Recap of Saturday, July 12

This is a partial transcript from The Beltway Boys, July 12, 2003, that has been edited for clarity. Click here to order the complete transcript.

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SEN. EDWARD M. KENNEDY,D-Mass.: I'm now concerned that we have the world's best-trained soldiers serving as policemen in what seems to be a shooting gallery. And the lack of a coherent plan is hindering our efforts at internationalization and aggravating the strain on our troops...



Tonight's guest captured national attention last summer when his book,Supreme Command, wound up on President Bush's reading list. It was during the time the president was trying to hammer out his Iraq policy.

And the guest is Eliot Cohen, professor and director of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Welcome back to the show, Eliot.


KONDRACKE: Now, you heard Senator Kennedy (search) and the Democrats and lots of Republicans as well are suggesting that the United States should hand the job of security in Iraq off to NATO (search). Is that a sound policy?

COHEN: Well, maybe further down the road. But at the moment, this is, you know, this is such a delicate problem. It's such a complicated problem. And it's very important that you have one power in charge and that it be the United States. And of course, it's important to remember, we do have NATO partners who are in there, most notably the British. The Italians are going to be there too.

But it's very, very important the United States retain control of Iraq, you know, at least for the next year plus, until that situation is stabilized.

KONDRACKE: So do we have enough troops there, then, to do the job of security? Our troops keep getting shot at every day, or every other day, and, and it's, it's beginning…I mean, it's not a big deal domestically yet, but it's beginning to be a drain.

COHEN: Well, it's…look, and the first thing you have to say, it's very important for the administration to be quite honest and candid about what's going on. We are facing a low-level insurgency, that's the bad news. And we didn't really expect it. I think that's, the, you know, the honest truth also.

On the other hand, there, there are some good things. For instance, at the moment this remains fairly confined to the, the Sunni core, as it's called. The Shiites (search) in the south are not doing this, the Kurds (search) in the north certainly are not doing this. There's no external sponsor. These people don't have safe havens. Our troops are being very aggressive about going after them. They're picking people up.

And there…you know, the other part of the good news, which is really not being reported very well at all, is there is movement on the ground in Iraq. You know, they're opening hospitals, there's more power in Baghdad, the oil refineries are open.

It's still…it's a huge, complicated, difficult job, and it's going to be an unsettled situation, and it is going to be a situation where we're doing counterinsurgency, and that's, that's just the fact, and it's very important to be clear about that.

FRED BARNES, CO-HOST: Well, is there some point at which we should say...gee, this counterinsurgency should have worked by now?

COHEN: Yes, but that won't come for a long time. I mean, you know, you really have to have some decent sense of perspective. We're only a couple months after the war. This could go on for a long time. You know, …Iraq has about 60 percent unemployment, you've got a lot of people who were in the army, you have a lot of people who benefited from the regime and have good reason to hate us.

So this is going to go on, unfortunately, for some time. We have to be patient.

BARNES: Eliot, let me show you a bite from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld testimony before Congress this past week, and see what you think about it.


DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: The coalition did not act in Iraq because we had discovered dramatic new evidence of Iraq's pursuit of weapons of mass murder. We acted because we saw the existing evidence in a new light through the prism of our experience on September 11.


BARNES: Now, this raised some eyebrows in Washington this week. Should it have?

COHEN: You know, somebody once said, a gaffe is when you accidentally blurt out the truth.


COHEN: Except I, I don't think it was an accident. That is the truth. I mean, there were no significant new facts about Iraq that had emerged. Iraq was a problem that was there, it was going to have to be dealt with one way the other. And then the sensibility changed on September 11. I think that is 100 percent true.

And I…in my view, we ended up with the right policy. But that is absolutely the truth. I mean, credit to Rumsfeld for saying it.

KONDRACKE: Well, but the situation was that we believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. That fact, viewed through the prism of 9/11 that he might hand them off to a terrorist group, and we might have New York exploded.

If there weren't any weapons of mass destruction there, then that whole case falls apart. I mean, the prism of 9/11 doesn't mean quite as much. So did he have weapons of mass destruction, or didn't he?

COHEN: You know, I think that the prism of 9/11, first, means something a little bit different, which is, you had this tremendous problem with Iraq, the…let's remember that the Iraqi…the system of sanctions that had been imposed on Iraq had been collapsing, the inspections, of course, had been gone. It was quite clear that there were active WMD programs.

What they amounted to, nobody could quite be sure. You know, you, you could hide the quantities of chemicals that we're talking about in this studio that I'm sitting in right now. There may…that stuff may still be there. At the very least, we know that there was a very active research and development program that was…that continued to go on.

You know one thing, one point that is important to remember, we haven't found stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. Maybe we won't. We haven't found Saddam Hussein and his sons either, and nobody is saying that those were a figment of our imagination.

KONDRACKE: Yes, that, that's true. But if we don't find weapons of mass destruction, are we not going to have a difficult time convincing the rest of the world that next time, you know, we need to go after Iran (search) or North Korea (search) or somebody else, that they're going to say, Wait a minute, you got to prove it with a higher level of certitude than you did with Iraq?

COHEN: Well, don't get me wrong. I think, you know, it is very important to establish ground truth about what the nature of that program was, and my own view is that what we will discover is that that program was designed, first it was designed to be concealed, which it makes it very difficult to, to, to really uncover. But it was designed to preserve the capability to manufacture a lot of this stuff very quickly.

You know, the Iraqis could manufacture stuff. They weren't very good at storing it. They just gave themselves a big toxic waste program.

I think on the other hand, the truth is that there's a fair amount of consensus, certainly on the Iranian program, actually it's been quite interesting, the Europeans have gotten a little bit tougher recently on the Iranians. They're beginning to understand what the issue is there too. And something similar with North Korea.

But yes, it is very important that we find out whatever was going on, and that we lay the facts before a candid world, as the Declaration of Independence says.

BARNES: Eliot, Democrats and the media are making a huge issue out of the President's erroneous statement in his State of the Union address last January about Saddam buying uranium from West Africa, which it turned out he did not.

How significant is this, that the president repeated this false information in that address?

COHEN: Well, it's -- obviously it was a bad thing to do, and I'm sure they regret it, I think it's a grand total of about 16 words in a 5,000-word speech, something like that. You know, the truth is that if you go back …the thing to do is, if people have the patience, they should go back and look at the whole speech.

And the whole speech, really, I think, very much still stands. It doesn't go around saying, We're going to find warehouses of chemical weapons if we go in there. It was an indictment, first and foremost, of the nature of that regime.

And everything that we've seen, including all those mass graves, including everything we've learned about how that country was run, tells us our indictment of the regime was correct. In other words, this was not just a mere dictatorship, this was an extraordinarily aggressive and extraordinarily brutal totalitarian regime.

KONDRACKE: Eliot, how concerned are you that our troops, being harassed as they are by, by enemies, will overreact and commit atrocities or be insensitive to the Iraqi population, such that the population turns against us, and we really do have a large-scale insurgency?

COHEN: Well, I think it's a concern. You know, I have a lot of friends and former students who are over there right now, and without exception, they're extraordinary professional soldiers.

On the other hand, you know, ultimately a lot of this comes down to the behavior of 20-, 21-year-olds, sometimes 19-year-olds on mean streets and surrounded by people who speak a language they don't understand.

That is an issue. I think that's one of the reasons why one of the most urgent things is getting an Iraqi force out there. And it was one of the big mistakes that we made going in that we didn't pay nearly enough attention to recruiting that kind of force.

BARNES: Thanks a lot, Eliot.

COHEN: My pleasure.

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