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Joseph C. Wilson
Joseph C. Wilson
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War in Iraq:

With Joseph C. Wilson
Former Acting Ambassador to Iraq

Thursday, April 3, 2003; 11 a.m. ET

The battle for Baghdad got underway Wednesday as U.S. troops advanced on the southern suburbs of the city both on the ground and in the air, breaking up Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard, his best-trained and best-equipped troops. Combined with significant maneuvers by the 3rd Infantry Division in Karbala against the Iraqi Medina Division, the moves are a prelude to a takeover of the capital and the government of Saddam Hussein.

Joseph C. Wilson was Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 1988 to 1991. During "Desert Shield" he was acting ambassador and was responsbile for the freeing of several hundred American hostages. He was the last official American to meet with Saddam Hussein before "Desert Storm."

Wilson was online Thursday, April 3 at 11 a.m. ET, to discuss the consequences of a conquest of Iraq and what it would mean to the broader regional and global interests of the U.S.

A 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.

Joseph C. Wilson: I am delighted to be with you this morning. There is no issue that is more important to a society than sending the flower of its youth off to war. The best way we can support our troops is to ensure that when we send them off it is a decision we make as a society and not the whim of an individual or an administration unquestioned. I was pleased to be part of that debate. Now the issues we face are even more complex. Making war will seem relatively easy compared to making the peace. We will all need to put our shoulders to the wheel in that endeavor.

Boston, Mass.: Mr. Wilson

Thank you for taking our questions. What happens if we do not find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

Joseph C. Wilson: Whether we find them or not is now immaterial. The liberation is now the rationale. If we don't find them, discussion about them will cease and we will focus on the other reasons the administration has articulated. If we do find them, world public opinion will only change on the margins.

Honolulu, Hawaii: This whole thing looks like a coup d'etat. The post war plans by Wolfewitz as seen on 60 Minutes II (4/2) and a NY Times article (4/3) are very disturbing. Is this legal? Saddam can win this war if he makes it impossible to find any WMD. If none are found, what then?

Joseph C. Wilson: Not a coup d'etat but there is reason for others to suspect that our motives are not as pure as some would have us believe. This is not a war of liberation, though we will need to make sure the peace truly does liberate Iraq from the tyranny.
The President received all the authority he needed from Congress in October after a Congressional debate best described as desultory.

Washington, D.C.: I am baffled by the vitriolic comments by U.S. politicians and others against France. France hasn't sided with Iraq; they disagreed with the U.S. on the use of force in this case (as we often disagree with France). I am especially puzzled by comments of France not appreciating our help to them in the world wars. World War I started in 1914. German troops almost took Paris. The U.S. didn't get involved until 1917, when we felt sufficiently threatened. Ditto in World War II, which started in 1939 (with France occupied by the Nazis in mid-1940, and the U.S. entering the war in late 1941, only after attacked). We didn't jump into either war to save France and certainly stayed on the sidelines for quite a while. Plus, France guaranteed our independence in the 18th century. Do our politicians and commentators just not know history?

Joseph C. Wilson: I agree with your concerns. Patriotism too quickly gives way to jingoism. As for me, I still favor my Hermes ties and camembert! Seriously, we will want to avoid self isolation after this.

Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Is it going to be a U.S. Viceroy, a U.S. vetted Iraqi citizen, the U.N. High Commission of the Hapless, Big-time Leader to be Named Later -- who rules Iraq during the immediate postwar period? Where's the money going to come from to maintain this mandate? Will Iraq experience partition like India/Pakistan leading to nationhood for the unalloyed -- Kurds, Sunni, Shia]? Who's going to conduct the Nuremburg Showtime Trial once the bandits have been rounded up? Since our government is silent on these issues, who really is drawing up the big plan for: The New and Improved Iraq -- Grand Opening Soon! Thanks much. Signed ... Vietnam-Era Veteran and Cynic.

Joseph C. Wilson: We are going to want to internationalize the effort in my judgment if we ever hope to succeed and we will need a broad and deep Iraqi investment in the process. I think that we will want to return as many of the Iraqi ministries back to Iraqis as quickly as possible but how quickly that will be is anybody's guess. I too am somewhat cynical. There is a tendency to wear rose tinted glasses, to think and act too simplistically and to overstay our welcome, all bad signs going in to an occupation.

washingtonpost.com: Mr. Ambassador, thank you for being online with us today. You were the last official American to meet with Saddam Hussein back in before Desert Storm. From what you observed then does that give you any indication of what he might be up to now if, in fact, he's still alive?

Joseph C. Wilson: I think he is preparing to go underground to fight a guerrilla campaign, assuming he is still alive. The regime has avoided doing anything that would make its return to power out of the question. For example, no destruction of oil fields or infrastructure or use of WMD. If our presence is seen as an occupation rather than a liberation it is entirely possible that Saddam thinks he can rebound after the disillusion of the population with the U S presence. He would not be the first politician to stage a comeback.

Jonesboro, Ga.: Listening to the war briefings and the 'expert' opinions of all the folks on TV and the news, it seems that victory is a foregone conclusion to the coalition forces. That is, it is just a matter of time(days, weeks) before we over-run and take over Baghdad. That said, I am beginnig to think that the major test for us lies ahead - the re-building of Iraq. Now, from all reports it seems as if the US has an ad-hoc administration waiting in the wings to assume the control and running of the country in the interim. However, there is a growing cry from the international community, including Britain to cede this control to the UN. If, as we did in this war, decide to go it alone, do you forsee a disastrous chain of events for us, the so-called Arab world and the world at large. If so, why? If not, what would ameliorate such a disaster?

Joseph C. Wilson: I agree. The war will not truly be over until we have changed the minds of the region in a way that is in our interest. We need quick victories to point to. Things like an overabundance of humanitarian aid. When there is demand for four trucks of aid as there was the other day in Safwan, we need to send six trucks and not just one as we did, leading to a riot. We also need to get broad acceptance in Iraq for what we want to do and that means we cannot impose solutions of people on the process. Finally, we should make a dramatic gesture to the other issue that preoccupies Arabs, the Middle East peace process. That is the thorn in the side of the region that needs to be pulled before true progress on other issues can occur.

Arlington, Va.: What's going to happen after the war? How will Iraq be run? How long will the allied presence be in the country?

Joseph C. Wilson: We will run the country for awhile and return it to Iraq piece by piece. Think of the occupation in terms of ten years. And then only in the most positive conditions. If there is resistance it will test our political will.

Vienna, Va.: What was Saddam Hussein like?

Joseph C. Wilson: Cold, ruthless, sociopathic but a rational political actor. His invasion of Kuwait was not a miscalculation but a high risk gamble. As a high risk gambler, he does miscalculate but he is a canny survivor ... and utterly ruthless.

Adelphi, Md.: What will U.S. and British relations be with France and Germany after the war, assuming Saddam Hussein is overtaken?

Joseph C. Wilson: We will want to rebuild the institutional relationships but so long as the current presidents/prime ministers are in place the personal relations will be zilch.

Virginia: Is Saudi Arabia next?

Joseph C. Wilson: The neocons talk about Iran and Syria as the next targets. That said pressure will continue to build on the Saudis to undertake fundamental reform.

New York, N.Y.: Do you think the Bush administration has already made some decisions about which other countries in the region it might confront militarily after Iraq? Isn't it difficult to access the impact of the conquest of Iraq without knowing if Iraq is an isolated instance, or part of a larger policy to take on regimes in the region viewed as hostile to U.S. interests?

Joseph C. Wilson: I think that there will be a pause in the military use of power and an effort to use this demonstration of force as an example of what can happen if you cross us. While the policy is to eradicate support for terrorism, there will be an effort to do that in the neighborhood without having to militarily overthrow the other regimes. Terrorist support is the key to what we do and where we go.

Arlington, Va.: How has the war in Iraq affected our Arab allies' willingness to work with us in the war on terrorism? It seems to me earlier efforts of Iran and Saudi Arabia have gone unrecognized by the current administration, even to the point where Iran has been hinted at being "next" on the administration's list of countries to take over. Are we making more enemies than we need to be, or should be?

Joseph C. Wilson: Badly. We can expect less cooperation on terrorism, less interest in doing business with us, investing in the U.S. economy and in buying our products. We have greatly offended the entire Muslim world with this war and with every day that images of Baghdad on fire and Iraqi civilian casualties is another day of humiliation for the region. Humiliated populations are not friendly populations.

Bethesda, Md.: I don't understand. In the first answer you say the rational is liberation so WMD do not matter. While I couldn't disagree more, in the second answer you say this isn't a war of liberation. Does this make sense?

Joseph C. Wilson: The administration has offered a menu of reasons for the war. WMD was one of them. The answer was to the question of whether finding WMD would make a difference in how the war is perceived. And the answer is no. Here in the U.S. we have bought off on the other reasons so for us it does not matter. Overseas, they think there are any number of other reasons behind what we are doing so again if we find WMD it won't change their position as to why we are doing what we are.
The issue is really transfer of WMD to terrorist groups which had never occurred before in Saddam's regime but now that he is toast don't be surprised if as his last act of defiance he does precisely that.
As to liberation, we will see a year from now if the Iraqis feel they are liberated. That will help determine victory in this conflict

Washington, D.C.: Mr. Ambassador,

It seems to me that the Iraqis and most of the world preceived the 'coaliton forces' as an occupation army. For it truly to qualify as liberation, there should be Iraqis actively fighting or assisting the US/UK forces -- which has not happened. It is obvious to any informed observer (getting information from multiple sources) that this is going to be a quagmire not unlike Vietnam, and with the rising temperatures in Iraq much more difficult war to win. Any comments?

Joseph C. Wilson: In fact they shut down the training program for Iraqi forces when fewer than 100 signed up.
It will be different from Vietnam in that there will not be an active war once we mop up but rather an active resistance that will emerge. Assymetric warfare on their turf.

Arlington, Va.: If liberation is the administration's current rationale for invading Iraq, how do we address the matter of a double standard? Iraq is (was) surely not the world's only non-democratic regime.

Joseph C. Wilson: Good question. Better is how do we square liberation with our own military doctrine developed over years about the appropriate use of our military. It is generally accepted that we use our armed forces to defend ourselves and not liberate others

New York, N.Y.: If Saddam is actually no more, who would actually be surrendering to us? How will we know, in other words, that the war is essentially over and the peace has begun?

Joseph C. Wilson: We will not know until we disengage completely. As to surrender, if Saddam dies the Iraqis will come up with somebody to hand over the sword. Even if he doesn't, if he can disappear possibly some general will surrender while Saddam tries to mount a guerrilla campaign. He is getting a bit long in the tooth to play Che Guevara but he is a survivor.

Arlington, Va.: You say that Saddam will go underground to stage a comeback, which is a very interesting and likely theory, but the one I had previously held was that he might align himself with more radical forces to exact revenge against the United States with unconventional means where he could not succeed with conventional ones. Osama has denounced Saddam has an infidel, but do you think they might band together to fight a common enemy?

Joseph C. Wilson: I would not be surprised that the dreaded transfer of WMD might have occurred if Saddam thinks he is toast or that they might make common cause. It might be real tough though given that both are on the run. More likely would be a nationlistic campaign led by the rump of the Baath party.

Maryland: Your read, please, on all the braggadoccio coming out of the Iraqi leadership, i.e., the Americans are going to get a taste of their own blood, etc. Is this something cultural, i.e., they are not people given to understatement, or will the battle for Baghdad be truly bloody?

Joseph C. Wilson: Part of it is bravado (we hear the same in some of our briefings); some is wishful thinking and part is to set the stage for resistance to the occupation.

New York, N.Y.: I'm concerned about the symbolism of placing someone like Gen. Garner, an avid supporter of Ariel Sharon's style of "peacekeeping," in command over the peace in Iraq. Is the U.S. about to get entangled in an intifadah of its own?

Joseph C. Wilson: The fact that Garner signed a letter and went on a trip sponsored by Jinsa is troubling to Arabs and does not help his credibility. A good friend of mine who is a security expert said last night at a meeting exactly that. Watch out for intifadah type activities

Arlington, Va.: Once the war is over and (hopefully) we begin our efforts to rebuild Iraq, there will be a lot of $$ in oil-funded reconstruction contracts in each town and city.

Why would the emergent powerbrokers in, say, Najaf, want to participate in this democracy stuff? By subverting it, isn't it easier to steer contracts toward your cousins' companies, etc.?

A rational Iraqi city mayor could conclude, "Why on earth agree to be voted out of office? Too much money at stake. It's better to drive out the occupying Americans through a steady parade of bombs and sniping against U.S. troops. Once they leave, my family can enjoy our oil revenues without all this inconvenient democracy stuff."

Joseph C. Wilson: In twenty years of doing democratization, one thing is clear power is actively sought and those who seek it will do what they need to to get and keep it. No surprise there. That is why it will be important to get broad buy in so that we don't become captive to our favorites at the expense of the broader population and leadership.

Mayaguez, P.R.: In the light of the recent international impression that the United States is an aggressor to the Arab nations, how can we now capitalize to change this belief, and move to be a respected and accepted ally in the region?

Joseph C. Wilson: Rebuild the bridge to the Arab world by reinvigorationg the Middle East peace process.

Washington, D.C.: Thanks so much for your educational comments during this chat. I have a slightly different question than those that have been posed thus far: Do you have any advice for young people starting out in the field of international policy, and specifically the Middle East? How did you get started in your career and what is the best way to get involved in educating our country and affecting its policies. Thanks!

Joseph C. Wilson: Take the Foreign Service exam (my son just passed). Go to work on a Congressional staff. Look at NGOs and international organizations. Peace Corps is a great opportunity. Look at think tanks or international business

Arlington, Va.: You say terrorist support is the key to what we do and where we go, but is that support of terrorism against the U.S. or terrorism against Israel? One theme I have seen occur in Iraq from the administration is the blurring of lines between the two, presumably in an attempt to justify using force to confront the latter.

Joseph C. Wilson: You are right on that. And it is not lost on Arabs who suspect we are fighting Israel's battle against supporters of Palestinian resistance, which they do not see as terrorism.

Fairfax, Va.: If Iraq did not support Palestinian suicide bombers, do you think we would be in a war to overthrow Saddam?

Joseph C. Wilson: Saddam's support of Palestinian suicide bombers was not a reason to go to war, just an excuse. The reason for the President, I think was concern that Saddam might transfer WMD to terrorists gunning for us. I think he got bad advice.

Fairfax, Va.: (At the risk of sounding anti-Semitic, which I don't intend), if Saddam didn't support Palestinian suicide bombers, do you think we'd be in a war to liberate Iraq?

Joseph C. Wilson: The literature is clear. His closest advisers have argued for years that the way to peace in the Middle East is to crush the Palestinian resistance and its supporters. I profoundly disagree with that analysis, but it is not anti-semitic or semitic. It is secular and tied to the Likud party

Logan Circle, Washington, D.C.: Shouldn't I be offended that 1/3 of France answered in a poll that they hoped Saddam would win? Shouldn't I be upset that France continued to sell Iraq weapons and parts only one week before hostilities were to commence? And shouldn't I be ticked off that France, by saying that they'd never authorize force, pretty much screwed the U.S. over and hung us out to dry?

I really don't see what's wrong with being slightly upset with France's choices during this ordeal.

Joseph C. Wilson: It is easy to be ticked off at France, but not terribly useful. The weapons charges will have to be verified, as the same charges against the Chinese and the Russians. I am ticked off about that because the integrity of sanctions regimes depend on the cohesion of the UNSC. Not to have that leads to other solutions like war, which is a blunt instrument to say the least.

London, UK: The liberation of the Iraqi people was not the cause or the reason of this war? Who said the Iraqi people want to have the U.S. liberate them?

Joseph C. Wilson: Agree. But we are where we are so we need to make the best of it.

New York, N.Y.: Ambassador Wilson,

Suppose Saddam is gone, and all the splits in the Baathist leadership that had been unexpressed while he was in power suddenly become expressed. Essentially, you would have the beginnings of a civil war, wouldn't you? Add to this the long-simmering tension between the Sunni and Shia populations, not to mention the rival Kurdish factions ... Aren't these the ingredients for anarchy? How is the U.S. going to impose order on a country that could very well be about to explode in intergroup rivalries, possibly fed by regional powers with an interest in seeing one group succeed over another?

Joseph C. Wilson: All those are great points. They are what we should be worrying about in the occupation phase. In the worst of my nightmares, all those factions will unite against us, drive us out and then do the civil war in their internicine fight for power.

Outside the Beltway: While he's been on the run in his own country for years, do you see Saddam dealing well with life underground -- away from the palaces and bunkers and minus the entourage? Tough to picture him hanging out in caves like OBL?

Joseph C. Wilson: I agree, but not impossible. As you point out he has already been on the run within his country. It will depend on how willing he is to give up his entourage and his fresh fish and live on the land. I think it is unlikey he will pull it off but I don't doubt that he will try.

Washington D.C.: Recent news reports have stated that Iraqis are fearful of revolting against Saddam Hussein after they did so during the Gulf War at the U.S. request and the U.S. did not help them. Why did the U.S. fail to protect Iraqi during these rebellions?

Joseph C. Wilson: The UN mandate was to remove Saddam from Kuwait. There was no authority or will to become embroiled in an Iraqi civil war, for good reason.
Perhaps the President should not have encouraged the Iraqis to revolt.

Alexandria, Va.: In response to the reader who said s/he wasn't trying to be anti-semitic, you said that "his advisors" have argued for years that the way to peace in the Middle East is to crush the Palestinian resistance, etc. ... Whose advisors and can you elaborate on the history of this argument? It's not something I've heard of before, but then I imagine we don't hear to much about the arguments that go on in our government behind the scenes.

Also, could you tell us a little bit about your company JC Wilson International? Thank you.

Joseph C. Wilson: We do political risk assessment for companies wanting to do business in Africa Europe and the Middle East.
As to advisers: Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Bill Kristol et al. Perle's study group produced a report for Bibi Netnayahu in the mid 90s called "A Clean Break, A New Strategy for the realm." Read also the Project for a "New American Century."
Michael Ledeen from the American Enterprise Institue is another leading figure. He is Mr. Total War. Go to Iran after this.

Manassas, Va.: Ambassador Wilson, you need to formally renounce your citizenship now. Your comments aid and abet the enemy, and are what we would expect from someone in the FRENCH government. If you like Saddam so much, then go move to France where you belong.

Joseph C. Wilson: No thanks.


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

© 2003 The Washington Post Company