September 20, 2004 | Broadcast

The Tavis Smiley Show

A US intelligence report prepared for President George W. Bush back in July offers a pretty bleak outlook for Iraq through the end of 2005, and government officials predict the ugliest scenario might be a civil war. News of the assessment’s outline in a classified document known as a National Intelligence Estimate dominated headlines late last week. The report contradicts the positive tone of President Bush, who assures the public that national elections in Iraq are scheduled for January and that the country is headed toward democracy. Given the pessimistic nature of the Intelligence Estimate and the optimistic tenor of the Bush administration, one might ask–so we will–are voters likely to see the glasses half-full or half-empty come November?

We get analysis now about the political ramifications from two policy experts. Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC.

Phyllis, good to have you on today.

Ms. PHYLLIS BENNIS (Fellow, Institute for Policy Studies): Thanks very much. Good to be with you.

SMILEY: And Clifford May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a DC-based research institute created in the wake of the attacks on September 11th, 2001.

Clifford, it’s always nice to talk to you as well.

Mr. CLIFFORD MAY (President, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies): Always good to be with you, Tavis.

SMILEY: Phyllis, let me start with you. This near-50-page report called the National Intelligence Estimate basically predicts three scenarios right quick, from a tenuous stability to a political fragmentation to the most negative assessment, as I mentioned a moment ago, civil war. It is the first intelligence estimate on Iraq, by my look, since October of 2002, and it sounds clearly bleak. How are you reading this report?

Ms. BENNIS: Well, it’s very bleak, and it’s particularly bleak for the Bush administration because they’re faced with two very unpleasant possibilities. One is that the intelligence estimate is true and all of the scenarios that it posits are very grim. The most positive version of the three that are there is the continuation of the kind of instability and massive violence, death and destruction, death of US troops, death of Iraqi civilians that we’re seeing now. The other possibility is that it’s not true, in which case the administration is faced with a second national security estimate like the one in October 2002 that proved to be false. That was, of course, famously the estimate that was absolutely convinced of the presence of large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the key factor that was asserted by the Bush administration as the excuse for going to war. And, of course, as we know, there have been no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction found. So either of those scenarios, whether it proves to be true or whether it proves to be false, bode very badly for the administration.

SMILEY: Let me ask you, Phyllis, how the American public–I don’t know if we can predict how they will, but how should they juxtapose what the White House was saying with what we are seeing?

Ms. BENNIS: Well, this is what’s very extraordinary, Tavis. Even in the discussions that were all off the record, not for attributio–sorry, not off the record but not for attribution by the reporters who broke this story, all of the intelligence experts that they spoke to who had read this highly classified report said that there’s a serious disconnect between what the administration is saying, particularly what President Bush and Vice President Cheney are saying in the context of the campaign, that Iraq is moving towards democracy, things are getting better; yes, there will be glitches along the way, but things are going well, things are getting better, over and over and over again, a litany that we’re hearing–a huge gap between that and what is actually happening on the ground where huge swaths of Iraqi territory, cities, are being ceded to the Iraqi resistance, US troops killing higher numbers of civilians than ever before, as we saw in the reports that emerged yesterday.

So I think that this disconnect between the claims of great victories and the expectation that the elections in January will go on as scheduled, despite that claim by both Bush administration officials and the US-appointed government officials in Iraq, including President Allawi–sorry, Prime Minister Allow who will becoming to the United States and to the general assembly of the UN to make those claims, are simply not borne out by the situation that’s actually being faced on the ground.

SMILEY: Clifford, you’ve been awfully patient here. Let me ask you, as you see this, whether this is much ado about nothing. War is ugly, and after war, nation-rebuilding isn’t ever cute. There are always challenges to overcome. Is this report much ado about nothing?

Mr. MAY: No, not at all, but it’s not after the war; it’s in the middle of the war. We are in a war right now. We’re in a global war, and the most important front is in Iraq, and it is proving very challenging. We’re…

SMILEY: Clifford, let me stop you right there before you go forward. You say it’s–when you say it’s not after the war, it’s during the war, didn’t your president stand on that ship and say that the war–we had declared victory in Iraq some months ago?

Mr. MAY: What he said on that ship was that the major combat operations are over, and I would say he was wrong about that. Our intelligence was bad. We didn’t realize, somehow, and it’s kind of remarkable that we didn’t and shows the need for intelligence reform, including military intelligence, that those we did not kill, those we did not capture when we invaded and liberated–excuse me–Iraq, were able to hide, to regroup, to re-arm and to reorganize with the help of such folks as Abu Musab Zarqawi, an al-Qaeda associate who we previously fought in Afghanistan. The Baathists have also had the help from Syria. That’s being worked on now, as you may have heard, and Iranian agents have been pouring in there as well. We’re fighting both the former ruling class, the Baathists who were loyal to Saddam Hussein and still are, we’re fighting international jihadis, we’re fighting Iranian agents and we’re fighting others from around the world. So, yes, if you want me to say that President Bush was wrong to think that all it took was shock and awe, a quick show of force, the toppling of Saddam Hussein and it would all be over, he was wrong. Our intelligence was wrong.

We have to understand, we haven’t had the intelligence we need for more than 20 years. That’s why we haven’t understood the building threat that comes from terrorism, despite the fact that the World Trade Center was attacked for the first time in ’93. We were attacked in Beirut in 1983, our embassy was seized in ’79. We have not responded well or appropriately in all that time, and the result is we have a very challenging fight on our hands.

SMILEY: What about the notion–Cliff, what about the notion that this report raises yet again, that the Bush administration might well have just outright ignored the intelligence that they did have and the judgment that was suggested to them that they should have considered it, with regard to the significant operation they were going to face in Iraq, including ethnic conflict here?

Mr. MAY: Well, I’m not sure they ignored it. I don’t think they got it very well. But our basic problem here is not ethnic conflict. You don’t–what you have here is not, at the moment at least, Sunnis fighting Shia or Kurds fighting Arabs. That’s not what’s going on. You have Iraqis being blown up in the streets. You have Iraqi policemen being slaughtered. You have Iraqi oil pipelines blowing up. Trust me, Iraqis–the average Iraqi doesn’t like these things happening. He doesn’t want to see his neighbors killed. He doesn’t want to see his oil burning up. What you have are people who are trying to create a situation of anarchy, trying to chase the United States out so they can take over this country, its resources and use it as a base for terrorism in the region…

SMILEY: All right.

Mr. MAY: …and the world at large, which is why, if we should fail there, it means more than simply the Iraqi people being under the jackboot of some dictator again. It means a real great setback in this war against terrorism.

SMILEY: Let me jump in, Phyllis. I do this stuff every day, every week on this program, and I’m still confused, and I try to follow rather closely because of what I do. These same people who do these national intelligence estimates–the last one prior to this, as we established earlier in this conversation, was in October of 2002. That report has been highly criticized since then, as you well know, for its assessments that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Now this report comes out a couple years later and tells us that they told the president the road was going to be much trickier and much more difficult, that you should be prepared for that. I don’t know which of these reports I’m supposed to believe, because they both came from the same people.

Ms. BENNIS: Well, that’s true, Tavis. It’s a problem for all of us, particularly because we haven’t been able to see the actual report. We’re looking at bits and pieces that are leaking. And while the leaks may be relatively comprehensive, we haven’t seen the report itself, and that’s a serious problem. This report should be declassified, if this is, indeed, the summary, as it’s supposed to be, of the consensus of all of the relevant intelligence agencies. This is the basis on which the US is going to war in Iraq. We have the right to see this and make a judgment as a nation, as a people on the floor.

SMILEY: All right. Let me ask you right quick, Phyllis, whether or not this is the kind of conversation that, outside of being discussed on NPR here and a lot of the news networks late last week, is really going to die in a couple of days; American public has made up their minds about Iraq; this story doesn’t really have legs, or is this the kind of story that could impact this election come November?

Ms. BENNIS: I think this could have an enormous impact on the election. I don’t think the American people have fully made up their mind on Iraq. What we’re seeing are polls that are highly divided, the country highly polarized, but huge numbers of the population saying that they don’t believe there’s enough difference between the two candidates to bother voting or they’re not registered to vote; they don’t believe that the voting process is going to be free and fair, for a whole host of reasons.

SMILEY: All right.

Ms. BENNIS: And I think that that’s a serious problem, and I think that those people are going to be looking very, very closely at the costs of war in Iraq, the…

SMILEY: All right.

Ms. BENNIS: …1,025 US soldiers that have been killed, the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians that have been killed. These costs, as well as the $3,400 that this war is likely to cost every US household over the next three years. That’s a huge cost.

SMILEY: Let me jump in here, Phyllis. Let me jump in here. I’ve got about a minute to go. I want to give Clifford the last word.

Clifford, your take on how this is going to play out politically come November.

Mr. MAY: It sort of depends on what John Kerry decides to do. I don’t think I’m telling tales out of school when I say that John Kerry has adopted multiple positions on the war in Iraq. He voted for it, then he was against the financing of it. He said at one point that even if he’d understood that Saddam Hussein had somehow gotten rid of his stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, he still would have been in favor of this conflict, then he said it was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. At this point, I think he is saying, as President Bush is, that failure is not an option. We are not going to be defeated in Iraq. There are others, like Ralph Nader, who take, I think, Phyllis’ position, which is we should retreat from there, acknowledge defeat and do something else somewhere else. But I don’t think we know right now what John Kerry’s position is exactly. He can make this an issue with President Bush or not. I don’t think most Americans are prepared to accept defeat in Iraq simply because the going…


Mr. MAY: …has been difficult. Wars are difficult, and I think most Americans understand that.

SMILEY: I’m sure in the coming weeks we’ll get a chance to hear more about what both candidates have to say about this, particularly as these debates for the White House kick up.

Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, Clifford May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, thank you both. I appreciate your time.

Mr. MAY: Thank you.

Ms. BENNIS: Thank you, Tavis.

SMILEY: My pleasure.