Timetable for Possible War Against Iraq Could Slip Beyond March, Peters Says

February 5, 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.

Michael P. Peters, a career army officer and executive vice president and director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 5 presentation to the United Nations Security Council on Iraq was “really solid” and “filled in a lot of the blanks” left from the president’s State of the Union address. But Peters, who was part of the Desert Storm attack in 1991, says that Powell left open what the next steps against Iraq should be. Despite widespread anticipation of a war against Iraq by the end of February to mid-March, Peters said the timetable was slipping, perhaps as late as April. He added that the United States would lose face and influence among Arab states if it pulled out of the region without a war, barring the unexpected departure of Saddam Hussein.

Peters was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on February 5, 2003.

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You’re an old army man and you’ve participated in many intelligence briefings over the years. Can you give us a critique of Colin Powell’s appearance before the Security Council today?

I think it was really solid. It was very methodical and very comprehensive. I think it filled in a lot of the blanks that were left after the president’s State of the Union speech. I think it corroborated things that the administration has been asserting for a long time but hasn’t, for whatever reason, brought forward. It also introduced some new information that most people were not aware of and the administration had only begun to hint at. This was particularly true of the connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda. And it was certainly exhaustive, maybe even a little bit too exhaustive. It went on a very long time.

Was this a comprehensive revelation of what’s in the intelligence files, or was this the tip of an iceberg?

I think this was probably the tip of the iceberg, particularly in regard to signals intelligence. These examples [voice intercepts] were the least compelling of what he showed.

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You can always fake voice intercepts?

Right. Any kind of intelligence, but especially signals intelligence. Messages are so truncated and cryptic that there are a lot of blanks to fill in. You really have to have done it for a long time to understand the traffic patterns, for example.

What’s going to happen now?

That’s one of the more interesting aspects. Powell left it open. He didn’t say what the next step is going to be. I think in part it is because the target for this was even more the American public and the populace of Western Europe than it was the people who were sitting in that room. And so, I think [U.S. officials] will probably be calibrating a little bit on what the reaction to the presentation is. Before going on to the next step, they will have to decide if this was a convincing presentation, or whether there will have to be additional efforts to make the case.

Other Security Council members— the Russians, the Chinese, and the French— did not take issue with the information but wanted it used to strengthen the inspection effort. Even the British said we should wait until the next inspectors’ report on February 14, and Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, the chief inspectors, are going to Baghdad again this weekend. So the next “moment” will be when they report?

Yes, it seems to me that the administration persuasively justified its rationale for its position— that Iraq is in material breach of Security Council Resolution 1441, and that Saddam Hussein remains a threat, in terms of his ability to use [weapons of mass destruction] on his own, and in particular, [that he has a] connection with terrorism. The part that Powell did not make so persuasively— and that is the problem the administration has with the American people— is “why now?”

What is your answer to “why now?”

The answer to “why now” is that Saddam Hussein will only get stronger. The administration believes that the inspections, no matter how long they drag on, will not find the stuff, and he is going to continue to develop the weapons. The longer you wait, it feels, the more likely he enhances his weapons capability. If, indeed, he is building relationships with terrorists, it worries the administration that either explicitly, or in an endgame, Saddam will become more willing to pass on these weapons and capabilities to terrorists.

The other part of it is obviously that we have a fairly substantial amount of forces flowing into that region. You can keep them there for a while. We will have five carrier battle groups there. We only have 12 carrier battle groups. We are going to have to send one to Korea. That’s half of your battle groups. Typically, you have three in overhaul. That means you only have three spare carrier battle groups out there.

And so, one of the things the administration has done a pretty good job of is phasing-in the deployment of ground troops. There has been a lot of alerting of people [in the Reserves] and news reports of imminent troop movements. They can stretch it out for a while.

Your colleague (ret. Marine) General Bernard Trainor has been predicting mid-March for the war, but that’s getting pretty close?

That is pretty close.

You can’t send a division over without training them there for a month or so, can you?

You don’t need to train them so much, but you have to make sure their equipment gets there. A lot of equipment is in the Gulf region, but if there is to be a major element operating out of Turkey, for instance, it’s going to take two to three weeks to get equipment to Turkey and only two to three days to get the troops there. But the Turks haven’t agreed yet. That’s why it is at least a month away, if we started today, so it is likely to be March, and not February. It could end up in April.

Any likelihood the Iraqis will “come clean?”

It is almost impossible to imagine that scenario. These weapons of mass destruction are something that Saddam Hussein has felt compelled to have for reasons only he probably can completely understand. I can’t see him giving them up.

He probably feels that if he gives them up, he is finished politically. From the White House’s point of view, if we don’t do anything, it is probably a political setback too, barring Saddam’s quitting.

Where we would really lose face and credibility is in the Middle East itself. At this point, I have been surprised at how quiet the Arab states have been. Basically, the impression I have gotten is that they are saying “Let’s do it and get it over with.” If we were to build up all these forces and then go home, it would really undermine our position in the Middle East. So I can’t see that happening for that reason alone.

How does Colin Powell stand now?

Colin Powell’s stature is so great both among the American people and the world community that he is a much more effective messenger than George Bush is. It is probably another reason why the administration rolled it out this way.

Why have so many Americans not been supportive of the war?

Because I don’t think they see the immediate threat to them and their way of life the way President Bush and his administration see it. I think it does get back to 9/11. The president wants to do everything in his power to ensure that nothing like that happens again. The connection between Saddam Hussein, weapons of mass destruction, and al-Qaeda is a threat he wants to deal with before there is an attack rather than afterwards. I think that is the long and short of it.

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