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Panel Debates Whether Saddam Has the WeaponsA light moment after a heated exchange.

Panel Debates Whether Saddam Has the Weapons

Congressman Howard Berman says inspectors have told him Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. Columnist Robert Sheer is skeptical.

By Leslie Evans

"Do not kid yourself about whether or not he has weapons of mass destruction," Congressman Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys) told a large audience in Dodd Hall March 7, speaking of Saddam Hussein. "He has them. He is trying to get a nuclear weapon. He has chemical and biological weapons in large quantities." Berman is a member of the House Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. He said his information came from discussions with the UN inspectors and confidential briefings by military inteligence.

Berman's claim of special knowledge from private briefings was hotly contested by Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer, who insisted that such information needed to be made public in the interests of a democratic decision on war. "I am not impressed with your secret briefings." A third panel member was Stephen Krasner, Graham Stuart Professor of International Relations & Senior Fellow at the Institute for International Studies, Stanford University.

The panel, under the title "Iraq: Assessing the Options," was sponsored by the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations. It is part of UCLA's ongoing commitment to providing a forum for the wide range of viewpoints about the Middle East for the campus and beyond. It was moderated by Burkle Center Director Geoffrey Garrett, who is also the Vice Provost of the UCLA International Institute, and Steven Spiegel, Associate Director of the Burkle Center and a professor of Political Science.

Should the UN Have a Role?

In his opening comments Stephen Krasner said that "it is not clear that the administration's policy will be affected by what the inspectors' reports say. The inspectors are not in a position to uncover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq without Iraqi cooperation. It is a big country. Success . . . depends on what Saddam Hussein decides to do, and there is no indication that Saddam Hussein has decided to disarm."

Krasner also expressed doubts that the UN should have been involved in the decision at all. "The [Bush] administration made a decision to go to the UN. This put the process in the hands of a group of countries not concerned about Iraq the way we are. We could be trapped in this process."

Robert Scheer argued that the Bush administration's ground for the proposed invasion of Iraq have continually shifted. "We had September 11, we went after bin Laden. After September 11 Iraq becomes a big issue. There are two reasons that could have been valid: one was if Iraq was connected to these attacks. Rumsfield said there was bullet-proof evidence of such a connection. It has never been presented. Then there is the claim that there were weapons of mass destruction. They have been unable to find any. The UN inspectors' report says they have found no evidence of mobile or underground facilities. The report from the atomic energy group said that the documents trying to prove that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons were faked. So no evidence of the existence of weapons of mass destruction has been submitted. They can't make the case on terror, can't make the case on weapons of mass destruction. That leaves regime change. If that is what they wanted to do from the beginning, that is what they should have said."

Scheer suggested that deposing Saddam Hussein might not produce a government Washington would be happy with: "What are you going to do if you bring democracy to Iraq and the new government is even more hostile to Israel, and even more committed to terror than Saddam Hussein had been? Will you respect that democracy?"

Howard Berman said that he had "watched this regime for 20 years and I have had regular briefings on his chemical and biological and missile capabilities." Saddam Hussein's "ability to conceal is greater than even our vast intelligence capability to disclose. When you are dealing with missiles that is one thing, when you are dealing with chemical and biological weapons they are more easily concealable. The [Bush] administration is not going to make its decision contingent on giving the inspectors more time to find what Saddam has hidden."

He added that he thought the inspections have a restraining influence on Iraqi conduct "and if that could be maintained I would be for continuing it. But in the past this restraint has always eroded."

What Does President Bush Want in Iraq?

Steven Spiegel asked the panelists what they thought the president's central aim is in Iraq: "Are we in this to destroy weapons of mass destruction? Or for democratic change in the Middle East? Or to uncover and stop Iraqi connections to terrorism? Or are we there for oil?"

"If it was for oil we would have done it in 1991," Stephen Krasner answered. "It is because Saddam has weapons of mass destruction. If he has them he can dominate the Middle East. It is true there is not knock-down evidence that Saddam is a supporter of al Qaeda. But is it in his interests to support terrorism? Clearly it is, as it destabilizes his enemies around the world."

Scheer insisted that the Bush administration had an obligation to the country to prove the existence of the Iraqi weapons. "I don't know how this democracy thing works. . . . If such evidence exists and this is a democracy, why am I not given this evidence as a citizen in the democracy? Why did Rumsfield lie to us? Why did he say Saddam recently developed chemical weapons when in fact these were developed in the 1980s when we knew all about it and approved their use against Iran, which we thought was the greater enemy at that time? I am asking why there is no obligation to come up with any evidence in a democratic process before a decision of this magnitude can be made?"

Howard Berman said he was confident that the weapons do exist: "I know because every single inspector I have talked to, including those opposed to the use of force, and these are not employees of the United States but employees of the UN, and they all said they knew Saddam had these weapons. I have also attended briefings that are confidential that confirm this."

Berman did agree with Scheer that the administration has not convincingly made a case that Saddam is involved with terrorists. "I think that it is true that there is no serious evidence of a connection between al Qaeda and Iraq. The speculations about a meeting between al Qaeda and an Iraqi intelligence agent are extremely speculative."

Robert Scheer said that Saddam today is less of a threat than in the past. "There is no evidence that his ability to wage war is increasing. He wouldn't let us go to the palaces, now he lets us go to the palaces. He wouldn't let the scientists talk to us, now he does. He wouldn't destroy the missiles, now he is destroying them. What is the danger of giving this process a few more months? The process seems to be working pretty well."

The End of the Atlantic Alliance?

Geoffrey Garrett asked the panel to comment on the transatlantic relation and the fracturing of Europe and the Atlantic alliance.

"I think it is pretty sad if you support the UN only when it votes your way," Robert Scheer commented. "The UN is not dominated by totalitarian countries. Suddenly the French are wimps. They know something about colonial experience in Algeria and Vietnam. The Germans, well they're pacifists. The Chinese, well they're anticapitalist. The Russians, well what do they know. We have Congressman Berman and his secret briefings, maybe there is an answer there. Maybe god spoke to the president, but can't we even suggest that there is some cynicism here, with this group of neoconservatives who have been trying to shift our foreign policy to the right for 20 years?"

Howard Berman replied that Germany's foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, agreed with him that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction. "His disagreement is over what to do about it. The question of what to do about it is the tougher question than the one of what he has. We have not been able to persuade a number of our traditional allies of the correctness of our position, and the president will have to weigh this. In 1999 we bombed the smithereens out of the Serbs. We hit them over and over again with high flying aircraft. We bombed the Peoples Republic of China's embassy in Belgrade. There was no UN authorization of that. We stopped the genocide and the massive evacuation of ethnic Kosovo Albanians from their homes. There were some attenuated arguments about security in Europe, but there was an overwhelming humanitarian reason -- and of course a distraction from Monica Lewinsky. Read Salman Rushdie on what goes on in Iraq, the terror against citizens. When the goals are only humanitarian we do it without international authorization. But strangely, you need international endorsement if you have some national security considerations also."

Stephen Krasner felt that the UN Security Council is burdened by still having the permanent members selected immediately after World War II. "If the UN was rationally lined up you would have Japan, Germany, and India on the Security Council. If the Europeans had a real military policy the debate would look very different. Europe has votes but does not back it up with its own military power. Europe killed 100 million people on its continent in the last century. Europeans don't want to fight. If the rest of the world was like Europe that would be great, we would have less conflict. But other parts of the world are still very ready to fight."

Berman said that while he was prepared to endorese unilateral U.S. action in Iraq, he felt there had been too much of this by the Bush administration on other issues: "I do believe that other U.S. unilateral actions, withdrawing from the ABM treaty rather than trying to renegotiate it with the Russians, walking out of the Kyoto accord, the high-handed attitude toward the international criminal court -- these are very off putting to me. None of these issues are related to this specific decision."

Why Act Now?

Robert Scheer said he could see no grounds that required imminent action against Iraq, and that humanitarian considerations opened the door to too many potential regime changes. "I could give you forty countries that we could invade on humanitarian grounds, from Iran to Saudi Arabia. We are endangering this alliance because we cannot afford four more months. What is the evidence that something will happen in the next four months that requires rapid action at such a cost with our allies? You are absolutely wrong that all of the inspectors agree with you. The implication is that Blix agrees with you. Go read the UN report that came out today, go read the report of our foreign service officer who resigned after 20 years, go read the report of the FBI whistle blower. We are being jacked around. This is very dangerous for a democratic society. Democracy is a system in which the president talks to god but thinks he can lie to the American people."

"But what is imminent?" Howard Berman responded. "I did not think on September 10 that there was an imminent threat to the United States. [Soviet foreign minister] Molotov and [Nazi Germany's foreign minister] von Ribbentrop signed an agreement once. A secular Iraq can block with Islamic fundamentalists. After September 11 I am more concerned about these kinds of dangers."

Burkle Center for International Relations