From Afghanistan to Iraq?

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

August 30, 2002

BILL HEMMER: I want to talk about Colin Powell, talk about the vice president’s speech yesterday. But to get you on record, you say right now is not the time. When is the time right then, Peter?

PETER SINGER: I think you have to lay the groundwork for it. To be frank, right now our European allies aren’t supporting us, our Arab allies aren’t supporting us, the American people is divided on this, the Republican Party is divided on this and it now appears that the administration itself is divided on this. And that’s not how you go to war.

I’d rather see us concentrate on winning the war on terrorism first and then go after Iraq.

HEMMER: On that topic, Peter, many would argue that there are only several thousand U.S. men and women in Afghanistan right now, leaving you a plethora of military options all over the world that are being drawn on for the eventuality of battle in Baghdad. Do you not buy that argument, that, indeed, the U.S. military is a lot wider, has a lot more breadth than some people would give it credit?

SINGER: My doubt isn’t that the American military could easily handle Iraq. It’s the fact that taking on this war draws away important political energy and capital from the deals that we need to be making on the war on terrorism. For example, when we’re approaching the Saudis, I want us talking specifically about how we can run down al Qaeda, not about a drawn out discussion on Iraq.

Let’s remember, bin Laden is the one who killed 3,000 Americans just one year ago. Let’s keep our focus here and not get distracted.

HEMMER: Peter, in my first question I mentioned the issue of time. Listen to what Dick Cheney had to say about Saddam Hussein buying time for himself and his own development of what the White House says are weapons of mass destruction.

Here’s the vice president.


DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: With Saddam’s record of thwarting inspections, one has to be concerned that he would continue to plot using the available time to husband his resources, to invest in his ongoing chemical and biological weapons programs and to gain the possession of nuclear weapons.


HEMMER: He and others who are…


CHENEY: And should all his ambitions be realized, the implications would be enormous for the Middle East, for the United States and for the peace of the world.


HEMMER: He and proponents of hitting Iraq would say hit him before he hits you or someone else. What’s wrong with that logic, Peter?

SINGER: The logic’s not wrong, it’s the timing that’s wrong. And it’s a case that you need to build to go after him. You don’t want to go it alone. So if you actually lay down the line and have a very strong inspections regime, you either reach success or he attempts to dodge them and then you have a case for bringing along your allies here.

That’s the point here. We’re going it alone. We’re divided on this. It’s not the way that you start a war. It’s serious business and I think it’s very important that all the ex-generals here are the ones speaking out against it.

HEMMER: Peter, take us into September when Congress comes back to work in Washington next week. Where does this debate shift at that point?

SINGER: I think Congress’ role in this is very important. The Bush administration has hemmed and hawed. It’s said maybe we do have, already have the authorization of force. But to be frank, that’s not something that you inherit from your father.

Congress has to be able to lay their political careers on the line because we will be sending in American men and women to lay their lives on the line. So it’s important that Congress plays a role in this and the American people have a voice on this.

HEMMER: We’re out of time.

Peter Singer, Brookings Institution there in Washington.

Thank you for your time today.