Bush Has Choice: Early War with Iraq or Wait for Saddam to Slip and Reveal “Smoking Gun,” Says Council’s Lee Feinstein

January 21, 2003

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Lee Feinstein, the director for Security Affairs at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that President Bush may decide to use the State of the Union address to launch a “second phase” of his anti-Iraq policy aimed at attracting as many nations as possible to a U.S.-led assault. Or, the former deputy director of Policy Planning for the State Department says, Bush might follow the advice of the British and wait for Saddam Hussein to slip up and reveal a “smoking gun,” which would create much more international support for a war.

In talking about North Korea, Feinstein said the Bush administration has made several mistakes in dealing with that country’s nuclear weapons statements. He was particularly unhappy with Secretary of State Colin Powell’s statement in December that North Korea already had nuclear weapons, when in fact, Feinstein said, the CIA says only that Pyongyang has produced materials that could be used to make a couple of such weapons.

Feinstein spoke in an interview with Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on January 17, 2003.

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Q. The administration is heading into a very delicate policy-making period at the end of January, with the State of the Union address on January 28, the January 27 report by U.N. inspectors on Iraq, and the meeting between the president and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Is the administration now inclined to go to war with Iraq on its own, or does it still want a Security Council endorsement?

A. I think that since September 12, when the president went to the General Assembly and put the issue of Iraq in the hands of the Security Council, the administration has indicated its seriousness about doing this multilaterally. A lot of people like to credit Colin Powell with the winning argument, and Bob Woodward’s book [Bush at War] talked about Powell’s now-famous briefing with the president on the importance of going through the United Nations, and I am sure that was very persuasive. And I think equally persuasive was the polling data that showed that while two-thirds of Americans supported military action to get rid of Saddam Hussein, of those who favor military action, the number goes down very, very sharply if it is a go-it-alone operation. That seems to be consistent with several polls over a long period of time, including a recent poll released on January 16 by the Pew Research Center. So while Colin Powell was, I’m sure, very influential in the decision-making of the president, I think Karl Rove was, too, in pointing to what Americans are willing to support.

Q. So you think the administration is still committed to the Security Council?

A. You put the question as a choice between going through the Security Council or going it alone. There is an intermediate option, which is what the president said the other day: “If Saddam doesn’t disarm, I am prepared to lead a multilateral coalition of the willing, to disarm him.” That suggests a middle ground where the United States would try to build as broad a coalition as possible to carry out any military action, and the question of whether the United Nations would specifically authorize that action would be a separate issue.

Q. When do you think “crunch time” comes, when a decision to go or not to go, comes?

A. A lot of people are looking at the State of the Union coming the day after the update by Hans Blix, the chief inspector, to the United Nations as the second phase of the president’s campaign to win support for military action against Saddam, the first phase being the [president’s] United Nations speech back in September. I think there may be some difficulty because there will only be one day to digest the information. That said, if the newspapers are filled with reports on January 28 of more tough words by Hans Blix that might be enough to launch the second phase.

Q. So you think January 28 could be a big day.

A. It could be. Let me give you a competing theory, however. The competing theory is based on what the British government is telling people around town. The Brits are saying they are confident that, sooner or later, Saddam Hussein will trip over his shoe laces, and to mix metaphors, provide a “smoking gun.” It may not be in time to be in the January 27 report, but sooner or later, that will happen. Because the Brits are confident of that, their advice is not to rush into military action and not to try to base it on information that is less than a smoking gun. This suggests a slightly different strategy. It would require the United States and Britain to keep their forces in the region on high alert for a period of months or longer, until there is a casus belli, at which time there would be a strong basis for military action. This will be tested, as you indicated, when Bush and Blair see each other at the end of the month.

Q. Does the State Department support the British view?

A. Well, I think there is a “flavor of the day or hour,” it seems. One moment a State Department official is reiterating the fact that there is nothing magical about January 27, and at another time a White House official is expressing frustration at Saddam’s lack of cooperation, and that that can’t go on forever.

Q. There seems no doubt that there has been a great deal of policy fluctuations toward North Korea since the summer. What is the latest thinking?

A. Everybody is trying to discern what the administration’s policy is, and whether there is a policy. Assistant Secretary James Kelly was dispatched to the region. He seemed to be sending a message to North Korea of a readiness to talk, and he seemed to be undercut by statements coming from the White House. So it is very confusing.

Q.The South Koreans are taking up the cudgels for the United States in meeting with the North Koreans. Do you think the coordination is there, or are people and governments freelancing for the moment?

A. I think that President-elect Roh Moo Hyun is working very, very hard to forge closer coordination between the United States and South Korea. He is trying to do as much as he can to contradict the impression that there is any space between the United States and the South Korean position. And he is in a strong place to do that because he himself comes from a community which has been skeptical of America’s role on the Korean peninsula. His tour de force performance in an interview with The New York Times calling President Bush “cool” showed that this is a person of some considerable political sophistication.

Q. Walter Russell Mead of the Council on Foreign Relations said last week that one “silver lining” of this was that now it was accepted that North and South Korea can talk together with one another, while at one time North Korea wouldn’t even recognize South Korea.

A. Another way of looking at this is that the benign neglect of the Korean crisis is making us the junior partner in dealing with the North. That I feel is unfortunate, because at the end of the day, we are the ones who are going to have to deal with the North and are the only ones who can deliver the North.

Q. Did the administration make a mistake in saying flatly we had no intention of launching military action against North Korea? Was it wrong to take that option off the table? Or was it forced to do so by circumstances?

A. I think the administration at first defined a conversation as a “concession.” That was a mistake because it limited the administration’s options. Then it jerked in the opposite direction and put only carrots on the table. I think that was also a mistake, because you have to bracket the conversation with the North and by bracketing, I mean you need to indicate what’s acceptable behavior and what’s unacceptable behavior. It was very surprising to hear Secretary Powell essentially say on December 29 that it is okay for North Korea to have a handful of nuclear weapons.

I think what the administration has done is to erase a very long-standing “red line” that was in place since 1993, and that “red line” was “no more processing by North Korea,” or put more starkly, “no more nuclear weapons for North Korea.” I think it is very important to re-establish this “red line.” You don’t have to specify what your response would be, but I think what you ought to say is that the United States would find it unacceptable for North Korea to begin reprocessing or produce nuclear weapons. I think that is very important to put that back on the table.

We have sent mixed messages until now. It’s as if the administration is saying it makes no difference if North Korea has enough nuclear materials for up to two nuclear weapons or if North Korea produces as many as eight actual nuclear weapons. Of course it makes a difference. North Korea has been in the business of selling stuff to bad guys. It likes to engage in brinksmanship. This would be an even more serious crisis if we had to deal with them in possession of half dozen or more nuclear weapons.

Q. Nobody really knows if they have nuclear weapons, right? There is an assumption they have the material for it.

A. You hit it right on the nose. The CIA, in the last two weeks, issued a report on the subject. It didn’t say that North Korea had nuclear weapons. It said that North Korea has probably produced enough plutonium for at least one or possibly two nuclear weapons. That’s very carefully worded language.

Q. North Korea has said most recently that they have no nuclear weapons, and so the CIA is not disagreeing on this point?

A. Right. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has said they do have nuclear weapons and Powell has said on talk shows the same thing. The CIA has not reached that conclusion.

Q. If it were up to you, would you hold a high level meeting to thrash this out?

A. What I would do is try to initiate talks at some appropriate mid-level. I would not rely on China, or South Korea, or Russia to give my talking points. I would do it directly and say that the actions we have seen are unacceptable and if relations between the North and the United States are to improve, the North will have to do much more than it was prepared to do in the 1994 Agreed Framework. And after sending that stern message, I would indicate if more was done, more would be provided.

North Korea also needs to be punished for violating the Agreed Framework by pursuing an alternate path to nuclear weapons by starting a secret uranium enrichment program. I think what that probably means is that we have to insist that the plutonium which is there has to be removed. We might want to look at the agreements we reached after the dissolution of the Soviet Union with Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. Those agreements required getting nuclear weapons out of those countries, and providing suitable security guarantees.

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