged it. Let's see what you have to say.

What Arabs around the world are seeing and what Americans are seeing on TV and in the paper are quite different. They're seeing babies in coffins, maimed and dead bodies; we're seeing heroic-looking pictures of our troops and smoking skylines.

Polls show Americans approve of this war by something like 2-1. Do you think if we were getting the kind of coverage Arabs are seeing -- which is a far more honest picture of war -- that approval would drop? I do.

Fred Hiatt: OK, Howie, watch this -- I won't dodge it... Yes, if Americans were seeing the same kind of coverage Arabs were seeing, that would affect public opinion. But I don't accept your assumption that they're seeing a more honest picture of the war. Seems to me the civilians suffering and the heroic troops are all part of the story, and if you read the Washington Post every day you get a pretty good, coherent picture of all sides of the war, given the challenges of reporting from a battlefield. The Post has had people reporting from Baghdad, Basra, and Kurdistan, as well as from alongside U.S. and British troops.


Washington, D.C.: Your paper's anti-Israel bias is well documented. Why, when a columnist or journalist writes a rare column or story in your paper that is favorable toward Israel, that column or story is immediately answered by a letter to the editor that takes issue with the column. When the usual anti-Israel story or column is published, no letters to the editors are published taking issue.

Fred Hiatt: I'd say this is the issue on which both sides are most firmly convinced that we're biased against them.


Minneapolis, Minn.: I voted for President Clinton twice (and there's no way I'll vote for Bush next time) but isn't Clinton's Iraq record a huge blot on his term? He said in 1998 that throwing the inspectors out was intolerable and a huge provocation, then after a couple days of missile strikes he averted his gaze for the next two years. Did your page rap him for this? In any event, it's not your job to speak for or defend him, I just wonder if he and Democrats don't feel a bit sheepish talking about Iraq when they are defending this record?

Fred Hiatt: We were very supportive of Clinton when he said the international community should hold Saddam to his promises on WMD, and we were very critical when the Clinton administration (in our view) flinched from that job. He didn't get a lot of support from the French or Russians at the time, you may recall.


Washington, D.C.: Fred,

When the new, democratic Iraq is established will the citizens of Bagdad have more or less voting rights than those of Washington, D.C.?

Fred Hiatt: Good question! And how many residents of D.C. are fighting in a war and helping pay for a war that they had no say in declaring (or not declaring, as the case may be). It is an anti-democratic outrage.


Chelsea, Mass.: Why has the press not made it very clear to the public that this war has almost nothing to do with Sept. 11 - that it was being war-gamed and planned long before that; and why have they not picked up the various clues that the government is virtually sure there are no WMDs that were threatening us? The press is very culpable for letting the president and Congress jam this war down everyone's throats without justification. The press is supposed to be the last line of democratic safeguard when the president and Congress has lost its collective mind.

Fred Hiatt: I think the press has been pretty aggressive in challenging the administration's statements on Saddam-al Qaeda connections. And I actually think that Bush's rationale is based not on belief that Saddam was behind Sept. 11 but that Sept. 11 showed us we can't be complacent about WMD threats that earlier we might have relegated to second-tier concerns.


Arlington, Va.: I'm curious if you check the facts upon which editorials are based in the same way the facts are checked for a traditional story. A couple of weeks ago, you had an editorial advocated the elimination of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. The editorial seemed to based on the comments a critic of the court had made. Those comments were largely inaccurate, and readily identifiable as such. But the Post seems to have based its position on them.

< B>Fred Hiatt: We do check facts carefully; we don't rely on newspaper articles (even from the Washington Post) or the views of one critic. If you think we got something wrong in that editorial, send me a letter. I will look into it.


Wheeling, W.Va.: As a military member, I am not at all opposed to or offended by war protestors. With that, I am amazed at how many feel that being anti-war is being anti-troops. Perhaps as a post-Vietnam era woman, I can't quite relate as well as those who were around at that time

What's your take on the issue of war protestors being automatically labeled un-patriotic or against the troops?

Fred Hiatt: I think people have every right to demonstrate for or against the war; it's a healthy thing. I hope someday soon people in Iraq will have the same freedoms.


Washington, D.C.: For a newspaper in Washington, D.C. to be hawkish on defense spending and progressive on civil rights isn't really a strong stand, since it reflects the demographics and the community. Has the Post taken a stand on the importance of the Cherry Blossom Festival?

Fred Hiatt: Well, we have a highly nuanced position on that one, too complex for me to detail in this short space.


Dallas, Tex.: The war in Afghanistan was said to be about destroying al Qaeda terrorists, but don't you think that this current war might give the "Osama bin Ladens" of the world additional "fuel for their fire," so to speak? Do you believe this war will spark an even greater terrorist response?

Fred Hiatt: That is certainly one of the risks. The decision to go to war was always a matter of balancing such risks against the risks of allowing Saddam Hussein not to give up his weapons, after all these years of UN demands.


Washington, D.C.: If there are no significant weapons of mass destruction found, doesn't that taint the entire approach taken by the U.S., no matter how favorable the end result may be ie, the destruction of the Ba'athist regime?

Fred Hiatt: If there are no significant weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein was even more foolish than one might have imagined not to cooperate with Hans Blix.


Fairfax, Va.: Sorry, I can't let that one lie. Washington, D.C. has none of the geographic, economic, or demographic characteristics of a state, its finances essentially make it a ward of the federal government, and people who live there presumably were aware of what the Constitution says about its status. Actually, I would not object if the city got put in Maryland (or even our Old Dominion for that matter) but giving three electoral votes to barely a half-million people would be the outrage.

Fred Hiatt: Well, thanks for offering to take us in... In any case I was referring to congressional representation, not electoral votes. Whatever people know or don't know when they move to Washington, it doesn't make sense to me that they bear all the obligations of citizenship but have no voting representation in the House or Senate.


washingtonpost.com: The space provided for editorials is limited; what's the most difficult part of exploring complex issues in a few hundred words?

Fred Hiatt: After doing one of these chats, 400 or 600 words seems positively verbose! I may have trouble filling the space from now on.


washingtonpost.com: That's all the time we have for today. Thank you everyone for your questions.


© 2003 The Washington Post Company