Transcript

227:

Why We Fight
Transcript

Originally aired 12.20.2002

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/227

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe that before we go to war with any country, we have to agree as a nation on how to pronounce its name: I-rack E-rack, Irock, Errack. Let's get it together people. Have you heard this story? Back in July, a Democratic senator on the Senate Intelligence Committee asked the nation's intelligence agencies for a report explaining just how much of a threat Saddam Hussein was.

There are 13 different intelligence agencies in our country. And they were saying different things. So Senator Bob Graham from Florida asked for a report, which would look at all the data from all the agencies and come to one set of conclusions. If the Senate was going to have to vote on a war, it seemed important to have a clear sense of just how much danger Iraq posed or did not pose.

He had to ask a few times. It got, actually, rather heated. It took a long time, so long that by October, the Senator accused the CIA of obstructionism for failing to get this information to the Senate. And then, finally, just a few days before the congressional vote on the war, he got his report. And when Senator Graham read this report and what it said, he thought it was so important that he asked the intelligence agencies to declassify some of its main conclusions so it could be released to the general public, which he says they agreed to do.

Bob Graham

But it seemed that what they had done is declassify those parts of the report which essentially supported the position that we ought to go to war with Iraq as a first priority. Other pieces of information and analysis which were in the report were not released.

Ira Glass

So he went back and asked for some of the other material-- the stuff that did not necessarily support the case for war-- to be declassified. And after a few days of wrangling, it finally was. And what it said was this-- and this is actually the part of the story that maybe you've heard if you pay close attention to the news. The intelligence community concluded that Saddam Hussein was not an imminent threat, that he probably would not use his weapons of mass destruction for the foreseeable future-- that was actually the exact phrase they used: for the foreseeable future-- unless we attacked and started to win a war against him. At which point, he probably would use his weapons of mass destruction.

Bob Graham

When Saddam Hussein reaches the conclusion that all is lost, that he is, in fact, about to be removed from power, at that point, he becomes the most dangerous. And that danger would be reflected in his use of weapons of mass destruction against the invading troops, on neighboring countries. And third, he would likely, 75% or greater chance, form alliances with terrorist groups in order to initiate terrorist attacks against the American people here at home.

Ira Glass

In other words, if we're going to war to prevent Saddam Hussein from using his weapons of mass destruction, going to war will actually cause the very thing that we're starting the war to prevent. Now it's not like this story didn't get any play. It was in the paper for a day or two. There were reports on radio and television.

But then, after a couple of days, it just kind of dropped off the radar. And at this point, for a politician or for a member of the press to bring it up-- it's hard to bring it up without seeming like you're just out there on the fringe, like you're some kind of extremist, pinko, unpatriotic, like you're against the President, like you are picking a fight.

In the weeks that followed that report coming out, I've sometimes thought about it as I've seen other news stories. And it always has this feeling of, did that really happen? Did that really happen? It's like this event which vanished off the face of the earth, never to be spoken of again. And if you ask Senator Graham, he says that he really thought that declassifying this material would have more impact on the debate over going to war with Iraq.

Bob Graham

Yes, I thought that this identification of the danger here in the homeland by an energized group of foreign terrorist agents would have caused us to say, let's reassess what our priorities are. And, in my judgment, such a reassessment would have led to the conclusion that the first thing we should do is to reduce, to the maximum extent possible, the capability of these terrorists who are sleeping among us. And once we had concluded that we had accomplished that objective, then turned to the issue of Iraq.

Ira, let me ask you a question.

Ira Glass

Mm hm.

Bob Graham

I assume you have, or will be talking to people in the administration and asking them questions.

Ira Glass

Now, this kind of caught me off guard. At the end of our conversation, Senator Graham told me he had some questions of his own for the administration, that he would like for me to ask them about Saddam using his weapons of mass destruction against us.

Bob Graham

The question that I would ask is, do you have a different assessment of what the consequences of a successful war against Iraq would be than that which has been now made public by the US intelligence community? And then, what are you doing to deal with this potential threat against the people of the United States?

Ira Glass

And when you've gone to the administration, and when the committee has posed these questions, what have they told you all?

Bob Graham

It's just passive and non-responsive, essentially denial, that the most important thing to do now is to take down Saddam Hussein. And if that involves accepting some potential adverse consequences, so be it.

Ira Glass

So if I can just speak for myself and the staff of this radio program, we're confused. We still have some basic questions about why we're going to war and whether it's a good thing. And we are not alone. In fact, the staff of this radio show is squarely with the majority of Americans on this issue.

A Los Angeles Times poll this week revealed that while most Americans support the idea of going to war, we like our president, most of us also feel that the President has not explained why we're doing this. 2/3 of Americans say that he has failed to make a convincing case that war with Iraq is justified. We're with him. We're rooting for him. But we don't know why.

Here are some tourists from around the country at the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in New York City.

Woman 1

I have mixed feelings. I have more issues with bin Laden than I do with what's going on in Iraq.

Man 1

There's other ways to deal with the issue. I don't think that it's compelling enough to go to war.

Woman 2

I haven't really decided yet. I think I'm for it. But I don't know the details.

Man 2

I have mixed feelings about it. I want to see proof that there indeed is a threat to the country.

Ira Glass

Today on our program, we step into the breach. We ask a few simple questions about the coming war and get some answers. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. Each week, as you may know, we choose some theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme.

Today's program, Why We Fight. Our program in four acts. Act One, Senator's Proxy. In that act, we get some poor soul from the administration on the phone to answer Senator Graham's very loaded questions. Act Two, When Firas Comes Marching Home Again, in which we hear from an Iraqi soldier, who might have to fight the United States in the coming war, about what chances he thinks he has against the most powerful military in the history of man. Act Three, Realism 101. We think that it is possible that the most compelling arguments for the war and the most compelling arguments against the war are both arguments that you have not heard. Act Four, Kids' Letters to Santa-- excuse me-- to President Bush. Stay with us.

Act One. Senator's Proxy.

Ira Glass

Act One, Senator's Proxy. OK. Let's just say up front that we all take it for granted here that when a politician asks a reporter to go to his political opponent with a question, that is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Having said that, it seemed like a good question. And I have to say, after trying to get an answer from the administration, I understand Senator Graham's frustration. We tried calling five, yes five, different places within our Federal Government: the White House, the National Security Council, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the Pentagon's new head of domestic counterterrorism. All of them had the very good sense to turn us down.

And then, we remembered that President Bush had created an office for this very purpose, the Office of Homeland Security. There, we found somebody who kindly agreed to speak with us, namely--

Gordon Johndroe

Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House Office of Homeland Security.

Ira Glass

Now, the intelligence community concluded in October that if we attack Saddam Hussein, if he's cornered, then he'd be likely to use his weapons of mass destruction, his chemical or biological weapons, on troops, on neighboring countries, or here in the United States. And it's that last possibility we wanted to talk to you about. It's of particular concern to Senator Bob Graham from Florida. And he had a question or two he wanted us to ask you.

Gordon Johndroe

[LAUGHS] OK.

Ira Glass

First of all, do you all have a different assessment of the consequences of cornering Saddam Hussein? Do you agree that he might strike here in the US if we start winning the war?

Gordon Johndroe

Well, one, the President has made no decision about going to war, he says war is his last resort.

Ira Glass

Sure.

Gordon Johndroe

But secondly, homeland security agencies will raise our protective measures and take the appropriate actions to address the threat.

Ira Glass

And is it the assessment still of the Office of Homeland Security-- do they agree with the intelligence community, back in October, that if we in fact do go to war, and if in fact we start winning, then the threat is greater here at home?

Gordon Johndroe

That is an assessment for the intelligence community to make. And if intelligence suggests that Iraq is planning an attack, and we have information on it, we will respond to that.

Ira Glass

But if one is to take this intelligence assessment seriously, what do you want us to walk away from this with, those of us who've read this in the paper or have heard about this? Do you want us to believe, OK, if we go to war with Iraq, you guys have us covered? We don't need to worry? Or do you want us to think, if we go to war with Iraq, OK, we should all understand we're in a little bit more danger here?

Gordon Johndroe

Well, I think that just remains to be seen. And what people need to be reassured is that if that leads to heightened concerns about threats and potential attacks, we will take the appropriate action to meet those threats.

Ira Glass

And how confident is the Department of Homeland Security that it could stop any threat?

Gordon Johndroe

What our responsibility is to do is to take action to prevent and protect. And if, unfortunately, we are unable to do that, then we will respond to save as many lives as possible. Recently, we put together all the transactions, all the people that get visas, or all people that cross our borders, or fly into our airports, or containers that come in, and there are about 1.3 billion transactions a year where a terrorist or a terrorist weapon could come into this country. And we have to be right 1.3 billion times a year. And the terrorists only have to be right once.

Ira Glass

That does not sound very reassuring.

Gordon Johndroe

Well, I think most people would agree, though, that this is a challenge, but that everyone is rising to this challenge.

Ira Glass

When I talked to Senator Graham, he raised this possibility. He wondered if it was the administration's position that you're prepared to accept whatever the consequences will be here in the United States, that it's more important to the country to eliminate Saddam Hussein, and that if some people should die in US cities as a result, well, we don't have a choice. That's the cost of war.

Gordon Johndroe

Well, I would just say that the President's number one responsibility and number one job is protecting the American people.

Ira Glass

Right. But is it--

Gordon Johndroe

The President is not willing to give up lives, like you say, like Senator Graham says, almost kind of casually in the way that he couched it. And I just-- I take issue with that.

Ira Glass

Well, he was wondering if that was the administration's policy. Is it?

Gordon Johndroe

No, it is not the administration's policy. The administration's policy is to protect Americans.

Ira Glass

Gordon Johndroe of the Office of Homeland Security.

[MUSIC-"MEAN OLD WORLD" BY SAM COOKE]

Act Two. When Firas Comes Marching Home Again.

Ira Glass

Act Two, When Firas Comes Marching Home Again. OK. We're going to continue asking basic questions from people in the United States about why we're going to war in just a few minutes, in Act Three. And we actually get some explanations that do explain it. But before we get to all of that, we wanted to hear some Iraqi perspectives on this.

Though, if you've paid even the slightest attention to news reports, you know that it is very difficult for reporters to get anyone in Iraq to speak honestly about the regime or the coming war. They're too frightened of reprisals from the government. There is a huge population of Iraqis who come in and out of the country every day just over the border from Iraq in Jordan. There, they can speak more freely. And Adam Davidson talked to a few of them.

Adam Davidson

If you want to get a sense of how many people are passing back and forth between Jordan and Iraq every day, you just need to go to the eastern part of Amman where there's this gigantic parking lot next to a big highway. The lot is filled with neatly lined up SUVs and Chevrolet Caprices-- the car used by taxi drivers and cops back in the States-- that drive every day, back and forth between Baghdad and Amman. It's hard to understand how they stay so clean. They're all white, except for these orange panels at each corner. They look brand new even though they drive 9 to 12 hours through the desert at least once a day, and often twice.

These cars bring hundreds of Iraqi refugees here every day. There are about 150,000 of them in Amman right now, whole neighborhoods filled with nothing but Iraqis. The cars also smuggle cigarettes, family carpets and silverware, dates-- Iraq is famous for its dates-- anything of value. So most things coming from or going to Iraq spend some time in Amman, a lot of them in this parking lot.

The first Iraqi I run into is Firas, a tall, elegant man in a jalabiya robe and a leather jacket. He sells cloth in Baghdad. And he came to Amman for a few days to meet up with his cousin who has been living abroad, saving money for the family back home in Iraq. Firas tells me he's a reserve soldier. He fought on the front lines of the Iran-Iraq war and the Persian Gulf War. And he knows he'll be called upon soon to fight the Americans.

Adam Davidson

Have you had special training recently, in the last few months, for this American war?

Firas

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Omar Translating

I didn't get any training in the last two years in the Iraqi Army, in any unit, or even any units I knew about from my friends, they didn't have any training in the last two years. But we have enough experience of fighting in the last 15, 20 years with Iran, with the Americans, the Gulf War. We are very well prepared, even without getting any experience or any training to refresh our army or the power of the Iraqi Army today.

Adam Davidson

Have you gotten orders yet for this war?

Firas

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Omar Translating

3, 4 days before the war, usually, they call us to dress and to go to our units. And usually, we do that easily. So we go to the last unit that we served in. And we know where the location is of that. Easily, we can get into there.

Adam Davidson

Now, what we're told in America is that the Iraqi Army-- I don't want to offend you-- but that it's weak right now. It doesn't have the training. It doesn't have the money. It doesn't have the support. And so we're told it will be a tough fight, but we're going to win it very easily.

Firas

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Omar Translating

We know that America is a superpower now in the world. Nobody can fight America in the whole world. But what are we going to do? America is going to use the computer wars, and electronic wars, and very strong bombardments. And they will attack us. And they will kill us. But we have to defend ourselves.

Adam Davidson

Do you see Iraqi soldiers preparing for the ground war in Baghdad or in your city?

Firas

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Omar Translating

We've been in wars in the last 25 years. Do you understand what I mean by 25 years? Almost 2/3 of my age now, of my life. So the Iraqi Army, they're not really prepared for anything, because they are expecting that the Americans will kill them all, and they can't do anything against it. So this is the situation.

Adam Davidson

I ask him if he thinks he'll die. His reply is what any Muslim might say, that we believe in Allah. We believe in death. Death will come now, or it will come later, Allah decides.

I ask him if he'd like Americans to get rid of Saddam. And he tells me Saddam is bad. But whoever the Americans install could be worse. He doesn't expect any good leader to come to Iraq.

Firas

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Adam Davidson

Then, Firas says he has to go. He has to help his friend Adnan move some rugs. I ask if I can come along. And we walk a few hundred yards down the road.

Firas

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Omar Translating

These rugs are at least 50 to 60-year-old rugs. So we usually buy them from Iraqi poor people who want to buy food, so they sell their rugs and their carpets. They have them at home.

Adam Davidson

Adnan left Baghdad 10 months ago and now oversees this rug smuggling business. We're standing next to a store. I say store, it was really just an empty concrete room about the size of a small garage, packed floor to ceiling with rolled up rugs. Adnan and Firas watch five guys load them onto a truck heading to Saudi Arabia.

Adnan invited us into his apartment. The house is three medium-sized concrete rooms with rugs everywhere. They sleep on rugs in the back. They sit on rugs in the living room, which is completely bare except for the rugs and one plastic chair. We sit, Adnan the rug merchant, Firas the soldier, and a bunch of young 18-ish Iraqi guys who never say a single word, but follow our conversation attentively. Then this Egyptian guy they're all friends with shows up.

Egyptian Man

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Adam Davidson

I want to talk with him about the coming war. But the Egyptian guy launches into all these ready-made speeches about how America wants to destroy Islam, how all Americans hate Arabs, hate Islam. I keep telling him that most Americans don't know anything about Arabs or Islam and don't really care. They just worry about their own lives. He doesn't believe me.

Egyptian Man

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Adam Davidson

When I look over at the Iraqis, they look completely bored.

Egyptian Man

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Adam Davidson

Finally, there's a break in the conversation. And I ask the Iraqis what they think. They tell me they don't care about these big issues. They don't care about Islam versus the West, about America's evil plans to destroy all Arabs. Those are just abstractions to them. They know that their homes might be bombed in a few weeks. And they seem genuinely curious to understand anything I can tell them about what Americans are thinking. Here's Firas, the soldier.

Firas

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Omar Translating

What's all that issue about Saddam Hussein? Saddam Hussein, the Americans made him bigger than-- give him bigger than his-- his name is much bigger than his size. What does Saddam mean? He's very small. So he's nothing. So why? Americans know things that we don't know here?

Adam Davidson

Firas is sure the guy is bad. But there are worse people, like the North Koreans. And I don't know what to say to him. So I stumble around like an idiot, trying to explain American foreign policy, which I honestly don't understand myself, to people whose families might be bombed-- another conversation you find yourself in with disturbing frequency around here.

Adam Davidson

I mean, I find it very confusing myself. I think there are few-- George Bush-- it's very hard to fight--

Then Adnan, the rug merchant, tells me that most Iraqis he knows support a war. They want America to get rid of Saddam. But they're worried. He says, and I've heard this a lot, that the uprising against Saddam after the Gulf War was very real and widespread. And the Americans just abandoned them.

Adnan

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Omar Translating

We are with the Americans if they are true, if they're not going to change their mind now. We are with them 100%. But we are afraid. And Saddam is really preparing and now having groups of terrorists. And they are ready to attack the Americans, American soldiers, and American troops, and American civilians in most of the Arab countries during the war.

Adam Davidson

This, of course, is exactly what American intelligence has been predicting since October.

Adnan

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Adam Davidson

Adnan then, more or less, begs me to tell all of America about his best friend who was taken away by Saddam's Mukhabarat secret police and killed just because he started a home prayer group. Adnan tells me to use his real name and his friend's real name and to take his picture, things Iraqis usually won't do with the press, and which, in the end, I decided not to do. But Adnan is so sick and tired of the situation, he doesn't care what happens. He just wants the truth out.

Adnan

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Omar Translating

So Saddam Hussein is a man of violence. Saddam Hussein killed his people. Saddam Hussein used chemicals against his people. Saddam Hussein used biological against his people. So fear is the principle of our life today in Iraq.

Adnan

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Adam Davidson

While he's saying this, Firas, the soldier, starts looking nervous. He's going back to Baghdad in a few days. And my guess is that he doesn't want to say anything that will get him in trouble. And so I turn to him.

Adam Davidson

You don't want to talk about this stuff, do you?

Omar Translating

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Firas

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Omar Translating

I've never heard of these things before.

Adam Davidson

He looks directly in my eyes, smiling as he says this. Basically, you know what I'm doing. I know what I'm doing. Everyone knows what I'm doing. He adds that he's happy with Saddam, but he doesn't know what the other guys think. Saddam Hussein is such a peaceful man, he says. He doesn't even know he invaded Kuwait. [LAUGHTER]

Omar Translating

They're laughing, you know? Saddam Hussein didn't hear about his army invading Kuwait. [LAUGHS] He's a very peaceful person.

Adam Davidson

There are so many Iraqis here, and they're so desperate. It's amazing who you meet and what they say to you. A couple days later, when Omar and I are walking around a different Iraqi neighborhood a young guy sees my microphone, comes up to us, and talks fast in Arabic. He says he was one of Saddam's personal bodyguards and would like to help the Americans kill him. He wants to talk to me, he says. But he can't do it in his neighborhood because people might turn him in to the Iraqis.

I invite him to my hotel. And he comes along. He asked me not to use his real name, or his voice, for that matter. It's just too dangerous. So I'll call him Nabil. And you'll only hear Omar's translation.

Nabil is a big guy, fat and tall. But he holds himself like an elite soldier. He sits in my room and tells me a lot about Saddam's palaces. He said that one of Saddam's palaces, Saddam's favorite, has a giant glass floor built on top of a huge aquarium with sharks and giant fish. Later, I check into this, and it's true. His life was great when he guarded Saddam. Saddam personally gave him a grand apartment.

Adam Davidson

What was he like? Did you get to know him? Was he ever funny? Did you like him?

Omar Translating

It seems that Saddam Hussein has a special personality, unique personality. When you come to look at him on the TV, you come to hate him. For all the things that he made for the people, you come to hate him.

But when you come close to him, and you just come one meter, two meters from him, you just change your mind. Different feelings usually come to your mind. Different feelings come to your body. Different feelings come to your eyes when you look at him. When you come very close to him, it seems that there is magic in this personality and in this man.

Adam Davidson

Nabil quit the army when his term was over. And a few days later was arrested by the Mukhabarat, the secret police, and taken to a prison for divulging secrets about Saddam's palaces. He tells me that it wasn't true what he was accused of. It was trumped up.

But still, they beat him with steel pipes, badly. He shows me his arm and forehead where the bones haven't healed properly. Half his teeth are bashed in and haven't been fixed. He says that he was in jail for weeks and finally was released, but was then told by a friend that he was targeted for death. So he escaped to Amman. He said he was always a healthy man, but now he just smokes and drinks coffee and thinks of ways to kill Saddam.

Adam Davidson

You said you want to help the Americans. Have you tried to make contact with the Americans?

Omar Translating

I'm always scared, because I don't know if the Mukhabarat are watching me now or not. I don't know when they're going to kill me. I don't know whom I have to contact. But if anybody wants to use me-- and for sure I know everything. I know where are all the weapons are that they took from Kuwait, where it is now. And I know where the stores are, where they store it, in the north, and the south, and in the center of Iraq.

Adam Davidson

Of course, there's no way to tell if he's credible or not without going into Iraq and doing inspections. So Hans Blix, here's what he's got. He told me there are weapons of mass destruction. And they're sitting in giant, movable bunkers under the sand dunes in a suburb of Tikrit. He didn't want money or any special privileges. He just wanted to talk to somebody.

The next day, I go to the Iraqi Embassy in Amman, because part of the reason why I'm here is that I'm trying to get into Baghdad like all the other reporters. In the past two weeks, I've probably spent 30 hours at the embassy waiting to get a visa. Usually, a bunch of US reporters sit in a clump in the lobby, and nobody talks to us. But that day, an old man came up to me and my translator and said he'd like to tell us things about Saddam. I told him he shouldn't be talking to me in the embassy. And he agreed to meet us the next night.

So the next night, my translator, Omar, and I pick him up at a gas station in a poor Iraqi neighborhood and take him to Omar's house. He tells me he was a famous dancer in Iraq. He has that sort of regal, straight-backed dancer's presence. He says he used to be in charge of several major theaters. And every year, he put on the big birthday celebration for Saddam. He met the man several times and had a very nice life. Then, his brother was killed for being loyal to one of Saddam's opponents, and the dancer came under suspicion.

Old Man

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Omar Translating

They beat me in the minister's office. And then, they called the Mukhabarat intelligence. And they took me in a van. And three people, they beat me until we arrived at the police station. And after that, I was in the Mukhabarat. There, I couldn't sleep for more than 30 days. They put me in a small prison, one meter by one meter. I couldn't realize if it's dark or light, if it's night or day. And I stayed there for three years.

Adam Davidson

His story doesn't get any better. Not only did they constantly beat him, but they cut his right ear in half, broke his legs, his arms, his hands, and put knives in his back. One day, he says, Saddam's son, Uday, came by and oversaw the torture. At one point, he made the man take off all his clothes and told him, you're a dancer. You have to dance now.

Old Man

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Omar Translating

Yes, of course, they cut all his fingers. They broke all my fingers.

Adam Davidson

They look like they've been broken, yeah.

Omar Translating

The nails. They took the nails, yeah.

Adam Davidson

He just pulled his fingers to show how they pulled it. And you can see that his nails are not put-- you can see that his nails are not-- they're scarred all around. God, it's so upsetting to look at his hands. It's just so upsetting looking at him. His hands are just-- they look like they were broken and put back together.

Old Man

[SPEAKING ARABIC]

Adam Davidson

After he left prison, he went to find his wife and discovered that she had been taken and killed because she screamed bad things about Saddam in the street after he was arrested. Then, his six-year-old son died from some untreated illness. The man is now homeless and told me he was walking the streets, begging for money when he came upon the Iraqi Embassy.

He decided to just go in, sit down, and wait for someone to arrest him and kill him. He says that's when he saw us and decided to stay alive a little bit longer. Maybe our interview would help somehow. At one point, he pulled out an article about himself from eight years ago, just eight years ago. I thought it was 30 years old. In the picture, he looks so young and happy and healthy, standing proudly in front of a group of his dance students.

Omar Translating

And he started to beat me.

Adam Davidson

The old man spoke softly, calmly, crying a little bit every now and then. And while he talked, my translator, Omar's, eyes were wet. He could barely speak the words.

If I could say a word about what it's been like to talk to all these people, I came to the middle east thinking this war that's coming is a terrible thing. I still don't really understand why we're doing it. But I feel sick. I really, actually have had a stomach ache this whole week talking to these Iraqis, hearing what Saddam Hussein has done to his people.

One woman sobbed as she told me about her son who was killed because he wouldn't fight in the Persian Gulf War. A middle-aged man explained how members of the regime took food from his grocery store until he protested, and they beat him and threw him in jail for a year. Now, he sits in a room all day in Amman with his wife and six kids, because he's too afraid he'll be deported back to Iraq where he'd be killed. After talking to all these Iraqi exiles, I want Saddam Hussein to die.

I asked pretty much every Iraqi if they fantasize about life after Saddam, if they ever think, wow, in three or four months, he might be dead, my country might be free? Not one said they think about it. They're too tired. And Saddam Hussein has been there for so long, they just can't imagine life without him. I just hope we do the right thing, that if there's a war, whatever ruler ends up running Iraq is a good man.

Ira Glass

Adam Davidson in Amman, Jordan. Coming up, Dear Mr. President, my birthday is November 12. And I'll be 15, so if you are president, you'll get me something, and other kids' letters to George Bush in this time of war. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. Realism 101.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Why We Fight, stories trying to understand the coming war with Iraq, or should I say, the likely war with Iraq? We've arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, Realism 101.

All right. Right now the administration is throwing around a number of arguments for the war, which I'm guessing are familiar to all of us at this point: Iraq's links to Al Qaeda, Iraq breaking a lot of UN resolutions, the ever popular, Saddam tried to kill my daddy. But at its heart, the case comes down to the idea that it is only a matter of time before Saddam Hussein gets a nuclear weapon. And when he does, it'll be a disaster for us and for the world.

Well it turns out that the most interesting, and maybe the most compelling argument against the war in Iraq hasn't actually gotten a lot of attention in the public debate, in Congress or in the media. And one of the things that's interesting about the argument is that it does not come from a bunch of lefty peaceniks. No, no, no, it comes from a group of foreign policy experts who look at the tough guys in the administration and think they are not tough enough. It's a school of thinking called the Realists. Back in September, a journalist named Nicholas Lemann wrote an article in The New Yorker magazine explaining the Realists, which is how we heard of them.

Nicholas Lemann

Within the foreign policy world, these arguments against war are totally in circulation, and they're talked about a great deal. In the wider world, where politicians say things to the public, the case against the war is still not really in circulation. And it looks like it may never be.

Ira Glass

What we're going to do now is run through some of the arguments that are put forward by the Realists, which are pretty convincing. And then, we're going to hear some of the arguments against them, which I have to say, are also pretty convincing. And we're going to do all this because a lot of this just has not been in general circulation. When I was doing the interviews for this story, I was constantly surprised at what I was hearing from both sides. And I'm guessing that might be true for you also.

OK. So let's start. To give you a sense of just how different the Realists are from everyone else in the public debate, you can just start with this: Pretty much every politician, every commentator on television and radio, every mainstream voice out there accepts as a given that there should be a war on terror. As Nicholas Lemann points out, the war on terrorism has framed the way that we all think about these things. It's entered the language. We take it for granted. At this point, it just seems like the logical, inevitable response to the September 11 attacks to most everyone, except the Realists. They oppose the War on Terror.

I'll say that again. They oppose the War on Terror. And they oppose it on practical grounds. They think it's ill conceived. And they think it won't work.

Stephen Van Evera

I think he should have declared a narrow war on Al Qaeda. To declare war on terror defines a war on a whole lot of groups out there in the world, a lot of whom have never taken a swing at the United States, don't intend to take a swing at the United States. We need to keep our eye on the ball and not get distracted.

Ira Glass

This is Stephen Van Evera, a specialist in international affairs and security issues at MIT.

Stephen Van Evera

When you say you're going to war with terror that means, hey, who's your enemy out there? The FARC in Colombia, and the terrorists in China, Chechnya, you name it. We don't need more enemies. We need to focus on the danger we face.

Ira Glass

And how's the War on Terror going?

Stephen Van Evera

Poorly. It's going poorly if you look at objective measures. Al Qaeda is still out there. They're still strong. They're still able to land a big punch. We've only caught about 40% of their top leaders, which is a disaster 15 months into the war. The CIA warns us that they're as capable as they were before 9/11, that the threat they pose is as large as it was before 9/11. So if you look at it objectively, we're not doing well.

Ira Glass

Are you worried? Are you frightened by the focus on Iraq at the expense of Al Qaeda?

Stephen Van Evera

Yes, I am. I am unsold on this war in Iraq. I think Saddam's a horrible fellow, and a nasty guy, and a threat, but Al Qaeda poses a much more serious threat.

Ira Glass

When it comes to Iraq, the Realists not only point out all the practical problems with the war-- that it might lead to huge problems in Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons that could end up in the wrong hands, that we could bungle the occupation after we win. What they see in Afghanistan, they do not find encouraging. But beyond that, they question the central reason for the war. And again, they do it on grounds that have not gotten a lot of attention publicly.

The administration's central argument, as you know, is that we have to stop Saddam Hussein before he gets nuclear weapons. The Realists say, if he gets nuclear weapons, so what? So what?

Stephen Walt

I believe that Iraq, even if it had weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, would not be able to do very much with those weapons.

Ira Glass

That's Steven Walt from Harvard, another Realist.

Stephen Walt

And the reason it can't is because it cannot threaten to use them without facing retaliation from the United States or from others. There's good historical evidence suggesting that Saddam Hussein, like other dictators before him, can easily be contained and deterred. If you look at the historical record, this is a government that has only used force when they were vulnerable, when they were feeling threatened, and, most importantly, when they felt their opponents were isolated.

So if you go back to the Iran-Iraq war, this is a case where the Iranians were the aggressors, were actively trying to overthrow the Iraqi regime, and yet were also isolated and appeared to be vulnerable. So he fought. Similarly, the Gulf War, the invasion of Kuwait, they had serious financial problems. The Kuwaitis were playing various games with oil quotas that were helping keep Iraq weak and vulnerable. And most importantly, we gave them, I think, an inadvertent green light, the famous April Glaspie interview where she says, we, the United States, have no interest in inter-Arab disputes, such as the border dispute between Kuwait and Iraq.

Ira Glass

She was a US ambassador in the region that--

Stephen Walt

That's correct. She was the US Ambassador in Baghdad. And I don't think we intended to signal him that we weren't interested in Kuwaiti security. But that is, in effect, what we did. The lesson of the Gulf War is not that he can't be deterred. It's that we didn't even try to deter him.

Ira Glass

OK. Let's just stop that tape right there. As you've probably noticed, this is a very different Saddam Hussein than we're used to hearing about. He's not a madman. He's not hell-bent on territorial expansion and bullying other countries around. He's rational-- rational enough to heed warnings from others. And Stephen Walt knows that all of this sounds just a little bit funny to basically any civilian like you and me that he ever talks to about this.

Stephen Walt

I don't mean to be an apologist for Saddam Hussein at all. He is in fact a brutal despot. But if you look at his foreign policy conduct, like many despots in the past, such as Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedong, he's actually quite concerned with his own personal survival and quite concerned with the survival and security of his regime. That has made him actually relatively prudent in using force.

The other point to note is, this is a man who's never used weapons of mass destruction against anyone who could retaliate. He used them against the Iranians who had no such weapons themselves. And he used them against the Kurdish population in Iraq, also a group that couldn't retaliate. He's never tried to use weapons of mass destruction against us, against the Israelis, against the Saudis.

Ira Glass

I saw in something you wrote that you quoted some of his generals, who said the reason why chemical and biological weapons weren't used during the Persian Gulf War was precisely because he had been warned, and he didn't want to allow for retaliation.

Stephen Walt

That's correct. We sent a very explicit message, I believe in a letter from Secretary of State James Baker, communicated through the Iraqi Foreign Minister, that if they were to use weapons of mass destruction against us, we would not limit ourselves to retaliation in kind. I forget the exact wording. But it was an unmistakable threat, which the Iraqis seem to have heeded. And some Iraqi officials have said our warning was part of the reason why they didn't use it.

Ira Glass

All right. You still with me here? Now, remember, I said that we were going to get to the arguments against the Realists. And we looked for the most convincing spokesman for the other side. And we were lucky enough to get our very first pick, Kenneth Pollack, who was a Persian Gulf military analyst for seven years at the CIA, including during the Persian Gulf War, and after that, for the National Security Council under President Clinton. He's now at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He's written a book called The Threatening Storm: the Case for Invading Iraq. And when I recited to him the Realist case, chapter and verse, that Saddam Hussein could be deterred from using a nuclear weapon, he nearly sputtered. He honestly did not know where to begin.

Kenneth Pollack

Boy, we're going to be here a while. The arguments that they're mustering are based on simply incorrect information. Their understanding of Saddam Hussein's decision making is just deeply flawed. We know a huge amount about Saddam's decision making in some of these cases. And it simply doesn't square with their arguments-- for example, the invasion of Kuwait.

Ira Glass

Good idea. Let's start with the invasion of Kuwait. Pollack disputes even the basic facts that the Realists offer on this. He says that we know now that Saddam had decided to invade before the American Ambassador indicated to him, inadvertently, that we wouldn't fight back. He says that we know now that Saddam did not attack Kuwait as some kind of modest, rational act of aggression, but as the first step in a larger plan of his to becoming a kind of superpower.

Kenneth Pollack

Even before the invasion of Kuwait, Saddam was already saying, the demise of the Soviet Union leaves the world badly unbalanced. Iraq has to become a new superpower to be able to stand up to the United States. Seizing Kuwait, as best we understand it, was part of that plan.

Ira Glass

And we know this through his speeches, through--

Kenneth Pollack

Through his speeches, through Iraqis who've come out of Iraq, through even sources inside of Iraq who've all reported on this.

Ira Glass

In your view, did deterrents work when the United States warned him against using chemical or biological weapons during the Persian Gulf War, and then it turned out that he didn't?

Kenneth Pollack

We really don't know. And it's important to remember that James Baker, the Secretary of State, went to Saddam with three deterrent threats, which were, don't use weapons of mass destruction, don't conduct terrorist attacks, and don't light the Kuwaiti oil fields on fire. And if you do, we will do bad things to you. And it was unspecified consequences, very severe consequences. And it was the same statement for all three of those threats. Well, Saddam did light the Kuwaiti oil fields on fire. And he did engage in terrorist attacks and tried to attack the United States homeland.

Ira Glass

Wait. What are the terrorist attacks you're talking about?

Kenneth Pollack

In 1991, during the Gulf War, Saddam launched a wave of terrorist attacks against the United States. They all failed.

Ira Glass

Now, we checked into this story, and it does seem to be true. There's a CIA counterterrorism guy out there who has written about it. Saddam did not heed our deterrent threats. He did launch attacks against the US during that war, which is exactly the point, Pollack says. Saddam will not be deterred.

Kenneth Pollack

Now, beyond that, one of the things that we learned after the Gulf War-- and, I think, was a very frightening thing for myself and many of my colleagues in the government to find out-- was that Saddam apparently concluded after the Gulf War that his biggest mistake during the Gulf War was not that he should never have invaded Kuwait, but that he should have waited to invade Kuwait, that he should have waited until he had a nuclear weapon. Because, he apparently believes, if he has a nuclear weapon, it is the United States that will be deterred, not him.

Ira Glass

Now, how do we know this? How do we know he thinks this?

Kenneth Pollack

We know it from a variety of different sources, including Iraqis who are close to Saddam, and also through a variety of technical means.

Ira Glass

Technical means, means listening in, spying in various ways?

Kenneth Pollack

Exactly.

Ira Glass

I'm guessing this must be how it goes when you talk to any former CIA guy. He tells you incredible things that explain so much about what your government is thinking and where policies come from, and then, as soon as you ask for details or evidence, he can't tell you. They're secret. Kenneth Pollack was able to explain, though, why so many US policymakers fear Saddam could not be deterred from using a nuclear bomb, if he ever got one, in a way that made it very, very clear. He says, imagine Saddam Hussein decided to threaten the country of Jordan.

Kenneth Pollack

And what Saddam could conceivably threaten to do is, if you come and try to stop me from moving into Jordan, I will use nuclear weapons on regional targets. Israel, if you come after me, I will use them on Dimona. United States, if you come after me, I will use them against the Saudi oil fields. And then, the question becomes for the United States, do we want to dare Saddam?

Ira Glass

And why isn't Saddam in the same position, though, that the Soviet Union would be? If he were to use his nuclear weapon, he knows the United States would just come in and blow him up?

Kenneth Pollack

Well, again, this is the problem with Saddam's thinking. As best we understand it, he is not making the same calculation that the Soviets did.

Ira Glass

And just so I understand the logic that would be behind what Saddam is thinking, his thinking is the United States would be faced with this choice: Are we going to drop a bomb on Baghdad and kill hundreds of thousands of people? And the United States, when faced with that choice, would blink. We wouldn't want to do that?

Kenneth Pollack

Correct. Again, that is our understanding of Saddam's thinking.

Ira Glass

I have to say, in a way, I feel like I understand that. It is hard to imagine the United States dropping a nuclear bomb on a city right now.

Kenneth Pollack

Imagine a scenario where Saddam is basically saying, if you stop me from going into Jordan, or Kuwait, or wherever the country may be, I'm going to blow up the Saudi oil fields. And your only response is to nuke the city of Baghdad, with 5 million innocent people. Let me put it this way. As a former US policymaker, that is not the kind of choice that I ever want to be in.

Ira Glass

So where are you and I supposed come down on this? What should we believe? Could Saddam Hussein be deterred from using a nuclear weapon or not? Or maybe that's not even the right question in the end.

Nicholas Lemann

You know, it's not really about keeping Saddam from getting nuclear capacity. That's not the central reason for doing this, I think. Or it's a reason, but not the only reason.

Ira Glass

Again, Nicholas Lemann, from The New Yorker.

Nicholas Lemann

I think there's a sense in the conservative world that the nuclear threat is the argument most likely to sell with the public, but isn't the only reason to do this.

Ira Glass

The other reasons to do this, Lemann says, are right there if you talk to the Hawks, or if you read what they wrote before they took office. First, it's doable. We're going after Saddam Hussein not because he's so strong, but, in essence, because he's so weak. The Hawks see him as easy to defeat, compared with say, North Korea. And they believe that they can change the political climate in the Middle East through a show of force.

Nicholas Lemann

People in the administration are fond of quoting Bernard Lewis, the eminent historian, who has been down and briefed people at the White House and so on. And they will quote him saying, Arab culture, in particular, respects strength and shows of force. It's a warrior culture. So if you invade a country like Iraq and win, rather than that inflaming the Middle East, it will quiet the Middle East, because people will respect you more.

Ira Glass

This, in a way, was the most surprising scenario I heard from anyone, Lemann's summary of how the Hawks imagine all of this could work in the end.

Nicholas Lemann

Well, I think this is the scenario. First thing that happens is, we would set up some kind of permanent or semi-permanent military base or presence in Iraq. We could get rid of the Prince Sultan Air Force Base in Saudi Arabia and make Iraq the United States' military base of operations. It's a nice central location in the Middle East. Second of all, having a friendly government there and having a steady supply of oil from the Iraqi oil fields would make us much less dependent on Saudi oil. And that's a good thing, because then you get more leverage with the Saudis.

So here's some of the ways it would play out, according to the Hawks. First of all, the government of Iran would fall to some of these kind of student protest groups or other reform groups.

Ira Glass

Because the student groups would see, oh, look, there's been change in Iraq. We want a more secular society, more modern society.

Nicholas Lemann

Yes. And they'd be getting heavy encouragement and funding from the United States. Syria is another country where the Hawks very clearly want to see the government fall, and believe that it may well fall in the wake of a successful US invasion of Iraq.

Then, I think, what they'd like to have happen is the two really big countries in the Middle East that are our friends, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, we could go to them and have very serious and soulful conversations with the governments, in which we say, we want a little better behavior out of you guys. We want you to really crack down on the Islamists. We don't want any more movies of protocols of the Elders of Zion on Egyptian television. We want you to move toward allowing opposition parties, including secular parties. Just kind of put the lid on the tide of Islamist extremism in your country. And if you don't, expect there to be negative consequences that will be short of military invasion, but painful to you from us, the United States.

Ira Glass

I feel like everything you're saying, at some point or another during the last six months, I've read in a kind of shorthand. And I feel like this is the first time I'm hearing somebody lay the whole thing out: This is why we're going to war.

Nicholas Lemann

I think this is why we're going to war, yes. I do think so. I mean, I think we are going to war. And I don't think it's not about weapons of mass destruction and the idea that Saddam might acquire nuclear weapons. And I don't think it's irrelevant that he's a brutal, totalitarian dictator who has murdered his own people. But I really think the primary goal here is to try to use this as an opening into a remaking of the Middle East.

Ira Glass

Nicholas Lemann. You can read his article about all this called, "The War on What?" online at The New Yorker magazine website. [MUSIC-"READY TO DIE" BY ANDREW W.K.]

Act Four. Who Cares?

Ira Glass

Act Five, Who Cares? Well, it's been a heady hour of radio. And we have to admit, it's Christmas. While we all may have nagging fears about the War against terror, or the war against Iraq, or the war against whatever, we all have a lot of other things on our minds. And if you have any doubt about that at all, all you have to do is look at this new website started by this guy named Gabe Hudson.

He was a rifleman in the Marine Reserves in 1992, just as the Gulf War was ending. And he wrote this book of short stories called Dear Mr. President. And partly as a crude promotion, and partly as an idealistic public-minded venture, he started a website where he invited everyday Americans to post their own letters to the President. Well, one of the letters was posted there by a teacher in North Carolina and her class. Out of 19 kids, note that only five had anything to say about the War on Terror.

Britt Honeycutt

"Dear Mr. President, Hello there. I live in a small town in North Carolina. Well, that's not exactly right. I live outside a small town, what may be termed rural. I live deep down a dirt road in a wooden house beside a creek that's cut into orange clay. This is where I grew up. It's nice here.

I teach English here, eighth grade. Most eighth graders have a lot of opinions. Some of them don't. I asked them all to write down something that they would like to say to you. And I thought you might be interested in hearing their responses.

Whitney Moore

I'm very glad that we have a good Christian man as our president.

Britt Honeycutt

Whitney Moore, who is the shortest person in her class.

Reyna Pacheco

You need to get out of the office and really need to be replaced.

Britt Honeycutt

Reyna Pacheco, who admires Selena.

Will Castillo

Mr. Bush, I would rather you use another country to handle your wars and light work, because I want Osama to feel like he's going up against a gang, and not just one person.

Britt Honeycutt

Will Castillo, who will be a famous writer one day.

Jonathan King

My favorite president is you, Mr. Bush.

Britt Honeycutt

Jonathan King, who makes odd noises in class.

Melissa Jackson

Do you think we'll ever find bin Laden? And when we do, will things go back to normal?

Britt Honeycutt

Melissa Jackson, cheerleader.

Nikki Norman

I want to know, why is the writing test so important to North Carolina schools? And why should it determine if we fail or pass a grade, or if we have met the standards of the writing test? And why is it the end-of-grade test is so important?

Britt Honeycutt

Nikki Norman, who resembles Alicia Keys.

Tarika Williams

Why would you be president, knowing that many people don't like you? The war didn't happen until you became President of the United States of America.

Britt Honeycutt

Tarika Williams, who is serious.

Leticia Antonio

What would you do to make the world a better place?

Britt Honeycutt

Leticia Antonio, who has impeccable handwriting.

Natalie Calcutt

Bush, I think you're doing an excellent job considering the terrorist attacks and the sniper attacks, and even the fights between Elizabeth Dole and Erskine Bowles.

Britt Honeycutt

Natalie Calcutt, who hangs out on the back hall.

Tara Spell

How many four-wheelers, et cetera, do you have? And how many food restaurants do you have in your house?

Britt Honeycutt

Tara Spell, who plays three sports.

Madelyn Wooten

Did you ever think when you were little that one day you would be president?

Britt Honeycutt

Madelyn Wooten, who also hangs out on the back hall.

Karen Cribb

I think they should have more church camps. I love going to them.

Britt Honeycutt

Karen Cribb, who has a big smile.

Michelle Blue

My name Michelle Blue. And I am wondering, what are you going to do about the elderly people without Social Security, and they're not able to work, and they've got to be the age of 65 to be able to stop working?

Britt Honeycutt

Michelle Blue, who speaks in one long sentence as well.

Courtney Barefoot

I like cats.

Britt Honeycutt

Courtney Barefoot, who also likes boys.

Jose Jose

Try to stop the war so we wouldn't have to worry about it anymore.

Britt Honeycutt

Jose Jose, real name.

April Tew

Why do terrorists want to kill you so much?

Britt Honeycutt

April Tew, who flirts.

Leslie Strickland

I'm 13 years old and in the eighth grade. I go to Midway Middle. I like to talk on the phone to boys and play soccer. My favorite subject is math, but my favorite teacher is my language arts teacher, Miss Honeycutt.

Britt Honeycutt

Leslie Strickland, who sucks up.

James Brady

My birthday is November 12. And I will be 15. So if you are a president, you will get me something.

Britt Honeycutt

James Brady, who raps.

Teresa Goodman

I just want to say that you need to take your job more seriously.

Britt Honeycutt

Teresa Goodman, who can do a mean Harlem Shake.

These are my kids. They just wanted you to know that they are here. Sincerely, Britt Honeycutt."

Ira Glass

If you want to write to the President as part of this project, go to gabehudson.com. Otherwise, you know, there's always that 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue address you can use.

Credits.

Adam Davidson

I mean, I find it very confusing myself. I think there are a few-- George Bush-- it's very hard to fight.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.