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Interview: Michael O'Hanlon Discusses Iraq And Military Issues Mentioned In The State Of The Union Address

Morning Edition: January 29, 2003

State of the Union - Military Reaction


President Bush spent much of last night's State of the Union address laying out the case for military action against Iraq. He said Secretary of State Colin Powell will go to the United Nations next week to explain the US position. Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution here in Washington.

Good morning.

Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution): Good morning, Bob.

EDWARDS: What's the UN Security Council meeting going to be like?

Mr. O'HANLON: Well, I think President Bush clearly has decided now is the time to ratchet up the pressure on Saddam and to get the world behind us in getting ready for war. I'm not sure he wants to declare a war next week or tell the allies this is it. But he's certainly going to say that the sand is slipping out of the hourglass pretty fast. And I think you're going to see the entire month of February devoted to this kind of activity and this is just the first meeting as we try to ultimately work towards a vote if we can or, at a minimum, building a coalition for war by roughly the end of February, beginning of March.

EDWARDS: And next Wednesday starts that clock on launching the war with Iraq.

Mr. O'HANLON: Exactly. And, of course, the administration's in a remarkably tough bind diplomatically. It had 15-to-0 as the vote in favor of the resolution last fall demanding that Saddam disarm or be disarmed, as the president puts it. But he's lost most of those 15 votes since then and we have Britain and maybe a couple other countries that would support us at the moment, so it's been quite a bad turnaround and he's really got to fix that situation, because we can't go to war on our own.

EDWARDS: Is war inevitable unless Saddam Hussein leaves office or is deposed?

Mr. O'HANLON: It's getting pretty close to that, although there is, I think, at least one other option, which is that Saddam himself will have a change of heart and decide that it's time to stop stonewalling and actually allow himself to be disarmed. And, you know, he can invent all sorts of excuses for why he didn't do it before. He can say three or four of his generals hid chemicals away from him and never told him where they were and, don't worry, rest assured, those three or four generals have been dealt with and the chemicals are now available for the world to destroy. He could say something like that in the next few weeks. And, if he does, I think war still may be averted. But otherwise, it seems almost certain.

EDWARDS: Now you said you feel the US can't do this alone. President Bush said that, while the US wants other countries to join a coalition against Saddam Hussein, he added, `The course of this nation does not depend on the decision of others.'

Mr. O'HANLON: He did say that and it was strong language. It's also the way Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Cheney sounded last summer before Mr. Bush put them in their place and said, `We need the world and we're going to try very hard to develop a strategy the world will support.' We can't really do this thing militarily without a lot of help from regional countries and we don't want to risk the entire backlash of the Muslim world against us by ourselves. This has to be grounded in international law and a strong consensus. So if Mr. Bush goes back to the very concept he himself articulated last fall, he's got to try to develop a coalition. But I think he's putting countries like France and Germany on notice that, `We meant what we said and either Saddam will disarm himself or be disarmed and we'll find a way to make a coalition with or without you.' So it's a careful balancing act and last night was more in the spirit of the strong language, but he's going to work very hard in February to put together a coalition.

EDWARDS: The president plans to form a new entity to analyze all terrorist threats. Given everything that's already been done to centralize anti-terrorist efforts, why is this necessary?

Mr. O'HANLON: Well, we don't really have, Bob, a good part of the government, a large part that's devoted to try to think of what terrorists might do next. You know, we've gotten a lot better at sharing information on watch lists and constructing names of individuals and making sure that everyone knows who are suspects are and try and watch for them. We don't spend a lot of time, however, red teaming, trying to imagine new tactics that haven't even been considered or employed before by al-Qaeda. That's just one example of the kind of new intelligence effort I think we need and it's long overdue. We're now more than 16 months past 9/11 and it's getting to be high time to get this kind of thing done.

EDWARDS: Thank you very much.

Mr. O'HANLON: My pleasure.

EDWARDS: Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution.

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