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Robert G. Kaiser
Robert G. Kaiser
Washington at War: Rumsfield, Perfectly Cast (Post, March 21, 2003)
Kaiser discussed:
Washington at War on March 20
The beginning of the war on March 19
Confronting Iraq Special Report
Kaiser was online after the president's address March 17
Confronting Iraq Discussion Transcripts
Talk: washingtonpost.
com forums

Live Online Transcripts

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

Friday, March 21, 2003; 6 p.m. ET

Baghdad felt the brunt of the U.S. military's "shock and awe" strategy on Friday, when warplanes bombed government buildings in the center of the city, sending huge plumes of smoke and flames into the night sky. Iraqi leaders, said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at a briefing, "are starting to lose control of their country." (Rumsfield, Perfectly Cast ) Meanwhile, at the White House, press secretary Ari Fleischer fielded questions about the details of the attack and President Bush's activities during the attacks.

Broadcast live on cable news networks and the Web, the briefings are citizens' and reporters' lifeline to official Washington. How much real information comes out of them, and what keeps them from turning into the infamous "5 o'clock follies" of the Vietnam era?

Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser was online Friday, March 21 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: Hello again. Shock and awe has begun, and the administration in Washington is hopeful that they have already shattered the Iraqi regime. I'll post your comments and try to answer your questions for the next 45 minutes or so.

Chicago, Ill.: More of a comment than a question, I guess. I heard Rumsfeld say once again that the Iraqi military should not destroy oil wells. He's said this before and Bush has said it, too. Given all the questions and shifting rationales about why we are invading Iraq and the oil backgrounds of Bush, Cheney, their friends, etc., I think they could cool it on the "don't destroy oil wells" angle. That sounds mercenary even for these particular crusaders.


Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the comment. I do think there is a legitimate concern about the environmental damage caused by oil well fires, which was egregious in Kuwait in 1991. But I understand your point as well.

Washington, Va.: I thought a briefing was supposed to provide people with facts. In watching Rumsfeld and Fleischer, all I detect is smug spin. Even the Clinton administration was better at giving out information than this (God bless Mike McCurry).

Robert G. Kaiser: Well, I'm not sure the Clinton-era briefings were a lot better myself. I've written about the briefing art form in my Washington At War Diary that should be on the site at any moment.

Boston, Mass.: Why would the U.S. go ahead and bomb Saddam Hussein's palace if they could not confirm a positive kill?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think the strategy here is to shatter Saddam's claim to power, including the physical structures that supported it. I expect every building associated with him to be hit in this campaign.

Baltimore, Md. : Assuming Hussein has been killed or seriously injured, what is your sense of his sons' ability to maintain loyalty and power to the extent that he was able to do so?

Robert G. Kaiser: Slim, I'd guess.

Washington, D.C.: I have recently located a Copy of "Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance" on the internet and have to wonder if anyone in the media is aware of it and understands the difference between "Rapid Dominance" and "Decisive Force." It seems to me that the current demonstration of overwhelming force that has finally begun in Baghdad is much more indicative of "Decisive Force" rather than "Rapid Dominance." How did the current mis-identification or misusage of Shock and Awe come about?

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't know enough about this doctrinal distinction to give you an intelligent answer, but I'll pass your comment on to colleagues who do. Thanks.

Arlington, Va.: Am I the only one who finds Rumsfeld's briefings utterly maddening? I think his attitude is so smug -- it's as though he openly has contempt for reporters. God forbid any actually information be disseminated. The press has talked over and over ad nauseum about how they won't and don't give away sensitive information. But what's with the smarmy briefings?

Robert G. Kaiser: Another advertisement: See my diary for today.

Kennesaw, Ga.: About 10 years ago Washington Post reporter Molly Moore wrote a book about her experience in the Gulf War, where she was (informally) "embedded" in Marine commander Walter Boomer's mobile HQ. Do you think the Pentagon drew any lessons from that -- for example that reporters are much more likely to tell a good story than be a security risk if given access to U.S. troops in the field?

Robert G. Kaiser: Good question. We don't really know much about how the decision was reached to let so many reporters go to war with so many different units. So far, we like it a lot. We'll see what happens when something bad occurs. Molly's book may have contributed. So may have the criticism Rumsfeld got for stiff-arming journalists during the Afghan war.

Atlanta, Ga.: Is there any word on a time period for determining whether or not Saddam Hussein is dead or alive?

Robert G. Kaiser: You know, we'll learn the answer to this question within a short period of time, inevitably.

Washington, D.C.: Dear Mr. Kaiser,

I am disturbed by the way the war is covered in the media. We are given images of "waves of steel" and told of heroism and courage -- on TV this is all set to music. This romanticization and even transformation (on TV, at least) of war into a music video is frightening. War is bloody, scary, sad, and destructive, but it is sold to us by the media as honorable and exciting. Has war always been "sold" this way by the media or is this new? What do your paper and its Web site do to minimize this "romanticization" of conflict? Do you think it should be minimized?


Robert G. Kaiser: For years,the CBS code of ethics strictly forbade ANY music on news broadcasts. Richard Salant, the president of CBS and author of that code, knew exactly what you are talking about: that putting a musical soundtrack behind actual news footage turns it into a form of entertainment. I think it is appalling that networks are doing that here, and I hope you won't find any ink-on-paper equivalent of that in The Post, or on our site.

Arlington, Va.: Assuming that chemical and biological weapons exist in Iraq, they must be in the possession and control of military officers in the field. Either our government knows more or less where they are (and withheld this information from UN inspectors), or they do not and must now scramble around to find them before they can be sold or given away. Which do you think more likely?

Robert G. Kaiser: As my colleague Walter Pincus reported last Sunday, the U.S. does not know precisely where these weapons have been hidden, or even if they still exist.

Kill Devil Hills, N.C.: Hi Bob,

How do you imagine this "ending"? Is an occupation of Baghdad considered victory even if they are unable to find Hussein or prove that he is dead?

Robert G. Kaiser: Well I think that would be a most incomplete victory.

Virginia: Comparing The Gulf War to this one (does this operation even have a name yet?) what upgrades in technology are we going to see in the battlefield?

Robert G. Kaiser: Lots and lots. You've missed a number of stories on this already. Virtually every technology in the field has been improved since 1991, beginning with the "smart" bombs, which are vastly smarter now than then.

The mission has a name: Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Caracas, Venezuela: Do you think this war will have effects in Bush's policies toward Latin America?

Robert G. Kaiser: Only by keeping him distracted so that he pays little or no attention to Latin America.

College Park, Md.: Could an attack of the scale that we are seeing on Iraq ever happen on U.S. soil?

Robert G. Kaiser: Interesting question. Not at any forseeable time, I'd say. What country might develop the military machine that would enable them to wage such a campaign? China? If they're crazy enough to try, they could. I don't see another candidate now.

I think what we're seeing is a manifestation of a new world order based on American supremacy that is likely to be in place for a long time.

washingtonpost.com: FYI, today's Washington at War: Rumsfield, Perfectly Cast (Post, March 21, 2003)

Reston, Va.: Here is the link to a front page article in last week's London Times whose headline was "Bush, SR Warning Over Unilateral Action." In this article which reports on a speech at Tufts University he goes to say that we should not got into a war in the Middle East without support and participation of the U.N.

This was not even reported in the Post and only glossed over in the only article I could find buried in the Boston Globe.

This is a significant statement that can help influence public opinion. Why didn't The Post report it?

Robert G. Kaiser: The Post published a detailed story about the elder Bush's speech at Tufts, written by Walter Pincus. Perhaps washingtonpost.com can give you a link to it here. It ran about 10 days ago, if memory serves (an increasingly relevant question in my case).

Madison, Va.: What do you see as the role for the photographers of The Washington Post during this conflict? Do you view photojournalism as a worthwhile profession? If so, why are so many photos of this conflict taken by the reporters?

washingtonpost.com: The most recent photo gallery from the field is currently on the home page of washingtonpost.com.

Day in Photos (CameraWorks, washingtonpost.com)

Robert G. Kaiser: Photojournalism is a critically important part of our coverage of a story like this one, and we are enormously proud of the photo staff here, which we consider the best on any newspaper in the world. Our correspondents have all been issued small electronic cameras (I used one today at the Pentagon briefing, and the result should be posted soon) to take pictures, which is why you are seeing photos by them. But we have great photographers in the field, too.

Minneapolis, Minn.: I have two questions related to a post-Saddam Iraq. First, is it likely that the presence of Turkish troops in northern Iraq could lead to a "war within a war" between the Turks and Kurds? Second, do you think that the allies opposed to the U.S.-led war will try to thwart U.S. efforts to rebuild/administer Iraq?

Robert G. Kaiser: Two good questions. Civil war of some kind in Iraq seems to me a real danger after the war, given the country's history and its neighbors ambitions, both Turkey and Iran. My answer to the second is, I doubt it.

Colorado Springs, Colo.: Many don't get it. How dense is Saddam? Did he not believe it? Does he believe it now?

Is this what Hitler was like near the end?

Robert G. Kaiser: I'd like to take this opportunity to say that in my opinion, comparing Saddam to Hitler is quite ridiculous. He may be an equally nasty human being, but Saddam's ability to do ill in the world doesn't begin to compare with Hitler's, and to put him in HItler's class is both misleading and an undeserved "compliment."

Durham, N.C.: What is the story with Turkey? Have we been granted permission to use its airspace yet?

washingtonpost.com: From Reuters: Turkey, U.S. Agree Overflights, Wrangle Over Troops (March 21, 2003; 5:17 p.m.)

Robert G. Kaiser: Here's the answer in this story.

Portland, Ore.: Do you really think we are in touch with Iraq's military commanders (in an attempt to get them to surrender) or are we just saying that in our attempt to supply misinformation to the entire Iraq military. Seems like this could backfire in a big way if Rumsfeld is bluffing.

Robert G. Kaiser: Our reporting has suggested that there has been communication with Iraqi commanders. It would be relatively easy to get on their radio wavelengths, for example. And we've dropped a zillion leaflets on their heads. There's a report tonight, unconfirmed, that an Iraqi general has surrendered his division today. I suspect this is for real.

Los Angeles, Calif.: Good Afternoon,

I want to thank you for your coverage of this issue so far. I have searched high and low to find news coverages from media outlets outside of the U.S. It seems that all of our major news organizations delivering the same (sometimes old and tired) sound bites. Now with music behind them. What do you do to stay objective and report this issue from more than one vantage point? How much time should we hear from news organizations that report issues from sources that our organizations may not have?

Thank you.

Robert G. Kaiser: There are lots of interesting, if not always reliable, news outlets around the world: The Guardian and Financial Times in Britain, Haaretz in Israel, Le Monde and Liberation in France, Die Zeit and the Frankfurter Allemagner in Germany, and many more. Some require foreign language ability, obviously, though many publish some stuff on the web in English.

But it is my considered opinion, after years living and traveling abroad, that the four best news organizations on the globe are the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. None is perfect; all have flaws. But they are bigger, more ambitious, and for my money more revelatory and interesting than any foreign competitor.

Auburn, Ala.: If Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, why are they not using them against us?

Robert G. Kaiser: We know from the 1991 Gulf War that American warnings of devastating retaliation intimidated the Iraqis and convinced them not to use their WMD then. This time it still isn't clear that they have such weapons in a usable form, and we know virtually nothing about Saddam's thinking on this subject now.

Centreville, Va.: Psychological warfare has been and still is being waged on the Iraqi people and also on the American people. President Bush keeps reiterating that the oil fields belong to the Iraqi people. Does this mean then that the American oil fields now belong to the American people and not to big companies?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for your comment. I think the answer to your last country is no.

Centennial, Colo.: Why does the mass media portray this new Gulf War as a contest? There is no contest here. Who in their right mind would have thought that the Iraqis could have mustered anything that resembles a contest. The "World's Fifth Largest Army" was beaten to a pulp in '91. Should there be any difference now?

Robert G. Kaiser: Good point. But Iraqi guns can still kill people, as we have already seen.

Rockville, Md.: I understand there are more than 100 foreign (mostly American) journalists in Baghdad. If they survive the bombing, what are their chances of leaving safely?

M. Rankin

Robert G. Kaiser: Of course we are all worried about this. It seems to me that anarchy in Baghdad after the fall of the regime would pose the greatest danger to our colleagues there, but this is literally unknowable.

Charlottesville, Va.: I've been reading French and British online newspapers, and there seems to be a bit more distance from the war by those reporters, figuratively. How can "embedded" reporters keep from going native? Because I keep imagining that a good story will be read fairly by people in Cairo and Washington alike, and right now I'm picturing how these images from Baghdad are playing across the Muslim and Arab worlds, and I'm not happy.

Robert G. Kaiser: THanks for your comment. I think"going native" is a serious problem.

Dallas, Tex.: Why should Turkish junta be allowed to ruin the joy of the Kurdish nation for the demise of evil Saddam by threatening to invade Iraqi Kurdistan? Should it not that country that bore greats Jefferson, Lincoln, and King support Kurds against Turkish junta?

Robert G. Kaiser: Junta? Last I noticed Turkey had freely elected its current new government.

Nevertheless, you raise an important question. The U.S. has a real problem with Turkish ambitions in Kurdistan.

Charlottesville, Va.: Obviously this will depend in part on the outcome of the war, but how long do you think it will take for the U.S. to overcome the ill will that Bush's perceived unilateralism has sowed in the international community?

Robert G. Kaiser: Doesn't that depend entirely on how he behaves from here on out? I wouldn't dare to predict.

Chicago, Ill.: Looking at the White House, do you trust these people? Regardless of your politics (I, for one, voted for Gore and view Bush accordingly), there just seems to be something creepy about the administration's people, whether it's Rumsfeld's news conferences or Bush's smirk or Cheney's inside connections or what have you.

Robert G. Kaiser: I'm sorry to have to report that I learned a long time ago not to extend my trust to any White House or administration. Their selfish interests seem to lead every one of them away from truth-telling and into propaganda. It's the nature of the beast, I think.

Washington, D.C.: Is the Post matching the White House propaganda machine (story in The Post on Monday) with an equally energetic skepticism? Because I trust The Post to poor acid on claims by the White House and pronouncements by the president and his staff and read the etching of the soft parts. IMHO, there hasn't been enough of that sort of thing when Cheney can get on the air Sunday and talk about a nuclear program in Iraq that no one believes exists. Also, if we can get an idea of where Saddam is in time to try and kill him, how come we couldn't find these WMDs that were supposed to be sitting around?

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for the comment. As regards The Post, all I can say is we're trying very hard to do our job as well as we can.

Alexandria, Va.: Why are the media covering this war like it was a football game -- interviewing participants right after an incident? Just because you can doesn't mean you should.

Brokaw totally missed (or more likely ignored) the same point made by Jay Aubin's mother today.

Robert G. Kaiser: As I've said here many times before, no one at The Post ever filed an application to join "the media," and no one here is comfortable responding to questions like yours. We can and should answer for our own behavior, but not for anyone's on television, or from another paper.

Falls Church, Va.: Thought today's story by Dana Milbank and Jim VandeHei on Bush's strong arm speaks volumes about the little rich boy's mentality. If he doesn't get his way, he'll pick up all the toys and leave. A little like Saddam?

washingtonpost.com: Bush's Strong Arm Can Club Allies Too (Post, March 21, 2003)

Robert G. Kaiser: I can't endorse your characterization, but I'm glad to advertise that good story. Here it is.

Montgomery, Ala.: Do you think the war will have a negative impact on Bush's campaign for 2004?

Robert G. Kaiser: If it goes badly, or if its aftermath goes badly, it could.

Minneapolis, Minn.: Hi. What are the feelings in the press rooms re: asking provocative questions?

Meaning, how far can you go with your questioning without getting banned or blacklisted from the "access"?

An example would be a question in reference to recent Forbes magazine article reporting that Haliburton has received the exclusive contracts to rebuild the Iraqi oil refineries.

Robert G. Kaiser: Some reporters are shy about asking tough questions, but not the good ones. We are reporting on those contracts, as I'm sure others are.

Reading, Mass.: Do you think that this many reporters "embedded" with the troops is safe for the troops? Also, do you think that 24-hour coverage is good for the public psychologically?

Robert G. Kaiser: 1) I think it's safe for the troops. 2) Lord knows. This war sets a whole new standard for media saturation.

Washington, D.C.: If regime change is the goal, why cannot the allied forces simply target the key members of the regime rather than so many targets which are now being and are planned to be hit? Why not just hire some good hitmen?

Robert G. Kaiser: I fear you've been watching too much television. Where would these "good hit men" be found? How would they operate in Iraq?

Millbrae, Calif.: What is the exit strategy for the United States after this quick military victory was Saddam Hussein in overthrown?

Robert G. Kaiser: Here's the $64,000 question. And I certainly don't know the answer. I had a drink with a French journalist last night who looked me in the eye and predicted we'd have American troops in Iraq for 15 years. I wanted to tell him he was wrong, but I realized I didn't KNOW that he was wrong. We'll just have to see.

Kaelen: Do you think that there are strategies and current situations that the U.S. military is conducting right now that we don't know about? Like for instance, say they had a plan to drop the 82nd Airborne near Baghdad so that the Republican Guard would be taken off guard and not have time to withdraw into the city. That possibly could be effective but not something the military would want to make public until after the fact, unlike the real-time reports we are getting of the other advances.

Robert G. Kaiser: I'm pretty sure we don't know all that's going on.

Scottsdale, Ariz.: What do you think the chances are that the U.S. government would add a 10 percent tax on Iraq oil after the war to pay for 1991-2003?

Thank you.

Robert G. Kaiser: Zero.

Minneapolis, Minn.: Because of the Internet, readers are much more able to compare coverage of issues related to Iraq among various newspapers and countries. As a result the bias of reporting by each paper is much more transparent.

How does The Post respond to the more "media savvy" public that is critical of the way in which The Post is reporting over the past year on issues related to Iraq?

Robert G. Kaiser: Why, kindly and generously, of course.

But what exactly are you talking about? Whose criticism? What criticism?

Houston, Tex.: Why cannot American liberals understand that the oil and war issue in the Middle East is not one of "Big Oil" but rather our economy's absolute dependence on Middle East oil?

Robert G. Kaiser: Who are these "liberals?" Not sure what you're talking about here. I recall Bill Clinton raised the gasoline tax, which did something to hold down oil consumption, and thus reduce dependence on foreign oil. Were you in favor of that?

Washington, D.C.: How is The Post's reporter in Baghdad?

Robert G. Kaiser: Anthony Shadid is fine, having the adventure of his life, and making the rest of us worry like crazy.

Robert G. Kaiser: I'm out of time. We'll be back regularly in the days ahead. And you can communicate at all times to this e-mail address: Bob.Kaiser@wpni.com. Thanks for taking part in this evening's discussion.


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company