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U.S. Public Is Unconvinced on Need to Wage War Against Iraq, Says Council on Foreign Relations President Les Gelb

Interviewee: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
December 20, 2002

Les Gelb, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says that he is surprised by the degree of opposition in the United States to an invasion of Iraq. On a recent speaking tour, Gelb says 80 to 90 percent of audience members were against an invasion, which he says is likely by March unless Saddam Hussein is first overthrown through a coup. To get the public on its side, Gelb said it was imperative for the Bush administration to provide “a smoking gun” - conclusive evidence - that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction. On other matters, Gelb, a former high State Department official in the Carter administration, says that he is skeptical that progress toward a Middle East peace can be achieved in the next year or two.

The interview with Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, took place on December 19, 2002.

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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 don’t 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 administration’s 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 isn’t an exaggeration. Upwards of 80 to 90 percent of the audiences disagree.

Q. Why is that?

A. They disagree with the administration’s 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 after” — what 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 we’re 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 Iraq’s 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 isn’t sufficient to say that the Iraqis haven’t 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.

It’s 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 bosses — the senators and congressmen — return 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 don’t 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 won’t play a big role?

A. It won’t 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. Switching for a minute away from Iraq to South Korea. Do you think the election of Roh Moo Hyun causes a problem for the United States? He won on a platform of disassociating himself from the United States.

A. Roh has taken an ambiguous position. One day he seemed to say the South Koreans shouldn’t follow the U.S. blindly into war against the North; the next day he said he was misunderstood. In any event, the kinds of things Roh has been saying about questioning the relationship with the United States and U.S. policies toward North Korea go way beyond the criticisms any South Korean leader has uttered in the past.

Q. Is the Bush administration making a mistake in not being willing to sit down at a diplomatic table with North Korea?

A. I always believe we ought to be able to sit down and talk. At the same time, I agree with President Bush that we have to be very tough with the North Koreans. They flat out violated their 1994 agreement with us about not going forward with their nuclear program, and we cannot ignore that. They have got to take us seriously. So we have to be tough with them. I would say though, be tough and talk. They are not mutually exclusive.

Q. What about the Middle East? By this time next year, it is conceivable or likely we will have any movement toward an agreement?

A. I can’t imagine any serious common ground being established between the Palestinians and the Israelis in the next year or two or maybe more.

Q. Is that because of the Israeli government? Both sides?

A. I think progress was possible up until the Camp David proposals of almost two years ago, when the Israelis made enormous concessions, going way beyond anything the Palestinians would have expected, and [Palestinian leader Yasir] Arafat effectively rejected the proposals. Since then, Israelis politics have been radicalized. People we have known forever who were committed to making compromises with the Palestinians became hawks. They felt, as a result of Arafat’s “no,” that the issue was no longer a compromise deal of two states living side by side, a Palestinian and an Israeli one, but of survival itself.

They felt that the real Palestinian aim, revealed as a result of this “no,” was the destruction of the state of Israel itself.

Q. Do you agree with that?

A. I think for a lot of Palestinians, yes, that is their real goal. And their leadership probably is inclined in that direction as well. I don’t think they have really reconciled themselves to living side-by-side with the Jewish state of Israel. If they had, they had the deal in their hands, at Camp David, and a little later at Tabah [where negotiations ended in 2000].

Q. So, if you were elected the next prime minister of Israel, what should your policy be? Irreconcilable toughness? And see what happens?

A. No, the Israelis have to be tough. But they also have to show continued willingness to lay the groundwork for peace. There is no future in toughness alone. The future has got to lead back to the negotiating table and a compromise settlement. Pure toughness on Israel’s part is not good for them or for the United States either. I would say that that is particularly true on the issue of the settlements. The settlements are not in the interests of Israel and not in the interests of the United States. If you ask Israeli military officers over the years, they will tell you the settlements create military vulnerabilities in almost every case, and they compel the Israeli army to protect people who are effectively unprotectable. And the whole negotiating process is made hostage to the security of the settlers. This situation really has to be reversed.

Q. What about the U.S. role in this? The Bush administration has been essentially passive. Should the U.S. thrust itself into this?

A. The U.S. shouldn’t go back to where we were two years ago and try to lead and push the parties to a deal, because the parties are just not ready to make a deal. It would only end in failure and reconfirmation of everyone’s worst fears. I think we should take the lead and strongly express our interest in a continuing and serious negotiating process, but to do that, we have to rebuild the political basis of support for negotiations among the Palestinians and Israelis. We have to step back from the negotiating table and concentrate on confidence-building measures. Mind you, every time I say that, almost everyone involved, Palestinians and Israelis, tell me that I don’t know what I am talking about. Neither side would accept doing this, particularly the Palestinians. They say that “confidence-building” is too slow. But I don’t see another choice if you want to get back to the table and serious negotiations in a year or two or more. If there is no political support, it is absolutely futile for the United States or Israel to announce new peace plans. It won’t get anywhere.

Q. You’re 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. The State Department and the Pentagon are not expected to get along. They never really have, in terms of the perspectives they bring to most problems. Sometimes, it is odd, where the Pentagon people were the doves and the State Department, hawks, as was the case on Kosovo. The State Department wanted military action and the Pentagon didn’t. Other times, as now, the State Department is dovish, or very careful about going to war over Iraq too quickly.

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. He’s 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 doesn’t, policy forever appears in disarray. I think policy has been in disarray for much of President Bush’s 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, Bush’s inner core of strength has made events turn mainly in his favor.

Q. You mean 9/11 obviously made him seem focused?

A. Yes, before 9/11 they did very little about terrorism. They cut the budget to deal with terrorism. They weren’t paying much attention to it. They could have been faulted greatly after 9/11, but Bush took such a clear leadership role and appeared so strong that he weathered that potential criticism. And essentially that carried him through the next six months or so. 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.

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