How Close Are We to War?
With Michael Vickers
Director of Strategic Studies,
Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments
Friday, Feb. 7, 2003; 1 p.m. ET
Secretary of State Colin Powell told the U.N. Security Council Wednesday that Iraq has squandered its last opportunity to disarm peacefully and that the council was approaching the day when it will have to fulfill its obligation to take action against Iraq. Powell said that an "accumulation of facts and disturbing patterns of behavior" constitute proof that Iraq is in violation of its disarmament obligation. And now 61 percent of Americans say the U.S. has presented enough evidence to justify going to war, according to a washingtonpost.com-ABC News poll.
"Powell's presentation of evidence at the U.N. is another step in the move toward war. Unless things change we will likely be at war in a month or a month and a half," said Michael Vickers in an interview with washingtonpost.com. Vickers is a frequent writer and presenter on future warfare and transformation strategy. His areas of expertise are military strategy and policy, military revolutions, transformation of the military, future warfare and military research and development. He is a former Army Special Forces officer and CIA operative.
Vickers was online Friday, Feb. 7 at 1 p.m. ET, to discuss Iraq, the U.N. and the case for or against military action.
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: Bush says "The game is over." He's putting pressure on the U.N. Security Council. The Pentagon is issuing orders for the deployment for the Army's 101st Airborne Division. Is war a foregone conclusion?
Michael Vickers: President Bush is indeed putting pressure on the U.N. Security Council to enforce its resolutions. The deployment order for the 101st Airborne does mark the final phase of the military buildup. All of the forces the Pentagon believes are required are expected to be in place by the end of the month. That doesn't mean that war is a foregone conclusion, however. Saddam could still agree to go into exile, come clean with respect to his WMD programs, or there could be a coup against him. A lot can happen in a month.
Annandale, Va.: In your estimation, how long will it take from the time the U.S. and its allies take military action against Iraq to capture Bagdad?
If Hussein is captured (unlikely) will he be tried and incarcerated in the U.S. as Noriega was or will he be tried by an international tribunal?
Michael Vickers: The length of the war depends on the resistance that Iraqi forces put up. Will they fight to the bitter end, will they, for the most part, sit it out or surrender, or will they turn their guns on Saddam? Most analysts expect a short air campaign of about 10 days, supported by a quick ground campaign. U.S. forces could be on the outskirts of Baghdad within days. Some estimates predict the whole war will be over within three weeks.
It is unlikely that Saddam will be captured alive. If he is, I'm sure he'll be tried as a war criminal.
Abilene, Tex.: Michael,
Thanks for the information that you share with the public. Do you believe that this war will go nuclear if Saddam releases his chemical/biological agents against the U.S.? What to you see as Israel's reaction to a similar strike by Saddam on one of its cities?
I hope and pray that Iraq does not use its chem/bio weapons, and at the same time I believe he will because he has nothing to loose. In 1991 he launched Scuds at Israel, and Israel did not strike back. This time they have promised a swift movement. I believe that Israel will nuke Baghdad if Saddam uses its WMDs against it.
Michael Vickers: I do not believe that the U.S. would respond to Iraqi use of WMD with nuclear weapons. I think Israel would hit back this time, which is why U.S. and coalition force will try to take away Saddam's ability to hit Israel very early in the war.
Baton Rouge, La.: An impossible question, I know, but ....
Assuming the war goes ahead and is quickly successful in toppling Saddam, what are things going to look like, say, a year from now? A still-troubled but improving Iraq, some progress on Middle East peace, some more substantial first steps toward reform in Arab countries, some improvement in U.S.-Western Europe relation?
Or chaos all around?
I'm not absolutely against the war, but the administration's longer-term plans look to me like a sort of Rube Goldberg machine in that they are counting on a whole series of complex events (not least the war itself) going just right. If any one of them fails, the whole thing may figuratively (or literally) blow up in our faces.
And then where would we be?
Michael Vickers: If the war and reconstruction go well and the Iraqi people believe that they have been liberated from a tyranny, there could be several positive effects, most notably a reinvigoration of the Middle East peace process. The last Gulf War provided considerable momentum in that regard. Successful war in Iraq could also be the the straw that breaks the camel's back with respect to bringing down the clerical regime in Iran. Our war with radical Islam, however, it likely to continue.
Alexandria, Va.: Why is it unlikely Saddam will be captured alive? If he doesn't go into exile, then what are the other options?
Michael Vickers: I think it is most likely that he will be killed, first, by his own people or army, and, second, by a U.S. strike. There is a chance that he will be captured, though he may successfully hide for some time, but it is a smaller probability.
Alexandria, Va.: We keep hearing that allied forces will take away Saddam's ability to strike Israel and launch missiles by an air attack at the outset. Naturally, Saddam expects this. Is there anything he can do to prevent his missile capability from being deteriorated or do you think allied forces will have quick success?
Michael Vickers: His best chances are to strike preemptively or very early in the war. Hopefully, we've learned from our mistakes the last time. One can hope that he will hesitate until it's too late.
Bethesda Maryland: Do you foresee a situation similar to Haiti where Saddam could potentially give in to exile as we have planes in the air and troops to invade? I see Saddam as too self-preserving to take a course that would cost his own life, despite his rhetoric.
Michael Vickers: I think the Haiti analogy is a good one, and a real possibility. As with Haiti, it won't forestall U.S. and coalition forces entering the country to ensure regime change and disarmament, but it could forestall a war.
Arlington, Va.: In case of the coup you mentioned as a possibility, what is the likely outcome? Who takes the helm in Iraq if Saddam is suddenly gone?
Michael Vickers: The only way the coup scenario works is if it is done by someone committed to disarmament. U.S. and coalition forces will likely still enter Iraq to ensure that disarmament takes place.
Albany, N.Y.: Does the administration have any plans beyond the vague platitudes they've offered in public about what happens in Iraq after a war? Is it reasonable in your view to expect what Colin Powell once called "an outbreak of Jeffersonian democracy" even if Saddam is gone?
Michael Vickers: I think there is extensive planning going on, but there's still uncertainty that can't be reduced through planning. Will the Iraqi people welcome the U.S. and its coalition partners as liberators? Will some ethnic groups (Kurds, Shi-ites) try to secede? (A goal of U.S. policy is to keep Iraq's territorial integrity intact.) If all goes our way, reconstruction could proceed quite smoothly. If not...
Nutley, N.J.: Is it possible for other military countries to enter the war and escalate the conflict?
Michael Vickers: The only country that could enter the war and potentially change the course of the conflict, at least in terms of its long-term consequences, is Israel.
Clarksville, Tenn.: If there is a need for more military personnel there will probably be some action in the congress to increase authorized troop levels.
Do you think an increase in that number will generate an increase in the number of volunteers?
Michael Vickers: I don't think a war with Iraq will lead to higher troop levels. The Secretary of Defense has been pretty clear about this.
San Francisco, Calif.: Will it be possible for the U.S. to gain acknowledgement from China, Russia and Japan that North Korea's belligerence is their primary responsibility, particularly during the period that the U.S. is primarily committed elsewhere?
Michael Vickers: I don't think so. Like it or not, all expect the U.S. to solve the problem.
Ra'anana, Israel: Do you have any faith that the inspection process could work in Iraq if left in place on a long-term basis? Would the presence of weapons inspectors at least discourage the Iraqis from any further development of weapons of mass destruction?
Michael Vickers: I do not believe that the inspection process will achieve the U.N. goal of disarmament. It only works when the government in question agrees to disarm itself. I think the containment argument also has holes in it. It won't disarm Saddam of the weapons he already has.
Arlington, Va.: What would Tariq Aziz's fate be once U.S forces take Iraq? Is he considered just as criminal as Saddam and worthy of the same punishment if captured?
Michael Vickers: He's on the list of the "dirty 14" or so that the U.S. insists will have to be removed from power.
Virgina: I worry that if we go to war the rest of the world will look at us as being a danger to their nation, and leaders of other countries will do anything possible to get nuclear arms for their countries. What is the U.S. doing to forestall this?
Michael Vickers: You raise a key question: how will Iran react to Saddam's defeat? (North Korean behavior, I believe, stems more from extortionist motives, though similar questions could be raised about its current actions.)
Nutley, N.J.: Follow up. If Israel enters the fray, what assurances do we have that other nations will not mobilize into the region?
Michael Vickers: One would hope that this is being discussed in diplomatic circles. I think the longer-term concern is what it impact it could have on the stability of governments in the Arab world.
St. Jean de Luz, France: I m really afraid that if the U.S keeps up its foreign policy it could split up NATO and even perhaps the EEC. You should know that there's not a lot of support for a war here in Europe. I agree with the U.S. government, but I'm almost alone over here.
Michael Vickers: As you note, there are several European governments that are supportive. I do think that in the end French-American relations will weather this storm.
Nacogdoches, Tex.: Wouldn't Bush be more likely to get the support of France, Russia, China and others if he endorsed France's call for a tripling of the number of inspectors and giving them a few more weeks to work?
Michael Vickers: I don't think so. I think that would only lead to calls to delay further. From a disarmament perspective, it would also likely be futile in the absence of an Iraqi deathbed conversion.
Falls Church, Va.: When and if this war takes place in Iraq, what is to prevent Saddam Hussein from blasting our troops in the surrounding areas with his biological weapons of mass destruction?
Thank you for your opinion.
Michael Vickers: What will prevent him is whether his commanders will agree follow his suicidal orders, and whether he has targeting quality intelligence and adequate delivery means. He can certainly be expected to consider it, however.
Fairfax, Va.: I guess I am a member of the 40 percent club that just doesn't get it. Let's assume Saddam has prohibited weapons. My guess is that he has had them for over 10 years. Has he threatened anyone beyond his borders in that time? If not, why are we attacking preemptively now?
Michael Vickers: September 11th certainly changed the U.S. government's willingness to take risks, and Saddam has been unfettered, from an inspections point of view, since late 1998. I think it's hard to argue that he'd be more aggressive if he had nuclear weapons and better delivery means. There is also the worry that he could supply biological weapons to al Qaeda. This is a guy, after all, who attempted to assassinate a U.S. president only two years after being defeated decisively on the battlefield.
Washington, D.C.: In history, have any other leaders tried to take down as many (of their own and others') people as they could with them once they knew they were facing impending defeat?
Michael Vickers: Hitler didn't seem to care much about the cost to Germany after it became clear Germany was going to lose the war. What Saddam might do to his own people or economic infrastructure is one of the principal concerns facing U.S. military planners.
Nacogdoches, Tex.: Powell showed satellite photos, allegedly of Iraqi missiles being loaded onto trucks and moved in advance of inspections. Has he told UN inspectors where those missiles were moved to? Surely he knows, don't you think? Doesn't the U.S. have a satellite over Iraq 24/7?
Michael Vickers: The U.S. does not have satellites over Iraq 24/7. More like 2/24.
Fairfax, Va.: What happens to the inspectors once war breaks out? Will they be given advance notice to leave? Doesn't that tip our hand as to when the actual attack date will occur?
Michael Vickers: Inspectors will be pulled out before hostilities. It does tip our hand, though we may still achieve some tactical surprise.
Nashville, Tenn.: Do you think that the President will request a formal declaration of war? And if so, what are its prospects for success?
Michael Vickers: I do not believe the president will request a formal declaration of war. We may seek a second U.N. resolution, but I believe from the White House's perspective, we already have all the authority required. If he did ask for a declaration of war, I'm sure he'd get it, given the outcome of the earlier Congressional votes.
Fairfax, Va.: What is the plan if North Korea decides to take advantage of the situation after we start the Iraq war and attack the South? The non-official line is that we can't fight two wars. Could South Korea be overrun while we watch helplessly? Especially if they decide to use their nukes?
Michael Vickers: The North would be quickly defeated, though at considerable cost to the South (particularly Seoul). I believe Kim Jong Il knows that it would mean the end of his regime, and therefore, deterrence is likely to hold.
Duluth, Minn.: What additional precautions do you anticipate might be undertaken here in the continental U.S. during a period of armed conflict with Iraq?
Michael Vickers: Known Iraqi intelligence officers and contacts are no doubt being closely monitored.
Washington, D.C.: I still don't buy the Iraq/al Qaeda connection. Iraq is a tyranny but it is also a secular Arab state. It has more gender equality then anywhere else in the Middle East (except Israel). Isn't that exactly the kind of government al Qaeda wants to take down?
Michael Vickers: I think there is evidence that can't be ignored of an Iraqi-Al Qaeda connection. The secular argument doesn't hold much water. We were allies with the Soviets during WWII after all.
Alexandria, Va.: Why is Iran's reaction to the result of the war so important? As I understand it, they aren't breaking any international laws and have the support of UN inspectors. What possible case do we have for attacking them?
Michael Vickers: I didn't mean to imply that we would attack Iran. What I meant was it is unclear whether hardline clerics in charge of national security in Iran will view events in Iraq as a reason to accelerate their WMD programs or abandon them. Let's hope it's the latter.
Alexandria, Va.: Based on your experience, what do you think the public's biggest misunderstanding about this war is?
Michael Vickers: Based on what I've seen, I think the American public has a pretty good understanding of the rationale for and costs of war.
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