Insiders Are Unconvinced On War
In this interview, Les Gelb, President of the Council on Foreign Relations attempts to explain why 80 to 90 percent of the people he spoke to disagree with the position of the Bush administration. The Council on Foreign Relations is a well established think tank intimate with the State Department. Their publication is Foreign Affairs, a substantial bi-monthly of scholarly appearance. This journal quite faithfully reflects the dominat political line of the State Department and the disputes within it.
Les Gelb does not give talks at the local YMCA. As a Washington insider, he speaks to others who are inside government, those who wield influence or aspire to, and the professional politicians. Gelbs remarks reveal that opposition to starting a war with Iraq dominates the middle and upper level politicos no matter how quiet they seem in public. He also thinks that what they think isnt going to make any difference in the short run.The interview, edited for reasons of space, is conducted by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for The Council on Foreign Relations, and took place on December 19, 2002.
Q. As the administration gears up for a probable war in Iraq, has it sold its case to the American public well enough?
A. I dont think so. I have been around the country speaking in six different cities in the last few weeks. In those meetings, I argued in favor of the administrations position. I said I thought Saddam represents a very serious national security threat that we had better deal with now rather than later. If we enter Iraq and make it a better and safer place, it will also immeasurably improve our position in the Muslim world. As I have made this case in all these different cities, I have encountered enormous opposition to my terribly persuasive arguments (laughs).
This isnt an exaggeration. Upwards of 80 to 90 percent of the audiences disagree.
Q. Why is that?
A. They disagree with the administrations policy and my own position on several grounds. First, some believe the administration simply has not made the case that Saddam is a serious threat. They want that smoking gun revealed. It has not been revealed.
Q. By smoking gun, you mean pictures of nuclear facilities that make weapons, for instance?
A. Something that everyone would recognize as concrete proof that Saddam has chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. Not just allegations, but the kind of proof that most nations in the world would accept as true.
Q. The other reasons?
A. The second reason is that a lot of people worry about the day afterwhat happens after Saddam is gone. Will it set off a blood lust in Iraq? Will it set off terrorism against the United States? Are we ready to deal with it? Most people feel they have heard nothing from the administration to give them confidence that were prepared to deal with the aftermath of war.
The third area of concern is dealing with the consequences of war here in the United States. Many of these people feel we are going to be increasingly at risk to terrorist attacks if we go after Iraq; that our cities and borders are unprepared for this, that the administration and Congress have done far too little in this last year to get us ready to deal with chemical, biological, or a dirty nuclear bomb attack.
Q. What would be your prescription to get people in a different frame of mind?
A. I think President Bush has got to produce more evidence of Iraqi cheating and Iraqs threats to the United States than he has. It is not sufficient to take the documents that the Iraqis have given us and say the Iraqis have not told us enough about the disposition of the weapons of mass destruction that we knew they had in the 1990s. And it isnt sufficient to say that the Iraqis havent proved to us with these documents that these weapons have been destroyed. These allegations are not enough to convince a lot of these Americans who want to be convinced.
Q. And the same with foreign countries?
A. I think the task of persuasion is even more difficult abroad. We see leaders from abroad coming to the Council all the time, and they are even more skeptical about using military force against Iraq.
Its not only my own impressions from speaking around the country. I have spoken to a number of congressional staffers and told them the same story I told you. They said to me that when their bossesthe senators and congressmenreturn from their districts, they tell pretty much the same story.
Q. This is bizarre. Everyone hates Saddam Hussein, but people are uncertain about trying to oust him.
A. The question is why Saddam Hussein? Not Iran? Not North Korea, which in terms of weapons of mass destruction represents more of a clear and present danger than Saddam does.
Q. Do you think there will be a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq by the spring?
A. Unless all this pressure we are putting on Saddam results in Iraqis overthrowing him in the next six to eight weeks, the chances are very, very high the U.S. will be at war with Iraq by March.
Q. On our own?
A. I dont think we will be on our own. I think in the end we will have Britain with us, Qatar, probably Kuwait, and maybe even Turkey. These are the essential countries to carry out military operations.
Q. The fact that the public may not be enthusiastic wont play a big role?
A. It wont play a big role in whether or not to go to war. It will play a big role if the war is not won quickly and decisively. A quick, decisive win will convince people that Bush made the right gamble. But if it ends up with great bloodshed in Iraq, Iraqis being killed by each other, Americans being killed by chemical and biological weapons, terrorist attacks here in the United States, Bush will have gambled and lost the presidency.
Q. What about the Middle East? By this time next year, is it conceivable or likely we will have any movement toward an agreement?
A. I cant imagine any serious common ground being established between the Palestinians and the Israelis in the next year or two or maybe more.
Q. Youre an old hand in Washington, through many bureaucratic wars. How would you describe the current state of relations between the State Department, the Pentagon, and the White House?
A. Traditionally, on most big issues, these departments have clashed. That is fine. It gives the president choices. The National Security Council staff has been critical in adjudicating the differences between the two big departments. And to some degree, the NSC staff under Condoleezza Rice still does. But there now is a fourth wheel in the picture that matters a great deal. That is Vice President Cheney and his national security staff. And they are an important factor in the shifting fortunes of policy as well.
Q. Hes of course hawkish on Iraq.
A. Very much so. When people in an administration disagree with each other, it is not a bad thing. It is a good thing. It makes clearer to a president what his choices are. A president should never be presented with just one choice. It is too dangerous. It is not fair. But it is up to the president in the end to reconcile these differences and keep a steady course. But if he doesnt, policy forever appears in disarray. I think policy has been in disarray for much of President Bushs tenure. But events have made him look better than the policy. He has gotten others to bend to American will because of his underlying toughness and muscularity. If others resent this bowing to power, it may cost us a great deal in the long run, but in the short run, Bushs inner core of strength has made events turn mainly in his favor.
Q. You mean 9/11 obviously made him seem focused?
[Yes.] But then all these differences began to reappear in his team on how to handle terrorism and how to handle Iraq. And the appearance of disarray, and the reality of disarray, reasserted itself. And all the goodwill that had existed toward the United States after 9/11 dissipated. Remember there was a French editorial that appeared after 9/11 that said We Are All Americans. You could almost reverse that today in terms of our isolation in the world.