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Dana Priest
Dana Priest
"Confronting Iraq": Full Coverage
Book World
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Iraq: The U.S. Military and Its Mission With Dana Priest
Intelligence Reporter, The Washington Post,
Author, "The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace
With America's Military"

Monday, Feb. 10, Noon ET

President Bush on Friday urged the U.N. Security Council to "make up its mind soon" about confronting Iraq, or the U.S. will disarm Saddam Hussein with the help of a coalition of allies. Secretary of State Colin Powell made it clear in his presentation last week that Saddam had not disarmed. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told reporters while en route to Italy that he doesn't believe much time is needed to determine Iraq's willingness to cooperate with weapons inspectors. And the Bush administration on Friday elevated the nationwide terrorist threat index to a "high risk" level, warning that intelligence suggests that attacks by the al Qaeda terrorist network against U.S. targets at home and abroad were a possibility.

What exactly does U.S. intelligence know about threats to homeland security? Washington Post intelligence reporter Dana Priest claims the U.S. has become dangerously dependent on its military to carry out foreign affairs, from diplomacy to humanitarian relief. "When the fighting stops in Iraq, the U.S. military -- 22-year-old infantry soldiers -- will again be given the lead in rebuilding civil society there, a mission that could easily take more than 10 years," says Priest in her new book, "The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace With America's Military."

Priest was online Monday, Feb. 10 at Noon ET, to discuss the current tense world situation and her book account of America's growing dependence on its military.

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.

washingtonpost.com: Vast numbers of military personnel are being sent to the Gulf area in anticipation of a war with Iraq. In your book you make the point of saying that the American military is often left after regime change to do the job the diplomats usually do. Do you see that happening in Iraq?

Dana Priest: Absolutely. It will be either the military or a collection of poorly organized UN and/or non-governmental humanitarian organizations. There is no strong alternative to the military, unfortunately. A couple of weeks ago the president signed a directive giving the Pentagon the lead in post-war Iraq. If President Bush keeps his promise to help stabilize Iraq after the war, the American military is likely to be there for decades. Then again, Bush has reneged on his promise to rebuild Afghanistan ...

Evanston, Ill.: I am most intrigued by what is happening with France and Germany over Iraq. While I hardly support President Bush's foreign policies, I must say his policies have exposed the sheer arrogance of France and Germany, with France making explicit their claim to "speak for Europe." What do you think as we (try to) look beyond the current crisis: will the "new European" countries continue to bow to the U.S. in the hopes of material and diplomatic rewards, or will they see their longer-term interests better represented by seeking more unity with the "old Europe?"

Dana Priest: This is a moving target but right now it appear that France and Germany (and much of the British public, although not its Prime Minister) are deeply angered by the attitude and words of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. It will be hard for them now, after such harsh exchanges, to back down and support the United States -- just as it seems unimaginable that President Bush could change his position. The countries of New Europe, I'd like to point out, want something from the United States -- support for entry into EU, NATO respect, good IMF loan conditions and U.S. weapon sales. So I think New Europe will be with the U.S. for those reasons in the near future.

Perth W.A., Australia:
The USA notoriously possesses the biggest arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, including biological and chemical weapons. Why doesn't the USA give the example to the world and disarm itself?
Thank you.

Dana Priest: We're in the process of destroying -- at huge cost -- our chemical weapons. No weaponized biological agents that I know of, and we've pledged never to use them.

Venice, Calif.: Can you speculate what the occupation of Iraq will be like after the apparently inevitable war?

Dana Priest: Bosnia and Kosovo are better models to look at than Afghanistan. Large U.S. troop concentrations all over the country -- with brigade-level garrisons. Force protection likely to be a tremendous priority, with the possibility of suicide bomber attacks for years into the mission. When force protection is a major concern, the mission of rebuilding gets hampered by orders that troops must move in four-vehicle convoys, can't go out at night, etc. Attitude tends to be a hunker-down mentality rather than the kind of "hearts and minds" outreach that everyone agrees is needed. On the positive side, Iraq has lots of resources and its population is much more educated than in Balkans, so one can envision a vibrant indigenous economy thriving quickly if retaliatory terrorism doesn't turn out to be a huge problem.

Reading Barks, UK: Do you feel that aside from moral support that the rest of Europe and even the UK have much to offer the U.S. given just how far ahead they are in terms of technology if not in training (given that the UK units sent are some of the best in the world)?

Dana Priest: Not much to offer in main combat units, although anything can help. AWACs, fighter jets and support aircraft are always helpful. British SAS (special operations) are often willing to do highly sensitive missions that American forces don't want. But the biggest contribution will be in the post war period, when "peacekeepers" are in demand. The Brits are great at this, given their Northern Ireland experience. The French have been full partners in the Balkans. Standing up a police force will also be necessary and both countries have helped in other places in that regard.

Baltimore, Md.: What is your assessment of Iraq's using biological and chemical weapons during the war. Is the U.S. military prepared to cope with such an attack and what would be the likely response of the U.S. military to such an attack?

Dana Priest: DOD and CIA think it's highly likely that Iraq will use these if Saddam is not killed or captured immediately after the war begins. Reasoning: what does he have to lose? Unlike 1991 war, regime change means he's gone. All soldiers and Marines have been issued chem/bio suits, gone through drills, have atropine (for VX). Having said that, it's very hard and hot to maneuver in the suits and some, inevitably, will leak. Decontamination is a big problem. Look at the unsolved mystery of Gulf War syndrome from last time around, and multiple by a hundred the kind of health risks this poses.

Ruidoso, N. Mex.: Dana -- What are the chances in your opinion of the Iraqi leader ging into exile in some other country once the burner gets cherry red?

Dana Priest: Totally unknown, but intelligence analysts and people from the region say unlikely. Megalomania is a sickness not cured by rationale alternatives. Several government in the region have approached Saddam Hussein with this possibility. So far, nothing. Also, would he really trust pledges that he would not be indicted as a war criminal?

Vienna, Va.: This whole thing is confusing. First Bush says Iraq is not involved with terrorism. Then Bush says they are -- and agressively says that the U.S. is going alone to get them. Then he changes his mind and says we need the UN. Then the U.S. makes a bunch of behind-the-scenes agreements -- all the while he says it is only a matter of weeks not months before we invade. According to the Guardian, the British intelligence report that Powell used to justify the war, is not the best piece of intelligence that has been put together.

Bush says "we gotta liberate the people of Iraq". From everything I've read and seen, they don't want to be liberated. He will say "Britain is with us". This is misleading because their polls show that most of the people in the UK are against war with Iraq.

Now he is calling the President of North Korea names, and North Korea is saying "if you want to pick on somebody, come pick on us" and they are also saying "we can strike pre-emptive too". This is very scary stuff.

Dana Priest: Well, you got that right. Wait until you read the news from Iran today! Seems two of the three axis of evil members (Iran and North Korea) are very forward-leaning in their nuclear aspirations, to put it diplomatically. Yes, we all here sense our government is in over its head ... it's a hard thing to write about, but we're trying. I think of the positioning and rhetoric on Iraq as a two-track process. On one track is the diplomatic talk, behind-the-scenes negotiations meant to avert war and shore up international support. The other track is the bellicose, no-holds-barred rhetoric -- and troops movements -- necessary to scare Saddam Hussein into retreating and to actually launch a military operation if it comes to that.

Chicago, Ill.: What would likely happen in the short run if the North Koreans (not just say but) actually do something really dangerous in order to distract the U.S. in the weeks ahead? For example, what if North Korea attacked South Korea or U.S. military targets say, one day after the U.S. invades Iraq?

Dana Priest: It would create a stress on military operations like we haven't seen in decades (since WWI probably). But we already have a huge military and lots of assets (37,000 troops and an aircraft carrier) already over there. Trouble is, attacking South Korea means huge causalties. An escalation into all-out war would depend on what the first strike from North Korea looked like and how we retaliated. I think this is possible, given the NK regime at the moment and the lack of dialogue between the U.S. and N.K.

Baton Rouge, La.: If war does happen, what is your best guess about how it will go? Even apart from the human cost, it looks like an extremely risky thing. If casualties (U.S. and Iraqi civilian) are low and the thing's over very quickly (a few weeks), things could work out. If not, don't you think things are going to get very nasty very quickly? Especially internationally (e.g., Tony Blair and/or Jose Maria Aznar could easily lose their jobs)?

Dana Priest: Best guess is the actually main fight won't last long ... 2 to 8 weeks maybe. But taking Baghdad and finally disposing of Saddam Hussein, his special Republican Guard and the arsenal of chemical and biological weapons could take much longer and take place in downtown Baghdad. This would be an asymmetrical fight in which the tremendous advances of the U.S. military shrink when faced with house to house combat, awful civilian casualties and chem/bio attacks.

Arlington, Va.: Colin Powell aside, this strikes me as the most undiplomatic White House, perhaps ever. Their complete unwillingness to even talk to the North Koreans is astounding and very dangerous. And it's no wonder that the Erupoeans are angry at the way the administration is following its policy. Why doesn't the White House get it that they need to work with other countries diplomatically instead of trying to bully and cajole everyone into follwoing along?

Dana Priest: They are convinced, it seems, that they don't necessarily need anyone else.

College Park, Md.: Dana, I know there is a concern over North Korea, but from articles that I have seen regarding the trouble over there it seems that China would not want to see a nuclear North Korea. Is it wise to believe that China would prevent this sort of thing from happening?

Dana Priest: You're right. China doesn't want to see a rival nuclear power so close. Having angered the Chinese, though, it will be interesting to see if they will now help Washington with N.K. diplomacy. (Remember, China was this administration's enemy number one coming into office)

Oakton, Va.: Why is the public getting so scared over the situations in both Iraq and North Korea? True ... both have chemical/biological weapons and possibly nuclear. But their nuclear programs (if they exist at all) are minimal at best, and if either country DOES use weapons of mass destruction, this country can simply obliterate BOTH of them in a matter of a few minutes if necessary. These two saber-rattlers ... Saddam and Kim-Jong-Il are waving very small sabers ... Bush, if necessary, can rattle (and USE) a much, MUCH larger one ... one that, as I said, will wipe both countries off the face of the earth in a matter of minutes. So what is there REALLY to be afraid of?

Dana Priest: True. And apparently the U.S. Strategic Command has been given new authority to plan on the use of nuclear weapons against Iraq (see Bill Arkin, Los Angeles Times, a couple of weeks ago). On the other hand, the environmental fallout from nuclear weapons cannot be contained inside the borders of Iraq or N.K. Also, intelligence analysts are quite worried about small nukes making their way here. Not that huge numbers of people would die, but it would cause widespread panic and, they say, change the way most Americans live their lives.

Fairfax, Va.: Dana, you hit the nail on the head ... the Bush administration doesn't NEED anyone else ... and this seems to be something the Europeans just can't get used to. Well, they better GET used to it. If they don't have the sense to join in a campaign to get rid of Saddam once and for all, (Brits excluded), then we and the Brits will do it and leave them looking like a bunch of fools.

Dana Priest: As you can tell by the first half-dozen readers who wrote in, not everyone shares your opinion on who, exactly, looks foolish here.

Fairfax, Va.: What exactly is your book about?

Dana Priest: The growing dependence on U.S. military to do a range of missions they aren't really trained to do. THE MISSION shows you what these missions look like from the inside (I travel with the four four-star regional commanders in chiefs to observe high-level diplomacy; with Army Special Forces to Nigeria, Colombia, Kosovo and Afghanistan to see the type of unconventional tasks they are given, and to Kosovo with one company of 82nd Airborne soldiers to see how they tried to figure out nation-building there and how it worked out). My argument is we've become dependent on the military because we've let other alternatives -- diplomacy, aid, economic and political reform, police training -- wither in the last decade.

Boise, Idaho: Is it possible that North Korea and Iraq are working in tandem -- they seem to alternate causing problems? I remember in WWII there were unlikely allegiances between Germany Italy and Japan. Could the same thing be happening today between N. Korea, Iraq, and perish the thought, Germany and France?

Dana Priest: Could be. We've certainly tried to test this hypothesis, but haven't found anything to support it.

Kansas City, Mo.: "Then again, Bush has reneged on his promise to rebuild Afghanistan ... "

Do you have any evidence to support this allegation or is this your opinion?

Dana Priest: Yes, I've been there. I've talked to lots of people who have traveled there on behalf of USG. Last spring, Bush declared support for a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan. But only a fraction of the money has actually been given out; the main roads haven't even been repaired yet; aid workers won't go outside Kabul because it's so unsafe (and one reason that's so, is because the U.S. military -- and coalition militaries -- aren't stationed outside Kabul. There's no guarantee of security -- precondition number one for anything else to happen.

Salt Lake City, Utah: You wrote: "we've let diplomacy, aid, economic and political reform, police training -- wither in the last decade."

Would you concede that there are some situations where diplomacy cannot work?

Did diplomacy - or force - work best with an evil leader in Kosovo?

Dana Priest: Absolutely. On Kosovo, though, the critique would be that AFTER the war, it's still largely left to the military (U.S. and European troops in this case) to clean up and rebuild.
Also, there was lots of criticism at the time that Clinton was too distracted to really throw himself into the Milosevic problem to avert war. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a great example here too. Diplomatic initiatives come in fits and starts. This administration, like the last, hasn't put enough effort into that either.

Gaithersburg, Md.: Dana, how will a war against Iraq affect the global oil market? Will the supply decrease resulting in astronomical prices for gas? Also, many countries around the world are viewing the Bush administration's determination to wage war against Iraq as arrogant. How will this war affect our standing in the international community? Thanks.

Dana Priest: Significant, short-term spike. But with stabilization of Iraqi oil resources, prices would come back down. Russians worry, however, that prices will actually come down too much (for their liking) if Iraqi oil floods the market.

Herndon, Va.: Ms. Priest: If the U.S. starts having casualties in the hundreds per week, do you think the U.S. public will change its support of the war (Congress should be no problem, hardly any senator or representative has relatives in the military)?

Dana Priest: Certainly the U.S. public has had no experience like that since Vietnam. Since support for the war seems split about 50-50, (with recent spike in favor of administration), large number of casualities might push the naysayers to become more vocal.

Seminole, Fla.: If we go to war with Iraq, (and it appears we are moving headlong in that direction at the whim of George W. Bush), with the likelihood of a protracted stay there, and with public opinion in the U.S. for a war iffy at best, and European sentiment opposed to war why is he risking his political career?

Dana Priest: Because President Bush believes Saddam Hussein's regime poses an imminent threat to the United States, with the main scenario being that he would give chemical and biological poisons to some terrorist or terrorist group that would sneak into the United States and release them here.

Washington, D.C.: Is it now a matter of when rather than will there be ... a war?

Dana Priest: It's not over 'til it's over. Remember 1998 when Clinton sent warplanes and troops over there and then pulled them back? This is different, and it sure feels like it's irrevocable, but it's instructive to remember that the decision is not made until it's made.

Washington, D.C.: If our intelligence correctly identifies problem sites in Iraq -- such as rocket test beds -- why not just blow them up? Why a war? Thank you.

Dana Priest: As much as they are worried about conventional weapons such as rockets, the real worry is chemical and biological weapons which they can't find (remember the mobil laboratories from Powell's briefing). I think they know where some of it is, but not all of it. Besides, their argument is that Saddam Hussein will keep trying to build this capacity as long as he's in power.

Dana Priest: Sorry, but I've got to leave now. Thank you for all the great questions. There are many I was unable to get to. My book, by the way, should be available in most bookstores by now. I'll be talking about it in mid-March (date uncertain) on Brian Lamb's C-Span Booknotes and in a nationwide book tour beginning Feb. 24th.
Hope to chat with you again soon.
Best, Dana

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