SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
This coming Wednesday marks the fifth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq. So far 3,975 U.S. service men and women have died. Estimates on the number of Iraqis killed range from 47,000 to 151,000, depending on the source. We're going to talk about some of what the war has meant and what the future might hold with two U.S. senators.
But first, when the country was debating the war back in 2002, James Webb, former assistant secretary of defense and secretary of the Navy under President Reagan, put a piece in the Washington Post asking, do we really want to occupy Iraq for the next 30 years? Mr. Webb, of course, is now a Democrat and U.S. senator from Virginia. He joins us from Capitol Hill.
Senator Webb, thanks very much for being with us.
Senator JAMES WEBB (Democrat, Virginia\): Nice to be with you.
SIMON: Five years ago you asked, is there an absolutely vital national interest that should lead us from containment to unilateral war in the long-term occupation of Iraq. So, five years later, did the U.S. have a compelling national interest in toppling a tyrant in that region?
Sen. WEBB: No, it did not. And in fact, in the post-9/11 environment, the strategic relevance of Iraq per se was dramatically reduced. I like to say that the people who argued successfully that an invasion of Iraq was the proper strategic answer to the 9/11 and post-9/11 environment had it exactly backwards.
International terrorism became a global concern, much more than it ever had been before. And there was not a direct nexus between international terrorism and the regime in Iraq, however despicable that regime was. It was not in the national interest of the United States to fall into what I have called a double-strategic mousetrap by invading one country, decapitating the government and being required then to occupy that country for a period of years like this in burning up our fore structure and our economy and taking our eye off of the larger strategic issues.
SIMON: And as you see it, Senator Webb, what would the cost of occupation be?
Sen. WEBB: Well, you mentioned the casualties a couple of minutes ago. There's also been an incredible displacement inside Iraq. And then beyond that, this region now is far more unstable. And then on top of that, I think that you could make a direct connection with the instability of the United States' economy and the increase in international power and prestige of China to what has happened in Iraq.
When I first wrote the Washington Post article that you mentioned in September of '02, oil was $24 a barrel. Yesterday it was $111 a barrel - an all-time high. Gold was, I think, below $300 an ounce. Yesterday it was above $1,000 an ounce for the first time in history.
And all of these considerations intersect when you're looking at how a nation pursues its larger strategic interests and how you protect yourself not only in terms of direct security but in terms of your economic power and your influence around the world.
SIMON: You've been to Iraq, haven't you, senator?
Sen. WEBB: Yes, I have. And my son served in Iraq as an enlisted infantry Marine.
SIMON: What do you make of those Iraqis who now caution that for the first time in years really they have some chance at normal lives because of the increase of U.S. troops and they're concerned about a withdrawal?
Sen. WEBB: I think that if you look at the United States military presence in Iraq, particularly after the Saddam Hussein regime was taken out - in classical strategic terms, our military has been in what is called a holding action. The United States military is not capable in and of itself of bringing major political change.
Without a larger strategic umbrella, regional umbrella, in terms of international diplomacy and without the ability of the Iraqi government to come to some sort of agreement on its future, it's not going to really have the kind of long-term impact that people are hoping for.
SIMON: Senator Webb, among the interviews that Prime Minister Blair gave when he was leaving office - obviously a lot of them touched on Iraq - and he said, look, if the United States and the United Kingdom hadn't done that, years later we would be saying, look, here's a man who continued, Saddam Hussein who continued to defy the U.N. inspectors and brutalized his own people. And if we allowed him to do that for another 10 years, in the end people would say why did we let that go on?
Sen. WEBB: I completely disagree. Saddam Hussein had become less relevant in the equation. And in fact the Iraqi government was cooperating with United Nations weapons inspectors. Moving into this country that was not directly threatening us, decapitating a government and then having to occupy this country has dramatically affected the strategic ability of the United States to do a lot of other things that would have been far more useful.
SIMON: Thank you very much, sir.
Sen. WEBB: Thank you.
SIMON: Senator James Webb of Virginia.