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Journalist Elizabeth Neuffer

Journalist Elizabeth Neuffer is the Foreign Affairs/U.N. Correspondent for The Boston Globe. She recently returned from Iran and was in Iraq earlier this year. She has also reported on the war on terrorism from Afghanistan. She's also the author of the book, The Key to My Neighbor's House: Seeking Justice in Bosnia and Rwanda, about the war crimes tribunals and the efforts of victims to find justice.

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Other segments from the episode on March 20, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 20, 2003: Interview with Elizabeth Neuffer; Interview with Philip Gourevitch.

Transcript

DATE March 20, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Elizabeth Neuffer discusses her travels to Iran and Iraq
and offers some recommendations for the US in its war against Iraq
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Elizabeth Neuffer, covers the United Nations and foreign affairs for
The Boston Globe. She's covered several wars, including the Gulf War, the war
against terrorism in Afghanistan and the conflict in Bosnia. She recently
reported from Iraq, Kuwait and Jordan and spent three weeks during February
and March in Iran. She wrote about the aftermath of war and war crimes
tribunals in her book "The Key to My Neighbor's House: Seeking Justice in
Bosnia and Rwanda." Earlier today, I spoke with Neuffer about Iraq, Iran and
the United Nations.

You were recently in Baghdad. What's it like for you now to watch it being
bombed?

Ms. ELIZABETH NEUFFER (The Boston Globe): It's a very sad day for me on any
number of levels. I mean, just a few days ago at the United Nations, there
was still the last gasp of hope for peace; today, the war has started. As I
turn on the television set. I'm trying to guess, you know, `Are the bombs
falling on places I know, on people I met?' I worry not only about the Iraqis
I befriended but of course, like every American, about our own troops and the
dangers they face.

GROSS: You were also recently in Iran, and I'd like to talk with you about
Iran. They have a nuclear program in progress. They say it's for nuclear
power. The United States, the Bush administration, thinks they're on their
way to nuclear weapons. Does the Iranian government fear that it's next after
Iraq, that we'll be attacking Iran once we've ousted Saddam Hussein?

Ms. NEUFFER: You know, I--I didn't hear that, Terry. I went to Teheran
expecting to hear that. But I think that there was this kind of attitude in
Iran that Iraq would keep us busy for some time. And Iran was very focused on
its own internal political struggles--the fight between reformists and
conservatives for control--and I think people were paying much closer
attention to that than, frankly, they were to the threat of imminent war on
its borders between the United States and Iraq.

GROSS: What does the Iranian government see as being in its best interest
during this war with Iraq? I know, for instance, that they're concerned about
refugees crossing the border from Iraq into Iran. So let's start there.
What's the Iranian plan to deal with those refugees?

Ms. NEUFFER: Well, they really don't want refugees this time around. They
were swamped during the last Gulf War, and swamped with refugees from
Afghanistan. And many of them have stayed and stayed and stayed. I visited
one camp where people had, you know, transformed what looked like shanties on
the outside into palaces inside, with television sets and carpets and
furniture. And they had been there, in fact, since before the last Gulf War,
more than 12 years. Some people have been in those refugee areas for 15
years, and the Iranian government does not want a repeat of that.

So what they are doing--or their plans are to try and, quote, "help the Iraqi
people inside Iraq." It was very vague as to what exactly they meant by that.
But they held open the promise only that Iraqis really fleeing for their lives
would be allowed to cross the border into Iran, and then only to temporary
encampments set up along the border right directly next to the border.

GROSS: Iran is on the Bush administration's axis of evil, along with North
Korea and Iraq. Iran and the United States have had a pretty bad relationship
since the Iranian revolution. But of course, Iran and Iraq have been longtime
enemies, and during much of the '80s, they fought a terrible war. It was the
Iranians who were, as well as the Kurds, gassed by Saddam Hussein's military.
Did you get a sense of what popular opinion is now in Iran if, you know, the
public is taking sides between the US and Iraq?

Ms. NEUFFER: Well, you know, that's a really good question because I went to
the anniversary of the revolution. It's a huge sort of big march that happens
every year, and people come and listen to speeches and there are, you know,
anti-American flags and anti-American, you know, banners. And yet, the topic
of the speech by Mohammad Khatami as he addressed the crowds was the war and
Iraq. And talking to people afterwards--I mean, to be really honest, every
time they kind of led people in an anti-American chant it was kind of
halfhearted and, you know, you're sort of, like, `OK, let's go back to sort of
business at hand,' which is thinking about the war.

And there is absolutely no love lost for Saddam Hussein. I didn't meet an
Iranian who wanted to see Saddam stay in power. In fact, many spoke quite
openly about how relieved they were that he would hopefully be removed from
power. But underlying that is a sense of, you know, uncertainty about what it
will mean to have American troops taking up position next door.

GROSS: And patrolling the border between Iran and Iraq.

Ms. NEUFFER: And patrolling the border and what that means. I do think that
there--as I said, there was no sense of panic among anyone I spoke to that
Iran would be next, even though they are on the axis of evil.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. NEUFFER: I think that there's some sense that North Korea, in fact, might
emerge as the next big problem along the axis. And for the moment, certainly
in the areas in which the reformers have control, I think they're trying very
hard to sort of dissuade the Bush administration, in some ways, that, in fact,
they deserve being on the axis. In other ways, obviously, the announcement
about nuclear power plays right into the administration's fears.

GROSS: Elizabeth Neuffer is my guest. She covers foreign affairs and the UN
for The Boston Globe. She was recently in Iran and Iraq.

The Saddam Hussein government is a Sunni Muslim government. Saddam Hussein
and the people who he is close to are all Sunni Muslims. But the south of
Iraq, particularly, is largely Shiite Muslims. Iran is predominantly
comprised of Shiite Muslims. What kind of feeling of connectedness did you
get from Shiite Muslims in Iran toward the Shiites in southern Iraq?

Ms. NEUFFER: There isn't a strong bond, Terry. I mean, they are similar
religions and there's an affiliation, but it was striking when you go into the
Iraqi neighborhood of Teheran. They have tried to re-create a sort of
miniature Baghdad and the fact that, you know, Iran was also Shiite and
they're Shiite wasn't what provided comfort. It was the fact that, you know,
there's now a pastry store where you can get good Iraqi baklava, something you
can't get in Teheran normally. So there isn't a strong bond. There is a
sense of religious affiliation.

That said and done, what one of the most intriguing things to watch as this
war unfolds will be the role played by one of the lead Iraqi opposition groups
that is based in Teheran, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution, often
referred to by its initials SCIRI. I interviewed the head of SCIRI and many
of the sort of different people who are working for it. Their claim is that
they have troops in Iran ready to cross the border to help wage war against
Saddam. And they also say that they have many people in Iraq that have joined
with them, that are loyal to them, that are awaiting their word to sort of
lead the battle.

Many of their members are defectors from the Iraqi military, and the Iraqi
military defectors I talked to were just waiting for the word to cross back in
and fight against Saddam. But what's interesting, Terry, is they said they
would not fight under an American flag, that, in fact, they would be waging
their own separate war and they felt no allegiance to the American troops. So
if indeed those forces exist, and if indeed they get mobilized, it will be
very intriguing to see how that plays out.

GROSS: What are the possible scenarios there if, in fact, former members of
Saddam Hussein's military, who are Shiites who oppose Saddam Hussein--if they
cross over from Iran into Iraq, what are some of the possible scenarios after
Saddam Hussein is overthrown, if they don't see themselves as identifying with
America's mission and with American troops?

Ms. NEUFFER: Well, that is the key question. They did cross over in 1991
when the first uprisings began in Basra. And I think it was back then that
there was some pronouncement made that there was a hope that, you know, Iraq
would become, you know, a much more Islamic state like Iran.

Since then, they've become--or this particular opposition group has toned down
that message. They are taking part in all the discussions with other
opposition groups. They're part of the sort of, you know, top five members of
the opposition that have been meeting. They say that they want a federal
Iraq, they want a democratic Iraq.

But I think one question that, you know, will remain open will be how well
will they collaborate with Americans, if indeed they're there, if indeed they
have the numbers and the support they say they do in the south. And,
secondly, you know, over time, will there be pressure from them to, in fact,
turn parts of Iraq into a more Islamic society than it is currently.

GROSS: If there were, at any point, a Shiite rebellion within Iraq that led
to a Shiite government, do you think it would be a militant Islamic
fundamentalist government?

Ms. NEUFFER: I don't, based on the Iraqis that I met who obviously were
Shiites. I mean, they see themselves as having a slightly different religion,
but I don't think they see themselves as of, you know, having an Islamic state
in quite the same way that Iran does.

Now whether that's true for the Iraqi exiles who are Shiites in Iran who hope
to return home is a different question. I mean, again, many of them have been
exiles for 15 years. They were granted safe haven by Iran. They feel they
owe it a certain allegiance.

And I was struck one night when a member of the Iraqi opposition was sort of
showing me around the Iraqi neighborhood of Teheran. He turned to me and
said, `Oh, you will fix your scarf. Your hair is showing.' And I turned to
him and I said, `You know, you will not be able to do this in a new democratic
Iraq, because women will not necessarily be required to wear head scarves. It
will be a matter of choice or religious preference.' And he was completely
taken aback. So there are elements of this I suspect they haven't thought
through entirely clearly.

GROSS: Assuming that the US military does succeed in ousting Saddam Hussein,
does succeed in regime change in the very near future, what are some of the
things you'll be looking for in post-Saddam Iraq, some of the problems that
you're watching out for?

Ms. NEUFFER: Well, I'm looking for any number of problems, Terry. The first
thing I'm going to be looking for is, indeed, the question I raised: Will
people be fighting alongside the Americans if they begin to fight, or will
they, in a sense, start their own internal civil war? I think civil war and
sort of vengeance killings are going to be the first big problem.

The second big problem is one that, in fact, was faced in the, you know, late
1940s in Germany, when we often hear about de-Nazification. In Iraq, the
question is going to be de-Ba'athification, I suppose. How does one root out
the Ba'ath Party and really find those people who played a role in keeping
Saddam Hussein's regime propped up vs. from those who sort of got swept up in
it and had no choice?

I think the other critical thing we all must really watch is I think it's
vitally important to bear in mind that the Iraqis do not want to be ruled by
Americans and do not want to be ruled by American troops. Our presence there
has to be minimal; it has to be short; it has to be swift. We have to let
Iraqi opposition groups take a lead.

And then the fourth question is going to be: How can these Iraqi opposition
groups, who have spent so many years quarreling, despite their recent show of
solidarity, will they really be able to make a new government? Will they just
splinter and fall apart? Unlike Afghanistan, we have yet to see a Hamid
Karzai emerge, a charismatic figure with no tainted past who can rally people
behind him. I haven't seen that yet in Iraq. I haven't seen that yet among
the opposition. And I'm worried that without a figure like that it will be
very difficult to, in a sense, rally the nation.

GROSS: My guest is Elizabeth Neuffer, foreign affairs and UN correspondent
for The Boston Globe. We'll talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Elizabeth Neuffer. She covers foreign affairs and the
United Nations for The Boston Globe. She was recently in Iran and Iraq.

When you were in Baghdad and talking to people there, did you get a sense that
they were awaiting the US military with optimistic anticipation thinking that
the military would be the source of the Iraqis' liberation?

Ms. NEUFFER: No. No.

GROSS: Or did you feel a sense of dread that this was the beginning of
occupation?

Ms. NEUFFER: No. Absolutely occupation, not liberation. And every time I
hear the Bush administration use the word `liberation,' I must admit I wince
because that is not the sense--that is not how they're perceived on the ground
in Baghdad even by the Iraqis, as I said, who I got to know who are very
critical of the regime. This a very deeply proud nation that, you know, looks
to its past civilization, that looks to its day, you know, the fact that it
invented handwriting. It sees itself as a, you know, historical player and
does not want to be ruled by anyone else. And it's very important to remember
that.

They're also immensely skeptical of the US government. Very welcoming to
Americans, but very skeptical of the American government because of the role
the American government played in maintaining the sanctions against Iraq. The
sanctions have devastated families and ruined society and undermined the, you
know, economic infrastructure and it's kind of hard for them to feel that the
same country that played a role in ensuring there were massive sanctions
against them will now swiftly turn around and, quote, "liberate" them. I
think we have an uphill battle in terms of public relations to convince people
that, in fact, we are acting in their interest.

GROSS: So would you say that from what you were able to assess a lot of the
people in Iraq hate Saddam Hussein--they want to see him overthrown, but they
don't want the US to do it and they don't want the US to have a say in their
government or to occupy their country after Saddam Hussein?

Ms. NEUFFER: Right. They certainly do not want the United States to occupy
their country. And they really don't want the United States to rule their
country. I think that, you know, people will be in some quarters people will
be ecstatic to see Saddam Hussein removed from power, but I think they're
deeply worried that those American troops are there to stay. They want to
rule their own country. They're deeply proud. They're proud in the same way
that Americans are, and you can imagine how we would react if a foreign
country came here and said they were going to liberate us. This is--this is
not something that they're particularly embracing with open arms. It's very
different than, say, it was in Afghanistan.

GROSS: When you were in Baghdad had the United States already begun
leafletting Iraq, you know, asking the military to not resist and, I think
also, you know, addressing the Iraqi people about how they will be liberated
by the US? And if so, I'm wondering what the reaction to these leaflets and
to other American messages directed to the Iraqi people was.

Ms. NEUFFER: They had begun leafletting in the south, Terry. And, again,
it's always hard to know because in the interviews one did publicly in--in
Iraq people had to choose their words very carefully.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. NEUFFER: But I did ask one Shiite leader from the south what the reaction
to those leaflets had been, and he said, `Oh, you know, we just tore them up.'
Was that the case? I don't know.

Clearly, there will be a lot of people who will be convinced, or swayed, by
radio broadcasts or leafletting, but I really think that the day of judgment
is going to come by how American troops behave once they arrive. I have the
confidence, having watched American troops in Bosnia and elsewhere, that, in
fact, it's one of the things they excel at, is arriving and getting to work
and rebuilding and creating goodwill very quickly in that sort of quick
postwar period. The fact that we have an Army that is racially and ethnically
and religiously diverse is an immensely powerful symbol to a country that's as
fissured and divided as a place like Iraq. But, you know, I--I would have to
emphasize that my--everything I heard from the Iraqis is that they were deeply
suspicious of the American motives and really didn't want the United States to
stay in their country for very long.

GROSS: There are civilian brigades within Iraq who--who are armed and who I'm
sure Saddam Hussein expects and wants to resist the US military. You watched
them, you reported on some of these civilian brigades. Is it your impression
that they would be willing to fight the US military?

Ms. NEUFFER: I think some of them will be willing to fight, Terry. The
question is how effective they will be. These were brigades of largely older
men and women--you know, these aren't 19- and 20-year-olds; these were 30- and
40-year-olds that had been trained and carried--you know, were great--looked
very impressive on the parade ground with their AKs and, you know, snappy step
and good salute. But the question remains as to just how good they're going
to be against American forces.

I think that the key thing that we're all wondering about is will there be a
guerrilla-style war that's waged against American forces as opposed to--I--I
think any Iraqi knows that they would lose in a conventional battlefield
situation against American troops. It's really--that's very hard to predict.
Will people just simply surrender and put their weapons down, or will they
want to fight?

You know, one key difference from the last war, which I also covered, was our
ground troops didn't go in until after a very long air campaign. And a lot of
the soldiers that surrendered in the early stages of that campaign had been
right along the border, had been, you know, subjected to just day after day of
relentless bombing. And I'm convinced part of the reason they surrendered was
they, you know, just the psychological pressure of that bombing, and plus
Saddam had put his, you know, least well-paid and least-valuable troops up at
the front line.

So now we have a different set of situations that. You know, we may not be
advancing with American soldiers into Iraq after months of bombing when people
are really worn down by it. So perhaps there will be more resistance with
this particular moment in time because people won't be so weary of war or
weary of bombing.

GROSS: Most news outlets, including your newspaper The Boston Globe, have
ordered their reporters out of Baghdad. Has that been controversial at your
paper?

Ms. NEUFFER: I don't know if it's been controversial at the paper. I think
the paper acted very sensibly in many ways. I think it's controversial for
the reporters in that our job is to bear witness. And I know that every
reporter in Baghdad was wrestling with their own conscience about--torn
between the desire to remain and bear witness to what was going to happen and
their loyalties to their company, their loyalties to their families, their
loyalties to their friends and their own concern about whether or not they
would get killed in the process. This is an immensely difficult decision for
news organizations and an immensely difficult question for reporters. I don't
feel that those who chose to leave are any less courageous than those who
chose to stay behind.

GROSS: Elizabeth Neuffer covers foreign affairs and the United Nations for
The Boston Globe. We'll talk with her about the UN in the second half of the
show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with journalist Elizabeth
Neuffer of The Boston Globe. And we discuss how the war's affecting the
relevance of the UN Security Council with Philip Gourevitch, staff writer for
The New Yorker. He recently profiled Kofi Annan.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Elizabeth Neuffer. She
covers the United Nations and foreign affairs for the Boston Globe. This year
she's reported from Iraq and Iran, as well as the UN.

Elizabeth, let's talk about the United Nations. You were there yesterday;
you've been there today. What would you say is the mood at the UN now?

Ms. NEUFFER: Unbelievably somber, Terry. You know, it was only the end of
last week that there was still this sense that there was a diplomatic window
of opportunity, that a compromise could be found, that there would be a way
to, you know, create some more space to see if Iraqi compliance with UN
resolutions to disarm was, in fact, as genuine as everyone felt it had to be.
Suddenly that all kind of vanished in a puff of smoke. And there's
bitterness. There's a lot of post-mortems going on.

I think there's a sense among the Security Council members that they must
unite and move forward. Everyone recognizes that. But, you know, this is a
body that was largely created at American instigation, the United Nations,
with the ideal of preserving peace, guaranteeing peace and authorizing
military force only as a last resort. And it was unable to do either. It was
unable to reach a consensus to do either. And I think there's a deep sense of
disappointment--in particular, bitterness--at the Americans for, in a sense,
undermining an institution that they played a role in creating.

GROSS: Are there any proposals that you've heard for how to unite the UN now?

Ms. NEUFFER: I think the immediate proposal at hand that will unite the
Security Council is one that goes right to the heart of what everyone's
immediate concern is right now, and that is humanitarian aid. The Iraqis
enter this war, Terry, after 12 years of crippling UN economic sanctions, and
those sanctions, as you know, spurred enormous starvation in their early
years, created extraordinarily high rates of malnutrition.

And in order to offset this, the UN allowed Iraq to sell some of its oil on
the open market and to put that money into a UN-supervised fund that could
then be used to buy food and other humanitarian supplies. This became, since
1996, perhaps one of the most efficient and one of the most remarkable food
distribution systems in the world. Sixty percent of the Iraqi people depend
entirely on the food that comes to them from the Iraqi government through the
UN oil-for-food program. There's great concern about will famine occur if
this program absolutely vanishes.

So on the table now before the UN Security Council, or soon to be on the table
before them, will be a draft resolution that would allow Kofi Annan to
basically take the place of the Iraqi government and tap into this fund and
use that money right away to get food to Iraqi people and to be able to sort
of pick up this existing distribution system that's in Iraq and enable food to
flow swiftly to the Iraqis.

GROSS: There were documents that the Bush administration gave to the UN in
support of regime change in Iraq; documents that turned out to be forged.
These were documents asserting that the West African country of Niger had sold
tons of uranium to Iraq. Now the CIA and Colin Powell acknowledged that these
documents were forged, but that came six days after weapons inspector Mohamed
ElBaradei said that his team had found that these documents were faked. What
has the fallout of this been so far at the Security Council?

Ms. NEUFFER: I think the fallout among diplomats has been rather huge. I
think the gap between the administration's case that it brought to the
Security Council about why Iraq was continuing to arm and trying to subvert
the UN weapons inspections vs. what the UN weapons inspectors themselves
reported was just immense. We saw on, I think, three or four different
occasions chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix actually very politely
contradict the administration's findings.

We had had Colin Powell go before the Security Council at a point to show
satellite photographs of a particular site, and then that site a month later
and to say, you know, this was clear evidence that the Iraqis were trying to
hide this, this and this. And when Blix went before the council later, he
politely disagreed with the secretary of State. And, in fact, a lot of the
stuff they brought was open to interpretation, and indeed Mr. ElBaradei and
Mr. Blix sometimes interpreted things differently than the administration
did. And in the case of the documentation, as Mr. ElBaradei found, it was
forged. So some of the stuff that the administration was relying on for its
case proved to be weak documentation indeed.

GROSS: How much has that damaged the credibility of the Bush administration
within the Security Council?

Ms. NEUFFER: I think it left people with the uncomfortable sense that the
Bush administration was sort of pushing its case too quickly and too
aggressively. It left people skeptical. Why, if they felt so certain and so
convinced that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, why were they
not making a clear and convincing case to the diplomats? Where was the
intelligence? Where is the beef, so to speak? I think it's left people a
little wary of some of the claims that have come forward. And, again, I think
these are the kinds of things that people will be evaluating.

I mean, this is--another interesting thing, Terry, I just want to draw to your
attention is Dr. Blix in his sort of farewell remarks to some of the
reporters two days ago, you know, made it clear that he'll be very interested
to see what American troops do find in terms of weapons of mass destruction.
And I think there are a number of diplomats who are also going to be very
interested to see, you know, `Well, where are the things that we basically
went to war for?'

GROSS: Well, Elizabeth Neuffer, I want to thank you very much for talking
with us.

Ms. NEUFFER: OK, Terry. Thank you.

GROSS: Elizabeth Neuffer covers the UN and foreign affairs for the Boston
Globe.

Coming up, how the UN's relevance has been affected by the pursuit of this
war. We talk with Philip Gourevitch, a staff writer for The New Yorker. This
is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Philip Gourevitch of The New Yorker discusses Iraq and
events that defined the UN in post-Cold War era
TERRY GROSS, host:

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said this morning that it was possible Iraq
could have been disarmed peacefully had diplomacy gone on longer. How does
starting this war without the support of the Security Council affect the
strength and authority of the UN? My guest Philip Gourevitch recently wrote
about the Security Council and Kofi Annan in The New Yorker. He's a staff
writer for the magazine. He's also the author of a book about the genocide in
Rwanda. I asked him first what events he thinks have defined the UN in the
post-Cold War era.

Mr. PHILIP GOUREVITCH (The New Yorker): Post-Cold War-era story of the United
Nations is that with the collapse of the Soviet empire and therefore with the
sort of collapse of the paralyzing rivalry on the Security Council, suddenly
the UN went through a brief period in the late '80s and early '90s of a sense
of can-do euphoria and a real almost hubristic, at times, notion that it could
do anything; that it could finally fulfill its mission.

And suddenly you saw the negotiation through the UN of the cease-fire in the
Iran-Iraq War and the demobilization there. The UN oversaw the withdrawal of
Soviet forces from Afghanistan. It started to oversee elections and peace
processes in Namibia, Cambodia, El Salvador, Mozambique. These were huge,
long, ongoing, often wars that had had a strong element of being Cold War
proxy wars. Suddenly these wars were being resolved, the UN was in there with
these gigantic missions, things that they'd never done before. They were
hiring in a hurry, they were deploying all over.

And then you had the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein in 1990, and the
Security Council agreed, `Wait, this is exactly the sort of thing that the
United Nations was designed to deal with.' The United Nations, to the extent
that it's charged with its phrase, international peace and security, that's
exactly what it means, between nations, international. You do not allow one
sovereign country to have its sovereignty violated by another. So the idea
was, `We've got to get together and repel this act of naked aggression.' And
that was the Gulf War.

And although nobody really relished the idea of seeing a massive armada of
fighting equipment go forth under a UN flag, there was a feeling at this UN
that, `Here, we finally are able to do the sort of thing that we were meant to
do. This is a war under a vast international coalition. It's a kind of--it's
not really a war, it's a police action.'

GROSS: So how did the story change after the Gulf War in '91?

Mr. GOUREVITCH: The story changed after the Gulf War in 1991 when suddenly,
instead of dealing with the aggression of one nation against another, you
started to see the UN getting entangled in Bosnia, in Rwanda, and this was all
particularly after Somalia. In Somalia, the killing of UN peacekeepers first,
Pakistani peacekeepers and then subsequently the famous "Black Hawk Down"
killing of the 18 American Rangers led to a complete shift in the way that all
of this was done. And most of it led to a shift because the Clinton
administration simply lost all of its stomach for peackeeping and even for any
kind of military action abroad.

And so the chilling effect of Somalia on the ambitions of the United States to
use the UN as a tool for peacekeeping in the post-Cold War world and the
ambitions of the UN itself to serve as kind of the world's intermediary force
and the peacemakers--you cannot overstate how in one day in Somalia with the
deaths of those 18 Americans an entire shift in the world order took place.

And then you saw Bosnia, and then you saw Rwanda where, in fact, the UN had a
presence and was not only unable to muster the will to stop the slaughter, but
in many cases seemed like almost a tacitly complicit force in the slaughter
when it stood by and watched during the massacre in Srebrenica, the largest
massacre since the Holocaust in Europe, where UN peacekeepers basically handed
over the town to the Bosnian Serb forces who then killed more than 7,000
people, mostly men and boys.

In Rwanda, you had 800,000 people killed in a hundred days while a UN
peacekeeping force was systematically reduced and withdrawn. These were
enormously damaging to the United Nations system. The reason for them, of
course, was to some extent that there wasn't will on the Security Council, and
to a large extent that lack of will was America's lack of will, the Clinton
administration's.

But it also reflected a kind of larger functional incapacity of the UN as a
bureaucracy and as an international bureaucracy, a bureaucracy that works by
committee, that works by consensus, that doesn't have the efficiency and
alacrity of the decision-making of a single government, and also lacks
crucially, Terry, the accountability.

One thing that one saw in the mid-'90s was when America was serious, it went
and did things on its own, and so did other great powers and other major
countries. But when you wanted to avoid dealing with a problem but you wanted
to make a gesture of concern, you went to the UN, you went to the Security
Council, you deployed a few peacekeepers who were unarmed and incapable of
dealing with the situation and the disgrace then seemed to fall to the UN. It
was a way of ducking your own accountability. And nobody at the UN has ever
been punished for failing to enforce a peace agreement.

GROSS: Do you think that this explains the Bush administration's willingness
to ignore the majority of the Security Council members and go forward with the
war on Iraq?

Mr. GOUREVITCH: Well, it's really important to bear in mind that American
unilateralism is hardly some sort of Bush invention. One doesn't even have to
approve of it to say this. Clinton acted without UN approval three times
during his administration, and this was pointed out to me, for instance, when
I was reporting on the UN this fall by Richard Holbrooke, his own former UN
ambassador. When we went into bombing Bosnia, we didn't get a Security
Council approval. When we went into bombing Baghdad, specifically, on several
occasions under Clinton, we didn't.

And, most importantly, when the NATO action against Kosovo took place--and
this is really the key precedent I think that we should bear in mind as we
look at what's happening in Iraq right now--the Clinton administration went to
the Security Council quietly, sniffed around, it didn't put forward a
proposal; it basically went and asked the permanent members, `What do you
think?' And Russia made very clear that it would absolutely veto any
resolution to take military action against its Slavic brother Serbia, at which
point, instead of putting forward a proposal and having a big debate, the
Clinton administration and its NATO allies said, `Fine, thank you, we know
that we're not going to get the UN behind us. We'll go do this on our own.'

When they completed the military action, 77 days of intensive bombing, they
immediately turned--and during that period, throughout the war in Kosovo, the
military phase, you also had a strong diplomatic phase where America and its
European allies were negotiating both with the UN and with one another about
how they were going to deal with the aftermath. As soon as it was over, a
movement was made at the Security Council to say, `Look, we want the United
Nations to run the civil administration of this while NATO continues to
preside over the military, police and security apparatus.'

The Security Council passed a resolution authorizing a UN administration in
Kosovo. In doing so, they essentially retroactively approved the military
action.

GROSS: How do you think the outcome of the debate on Iraq and the willingness
of France to have cast a resolution, if it actually came to a vote, how do you
think that's changed France's position as a world power, France's position on
the Security Council?

Mr. GOUREVITCH: It's very difficult to say exactly how that's going to work
over time. I think that France has probably injured itself in making a grand
gesture. The word from Paris and the reports from Paris are saying that they
are actually very grateful not to have been forced to cast a veto. And at the
very last few days it was really a question, would the Bush administration
sort of force France's hand to cast the veto and be stuck with that stain on
its record or not?

Now you might wonder, why is it a stain to stand up for what you believe in?
It's not, except that France took a position which was at least as
non-negotiable as the United States' position. If it now appears clear that
America went to the Security Council and said basically, `We're going to war
in Iraq and we would like you to sign on. Here's the dotted line. Sign or
make yourselves irrelevant,' the French said, `We are not negotiating either.
We think that there is no situation in which we could justify anything that
allowed for the use of force.' This is in direct contradiction of the
resolutions that already passed the French.

So this is very wounding. It puts France in a kind of corner, and it makes
France suddenly unable to claim that it was working for unity, that it was
working for international consensus. It obviously took a divisive position.
It also infuriated the Bush administration. It infuriated Tony Blair, who was
clearly working much more fiercely than the administration to find a
compromise position and who expressed his frustration, I think, quite
unambiguously and in not very diplomatic language in the House of Commons the
other day.

And I think those wounds, the diplomatic wounds, the damage that France did to
the European Union, an organization in which America is not only not a member
but really has no particularly grand influence, when Chirac exploded and
scolded the Eastern European states who were supporting America and called
them `ill-behaved, badly brought-up little countries that had missed an
opportunity to shut up,' this is an extraordinary explosion and deeply
destructive. That damage is going to take France a good long time to get
over.

GROSS: In 1998, Kofi Annan said vis-a-vis Saddam Hussein, he said, `The UN is
not in the business of taking out any president.' Is what the US was asking
for, which is not just enforcing the weapons inspections but regime change, is
that considered outside of the job description of the United Nations?

Mr. GOUREVITCH: Yes. The United Nations is a fundamentally conservative
organization, and I think that's an important thing to keep in mind, because
one thinks of the UN as standing for all these progressive things, you know,
greater world order, a little bit of compromise, shared sovereignty, you know,
international justice, peace, all these fundamentally progressive causes. But
it's actually in its bones a very deeply conservative organization and
conservative in the sense it is there to protect sovereignty. And the idea is
you don't change, you don't meddle in the internal affairs of other states.
This has always been an argument for non-intervention, even in the face of
genocide.

And in this case, I think the feeling is, look, Iraq is a member of the United
Nations. The United Nations' job is to seek diplomatic solutions to tensions
and problems. Its job is not to advocate regime change. That is nobody's
policy anywhere. And, of course, when it was first being spoken of in 1998
and so on under the Clinton administration, regime change was the idea that
the United States would support Iraqi oppositionists in changing their own
regime. It's take this new form of direct assassination more recently.

GROSS: Kofi Annan met with Saddam Hussein in 1998, when Saddam Hussein
started to block weapons inspectors from sites that they wanted to inspect.
What kind of agreement did they reach, Saddam Hussein and Kofi Annan?

Mr. GOUREVITCH: At that point, the inspections regime had been going on
seven years, had a lot of success at the beginning. It had finally come to a
standstill with the sort of games that one would associates with Saddam
Hussein. He was prohibiting the inspectors from visiting a number of massive
facilities which he claimed were presidential sites. This was not a category
that had any meaning in the agreements that he had agreed to, but he suddenly
said, `You can't visit them. They're presidential sites.' And there was this
standoff, and the Clinton administration was threatening to bomb, and the
French and the Russians, just as now, were saying, `Oh, let's let him go.'

And Kofi Annan went on a mission, and he played it up very big. He called it
a sacred mission of diplomatic duty in the name of world peace, and he met
with Saddam Hussein. And he basically made a deal where he said, `Look, you
won't get bombed, and we won't push quite as hard with the inspections.' And
Saddam Hussein put on a lot of restraints and allowed the inspections to
continue somewhat more delicately. And Kofi Annan came back and said, `This
is a man I can do business with,' a line that's haunted him ever since,
because, of course, Saddam Hussein had really given him the business. He had
completely deceived him and pretty soon started breaking all the agreements.
So for a moment, it looked like Kofi Annan had averted a war, and he was
celebrated for that for about a month or two until the whole thing fell apart.
Saddam Hussein then kicked out the inspectors. That's the famous four years
ago that one heard about last fall. The Clinton administration bombed a
little bit for four days, and that was when basically Iraq was sort put on ice
as an issue and left for the next guys, and that turned out to be President
George Bush, whom we have now.

GROSS: My guest is Philip Gourevitch, a staff writer for The New Yorker.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Philip Gourevitch, a staff writer for The New Yorker. He
recently wrote about Kofi Annan and the UN Security Council.

You wrote a book about the genocide in Rwanda. There were some people who
have traditionally thought of themselves as anti-war, who find themselves
supporting the war in Iraq, in part because of what happened in Rwanda or
Kosovo. Has that reporting on Rwanda shaped your opinion on America's war in
Iraq now?

Mr. GOUREVITCH: Frankly, I've always been ambivalent about the concept of
humanitarian intervention. I support the desire behind it, which is to say,
in the case of Rwanda, for instance, people always said, `If the world had
only taken action, all of these lives could have been saved.' And I believe
that's correct, that the world could have acted in way that would have saved
many, many lives. I also would always say it's probably erroneous, wishful
thinking to assume that were the so-called international community of the
great powers to act, they would act in a way that was both attractive,
successful and what one might have wanted because, historically, it's the same
people who got upset by interventions who also call for them. In other words,
if you say, `Oh, let's act,' you have to be able to accept the fact that they
may not act the way you want them to, that ugly things can happen, that the
aftermaths will not go the way you like, and that not all interventions are
successful humanitarian interventions, and that, of course, what you are
calling for is war.

In the case of Iraq, I think a very strong humanitarian intervention argument
could have been made. The problem is that it would have been better to have
made it in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War when Saddam Hussein was
actively involved in slaughtering his own people and committing great
atrocities against the Shia and the Kurd populations, and when that was
particularly striking because he had agreed to an armistice and a truce. So
a case could have been made then. The difficulty at the moment for
humanitarian intervention argument is, of course, that there is no direct
provocation. Saddam Hussein is one of the appalling tyrants of the past
century, and he's a savage to his own people. But he's not in the course of
a campaign against any particular population right now actively that we're
going in to halt.

And the other thing is, the argument has not been made. This war is not
really being billed as a humanitarian intervention. It's being billed as a
regime decapitation, as they're using the phrase now, an attempt to basically
take out a particular leader and then as a liberation. It's also being billed
as a war of disarmament. I feel that there are too many war aims to be able
to be comfortable about it, but I think that the humanitarian argument for
this war is actually strong. There's no question that Saddam Hussein is an
enemy of all the things that, not only the United States, but the United
Nations and presumably the EU should stand for. And I think the problem is
that the way that the diplomacy has been handled, the rhetoric that has been
coming from Washington, the Bush administration does not inspire confidence in
its capacity to manage the postwar scenarios it's talking about.

To me, the relevant example here is Afghanistan. Looking at Afghanistan and
the way that America has failed to follow through in the reconstruction and
the postwar phase of Afghanistan has obstructed a nationwide peacekeeping
force, etc., leaves one to worry, will we stay the course? Will we do what
would be necessary to prevent Iraq from becoming a much bigger problem over
time?

GROSS: Phil Gourevitch, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. GOUREVITCH: It's been a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Philip Gourevitch is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Earlier this
month, he profiled Kofi Annan.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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