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Robert G. Kaiser
Robert G. Kaiser
Washington at War: War-Watching Is Difficult Duty (Post, March 24, 2003)
Kaiser discussed:
Washington at War on March 23
Washington at War on March 21
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

Monday, March 24, 2003; 6 p.m. ET

U.S. forces are meeting increasingly heavy resistance from Iraqi soldiers as the campaign for Baghdad moves forward. Military analysts said that today would reveal much about the determination of Iraqi forces to repel British and American invaders, and it did. Many Apache helicopters were damaged by hostile fire. Later, three CH-47 Chinook helicopters transporting spare parts from Kuwait took fire and jettisoned their loads, officials reported. It was reported that video of two U.S. pilots showed up on Abu Dhabi television. Meanwhile, President Saddam Hussein delivered a speech on Iraqi state television to rally his countrymen, declaring that the Iraqi resistance would "dishearten the aggressor."

Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser was online Sunday, March 23, to talk about the latest developments in Iraq and Washington at War.

The transcript follows.

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

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. The fourth day of war was a lovely Spring day in Washington. I've just filed a diary entry for today that should be posted soon. Ill answer questions and post comments for the next hour or so.

washingtonpost.com: Washington at War: War-Watching Is Difficult Duty (Post, March 24, 2003)

Arlington, Va.: Haven't hit it yet, but am thinking the threshold is coming up soon when the war will just be background noise. I feel terrible saying that, but I've had CNN on darn near 24 hours a day since it all started. It's compelling stuff, and life and death and of course I have sympathy for everyone involved. But my eyes are beginning to glaze over.

Robert G. Kaiser: We're all having a new experience, I think: all war all the time. But on television, it's war without much context, and it jumps from place to place, topic to topic, person to person, with dizzying speed.

I continue to recommend that you save time and have less distraction by devoting an hour every day to a good newspaper (dare I suggest one?), and spend half an hour with one of the network evening news shows to see the day's best pictures.

Houston, Tex.: Has anyone suggested that impartial observers be on hand at all times when American forces are searching for those very elusive WMD? I would think all interested parties would agree to that necessity in order to avoid any further appearance of "evidence planting" by the Bush administration.

Also -- could you discuss why Bush has refused to release presidential papers of Reagan and Bush the First? Surely it couldn't be because they supported Saddam Hussein and provided him with chemicals and biologicals. Perhaps you could also show that picture of cheney in a big smile warmly shaking the hand of Saddam Hussein.

Thank you very much.


Dolores Bertrand

Robert G. Kaiser: Well, I think you just suggested it. Happily, there are 500 reporters with U.S. forces in Iraq. There may not be journalists "embedded" with the special forces units that will be looking most intently for weapons of mass destruction, however. We do fervently hope that journalists will be on the scene for these key moments.

We don't know why Bush closed up presidential papers the way he did. It is enormously frustrating for journalists and historians to lose access to papers they thought were coming their way. Personally I think there's been far too little complaining about this. As far as I know, The Post is the only paper that has taken it really seriously. But that may be unfair -- I don't read everyone else as carefully.

Rockville, Md.: I'm starting to talk in briefing speak in meetings at work. That's not good, right?

Robert G. Kaiser: Roger that.

Washington, D.C.: A question about embedding. If reporters are with a unit that comes under fire, does the reporter shoot as well?

Robert G. Kaiser: Reporters don't shoot. They're not trained to do so, and it would constitute a total departure from their proper role as well.

Chevy Chase, Md.: What a nice day outside today. Sounds naive, but almost doesn't seem possible that something so violent could be going on.

Robert G. Kaiser: I absolutely agree. I was out and about most of the day today, and you couldn't see a single hint of a war going on, unless you looked at the headlines in the newspaper boxes. Very odd feeling.

Harrisburg, Pa.: Iraq is composed of several ethnic groups that have historically fought with each other. How likely can any central government command the respect and cooperation of most of the Iraqi people? Further, how well will most groups accept a government they feel is imposed by America and our coalition allies? What would you recommend our government do that could best gain public support throughout Iraq for democratic government that respects human rights?

Robert G. Kaiser: This is a most important subject. Iraq does consist of three major groups: Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims and Kurds. They have not been natural friends or allies traditionally. Iraq itself is an artificial creation of British colonialism. Saddam and his Baath Party have held it together, but it is very difficult to know how cohesive it might be without them.

And I think you're right, a government imposed by us will not, at first anyhow, be enormously appealing.

I'm not in the business of giving advice to governments, but I do think it will be crucial to pay attention to the sensibilities of the Iraqi people.

I urge everyone who hasn't to read this splendid piece today by our colleague in Baghdad, Anthony Shadid. I think it provides a real glimpse of Iraqi sentiment, and it raises a long list of interesting questions.

washingtonpost.com: Shadid: 'We're in a Dark, Dark Tunnel': Family Weathers Attacks, Prepares for U.S. Siege (Post, March 24, 2003)

Vancouver, BC, Canada: I think many of us have been shocked by the graphic images of the U.S. POWs, which have been widely published here in Canada. But do you think the moral authority of the U.S. to highlight these abuses by the Iraqi regime is undermined due to the U.S. treatment of its prisoners at Guantanamo Bay?

Robert G. Kaiser: Yours is a classic eye-of-the-beholder question, don't you think? By which I mean, I'm sure some people make the connection you suggest, and I'm just as sure lots of others don't make it.

New London, Conn.: Greetings,

I'm x-Army, an active duty NCO, who also has read a little American history. While I'm in New England, in 1861, the word down in Washington was that the war would be short and easy. Victory would come soon so it was "on to Richmond."

We know now, as they learned by 1865 and after 600,000 deaths, that such thinking was foolish. While it is clear we can not be defeated in the traditional sense, we can be made to bleed. On to Baghdad sounds so much like "on to Richmond" and I fear, it is just as foolish.

Peter J. Robert, Editor and Publisher
New London, Conn., USA

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for your comment. Personally, I think that if Lincoln had a military machine at his disposal comparable in quality to the one Bush has deployed to the Gulf, "on to Richmond" would have been a lot more plausible a goal than it actually was in 1861. We now know that the Confederacy had the best officers and, for the first years of the war, the best trained and most committed soldiers too. Their military equipment was not dramatically inferior in quality to the Union's. Over the years of the civil war all that changed, of course, but the war lasted as long as it did, I think, because the two sides started out so well matched -- with the South initially enjoying real advantages.

Which isn't to say we may not bleed a lot more than we'd like before this campaign is over. I think it's just too soon to make predictions.

Washington, D.C.: Bob:

This might sound a bit far-fetched, but what are the implications of a prolonged war with Iraq for Taiwan-China Cross-Strait relations?


Coen Blaauw

Robert G. Kaiser: Coen is a friend of mine, who has represented Taiwanese interests in Washington very effectively for many years. And his question may not be all that far-fetched, at least in this respect: What use might this or a future Chinese government make of the new American doctrine of pre-emptive war? Could this ever be a justification for an attack on Taiwan?

I don't know the answer, but I think it's a reasonable question. I do not think many Americans, or many foreigners for that matter, have thought through the full implications of the administration's new military strategy.

At the same time, our colleague Jackson Diehl on the Post's editorial page has made an eloquent case that the new doctrine doesn't really suggest any radical departures from past policy, just a new way of describing them. He could be right, too.

This is too big a subject to deal with thoughtfully in this forum, but it is worth thinking about.

Fort Myers, Fla.: Has the war along with many other NEWS items just become another ratings war for the all news networks?

Robert G. Kaiser: I'm not sure it's fair to cal it "just another" ratings war, but it is a ratings war all right.

Washington, D.C.: I completely understand the "reporters don't shoot" answer, and I'm sure that both reporters and the Pentagon thought that through. But doesn't that create incredible tension within a unit, knowing they're hauling around an extra five or 10 people who can't help them fight but whom they still need to protect?

Robert G. Kaiser: I actually lived this experience in Vietnam 33 and 34 years ago. It was never a problem. Generally, the troops love having reporters along to record their heroics. Americans, you may have noticed, love publicity.

Dallas, Tex.: Why has the coalition military force not removed the ability of Iraq to broadcast on state television?

Robert G. Kaiser: Interesting question. I suppose this is part of the effort not to disrupt ordinary civilian life. It may also be a desire to acquire the sort of information and intelligence that television broadcasts can provide. But I don't know the answer.

Washington, D.C.: Please explain what seem like double standards to me. Bush, Rumsfeld, et al are upset that Iraqis are showing videotape and photographs of U.S. prisoners. But western media is awash in images of Iraq POWs. And why is the media accepting the governments rationale for not showing these images.

Robert G. Kaiser: This is a difficult issue. Here's a shot at an answer. The extremely vivid and painful videotape of Americans shot through the forehead at very close range depicts dead people who have suffered agonizing deaths in a way that seems totally to violate their dignity, privacy, etc. The footage of American prisoners being humiliated, teased, etc., clearly violates the Geneva convention. So there are reasons in both instances for not broadcasting the images. I don't think the images I've seen of Iraqi POWs were comparable on either point. But you might disagree, of course, as might any other fair-minded person.

We rarely print photos of dead people. When we do it we think there is a compelling news reason for doing so. We are admittedly squeamish, not because we ourselves are so dainty, but because we know the Post is a guest in the households of all of our readers, and we don't feel we have the right to hurl disgusting or violent images onto our readers breakfast tables. But this is never easy to decide.

Montreal, Quebec, Canada: Did U.S. contingency plans deal with the possibility of protracted urban warfare? And how could such warfare in and around Baghdad be waged without unacceptably high levels of coalition and civilian casualties?

Robert G. Kaiser: We've been writing articles about the dangers of urban warfare in Baghdad for many months. This has been a big issue for military planners, and we don't really know what their final decisions have been about how to handle the dangers involved. But we're going to find out pretty soon, I think.

Washington, D.C.: May I take a moment to point out that, quite likely, we have more D.C. natives fighting than from: Vermont, the Dakotas, Delaware. Sure be nice if we had voting congressman who had a say in all this.

Is the Post ever going to get seriously in front of this issue?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the comment. "The Post" you refer to is, I think, the editorial page, to which I have no connection. But as a reader I know that it has been editorializing for Congressional representation for Washington for the 40 years I've been working here, and long before that.

Burke, Va.: Why is the Post sanitizing this war? The Post has not had pictures of the dead on either side, nor the U.S. POW pictures, nor the POW video. I am getting accurate reporting of images only from the likes of Al-Jazeera, which is scary.

All of these images obviously are horrible and disgusting. But without seeing this terrible truth, how can we as Americans decide whether to support this war or not?

How can the Post call itself a balanced newspaper if it doesn't publish the unvarnished truth, as horrible as it may be? Publish all the facts. Let the readers decide what to do with them and whether to look at them.

Robert G. Kaiser: See my answer above. I can't agree with you that citizens can't imagine the horrors of war without having them hurled at them in the most vivid way in their morning paper. We are not sanitizing the war. Any careful reader of the paper gets a very full picture of it. For my money the Anthony Shadid piece in today's paper that I recommended above is as good a description of the terror of war as any gruesome photograph -- probably better.

San Diego, Calif.: How can anyone reading "...Dark, Dark Tunnel" accept the justifications for this war? Even giving a one- to five-year "window" for "harm to the U.S.," this article would indicate that this war is not the way to obtain "regime change."

Robert G. Kaiser: San Diego is referring to that Anthony Shadid article.

Raleigh, N.C.: I have heard the estimated duration for the war has been doubled, from 21 to 45 days. Have you heard anything about this?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think you're dealing with Urban Myth. I don't know what secret briefings the Pentagon gave Bush about the war's duration, but my many years of experience with the military mentality persuades me that they would never have made a commitment to a three-week war. Most likely they gave a range of time in which they thought the war could be wrapped up.

San Luis Obispo, Calif.: How can this administration say that this war is not about oil and about the totalitarian regime of Saddam when we are currently supporting multiple dictatorships including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others at the same time as attacking Iraq (the world's second largest supplier of oil)? Mind you that 14 out of the Bush's top 25 campaign contributors came from the oil industry.

Robert G. Kaiser: I have to confess I do not understand this line of reasoning. Yes, Bush, Cheney et al are from the oil industry, and they have already proposed policy changes in this country favorable to the oil industry, and they get a lot of political and financial support from the oil industry.

But how does that explain a war against Iraq? What exactly do you perceive is the specific content of "about oil" when you describe this as "a war about oil"? The U.S. has access to the world's oil supplies; it need only pay the going price to get all that it needs. And we do. It will not be practical, let alone politically acceptable, for the U.S. to try to capture and take over Iraq's oil reserves. They will have to be used, I suspect, to finance the country's rebuilding.

So I don't get it. But I know I'll keep hearing from your confreres out there.

Ann Arbor, Mich.: I heard on TV that U.S. officials still think Hussein might be dead, despite the speech aired today. Why would Hussein go to the trouble of taping a speech to be aired in the event of his death? Would he care that much about the survival of his regime after his death? Wouldn't a videotaped speech more likely indicate that he's busy moving around or hiding somewhere not equipped to tape/broadcast a speech?

Robert G. Kaiser: Good questions, and I have no answer. However, it does seem conceivable that he might have made such tapes thinking they'd be used if he was for some reason unable to address his countrymen at a particular moment, and that people around them would decide to use them after he was dead. Is that clear? In other words, his motive for making him doesn't have to be the same as, say, his son's motive for putting them on the air.

Personally I'd bet he is alive. But I've lost a lot of bets in my day.

Eastsound, Wash.: Where is the TV coverage of grateful Iraqis welcoming our troops?

Where are the in-depth interviews with the Shiites and Kurds, if not some Sunnis, who see U.S. forces as liberating them from Saddam's brutality?

Robert G. Kaiser: Too soon for these things, I'd say. But if we haven't seen them by next weekend, we have a problem.

San Antonio, Tex.: All this talk of bringing democracy to Iraq seems to overlook the likelihood that the first open election would bring a more fundamentalist regime than Hussein's. Has Bush addressed this?

Robert G. Kaiser: Not directly, But Youssef Ibrahim addressed it very effectively in a piece in our Sunday Outlook section yesterday. Here's a link to the story: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A8222-2003Mar21.html

washingtonpost.com: Youssef M. Ibrahim: DEMOCRACY: Be Careful What You Wish For (Post, March 23, 2003)

Cary, N.C.: Hello Robert,

It seems to me that the U.S. can now force a surrender of the Iraqis at this stage in this war. We can stop now at the edge of Baghdad, regroup and be poised to strike again if they will not surrender. We the U.S. could win the PR war by seeming humane to Arab and Muslim sensitivities.

We have taken their valuable assets, ports, oil fields and strategic locations. We have great leverage now. I think internally the Iraqi leadership would start to defect and implode by rethinking its options at this point. Additionally, the international community now could put even more pressure on Iraq to surrender its WMD, change regimes and avoid the use of WMD, a humanitarian disaster. We can force the surrender of U.S. POWs. And possibly world opinion. If we invade we will lose world opinion risk huge number of U.S. and UK deaths.

So is a forced surrender the best option?


Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for your comment. It will be interesting to see what we do when our forces are poised to attack Baghdad.

Minnetonka, Minn.: I have seen some very very disturbing photos of dead and injured Iraqi children on the Internet via Reuters and the AP.

The Washington Post Web site has shown some images, including the painful picture of an injured baby crying in her mother's arms, but I am not seeing any of this on television. Except for a few stills on cnn, but very rarely.

What do you think is going on?

washingtonpost.com: CameraWorks: The Day in Photos (washingtonpost.com)

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't know what's going on, and I don't watch enough TV to know if your experience reflects what's been on.

New Orleans, La.: Given the recent escalation of Iraqi resistance, is there concern that this may turn out to be another Vietnam?

Robert G. Kaiser: I feel a little like Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle: I knew Vietnam, and this is no Vietnam.

The Vietnamese communists had huge advantages that Saddam cannot match, beginning with logistical support from the Soviet Union and China. They enjoyed the support of important parts of the population. They had big tactical advantages in jungle warfare. And more.

This war can turn out badly, but it can't turn out THAT badly.

Raleigh, N.C.: I am concerned about the "northern front." It seems to be a weakness in the overall battle strategy. Saddam could reinforce Baghdad from the north. Special operations units would not seem in and of themselves, to be capable of stopping a large scale surge from that direction.

What is your view?

Robert G. Kaiser: I guess the question is, surge of what? What reenforcements does he have in the North? We've written repeatedly that the Republican Guard, his most important force, is deployed in and around Tikrit, his home town, and Baghdad. I don't think there's any Republican Guard in the North.

That said, the U.S. obviously wanted an important northern front. That's why the 4th Division was headed there, via Turkey, until the Turks said no thanks. So we aren't as strong there as Tommy Franks hoped to be.

Houston, Tex.: Thanks for the reference to the Anthony Shadid article. I printed it for my files.

And, thanks for this forum.

Robert G. Kaiser: And thank you.

Annandale, Va.: It seems this concept of waiting to fire till you are fired upon is costing us casualties. I'm surprised we are doing it. I hope it doesn't last. Any comment?

Robert G. Kaiser: It's a departure, as are many of the tactics we are using in this war. Tom Ricks, our senior Pentagon correspondent, had a terrific piece about that this morning. Here's a link: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16458-2003Mar23.html

washingtonpost.com: Ricks: U.S. Losses Expose Risks, Raise Doubts About Strategy (Post, March 24, 2003)

Washington, D.C.: Sorry Bob -- I'm not letting you hide behind "news" v. "editorial." Is there not a "news" story for the hometown paper to point out the irony of, yet again, D.C. residents dying on behalf of democracy for others?

Robert G. Kaiser: Sure, there might be just such a story.

Dallas, Tex.: I understand you do not find arguments that this war is about oil convincing. How about the arguments that at least Richard Perle, if not also Cheney, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld, have ties to corporations and contractors that stand to make a lot of money from this war. While the latter three may no longer be employed directly by these companies, they surely have longstanding professional ties (and currently receive deferred compensation) that I am sure will be available to them as soon as they leave the government.

What about the argument that at least the timing of the "Iraq showdown" was a largely political move as evidenced by the disk found in Lafeyette Park with Karl Rove's election strategy?

Robert G. Kaiser: Don't know what disc you are talking about, but our Dana Millbank wrote nine days ago, I think, about the fact that the timing of the war was driven in part by political/electoral considerations. I believe that to be true. Here's the article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A27903-2003Mar14.html

washingtonpost.com: Millbank: Bush's Political Future Hinges on Quick War (Post, March 15, 2003)

New Orleans, La.: While I pray for the safety of American troops overseas, I must admit that I'm amazed at the resilience and bravery of the Iraqi soldiers fighting American technology with sticks and stones.

Is it possible that underestimated the desire of the Iraqi soldiers to protect their homeland?

Robert G. Kaiser: I'd say the possibility that the U.S. misread the psychology of the Iraqi people is the biggest risk the administration faces at this moment.

Dover, Del.: Why are the media so quick to panic? In the words of George H.W. Bush, "Be patient, look, listen and learn."

Robert G. Kaiser: Good point. I am trying hard not to jump to any conclusions, as I think we all are here at The Post. It really is early days.

Raleigh, N.C.: In the White House press brief today, there was a question about Greenspan making three trips to the White House in the last two days. The response was effectively a no comment. Any idea what is going on?

Robert G. Kaiser: None.

Washington, D.C.: So far, I haven't seen many Iraqis dancing in the streets upon "liberation." Is that to follow?

Robert G. Kaiser: See above. This is a big question. But it is premature to try to answer it, I think.

West Haven, Conn.: Are we losing this war? It seems to be that those POWs who got lost and were taken by the Iraqis were not protected enough and they are so young -- what is going on? And why hasn't Iraqi television been bombed?

Robert G. Kaiser: we are not losing this war. We have seized Iraq's most important resource already, its southern oil fields. We have not met serious opposition yet, though we may have met more than planners wanted to meet at this stage. I tried to answer (feebly) the television question above.

Alexandria, Va.: If there are weapons of mass destruction, are they waiting until our troops get to Iraq before they use them?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think you mean waiting until we get to Baghdad, and I think that is a possibility, but I really have no idea.

Richardson, Tex.: Does is seem to you that people are suprisingly shocked by the loss of American life in battle in the last few days?

Frankly, it is to be expected in a war and is one of the best reasons to oppose it.

Robert G. Kaiser: Can't speak for "people."

Charlottesville, Va.: How in our wildest dreams are we going to govern Iraq without a steady loss of our people from snipers, fedayeen, etc.?

Robert G. Kaiser: Well, it will be tricky. But I don't think it's possible today to foresee the atmosphere a year from now.

Gettysburg, Pa.: Is it illegal under international law for a television network to show POWs? Wouldn't only be illegal for signatory nations to parade them in front of the camera?

Robert G. Kaiser: Countries are covered by the Geneva convention; news organizations are not.

Fanwood, N.J.: If the army were still made up of conscripts rather than all volunteers, might this war have not started?

Robert G. Kaiser: If we still had the draft, I think the entire debate about a war in Iraq (and in Afghanistan) would have taken on a different coloration. There's no greater change than this since the early Vietnam era, in my opinion.

Washington, D.C.: I suspect three factors are operating here to affect one's view of the war: (1) we know less that 25 percent of what's really going on (e.g., the talks with the Iraqi regime about surrender and other things), (2) the need for the cable news media to fill hours with something/anything, and (3) the media's use of retired generals and lesser ranks to explain what's happening. Given the possible truth of this, is it any wonder that confusion reigns as to the success or failure of any strategy. Or is it true that the first casualty of war is the truth.

Robert G. Kaiser: I'm going to use your provocative comment to close out tonight's discussion -- with apologies to those whose questions were not answered. I'm delighted by the popularity of these discussions, and embarrassed that because of it, so many of you will be frustrated that your question didn't get addressed.

I think the first of your three points is the key. I don't know if the percentage is 15% or 50%, but like you, I'm convinced I know no more than half, and probably a lot less, of what I'd like to know about what is going on right now.

Which is why I will read tomorrow's paper with such avid interest.

washingtonpost.com: That ends our discussion for tonight. Tune in tomorrow to Live Online for more on the war in Iraq:

  • The Post's Karl Vick from Northern Iraq, 11 a.m. ET
  • The Post's Richard Leiby from Kuwait, 11 a.m. ET
  • The Post's David S. Broder On Politics and war, noon ET
  • Author Joseph Braude on rebuilding Iraq, 1 p.m. ET
  • Author and Journalist Martin Schram on his book and the PBS documentary "Avoiding Armageddon," 2 p.m. ET

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