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'The Long Road to War'
With Michael Kirk
Producer/Director, FRONTLINE

Tuesday, March 18, 2003; 11 a.m. ET

Once again, the U.S. finds itself about to battle Iraq, although this time it will likely not be part of a grand coalition. How did the nation come to the brink of another war with Saddam Hussein?

FRONTLINE tries to answer that question with "The Long Road to War," airing Monday, March 17, at 8 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings). The two-hour special draws on more than 12 years of reporting on Iraq to explain the history of the U.S. confrontation with Saddam Hussein -- including how the West armed Iraq, the mind and methods of Saddam Hussein, the origins of the first Gulf War and its ragged end, the frustrating effort to disarm Iraq through U.N. inspections, how Saddam survived efforts to undermine his power, and the long-standing effort by Washington hawks to remove him.

Award-winning producer and documentary filmmaker Michael Kirk was online Tuesday, March 18, to talk about the U.S.'s history with Iraq and where it's likely to go.

The transcript follows.

Kirk, a former Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard, was Frontline’s senior producer from 1983 to 1987, and has produced more than 100 national television programs. He was online earlier this season to talk about "The War Behind Closed Doors" and "The Man Who Knew," and during the 2001-2002 season to discuss "Did Daddy Do It?"; "American Porn"; "Gunning for Saddam"; and "Target America." Other films include "The Clinton Years," a week-long co-production with ABC News on the presidency of Bill Clinton that aired in January 2001; "The Choice 2000," comparing the lives, beliefs and experiences of Vice President Gore and then-Gov. George W. Bush; "The Killer at Thurston High," the first comprehensive TV profile of high school shooter Kip Kinkel; and "The Navy Blues," a 1996 Emmy Award-winning look at the post-Tailhook Navy.

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.

Washington, D.C.: Mr. Kirk, thanks to you and "Frontline" for doing what seemingly no one else does, objectively encapsulating some of the most critical issues of our times in an infinitely watchable format. My question is based on Saddam's state of abject fear when the Iran/Iraq war was going terribly for Iraq, and his abject terror that the U.S. would march to Baghdad in '91. Isn't it likely that he'll just quit the country? He clearly does not self-identify as a martyr.

Michael Kirk: There are those we've spoken to who believe, in this case, Saddam's strong identification with martyred Arab leaders indicated he might like to join their number as a hero to Arabs everywhere.

Granbury, Tex.: I was so glad to see the historical report on 1991. I had no idea. You convinced me we were doing the right thing. Then, in an abrupt 360, you condemn the current situation. What happened. I was following the thread you established with the history. I would have done exactly what the administration is finally doing now. Only earlier; as you posed in your projected historical account. What's going on with you?

Michael Kirk: In the beginning of the program, we discussed how the first Bush administration decided to take on Saddam Hussein, and how that military and diplomatic victory resulted in an unanticipated, ragged ending that left some inside that administration determined to finish the job. We then told of the difficulties that emerged as Saddam Hussein tested the United Nations' and the Clinton administration's efforts at containment, sanctions and weapons inspection. When the second Bush administration took office, the unhappy members of the first pushed the new president, especially, post-9/11, to finish the business his father couldn't or wouldn't do. We further demonstrated that they believed, and so now does the new president, that Iraq would be the first step in a new, bold foreign policy that relied on preemption, prevention and military force. That, to me, is a perfectly straight narrative line.

washingtonpost.com: There was an interview in the program with Richard Perle, in which he talks about a meeting with Sandy Berger in which Berger focused on the political ramifications of action with Iraq, and expresses amazement at Berger's position, because it's so different from his own. This seems particularly indicative of the point of view of the current Bush administration. Did they see or understand the difference?

Michael Kirk: Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz approach the issue of Saddam Hussein very differently than did Sandy Berger, Bill Clinton and the United Nations. Yesterday's events, if nothing else, made that eminently clear. Perle et al, viewed the security threat of Saddam in absolutist terms, and have argued since the early '90s, both as a political matter and as a security matter, that this was the difference between whoever their presidential candidate would be and the Clinton-Gore administration. The code embedded in Perle's answer was that even though Sandy Berger and he are not very far apart on the matter of Saddam Hussein's potential for danger, Berger worked for a president who at the time had very complicated image problems and could not be seen to be making unilateral (without political cover) moves on a foreign leader. In other words, Monica Lewinsky got in the way.

Atlanta, Ga.: Hello Mr. Kirk:

For the past 30 or so years, the U.S. has been actively involved in supporting and building terror groups around the world to fight (as surrogates) for American interests against the likes of the Soviet Union, Cuba, China, and on and on. These efforts have come back to bite us as these former allies have lost their usefulness to our fight against communism. We created bin Laden, Saddam, Noriega, and sundry other international criminals -- but deny them after we're done with their services.

Will this reputation for using people harm our ability to form alliances in the future and is this ever perceived negatively by potential allies around the world?

Thanks for your thoughts.

Michael Kirk: Everybody does it. Everybody's always done it. Every side does it, and then the sides change. It's a weirdly cynical game, isn't it? Will we still do it in the war on terror? Sure, because it's the nature of how we find out things. And if we remember the early criticisms of the CIA and the FBI right after 9/11, it was that we didn't have enough human intelligence, we didn't have enough spies, we hadn't infiltrated and used enough nefarious characters to do our bidding in dark and foreboding parts of the world. So if anything, we've probably picked up the pace, and most of us probably wouldn't want to know who our alliances are with now.

Pittsburgh, Pa.: The first Gulf War with Iraq left "unfinished business" in the minds of many. Will American troops march into Baghdad this time, as both a military and political statement of America's new resolve to end this matter once and for all, and further, to send a message to other powers with interests in direct conflict with our ideologies?

Michael Kirk: That is the absolute intention of this White House and its Defense Department. But, and there's always a but in war, strange things happen. But that is the intention, that's for sure.

Poquoson, Va.: Given the success the Iraqi regime has enjoyed through the years of hiding prohibited weapons, what is the possibility that they may posess a nuclear weapon(s)? It has been shown and they have admitted that they have developed them, but could not deliver them efficiently.

Michael Kirk: There seems to be a dispute, even inside the administration, about how far along the Iraqi nuclear program really is. What seems likely is that we're about to know the answer. Either it will be used, we will find it, or they never had it.

Arlington, Va.: Great show. Where did President Bush begin to lose interest in applying diplomacy well? Was it because of 9/11, his father's experience with Saddam, the pre-emption philosophy, or just an internal macho drive?

Michael Kirk: Dennis Ross, in our program last night, says that the father and the son are not very different in terms of their intent to get Saddam Hussein. But the father, from the very beginning, believed diplomacy and coalition was central to the success of the mission. The son, almost from the very beginning, believed we could go it alone. Now, are the son's actions the result of who he is, or an attitude and philosophy that pervades within certain quarters of his administration, that believe America, in a post-Cold War world, must be prepared to go it alone more often than with large-scale coalitions.

Atlanta, Ga.: Another comment and question, if I may. I also agree with all of Grandbury, Tex., observations. One example of subtle editorial commentary was the labeling of those in favor of the new, bold (and I believe sensible and necessary policy for our county's safety) approach as "hardliners." This descriptive phrase is pejorative with a negative impact on the viewer about the group. It is one of the techniques used by what conservatives consider the left-leaning media. Were you conscious of this when producing, or are you falling into an unconscious projection of your own beliefs? Why not call the opposition to these ideas the "softliners" to be fair and balanced? It is a mar on what is usually your superbly fair and comprehensive reporting! You are better than that, in my opinion.

Michael Kirk: I am aware of the potential for lack of clarity because of the semantic choices. Which is why I asked no less an authority than William Kristol what he thought they (Kristol, Perle, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Libby, et al) would be comfortable being called in the television program. He said, "Neo-Reaganite, neo-conservative, but we all like to answer to 'hawk.'" And so that's what we called them.

Los Angeles, Calif.: How do you account for Powell's change in attitude? It seems like he jumped on the bandwagon after his trip to Africa. Do you think there was a quid pro quo for dealing with the AIDS issue in Africa for Powell's support?

Michael Kirk: Politics is rarely as simple as quid pro quos. Secretary Powell's decision to support the Commander in Chief may be based on (a) his belief in the policy, (b) his military orientation and experience following the orders of the Commander in Chief, (c) a belief that at the time of war, everyone in an administration must pull together, (d) all of the above reasons and some we don't really know. In other words, the Secretary of State has always made complex choices about his policy positions.

Annapolis, Md.: Watching the "Frontline" show last night, I couldn't help noting all the times over the years that Colin Powell has expressed deeply felt views on our Iraq policy that are completely at odds with what the Bush administration has been doing.

When is Powell going to resign?

Michael Kirk: I don't have a crystal ball. I think Powell is a good American and a good soldier and a good and faithful servant of democratic ideals. You know, the president was elected. And the president is acting on his best judgment, and oftentimes, high-level political officials like the Secretary of State believe that even though they don't win every argument, at least they were in the battle of ideas, and that that's more valuable than being on the outside -- especially at this critical juncture in American foreign policy. Literally, we are talking about a change for the next 40 years. Why resign when you can be in the midst of pushing that back and forth with a set of formidable intelligences like Wolfowitz and the hawks? That's why you go into government.

Birmingham, Ala.: When will your program air again? I just happened to flip to it last evening and would love to get my kids and family to your program. It summed up perfectly why the monster in Iraq must go.

Thank you.

washingtonpost.com: On the Frontline Web site, click "schedule" and type in your ZIP code to find out when or if the show will re-air in your area.

Michael Kirk: Calling your public television station is the best way to let them know that you are interested in seeing this kind of programming.

Arlington, Va.: Is any clear knowledge as to just how many assassination attempts Saddam has survived in the post-Gulf War period? How many of these has the CIA either led or encouraged? Thank you.

Michael Kirk: The thing about assassination attempts is that they're generally covert. So we don't really know. But we know of at least one in 1997 that the CIA led, trying to infiltrate his highest-ranking officers. The plot was discovered by Saddam, and they were all killed.

Minneapolis, Minn.: Saddam has modeled himself after Stalin. Can we learn anything from this to help us understand how he will behave in the pending conflict? Saddam always seems to surprise the west. Why do we keep misreading him?

Michael Kirk: The answer to why we keep misreading him is, at its heart, a cultural question. In another vein, presidents and our military leaders and allies seem to both underestimate him and overestimate him. And Saddam's character has actually been consistent over the decades, as our program attempted to demonstrate. He is an assassin and a bully, which means he likes to be in a dominant position. As soon as he's not, he re-trenches, folds inward and waits to attack another day. His character is not the character of a madman -- he's not going to incinerate the earth in that way. But the truth is, I don't know.

Arlington, Va.: Bush's new preemptive policy of attacking anyone that might be a threat to the U.S. now or sometime in the future will mean that the U.S. and the world must trust the judgment and motives of the president and his advisers in determining who is a real threat. How can we trust Bush on his policy toward Iraq when he's lied to the public about the basis for his policy -- the aluminum tubes, the link to terrorists, its nuclear weapons capability ("they have them now," or is it they'll have them in the future") the "smoking gun" evidence that shows Iraq has WMD. If Iraq is such a threat to the U.S., he wouldn't have to stretch the truth so far to make his case. I wouldn't buy a used car from anyone that has distorted the facts as much as Bush has. I certainly do not want the war Bush as apparently sold to Americans.

Michael Kirk: Those who believe in preemption believe, and have believed since 1991, that there's no question Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction present a threat to the world. They would argue that every president, and even the United Nations, has shared this belief, and that therefore there could be no clearer example of where the preemption doctrine should apply. And in this case, I'm not sure it's just the president who's making the arguments about the threat Saddam represents.

College Park, Md.: Mr. Kirk,

I really got an education last night. The historical analysis really helped me understand how a complex set of political forces brought us to this point. What struck me most is that the new doctrine advocated by the hawks--for preemption and prevention--seems like such a huge departure from our past standards for going to war. Did you see any precedent for Rumsfeld's view that a combination of "capability and intent" were grounds to depose another head of state?

Michael Kirk: We are on, as a society, wholly new ground. This moment is incredibly important and precedent-setting. Which is why PBS devoted so much time in the midst of what would ordinarily have been fundraising time to helping educate the American people about the critical and perilous time we're living in right now.

Albuquerque, N.M.: Why couldn't Frontline show Michael Kirk's "The Long Road to War" several months ago?

Michael Kirk: Frontline, over the last 12 years, has produced the 10 films that were part of "The Long Road to War," and within the last month aired "War Behind Closed Doors," my film about the Bush Doctrine.

Los Angeles, Calif.: What surprised you the most when you put this together?

Michael Kirk: The unbelievably Shakespearean quality of father/son/common enemy reverberations and the early mistakes that the son pays for. And the inevitable evolution of an American foreign policy that is so dramatically different over the course of 41 and 43.

Wheaton, Md.: Why is Bush 41 criticized for "not finishing the job" in 1991? If I remember correctly, the "job" in 1991 was to drive Saddam out of Kuwait and that was accomplished with amazing success. Now, the job is to drive Saddam out of Baghdad and there is no doubt that, this too, will be successful.

Michael Kirk: The hawks in his son's administration criticize the first President Bush for the ragged ending -- that is, despite his encouragement of the Shia in the south and the Kurds in the north to rise up and depose Saddam Hussein, he did nothing to help them. They were slaughtered. And for that, many in his administration, who are also in his son's administration, have never forgiven him.

Derwood, Md.: Will Europe become irrelevant after failing to stand up to Saddam? How did European foreign policy help the situations during the Cambodian genocide under the Khmer Rouge, or the genocide in Rwanda? Europe seems to play the role of the ordinary German civilian after World War II who said, "We did not know what was happening to the Jews."

Michael Kirk: Frontline is, at this very moment, making a film called "Blair's War," which examines in great detail the very question you raise. And when it airs April 3, we are likely to know more about how Europe will react to what has happened or is happening in Iraq.

Editor's Note: The producer of this film will be online to talk about it.


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

© 2003 The Washington Post Company