Lawrence J. Korb, the Council’s Director of National Security Studies, asserts that the odds are about 60-40 that the U.S. will go to war against Iraq by late spring. He said that military action might be delayed by the need to prove that Iraq is in violation of U.N. resolutions. Korb, a former senior Pentagon official in the Reagan administration, added that the costs of post-war reconstruction in Iraq could run as much as $200 billion. On defense spending, he said that President Bushs decision to begin deployment of anti-ballistic missiles in Alaska is not a good use of money because the technology is not reliable.
The interview with Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, took place on December 17, 2002.
Q. Most experts seem to think that war is all but inevitable in Iraq. Do you agree, and what are the odds?
A. I would say the odds are probably 60-40 we will go to war. But there still is a chance that we wont because even if the declaration is not very forthright the inspectors will still have to go in and find the violations. I dont think the fact that Saddam has not said something that we think is correct is going to be enough for us to get Security Council support. The United States, or whoever, is going to have to give the Council intelligence that could lead inspectors to finding a violation and Saddam will either be caught red-handed or will try to prevent them from going in. Either of those two things will lead to getting the international support that you not only would want but need to secure before launching an invasion.
Q. The administration has not yet made public what intelligence it has on Iraq. Do you think it should be making this public soon?
A. At some point, the administration needs to make enough public so that it can get support from the world and from the people in the United States. Even though people in the United States support the Presidents goal of regime change, they also want it to be done internationally or multilaterally, so at some point the administration is going to have to make public what they have, if in fact it is a very serious breach of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Q. Is it conceivable that, after all is said and done, the inspectors dont find anything?
A. It is conceivable because I dont think the United States has a specific smoking gun. It would have been put forward before, if they had it, rather than going to the United Nations and taking eight weeks to get the resolution that we wanted. What the United States has are unconfirmed reports; suspicious activities that are going to have to be checked out. For example, you can have a satellite picture of a facility and you can say there appears to be action there. But when you send the inspectors back in, there may not be. After all, Saddam has known the inspectors are coming and probably is moving stuff around so that it wont be in the obvious places. And even if you get reports from defectors, that could be dated information.
The real key is to get a scientist who is working there now to turn on Saddam and thats why the administration has supported taking these people out of the country to interrogate them.
Q. It puts a lot of pressure on Hans Blix, the chief arms inspector, to get them out. He seems uncomfortable with involuntarily taking people out.
A. The Security Council resolution allows that, but it doesnt say you can force somebody to come. And thats going to be the key issue: whether in fact people will voluntarily want to go and talk. I think Blix is correct you cant abduct people against their will, but it also prevents Saddam from stopping someone who wants to go out and talk.
Q. Why do you think there is as much as a 40 percent chance that we wont go to war?
A. I think the inspections have gone better, at least initially than people thought. A lot has changed since 1998. Inspectors have been allowed into the palaces. They have been to a lot of places they knew were somewhat suspect. The Iraqis havent stopped them. They havent had any of the fake traffic accidents. And there havent been cases of Iraqis running out the back door as inspectors come in the front door.
When I say 60-40, I am talking about the odds of attack this year, up until the late spring. I think that even if nothing is found by late spring, the inspectors will still be there as long as Saddam is there. So in effect, he will have to live with these inspectors as long as he wants to stay in power. But nobody really wants to go to war once the hot weather sets in and you get sand storms because thats going to make it more difficult to achieve your military objectives, and result in a greater loss of life.
Q. Everyone remembers the allied land invasion in 1991 to liberate Kuwait that lasted three days. What kind of military action will we have this time? Will it also be a quick one?
A. I think if there is a military action and it occurs during the winter and you get support from countries in the region it will be over in less than a month. What you will do this time is have simultaneous air and ground operations. In the best of all worlds, you would have troops coming in from Saudi Arabia from the south, and if you get Turkish support, troops from the north. And with Kuwaiti support, more troops from the south. With very heavy bombing, it will be very hard for Saddam Husseins forces to stand up to an attack like that.
Q. Can the United States afford this? How much will this cost?
A. If you talk about cost, you have the incremental cost of the operation. We have a $400 billion annual defense budget. You wont have to buy much new equipment. For a one-month war, counting the buildup underway, you are talking about an incremental cost of about $50 billion. Thats the cost of moving troops over there, the weapons that you would expend, the extra money for combat pay for the troops, and activating the reserves. The Persian Gulf campaign in todays dollars cost $80 billion.
Q. That was essentially paid for by the Saudis, right?
A. The last war was actually paid for by the Saudis, the Germans, and the Japanese. We actually made a profit on that war. Nobody likes to admit that. When you look at the incremental costs of the war and what we collected, we actually collected more than the costs of the war. What we did after the war was over was make the books come out even. We assumed we would only provide 20 percent of the incremental costs since we were providing 80 percent of the troops. But that was based on a three-month war. The war did not last three months, so we actually collected more than we actually spent. When the Pentagon sent their list of things they had to buy to replace what was used, they actually asked for more than they used.
Q. Will there be contributions again?
A. I think the contributions will be mostly in kind, bases and air fields for instance. The British will supply troops. The real costs will come after. Who pays for that? Depending on how long the transition takes, the United States will have to establish a military regime and pay the costs. That could cost another $150 billion. Larry Lindsey, the head of the presidents National Economic Council until he was forced to resign recently, said it could cost as much as $200 billion. Bill Nordhaus, the Yale economist, in a study for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, has argued that counting the occupation and a difficult war, it could cost as much as $1.9 trillion dollars over a period of ten years.
Can we afford it? We can afford it if we decide that it is in our national interest, we want to raise taxes, live with a bigger budget deficit. Given the size of our GNP, we can afford it. The real question is at what cost? Higher taxes? Larger budget deficits? What does that do to the economy?
Q. How does that jibe with the administrations desire to cut taxes further?
A. That is what is ironic about this administration. Given what happened on 9/11, Americans were ready to sacrifice and they havent been called on to make any sacrifices at all. Basically, what were saying is we can fight the war on terrorism, deal with the axis of evil, provide prescription drugs for seniors and somehow not pay more taxes. The percentage of GDP that goes to taxes now is below 20 percent. When the elder Bush left office it was close to 22 percent. In terms of historical tax levels, it is low. People are talking about even more tax cuts, or making the ones passed in his first year permanent.
Q. People will have to pay more for state and local taxes, yes?
A. Yes because of the slowdown in the economy. Now, the administration could lessen that by giving money to the states by raising federal taxes. And the state and local governments have been forced to foot a lot of the bill for fighting the war on terrorism, and the administration really has fallen down in terms of giving them the money to help local police and fire departments and things like maritime security.
Q. Explain the Presidents announcement on deploying strategic defense missiles by 2004.
A. Since Reagans speech in 1983, the U.S. has spent something like $85 billion on developing a national missile defense system. We have not put a single thing in place, so we spent $85 billion with very little to show for it. The Republican nightmare would be that they dont get the White House in 2004. A Democrat comes in and keeps us in a research and development stage, which we have been in for the longest time. The announcement today actually deploys something. Having gone to the trouble of destroying the ABM treaty, now you have something in place. Its no longer just a research and development program. It is an actual program. And it is very ironic. Back in 1988, a group of Republicans came to Ronald Reagan and said you have to deploy something before you leave office because if you dont, this thing might not get going.
Basically, by putting it in Alaska, you will need radars in Britain and in Greenland to make this kind of thing effective. Now the irony of this is that you are making a deployment decision before you are really ready.
Q. The missile defense system doesn’t work, does it?
A. No. About half the tests have not worked. You just had one that failed. Youre putting in technology that doesnt really have a high level of effectiveness and is still evolving. This is not just another system. You need a confidence rate of over 90 percent with this, and that means you have to have somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 successful tests. They are nowhere near that. By todays action, you are putting in place technology that is still evolving and has not proven to be effective. If you look at money thats going into this and compare, for example, whats being spent on port security. It’s much more likely that somebody would try to smuggle something into the United States.
Right now, we are spending about $8 billion a year on the missile defense program. This deployment decision will add to that.
Q. Who was pushing for this? The civilians in the Pentagon?
A. No, this is something thats pushed by the Republican Party. You have to understand what national missile defense is to the Republicans. It is an ideology or a theology, not just another weapons system. It is a litmus test of loyalty to the Reagan legacy. Its the only weapons system mentioned in the Republican presidential platforms. It is mentioned in the Contract for America. It comes to a question of ideology. It goes back to the old Republican Party of Taft and McKinley. If you have a national missile defense, its the equivalent of having a big navy. Now it gives you the freedom of action that you wanted. People tend to think that McKinley and all those people were isolationists. Nonsense. They were unilateralists. These were guys who got the American empire. And even when people say the Americans had a small military before Pearl Harbor, we had a big navy. When Teddy Roosevelt sent the Great White Fleet around the world 100 years ago, those were not row boats. The idea was that the seas gave you the freedom to act unilaterally. Well, once you developed ballistic missiles, you lost that. So by developing this national missile defense, you hope this gives you back this freedom to act unilaterally.
Q. Your point is that right now, this is not a good use of money?
A. No, its not a good use of money. Larry Welsh, the former Air Force chief of staff, did a study of the missile defense program about two years ago when Clinton was about to make the same kind of decision. He called it A Rush to Failure.
Q. You were comparing it to port security?
A. If you say dollars are scarce, you would want to put your efforts in that area. As the Councils recent report on homeland security showed, the money is not getting there. You should be helping the states which have to balance their budgets.
Q. Is the Pentagon in favor of this?
A. No, the military is not in favor of this. Basically, the military is looking at this and saying the technology doesnt work that well. We have other priorities. If you want to buy this thing, you should put it over and above the rest of our defense budget. The military leaders have never been enthusiastic about this. They look at it as their money being wasted.