War in Iraq: The Military, the Administration and the Press
How is the war going? The Pentagon says the U.S. military operation is on schedule. Field commanders predict a longer conflict than previously thought. The press is one day "shocked and awed," the next stuck in quagmire mode. U.S. troops face stiff resistance, including suicide bombers.
What happens next -- for the military, the Bush administration, and the press? Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer was online to discuss the war on Thursday, April 3. Krauthammer, who won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary in 1987, is syndicated in nearly 100 newspapers nationwide and is a contributor to The New Republic, Time and the Weekly Standard. His column generally appears on Fridays.
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.
Alexandria, Va.: Were you at all bothered by the brittle, defensive performance by Rumsfeld and Myers the other day? OK, they are annoyed by second-guessing (including some from people like Gen. McCaffrey whose expertise matches or exceeds their own). Welcome to democracy. Rumsfeld, who I have grudgingly admired on other occasions, was positively Clintonesque in whining about critics, and flatly denying what seems self-evidently true -- that there was tension with the Army about force size. What's your take on these guys, and that performance?
Charles Krauthammer: Rumsfeld's brittleness perfectly matched the questioner's silliness. There's always tension between civilian and military in war planning. There's always tension between the army-of-the-future folks, who want to be quick and light and fast, and the traditional folks, who want huge land armies for mass. There's nothing new here, and the persistence of the questioners spoke more to their agenda than to the realities of what was happening in the war itself.
New American Century?: Mr. Krauthammer:
Please give me your honest opinion: Do you really think this war is about WMD, liberation, etc. -- or was it planned way back in the early '90s by Kristol, Wolfowitz, Cheney, et al., as part of the Project for a New American Century, and merely the first step in the invasion/occupation of other Arab countries perceived as hostile to U.S. interests? Please do be honest, OK? I PROMISE not to tell the grossly uninformed/trusting/unsuspecting public the truth! Honest!
Charles Krauthammer: You're parroting a lunatic theory that has acquired remarkable traction by simple repetition. Honest. The idea that a small kabal of Jews has hypnotized this country and taken it to war is not just pernicious, but toweringly stupid. It was not a small kabal that committed the United States to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein -- it was the United States Congress, hardly a secretive organization, which in 1998 overwhelmingly passed the legislation mandating the regime change in Iraq. And President Clinton, to my knowledge neither a Jew nor a member of this conspiracy, signed the legislation. These kinds of theories are medieval, and their repetition makes one wonder how much progress we've made in the last, oh, 500 years. Strong letter to follow. Honest.
Richmond, Va.: Can you think of any American politician of either party in the last several decades who has stood so courageously against majority sentiment in his OWN PARTY as Tony Blair has done in Britain? Given that he is risking so much, do you not think the United States owes his opinion some deference on diplomatic questions (that is, rejecting the Krauthammer view to snub the United Nations and unhelpful nations in setting post-war policy)? Can we really jam our best (and only militarily important) friend?
Charles Krauthammer: Your premise is correct. But your conclusion is a non-sequitur. Tony Blair is courageous, honorable and a great ally and friend. That doesn't mean that his judgment on all questions is unerring. After all, it was in deference to him and as a way to both protect and reward him that we went back to the UN at his urging for a second resolution. This was a fool's errand, as you, obviously a faithful reader, remember my having said over and over again. It turned into the worst diplomatic debacle of the last decade. Blair, for his own domestic political reasons, may want us to return to the scene of the crime to get whacked again. I love him as much as you do, but I see no reason why we have to follow very bad advice on this particular issue.
Washington, D.C.: Back in January, you wrote some tough columns about Colin Powell, suggesting his emphasis on diplomacy was naive at best and hinting that, at worst, he was being disloyal to Bush by cooperating with Woodward. What's your take on him now? Powell did finally speak up in the U.N. to say that Iraq's supposed cooperation was a charade. Has the secretary of state permanently lost favor with conservatives?
Charles Krauthammer: I never said he was disloyal for cooperating with Woodward. I was wondering whether his caginess in the early months of the diplomacy was because he was not committed to the president's policy, or simply because he thought the UN was the best place to vindicate that policy. In the end he played the good and loyal soldier and served his president as best he could, even though the diplomacy he pursued at the UN turned out to be disastrous. I give him full credit for honesty, loyalty and a good faith effort to make the UN work on behalf of our policy. I only hope he has learned the lesson of the failures of that policy, and will not reflexively try to persuade the president to follow a similar diplomatic route post-war. Returning to the UN is a recipe for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory (to mix a metaphor).
Rochester, N.Y.: Charles, I am a pro-war, anti-Bush Democrat who honestly is trying to come to terms with what makes this administration tick. I really have trouble believing that a president who is so inarticulate in unscripted settings could really be in genuine command of the issues or his administration's own policies (especially since pretty much by his own admission he's been paying attention to these issues for only a few years at most). That makes me wonder who really is in charge. You support the guy: Are you not at all troubled by how wobbly he seems when you take away the speech text?
Charles Krauthammer: Not at all. I've seen him and talked to him without the speech text, and he's very impressive. The fact that his sentences may not parse as well as Bill Clinton's says nothing about either his intelligence or his capacity for leadership. It is the snobbery of intellectuals to think otherwise. Like most governors, most notably Carter and Clinton, he had very little experience in foreign policy before becoming president. But there's nothing new here, and like all such presidents he's learned very quickly on the job. The way to judge a man's command of foreign policy is to look not at his syntax but as his successes. And since 9/11, he's given this country what most people would have imagined was impossible -- victory in Afghanistan, a total absence of further terrorism on American soil, and now we're close to achieving a goal that for eight years eluded President Clinton, despite his mastery of syntax and phraseology -- the removal of Saddam Hussein.
Bronx, N.Y.: Sir,
In your recent columns in the Washington Post, you seem to have little regard for due process of international law. For example, in your piece on 3/12/03, you advised President Bush to just walk away from the "empty, cynical and mendacious" United Nations because of the diplomatic stalemate in passing another Security Council Resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq.
In justifying this approach in your column last month, you cited the American-led Kosovo war as a "just war" -- one in which the U.S. did not seek U.N. approval for. And yet, in your column published April 12, 1999 in The Washington Post, you publicly condemned President Clinton for engaging in this conflict because of its potential for creating hardship in the region, refugees, and possibly further destabilizing the Balkans. At the time, I agreed with your earlier concerns about the Kosovo war.
However, the fact that you shifted your views on this matter indicates that your views are not based on the principle of international law but rather on politics. Are you concerned that you now seem to flow with the Republican tide and bash Democrats, no matter what the issue?
Charles Krauthammer: Not only are you articulate, but you actually read me rather closely. I'm flattered. I thought the Kosovo war a mistake at the time, and I predicted we'll be stuck there for at least a decade and we will be. But I never implied or said that it was unjust war. There's a huge difference between a war that one considers unnecessary, and a war that one considers unjust. It was perfectly just to expel Serbia from Kosovo. I just thought it was not something the United States should have engaged in, particularly since I suspected that we would have greater threats in the world, greater and more immediate threats to our own security, that would warrant "keeping our powder dry." And then came Sept. 11.
As for international law, I find it very useful on issues like fisheries and endangered species protection. But on matters of war and peace, it is an utter fiction. And the notion of getting the blessing of the butchers of Tiananmen Square or the cynics of Quai d'Orsay are required to give moral legitimacy to American action is so absurd as to require no refutation. QED.
Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Since the NATO-member Turks have been grumbling fence-sitters in the War on Iraq, how should the Kurds be rewarded after the conflict for their most helpful efforts? Shouldn't 20+ million people have the right to self determination, something favored by members of the American right for other ethnic groups? After all, what's wrong with a little principle-driven consistency in our foreign policy? Thanks much.
Charles Krauthammer: It is one of the great injustices of the last century that just about everybody was given their own state -- most recently the promise of a state for the Palestinians -- but the Kurds, who have every claim of culture, territory, language and history to their own state, have been denied one. It was a mistake that dates back to the Versailles Treaty. But unfortunately, some things cannot be fixed. It would simply be too destabilizing to create a Kurdish state. But what we can do is the next best thing: strong and unwavering American support for a Kurdish republic within Iraq, but within a democratic and federal Iraq.
Arlington, Va.: Going into Iraq, Bush has promised to maintain its territorial integrity. Is this realistic?
Charles Krauthammer: I think so. As long as we keep the Turks from swooping in to occupy the oilfields of Kirkuk and Mosul, we should be OK from the point of view of external actors. It is possible the country might fracture from the inside. But I think that with a determined effort to create a reasonably representative government in Iraq with lots of autonomy to the Shiite south and Kurdish north, we have an excellent chance of keeping Iraq together -- and establishing a decent political system.
Culpepper, Va.: As a veteran, I think the smartest thing the Pentagon has done in a long time is to embed these reporters with military units. I remember last year actually hearing a reporter question a senior military leader as to whether or not it would be a good idea, in advance of a special operations raid, to alert Afghan civilians who had al Qaeda irregulars living in their village that they (the civilians) were in danger and should leave prior to the raid! Wow. Some parent out there must have cringed at the thought of the $80K in tuition they had paid out for four years at an Ivy League school. Hopefully, they might now get a better ROI once these kids see the real world. Now, if we could just send a few young Congressional staffers over there, too.
Charles Krauthammer: Good idea. I think embedding journalists with the military is an idea of political genius on the part of Torie Clarke and the Pentagon. First of all, it helps validate the Pentagon's claim to transparency and honesty, since there's no way you can control dozens and dozens of live on-air broadcasts. And second, it builds an astonishing level of goodwill for the military that will long outlast this war. There is no way that either a journalist or a viewer can come to know these remarkable and brave young people and not come to feel extraordinary admiration and even affection for them. This should help in many ways to breach what had been an ever-widening cultural divide between the military and civilian cultures in the country, and may turn out to be one of the most and yet unintended side effects of this war.
Washington, D.C.: How do you justify American kids dying in Iraq for Israel's interest? It's time we kick Jews out of our political process. Their brash behavior and illegal conducts have been a liability for true Americans.
Charles Krauthammer: You are beneath contempt. Next question.
Herndon, Va.: Mr. K: I always enjoy reading your lucid columns, even when we're in total disagreement Would you agree that "managing the peace" in Iraq will be far more difficult than managing the war?
Charles Krauthammer: I hate to be disagreeable, but no. This war is very difficult, and it's being won through a combination of brilliance and courage. Winning the peace will be difficult, but we won't be coming out of a desert 300 miles to the south to do it. Once we have liberated Iraq, we'll have every opportunity to make a success of the transition period. It'll require some wisdom and some courage -- like making sure that we keep the French and the other UNers out -- but nothing like what our soldiers are showing us today.
Washington, D.C. -- War Coverage 24/7: Do you think there is such a thing as too much war info? Maybe I am unique, but I find myself caring less and less about the whole thing every day. Not because I am heartless or unpatriotic (what the heck does that mean anyway), but because I am constantly bombarded with war coverage, war messages, war info etc that I find myself running the other way. Kinda like "war burnout." The same thing happened after 9/11. After two weeks of constant images, I found myself tossing the papers and watching I Love Lucy reruns, old game shows and even "The Love Boat" on cable. Are others feeling this way, too?
Charles Krauthammer: No need to feel guilty about this, sir, said he donning his psychiatric hat. The reason I think many of us feel this is not lack of interest, but the fact that in every day, there's only eight minutes' worth of news in 24 hours of coverage, which means that the rest of the time is mostly hand-holding and thumbsucking, though I confess to be engaged in some of that myself. And the endless repetition of a few facts that come out every day. My advice: tune in three times a day for 10 minutes, at eight-hour intervals, take two aspirin, call me in the morning. That'll be $50, please. (I take Blue Cross.)
Washington, D.C.: "As I said at the time," "which turned out to be true," etc., etc.
OK, you believe you are right most of the time. In the interests of humility and full disclosure, can you tell us what you regard as your biggest misjudgment in years of punditry?
Charles Krauthammer: Doubting myself.
My father always thought that my worst mistake was leaving medicine to do this for a living. He considered it a classic example of downward mobility.
But to answer your question, I'm working on the humility bit, and will get back to you as soon as I can come up with an example.
Sterling, Va.: After the war is won, and the rebuilding begins, do you think some of the challenges of rebuilding Iraq have been overblown? Many critics of the administration point to terrorism in Iraq being one of the major roadblocks to a free and peaceful Iraq. However, do these critics realize that Iraq has been a secular state for the better part of 70 years? Much like Turkey, Iraq is a Muslim country void of Imam and Mullah infestation into the government. Doesn't this secular history give Iraq a better chance to rebuild quickly?
Charles Krauthammer: I think you're right. Iraq has fantastic resources, both human and material: a highly educated middle class and the second-largest oil reserves on the planet. Unlike Afghanistan, it can largely finance its own reconstruction. And unlike Afghanistan, its educated and sophisticated population can manage its own societal and political reconstitution, so long as we remain long enough to keep the place secure and to encourage compromise and tolerance in a political system that has known nothing but dictatorship and cult of personality for three decades.
Rockville, Md.: The battle in Iraq has become very similar to reality TV, so much so that even the president doesn't have the stomach to was the gore of seeing American corpses stacked in a makeshift morgue. Unfortunately, when a President refuses to visualize reality and maintains war as a sanitized war simulation, he fails to know the pain and suffering that it inflicts upon the innocents. One does not see misery or smell death in the Kennebunkport compound.
My question is: In your opinion, does it matter if we have a Commander-in-Chief who ducked the draft and never knew the hardships that our fighting men and women are experiencing today? Is it important to appreciate the human dimension of this engagement? Or, would such knowledge engage a president to make decisions based on the wrong issues?
I appreciate your thoughts.
Charles Krauthammer: Neither of our greatest war presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, served in the military as soldiers. As for President Bush's alleged insensitivity, he is, as we speak, meeting with the parents of servicemen who have died in this war. There are not a lot of political leaders in the world, or war leaders for that matter, who would do that so early and in the midst of a conflict. I also never heard that there was anything either illegitimate or unreal about President Clinton ordering a war against Serbia, given the fact that he didn't serve in the military either. So I find this line of argument to be highly partisan, in addition to being ahistorical.
Boston, Mass.: Mr. Krauthammer,
It seemed like the expectations for this war were set early on by the administration -- specifically Rumsfeld and Cheney -- on the Sunday morning talk shows, that this would be a very quick war. Should they have been more honest with the American people about the possible length of the war, and how long we will be there afterwards?
Charles Krauthammer: I direct you to my column of tomorrow, which addresses this question directly. Look for it online at around midnight.
The short answer is that the administration did not raise expectations, but it did allow unrealistically high expectations to go unchallenged. And for good reason. These were reasons of psychological warfare. It made great sense to give the impression to the generals around Saddam Hussein to believe that we could defeat them instantly and almost immaculately. The hope was that in planting that idea with them, they might either flee or defect early in the war, and spare us actual combat. That was always a Hail Mary long shot, and it didn't materialize. But given the possible benefits, it was worth a shot.
Somewhere, USA: France guaranteed we'd beat the Brits in the War of Independence. World War I started in 1914. We entered the war in 1917. World War II started in 1939. France was conquered by the Nazis in mid-1940. We entered the war in late 1941, after being directly attacked. Are U.S. politicians being a bit sanctimonious in blasting France for not agreeing with our war in Iraq (as though they were in outright support of Iraq, like Jordan -- now our "friend" -- did in the last war)?
Charles Krauthammer: Well, it would have been one thing if France had just opposed the war or voted against it. Nobody would have faulted them for that. But they went way beyond that to not just obstructing us, but trying to undermine our efforts in a way that in the end made the war more likely. That's not how allies act. And France has now made itself a non-ally of the United States. As for our past and France's past, I would urge you to take a tour of the beaches of Normandy in deciding who owes whom what. We have three times in one century saved France -- twice from Germany, once from the Soviet Union. France's behavior reminds me of the immortal statement of Prince Schwertenberg of Austria, who, after the Russians helped him put down the Hungarian rebellion, and then asked about his support for Russia in return, stated, "We will astonish them with our ingratitude." Except that when it comes to the French, one is never astonished.
Baton Rouge, La.: The war seems to be going about as well as one could expect (if less well than some had hoped). The U.S. has been very careful to minimize civilian casualties. Even so, there have been many pictures of dead Iraqis, grieving families, and bombed-out buildings. At this point I don't think we can win the battle for hearts and minds (in Europe or the Middle East). The only way we could have done so is if the most wildly optimistic scenario (no civilian deaths, flowers thrown before U.S. tanks, etc.) had come to pass.
I feel sure you disagree with my analysis. But could you elaborate on why you feel it's wrong?
Charles Krauthammer: Actually, I think you're exactly right. That kind of miraculous victory, which might had occurred had we totally obliterated the Iraqi leadership on the first night of the war, might have led to a quick shift of public opinion around the world. Nonetheless, we can win the war for public opinion. And we'll win it not by going groveling back to the UN, or going, chapeau in had, to the French, but by making a success of the reconstruction of Iraq and showing the world the utter sincerity of our desire to improve the lives of Iraqis and to give them a decent form of government.
New York, N.Y.: To add a dash of Cassandra to your Pollyannish view of post-Saddam Iraq (and a possible future answer to the question that stumped you earlier), what if the regime falls but the Iraqi forces keep fighting in the cities on a semi-autonomous basis even without a clear command and control system. Wouldn't that be a pretty bad scenario? Is it totally unrealistic, do you think?
Charles Krauthammer: It would be a bad scenario, and I think it's quite unrealistic. It's very hard to find examples of totalitarian states where that happens after the leadership is destroyed. I'm thinking of Nazi Germany, post-Mussolini Italy, Imperial Japan. It is possible that some Ba'athist fanatics will fight on, but these would not be insurgents. They would be counter-insurgents. Meaning that they are people who don't represent the people they live among; they are people who repress the people they live among. They wouldn't last long. The one nightmare scenario is that the Sunnis, who are a minority of the population, and who have ruled and repressed the Iraqi population for the last three decades, might conclude that they are facing a future in which they are persecuted at worst or powerless at best. That might incline them to resist whatever new form of government is created. The answer would be to try to create a truly pluralistic system that would guarantee the Sunnis a place and therefore a stake in the new Iraq.
Amherst, Mass.: I live in an area of knee-jerk liberals, a college town, where most people are avidly antiwar, and lack common sense. Any suggestions for how to deal with this kind of environment?
Charles Krauthammer: Buy an SUV, get an extra tank of gas, and come down here to the war capital. You'll be warmly received.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.