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Interview with Michael O'Hanlon, The Brookings Institution


Recent evidence of al-Qaida activity in Iraq as well as a new trade agreement between Iraq and Russia have kept the question of ‘what to do about Iraq’ on the front pages of newspapers. The U.S. government wants to remove President Saddam Hussein from power, but does not seem to have the backing of many countries for a military solution.

To assess the situation, David Borgida of VOA-TV’s “NewsLine” program spoke with Michael O’Hanlon, a Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution here in Washington. Mr. O’Hanlon has some strong opinions about the political climate and the case being made by President Bush.

MR. BORGIDA:
Joining us now live from The Brookings Institution here in Washington, Michael O'Hanlon. He is an analyst of military and political issues in Iraq -- a hot topic these days all around the world. Mr. O'Hanlon, thank you so much for joining us today.

MR. O'HANLON:
My pleasure.

MR. BORGIDA:
The Bush administration is now saying publicly that at least a handful -- those are its words -- of senior al-Qaida members are in Iraq. What do you make of that, and is that an effort, do you think, to strengthen the case for possible military action?

MR. O'HANLON:
Well, there is no doubt that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld would see it that way. He wants to use this evidence, even though he won't tell us what the evidence is, to strengthen the case for going to war against Iraq. And he has been essentially making this case now for a couple of weeks. The fact that other people in the administration agree with the facts of Rumsfeld's statement really should be taken with a grain of salt. All we are saying here is that Iraq, like many other countries in the world, has some al-Qaida operatives. And that is something that has been known about many countries for quite some time.

Now, there is this reported additional information that there are some relatively senior people from al-Qaida inside Iraq. Even if that is true, of course we had relatively senior people from al-Qaida in the United States prior to September 11th. So the question is what kind of complicity might there be between Saddam Hussein and these terrorists and how much complicity would have to be established before we would have a grounds for going to war. Those are the big questions that have not begun to be answered.

MR. BORGIDA:
Well, give us a crack at an answer, Mr. O'Hanlon. Has that complicity, has that link, been established in your eyes enough to warrant some kind of a military strike?

MR. O'HANLON:
No, I think not at this point. I think, from what little we know, this is a remote part of Iraq, where some people could be present. We know that there are a number of places in Iraq where Saddam Hussein does not have great control of the country. And we also know that no one person can fully control his country even if he is as dictatorial as Saddam Hussein, but there is always the possibility of people moving in and out. And our finding out because we hear their cell phone conversation or we learn later on, once they have left Iraq, that they were once there, we may have sources of information that Saddam Hussein himself did not have. So I think, so far, we have no reason to assume that.

Now, Secretary Rumsfeld may be able to prove me wrong, but so far he has not bothered to try. And I think, at the moment, I would accept the evidence or accept the contention that there are al-Qaida inside Iraq, but I am very dubious about any purported link between them and Saddam Hussein himself.

MR. BORGIDA:
Mr. O'Hanlon, in Texas today, at his summer ranch, where the President is spending some time for the month of August, he did have some consultations with Secretary Rumsfeld and others, and he came out and told reporters that the United States will continue to consult with allies about the Iraq situation. He is getting buffeted and lobbying by members of Congress, by former senior administration officials, on both sides of this issue. Where do you think he stands now? Are we in a holding pattern?

MR. O'HANLON:
I think so. I think the President has simply not yet made up his mind. Everything I read of the President's mind suggests that he is not now set on war. I think when you're commander-in-chief of a military going to war, there is a certain emotional impact of making a decision to launch a major military conflict. There is a certain gravity, a certain sense of somberness, which I don't detect in the President right now. He strikes me as a President going about his job under more or less normal conditions.

In fact, I think he is talking as often about corporate reform or about budget deficits or things of that nature as he is about war. So I don't think he has made up his mind. The question is, has he put together a policy that is really going to ultimately attract allies and attract broader support? I don't think he has even done that yet. And so I think he has a lot of work to do.

And right now, not only is he indecisive, but he is sort of indecisive in front of the whole gaze of the entire world. It is not a very good way to make policy. He needs to come up with a better sense of what he is doing in this area pretty soon I think.

MR. BORGIDA:
And of course some people would see the indecisiveness as being deliberate. We'll leave it at that. But let me ask you quickly, Mr. O'Hanlon, Russia and Iraq have reportedly signed an economic deal. What does that mean symbolically and in terms of geopolitics now? Is Iraq seeking out Russia's support and another friend?

MR. O'HANLON:
First of all, on the other point, I would say that the indecisiveness does not do us any good right now, because it does not gain any leverage over Saddam. If he is going to let inspectors back in or give in to our demands, he is going to have to really feel the threat of war. It is going to have to be more credible I think. As for the deal between Russia and Iraq, this is allowable under U.N. sanctions. Of course I would prefer that Russia not have to deal with these sorts of regimes and these sorts of countries, but the United States itself supports a policy of allowing certain kinds of trade with Iraq for the benefit of the Iraqi people. And if Russia is in a position to go out and get those contracts, I suppose that is legitimate.

The worry, of course, is that Russia will now want to befriend Saddam Hussein, because Russia may worry that the contracts will become null and void under a new government should Saddam be overthrown. So we need to get Russia on board the possibility of presenting Saddam an ultimatum and threatening war, maybe promising Russia that the contracts will be honored and we will do everything in our power to make sure a future Iraqi government would honor those contracts. And if we can make that kind of agreement with Russia, I think they would still be supportive of a future policy provided we can really make this a serious approach that most of the Arab and NATO European countries would accept as well.

In other words, in short, the policy is fine on the face of it as long as Russia does not get too cozy with Saddam. We can accept this deal and in fact it is allowable under U.N. policy.

MR. BORGIDA:
The views of Michael O'Hanlon from The Brookings Institution here in Washington. Thanks so much for joining us today.

MR. O'HANLON:
My pleasure, sir.

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