DATE August 7, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Thomas Ricks discusses possible scenarios for military
action against Iraq
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.
Last week's Senate hearings on Iraq were the first public discussions in
Washington about a possible military strike against Saddam Hussein. The Bush
administration's plans for a so-called `Iraqi regime change' have been
surfacing in the media over the last few months, in a series of leaks from
officials at the White House and the Pentagon. Following a briefing this week
of President Bush and his national security team on scenarios for a military
action, a White House spokesperson confirmed that while the president's views
on Iraq are clear, he had reached no decision.
We have invited Thomas Ricks, military correspondent for The Washington Post,
to talk about Iraq. He covers the Pentagon, and has reported on US military
activities in a number of conflicts, including Somalia, Bosnia, Kuwait, the
Persian Gulf and Afghanistan. He's also the author of "A Soldier's Duty," as
novel about US military invention in Afghanistan. We spoke yesterday about
the perception many Americans have that the plans for an attack on Iraq have
come too far, too fast.
Mr. THOMAS RICKS (The Washington Post): Well, I don't think we've gotten that
far that fast, actually. I think what happened is a debate that had been
bubbling for months inside the Pentagon and inside the administration burst
into public view over the last several weeks. I really don't think they have
made any decisions about whether to do it, or really how to do it, but they
have kind of refined some of the options. I think they're not going to go for
either the very small plan of just buffer forces and air power, or the very
large plan of 250,000 troops.
Why do Saddam Hussein now? What's the immediate danger? That's part of the
debate. A lot of people in the military say he does not present an immediate
threat, that when they look at the basic questions about Saddam Hussein, they
don't see him playing footsie with terrorists, they don't see him presenting
an immediate threat to his neighbors, they don't see him acquiring long-range
missiles or nuclear weapons, and those are kind of the four trip wires.
The other side of the argument says that's foolish. As Richard Perle, a
Pentagon adviser, said to me recently, that's pre-September 11th thinking.
They're saying, the hawks are saying, don't wait for Saddam Hussein to show
you that he can hit Israel or other American allies or even America with
weapons of mass destruction, whether chemical or biological. Don't give him
the chance to prove that, because once he does, you're in terrible shape. You
know, it is clear that Saddam Hussein would like to acquire nuclear weapons,
and the estimates are between three to 10 years.
BOGAEV: So who comes down on what sides? What is the civilian leadership
pushing, and what does the Pentagon advocate?
Mr. RICKS: The scorecard is kind of odd. The real hawks in the
administration, as I can figure out, are the vice president, Richard Cheney,
the secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and some of the people around them;
Cheney's staff, which is unusually influential for a vice president's staff,
and Rumsfeld's staff, the civilians at the top of the Pentagon. On the other
side, I am told, are Secretary of State Powell, himself a former chairman of
the Joint Chiefs, which gives him some interesting connections to the
Pentagon, and CIA Director Tenet.
Now the person I didn't mention in this equation is the president, George
Bush. Now the president has indicated he really wants to see Saddam Hussein
gone, but he's also repeatedly said that they're looking at a variety of
tools--diplomatic, military and other, `other' being a code word for covert
operations, intelligence operations. So where Bush comes down I think
ultimately will have a huge effect on this debate. If he goes to Congress and
says, `I want to do this,' that will really tip it, but so far I think he
really has not shown his hand.
BOGAEV: Iraq has been showing some willingness in recent days in resuming
weapons inspections, and so far the Bush administration and Congress has
dismissed the overtures pretty much out of hand. What are your sources
telling you about whether there's anyone in Washington or the UN making the
case that Hussein should be given another chance?
Mr. RICKS: Well, I think he'll be "given another chance," quote-unquote, on
inspections. They'll go through a diplomatic fan dance, because actually, the
inspections can be very useful for the United States in providing the cause to
go to war, to show the world that he is in violation of UN sanctions, because
BOGAEV: So that would be a strategic move.
Mr. RICKS: Yes. The question on inspections is: Would an inspection regime
useful enough to really show you what's going on with weapons of mass
destruction in Iraq be agreed to by Iraq? The US government says no, that any
inspection regime that actually would be worthwhile would be so intrusive that
Iraq won't permit it. But I think they're going to have to play that out this
fall and demonstrate that to the world, and I think they really have Saddam
Hussein in a corner.
What they'll do is go in, and they'll have weapons inspections that actually
really try to find out where his biological weapons are, how much he has,
where his chemical weapons are and so on, whether he still actually has Scud
missiles, long-range missiles, hidden away somewhere, and then when the
weapons inspectors reach a point of confrontation, perhaps are kicked out or
withdrawn by the UN, which says it can't carry out its work, that gives you
the excuse, as it did in 1998 with Operation Desert Fox, which was a four-day
bombing campaign kind of overshadowed by the Clinton impeachment mess of the
time, that the US military believes really had a very damaging effect on
Saddam Hussein's war machine.
BOGAEV: Let's talk about the various military approaches that are being put
on the table. One that you write about is called aggressive containment.
That's a scenario put forth by the top military brass. What does that mean?
Mr. RICKS: It's kind of interesting here. The military assessment is that
the current policy of aggressive containment is working. Aggressive
containment is kind of containment plus. It's more than the old US strategy
of trying to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Remember, for the
last 10 years, the United States has been flying warplanes over Iraq almost
every day in the two no-fly zones, southern Iraq and northern Iraq, that take
a pretty big chunk of that country. In addition, we've had US Navy ships at
the top of the Persian Gulf helping enforce UN sanctions on Iraq. We also
have had US troops in the region for the last 10 years, on an average day,
perhaps 25,000 troops in the region, many more right now because of the war in
Afghanistan. In the US military's argument--this is not universal, but it's
very strongly held, especially at the top of the Army--is he is contained. He
is not a threat to his neighbors, and he understands this, that if he crosses
one of those bright lines trying to get nuclear weapons, long-range missiles
or playing footsie with terrorists, that he will get whacked, and whacked
hard. Their assessment is he understands that and he's standing back from
those trip wires. He's not being provocative in that sense.
The second big argument out there is the response to that. The civilians in
the administration, the hawks in the administration are saying, `No, no, no,
that's foolish. All it is, is a fool's paradise, because you don't know
what's going on in Iraq. You don't know what secret dealings he's had with
terrorists, nor do you know how close he really is to having a nuclear
weapon.' And the civilian response, as one said to me, is, `Look, if the
military's wrong, and containment is actually not working and is actually
giving him cover to threaten us, we could wind up losing an American city. If
we're wrong, all it means is we have a messy war with a messy aftermath.' So
their argument is the military might be right, but the consequences of being
wrong are much larger than actually going in and removing Saddam Hussein, so
they're saying `Why not go in and remove him? We all know he's a bad guy.
The only question is how far away is he from being threatening?'
BOGAEV: What military strategy are they putting forth, or are they
championing, a smaller, faster approach?
Mr. RICKS: Well, the top of the military says don't even invade Iraq. This
is not universal; there are some hawks within the Air Force, and I'm told the
chairman of the Joint Chiefs actually, Richard Myers, the senior officer in
the US military, really does think it would be a good idea to invade Iraq.
But a lot of other top generals, especially in the Army, think it's a very bad
idea, and one reason for that is at the top of the Army, they look around and
say, `OK, what's going to happen here is the Air Force would bomb for a few
days, the Marines would come and go in 30 days, as is the Marine posture for
how it operates, the Navy would fly a few aircraft off the carriers and then
go home, and the US Army would be left holding the bag.'
And that's really the biggest single issue right here in this debate about
Iraq is the aftermath. Nobody thinks invading Iraq would be that hard. The
question is the aftermath, and in fact, a lot of the discussions of the
military options have to do not so much with how to obtain victory, but how to
obtain victory in a way that best shapes the postwar environment.
BOGAEV: My guest is Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks. He covers the
Pentagon and has been reporting on the debate in Washington over a possible
attack against Iraq. We'll talk more after a break, Tom.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: If you're just joining us, my guest is Washington Post military
correspondent Thomas Ricks. We're talking about the debate in Washington over
a possible military operation in Iraq.
Well, what is the thinking about any likely successor to Hussein? Why would
we think a successor would be any better than he is?
Mr. RICKS: Well, the State Department is poking around that right now, and
it's not even clear exactly how you'd get to a successor. If you think it's
hard in Afghanistan, where we really still have a big problem, how about a
country where you have Kurds in the north, Shiites in the south and Sunnis in
the middle, and their religion and ethnicity are kind of at odds? Would you
get some sort of triumvirate government? What sort of promises would you make
to the Kurds? There is no clear successor at this point that would be
acceptable to Kurds, to Shiites, to Sunnis and to Americans.
BOGAEV: And how is the administration and the Pentagon weighing the factors
of whether the Iraqi people would welcome US forces or oppose their arrival?
Mr. RICKS: It's a good question again, and this is actually another major
point of debate. How exactly would the Iraqi people react? The US Army,
wanting to err on the side of caution and protecting their own troops, says,
`Don't make any wild assumptions that the Iraqis are going to welcome you.'
And so they're saying that's why you need so many troops, a couple hundred
thousand. At the other end, the civilian hawks at the top of the
administration are saying, `No, no, the Iraqi people, as soon as they know
Saddam Hussein is really going to go, would welcome you with open arms.' And
the Army's response to that has been, `Well, you're not going to be out there
actually answering the question on the ground. We are. We want to be
BOGAEV: Can you give us a sense how divisive this debate is? I mean, are you
seeing signs of strain between the Pentagon and the White House or within the
Mr. RICKS: I cover the Pentagon. I don't cover the White House so I don't
have a really good sense of where the tensions and stresses are internally at
the White House. At the Pentagon, it's quite startling to me how deep and
divisive this argument has become. Several senior officers have told me that
relations between the top of the military, the top brass, and the civilian
leadership at the Pentagon is worse than they've ever seen.
BOGAEV: Well, what do you attribute this to, that you would find it startling
now? Why this question?
Mr. RICKS: I'm startled that the US military seems to feel so strongly that
invading Iraq is not the wisest course at this point. I'm startled because
it's been conventional wisdom within the US military that they didn't finish
the job in 1991 and that some sort of confrontation with Iraq was inevitable,
that it would come sooner or later. It's sort of been something that they've
war-gamed, they've thought about for a long time. I think, though, that the
military is saying, `Wait a second. We haven't been given a clear reason as
to why this has to happen now.' And the military also, I think, has been very
surprised to see the administration talking so aggressively about Iraq without
trying to engage the American people.
Remember that the generals today were the younger officers of the Vietnam War,
of the late Vietnam War, and one of the things that's been taught in the US
military for the last 20 years is never go to war again without the support of
the American people, without the informed consent of the American people. And
some of the leaks I think over the last month out of the Pentagon were
intended to kind of jump-start the debate, to send a rocket up to Congress,
`Hey, guys, pay attention here. The administration's talking about invasion.
Wake up, Congress. Ask some questions.'
BOGAEV: So have your military sources expressed puzzlement over why the
administration is so intent on a military confrontation in Iraq?
Mr. RICKS: Yes, deep puzzlement. Something was said to me recently I'd never
heard before. A general who's involved in the Afghanistan war said to me,
`You know, Tom, all I can figure out is there's something personal, something
psychological for the president, that somehow he wants to get even with Saddam
Hussein for trying to kill his father,' which the US government believes
happened shortly after Bush stepped down as president with a assassination
attempt on the first President Bush's visit to Kuwait. I'd never heard that
sort of comment before from a senior military officer, you know, casting doubt
on the president's motives. That's really something the US military is
trained not to do. That's seen as unprofessional.
BOGAEV: Do you see evidence that the administration's determination to depose
Hussein is part of a larger strategy of moving away from containment and those
old Cold War strategies of deterrence towards a new policy of pre-emptive
attacks against terrorists and hostile states, what President Bush presaged in
his state of the address? Is that what we're dealing with here?
Mr. RICKS: I think there are two thing--well, I think we are dealing with two
things here. I think pre-emption, yes, that there are people in the
administration who have long thought that the old Cold War stance of
deterrence doesn't work with people who really can't be deterred, which is to
say terrorists, who have no territory or people to defend. And so that if
these people have weapons of mass destruction,nuclear, chemical or biological,
that you better get their weapons before they come after you.
The second thing that's going on here is the context of the Mideast. There
are some people in the administration who think there's a big opportunity here
to reshape the entire Mideast--Iraq, Saudi Arabia and finally Israel, and this
is actually the three-cushion shot you'll hear used in Washington shorthand.
The road to Riyadh begins in Baghdad, bends in Jerusalem. And the notion
there is: OK, get yourself a oil-exporting, friendly regime in Iraq. That
enables you to pressure the Saudis to change more to not support terrorism as
much, and that takes a lot of the fuel out of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
Now that's a real stretch and it's greeted very skeptically by many people in
Washington, but some people in the administration are arguing that line now.
BOGAEV: In Senate hearings last week on the military action against Iraq,
weapons experts testified about the country's capabilities and Hussein's
intentions. What assessment did they give of Hussein's arsenal, and what does
the military know about what he really has?
Mr. RICKS: They were really all over the place, with some people saying, `Oh,
he might have nuclear weapons soon,' and others pooh-poohing that. This is
actually one of the things that's driving the entire Iraq debate. It's not a
debate about what we know. It's a debate about what we don't know, and the
unknowns are very large. Nobody can really give you an assurance that this is
where he is at on nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. The bottom line
for the US military is `Eh, we think we've been doing a pretty good job at
containing this guy for the last 10 years.' We've more or less been at war
with this guy for the last 10 years. The last four years we've been bombing
Iraq every week. And for them, the bottom line is `Yeah, he's got some stuff
squirreled away--some biological and chemical weapons, certainly--but he
doesn't have the missiles with which to deliver them.'
The intelligence community's assessment is that he has between zero and 24
Scuds, which is to say medium-range ballistic missiles, that are capable of
hitting neighboring countries, including Israel, but that none of those
missiles are assembled right now. And some people in the US military think
that they are not operational at all, that it would take him quite a while to
get those missiles together. But here again, I'm using the word `belief.'
This is a faith-based argument: What do you believe about what he has? There
are no real concrete, solid facts here.
BOGAEV: Judging from the congressional hearings, do you see similar divisions
in Congress, similar to the ones that you see in the Pentagon on the issue of
military action in the coming months?
Mr. RICKS: Congress is kind of an interesting player on this because two of
the people that I think this administration fears most are the two people who
really had an effect during the last presidential election, and that's John
McCain and Joseph Lieberman, two senators. I think they really make this
White House think twice when they see those guys. The interesting thing here,
though, with those two is that they're both very hawkish on Iraq. I've
watched them personally on a trip to Europe that I took with them last
February, and they really were banging the drum for the State of the Union
address and saying, `Look, take this president seriously. The United States
is going to do something about Iraq.'
So they're kind of almost, both of them, to the right of the administration on
Iraq, and giving the administration a lot of cover. So the administration is
kind of protective there--the administration looks rather cautious and dovish
next to McCain and Lieberman.
BOGAEV: There is some speculation among the public in many circles about
whether President Bush would make a strike against Hussein without seeking the
assent of Congress. What do your sources tell you about that scenario?
Mr. RICKS: Not a whole lot. The question here is: What exactly does
pre-emption mean? The president laid this out in a talk at West Point in June
in which he said the United States reserves the right to hit weapons of
mass destruction before the threat fully materializes. Well, read that--what
does that mean? `Before the threat fully materializes' means before there's
concrete evidence. So if the president means what he said in that speech on
pre-emption at West Point, then yeah, I think there is a chance that we could
all wake up one morning and find out that there was some sort of lightning
strike last night by US aircraft to take out known biological and chemical
weapons in Iraq. And I'm sure that they could find lawyers who would write
up, you know, the reasons for that and say this was a clear and present
danger. I think it would put the president on fairly thin ice with Congress
if it went badly. Congress is a very political organization. It's at the
essence. And they would kind of just, I think, reserve judgment and say, `OK,
George, you've rolled the dice here. Let's see if it works.'
BOGAEV: What timetable are we talking about here? What timetable has the
military put forth?
Mr. RICKS: Conceivably, it could be as early as October. More logically,
sometime next spring. But I know people in the military who said, `Eh, not
gonna happen this year. Maybe 2003, maybe 2004, maybe never.'
BOGAEV: Thomas Ricks is the military correspondent for The Washington Post.
We'll continue our conversation about plans for a possible military action
against Iraq in the second half of our show.
I'm Barbara Bogaev and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: Coming up, the press and the Pentagon. We continue our discussion
with Thomas Ricks, who covers the Pentagon for The Washington Post. Also, the
debate over whether Pope John Paul should resign. We talk with Father Tom
Reese, editor in chief of America, the national Catholic weekly.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev.
Let's continue our discussions about plans for a possible military strike
against Iraq with Thomas Ricks, military correspondent for The Washington
Post. Ricks covers the Pentagon and has reported on US military actions in
Somalia, Bosnia, the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan. He's also the author of a
novel, "A Soldier's Duty," about a US military intervention in Afghanistan,
published in 2001, four months before the invasion.
Now virtually all of the discussion until right about now among Bush
administration officials and in the Pentagon, of course, in the past six
months about what to do about Saddam Hussein has been going on behind closed
doors and we've been reading about it in the papers. Could you help us
understand the relationship between you all in the press corps and the
Pentagon? What unspoken rules exist about what degree of detail you can go
into in your stories on these military plans?
Mr. RICKS: I can't speak for other reporters. My paper has a policy before
we publish of checking with authorities and saying, `Look, if this is what we
intend to publish, do you have any concerns about its accuracy or concerns
about its publication endangering US troops?' If they say, `Yes, we think it
might endanger US troops,' then I pass the phone to my bosses, the editors of
The Washington Post, who will have conversations about it and they don't give
the government any sort of right to stop publication, but they'll discuss it
and say, `Is there any way we can work around this issue here?' And we did
that a lot during the Afghan war with various information we had.
Why is this stuff all coming out now the way it is, is something as a person,
as a reporter, as a citizen, it kind of intrigued me. And I get a lot of
questions about it from friends. I think that this administration has kind of
backed into a situation here, where Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush, the whole top of
the security apparatus in this administration, the national security people,
doesn't like to submit itself to questioning, I think, whether from Congress,
whether from reporters or even, I'm told, from their own subordinates. Their
attitude frequently--at least their body language--seems to be, `Don't call
us. We'll call you. We'll let you know when we're ready to talk about this.'
And I think you can get away with that on smaller policy questions, but when
you start talking about war, that sets off alarm bells in the rest of the
administration, especially in the US military.
Again here, I turn to the Vietnam War. The US military is determined never to
march off again to war without the American people behind it. And it's
striking to me that in the whole lineup of the administration, perhaps the
most dovish, the most skeptical of talk of invading Iraq is the US military
itself, the senior uniformed leadership. I think Colin Powell is no great fan
of invading Iraq and I think the State Department is kind of skeptical, but it
really is the uniformed military that's hard over in questioning it.
BOGAEV: Secretary Rumsfeld has asked the FBI to investigate leaks of
classified planning options for an invasion of Iraq, and he's been complaining
about an article in The New York Times on July 5th. Why has that article,
that single article, raised his ire?
Mr. RICKS: It's not unusual for Rumsfeld to complain about leaks. This is, I
think, something he does about every six months, just bang the gong and remind
everybody, you know, that you're not supposed to leak. Rumsfeld really seems
to me to like to control information. I've had complaints about this from
people in the military, that he thinks he's the only person who can release
information at the Pentagon. And he has played an unusual role here whether
or not you think that military assertion is true. If you compare him to the
Gulf War, Rumsfeld is playing several of the roles that were played by other
people in the Gulf War. In the Gulf War, Dick Cheney was the secretary of
Defense, but he was not the department spokesperson. That was Pete Williams.
And Pete Williams was the face of the Pentagon. But it's Rumsfeld who has
done well over, I think, a hundred briefings at this point on the war.
Now my personal opinion is he looks good, his body language is very credible,
but I don't think he's disclosed really a single useful fact about the Afghan
war in all those briefings. Most of the salutary facts we know about the
Afghan war, the things for which the war we remembered, were not disclosed by
Rumsfeld. So I think Rumsfeld doesn't like to disclose information very much,
doesn't like other people to disclose it and is pretty careful about letting
it out himself. And I think just every few months he likes to remind people
BOGAEV: What do you find most, I guess, unusual about the evolution of the
debate about Iraq compared to other military buildups you've covered, and what
it says about the relationship between the Pentagon and the president?
Mr. RICKS: I'm not sure what the relationship between the Pentagon and the
president is at this point, but I'll tell you that the relationship between a
large part of the top of the US military and the civilian leadership at the
Pentagon, Rumsfeld and the people around him, is very sour at this point. And
it's not just policy driven. I think it's also stylistic. The Rumsfeld you
see in the briefing room sort of taunting reporters and maybe slapping them
around verbally a bit is, I'm told, the same Rumsfeld with the top generals.
At least he's an equal opportunity put-downer.
Now the--actually, a military officer was saying to me recently, you know,
`It's kind of fun watching him slap around the reporters for awhile until we
realized that we're going to get the same treatment.' And I think the
military attitude is, `Look, fella, we've spent the last 30 years here serving
our country.' These are the senior officers. `We didn't go off into the
private sector and make millions upon millions of dollars like some people,'
as they say as they look at Rumsfeld. `We were here serving our country and
we deserve your respect.' And they frequently don't feel respectfully treated
Also the complaint you get from some of them is that Rumsfeld cuts off
disagreement. And now the response I get from other people is, `No, you just
have to disagree vigorously. He likes dissent. He likes an argument.' But
there the top brass's complaint is once Rumsfeld knows you disagree with him,
you don't get invited back into the discussion.
BOGAEV: The military had a contentious relationship at best with former
President Clinton. How would you characterize the relationship the Pentagon
has with President Bush?
Mr. RICKS: I think that the uniformed military's relationship with President
Bush sort of tracks the stock market over the last couple of years. People in
the military were very outspoken about their support for Bush. I would guess
that 95 percent of the officer corps probably voted for Bush of those who
voted. They've been kind of shocked, stunned, disappointed. I hear a lot of
bitter remarks about the president, coming privately, out of top military
people at this point.
BOGAEV: What are they bitter about?
Mr. RICKS: They don't feel well treated, they don't feel well understood and
frequently they don't feel well respected. The relationship with Rumsfeld's
getting kind of tough. They see some weapons programs cuts coming up in a
couple of months that very much bother them. They don't feel that their voice
is being listened to. I'm even hearing some nostalgia for President Clinton,
you know, `That Clinton guy wasn't so bad,' you know. `He let us have our
Now, of course, what I'm hearing from the other side, the civilian leadership
and some people in the military, is, `Hey, the Clinton people were so
terrified of the military, they let them do whatever they wanted. Basically,
the military dictated, "This stuff we'll do. This stuff we don't do,"' and
that they haven't really had good civilian control for a decade and this is
the friction you're seeing, I'm told by these people, is the friction that
occurs when you have civilian control reasserted over the military.
BOGAEV: It's interesting that your novel, "A Soldier's Duty," was about the
military's reluctance to intervene in Afghanistan. So you were thinking about
this issue that we're facing now, only you just got the country wrong.
Mr. RICKS: Yeah. Right argument, wrong country. In the novel, I looked at
the US military trying to resist intervening in Afghanistan. As it turned
out, they were actually quite happy to invade Afghanistan. But the argument
that I had in "A Soldier's Duty" you're now seeing play out over Iraq, where
you have an administration very eager, apparently, to go into a country and
the US military saying, `Hold on. Time out. Let's really talk this through.
What does this entail? What are the consequences both for us as an
institution and for the nation? And bottom line, we're not going anywhere
unless we see the American people behind us.'
BOGAEV: Well, Thomas Ricks, I really want to thank you for joining me today
on FRESH AIR.
Mr. RICKS: Thank you very much for having me.
BOGAEV: Thomas Ricks is the military correspondent for The Washington Post.
Coming up, could the pope resign? This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Father Tom Reese discusses the controversies and
politics surrounding Pope John Paul II's health and possible
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
Pope John Paul II has survived an assassin's bullets, a broken hip, painful
arthritis, four operations and the debilitating symptoms of Parkinson's
disease. During his recent visits to Canada, Guatemala and Mexico, the pope's
increasing frailty was clear in his, at times, faltering speech and labored
movements, and has renewed speculation among officials of the Catholic Church
about whether he should resign. My guest today is Father Tom Reese. He's the
editor of the national weekly Catholic magazine America and the author of
several books about the Catholic Church, including "Inside the Vatican." I
asked Father Reese if church law provides an argument for whether an aging or
ailing pope should resign.
Father TOM REESE (Editor, America): Well, I think, first, we have to make
clear that it is possible and is quite legitimate for a pope to resign. That
is provided for in canon law. Now we've had very, very few popes that have
resigned. Historians estimate that only about 10 popes actually did resign.
The last one was Pope Celestine V way back in the 13th century. So it's a
very, very rare occurrence, and I think that the pope is staying in office
because he believes it's God's will for him to continue on, to continue
working and to ignore the pain that he is experiencing. But at the same time,
I believe that, you know, this is a pope who's always done what he felt was
God's will for him and for the church, and if he comes to the conclusion that
it's God will that he step aside, then that's exactly what he will do.
BOGAEV: There is a danger with Parkinson's of slow progression
of--diminishment of mental functioning. What happens if the pope becomes
mentally unfit to rule? Does Catholic canon law address this situation?
Fr. REESE: No, it doesn't. This is a very serious lacuna in canon law. We
don't have anything like the 25th Amendment to the US Constitution, which
provides for the replacement of the president if he becomes incapacitated. We
have nothing like that in church law. And it's become a more serious problem
in the 21st century, when medicine can keep the body alive for a much longer
time than the mind really is capable of functioning and working. I mean, the
nightmare of canon lawyers is if the pope has a stroke or the pope simply is
not able to communicate or to function, what do we do? There's all sorts of
theories out there about what could be done, but we don't really know. There
is some hope that the pope might have written a secret document that would be
released if he ever did become incapacitated, which would say then what should
be done. There's some speculation about that, but there's also been a lot of
denial that that has, in fact, happened.
BOGAEV: It would seem a responsible thing to do to prepare a resignation
letter to be made public in the event of his total disability, but who's to
judge when that point is reached?
Fr. REESE: Well, that, of course, is the problem, and that's the problem that
the Vatican has always faced. They want to leave this up to the free decision
of the pope because, after all, they don't want to have a bunch of people who
just--you, know, don't like what the pope is doing getting together and say,
`Oh, the pope's crazy, so we will remove him from office.' That's obviously
something the church would not want to happen. But at the same time, you
know, we have to figure out how to deal with this in some way, and so far, it
hasn't been dealt with.
I think that there could be set up a system, for example, if the pope became
incapacitated, if he couldn't respond to questions either verbally or in
writing, then, you know, I think it would be a good idea to have a procedure
that, say, the College of Cardinals would come together and vote and say, you
know, `We believe that the pope is incapacitated and can no longer govern.'
And perhaps we could have that decision ratified by all the bishops in the
world. And if a majority of the cardinals and a majority of the bishops in
the world voted and said that the pope is incapacitated, then we could have
another conclave. You know, some procedure like that, I think, could be
legislated, but so far it hasn't been.
BOGAEV: This must have come up before in the history of the Catholic Church
in the past when you had a sick or senile pontiff. What did the church do?
Fr. REESE: Well, not really. Well, in the bad old days, they poisoned him.
In the good old days, they just, you know, put him in a back room and locked
him up and the cardinals would run the church until he died. You know, we
just can't get away with that today. You have to remember that 300, 400 years
ago, the role of the pope in the church was much more limited than it is
today. It would take, you know, people in London months and months to find
out that the pope was even dead and that there was a new pope because the
communications were so slow.
Today, the pope has a much bigger role in the church in the appointment of
bishops, for example, and has a very visible role as a pastor. We just can't
operate like they did in the old days. With NPR and CNN watching, you can't
lock the pope up in a back room and then just continue to run the church as if
nothing happened. So I think we need to have some kind of procedures.
The other thing is, of course, in the old days, in the bad old days, when you
brought the doctors in to treat the pope, they were much more likely to speed
him to his eternal reward than they were to keep him alive. Scientific
medicine is so much better today than it was a couple hundred years ago that
we face this problem today. But, you know, on a more serious note, however, I
mean, we have had popes that became psychologically, you know, unhinged and
they caused devastating problems in the church.
BOGAEV: Like who? Who are we talking about?
Fr. REESE: Well, Urban VI, for example. When he was elected in 1378, I
think--most historians believe that his election just unhinged him. He became
very neurotic and suspicious and paranoid. The cardinals that supported him
deserted him. Cardinals actually got together and elected another pope. And
this caused what is referred to as the great Western schism that went from
1378 to 1417. And we had two, three, four popes running around in Europe
claiming that they were the legitimate pope. Well, this caused absolute chaos
in the church and this is, of course, the last thing that we would want to
happen. And this is why we should have some kind of procedures in the
Catholic Church to deal with this, but I think probably the problem is that
the cardinals really don't want to go in and tell the pope he has to deal with
BOGAEV: So what is known about what aides or his colleagues have said to the
pope about this issue, whether they've appealed to him to step down?
Fr. REESE: Well--oh, I don't think anyone has appealed to him to step down.
There's been no evidence that any high-ranking Vatican official or cardinal
has said that. If they have, they've said it very privately to him and never
said anything about it elsewhere. No cardinal has called for the resignation
of the pope, no Vatican official has. In fact, they all keep saying that he
should stay on. Now whether or not people are bringing up that, you know, he
really needs to provide some procedures here to deal with the possible
eventualities, that's the real question, and whether he has done that or not
is the real question that there's speculation about.
BOGAEV: What happens when a pope resigns? What's the procedure?
Fr. REESE: Well, of course, we haven't had that happen since 1294, when
Celestine V resigned. He just resigned and went off to the desert. He wanted
to be a hermit. He hated being pope. He was a terrible manager. He was a
very holy man, and people had hoped that he would reform the Catholic Church
at a time when it really needed reform. And sadly, he wasn't up to the job.
Reformers were very disappointed. Dante, for example, when he wrote the
"Inferno," consigned Celestine V to the inferno, to hell, in his "Divine
Comedy." Today, you know, if a pope resigned, I mean, he just writes out a
letter of resignation, gives it to the cardinals and says goodbye and that's
it. And then they call a conclave and elect a new pope.
BOGAEV: My guest is Father Tom Reese. He's the editor of the Catholic
magazine America and the author of a number of books about the Catholic
Church, including "Inside the Vatican."
Father Reese, we're going to take a break now, and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: Father Tom Reese is my guest. He's the editor of America, the
national weekly Catholic magazine.
So let's talk about choosing the next pope. What factors come into play?
Fr. REESE: You know, we as Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit is going
to play an important role in the next conclave when the cardinals gather
together, but the Holy Spirit has to act through human beings. There will be,
you know, approximately 120 cardinals from all over the world who will gather
together in the Vatican. They'll go behind closed doors 15 to 20 days after
the death of the pope. You know, they get this conclave going very, very
What will be the issues that they'll be thinking about? I always go back to
Tip O'Neill's comment that all politics is local. I think that there's a lot
of local issues that each cardinal will be concerned about, depending on what
part of the world he comes from. I think cardinals coming from the United
States and Europe are going to be very concerned that the next pope be someone
who women will like; that even if he doesn't change the church's teaching,
will be someone that women can relate to, that they feel is listening to them
and concerned about their issues. They'll also want somebody who will be very
positive on ecumenism and on continuing to improve relations with the Jewish
On the other hand, you know, somebody from Africa is going to be much more
concerned about the impact of globalization of the economy on his people.
He's going to want somebody who's very, very vocal on social justice issues,
that's going to call for forgiveness of Third World debt, the kinds of things
that John Paul II has done.
And if they're living--you know, if a cardinal's from an area which is lots of
Muslims, he's going to want a pope that's not going to--at a minimum not say
stupid things like, `Let's have a Christian crusade,' as President Bush did,
you know, that would never use a word like `crusade' in public, but would at
the same--you know, would, in fact, want to improve relations between
Catholics and Muslims, but at the same time stand up for the rights of
Catholics. So, you know, there are different issues around the world that the
cardinals will be interested in.
BOGAEV: Are there front-runners? I mean, who is popeable? And I'm not
making that up. That's an Italian slang term, right?
Fr. REESE: Yes. Well, it's, of course, very, very difficult to predict until
the pope actually dies because I feel that age is one of the most important
variables, one of the most important factors that you have to consider. I
think they're going to looking for someone between 65 and, say, 72 years of
age, so late 60s, early 70s. And if the pope lives another five years, you
know, there's a number of people who will go out of that window of opportunity
and younger ones that will, you know, start to get into that window.
BOGAEV: Why is age so important? Are you trying to split the difference?
You don't want someone to stick around too long and get too entrenched and you
don't want someone too old, right?
Fr. REESE: I think that's exactly part of the reason. If we look at the 20th
century, the average age of popes elected in the 20th century was 65. John
Paul II was the youngest. John XXIII was the oldest. So, you know, I think,
you know, 65 would be probably around the youngest they might select. On the
other hand, you know, you don't want a pope who's too old. I mean, we've had
now a number of years of an elderly, a sick pope. Do we want to elect another
pope who's elderly and in a couple of years get sick and we have this all over
again? You know, that's why I think that they would look towards someone in
their late 60s and early 70s. The average age of the College of Cardinals,
the cardinals who will actually meet, in fact, will be 72 years of age.
BOGAEV: Have you met John Paul II? Have you had an audience with the pope?
Fr. REESE: Well, I was over in--not a private audience with the pope, but
I've been at audiences with the pope. I spent nine months over in Rome when I
was doing my research for my book "Inside the Vatican."
BOGAEV: Did you get a sense of the pope's charisma?
Fr. REESE: Oh, yes. I mean, this is a pope that really knows how to
communicate and how--and has been very successful. I mean, his background as
an actor and as a teacher, I think, really served him well as pope. He knows
how to handle an audience, he knows how to interact with them, and he
thoroughly enjoys it and he's energized by it. I mean, you can almost see
when he went to Toronto, I mean, he was just totally energized by his
interaction with the young people in Toronto.
BOGAEV: Father Thomas Reese, I really appreciate talking to you today. Thank
Fr. REESE: Thank you.
BOGAEV: Father Thomas Reese is the editor of America, the national Catholic
BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
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