Interview with Michael O'Hanlon, Brookings Institute


July 8th, 2004
Transcription by Volunteer Citizen Journalist Nanci Miller.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: Okay, great. So why don't you go ahead and introduce yourself and your role here at Brookings Institute.
MICHAEL O'HANLON: Michael O'Hanlon, Senior Fellow at Brookings, and I study primarily security issues.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: Okay. So let's say -- During the build-up to the war in Iraq, give me an example of what would happen. Would a news producer call you up and then come in and talk to you for, you know, for some time. Just go through that process of what happens as a think tank expert.
O'HANLON: Well clearly the debate about a possible war in Iraq was picking up from the winter and spring of 2002 onward. And certainly of the many media appearances I've done since 9/11, which has been a higher pace of activity than in most of my career before that time, a lot of the interviews became focused on possible Iraq conflict scenarios, and also the debate about whether we should go to war. And so I'd say from early to mid-2002 onward, this was something I talked about certainly at least weekly, if not often daily, with various parts of the media.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: Okay. And would it normally be the actual news correspondents, or would you have a producer come in and ask you the questions?
O'HANLON: Normally if you're dealing with a major network, for example, you would not speak directly to the correspondent unless you happened to go to their news studio. If you asked them to come to you, they would normally send a producer, but often very, very professional and well-qualified people who had spent time preparing the questions and were in frequent conversation with the actual on-air individuals.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: And for how long would each of the interviews that they would perform with you on average -- that they're gonna get some quotes from you -- how long would you talk to them for?
O'HANLON: As with most things I've done with the media, not just about Iraq, usually spend about 10 to 20 minutes. And I've actually been impressed throughout my career that the media are fairly serious about making sure they not only get a quote that you actually said, but that they have some sense of where you're coming from more generally, and try to make sure that the quote has some context, some relevance and is not unfair or misleading in terms of what it says about your own views. That's perhaps more typical when you're an outside analyst because the media tends to treat us more like colleagues, whereas people inside the government are often treated to some extent in a more adversarial way, especially in the executive branch.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: And this "colleague relationship" -- Do they pay you, or do they just come to you because Brookings is funded outside, or how does that relationship work?
O'HANLON: Virtually no American media pay me. There are a number of people who are on contract with one news organization or another, including a couple here at Brookings. And I have had occasional honoraria over the years from National Public Radio for one particular show I sometimes do for them on the weekend. But otherwise I have not been paid for the vast majority of my American media appearances. Sometimes if you're being asked to come in at 6 a.m. or 11 p.m., you'll negotiate a fee, but this tends to be on a case-by-case basis, and still quite rare.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: And during the build-up to the war in Iraq, what were you perspectives of the current situation -- the situation that led to the actual military intervention?
O'HANLON: I had one of the more probably complex sets of views on Iraq, and so I was not always trying to maintain a single position. There were times, for example, where I debated Richard Perle or Ken Adelman, whether it's through the media of -- the print media or radio -- and my argument against them was often "This will be a more difficult venture than you and many of the so-called neo-cons and many of the Bush administration officials from whom we hear are trying to argue." If we're gonna do this, it's gonna be big, it's gonna be tough. Personally, I thought more of the toughness would come in the invasion phase and less in the aftermath, so on that detail I was wrong, and that's an important detail. But I think I was still generally correct to say this is going to require hundreds of thousands of troops, it's gonna be a long-term, multi-year venture to stabilize Iraq afterwards, and the entire operation will involve quite possibly many thousands of American casualties. On those points I was often in disagreement with the likes of Ken Adelman and Richard Perle. So that was one set of debates. Another set of debates is whether we should have done this in the first place at all. And on that point I was more ambivalent. I thought that Saddam did need to be confronted. In this way I'm probably more in the category of a hawkish Democrat who clearly was sympathetic to much of the Clinton administration's containment strategy, but also thought there were downsides to that. And that in the end having Saddam with the ability to ignore the will of the international community and the legal demands placed upon him had it's own downsides. And having to base American military forces in Saudi Arabia for so many years to do a containment of Saddam militarily had its downsides. And keeping sanctions on the Iraqi people had major negatives. So I was always a little more open to the argument for confronting Saddam and potentially going to war than many on the left, but I was of the opinion you had to go through a diplomatic process that hopefully would disarm him without war, and that you had to maintain a strong international coalition. And on some of these points I was in disagreement with many of my debating opponents on the right. Then there were issues concerning the intelligence. What did we know about what Saddam had, and obviously this was related to the question about whether you had to go to war, but to some extent it could be analyzed on its own. That was another set of debates that perhaps didn't get quite as much attention as it should have, but it's a set of debates I did try to spend some time on -- the link between Saddam and al Qaeda as well as the issue of whether Saddam was making rapid progress towards a nuclear weapons program. Those were the two points where I thought much of the debate and much of the Bush administration rhetoric were misleading and hyped and exaggerated, and it turns out in fact I was right. On the chemical and biological issue, I was as wrong as anybody else. I thought that Saddam certainly did still have stockpiles. Why else would he have impeded the inspectors and their work? And given his track record of using these weapons, it seemed to me very likely that he would still have them. But on the nuclear link -- or the nuclear issue and the supposed al Qaeda link -- I was critical of the intelligence and of the way the Bush administration was using it. So there were a number of debates overlapping in their subject matter -- but to some extent distinct -- that were occurring throughout this time period.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: When you were being asked by producers, did you find that a lot of the questions you were being asked had to do with the chemical and biological weapons as opposed to your doubts about the nuclear threat?
O'HANLON: I don't know. I don't think there was a systematic bias in the questioning because normally with many of the people I would speak with, even if they did have an initial question going in, or an initial focus going in that you didn't agree with, they would give you the chance to actually raise a concern you might have had. It's actually a relationship that by virtue of having been here at Brookings now almost ten years, I know a lot of these people quite well and there's a mutual professional respect and a politeness as well. And therefore I would be hard pressed to blame the people who interviewed me for the focus of their questions. If there was an undue emphasis on one issue or another, I had as much opportunity to change it as anybody else, and as much as the reporters themselves. They ultimately would choose of course what the story was about and therefore the quote they used might or might not be fully reflective of the most serious threat we faced or might to some extent be skewed as a function of where the debate was at the time. But again, if I had a strong argument that the scope of an interview or of a show should be broadened, I had many opportunities to make that known. And so again, I would not be too critical of the media, at least in terms of how they dealt with me.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: In broadening the scope of the debate, did you get a lot of questions about the actual international law legal justifications that were being used?
ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: I'm going to be eliminating my actual...
O'HANLON: Right, okay.
ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: (Unintelligible)
O'HANLON: Right. There was some discussion of international law, but unfortunately this took on a fairly polarized flavor -- not so much in the way the media would ask, but in the way that the national debate would perceive this issue. And ironically many of the individuals who were most in favor of international law were most strongly opposed to the war or to holding Saddam accountable. And that to me had a certain contradiction because Saddam was in violation of international law. He was in violation, as the Bush administration repeatedly said, of more than a dozen U.N. Security Council resolutions. And the idea that the world would simply watch and let that happen and do little or nothing about it struck me as making a mockery of international law. So on this point I gave the Bush administration some credit. They were usually seen as being critics of international law and yet in one very important sense they were also trying to uphold it. So I thought what we needed was the Bush administration's willingness to confront Saddam and to make sure that his violations of international law were not ignored, but a little bit more of a multilateral approach in figuring out the strategy to do that appropriately. So in a sense both camps had it half right, and they also both had it half wrong. And unfortunately this policy debate never brought out the better part of each side's positions. And -- That was probably because the Bush administration wasn't listening. And it had the power to do what it wanted to do in the end without listening to the other side very much. But I do think that both sides largely talked past the other. Both had it wrong in important ways how the international legal dimension of this problem should be addressed or viewed. And therefore we ultimately came up with a policy that only got it half right, and the part that we got wrong continues to haunt us to this day because we went to war without the kind of legitimacy we really need now that the going has gotten so tough in the aftermath of the invasion.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: So who's the sovereign authority of enforcing those resolutions? Is it the United States unilaterally? Or is it only the 15 member states of the U.N. Security Council?
O'HANLON: Well, ideally you would like to see a Security Council resolution for anything that was being done in the name of international law. But you also had Security Council resolutions that required Saddam to disarm. So the U.N. Security Council did not have a clear position on the issue. Moreover, Resolution 1441 passed in November 2002, which demanded that Saddam verifiably disarm, held him accountable, required that he not only be free of weapons, but allow us to see he was free of weapons and prove that case. And he did not do so. One can read Hans Blix's book, people who favor international law and who favor the inspections process and recognize that even someone like Blix had a lot of questions that the Iraqi's never answered for him. So in that sense the Security Council was in a fundamentally conflicted state about what to do. And the question then becomes when you have a fundamental conflict like that, what happens? Now the argument of much of the left and of much of the European world is that in that sort of a situation, inaction is the default policy, not using military force should be the default, unless explicitly authorized. But I think the Bush administration had at least a reasonable argument to say that inaction has its own dangers and inaction is its own policy. It is not the absence of a policy; it is a policy. And to simply allow these resolutions to continue to be ignored itself amounts to making a decision, and therefore we were in a situation that was bound to be difficult because no matter which way you went, if you had a debate that was paralyzed and stalemated like this, you were going to be ignoring some elements of the Security Council's thinking while trying to uphold others. What we should have done, in my judgment, is something that my colleagues Phil Gordon and Jeremy Shapiro spelled out in a recent book called "Allies at War," and what Hans Blix also spelled out in his book, "Disarming Iraq". And we could have worked harder after Resolution 1441 was passed to try to develop a consensus at least among most of the Security Council members, even if not necessarily all 15, that would have suggested benchmarks for Iraqi compliance. And if Iraq had complied we would not have gone to war; if Iraq had failed to comply, there would have been more consensus, one hopes, for ultimately holding Saddam accountable through military means if necessary. I think that last element was lacking. And there's some chance that it would have produced more consensus and given the Security Council the ultimate say over whether to go to war. But even there it's not clear that the French and the Germans would have gone along with any decision to go to war in the end, because they were fairly categorically opposed to it, as some of their comments made clear at the time. So I would have liked to see us try harder to let the Security Council make the decision, but the Security Council in some sense was fundamentally conflicted and it's not clear that it ever would have resolved its internal contradictions in thinking about the subject.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: Can you explain -- I don't know -- Have you seen the letter that Negroponte sent to the U.N. on March 20th laying out the legal justification of the United States to the U.N. saying this is our rationale of why this war is legal -- Have you seen that letter?
O'HANLON: I think I read about it. I don't recall the letter myself off the top of my head. But I do think that in general I read a number of the Bush administration arguments, certainly, for why we thought we had a legal case, and the basic legal case amounts to two main points: (1) Saddam was in violation of many previous resolutions; and (2) Resolution 1441 required him to disarm, and if he didn't and if he was seen as impeding the inspection process in any way, then the most serious of consequences could be on the table. And that was essentially the gist of 1441. Now if you go back and you dissect the different interpretations of that resolution, some countries felt that it would have to be explicitly debated what would happen next before you could use Resolution 1441 as a legal instrument to justify war. Other countries -- including the United States -- felt that there was enough authority within 1441 itself that we already had the basis, even if it would not be politically popular, it would be nonetheless something we could justify legally. And I think there was a case to be made. Unfortunately it was a case that can be debated, and when you're going to war and doing something that controversial, you don't like to be hinging the whole thing on a debatable legal case. You want a slam dunk, clear case. And so -- There's no doubt that Negroponte and other elements of the Bush administration had a legitimate legal argument; however, it was a contestable, debatable legal argument, and one that the major allies in Europe largely did not agree with. So even if we could have defended this and did defend it on legal grounds, we didn't have enough political consensus. And you would have wanted a legal case that was even clearer and less ambiguous. And I think that's basically where we were when we went to war. A situation where it was hard to say the Bush administration was flat out wrong, but it was also clear that there was no conviction, no consensus that it was right in using 1441 in its form at that time as a legal justification for war. And so whether the legal case was there or not, the political consensus was absent, and that was a big problem and it remains a big problem to this day.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: So do you think that this is -- these types of questions about actual legal case -- I mean, when I look at the letter it says that 678 and 687 passed in '90 & ‘91 gave them enough authority; but if you talk to any legal scholars -- international legal scholars -- they say that once the Kuwaiti war was over with, that terminates the authorization for military action. And that was basically the legal justification that was given by the Bush administration that most legal scholars disagreed with. Even Michael Getler pointed out that the Washington Post buried on March 18 that most legal scholars disagreed with this debate. And so do you think there should have been more of a debate instigated by both the print and television news media?
O'HANLON: Yes, I do think that the policy process in general didn't function very well in the immediate prelude to war. I think that other questions should have been asked. The main question, I think, was, "Is there any way to develop a stronger political consensus for war should we have to go that route?" To me that's the ultimate -- that's the big question. I am not sure, again, that the Bush administration really lacked legal authority. Because Resolution 1441 talked about the utmost of consequences. And the problem is that 1441 did not specify exactly when you would be in a circumstance that was egregious enough and serious enough to justify war. But it made it clear that there could be such circumstances, and left everyone to interpret for themself what those circumstances would be. But 1441 provided a lot of legal cover. It did not say you must come back and get a second resolution. What it said was, if there is this kind of a breakdown in the inspection process, and if there is therefore a fundamental Iraqi non-compliance, the utmost of consequences could be appropriate. And so that kind of murky language I think gave the Bush administration at least a legal leg to stand on, if not clear authority, at least a leg to stand on. But it left the political question of developing consensus totally unresolved. And that's the way I would have liked to see the debate get focused in that winter period before war. More on is there a way that if we have to go to war we can do it with more legitimacy. That's the fundamental problem I think we failed to examine. And there could have been policy options examined in January, February -- Developing ultimata to Saddam that said you must do this, this and this by this date. Let's see if we can get Canada and Mexico and countries like that to agree to this kind of a strategy, even if the French and the Germans may not. And then you're in a position where you may or may not get a second resolution, but the chances that the French will veto the resolution go down. There's still some chance they would. Even if they do, you've got an 11 to 4 vote in favor of whatever war you may have to carry out -- I think that should have been much more the focus of our diplomacy and our domestic debate. It may or may not have clarified the legal case, but it would have improved the political consensus.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: And what's the difference between an operative paragraph and a preamble within the U.N. Security Council resolutions?
O'HANLON: Well, you're pushing my legal knowledge now at this point. So I don't want to -- (External Interruption) -- This is pushing the limits of my legal understanding. I don't want to claim that I have the authority to contest this on detailed international legal grounds. All I know is when I look at that resolution, I see fundamental ambiguity about the legal case, and therefore I see the likelihood of a political breakdown in trying to forge consensus. I think those who say that international law prohibited this overstate their point. But I think those who say that international law clearly justified it at that particular moment, based on what we had seen up until that time, also overstate their point. So you're in a situation where you are debating the legality of something. And it is of the utmost consequence to the world that we have some consensus on this. And therefore to be in a position of debating legality is an unfortunate position to be in. That to me is the fundamental point. It's more of a political point than a legal point.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: Well, I guess -- From what I see, is that this "serious consequences" is in the preamble, it's not in the operative paragraph, so it has no weight. (Interruption -- 10 minutes left)
O'HANLON: Operative paragraph and preamble, right.
ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: Right, that there's a distinction between what actually carries weight. If it says "serious consequences" in the preamble, to me -- to the international lawyers I've spoken to -- that carries no weight.
O'HANLON: Well, again, I acknowledge I'm pushing my limits of knowledge on this. But I also think that -- I see legal debates all the time about the importance of preamble language, and it's generally recognized that it's of somewhat less importance, but it's also generally not viewed as trivial or unimportant or irrelevant. If it's in the document, if it's in a preamble, it's fairly significant in importance. And again I think you have to ask the question, at some point, when you have an overwhelming case that Saddam is in violation of international legal commitments. At some point, the onus is not entirely on the country that wants to hold him accountable. I think to some extent international legal opinion, to the extent there's a consensus against this war, to some extent there is an expectation that the onus was on the United States and that violations of international law by Saddam somehow mattered less than developing an explicit justification for war. And that it was okay to ignore the violations, because the default of "no war" and "no action" was preferable to an uncertain case for war. And I frankly think that's a murky political judgment and not a sustainable legal opinion. And when you look at the overall body of law, Saddam was in violation of many, many things that he was legally accountable for and legally obliged to do. And I think that's a simple point that need not be obscured and should not be obscured by the debate over what's in the preamble and what's in an operative clause. Do I defend everything that the Bush administration did? No. Do I think that 1441 explicitly authorized this war at the time and place the United States chose to go and invade? No. I think there was ambiguity. It would have been much better to try to resolve some of that ambiguity. But do I think that our actions were illegal based on 17 resolutions Saddam was in violation of? Based on some clear language, at least in the preamble, spelling out "serious consequences", I think those points make it clear that some kind of action was very legal and very appropriate. And to push the point too far in the other direction I think is unfair.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: In like mid-March, you were basically arguing to not go for a second resolution at all. Can you speak to that? Like why we should – "Because that would ruin our legal argument" is what you [said.]
O'HANLON: By mid-March it was clear to me that the French and the Germans were not serious about trying to develop a consensus. They were talking about a four-month delay before war, which would have brought this right into the heart of the summer when American troops would have to wear chemical protective gear in 130 degree or 120 degree environment. I was in Iraq in September when it was 110 without chemical gear on. That's a very hard environment to operate in. And I think at some point -- I think that's why I say the moment was missed in January and February. And the real shame is that the United States and France developed such an adversarial diplomatic relationship in January, because that's the time we should have been trying to develop the ultimatum strategy. We still had the opportunity, and I fault both sides for that. By the time it got to March, I was worrying about the well-being of our troops as much as I was worried about the legal basis for war. In retrospect I have to acknowledge that given how difficult the post-Saddam period has been, it may have been better to consider postponing the war until the Fall, if necessary. And perhaps at that moment in time, knowing what I know now, I would have said let's try even harder, even though we've missed these couple of months. But at that point, we had had a couple of months to develop an ultimatum strategy and we had failed to do so. And it seemed fairly apparent by that point that any kind of further discussions being proposed by countries like France were delaying tactics that could have redounded to the detriment of American troops if and when they had to carry out this operation. So that's why I took the position I did in March.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: Okay. When you're leading up to the war in Iraq -- like in October -- there needed to be military troops in the region to enforce the compliance with the U.N. resolutions. And then there is a shift when suddenly that -- There's a threshold that's crossed and then now these troops are for an invasion. Can you talk about that blurring of the line of what's the threshold of how many troops you need for enforcing the -- intimidating versus invasion?
O'HANLON: It's a very good question -- I don't know if there is a magic number. In fact, there is --
ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: I'm sorry -- Of what?
O'HANLON: Right. Well -- There is no magic number of American troops in the Persian Gulf that when you reach that number your committed to war inexorably. There is no such figure. However, moving tens of thousands of people around in addition to being financially expensive -- and that's the lesser issue -- it's tough on the people. And to the extent your diplomacy requires that level of coercive presence -- and you may have to therefore ramp it up or sustain it for a period of years -- you really don't want to be in the business of sustaining more than, I think, 50 to 100 thousand people in that part of the world -- Because it's very hard to do that in a way that's politically sustainable for those countries in the region -- that's consistent with the logistics infrastructure you have set up. So I think when you start to get in the range of 75 to 100 thousand American troops, you're no longer in a coercive diplomacy phase, you're in a prelude to war phase. Again, that number can be debated. There is no hard and fast rule, but those are the sorts of considerations that come into play -- The basing of forces in a region, the political strain on our allies in the region, and the strain on American personnel living in tents in the desert, who may have to keep doing that for a period of many months or even years if we're gonna use force as an instrument of diplomacy rather than using it definitively to solve the problem once and for all. In retrospect you can see, however, that we're using 140,000 troops to sustain a stabilization effort in Iraq, and so in theory we could have sustained 50 to 100 thousand people for a couple of years without breaking the military. But that's the level at which I think if you got over that point, the military itself would not have wanted to continue to sustain this level of suspended animation about our policy future. And Rumsfeld, when he got above a hundred thousand troops, he was clearly in a build-up to war and no longer in a real coercive diplomacy sort of mode.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: And so at what point did you realize that this war -- that troop mobilization was intended for war -- that we were going to go to war as opposed to enforcing the diplomacy?
O'HANLON: Very early in 2003 it looked quite clear to me. That's why I speak --
ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: I'm sorry, the – Yeah
O'HANLON: I'm sorry -- By early 2003 it was fairly clear that we were headed to war -- and in this sense both the United States and France ambushed each other. We ambushed France because we deployed this big force that was not going to be just to do coercive diplomacy. And the French ambushed us by saying that under no circumstances would they approve of the use of force against Saddam. So both sides essentially stopped diplomacy with the other by early to mid-January 2003.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: And do you have a sense as to why at the beginning the Bush administration said they didn't need a second resolution when they switched?
O'HANLON: Yeah, it was Tony Blair, very simply. Tony Blair needed this resolution or at least needed the attempt for the purposes of British politics and showing that he had gone the extra mile. In the United States even Colin Powell was dubious about whether this would be a desirable thing because it would open up all of these debates about whether we doubted the legal basis for going to war with just 1441. And Powell thought it was better to rely on what 1441 did permit us, even if it was somewhat ambiguous. As opposed to failing to achieve a second resolution and thereby admitting that we thought we might need one. But Blair said, "Listen, I need this. Please do it." And the Bush administration obliged.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: And what was that political situation in Britain?
O'HANLON: I wouldn't be the best person qualified to explain Tony Blair's situation, but he clearly felt he was dealing with a public that was not enthusiastic for war, that needed to have it be very, very clear that the legal basis for war was airtight. And without that he needed to -- I'm sorry [30-minute time limit elapsed -- Interview Room needed for the next interview]