National Security Team Takes Case to Public
By Paul Stone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 19, 1998 Defense Secretary William Cohen assured the American public Feb. 18 service members "are prepared to do whatever is necessary in order to contain the [Iraqi] threat."
During a town hall-type meeting at Ohio State University, Cohen spelled out U.S. goals in the current standoff with Iraq. He emphasized a peaceful solution was the ultimate goal, and said "what we are seeking to do is not to topple Saddam Hussein, not to destroy his country, but to do what the United Nations has said in its declaration."
Cohen explained the threat of, and commitment to use, military action is designed to again show U.S. resolve in getting Iraq to live up to its 1991 agreement to provide unrestricted access for U.N. weapons inspectors.
Cohen was accompanied by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and national security adviser Sandy Berger. For 90 minutes the three answered questions from the audience gathered in the university's field house and from telephone callers.
Cohen's assurance that service members are ready was more than substantiated by a caller who identified himself as a soldier stationed in Germany. In one of the more poignant moments of the meeting, the caller said to Cohen: "We support you. If a service member's life needs to be lost, let it start with mine."
The soldier's comment was lost, however, in what often more resembled a protest than a town meeting. Albright was booed, shouted down and cross-examined by protestors, while Berger and Cohen were frequently interrupted or drowned out by shouting. Additionally, audience questions demonstrated they believed U.S. objectives in the region were unclear, or they didn't go far enough, with some suggesting the U.S. should remove Saddam from power.
Still, Cohen and Berger took the protesters in stride. At one point, Cohen said the event was "a tremendous example of what democracy is all about."
"People expressing their opinions would not be able to do that in a number of countries, including Iraq," Cohen said.
Questioners appeared to be particularly concerned military action will endanger large numbers of Iraqi citizens, while still leaving Saddam in power.
Albright reminded the audience it is Saddam's policy to use citizens as human shields and said Saddam himself has done more to hurt the Iraqi people than U.N sanctions.
"I would argue we care more about the Iraqi people than Saddam Hussein," Albright said.
Cohen pointed out Iraq has used weapons of mass destruction on its own people. And Berger said U.S. strikes will do everything possible to minimize civilian casualties, but emphasized, "We will not be intimidated by the use of human shields."
During an impromptu session with reporters on Feb. 19, President Clinton characterized the town meeting as a "good, old-fashioned American debate."
He said he was unconcerned about the negative reactions heard at the meeting and expressed confidence the American public would unite against Saddam if a military strike becomes necessary.