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Aired February 28, 2003 - 19:30:00   ET


In this edition, rebuilding Afghanistan; are the media giving enough coverage to a country whose foundation may be in peril?

Plus, how the potential war is causing traditional party loyalist to cross the political divide.

But first, we've deliberated, discussed and dissected yet for many in the media the Iraq debate seems more confused than ever. So much so that some in the press have moved on the next big issue: Iraq, the day after war.

But does talking about this subject make war seem more inevitable? And should the media remain focused on further debate?

Joining me now to discuss this, in Paris, Christopher Dickey, Middle East editor for "Newsweek" magazine and author of the novel "Innocent Blood."

And here in the studio, Con Coughlin, executive editor of the "Sunday Telegraph" and author of "Saddam, King of Terror."

My first question to you, Christopher Dickey. You've written a lot about a post war scenario in Iraq. Doesn't that contribute to this sense that is prevailing that war is seemingly inevitable?

CHRISTOPHER DICKEY, "NEWSWEEK": Well, it can, and that seems to be the tact the President Bush is taking these days, talking about the great glorious world that's going to be built after Saddam is out of the picture.

But I think the reason a lot of people, including myself, are writing about the aftermath is as a cautionary tale. There are so many things that can go wrong. I think people who focus on the casualties that will take place in the war or even the possibility of Saddam's terrorist attacks in the United States are maybe misleading the public a little bit.

The real risk comes after, when people have changed their channel, when they've declared a victory and walked away and all of the sudden Iraq starts to disintegrate because there's really nothing to hold it together anymore. That's where we'll see the problem and that's also where we'll see Americans become targets.

SWEENEY: But yet the war has to happen first.

Con Coughlin, let me ask you, is there, in your opinion, any plan or a grand scheme that is being perpetuated by the authorities, perhaps in the United States anyway, where we now, the public, see that war is inevitable and that we've actually become tired of waiting?


I think what we've got now is what I call justification fatigue. We've had so many scenarios played out over the last few weeks and even months that people are actually getting rather tired of it.

Now, I think that the first casualty of the war campaign has actually been the PR effort, both in Washington and London. I think both the American and British governments have done an appalling job on trying to get the case across to justify war.

And they keep confusing the issues. They start straining to -- the whole link between Saddam and al Qaeda and issues like this. It just confuses people. And then people say, why are we going to war at all.

SWEENEY: Christopher Dickey, I see you nodding there and I'm tempted to ask you, do you think that the American administration and perhaps the British as well seriously misjudged the public mood several months ago about this war?

DICKEY: I think the British radically -- the British administration radically misjudged British public opinion on this.

And I think they've consistently predicted developments here that haven't taken place, both in terms of Saddam's behavior and in terms of the way that public opinion would follow the leadership of the United States and of the Blair government in Britain.

In the United States it's a little bit different. What Con is talking about, justification fatigue, there's an element of truth in that in the United States. I think in the U.S. people love to get on with their lives and there's a kind of an impatience now which the White House is playing on to sort of get this over with. Let's get this problem solved, let's move on.

Of course, the problem is that Americans love to solve problems. They don't always love to try to understand problems. And in the Middle East sometimes it's more important to understand and understand that there are no solutions.

SWEENEY: And if, Con, the White House is playing on this mood in America, does that mean that we, the media, in a sense, are playing on that as well and doing the White House's job for them?

COUGHLIN: Well, there is an element of that and, of course, people are immensely interested in what is about to happen in the Middle East, in Iraq, in the wider area.

I mean, if there is to be a war against Iraq, it is going to have profound implications throughout the region. It's not going to be confined solely to Iraq.

And as Chris said, I mean, the first problem is what happens to Iraq, post-Saddam? But the other issue is, what happens to the rest of the Middle East? What happens to Syria? What happens to the Israeli- Palestinian issue?

SWEENEY: So do you think that there has been a lot of debate, but it's been about Iraq -- but has there been enough debate about the wider issue?

COUGHLIN: Well, I think, frankly, I think there's been some quite alarmist discussion of the wider issues.

My feeling, frankly, is most Arab countries will be glad to see the back of Saddam Hussein.

I think the fundamental problem is what's going to happen to the Palestinians. I personally cannot see any lasting stability in the region until there is a proper deal with the Palestinians.

SWEENEY: Christopher, how much more debate is needed?

DICKEY: Well, you know, it's hard to say, because there's just this air of unreality about this whole venture.

On the one hand there's sort of resignation. Oh, yes, Bush wants war. There's going to be a war, so it's inevitable.

On the other hand, I think even in the United States, which will be doing most of the fighting in this war, there's a sense that somehow it it's really going to happen. It's not real. And that's been a problem that dates way back in America.

You know, Americas have been going to war just about ever year for the last 20 years against somebody or other and Americas don't even remember they did it, whether they were invading Panama or bombing Libya or whatever. It's the sense that these things sort of take place at a distance and they don't really affect your life.

The risk here is that ultimately this will turn out to be a real war with a real aftermath, with real impact, that will affect everybody's life, and of course that Americans are not as impervious to danger as they used to be, since 9-11.

SWEENEY: Could it be argued, Christopher, that perhaps Washington also realizes in this post-war scenario in Iraq, of which you've written about many times, they may need more international help and more money thane they may have even previously thought themselves?

DICKEY: Well, sure.

When Gen. Sensecki (ph), the chief of the army, said the other day that it would be long term occupation with more than 100,000 American troops and tens of thousands of allied troops, the White House flipped. They didn't know what to make of that. That wasn't the line of the day. You're not supposed to raise that question.

And one of the problems that we've had in the press is that the White House tends to shoot down this whole line of inquiry. So when they talk about the aftermath, as President Bush began to do this week, they talk about this glorious vision of peace and happiness in the Middle East.

There's nothing based on any of our experience to make anyone believe that that is going to be the case, and there's been no willingness to address the Palestinian issue in the way that Con is talking about.

And, furthermore, that doesn't even get mentioned most of the time in the American press or by the White House, and when it does, somehow war in Iraq is going to make peace in Palestine. Kind of hard to figure that one out, but it seems to be the line of the day in Washington.

SWEENEY: OK. There easily could be more debate with us about that.

Thank you very much, there I have to leave it, gentlemen.

Christopher Dickey, in Paris, and Con Coughlin, here in London.

Time for a quick break, but when we come back, it may have been a great photo op, but when the cameras turned off, was Afghanistan forgotten?


SWEENEY: Welcome back.

While many in the press are talking about the challenges facing Iraq once a possible war is over, there is one country that is in that very position, and yet some may argue Afghanistan is forgotten.


SWEENEY (voice-over): This week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai met U.S. President George W. Bush to talk about the country's rebuilding.

HAMID KARZAI, AFGHAN PRESIDENT: We have received assurances that the United States will continue to support Afghanistan, that the attention there will be focused and continuous, and that Iraq will not reduce attention from Afghanistan or the amount of help given to Afghanistan.


SWEENEY: But how much responsibility rests with the media to insure Afghanistan stays in the public consciousness?

I'm joined now, in Washington, by Len Downie, executive editor of "The Washington Post," and joining us by phone from Lahore, in Pakistan, is Ahmed Rashid, journalist and author of the novel "Taliban."

First of all, let me ask you, Ahmed Rashid, has the international media largely forgotten Afghanistan? And, if so, why?

AHMED RASHID, AUTHOR: Well, I can't say it's entirely forgotten it, but it's certainly way down on the agenda.

It's very difficult now to get a story published in the media, and it's almost impossible to get a story seen on any of the American or major international TV networks on Afghanistan, and I think, you know, the trouble is that the, at least the American controlled media, seems to have a very short attention span, like much of the public and the administration, and it somehow thinks that nation-building is a boring subject, whereas it's not in a situation like Afghanistan.

SWEENEY: But, Ahmed, in fairness to the international and the American media, I mean, attention is very much focused the public and world opinion on the situation developing and unfolding in Iraq.

Is it not fair to say that resources play a large part in this?

RASHID: Well, certainly, and I, as a journalist, I understand that very much, but I think, you know, Afghanistan, as this kind of symbol of the war against terrorism, which is still the most, I think, important issue in the world today, Afghanistan still is extremely important.

Len Downie, let me ask you, how do you pick up on that point of Ahmed Rashid, that Americans and the American media perhaps has a rather short attention span?

LEN DOWNIE, "THE WASHINGTON POST": I think it's certainly true that Americans and the American media have a short attention span. We're a fast-moving country.

On the other hand, I can't speak for all of the media and I do notice there's not as much coverage of Afghanistan on television. But for "The Washington Post," we take Ahmed's point very seriously.

We continue to have a minimum of one and quite often two or three reporters assigned every day in Afghanistan, producing stories for us every day, both about nation-building and also about the continued hunt for al Qaeda terrorists.

As he said, the war against terrorism is going to be here long after whatever happens in Iraq is over, and will remain a very important story for us to cover.

SWEENEY: Could it be argued that perhaps the public is more interested in the excitement, for want of a better word, of war and bang- bang rather than what seems to be by comparison boring reconstruction stories?

DOWNIE: I think more it's a question of the public's concerns, fears, if you will, about what may be happening in Iraq.

We have 200,000 American troops over there already, so that's a lot of American lives that their worried about. Americans and people around the rest of the world are also worried about Iraqi civilians and what might happen to them in a conflict.

And so I think the focus on the safety of all those individuals and whatever may take place in Iraq is not misplaced. I think that's a very, very important issue for people to be facing right now.

But we can do more things than one at once, and while we have probably two dozen reporters who are going to be focused on whatever happens in Iraq over the next month or so, we still have several in Afghanistan, focused on what's going on there.

SWEENEY: Ahmed, are there lessons for the media to be learnt from their experience in Afghanistan for Iraq?

RASHID: Well, I think, you know, Afghanistan should have served as a symbol, I think, for the Muslim world, on American policy. That is, if the Americans could go in and bomb a country but they could also rebuild it.

Now the failures of American policy in Afghanistan, and they are enormous failures, I think, over the last 12 to 14 months, have really not been adequately covered in the U.S. media. I mean, even if there's been reporting, there hasn't been analytical reporting on these basically policy failures on the issue of reconstruction, on expanding security forces around the country.

And I think all of this is very telling for the Iraq story. If Muslims and other people around the world see the Americans failing in Afghanistan, what's the guarantee that there going to do the right thing in Iraq.

SWEENEY: Len Downie, is that a view you share?

DOWNIE: I think fairly it's rather early to come to that kind of conclusion.

There are both pluses and minuses to what's going on there, and in fact if you've read "The Washington Post" in the last week, you would read, for instance, about the growth of small businesses and commerce and retail activity in and around Kabul, for example. While on the other hand, you would also read about the problems in border provinces of Afghanistan, where clearly rebuilding is not yet happening, where there's still a great deal of lawlessness and we've been reporting that.

It is an important test, I think, for both the American government and the American media, what happens after a conflict, if there is one, in Iraq. And we expect to have a large number of reporters there, not only focusing on what the Americans do in terms of rebuilding a structure of government there, and so on, whatever the American occupation looks like, but also to answer questions like were there weapons of mass destruction there? Where are they located? What is the situation with them now? What was this Saddam regime really like? How many people lost there lives or were otherwise deprived of their liberty by his regime?

These will be very important reporting topics for us in the months ahead.

SWEENEY: Len Downie, Ahmed Rashid, thank you both very much for joining us.

And still ahead on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, are the left no longer right? We find out why many are not just trading blows when it comes to.



The Iraq debate has polarized the international community, and it goes well beyond the traditional lines of left and right.

The debate itself has served up some real surprises with many warmongers and peaceniks changing sides.

Well, joining me now, best-selling author and commentator Frederick Forsyth and "Mail on Sunday" columnist Peter Hitchens.

Peter Hitchens, first of all, from what I've read about your anti-war stance, it seems to have a lot to do with anger on your part against the American administration and how it's handling the lead up to this potential war.

PETER HITCHENS, "MAIL ON SUNDAY": No, not anger with the American administration. I am a pro-American person. I lived in the United States for years. I like America. I think generally it's a force for good.

I just think in this case, it's acting against some very important conservative principles. It's acting against the idea of national sovereignty. It seems to take the view that if it doesn't like a regime or a government it's therefore licensed to overthrow it, which I think has very serious consequences for the world order.

And also I think that it's abandoning the very sensible conservative policy of deterrence of unacceptable regimes, and I think that deterrence, which served very well during the Cold War against a blood-stained and highly dangerous regime would serve us just as well against Iraq.

SWEENEY: Both of you are conservatives, but you, Frederick Forsyth, are in favor of this war if there has to be a war, and you are certainly following your conservative party line.

Are you buying the moral argument as proposed by Tony Blair, the prime minister?


I think he was foolish to branch away from the weapons of mass destruction issue, which in fact goes back to the first Gulf War 12 years ago.

That was one of the prime reasons why so many conditions were laid down on this man, Saddam Hussein, after the victory, after his expulsion from Kuwait.

I think that whether he's a foul and vicious and sadistic dictator, which he is, is not the issue, and I don't think al Qaeda is the issue either, links or non-links to al Qaeda, which is a different and separate issue so far, you know, pending proof of on association of these two people.

But I do believe that when we finally defeated him in February 1991, inspectors went in and found that he had over years researched and developed and manufactured and stored some of the most hideous weapons known to man. They cannot conceivably become (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the defense of Iraq. They can only be used aggressively.

SWEENEY: So you think a preemptive strike is necessary?

FORSYTH: This is it, yes. I mean, I've heard, you know, the deterrent argument, which worked throughout the Cold War, no question about it.

We were talking to the Politburo of the USSR, and we were able to say to them, if you attack us, you will get maybe some success on the first strike, but we'll have enough retaliatory forces left over to wipe you out. It's called "mutually assured destruction," or MAD.

And because nobody was mad, it worked. I don't believe this man is wholly sane, and I don't think that he can be trusted with weapons that could devastate entire cities which can be encapsulated into a single suitcase. That is very, very dangerous.

SWEENEY: Well, this issue that your raising, Frederick, about preemptive action, is this -- national sovereignty issues aside -- is it better to wait until it happens, as the Americans and British are arguing against?

HITCHENS: I can see no circumstances under which it will happen, as long as we maintain the effective deterrent which we have done since the end of the Gulf War, and I think that the problem for the pro-war people is that they can't actually come up with a realistic reason why Saddam Hussein should risk having himself and his entire country flattened in any realistic circumstances.

Nor do I accept the idea that he's irrational. On the contrary. He's remained in power for as long as he has in that snake pit of a contrary precisely because he is highly rational about his own survival. I don't see what it is that's suddenly changed in the past two years about Saddam Hussein which makes it necessary to invade his country.

In fact, I think an intelligent argument for this war would be the United States wishes to try and establish a friendly regime, perhaps a democratic regime -- I think that's unlikely -- in a country which is strategically central in the Middle East.

I don't think it's about oil. I don't think it's about the Bush family's resentments of Saddam Hussein. I think it's about power. I wish they'd argue it seriously. If they did, then we could discuss whether it's a sensible thing to do.

Personally, I think it's unlikely to succeed, but I'm sick of the baby talk and the propaganda and the ludicrous emotional stuff, which we're being fed, and I'm also sick of the way in which my own government cannot make a serious case why this country, Britain, should be involved in what is essentially an American war.

SWEENEY: And let me ask you, how do you feel as someone who writes for the "Mail on Sunday," how the media has been handling this?

HITCHENS: Far too many people in the world media still try to present this as a left-right argument. It isn't.

There is a serious conservative case against going to war, which is also being made in the United States, and which is not getting enough of a hearing, and I'm glad your giving it a hearing today.

SWEENEY: One of the issues has been focused on the anti-war movement, that it really drew, for example, the marches recently on the streets of Europe a couple of weeks ago, and in the United States as well, drew a lot of people together who would have been from different political aspirations and different divides.

Is that a good thing?

FORSYTH: Well, I entirely agree with Peter, that there's been a lot of sentimental claptrap talk. There is obviously what you might call the almost-professional peacenik movement, who just standup and say "I am against war," as if they'd made some amazing moral breakthrough.

HITCHENS: This is the problem that I have: if Nelson Mandela is against it, and if Jesse Jackson is against is, I almost feel I ought to be in favor of it.

FORSYTH: Anything.

HITCHENS: My immediate -- as soon as I saw those demonstrations, I felt a surge of support for bombing Baghdad, which I had to suppress with reason.

I don't -- actually, I think most of the left, who are often rather dim, realized what kind of war this was and what a globalist anti-national sovereignty war it was, they'd be in favor of it, because they always used to be in favor of rubbing out nations if they got in the way of the Soviet Union.

So I don't really see what their objection is in this case. What they don't seem to realize is that America has become a multicultural power rather than a conservative power and is acting in a way very different from the way it used to act when they had the old fashioned anti-American demonstrations they loved so much.

FORSYTH: Peter, you're ignoring the United Nations aspect of it here.

When we went into Kosovo, that was NATO, and that too was preemptive. It was designed to be preemptive. It was designed to stop Milosevic carrying out a pogrom of genocidal proportions. It didn't quite succeed but it came close.

But we did not say we are going to wait until you've wiped out the Kosovans, then we're going to come and punish you. We said we're going to try and stop you doing it now.

This particular enterprise is under the United Nations, and the United Nations involvement goes right back to the invasion of Kuwait in August, 1990.


FORSYTH: So the United Nations, which is supposed to be the world body, has passed 17 -- not, 1, 5 or 8 -- 17 separate resolutions. When do we finally actually say, hey, it's rather time you actually abided by one. If you don't, you might as well wipe the United Nations off the planet.

HUTCHINS: I'm shocked to hear a man of your kidney resorting to the United Nations, that parliament of torturers and tyrants, which -- one of the good things about this controversy is that I hear the president of the United States frequently saying, if the United Nations won't support us in this war, then it will destroy the United Nations.

Hey, good. What a good thing it would be if this dreadful organization of humbug and fatuity was actually removed. It does no good.

SWEENEY: For the moment, I have to leave it there.

Gentlemen, thank you both very much indeed.

And that is all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. I'm Fionnuala Sweeney, in London. Thank you for joining us.



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