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War in Iraq: Racing to Baghdad
With Thomas W. Lippman
Washington Post Staff Writer

Thursday, April 3, 2003; 1 p.m. ET

U.S. troops this week faced some of the most intense resistance yet as they move closer to Baghdad and engage the Iraqi Republican Guard. Troops, tense after suicide attacks at checkpoints, shot a family of Iraqi civilians. A representative of Saddam Hussein's regime read a statement from him on Iraqi television.

What's the overall landscape of this war, and how does it affect American interests and perceptions of America in the Muslim world? The Washington Post's Thomas W. Lippman was online to talk about the war on Thursday, April 3, at 1 p.m. ET.

A reporter, editor and foreign correspondent for The Washington Post for more than 30 years, Lippman specializes in U.S. foreign policy and Middle Eastern affairs. He served as Middle East bureau chief in Cairo during the mid-1970s and was diplomatic and national security correspondent from 1993-99. An adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute, Lippman is working on a book about the American experience in Saudi Arabia. He is the author of "Understanding Islam," "Egypt After Nasser," and "Madeleine Albright and the New American Diplomacy."

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.

washingtonpost.com: Good afternoon, Tom, and thanks for joining us. Can you start by telling us how you work from Washington every day -- how do reports come in from Post reporters in the field, how are wires incorporated, and how do you and the Post editors decide what goes in stories?

Thomas W. Lippman: I come in to the Post's newsroom at 7 a.m., when the daily Centcom military briefing begins. With that, the inputs begin to flow, and material comes in throughout the day. I have access to Associated Press and Reuters wire reports, and there is a television on my desk where I can watch the reports of CNN, MSNBC and BBC reporters. BBC, which I also monitor on the internet, is often especially valuable because it covers the British military activities in great detail and also gives a different perspective. Washington Post correspondents send in messages and brief accounts of what they are seeing, and I incorporate those into the overall story except when they tell me the material is embargoed for reasons of military security -- for example, a report will say, this attack is going to happen, but not till after dark, so don't use for four hours. We always honor those requests.
Also, I have some of my own sources that I use occasionally, such as material sent to me by e-mail from various experts here in Washington.
My job is to determine, from all these inputs, the theme of the day, and then choose the material that helps our readers understand the progress of the war in a single coherent narrative. I hope sometimes I succeed.

Washington, D.C.: You've written about Islam and covered the Muslim world. It's clear from all I've seen on TV and heard on talk radio that Americans in general don't have a good grasp of the Arab world or Islam at all. Do they have a better understanding of us than we do of them?

Thomas W. Lippman: Yes and no. Many Arabs learn English, study or work in the United States and have relatives here. In many Arab countries, the shopping malls and restaurants are just like ours -- even the same stores, such as Ralph Lauren or Burger King. But in my experience, they do not really understand the American democratic system, and they cannot fathom a society in which public decisions are not made on the basis of religion.

Long Beach, Calif.: I consider the House of Saud to be a major problem for the U.S. I also feel that we don't need an air base there in order to keep the Saudis from being invaded. Why should we stay there when that is a big irritant to Muslims? How can we fight terrorism without fighting against our weakest positions in regards to the Islamic world?

Thomas W. Lippman: Once the war with Iraq is over, it's probably time to get out of that air base. As you suggest, it's more trouble than it's worth.

Houston, Tex.: Do you believe that the Bush Administration will ever make a serious attempt to hold countries responsible for the 9/11 attacks (I wanted to make sure I loaded this question properly) by holding Saudi Arabia responsible for the al Qaeda terrorists from S.A. who carried it out?

Thomas W. Lippman: It is by no means clear that "Saudi Arabia" -- that is, the government of Saudi Arbia and the House of Saud -- is in fact responsible for those terrorist. al Qaeda's first target is the rulers of Saudi Arabia.

Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Do you speak Arabic? If so, why did you decide to concentrate on that language and how long ago was that? Was it difficult? Can one really understand the Islamic mind/culture without a grounding in the language? And why aren't you over there now covering one of the most important events in Mesopotamian history? Thanks much.

Thomas W. Lippman: Arabic is very difficult. I studied it for quite some time and learned to read, but my command of the language was never good enough to work in it professionally. that is, I could converse casually about the weather, give instructions to taxi drivers and even follow the news on the radio sometimes, but I was never able to conduct an interview in the language. For journalists, many of the people who are to be interviewed, such as political leaders and academics, speak English or French anyway, but a good command of Arabic would be a huge asset. I'm not over there now because the Post didn't ask me to go, and anyway I'm too old.

Houston, Tex.: Do you find our troops our demoralized by reports of antiwar protesters or that they take it in stride as part of their job?

Thomas W. Lippman: To the extent that they are aware of this or pay attention, I don't think it bothers them. By all accounts, morale is sky high.

Washington, D.C.: Nice to see your byline again, Mr. Lippman. In your experience, how realistic is President Bush's goal of transforming the Middle East?

Thomas W. Lippman: I wish I could be optimistic. Given the history of the region since the Suez war of '56, I'm not.

San Francisco, Calif.: Do you think the current administration has underestimated the political difficulties involved in seizing and holding Iraq?

What will stop dedicated nationalist and anti-invader militia from harassing and attacking any occupying force even after and if Saddam is toppled?

Thomas W. Lippman: Very good questions. In my judgment, the administration did not much underestimate the difficulty of taking the country, although there were some nasty surprises, as we all saw. The difficulty of holding it, running and rebuilding it has, in my view, been greatly underestimated, as evidenced by the fact that Colin Powell only today was in Europe asking the NATO allies for help. They should have had all those ducks in row by now.
As for the possibility of guerrilla or militia harassment after Saddam is toppled, I think it could happen but it may well not. the Iraqis used to have a pretty advanced, developed country before the Baathists took over and they might choose the path of reconstruction rather than futile resistance. One thing to keep an eye on is: do the Iraqi people believe that this is an attack on Islam? If so, we could be in for a long grind. On the other hand, if a guerrilla movement does develop, none of Iraq's neighbors (except possibly Syria) will support it, so I don't know how much staying power it would have.

Long Beach, Calif.: Colin Powell announced today that the U.S. will be in charge of Iraq, not the UN. Is this legal? What are the chances of a boycott of this government by Arab states?

Thomas W. Lippman: There have been stories in the Washington Post (yesterday) and the New York Times (today) about this issue. You can look them up on their web sites. It is not clear that it would be legal for the United States to set itself up as an occupying power and run the country. Expect huge arguments involving the US, Britain, the UN and the EU about this, to say nothing of the Arabs.

Akron, Ohio: I just wonder how many more of these incidents involving civilians we have not heard about. It appears that formal reports or briefings skim over or don't mention these things at all. This is my biggest concern.

Thomas W. Lippman: Having watched many wars since Vietnam and Cambodia, I'd say this: there are probably more civilian casualties than we know about but many fewer than we would expect. The U.S. military's claims to hit only the targets they want to hit have a certain credibility with me because I have been to Belgrade, which we bombed extensively in the Kosovo war of 1999. The buildings that formed part of Milosevic's security apparatus were taken out; the rest were unscathed, even right next door. the exception was the Chinese embassy, but that was an intelligence failure, not a bombing error. On the ground, I think the allied troops are exhibiting remarkable discipline.

Hampton, Va.: The Iraqi foreign minister denies coalition troops are anywhere near Baghdad. Is this simply the propaganda war or is it possible Iraqi field commanders are afraid to submit accurate status reports to their HQ?

Thomas W. Lippman: Probably both. For years Iraqi cadres have told saddam Hussein only what they think he wants to hear.

Austin, Tex.: I have heard that to "win" this war we need to win the propaganda war as well as militarily, please comment.

Thomas W. Lippman: This is not Vietnam. If the objective of this war is to get rid of Saddam Hussein and his government, it doesn't matter whether the Iraqi people think we're well intentioned or not. after the war, this will matter a lot. Do the Iraqis work with us, do we help them help themselves? Or does Baghdad become Belfast? that's where we need to be persuasive.

Washington, D.C.: Where are all those WMDs?

Why isn't anyone asking?

Thomas W. Lippman: It's not true that no one is asking. Someone asks at every briefing, and this newspaper has one of its best reporters working on this full time. This is a crucial question. I think it's best to reserve judgment until the Special republican Guard has been dismantled and U.s.troops have access to its arsenals.

Gullsgate, Minn.: What is your opinion on the "embedded journalist," beyond the fact that it creates a cameo of perception rather than a total picture -- which leads then, to the question of the reporter in the the field or whatever media position: How objective can one be if the premise of the 'news posturing' is predicated by political mandates; be it in the field or by networks or print media qualifying news to suit the investors? And trivia question: are you the son of Walter L. Just curious?

Thomas W. Lippman: Walter had two -ns. I am not related.
On the embedded journalists, this will be the subject of a really terrific book or two a year from now. I can assure you that those folks you see on camera from the major networks, and the Post journalists whose stories you read every day do not "qualify the news to suit the investors." Disabuse yourself of that notion. Except maybe at Fox, there are no "political mandates."
Personally, I'm fascinated by this entire experiment. when I was covering the war in Vietnam, I wandered the country, sometimes with the military but often not, and I could be out of touch for days at a time. Here we're seeing things as they happen. You are right that each scene is a cameo; that's built into the situation. My concern is that the embedded reports sometime distort the true picture because certain things get covered disproportionate. If a reporter and camera encounter a firefight, you might get six minutes of air time, even if it's a trivial incident in the war as a whole.

Dallas, Tex.: Clearly, we are seeing images on TV that show a large portion of people in the Arab States denouncing the United States; however, the United States media seems to be grasping for images of the Iraqi people showing elation about our arrival in Iraq. What do you think is the overall feeling of the people of Iraq about the American presence there and about our efforts to oust Saddam?

Thomas W. Lippman: Too early to tell. There are many emotions at play: fear of Saddam Hussein and his cadres, nationalist resentment of any invader,historic memories of the Crusades. when the regime has been dismantled once and for all and people are free to speak their minds -- and they're no longer thirsty -- we'll find out what they think.

Washington, D.C.: How worried is the Bush administration that the Turks and the Kurds will begin fighting, creating a tremendous obstacle in the war on Iraq?

Thomas W. Lippman: Very. that's why Colin Powell went to Turkey the other day. The concern is not so much the current war as the possibility that the Kurds would seek independence afterward, which the Turks would oppose -- perhaps by force. that would make it very difficult to maintain stability in Iraq.

Austin, Tex.: The conflict between the West and Muslim world seems so profound that it's hard to imagine that it won't take decades to resolve it. There are all sorts of things that will have to happen first: economic development in the Muslim world, a move toward more representative government (if not actual western-style democracy), decreased U.S. dependence on oil so we will have greater freedom of action, some resolution to the Palestinian situation. Most of this is a long way off.

Two questions:
1. Is the above a reasonable summary of the state of affairs?
2. Even though this isn't your area of expertise, do you think we're going to be able to patch things up with Europe pretty quickly, or are we looking at decades there, too?

Thomas W. Lippman: Well, this is Prof. Sam Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" view. We could run an entire college seminar on this subject. If you go back and read George Antonius's classic book The Arab Awakening,you will see that arab Nationalism and the interplay of western ideas are not necessarily incompatible. But in my opinion, as long as Mr. and Mrs. Ordinary Arab see Israelis pushing around Palestinians on TV every day, this current gap will only get worse. As for U.s. dependence on Middle East oil, there is no prospect whatever that this will decrease. On the contrary.

New Brunswick, N.J.: About WMD, Joseph Wilson in the chat earlier this morning made the point that it actually mattered squat whether WMD were found or not. I agree. U.S. public opinion will mostly be satisfied with an administration statement that, well, they must have hidden them or smuggled them out, and anyway we were successful in preventing them from getting any more. World public opinion would probably say that any found were planted. Do you really think at this point that U.S. public opinion would change if no WMD were found?

washingtonpost.com: Joseph Wilson, (Live Online, April 3)

Thomas W. Lippman: I probably agree with Joe Wilson that it would make little political difference in the United States. Internationally, however, it could make a big difference. If the US were able to show that Iraq clearly possessed this banned weapons, it might go a long way to reducing European and even Arab anger over the invasion.

Rockville, Md.: This is not Vietnam? How do you know? It's a little early to make this kind of statements. I thought you were a journalist not a political analyst.

If this situation in which the Coaliton forces don't seem to control more than sand dunes and abandoned positions of the Iraqi forces, we could well be in a standoff at best or a quagmire at worst. I would appreciate it if you tried to remain objective and not to favor the official line.

Thomas W. Lippman: Having been to both countries, I feel quite confident in saying Iraq is not Vietnam. That is a geographic statement, not a political one. The terrain, the people, the history, the religion and the neighbors are all different.

Nashville, Tenn.: Why haven't the embedded reporters broadcast images of the carnage left from destroying the Medina division of the Republican Guard.

The idea set forth by Central Command was to show Iraqi leadership that their cause was hopeless and convince them to give up, saving future American casualties.

Thomas W. Lippman: I don't know the answer to this intriguing question. It may be that they haven't had access yet. It may also be that there wasn't that much "carnage" if, as some officers have suggested, many of the Iraqis gave up and fled back into Baghdad,rather than waiting to be killed.

Ljungby, Sweden: Do you believe that Egypt's President Mubarak is correct when he stated that this war will create 100 Osama bin Ladens?

Thomas W. Lippman: No. I think they're already out there, and would have targeted us whether this war happened or not.

Baltimore, Md.: We've seen radically different descriptions of the war from U.S. media and the Iraqi press conferences (shown on CSPAN). While obviously the latter can be discounted, what assurance do we have that the U.S. broadcasters are telling us the full story? How much is their broadcast being influenced by the U.S. military and political figures in order to garner support for the war?

Thomas W. Lippman: The answer to your second question is, not at all. The media have no political agenda.Of course journalists are influenced by what they hear, but it's not their purpose to "garner support for the war." As for your first question, nobody would claim to be telling "the full story." at this point there is no "full story." we have, for example, no clue as to what is happening in western Iraq, except that some U.s. units are moving around out there. The broadcasters, like the print reporters, do their best to acquire and relay to you as much information as they can. You have to use your common sense and good judgment to assess how they're doing.

Germantown, Md.: Why does the "Arab street" not see and rebel against the brutality of Hussein and his henchmen? How can they accept that it is proper for Hussein forces to use civilians as human shields? It is clear to us in the U.S., but why won't the Arab TV reports make it clear that it is Hussein and his soldiers that are causing the death of civilians for over 90 percent of the cases. I cannot believe that rationale people would readily accept such lies and must conclude that the majority of the "Arab world" is not rationale.

Thomas W. Lippman: Not to be flippant, but I tend to agree with the colleague who observed recently that the "Arab Street" is the Loch Ness Monster of the Middle east -- fearsome, but imaginary. Have you ever tried to rebel against a regime that would take you and your children away in a minute, so you'd never be heard from again?

Crestwood, N.Y.: It has been fascinating to compare American and British accounts of this war on the Web. Even British mainstream publications like the London Times don't shrink from putting unpleasant pictures or bad news on the front page, like the story about the American pilot -- called a "cowboy" by irate British soldiers -- who carelessly -- or worse -- shot and killed several British soldiers this week, making two passes, if you can believe it. This story caused considerable outrage in Britain, and of course I haven't seen it anywhere in the American press, big surprise. By comparison, except for disasters that absolutely can't be ignored or covered up, like the checkpoint shooting of all those children this week, the American media are basically happy news all the time, and strategy and tactics, seasoned with totally unimportant distractions like the Geraldo foolishness. Now we'll probably get a week of Al Sharpton as a further sideshow.

What are the pressures on the big media outlets in this country to stress the positive? Is it fear of being boycotted, or is it basically the commercial motive, in that millions of happy enthusiasts of the war will more readily consume the "product": positive war news? Or something else?

Thomas W. Lippman: There are no "pressures on the big media outlets to stress the positive." Have you forgotten that just a week ago, the media were besieging the Pentagon and White House with questions about quagmire, miscalculation and bad planning?
I agree completely about the British press coverage; if you look at my answers to the first question, I check the BBC TV channel and web site every day. Also, you'll find that Arab News, the most prominent English language paper in Saudi Arabia,reprints a lot of material from the Times of London and Guardian, apparently because it tells arabs what they want to hear. You can check it online at Arabnews.com

Arlington, Va.: Have any reports of the successful distribution of food and humanitarian aid in Iraq from coalition forces been broadcast across major Arab media networks? And what's the likelihood of this as time goes on and aid distributions increase? Thank you!

Thomas W. Lippman: Not that I'm aware of. the Post's reporter in Cairo is reporting generally negative coverage throughout the Arab world. I don't know what will happen after the war.

Rockville, Md.: What is your opinion of publications such as the New York and Los Angeles Times, which have gone so far as to distort photos to vindicate their positions on this conflict?

Thomas W. Lippman: I have no idea what you're talking about. What are "their positions on this conflict?"

Germany: What are the chances of a conflict with Syria? Are the Iranians allies or enemies?

Thomas W. Lippman: I'm not much concerned about a conflict with Syria. If we won't take on North Korea, I don't think we're going to take on Syria. As for the Iranians, we could spend a year on that question. The short answer is, neither. they are staying out of our way in Iraq; that's the most we could hope for.

Laurel, Md.: My opinion on the Turks' reluctance to allow our ground forces to stage from Turkey is that it is obviously bad for the war phase, yet GOOD for the occupational phase because the U.S. then "owes" them less, and can placate the Kurds all the better. Do you agree?

Thomas W. Lippman: Yes, I think I do. But the Kurdish question won't be settled easily either way.

Mitchellville, Md.: I just returned from Spain, where regular television reporting featured report after report of the effects of the U.S. attack -- image after image of bloody, dead, disfigured, disabled or severely injured civilians, including so many hurt, scared and confused children. It was almost "refreshing" to see factual, no-spin data even as it sorrowed and enraged me to see the atrocities we are committing. Is the U.S. media just not getting access to civilian areas or are they trying to "protect us" from the truth about blood, gore and suffering? The coverage here has been so antiseptic, it's downright fraudulent.

Thomas W. Lippman: I don't know how to respond to this. Without trying to defend or justify any particular action, I'd say you should be cautious about forming your views on the basis of initial reports on TV screens. There are strong indications, for example, that the first missile that crashed into a civilian area of Baghdad last week was an Iraqi missile that misfired and crashed back to earth. You can argue that the missile would never have been fired if we hadn't started the war, but in any case this is a very complicated situation. So far, I haven't encountered much evidence of U.S. "atrocities."

Somerset, N.J.: Two related questions: After Sept. 11 we heard quite a number of reports that Muslim moderates were ready to challenge (and were challenging, in the form of letters to newspapers, television investigations, etc.) the grip of Islamic extremists over so many facets of education and social relations in the Muslim world. What has happened to those tentative endeavors in the wake of the Iraq invasion?

Internationally, we learned in the wake of Sept. 11 that unprecedented levels of cooperation were yielding good results in suppression of international terrorism. Has the invasion of Iraq affected that cooperation?

Thomas W. Lippman: On the first question,it varies from country to country and in any case is in very early stages. On the second, it's much too soon to draw any conclusions. Some of those efforts will fail for reasons that have nothing to do with Iraq.

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