Confronting Iraq: Considering the Options
With David Halberstam
Journalist and Author
Tuesday, March 4, 2003; 10 a.m. ET
To whom is President Bush listening? His administration is pushing forward on what appears to be an inevitable path to war with Iraq, and antiwar sentiment has gained large and vocal momentum -- not only from protesters in city streets worldwide, but also from former military commanders. Are these dissenting voices playing a role in the Bush administration's plans?
Among those sounding warnings are Gen. Wesley Clark, former supreme allied commander of NATO; Air Force Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush; and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command during the Persian Gulf War. Secretary of State Colin Powell, also a general during the Persian Gulf War and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Bush and Clinton administrations, was one of a few voices of the current Bush administration who urged stronger reliance on diplomacy and weapons inspections. Is the White House listening to voices urging caution?
Journalist and author David Halberstam was online to talk about the contingent of advisers and commentators urging caution in the face of war and the landscape of conflict with Iraq on Tuesday, March 4.
The transcript follows.
Halberstam's book, "War In a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals" (Scribner, 2001), looks at post-Cold War foreign policy and influence on the decisions of the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration and was a runner up for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of "The Best & the Brightest," a chronicle of the men who planned and executed American policy in Vietnam. Halberstam is also the author of "The Powers That Be"; "The Children"; "October 1964"; and "The Fifties."
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washingtonpost.com: Good morning, Mr. Halberstam, and thanks for joining us. Let's talk about what's at stake politically and diplomatically in this confrontation with Iraq. What is President Bush risking in this "showdown"? Why shouldn't the U.S. go in and push regime change and destroying any weapons of mass destruction that Iraq has?
David Halberstam: I think it's not so much a question of what President Bush is risking as it is the long-range proper and wiser course for the United States. I think we're talking time frames here. The U.S. military is awfully, awfully good, and I have very little doubt that they can carry out their military orders quite efficiently. The question really is the politics in the country and most particularly, in the region over a longer frame of time.
washingtonpost.com: Has there been enough debate about Iraq up to this point, and has it been satisfactory?
David Halberstam: I think it's been a very disappointing debate, unlike the debate that preceded Desert Storm. And I think the debate has been poorly framed. I don't blame the administration and its allies for the way they've framed their case, which is to sort of imply that anybody who does not go along with military action is some kind of wimp and pacifist. But I do blame some of the Democratic leaders in the Congress and the more senior Democratic NSC people for not framing a tough-minded alternative. That is, that you can believe, as the advocates of immediate force believe, that Saddam is in fact evil and a threat, but that the time frame should be different, that the long-range undertow in the region that comes from unilateral or quasi-unilateral American action will be in the long run more damaging than sustaining a policy of containment but slowly closing off escape hatches for Saddam, and doing it, one hopes, with more allies and more support in the region. My fear is not that we can't do it militarily; my fear is that we are about to punch our fist into the largest hornet's nest in the world, and do some of bin Laden's recruiting for him.
Washington, D.C.: What should we take from the fact that so many former government and military people seem to be against going to war with Iraq?
David Halberstam: I think that it's interesting that so many senior military people -- and in this instance I would claim Colin Powell as a partial fellow traveler, because the doubts he was expressing earlier in the debate seemed very similar to my own reservations. And certainly there are a lot of doubts on the part of a number of quite superior military people -- Tony Zinni, Schwarzkopf and Joe Hoar, among others. I suspect they are uneasy, not of the use of our military strength, but of the long-range political consequences, and they are uneasy about the idea of American troops, primarily Christian, in occupation duty in an Islamic country being knicked away. And some of that, I presume, comes from having served in different parts of the underdeveloped world. And some of it comes, as it does with me, from time in Vietnam.
I realize that there is a danger in comparing Vietnam and Iraq -- that a great deal of it is apples and oranges. But I also believe that there are parallels, and that one of the parallels is that your military strength does not translate readily, especially in the region, into political strength. In Vietnam, for example, we had absolute military superiority as the battle of the IaDrang Valley showed. We were with our great technological superiority never going to lose a large set piece battle. But the other side had absolute political superiority, and it always had the capacity to keep recruiting.
Let me jump, because we're talking politically, to a photo that sticks in my mind. It's a dramatic one, taken on the last day of the fighting in Gulf War I. It shows the entire Iraqi army, like a giant snake in the sand, in line to surrender. If you're in a Western country, you look at that photo and you're filled with joy, because it shows that the victory has been swift, with only marginal casualties. But if you're a young, partially radicalized Muslim in the region, the photo is like a dagger in your heart -- another humiliation vested on your people, and therefore an incentive to join up with more radical elements.
washingtonpost.com: Is it ironic that in this case, the military seems more dovish than the politicians?
David Halberstam: I think that anybody who is an on-the-ground witness to Vietnam, a witness to the limits of American power, limits set by indigenous forces, ends up being tempered in his judgments, and wary of using military force when it might end up creating a long-term hostile overtow. I saw that in Vietnam, and so did many of our more senior military. Even on the decision-making on Vietnam, it was the civilians who were more gung-ho about what it was going to take and whether it could be done than the army. The senior army people were never jingoistic about that war. They accepted it, and they had an inflated sense in the beginning of what they could do, and they almost deliberately underestimated the resilience of the other side. But the driving force was the civilians who were moving on it for domestic political reasons -- they were afraid to lose Saigon and Vietnam to the Communists, because they were afraid if they did, Lyndon Johnson would lose his Great Society.
Washington, D.C.: How would you compare the brain trust that got the United States mired in Vietnam, "the Best and the Brightest" of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, with their counterparts in the current government? Have the lessons of Vietnam been absorbed, or have they already been forgotten?
David Halberstam: I think it's difficult to compare brain power from one administration to another 40 years ago, especially since the seemingly sterling quality of the Kennedy people, who were so intellectually dazzling, did not do us a lot of good. My favorite quote in the book is when Lyndon Johnson comes back from his first meeting with the Kennedy people, and he's completely dazzled by how brilliant they all are, and he starts telling his mentor, Sam Rayburn, the speaker of the House, how smart each one is. And Sam said, "Well, Lyndon, everything you say may be true, but I'd feel a whole lot better if one of them had ever run for sheriff just once."
On the Bush team, if I'm bothered, it's not about brain power. I'm bothered by the fact that this seems to be driven -- and each person is different -- by some degree of ideology or post-Cold War triumphalism. What bothers me is that during the entire Cold War, we had some great figures, like George Kennon, to give us a long historical view of what was happening. And thus put a great deal of wisdom into the process. I'm bothered by the inability to find a regional Kennon at this moment on this issue.
Brookline, Mass.: Mr. Halberstam, thank you for doing this.
I have become convinced that the only thing that would slow the president's rush to war would be if Tony Blair were to waver. Without at least one permanent Security Council member on his side, I think Bush would suddenly feel the isolation.
Short of that, I think we are going to war whether I like it or not.
Another thing that I think has been missing from the public debate: We already are and have been at war with Iraq, in one way or another, continuously since 1991. So it's not really a question of war or no war so much as it is a question of degree.
Do you agree?
David Halberstam: The last part is interestingly said, because I suppose in some ways we've been at a serious tension point, and a kind of Cold War with them. But without enough focus to make our policy successful, we've been at a high tension point, but rather ineffectively.
Tony Blair's position seems to be very interesting. I think he decided very early on to align himself with the president, and to do it in the only way you could do it and make England influential was to do it in public terms without reservation. That gave him in private, I believe, some degree of leverage, i.e., I'm your best friend on the block. And I believe he and Powell were successful in slowing it down earlier on and getting the UN resolution. What I believe Blair's game has been was not merely to amplify Britain's influence, but to try and serve as a bridge between the United States and Western Europe. But clearly, that has not worked out.
Laurel, Md.: The war opposition movement often neglects to discuss the cost of doing nothing, implying that it is zero.
In your view, how is the long-term likelihood of terrorist strikes against Americans affected by invading Iraq, replacing Hussein, and eliminating all his WMD? (The short-term likelihood obviously increases the risk of terrorism.)
David Halberstam: I think this is as difficult a choice as I can remember us facing in terms of foreign policy. There is really no preferred solution. The chickens have been coming home to roost for quite a while, and the atomic bomb club has been quietly growing. And this is a new era. In the old days, you had to be powerful to be a threat to us. Now, the relatively weak, or completely disenfranchised, like the terrorists, can be a threat. That's why it seems to me the choice is a hard one between immediate military action with what I perceive to be grave long-range consequences in the region, or somewhat more preferable, a tough-minded containment with very high scrutiny while trying to reassemble on a different clock some degree of alliance so this will not be a unilateral or a quasi-unilateral action. I am made extremely nervous by some of the consequences. The pressure on Pakistan, our most important ally in the struggle against terrorism, but a fragile society, will be unbearable. I am uneasy about the impact of this throughout the Islamic world. We don't know, if we do this, when the shooting will stop. Will some countries use it to attack Israel? Will the Israelis respond? We don't know.
The quotation that stays with me the most right now, from doing "The Best and the Brightest," is a quotation that George Ball used in one of his dove papers in 1964 or 1965. Ball was the number two man in the State Department, and he had been a lawyer in France during the French-Indochina War, which went from 1946 to 1954, and he had a considerable wariness about whether our troops would end up being effective in Vietnam's rice paddies. And he led his dove papers with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Events are in the saddle and ride mankind." I interpret that to mean that powerful men, filled with their own vision and their own certitude, take fateful steps only to find that other powerful men take countersteps, and that the simplicity of action on the part of the initiator is quickly lost or shattered.
Fairfield, Conn.: Do you equate Saddam's threat to the U.S. or our allies with Hitler's threat to Europe as many are claiming? It seems to me there is no comparison. Saddam has fought Iran and Kuwait, but what indication is there that he wants to control the Middle East? It seems Bush wants to control the Middle East and Central Asia.
David Halberstam: I think of him as a serious, serious threat, and the categorizing him as evil is legitimate. He's used weapons of mass destruction on his own people and on opposing forces. There seems no limit to his desire to escalate his weapon capacity. It's more a regional threat than anything else, but I would take it as a very serious regional threat. The move on the Kuwaiti oil more than a decade earlier, could have changed the balance in terms of the world's energy sources, especially because he could have used that to lever the Saudis that much more.
We ought to be aware that one of the reasons he is a threat because of the access to oil is that over a very long period of time, we have done very little in terms of our own conservation of energy. And as such, we play into that game and funnel vast amounts of money into a fragile and often hostile region. Our own lack of discipline is very much a factor here.
Arlington, Va.: In the Sunday (March 2) Washington Post, a front-page article by Thomas Ricks said that the main focus of Special Operations forces "will be denying Iraqi forces access to certain chemical and biological weapons sites that cannot be bombed for fear of setting up toxic plumes, according to people familiar with their missions and training."
If Ricks and his sources are correct, that leads to the inescapable conclusion that we already know where these WMD sites are -- you can only be sure you won't bomb them if you know where not to bomb.
It also makes me to wonder why we haven't given that info to the UN inspectors so the WMD can be safely destroyed before any bombs start dropping. Could it be that the administration would rather invade Iraq and then "discover" these sites, allowing them to say "we told you so" rather than allowing peaceful destruction of WMD?
washingtonpost.com: Story: War Plan for Iraq Largely in Place (Post, March 2, 2003)
David Halberstam: Tom Ricks is a very good reporter, with very very good sources, so I would take any story by him seriously. I think one of the problems of the entire inspection process was not that we had better intelligence than we were showing, but that we did not entirely trust the UN inspection teams and we felt there was a real possibility of them tipping the Iraqis off. So it was a bastardized process from the start.
I think it's a result of a complete lack of trust of Saddam -- a quite legitimate trust over a period of time, and a wariness that sharing this information will have any positive outcome.
Richmond, Va.: As a Democrat, I have noted that Richard Holbrooke, who seems to me by far the party's most impressive voice on foreign affairs, is in favor of a robust military threat in Iraq even as he agrees Bush has botched the diplomacy. Presumably you must know Holbrooke from your Vietnam and Clinton-era reporting. Have you discussed Iraq with him? Since you are a skeptic on an Iraq war, where do you think Holbrooke's analysis is flawed?
David Halberstam: Well I haven't talked about Iraq with him. I do believe he is as able a national security adviser as the Democrats have produced. And I've known him for 40 years -- literally -- since we were young men in Vietnam. He did have an op-ed piece recently in The Washington Post where he faulted the original Bush team in Gulf War I for not going all the way to Baghdad at the time. And he was immediately attacked by Jim Baker, the former Bush secretary of state. As bright as Dick Holbrooke is, I didn't find the op-ed piece particularly helpful to me.
Arlington, Va.: Mr. Halberstam,
In her column yesterday, Maureen Dowd described a coterie of holdover Bush, Sr. officials -- Rumsfeld, Libby, Wolfowitz, Cheney, Perle -- as being the driving force in the administration for the invasion of Iraq and proscribing an agenda of gradual U.S.-led domination of the Mideast, with Israel's security and position in the region as substantially enhanced. Ironically, Bush, Sr. did not buy into this agenda when this group proposed it in the early '90s, but Bush, Jr. apparently is now. What do you believe this group really wants? And would agree with Ms. Dowd's assessment that there is a certain opportunism at work here to capitalize on the events of 9/11 and a greater terrorist threat?
washingtonpost.com: Maureen Dowd's column: Bush Ex Machina (New York Times, March 3, 2003)
David Halberstam: Well, I think events like 9/11 give any sitting president far greater leverage and a far greater political mandate than he had before. One of my reasons for being so cautionary on this is that I do believe that the assault upon the al Qaeda and on terrorism is our premier responsibility, that it puts a lot on the plate and that it ought to be the first order of business. I don't believe the administration has yet made the successful linking of al Qaeda with Saddam, although obviously the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and that will in some ways work against us.
The Bush Sr. people -- Powell, Scowcroft and others, have seemed warier about moving against Iraq than their lineal successors, although gradually they have come around. It seems to me that the people in power now are in different ways somewhat more ideological on this question than those who went before them, and almost from the start, an assault upon Saddam has become something of a mantra within the administration, fairly systematically snuffing out the dissent on the part of people who in Bush I seemed to be somewhat more influential with their reservations. It would seem to me that one of the critical decisions in Desert Storm was the decision not to go all the way to Baghdad, not to do occupation duty in Iraq, and not therefore to tear that alliance apart. This administration doesn't have much in the way of alliances, and thus doesn't have the restraints on it that its predecessor did. They seem ready to go into Baghdad from minute one, and there is a huge political difference here. In one case, we destroy an army that has invaded a neighboring Islamic country. And in the other, we are, no matter what is the legitimacy of what we are doing, and there's no doubt that it has significant geo-political legitimacy, we are doing something that will be seen in much of the region that will be seen as a neo-colonial attack.
New York, N.Y.: Pardon my skepticism, Mr. Halberstam. I respect you as a journalist, but I feel this question must be asked: What qualifies you to speak on who is thinking what in this administration? Are you speaking to members of it for an article or book?
David Halberstam: I don't profess to be an insider on what they're thinking -- I don't know any more than any other reporter who's watching from a distance. I did write about them and their predecessors in "War in a Time of Peace," and I don't profess to be an expert on the Middle East. But I have been a commentator on foreign policy issues for some 30 years, and the Post asked me to do this interview because we are at a fateful moment, not unlike that moment in 1965 when we were facing the decision to cross the rubicon in Vietnam. So what I bring to it is my own sense of having been a reporter and a foreign correspondent on and off for 40 years, being a historian, and having spent some time in the underdeveloped world. I come with a voice -- I think it should be obvious -- that is cautionary, but I bring no certitudes. I think it's a very hard choice. I don't think either choice is easy, because the equation of danger has changed.
David Halberstam: Even as I answer this, I wish there were some compelling voice with a great knowledge of the region, like George Kennon and his knowledge of Russia, so that we could all get a badly needed injection of whys -- expertise into the debate.
Atherton, Calif.: What specifically do you believe the U.S. should do now? If your answer includes achieving consensus among the UN Security Council, what compromises should we be willing to make? What if those compromises are not enough to achieve consensus?
David Halberstam: I think we started this particular process with a war-is-a-first-option policy. Colin Powell and Tony Blair slowed it down significantly, but we're back to it. Friends of mine who I greatly admire believe now that we have to go ahead, that our credibility is on the line now. I guess I don't agree. When you are as powerful as we are, and our military strength is without any challenge in the world, we can always slow down the process because our credibility is in our strength, and the immediacy and the high-precision way we can use it. It would seem to me that this is an ideal time to go back with old allies and give one last chance to see if there is a new timetable and a new degree of verification that we can all agree on, and in which they are participants as well. We have so much power that it strikes me that it's well worth the try -- even as we, in the meantime, greatly upgrade our scrutiny of Saddam -- constantly ratcheting it up and making him pay in this period for any significant violations.
Carson City, Ariz.: I've read that you and Sen. McCain share some admiration for one another. What is your opinion of his hawkish position?
For the record, I admire you both greatly but I don't share McCain's views about this war but I believe McCain's opinions are based on his personal conviction -- not party loyalty.
David Halberstam: You can admire someone you don't agree with. I admire him greatly. I think he's been a terrific voice. He wrote the introduction to the new "The Best and the Brightest," and I appreciate that. I haven't talked to him about this, so I don't know how wide the gap would be between us. There are all kinds of people whom I admire who would take a more hawkish view. My view is from the sum total of my experience, and that has been deeply touched by Vietnam. And John McCain in my view has been a wonderful public figure.
washingtonpost.com: There was a Pew poll last year that talked about the difference between how Americans see themselves in the world and how the world sees America -- particularly in the Islamic world. You mentioned the photo of the surrendering Iraqi army -- what are some other examples?
David Halberstam: Take the debate over using Turkey as a staging area. The price, the last time I heard, was around $26 billion. Now imagine that you're a young, somewhat radicalized Muslim protester who already feels that much of the grief in his world comes not because the indigenous regimes are incompetent, narrow and futile, but because the real source of injustice there is the policies of the United States of America. I happen to disagree with the view that we are the problem there. I believe the indigenous regimes are the problem. But something like this renting Turkey for $26 billion is going to tend to confirm the resentments on the part of this protester, and probably radicalize him further.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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