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Michael Isikoff mixes it up with Hugh about the run up to war in Iraq.

Sunday, April 29, 2007
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HH: One of the things you’ll probably want to get to is the Noon panel tomorrow. My next guest, Michael Isikoff of Newsweek Magazine will be on it, as will Frank Luntz, frequently a guest on this program, Joe Conason, who’s been on this program before, as well as Powers, and I don’t know David Goodman. What has he written about, Michael Isikoff?

MI: I don’t know.

HH: You and me both.

MI: I’ll look at the bio tomorrow morning.

HH: Okay, Michael Isikoff, you wrote a book on Iraq with David Corn…

MI: Yes.

HH: …also no stranger to this show, though he doesn’t want to come back, and we can lure him back. It went to the top of the best seller’s list. Since it came out in September of 2006, has the war gone better or worse as you see it?

MI: Hard to say. You know, General Petraeus was just in Washington this past week briefing the Senate, meeting with the President. He’s seeing some signs of progress, yet at the same time, you had that horrific suicide bombings last week, in it killing nine Americans, largest single incident, I think, in nearly two years. And you know, you get mixed reports. There’s some indication of some stability in some areas of Baghdad, and yet at the same time, the concern is that we’re just moving some of the insurgents, the Sunni diehards who don’t like us, to other areas where violence is increasing. So it’s hard to get an overall clear picture.

HH: Now I devoted a lot of this week, of fifteen hours of radio, probably fourteen hours to things like three hours of conversation with Lawrence Wright of The Looming Tower, and talking about his book.

MI: Worth talking about.

HH: Very great book. Max Boot yesterday…

MI: Right.

HH: Fred Kagan the day before, just talked to Katrina Vandenheuvel, we’ve had on Mark Steyn, you, talking about the war over and over again. And I think, actually, the whole country’s getting spun on this, because, and that’s what your panel’s about tomorrow, about spin…

MI: Yes, it is.

HH: Because the people who have been there and seen it are telling radically different stories. Not necessarily happy stories, the Max Boot report is not happy, but it’s positive. Fred Kagan’s report on Iraqi special forces, something I hadn’t read before, Petraeus, and then, they’re not talking at all about al Qaeda. And when Lawrence Wright comes on and talks about al Qaeda, it makes your blood run cold.

MI: Right.

HH: And we had a good win today. So is the public being served by a media that loves the Harry Redi-Nancy Pelosi-George Bush story, but doesn’t talk about this war or the stakes?

MI: Well, look. I think that a lot of people are talking about war, people tend to see what they want to see. I talked to Chuck Hagel the other night, who just came back from Iraq last week, and he’s not encouraged at all. In fact, he’s more discouraged than ever, thinks that the prospect of a political settlement, which is ultimately what everybody, including Petraeus says, is the only solution, is as far away as it’s ever been, sees no signs that the Malaki government wants to make accommodations with the Sunnis. Malaki, he says, is talking about some of the legislation that the U.S. is pushing, to sort of give some political credence to the Sunnis, such as re-Baathification, as in appeasement, and you know, Hagel’s saying look, if our guy is not willing to do what we want him to do, he doesn’t see the prospects for a political settlement. And even Petraeus says we, you know, this is not a military…at the end of the day, it’s just not going to be solved by the military.

HH: We just played that cut.

MI: It’s going to be solved by a political solution in Iraq.

HH: But what Boot wrote…

MI: Yeah.

HH: …and we talked about it yesterday, is that Malaki has begun to bring in competence as opposed to…he’s thrown the Sadrists out, the Sadrists have left. He’s got a decent military commander in Gambar, I believe. They’ve got this operational efficiency, and fourteen of eighteen sheiks, according to Charles Krauthammer last segment, now allied with our side against the al Qaeda in al Anbar. Now I don’t know if that’s enough or decisive, but I know it’s not widely known.

MI: You know, look, people who read this stuff, as you do, and a lot of us do, yeah, there are sort of, you know, things you can see that suggest progress. But at the end of the day, for the American body politick, this is about American dying in a war that Americans no longer think was justified to begin with, that feel very strongly that the country was misled into backing in the first place, the Congress was misled into backing in the first place, that has in many ways already been an enormous setback for American strategic interests around the world. I point you to nothing less than the National Intelligence Estimate last fall, which talked about how Iraq had become a rallying cry for jihadis around the world, and had increased the number of radical Islamicists who are dedicated to our destruction. So if the original case for the war was to combat the rising surge of Islamic radicalism, it has produced the opposite effect. So when Americans see a war that has been, at the end of the day, counterproductive, it’s hard for them to understand why Americans are still dying to…in what ultimate cause? A political solution that at best is going to produce a muddled resolution.

HH: And to me, that’s perfect pitch spin…

MI: It’s not perfect pitch spin. I mean, you’ve read the National Intelligence Estimate from last fall about…

HH: And I’ve listened…and Lawrence Wright…

MI: Right.

HH: I’ll quote Lawrence Wright, because the New Yorker guy…

MI: Okay, please do.

HH: And three hours of interview…

MI: Yes.

HH: He said absolutely, it is not the case it’s a strategic disaster. While there may be more jihadis in Iraq than there were before, it’s not like our intervention in Iraq created them, and he went on to characterize their camps in Mali, their camps in Gaza…

MI: Right.

HH: Their Waziristan…that they are manufacturing…they were manufactured for a decade in Afghanistan.

MI: Right.

HH: And now, they’re coming to al Anbar Province, because that’s where they can kill the great Satan. And so we’re not manufacturing them, we’re gathering them in one place…

MI: Right.

HH: And they’re surging against us. That’s a different spin. I’m not saying it’s the facts on the ground, either.

MI: Right.

HH: I’m going more to the fact that what Petraeus says more than anything I heard this week, this is a very complicated situation, with so many different results out there.

MI: Right.

HH: Which could be from genocide to a stability, to a new Hosni Mobarak, you know, an SOB, but our SOB, to maybe the chance for the Iraqis to survive. And Michael Isikoff, what do you see, if the Democrats have their way, what do you see happening there in five years?

MI: I mean, look. If any of us could foresee the future, and knew what Iraq was going to look like down the road, we’d be better off than anybody else in Washington.

HH: But we have to guess, right? We always have to guess.

MI: We have to guess. We have to guess. I mean, we know that a lot of bad guesses were made by this administration in the invasion.

HH: Again, that’s spin.

MI: No, no, no, no, no, no. We know that.

HH: Give me a specific.

MI: They did not…a specific?

HH: Of a bad guess.

MI: Did they anticipate the sectarian warfare that was going to take place?

HH: No. Okay…

MI: Did they tell the country that there’s a high risk that we’re going to be enmeshed in a civil war in Iraq, in which thousands of Americans…

HH: Civil war is itself a spin, though.

MI: Well, what do you call it?

HH: That is a characterization…I call it an insurrection, I call it an al Qaeda surge, I call it bad militias in Baghdad.

MI: Well…

HH: But a civil war, where you’ve got Sunni and Shia…actually, the one thing Petraeus has also said…

MI: Fighting each other. Fighting each other. That’s…

HH: There are lots of definitions. It’s spin.

MI: Look, you know, a word play, I mean, it really doesn’t matter what you call it. It’s a mess. Would you agree?

HH: It’s a mess.

MI: Thank you.

HH: It’s a difficult problem.

MI: Okay, it’s a mess.

HH: But do you think it’s beyond…

MI: Salavation? I don’t know.

HH: …a result that we will all…

MI: I don’t know. The question is whether it’s worth more Americans dying for. That’s the question.

HH: Yes.

– – – –

HH: Joined by Michael Isikoff of Newsweek, author, along with David Corn, of Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War. He’s joined here by his other half, who is also a blogger, I guess we call it a blogger? We call The Sleuth a blog at Washington Post, Mary Ann? It’s good to have you here as well. Michael, you’re going to sign Hubris tomorrow afterwards?

MI: Yes, after the panel at Noon, goes until 1:30, and then I’ll be signing books.

HH: Okay, I had never thought of you as left or right. I had thought of you as a reporter.

MI: I don’t think of myself…

HH: Now David Corn is a lefty.

MI: Right.

HH: So how do you expect the public to understand that partnership?

MI: Well, look, the book is a book of reporting. There is no ideological screeds here, it’s not a book of political manifestos. It’s just simply a really comprehensive, well-documented, completely reported book of the run up to the war in Iraq, how it came about, the debates in Congress that took place, how the administration pushed and sold the war, and the manipulations of intelligence that took place, which really are, when you put them under a microscope, you know, quite an appalling story, because what we discovered, and we got a lot of people to talk for this book that had never talked before, what you discover is that the doubts, the dissents within the intelligence community, within the government about what was being publicly said by the administration were a lot greater than anybody suspected at the time, a lot more profound, and they were really a lot of poignant, anguished stories of people who wish they had spoken out, who talked about speaking out, who wanted to go public, to let, you know, people like you and I know that hey, what they are saying, what the President is saying, what the Vice President is saying, is not backed by the intelligence. It’s not what the intelligence shows, and the public ought to know that. And yet those voices were silenced, they were suppressed.

HH: Were they silenced? Or did they not say anything?

MI: It was a combination. You talk to the nuclear scientists, who almost to the man, were completely disagreed with the fundamental argument that the aluminum tubes seized in Jordan were, could only be used for nuclear centrifuges, which is after all the underpinning of the nuclear case, which was the underpinning for the vivid metaphor we can’t wait for the smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud, the scariest single allegation that was made by the administration about Saddam’s regime. And to the man…

HH: And yellowcake in Niger?

MI: And yellowcake in Niger, based on a forgery, those were the basis…

HH: Do you believe that Saddam was looking for yellowcake in Niger?

MI: No, there’s absolutely no evidence of that.

HH: What do you make of Christopher Hitchens’ detailed argument about who was there…

MI: Completely discredited and completely debunked. It simply is not there. That’s the Zawahi argument. We talked to Zawahi, we talked to the IAEA inspectors who had the documents based on his trip, which showed that there was absolutely no discussion of uranium whatsoever. Please read chapter five of Hubris, you’ll see that all your illusions are completely that.

HH: Will you come on with Hitchens?

MI: …that you’ll change your view. I have talked to Christopher many times.

HH: Christopher’s on the show every Wednesday, almost every Wednesday. You’ll debate him about Niger?

MI: Absolutely. It’s not debatable.

HH: It’s not debatable?

MI: I will do that if you will read chapter five of Hubris, okay?

HH: Oh, I will.

MI: I want you to read it.

HH: I will. I want to know which chapter do I turn to, to find out about Desert Fox.

MI: The first Persian Gulf war?

HH: The ’98 bombing of the weapons of mass destruction…

MI: Oh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Desert Fox. I was thinking of Desert Storm. You’re right, we don’t deal with that at length in the book, but it’s certainly referred to. President Clinton absolutely made some similar claims about Saddam’s weapons that turned out to be just as wrong as what the President said. They weren’t exaggerated to the same degree that President Bush and the Bush administration did, but no question that the Clinton administration was just as mistaken about Saddam’s weapons programs as was the Bush administration.

HH: Key thing. But that’s not in Hubris? Because again…

MI: Oh, no, no. But certainly the support of Democrats for, and former Clinton administration officials, for the war resolution, is discussed quite at length in Hubris.

HH: But the argument against all the second guessers coming forward is…

MI: Right, yes.

HH: …that when you have the president of the United States, Democrat, announcing and conducting three days of extensive bombing on weapons of mass destruction facilities…

MI: Right, yes.

HH: …that if you’re the next president who comes in, you are almost obliged to believe, unless someone stands up and says Clinton got it wrong…

MI: Yeah, but look, President Clinton didn’t take the country to war. He did a lot of very bad things, by the way.

HH: But that’s, that’s a dodge. I know in your report, but that’s a dodge.

MI: No, but I’m saying when you make the decision to go to war, and to argue that the country is facing an urgent threat, you know, it seems to me that the obligation upon you is much greater. You’ve got to justify…

HH: I understand that. But if part of your case…

MI: …risking American lives and invasion. And…

HH: If part of your case is weapons of mass destruction…

MI: Right.

HH: You have prima facie proof that there were weapons of mass destruction of a bipartisan sort.

MI: Well, there was, no, well, what we have prima facie proof of is that there was bipartisan…

HH: Belief.

MI: Bipartisan mistakes, yes. Absolutely.

– – – – –

HH: I encourage the center-right listeners to read it. It’s important, and even as I had Gerard Baker and Melanie Phillips on talking about our view of the world, you’ve got to read David’s view of the world, and Michael’s reporting, and at least know it’s out there. Now I mentioned Nick Lehman’s article.

MI: Yeah.

HH: In it, he said there are six arguments being made, and he ran down one of them. One of those arguments was that unless the Arab world reforms…

MI: Right.

HH: …it will continue to breed the sort of Medrasa-raised jihadis who are nested in Afghanistan and Waziristan, and that it’s not going to happen unless we go take them out one at a time. That argument has got nothing to do with WMD’s. It has to do with Saddam being succeeded by Uday and Qusay…

MI: Right.

HH: …being succeeded as Robert Kaplan said, by a Stalinist regime of unmistakable and chilling brutality. It would never have changed. Do you agree with that?

MI: I agree that Saddam’s regime was a Stalinist regime of true brutality and tyranny, and something that was a blight upon humanity. I agree with that.

HH: And would never have changed?

MI: You know, look, at the end of the day, everything changes. Over what period of time is the question. But there was no immediate prospect for change, no.

HH: Uday and Qusay coming on after them…

MI: Right.

HH: …and that he was funding suicide bombers on the West Bank and Gaza…

MI: As was the Saudi regime…

HH: Agreed.

MI: …that is one of our great allies in the Mid-East, yes.

HH: Agreed. And so how does Hubris answer…okay, you’re right about the weapons of mass destruction…

MI: Right, right.

HH: That’s an argument that’s independent of anything.

MI: Okay, what Hubris focuses on is what was actually said at the time. And the President didn’t go before the country and say look, there’s six reasons to take out Saddam, and here’s one, weapons of mass destruction, and here’s another.

HH: No, wait. That’s wrong. Nick Lehman says you’re wrong, not me.

MI: No, no, no. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

HH: Dean of the Columbia School of Journalism.

MI: I’m sorry, President Bush made certain discreet argument to the country. You’ve read the Cincinnati speech, which was the big speech just before the run up to the Congressional vote.

HH: He made many arguments.

MI: No, no, no. That was the central speech. You read and saw Colin Powell’s address to the Security Council about what it was about. What were those speeches about? What was the primary thrust of those speeches?

HH: The 2003 state of the union is about we cannot allow this to fester, and the primary thrust at the UN by the President at the UN…

MI: Yeah.

HH: …is that the UN cannot allow its resolutions to be flouted.

MI: And did those resolutions relate to?

HH: To the weapons of mass destruction which he was flouting…

MI: Okay, right, right, right.

HH: and the no-fly zone which he was shooting at our pilots, and that if the UN was to have any legitimacy or authority going forward, it had to enforce its own will. That was his primary argument.

MI: The central argument was weapons of mass destruction.

HH: That was Colin Powell. Again, that’s spin. Michael Isikoff, that’s spin.

MI: Please, can we, I’ll tell you what…let’s do this. Let’s have another show. Let’s get the Cincinatti speech out, which was…

HH: You’re spinning. You’re picking one speech.

MI: No, no. I’m not spinning. I’m saying, let’s take…that was the speech right before Congress voted on whether to give him the authority to go to war.

HH: Congress voted after he went to the UN, and the most influential speech in that vote was the UN speech that the President made to the world.

MI: Right. All right, well, we’ll talk about the UN speech, which I think, as I recall it, and as we write in Hubris, had quite a bit on weapons of mass destruction, and quite a bit that was flat wrong. In fact, almost everything…look, almost everything…

HH: Was Saddam complying?

MI: Was he complying? No. Well, actually, excuse me, before we invaded, as I recall, the inspectors had returned to Iraq.

HH: How recently had he shot at the planes prior to our intervention?

MI: When did the inspectors return?

HH: They did return on a limited basis. They were being completely misled.

MI: In November or December, right.

HH: I know, but did they continue to shoot at our planes?

MI: Right, right. Okay, and what did Hans Blix say he found before the…

HH: I’m not going to go with Hans Blix.

MI: Okay.

HH: Because you’re picking stuff and I’m picking stuff. It’s just spin. It’s just an argument.

MI: Well, look. I mean, I guess if all political debate is spin…

HH: Yes.

MI: …then we’re spinning. At the end of the day, people will look at the totality of the spin, and say which has more credibility at this point.

HH: Then let me ask you a key political…

MI: I don’t think it’s really seriously in doubt, but you know, go ahead.

HH: Has anything come up since the election of 2004…

MI: Sure.

HH: …that the electorate did not know before they voted?

MI: Oh sure, quite a bit. Well, for starters, the National Intelligence Estimate I mentioned before, which referred to the fact that we are not, contrary to what you said Lawrence Wright had said, found that the number of jihadis, the number of radical Islamicists, has multiplied, metastasized, has increased since the war in Iraq.

HH: In the country, he said that. In the country.

MI: No, no, no. In the world. In the world.

HH: No, that’s…I disagree.

MI: Well, I’m just saying about what the consensus of the American intelligence community is. That’s not, and when we have this show where we’re going to read the Cincinnati speech…

HH: The extended one.

MI: The extended speech, I’ll have as well…

HH: I’ll have the clips from the UN speech.

MI: No, no, okay. Right.

HH: Let me ask you about Iran before we run out of time…

MI: Yes.

HH: And I do want people to go, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of Iraq…

MI: And Hugh, you do agree there was no real evidence of a connection between Saddam and al Qaeda?

HH: I don’t. Absolutely not. I know that Zawahiri was in the country, I know that he is…

MI: When? When was he in the country and where?

HH: We don’t know for sure. He was certainly in Kurdistan.

MI: We don’t know for sure.

HH: He may have been in Baghdad.

MI: In Kurdistan, which was under the control, not under the control of Saddam’s regime.

HH: Wait, let me ask you something.

MI: So the one terrorist…

HH: What is the relationship of al Qaeda and Iran right now? Lawrence Wright writes about the fact that in Western…that in Iran is Osama bin Laden’s son, as is the number four or five guy.

MI: Strongly suspected by U.S. intelligence, correct.

HH: And does that mean that they’re operational? No. Does it mean that they know they’re there? We don’t know. We know they’re there.

MI: Yeah, and there are some people who think they’re there under house arrest. I mean…

HH: Light house arrest is how Wright describes it.

MI: Right, right.

HH: That’s exactly what we knew about Zawahiri. It’s intelligence. We have to make guesses.

MI: And it was intelligence that was wrong. That’s the point. The point is that intelligence that was murky…

HH: Your spin, your spin…

MI: …that the intelligence that was murky was presented with certitude, and I think that’s ultimately the case against the selling of the war.

HH: And I would argue that even on the mushroom cloud…

MI: Things that were very ambiguous were presented as we know…

HH: No, on the mushroom cloud…

MI: We know, we have learned.

HH: No, he said we cannot take the chance. That’s very different. Maybe it’s my lawyer’s training…

MI: Well, I think…

HH: …that you have to do probabilities.

MI: …there may have been some of that, but we, the British have learned, have learned that Saddam had recently sought uranium in Africa. Well, they hadn’t learned it, they made a deduction based on the fact that this Iraqi diplomat had been abroad in Africa. They had no proof of such a…

HH: That’s what presidents are charged with, the protection of the country in war have to do. Michael Isikoff, good to meet you.

MI: Good to see you.

HH: I’ll see you around the campus tomorrow as we do our different shticks.

MI: Sure.

HH: And we’ll have you back with Hitchens, maybe next Wednesday.

MI: You know, anytime.

HH: I want popcorn. I want popcorn for that one.

MI: Okay.

End of interview.

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