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Robert G. Kaiser
Robert G. Kaiser
• Washington at War: Low-Grade Drama (Post, March 20, 2003)
• Confronting Iraq Special Report
• Kaiser was online after the president's address March 17
• Confronting Iraq Discussion Transcripts
• Talk: washingtonpost.
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• Live Online Transcripts

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Washington at War
With Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Editor

Thursday, March 20, 2003; 6:30 p.m. ET

Air raids resumed in Baghdad today, aimed at a presidential compound and government buildings, less than 24 hours after the original cruise missile strikes hit Iraq's capital. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld briefed reporters and urged Iraqi military officers to disobey orders to destroy oil wells or use chemical weapons.

As the U.S. military got on with the business of war, Washington got on with the business of life -- weather, traffic, protests. How is Washington affected by the war with Iraq? How will life be affected? What do we do now? Washington Post Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser was online Thursday, March 20, to talk about Washington at War.

Comments and queries can also be sent to bob.kaiser@washingtonpost.com.

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, and welcome to our Washington At War discussion, which will continue, daily or nearly so, for the duration of the conflict, or until I cry uncle.

We have also set up an e-mail address which I hope readers will use to ask questions when we're not live on-line, suggest topics for my Washington At War Diary (the first installment appears on washingtonpost.com this evening), make comments or tell us about their experiences during this war. The address is bob.kaiser@washingtonpost.com.


washingtonpost.com: First installment of Washington at War: Low-Grade Drama

Washington, D.C.: In reporting your story today, did you find that people -- lawmakers, etc. -- really buy into this war? Or is everyone just resigned to it?

Robert G. Kaiser: I only spoke to half a dozen members of Congress, so I cannot give a well-informed answer to this question. But my colleague Helen Dewar, who has been covering the Senate for more than 20 years, pointed out that she has rarely heard anyone speaking enthusiastically about the war during the months leading up to it, Democrat or Republican.


Lyon, France: That is, history is moving, I hope in the good way.

We French support the U.S. troops and U.S. people in our hearts, of course we love you, but actually not with our heads.

I am sure France will be present yet in case of big peril.

God preserves the world of the funeste consequences.
Vive our friendship!
Gιrard JOLIVET

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks, Gerard.


Crystal Springs, Ohio: In one of his very early statements about the necessity of the U.S. deposing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, President Bush said that Saddam had attempted to assassinate his father, the former president. Do you know when and where this assassination attempt took place or was to have taken place? Was the attempt foiled by U.S. intelligence? Or was it just an idea that Saddam talked about?

I have always been puzzled by this, but perhaps it was a news event that I missed. Thank you for clearing up my confusion.

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't have all the detail in my head, but this happened, I believe, in connection with a ceremony to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. President George H.W. Bush attended the ceremony, and the Kuwaitis and Americans intercepted Iraqi agents sent, they said, to assassinate Bush. President Clinton authorized punitive bombing raids against Iraq in retaliation.


Washington, D.C.: Bob,

What a strange day. I have to admit at this point I almost wish they'd get on with the "shock and awe." Not that I want people to die. But it seems surreal to be "sort of" at war. Though I'm sure the soldiers and reporters in the field don't feel that way.

Robert G. Kaiser: I'm sure you are right about the reporters and soldiers. This is a new kind of war, obviously. We have a mammoth war machine in place, and complex technology to deploy. It will take some days, I suspect, maybe longer, to get fully organized. Personally I suspect the loss of a Turkish launching pad has significantly complicated the situation, more than our officials have acknowledged. In any case, this odd moment will quickly pass.


Silver Spring, Md.: Bob: It seems to me that our goal all along has been regime change in Iraq, and that our talk about disarmament was just a charade. Why did we engage in this charade, and was the opposition to the U.S. based on knowledge by others on the Security Council that we were engaged in a charade? (Roger W. in Silver Spring)

Robert G. Kaiser: Bob Woodward's book, "Bush At War," provides good answers to your question. Very briefly, it appears that Colin Powell persuaded Bush and his colleagues that the U.S. position would be greatly enhanced if we won U.N. approval for an escalation of pressure against Saddam. To do that, the administration had to embrace disarmament of Iraq -- the purpose of all the U.N. resolutions passed in connection with the first Gulf War -- and stop talking about regime change, which made many other countries nervous. As we've all noticed, "regime change" returned to administration rhetoric with a vengeance once the U.N. stopped looking like a useful ally.

Was this an American charade? Or were the other members of the security council really guilty of that? I can't imagine the French really thought Saddam could be fully disarmed while remaining in power. I could of course be wrong.


Washington, D.C.: What do you think will be the point at which "low-grade drama" becomes high grade?

Robert G. Kaiser: You know, in Washington the drama may never get very tense, unless things start to go very badly in the war.


Washington, D.C.: I've never been in Washington at wartime before. How much more tense do things typically get?

Robert G. Kaiser: To elaborate on the answer just above, I actually think this is the first American war since World War II when anyone thought the homeland was at risk, so perhaps this Washington is actually tenser than most earlier versions of Washington at war. In Korea or Vietnam, no one thought the enemy would retaliate on our territory. My reading of history suggests the only time tensions were really high in Washington during a war was in the 1860s, and with good reason!


Washington, D.C.: Is Washington at war so different from, say, New York? Is the focus of what you're saying mostly on the government machine?

Robert G. Kaiser: The focus is still soft, and maleable, or is it malleable? Washington is different because the officials and institutions responsible for prosecuting the war are here. Our acquaintances and neighbors are the people doing it. The president is the biggest guy in our town. But you're right, we're all Americans, and much of what I'll be able to say about Washington at war will, probably, be applicable elsewhere too.


Somewhere, USA: Embedded reporters aside, what's the biggest difference about covering this war, particularly from Washington, than others?

Robert G. Kaiser: Too soon to say, but this subject will be on my mind in the days ahead.


Chevy Chase, Washington, D.C.: I'm guessing American foreign policy will have to change as a result of all of this, but I'm wondering if the lesson will be that we can still strong-arm and do what we want even if we don't play nice with everyone else. We aren't going to learn a whole bunch about coalition building, are we?

Robert G. Kaiser: In my view the lessons to be drawn from this episode are very much up for grabs today. Much will depend on how it goes, obviously. And even more will depend on how Bush and his people interpret the results. Stay tuned.


Silver Spring, Md.: Speaking of Turkey, do you think that relationship will be worked out? I have to admit, I admire the Turkish parliament for refusing to be bribed or pushed around. Regardless of the issue of the Kurdish state.

Robert G. Kaiser: The Turks have given themselves a huge problem, and have also given themselves a great new source of national pride. The problem is they are an economic basket case, dependent entirely on the goodwill of the international financial institutions to stay above water. The $6 billion we were prepared to give them would have been extremely useful, and I don't know what they'll do to compensate now for not getting it.

No American government will want to see Turkey collapse, but this relationship is under severe strain now.


Washington, D.C.: How much is known -- by reporters and others -- that we can't know yet? Any idea?

Robert G. Kaiser: I'm glad you asked this question. I know how common it is for people to assume that we at The Post always have in our heads a vast storehouse of inside skinny that we do not share with readers for one reason or another. THIS IS NOT SO! Our business is to find things out, and print them. Look at this morning's wonderful newspaper, full of skinny you could learn nowhere else. I especially admired Dana Priest and Bart Gellman for their piece on U.S. efforts to extract useful information from Iraqi diplomats and intelligence operatives around the world.

We will occasionally, rarely, hold back information when we think it might compromise a military operation or endanger lives. But our basic instinct is to publish, not to hide.

So my answer to your question is, virtually nothing.


washingtonpost.com: CIA Had Fix on Hussein (Post, March 20, 2003)


Re: Turkey: But $6 billion to essentially give up half your land and take on a big big humanitarian refugee problem? Would it be worth it?

Robert G. Kaiser: Hard for me to answer that question. But I don't think they had to "give up" half their territory. And they may have the refugee problem anyway.


Sydney, Australia: I'm sitting here watching Tony Blair, and I can't help but think he's got more courage than 99.9 percent of American politicians. Yet we completely take him for granted. What does he get out of aligning with the U.S. about Iraq -- other than grief from his own party and the whole world?

Robert G. Kaiser: Blair is a remarkable politician, I agree. People close to him say he too has a religious conviction about the rightness of this course in Iraq. I have no way to evaluate this myself. But you're right, we rarely if ever see a politician in this country fly right into the wind of public opinion, defying both his allies and his voters. It's quite a sight. And it may be loony. Or heroic.


Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Why doesn't the U.S. totally abandon Turkey and make an example out of them? Turkey has not lived up to its NATO obligations. To hell with them. The U.S. philosophy should be reward our friends -- that includes the Kurds and a sovereign Kurdistan. Thanks much.

Robert G. Kaiser: Personally I'm not a fan of the "to hell with them" approach to diplomacy. We live in the global neighborhood; we have to get along with a lot of cranky and difficult neighbors. Turkey is an extremely important country: the only Muslim democracy, the most modern Muslim country, located at a critical point between Europe and Asia, a NATO ally, etc etc.


Washington, D.C.: I was watching a cable news network (won't name names) where the reporter said, "this is rumor and hasn't been independently confirmed," and then went on to flap his gums. Meanwhile, other news outlets are showing restraint. Does the military cooperate equally with both stripes?

Robert G. Kaiser: I hope not.


Alexandria, Va.: So why did every Democratic lawmaker seem like such a chicken? Are they only worried about covering themselves in 2004?

Robert G. Kaiser: Do you want them all to oppose the war? Or what? Democrats are a complicated bunch. They are much more diverse than modern Republicans, and span a lot of territory from hawk (Joe Lieberman) to dove (Dennis Kucinich). Many of them do live in a state of chronic political anxiety.


Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: I'll bet hearing that "diplomacy has failed" is something the State Dept. folks just love to hear. So what are they doing now that the military guys seem to have taken over? How hamstrung are they by the public hardline the president has taken with "allies"?

Robert G. Kaiser: Again, how the war proceeds will shape the long-term answer to your question. I'm sure professional diplomats feel bruised by this episode, but not defeated. It is interesting to me that three members of the foreign service have publicly resigned over this policy. I don't remember three diplomats resigning over Vietnam -- but my memory isn't that terrific, either.


Arlington, Va.: Never in my life have I heard the words "fog of war" bandied around as much as over the past two days. And boy do I get it now. Is there every any clarity in the midst of military action? And if not, um, shouldn't we have thought this through better?

Robert G. Kaiser: I learned this lesson 33 years ago, covering the Vietnam War. It is striking to me that every new military adventure opens more eyes to the problem that war is never clean, never simple, and never follows The Plan. At the same time, the overall correlation of forces, as the Soviets used to say, is so heavily in our favor in this war that I expect us to achieve our objectives, and to do so relatively quickly. But a lot will go wrong before we do, you can depend on it.


Blair = Churchill?: Maybe not exactly, but a modern-day close version? Do you ever find yourself wishing he were your president? I do.

Robert G. Kaiser: It's been a long time since I wished that any particular person would be my president. A professional hazard, perhaps.


Bethesda, Md.: Do you think there's a chance this war will fundamentally "change" us like 9/11 did? Or did it really?

Robert G. Kaiser: I do think 9/11 changed the country. I think one reason for the gap that has opened up between us and our European allies is just this: the Europeans did not have the sort of experience we did on that day, and have a hard time grasping its impact on us. Too soon to be making predictions about the impact of this war.


Washington, D.C.: Didn't people in the Johnson administration -- White House people -- resign over Vietnam? Admittedly I wasn't born yet, but I remember reading staffers like Moyers left in protest.

Robert G. Kaiser: It's my recollection that no White House official publicly protested against the Vietnam policy, or "left in protest." I think you're right that Bill Moyers left the white House before Johnson did.


Arlington, Va.: One difference from Vietnam is that the antiwar people seem to have drawn a distinction between opposing the policy and opposing the troops. That's a big victory, I think. I'm not crazy about Bush, but the last thing I want to see is people coming home from fighting and being called "baby killer."

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for your comment.


Reston, Va.: Do you recall a time when we in Washington have been dealing with more in a similar span of time? Terrorism, snipers, war, code orange, etc. I'm sure World War II, by comparison, was in many ways scarier, but this just seems so in our backyards.

Robert G. Kaiser: And you forgot the guy with the tractor. Yes, this is a tense and complicated time. I noticed a much bigger than normal crowd at my YMCA downtown earlier this week, and wondered if people had come to the gym to work off stress. I sense a lot of it around town.


Washington, D.C.: What do you think of the antiwar movement thus far? Maybe I'm cynical, but it seems awfully half-hearted.

Robert G. Kaiser: If you, as I do, carry an image of the Vietnam protests in your head as a sort of paradigm for anti-war activity, then I don't think it's surprising that what we've seen this time doesn't begin to compare. But consider the huge differences, too: Vietnam dragged on for many years--ten years from the time large U.S. ground forces were deployed. There was a draft until late in the war, so lots of people felt personally threatened by the war. Many anti-war activists were draft-age young men during the Vietnam period. So I agree with your observation, and am not surprised by it. And I should add that for many of the participants in this year's anti-war demonstrations, "half hearted" is an unfair characterization. I've seen and talked to many of them who have very strong feelings about this war.


Seattle, Wash.: It seems to me that Sen. Byrd is one of the few people in Washington who has not lost his bearings over 9/11 and the war on Iraq. Are his speeches even noticed in Washington?

Robert G. Kaiser: yes they are, though we here at The Post underplayed his first powerful speech.


Re: Tractor guy: How can al Qaeda not just be shaking their heads and laughing at us that tractor fella could lock up the city for three days? I didn't think he should be shot or anything, but give me a break.

Robert G. Kaiser: Your question makes me imagine an Al Qaeda "information minister" reading washingtonpost.com from some Pakistani internet cafe and laughing aloud about the tractor guy. Do you think that might have happened? Good scene for a movie...


Arlington, Va.: When do you expect hostilities will "rev up"?

Robert G. Kaiser: Soon.


Paris, France: Could you explain why the British and the U.S. only condemn the French attitude against war whereas Russia and China also made strong statements and vetoed pro war resolutions at UN?

It is said in France that there is a broad campaign against France in the U.S. China and Russia urge the U.S. to stop war now unlike Chirac.

Thanks

Vincent Delafosse

Robert G. Kaiser: You know, people expect more from their closest friends than from their former enemies.


Silver Spring, Md.: I have to object to the way another questioner stereotyped Vietnam War protesters. The demonstrators who marched on the Pentagon in 1967 marched behind a large banner that said "Support Our Boys, Bring Them Home."

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for yours. I also remember a wonderful moment in front of the Pentagon's River Entrance during the anti-war protest made famous by Norman Mailer's "Armies of the Night," if that was the title: a pretty young woman with a handful of carnations, I think they were, sticking them, stem first, into the rifle barrels of young soldiers standing guard outside the building, with rifles at the ready.


Newton, Mass.: Do you think Tom Daschle was being partisan in his criticism of the administration's failed diplomacy or that Dennis Hastert and RNC were being so in their responses?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think both were being partisan, in different ways.


Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for all the comments and questions. I'll be back tomorrow for more. And if you want to comment in the meantime, send e-mail to bob.kaiser@washingtonpost.com.


washingtonpost.com: Stay tuned to Live Online tomorrow for more reports from the field and Washington.


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