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Robert G. Kaiser
Robert G. Kaiser
U.S. Begins Striking Targets in Iraq (Post, March 19, 2003)
Confronting Iraq Special Report
Kaiser was online after the president's address March 17
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War With Iraq
With Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Editor

Wednesday, March 19, 2003; 10:15 p.m. ET

In an address to the nation tonight, President Bush announced that he ordered attacks on strategic targets in Baghdad. "This will not be a campaign of half-measures, and we will accept no outcome but victory," Bush said. Air raid sirens were reported in Baghdad around 9:30 p.m. ET March 19, followed by anti-aircraft fire. The attack began just over an hour after the deadline set by the president for Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq had passed.

Now that the buildup and anticipation is over and war has begun, what next? What do we know, and how will we measure success? Washington Post Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser was online immediately following Bush's speech for Instant Analysis of the address and the road ahead.

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.

Robert G. Kaiser: Good evening. President Bush has just announced the beginning of hostilities with Iraq, and we will spend the next 45 minutes or so discussing his announcement, answering your questions and sharing your comments.

Seattle, Wash.: Mr. Kaiser:

The Secretary-General of the UN, as well as the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and Russia have all declared that Mr. Bush's war lacks any legal authority from the UN, and Mr. Annan, the Secretary-General, has indicated that he believes that Mr. Bush's war is a violation of the U.N. Charter, a treaty signed and ratified by the U.S.

Could you please comment on the ramifications of Mr. Bush committing the United States military formally to a war which is apparently completely illegal under international law?

Robert G. Kaiser: "Completely illegal under international law" suggests a kind of clarity that international law does not, in my opinion, provide. As Bush said in his speech to the country on Monday night, he claims a legal right to act under earlier UN resolutions. Many experts challenge that claim, but there is no Supreme Court to resolve the dispute.

Nevertheless, the fact that the U.S. is waging a war of this kind without an explicit UN mandate will certainly affect the way it is viewed around the world. I wonder myself, however, whether this will be as important as the war itself in shaping public opinion. I believe a short, successful war would blow away legalistic arguments like yours, whereas a messy, difficult war would give them added relevance and force.

Issaquah, Wash.: Mr. Kaiser:

Can you speak to how the allies will be able to track Saddam's movement and target strikes against him? Certainly he is the most prized target in this campaign. Thank you in advance.

Robert G. Kaiser: We don't know much about how our intelligence agencies eavesdrop on or follow the movements of Saddam. It does appear tonight that they thought they had information about his whereabouts. I'm waiting eagerly for more news about how right or wrong they were.

Washington, D.C.: What did you think of Bush's speech? Just four minutes to declare we're at war. Do you think he made the point clear?

Robert G. Kaiser: The point was clear, but I wouldn't rank this as one of Bush's finer rhetorical moments -- and he's had some very good ones in my opinion, going back to his inaugural address. This one seemed a little flat to me.

Silver Spring, Md.: It seems like most of the people I talk to are against this war. But the media say Americans support it. Who are these people?

Robert G. Kaiser: People you don't talk to, I guess.

Melbourne, Australia: Was there a pre-warning for Iraqi civilians?

Robert G. Kaiser: Judging by the latest dispatches from our correspondents in Iraq, civilians there had absorbed the message that war was imminent. There's no sign they got a specific warning about this cruise missle attack tonight -- tomorrow morning, their time.

Cambridge, Mass.: Given the enormous interest this government has in finding evidence of chemical and bio weapons, and the absence of independent inspectors on the ground, will there be any way, in the event such evidence is found, to know that it is not planted by those searching for it?

Robert G. Kaiser: I'm hoping that independent journalists, especially American journalists, will provide important, independent evidence about what is going on on the ground.

Caldwell, N.J.: Mr. Kaiser, we have read about 15 countries that have expressed private support for military action in Iraq. Do you have an idea who these 15 are, and what conditions will permit or compel these countries to "go public" with their support?

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't. This is a suspicious claim, in the view of this old reporter. I'd love to know more.

Herndon, Va.: Given things like the "Bush message machine" reported in today's Post, the BBC report that independent reporter's satellite links will be targeted, and this administration's penchant for secrecy, do you think it will be possible to get an objective view of what is actually happening in Iraq?

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't know about the BBC report you cite, but I am hopeful that independent reports will be possible.

Durham, N.C. How dangerous is it for the western reporters in Baghdad?

Robert G. Kaiser: We just don't know, which is enormously frustrating. The greatest danger, in my view, will come if the authority of the Iraqi government collapses. But it is also possible that the government there, facing extinction, might try to use foreigners in Baghdad as shields. Reporters on the scene are telling us they think they will be fine. I sure hope they are right.

New York, N.Y.: Sir Ian Kershaw titled the first volume of his biography of Hitler "Hubris." How would you, historically speaking, rate George Bush's hubris?

Robert G. Kaiser: A little too soon to say, don't you think?

La Mirada, Calif.: If weapons of mass destruction are found do you foresee the rest of those who are against the war coming along side the U.S. in support?

Robert G. Kaiser: Not all of them, certainly, but discoveries of substantial quantities of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq would surely have a substantial impact on world opinion, I think.

Houston, Tex.: Is there any realistic chance for Saddam Hussein to escape -- if not, would he be tried by an international court (and thus possibly freed) or treated as a POW and tried under U.S. military law?

Robert G. Kaiser: I would not be betting on Saddam's survival now.

Springfield, Va.: Hi, I'm someone who supports the war. I think we did all we could do diplomatically. I think we should ensure this is a quick war, and quickly work to create a stable government in Iraq. My question is: How do you think the U.S will go about setting up a new Iraqi government? Do they already know Iraqis who would be qualified to fill the position of president?

Robert G. Kaiser: All we know so far is that the Army plans to occupy Iraq for a prolonged period of time. The administration, so far, has rejected the idea of putting emigre Iraqis into power -- though several of them would love to be selected for the role. This will be very tricky, I think.

Alexandria, Va.: Which countries are the 35 that support this war, as President Bush mentioned in this war? Peter Jennings reports that Slovakia has committed 75 troops. Can that really be considered support?

Robert G. Kaiser: In an interview last week, Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's National Security Advisor, said we should face the fact that we will be fighting this war alone with the British, essentially. The Australians are also committing troops, but I think Brzezinski is essentially correct. We made a play for a broad coalition, and it failed.

Fresno, Calif.: Bush has mentioned numerous times the he is going to use full might, and that this will be an all out offensive. If chemical and biological weapons are used do you think that this war could escalate to a nuclear proportion?

Robert G. Kaiser: I hope and believe that this is unlikely, but my experience in Vietnam and my reading of history both suggest to me that war produces surprises that its authors never expected.

Montclair, N.J.: Doesn't it seem as if that series of bomb or missle hits tonight came timed just for prime time television, and may have been executed just to get the TV networks excited and to keep people watching anxiously until Bush's speech at 10:15 ET -- a speech that said nothing new?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think you're being too cynical. Perhaps I should say I hope you're being too cynical.

Fairfax, Va.: Is the maneuver of Bush to address the nation before the full-scale attack has started a nod to the efficacy of the media, or simply a political maneuver, tinged with hubris?

Robert G. Kaiser: Neither. I think it is perfectly appropriate for the president to tell the country that he has launched a foreign war.

Champaign, Ill.: What do you think was responsible for Bush's decision to withdraw the second UN resolution, after promising to hold the Security Council's feet to the fire? Was the White House afraid that it would be actually violating a UN directive (via one to three vetoes) not to authorize force?

Robert G. Kaiser: The withdrawn resolution did NOT specifically authorize the use of force, though everyone knew that's what the BRitish and Americans interpreted it to mean. I think it was withdrawn to avoid the humiliation of an overwhelming defeat.

Alexandria, Va.: Is there anywhere I can replay Bush's speech to the nation this evening? I was putting my children to bed when it came on.

washingtonpost.com: Video of President Bush's speech is available on washingtonpost.com.

Robert G. Kaiser: As noted above, you can catch it on washingtonpost.com. Use the link provided.

Eugene, Ore.: We have been promising the Iraqi soldiers humane treatment if they surrender to us. How do you feel these POWs will be treated in reality?

Robert G. Kaiser: I'd expect them to be treated well, as I think they were, in most circumstances, in the GUlf war a dozen years ago.

Centreville, Va.: Mr. Kaiser,

The president has cited Iraq's WMD programs as his main reason for attacking Iraq. I believe this is about more than Iraq though, and that this is about a complete Middle Eastern overhaul. Some analysts believe a democracy in Iraq could lead to internal revolution in Iran. Do you think such a democratic domino effect is what the president has in mind, and if so, do you believe it is a serious possibility?

Robert G. Kaiser: As I've said here before, I think the president's principal motivation is to respond to the attacks of Sept. 11. I think he and his team decided soon after Sept. 11 that taking out Saddam would be an appropriate response to that event--not necessarily because he had anything to do with it, but because he might provide protection, weapons or support for similar attacks in the future.

The idea of a democratic revival has been introduced rather recently. It's hard to evaluate how seriously Bush or his associates take this, or how hard they may push democratic reform in the Arab world. I do know that bringing real democracy to countries that have to history of it, often have no understanding of it, will be extremely difficult.

Washington, D.C.: Out of curiosity how is it that the Iraqi government allows those standalone cameras you see on CNN, ABC, etc.? Does it work to his advantage in anyway?

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't have information about this, but my strong hunch is that the Iraqis have decided that it will be in their interest if world TV audiences see destruction on their screens at home.

Santa Barbara, Calif.: Are formal declarations of war outdated? Can you remember the last time one was issued by a warring country since 1945? Do you think at some point the U.S. will declare it against Iraq?

Robert G. Kaiser: Alas, formal declarations of war seem totally out of fashion. I'm sure the administration would tell us they got the functional equivalent of such a declaration from Congress in September, and it would be hard for me to argue with them. Congress did indeed vote to authorize the use of force against Saddam. It left to Bush the decision of whether and when to use that force.

North Potomac, Md.: Don't you think it's time for Democrats like Tom Daschle to remember their previous statements about the danger of the Iraqi regime when Bill Clinton was president? Finally we have a president who sees danger and doesn't appease it. If only this would have been done to Hitler, 50 million lives would not have been lost during World War II.

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't give advice to politicians of the kind you propose. But thanks for your comment.

Re: BBC report: It was actually BBC war correspondent, Kate Adie being interviewed on RTE (Irish Radio).

Howard Kurtz wrote about it here: The Symbolic Summit (Post, March 17, 2003)

Robert G. Kaiser: My colleagues at washingtonpost.com have cleared up the question about the BBC report. Thanks!

Northfield, Minn.: What strikes me continually about Bush is his seeming absolute self-confidence in the face of circumstances and decisions that have left many intelligent and experienced people uncertain about the right path and agonizing over the consequences. From what you know, is this public face of total calm and resolve matched in private? I admire decisiveness, but confess to being a little shook by what I fear is a certain imperviousness to real risks. In particular, what do you make of the suggestions that have cropped up in some press accounts that Bush sees the conflict in a religious context, as if he has been divinely enfranchised for his current role?

Robert G. Kaiser: We've seen no hint that the private Bush has more doubts than the public one we have all seen. That doesn't mean he hasn't had such doubts, but if he has, he has kept them well hidden. I do think his religious faith may be important in this regard. He has obviously decided that he is on a correct and just path.

Staunton, Va.: I have heard many Bush critics say he has failed in his diplomacy but none have said what they would have done. What more do they think that Bush should have done to avoid this war? Have you heard something I have not?

Robert G. Kaiser: A good answer to this question would require a long essay. I think Bush's team can be faulted for the way they failed to follow up on the passage of U.N. Security Council resolution 1441. They knew that different countries had different interpretations of that resolution. They knew that the U.N. inspectors were going off to Iraq with ambiguous orders. But they didn't try to clarify these matters, didn't seem to push for a clearer consensus. Perhaps they never could have gotten one, I don't know. But we do know that all the countries of the world, virtually, felt that the U.S. has simply insisted on its view, and not compromised in any substantial way.

Of course history may conclude that this was the right thing for the U.S. to do. I think it's too early for us to pass judgment.

New Haven, Conn.: What is the future of the U.N. now that the U.S. has rendered it illegitimate? Is its role merely going to be organizing humanitarian aid efforts?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think your conclusion is too sweeping. Much depends on the next events. The UN is too important to the world to just disappear. And in fact it has rarely been able to take dramatic action, by which I mean military action, on a big security issue. This happened in Korea, only because the Soviets were boycotting the UN at the time, and in the first Gulf War, but on no other occasion.

So the UN has survived without being a significant tool for international security. It may well be able to continue to survive on this basis.

Wilmington, Del.: What would be the international impacts of the recent strike essentially assassinating a foreign leader? While that is obviously our goal, is that not a fearful precedent in itself?

Robert G. Kaiser: I'm not sure "a foreign leader" adequately describes this situation. Saddam is special, not your average prime minister or president. He has a nasty record, and runs a nasty regime. I'm not sure the world would take his demise as some kind of alarming precedent.

Chicago, Ill.: What do you think of the argument that the attack on Iraq is part of a "master plan," authored by the likes of Wolfowitz and Cheney as part of the Project for the New American Century? And that 9/11 has just provided the administration with an excuse? The letter these folks wrote to Clinton seemed to press quite hard for military action, and their charter documents appear to envision control of Iraq as essential to U.S. military control of the region.

Robert G. Kaiser: This is an important question, and I don't know its answer. I do know, however, that the man who made the final decision today was not named Wolfowitz or Cheney; it was George W. Bush, who did not sign that letter. I'm uncomfortable with conspiracy theories that imply Bush is but a pawn in the hands of diabolical associates who know how to manipulate him.

Alexandria, Va.: I'm confused. You said a moment ago that it wasn't your role to give advice to politicians when someone asked you to agree that Bush was showing more resolve than Democrats. Then in the next answer you talked about how Bush's diplomacy "can be faulted" on various grounds. Are you in the commentary business, or not?

Robert G. Kaiser: We -- I -- walk a fine line here. Offering analysis of presidential behavior is different, in my opinion, than giving advice to politicians. But I can see how a fair minded reader -- you, for instance -- might not appreciate the distinction. When I wrote that Bush could be faulted, I was in fact reporting criticisms that have been made of his diplomacy.

San Antonio, Tex.: Much is made of the fact that only Britain is contributing forces in significant numbers. However, not much attention is given to the fact that Britain is about the only country who has invested enough in technology to safely integrate with the high tech U.S. military.

From a diplomatic standpoint, a vast coalition of fighting forces might be an advantage. But tactically, this coalition would likely create more problems than they would solve.

Why does the media not understand that basing, overflights, logistical support and the other means of support being given by most countries in the Middle East is significant and that actual fighting forces are not only unneeded but also create greater risk?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for that good comment.

Fairfax, Va.: Two questions: First, do you think most questions you are asked are more biased statements than questions? Second, I have noticed a certain hypocrisy among peace protesters who are antiwar, presumably for the deaths war can cause, but also carry signs like "death to Americans" and also march with little regard to the Saddam's crimes. What do you think causes these seemingly contradictory positions to occur in the same protests?

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't keep a running count. I get a lot of wonderful, smart questions, and I get some really dumb and tendentious ones. A lot of the latter you never see, because I don't bother answering them.

Your second point is not unreasonable in my opinion. I do think, from interviews with them, that many American protestors feel they don't have any influence over Saddam Hussein, but do have some on their own government. That may be one answer to your questions. But I'm sure some also do have double standards.

Houston, Tex.: How ignorant do you rate the general public of the United States?

Robert G. Kaiser: Ignorant about what? You, if I may be rude for a moment, seem a little ignorant about English grammar, judging by your question, but I would not conclude from that that you are an ignorant citizen. In truth, four decades in journalism has left me impressed by the wisdom of the public over time. People make mistakes, but correct them too. The big fakers in public life most often get exposed, in my experience, and people change their minds about them. Think of Richard Nixon: reelected by a landslide of historic proportions in 1972, but driven from office in disgrace two years later, and never restored to anything like his previous standing in public opinion.

I do feel that too many Americans have weak educations in civics, history and international relations. I blame that partly on them, but more on our culture, and our lousy schools.

Fairfax, Va.: If Saddam is hit by this strike, will the bombing still proceed?

Robert G. Kaiser: Depends on what follows next. Iraqi capitulation would probably mean no bombing. But who might capitulate? Tricky situation, I think.

Tokyo, Japan: The U.S. government has said that terrorist attacks inside the U.S. are nearly certain. Is there any good evidence for this or are these statements only suppositions?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think they are informed supposition.

Washington, D.C.: It'll be interesting to see if history will see us as "liberators" or as "bullies."

Robert G. Kaiser: Yes it will.

Alameda, Calif.: Mr. Kaiser,

Polls continue to show that more than half of Americans believe Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9/11. Almost as many believe Iraqis were among the hijackers. Interviews with soldiers, sailors and airmen seem to indicate they largely believe this as well and think we're targeting Saddam for 9/11. Everything I've read by the CIA, FBI and even Mossad indicate _no_ Iraqi involvement om 9/11. Who is ignorant of the facts, the majority of Americans or me?

Robert G. Kaiser: Those other guys...

Evansville, Ind.: How affected do you think the citizens of America will be by this war outside of those fighting in it, or related to those fighting in the war?

Robert G. Kaiser: This is a very big question. I suspect that we will all be profoundly affected by this war, but in ways I cannot tonight describe. Are we on the eve of a new era of American imperial domination? Or will this be seen as an effective step in the struggle to deprive terrorists of support and solace? Or, most likely, will it be something between these extremes? It's just not possible to know tonight. But if we take our vitamins and avoid fatty foods, we ought to live long enough to find out.

Robert G. Kaiser: It's 11:15, nearly, in the Eastern U.S., which feels like time to sign off. Thanks to all for joining us on such short notice. I will be back regularly during the days ahead to talk about the war. Good night.


Live Online is keeping up with the war on Iraq tomorrow:
War and refugees, 10 a.m. ET
Reaction from Moscow: The Post's Sharon LaFraniere, 10 a.m. ET
Reaction from London: The Post's Glenn Frankel, 11 a.m. ET
Covering the War: Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie, Noon ET
Weapons of War: Jane's Defence Weekly, Noon ET
The U.S. and Turkey, 2 p.m. ET
U.S. Central Command, 2 p.m. ET

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