Iraq has agreed to destroy (or at least talk about destroying) its Al-Samoud missiles, as ordered by U.N. inspector Hans Blix. It will probably be reported that Saddam Hussein has backed off from his previous refusal to do so. Indeed, President Bush today described Saddam’s highly public change of heart as “part of his campaign of deception. See, he’ll say, I’m not going to destroy the rockets, and then he’ll have a change of mind this weekend and destroy the rockets, and say, I’ve disarmed.”
But Saddam never did refuse to destroy the rockets. The president can be forgiven for believing he did, because it’s been widely reported that he told Dan Rather that in a Feb. 24 interview. Before that interview was broadcast, CBS News posted a story on its Web site under the headline, “Saddam Defiant on Missiles” that said Saddam “indicated he will resist demands that he destroy them.” This raised the pulse-quickening possibility that before the week was through Iraq would present the United Nations with a casus belli that even France couldn’t ignore. Other news organizations, operating on the seemingly safe assumption that CBS had not misrepresented its interview, picked up the story.
Now that Rather’s interview has aired, and CBS has posted a transcript of the interview online, it’s quite clear that Saddam did not refuse to destroy the missiles. Instead, he gave what was probably a deliberately muddled answer. Let’s go to the transcript:
Q: Mr. President, do you intend to destroy the Al-Samoud missiles that the United Nations prohibits? Will you destroy those missiles?
A: We have committed ourselves to Resolution . We’re implementing that resolution in accordance with what the United Nations wants us to do. It is on this basis that we have conducted ourselves, and it is on this basis that we will continue to behave. As you know, it a—is allowed to produce - r- r- land-land rockets, with a range of up to 150 kilometers. And we are committed to that.
Q: I want to make sure that I understand, Mr. President. So, you do not intend to destroy these missiles? […]A: Which is that? Which missiles are you talking about? We do not have missiles that go beyond the prescribed ranges, by the … U.N. The inspection teams have been here. They have inspected every place. And if there is a question to that effect, I think the question should be addressed to them. … When you talk about such missiles, these missiles have been destroyed. There are no missiles that are contrary to the prescription of the United Nations in Iraq. These missiles were des—missiles that were proscribed—have been destroyed and are no longer there.
To the extent Saddam is saying anything here, it’s not, “We won’t destroy the missiles.” Instead, it’s the much more predictable, “We don’t have any missiles we’re not allowed to have.” Saddam spoke not at all to the question of whether, in spite of his disagreement with the United Nations about whether the Al-Samoud missiles were forbidden, he would nonetheless agree to destroy them. One gets the feeling Rather understood this, because near the end of the interview comes the following exchange:
Q: And—and I wanted to ask again, so I’m perfectly clear—you do not intend to destroy your Al Samoud missiles. The missiles …
Translator: Al Samoud.
Q: Yeah. Al Samoud missiles. You do not intend to destroy those.
A: The—the missiles you mean, which are within the range of the U.N. … 50 kilometers. You mean, those missiles?
Q: I mean, the missiles that Hans Blix says that he wants a commitment from you that they will be destroyed.
A: No violation has been made by Iraq to anything decided by the United Nations. If—what is meant here is to review or, the resolutions of the Security Council, the resolutions that stipulate that Iraq is allowed to produce missiles with a range of kilometers—if the intention is to rewrite those resolutions, then we will be entering a new framework. A framework in which the United States will be made to forsake its own position.
Saddam’s last response is a bit more blustery than what came before. In effect, he’s saying, “Hey, if you’re going to change the rules on us, let’s change all the rules—including the ones you like.” But he still isn’t saying, or “indicating,” that Iraq won’t destroy the missiles.
Chatterbox can understand why CBS was tempted to hype Saddam’s comments about the missiles. Saddam, though a compellingly menacing figure (see Mark Bowden’s vivid “Tales of the Tyrant” in the May 2002 Atlantic) is a lousy interview. Even more than most world leaders, Saddam displays almost no interest in what’s being asked him and rambles on about whatever he wants. Indeed, the most interesting thing in the Rather interview was Saddam’s suggestion that he debate President Bush on television. Rather asked, “Who would moderate?” Saddam more or less answered “Why not you?” which caused Rather to backpedal madly and ask, “I wonder for my good health if [you] could denounce me?” Obviously, Rather’s retrospective embarrassment about some ill-advised self-aggrandizement isn’t the sort of thing CBS can publicize as a juicy bit. That doesn’t excuse its peddling something else that wasn’t true.
[Update, Feb. 28: The insubstantiality of CBS’s missile scoop is further demonstrated by the fact that it goes unmentioned in today’s Wall Street Journal op-ed by Dan Rather.]