Gordon Mitchell, Night Talk interview with John McIntire.

Televised on the Pittsburgh Cable News Channel

April 10, 2003

John McIntire (JM): Associate Professor Gordon Mitchell from the University of Pittsburgh is here. Welcome, sir.

Gordon Mitchell (GM): Good to be here.

JM: So it is a historic day in the history of this war. What is your take on it?

GM: Interesting developments. Certainly a very moving day, to witness the scenes in Baghdad, but I think it is important to keep the broader picture in focus as we look at the unfolding events.

JM: Excellent point. Even though it was a fascinating day, the broader picture is pretty much all that matters I guess. So if we are keeping our eyes on the ball, what is the ball and what kinds of things should we be watching to see how it plays out?

GM: Of course the challenge of post-war reconstruction seems to be moving to the top of the agenda. Personally my view is that assassination plus petroleum might not equal liberation. The proposition that you can kill the leader, just add oil, and stir for instant democracy seems too facile of an equation. It may be useful to look back at recent military operations. For example, in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, we saw a similar kind of euphoria in Kabul. Yet now, in the intervening time, some of the promises in terms of transforming the entire country have not come to fruition. The Bush administration actually did not budget any funds for rebuilding Afghanistan last year. They had to be prodded into that by Democrats in Congress.

JM: Well apparently they’ve got all the money in the world. I don’t know if this is a product of growing up rich, but for them, money seems to be absolutely no concern.

GM: One of the arguments is that we won’t need to spend that much on reconstruction in Iraq because the oil revenues will finance a lot of actual rebuilding of the social service infrastructure and running the government. That will be something important to watch during reconstruction.

JM: We still don’t know who is pulling the oil out of the ground, who is fixing the oil wells, who gets to sell it. Who gets to decide where the money goes?

GM: We do know that one company that looks like they will get some contracts for repairing the oil wells that were lit on fire is Halliburton.

JM: Dick Cheney’s old company. Do you think that’s why he’s keeping such a low profile?

GM: Well he’s always kind of kept a low profile.

JM: Earlier in the program, Safdar Khwaja of the Pittsburgh Muslim Community Center was saying that the populace, by and large, at least there is a larger percentage of highly educated people, as opposed to Afghanistan. He thought that was one reason for optimism, that these people might grasp the concept of democracy because of the higher education level. Do you have any thoughts on that?

GM: It is not my direct area of expertise, but I do know that there are many factions within Iraq and there is a troubled history in terms of cooperating with each other, working with each other to make the compromises necessary to make a democracy work, so it is certainly going to be a challenge.

JM: Then of course depending on how it all plays out, even if you do install a democracy, it may not even turn out to be a pro-western democracy. Their first official act might be to kick us the hell out of there. If in fact this Arab and Muslim resentment turns out in whatever Iraq turns out to be.

GM: An interesting case there is Turkey. The new democracy there is working and one of the first decisions that was made was not to grant a U.S. request for access to a northern attack route into Iraq. Of course that caused a lot of concern and resentment on the part of the Bush administration. Sometimes democracy does not deliver all the policies that you want.

JM: So one of your areas of expertise is preemptive strikes?

GM: That’s what I have been looking at recently.

JM: Would you characterize this as a classic preemptive strike? I guess because this country has never engaged in it before, I suppose it couldn’t be a classic one, but what do you think of the potential ramifications of this policy, whether we use it just once or time after time?

GM: The concept of preemptive strikes has a long history. It is actually part of the United Nations charter, which gives states the right of self-defense. If nations can demonstrate that there is an imminent threat to their territory, they have the right to strike preemptively to defend their nation. The key part there is imminent threat. In this case, the Bush administration did not demonstrate that Iraq was about to attack the United States. Therefore, it really was not a preemptive strike and it would be more accurate to describe Operation Iraqi Freedom as a preventive military intervention, one that was undertaken with an eye toward stopping an attack that might or might not take place at some undisclosed future time and place. Looking at it as preventive military intervention, it really was a new development.

JM: Some critics who call into this show and go even further than I do say ‘aha, George Bush is a war criminal, and so is Tommy Franks,’ because there is no justification in the United Nations charter. Do you have any thoughts on that? I am not expecting you to label U.S. leaders war criminals, but is there a case that this is illegal?

GM: Certainly there is a case that this is illegal under international law. There has been a lot of debate about the specific details of previous UN resolutions coming out of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The Bush administration is making the case that even if there was not a second resolution after UN Resolution 1441 in this case, the prior resolutions still authorized military conduct. That is a debatable point. But I think the crucial thing to realize is that this attack, which is an outgrowth of the National Security Strategy of 2002, really does inaugurate a new type of military conflict. One way to come to grips with that is the fact that there was such a long run-up to the war so there were massive protests against a war that had not even started yet. We have not really seen that before in the course of human history.

JM: People say the antiwar movement here has discredited itself on its own, that it only has a lousy 30% of the people. But that is an incredible number of people, and many more than during the beginning of the Vietnam war, where people’s visions of antiwar protests were that the protests involved a significant amount of the population.

GM: The United States military has reserved the prerogative to strike without demonstrating imminent threat. This opens up a window of dialogue for people to speculate and talk about a military operation that is not yet underway, and could be stopped depending on the facts on the table.

JM: Is it time, as soon as we wrap things up, or mop things up, in Iraq, to go after Syria, North Korea or Iran? What thoughts do you have about what we should do?

GM: If you connect the dots retrospectively and go back in history to follow the paper trail of this National Security Strategy that came out in 2002, it goes back to a Project for the New American Century report that came out in 2000. You can even go back to 1992 when Wolfowitz authored the Defense Planning Guidance document that was leaked to the Los Angeles Times. There really is a common thread that runs through all those documents, and it is the idea that overwhelming United States military force will cause adversaries to capitulate and break their will to resist, and also dissuade potential peer competitors from even trying to counter the United States. The idea is that with this show of force, what we can do is convince allies or other countries that might compete with us, as well as adversaries who might harm our interests, to see that task as Sisyphus trying to push the rock up the endless hill, and they will drop the effort and give up.

JM: Right, so somewhere in Tehran, they are going to say, well, I am not going to do anything bad, because I am next. What are your thoughts on whether that policy will work?

GM: One of the challenges that needs to be considered carefully in light of that logic is the idea that if your adversaries are in fact seeing the world through a Sisyphean frame, that the rock really cannot be rolled up the hill, one thing they can do is give up. But there is also the possibility that they can actually go around the hill. In military strategy, that is called asymmetric retaliation or asymmetrical military operations. We saw some of that in the early stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom, with Iraqi guerilla forces attacking American supply lines in southern Iraq.

JM: So if there are governments who are not thrilled with us being in Iraq and they feel like attacking us, for one, they will be able to attack us in Iraq for as long as we are occupying that country, and number two, they might do it in a sneaky way in which they would not be caught, hiring mercenaries or cooperating with terrorists, you are suggesting?

GM: The only way to fight overwhelming conventional military superiority is to find ways to counter that advantage with strategies that do not necessarily entail corresponding investment in military hardware. One example is the possibility that in the wake of this apparent military victory in Operation Iraqi Freedom, U.S. adversaries will resort to antisatellite warfare, using their space assets to target American military satellites and other targets in outer space. That of course would be an important point of leverage against United States force, because the United States relies so much on space superiority.

JM: They would try to take our satellites with missiles from earth?

GM: Yes, missiles from earth. Actually the same kinds of technologies that countries rely on to launch civilian payloads into outer space can be turned into weapons to strike American military satellites.

JM: Do countries like Iran and Syria have that kind of range that could reach space targets?

GM: Syria does not have a significant space program. Iran does, and of course it has attracted quite a bit of interest in the United States, because they have been developing a civilian space industry that could be used for intercontinental ballistic missiles. Those kinds of capabilities can also be used for antisatellite missions.

JM: Let’s get some calls in here for Gordon Mitchell. Bill is on the line; go ahead.

Caller: One of the most interesting things I have found about this today, I have heard all of the right-wing talk shows out there saying ‘Hey, we won, it is over, everyone who was against this war is discredited.’ This war has just begun. We are going to be an occupying force for longer than I think people realize, with terrorist attacks. These people have a long history of not trusting the western world. To think after first euphoria, after Hussein being gone, that they are just going to embrace eating hot dogs and apple pie and go right into a democracy I think is foolish. I think you are going to see here in the next two or three months when we start hanging around, and hanging around, and they really do not want us there.

JM: Let me ask you about that. I too heard some right-wing radio hosts, and television hosts, for that matter, implying that this proves the entire thing is a success, and as we were saying in the first hour of this broadcast, it appears that there is absolutely no proof. It could be a raging success, it could be a dismal failure, it could be some murky area in between. Won’t it be months and/or years before we know?

GM: One of the strategies behind the idea of waging a war of liberation is that it will have an impact on the so-called battle for hearts and minds on the Arab street. Of course today, looking at the images on television, it appears that there is a short-term success in that category.

JM: I do not know if even that is true. I saw a few dozen, maybe even a hundred or two Iraqi citizens going ‘wahoo.’ Now there may have been thousands but I only saw a couple of a hundred on television, so I do not know how many that represents, I do not even know. I do not even know that if there are enough communication facilities in the country so that half of the people in the country know what is going on at this moment in time.

GM: The hospitals in and around Baghdad are filled up with civilian casualties. If you were to interview those people I think they might have a different view of the American military campaign. If Saddam Hussein’s regime is deposed in Iraq, the idea that that will change worldwide public opinion regarding American policy really does depend on how the reconstruction effort plays out. If the United States defaults on its commitment to follow through on the promise of liberation, a lot of the arguments lodged by critics in the run-up to the war will become very relevant.

JM: Do you have an opinion on whether this will embolden the Bush administration to engage in further military adventures using the same rationalization or if the reaction in the rest of the Arab world is so skeptical as to give them pause?

GM: If you trace the roots of this doctrine, it goes back to just after the end of the Cold War. Many of the Bush administration planners, primarily Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and vice-president Richard Cheney’s chief of staff Lewis Libby, drew up the early versions of this doctrine. Their thinking was informed by Cold War victory over the Soviet Union. The idea was you do not actually have to use military force if you can convince the adversary your force is so overwhelming that they should just opt out of fighting. I think that is basically what is going on now with Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld calling out Syria for allegedly supplying the Iraqi army during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He hopes, I think, that by signaling that they might be a target of follow-on preventive military intervention – that they would instead of continuing with policies that might invite such attack, drop their opposition and come to heel in terms of U.S. instructions.

JM: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about whether this policy could work? Do you think it is a disaster waiting to happen? Or do you fall somewhere in the middle? Where do you fall as you analyze this in its early stages?

GM: Going back to the point about asymmetrical strategies of resistance, I think that is a major oversight in the policy. It is true that if you amass overwhelming conventional military force, it does not make a lot of sense for an adversary to try and invest the money necessary to try and beat that head-on. That certainly does not cover all the contingencies though. The opportunity remains for states such as Syria to adopt asymmetrical strategies – terrorism, biological weapons, chemical weapons, guerilla attacks. There is probably enough confidence in those types of strategies to at least extend the time frame for a military operation like we saw in Iraq. I doubt there will be this kind of domino effect, where all the nations on the "nuclear hit list" in the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance document will simply give up their aspirations to develop weapons of mass destruction.

JM: There was an op-ed piece in the New York Times the other day that said Iraq will not become Vietnam but it could become Lebanon, in other words, dangerous and volatile with terrorist activity going on. I guess that is still a real threat because it is not certain that we can set up an effective, working U.S.-style, or any other style of democracy, in Iraq.

GM: The Lebanon analogy is haunting, because in that case the eventual withdrawal of U.S. military forces in the wake of terrorist attacks was what emboldened Al Qaeda, demonstrating key vulnerabilities of the U.S. military. As an occupying force, U.S. soldiers can targeted with terrorist attacks and eventually can be convinced to go home after the cost of those attacks becomes unbearable.

JM: And that was mister macho Ronald Reagan who some hail as a great commander-in-chief, but it is arguable, especially with moments like that during his term.

GM: Lebanon was a very complex and difficult military operation, just as this one is. It is a lot easier on the front end to assassinate a leader. It is much more difficult to deliver on the promise of liberation, install a government, and actually get a working democracy up and running, especially if you have significant forces who are alienated, even outside of the country, trying to frustrate that project through terrorism or other organized means of resistance. With such organized resistance, you do really run the risk that the costs of occupation will spiral out of control.

JM: Is it more important to hang around for as long as necessary, in terms of a large occupying force to keep stability, or is it more important for the United States and coalition nations to establish a government as quickly as possible and then get the hell out?

GM: That will be interesting to watch. In some ways I think that will be a litmus test for exactly what this Bush administration policy is about. Is it about liberation? If so, we would expect that there would be heavy commitment made to restore the social service net, rebuild the infrastructure that was destroyed during the war, and create the conditions in Iraq for where the society is substantially better compared to what existed under Saddam Hussein. If that’s not the case, if the U.S. military does pull out and there is not a substantial commitment to post-war reconstruction, this talk of liberation will turn into a hollow promise.