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Peter W. Galbraith

He is a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, and is now professor of national-security studies at the National War College in Washington, D.C. Since the late 1980s he has been tracking Iraqi war crimes. He has also worked closely with the Kurds — who control a small territory in northern Iraq. Galbraith will talk about what a post-Saddam Iraq might look like.


Other segments from the episode on February 5, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 5, 2003: Interview with Peter Galbraith; Interview with Robert Jay Lifton.


DATE February 5, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
 TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
 PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Peter Galbraith discusses past Iraqi atrocities against
Kurds and what a post-Saddam Iraq might look like

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Even before Colin Powell's presentation today to the United Nations Security
Council, my guest Peter Galbraith supported a war against Iraq to overthrow
Saddam Hussein. Galbraith describes himself as a liberal interventionist.
From 1979 to '93 he was the Iraq expert for the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee. For over a decade he's worked closely with the Kurds documenting
Saddam Hussein's campaign against them. In 1992 Galbraith smuggled 14 tons of
documents out of the Kurdish region that outlined Saddam's atrocities against
the Kurds. Galbraith is now a professor of national security studies at The
National War College in Washington, DC. In 1993 he became the first US
ambassador to Croatia. I asked him if watching the effects of the NATO
bombing in the Balkans helped convince him that we should intervene now in

Professor PETER GALBRAITH (The National War College): The thing I came away
with from the Balkans was first that intervention can do some good. There's
no question but that in Bosnia the United States intervention, the NATO
bombing saved many, many more lives than were cost by that action. It helped
bring the war to an end. It was a war in which 200,000 people had been
killed. And it enabled Bosnia to get on with the process of reconstruction,
and it is, admittedly slowly, becoming a more normal part of Europe.

Iraq--in the 30 years that Saddam Hussein has been in power, at least a half a
million Iraqis have died as a result of actions taken by Saddam Hussein. But
sooner or later I think it's likely to come to some kind of military action.
If it's sooner, we're simply going to save the lives of Iraqis.

GROSS: Let's look at some of the possible scenarios if we do overthrow Saddam
Hussein, scenarios for a post-Saddam government. What's your sense of what
the best-case scenario would be?

Prof. GALBRAITH: Well, the nature of what follows depends in good measure on
how the war proceeds. In the best case, there is--nobody wishes to fight for
Saddam Hussein. You have a situation in Iraq in which 80 percent of the
population are Kurds, Shiites or Christians. That is from groups that have
been brutally repressed by Saddam Hussein. They welcome the United States as
liberators. And those segments that do support Saddam, which are very
limited, come to the conclusion that there's no point in standing with a
dictator who is in any event going to fall, and so you have an orderly
process. That obviously will make it easier to set up a post-Saddam
government than some other circumstances.

But I think necessarily there will be a period of US military occupation, but
I believe that we should move quickly to setting up an Iraqi government. And
the Iraqis are a sophisticated people with a high level of education. Iraq is
today very much a Third World country as a result of what Saddam Hussein has
done to the country, but it wasn't. It was a country making great progress
back in the late 1970s in which a lot of people have gotten educated, a lot of
professional people. And those are the people who ought to be involved in
rebuilding the country.

Now we're not going to find anybody inside Iraq who can be part of the
government except from the Kurdish area, which has been free from Saddam's
control for 11 years, because anybody inside the country who might have
opposition tendencies either has kept them very secret and is not known or, if
it is known, he's in prison or dead. So I think necessarily a future Iraqi
government should come from the opposition, it should be set up quickly, it
should work with the American military occupation forces. But the United
States shouldn't itself get into the business of running Iraq. This really is
for the Iraqis to do, and they are very competent and able to do it.

GROSS: How long do you think the United States would have to keep a military
presence in Iraq in order to make it possible for, you know, a new government
and for elections to proceed in some kind of orderly fashion?

Prof. GALBRAITH: I think it would take at least a year before you can hold
elections. It's not just a matter of the process of preparing for
elections--developing an electoral roll, taking a census--but there also have
to be a process of purging the Ba'ath Party, purging the security services
which are pervasive in this society. In essence, Iraq is going to need to
have a period of de-Nazification. There will be some institutions that simply
will have to be abolished outright; this would include the security services,
Saddam's version of the Ba'ath Party. Other institutions will have to be
completely remade. I think it's inconceivable to me that any person who has
served as a judge in Saddam's Iraq could possibly continue to be a judge in
post-Saddam Iraq because inevitably this person has been involved in the
enforcement of tainted law that grossly violates human rights. So that whole
process has to take place, I think, before you can go to elections.

GROSS: Peter Galbraith, you were America's first ambassador to Croatia after
Croatia was established as Yugoslavia dissolved. And you know very well what
happened in the Balkans. You know, it's a multiethnic region that started
feuding with each other after Yugoslavia broke up and after that region was
held together by a dictator. If the United States ousts Saddam Hussein, do
you think that there will be a lot of fighting between the ethnic and religion
groups in Iraq such as the Shia and the Sunni Muslims and the Kurds?

Prof. GALBRAITH: There is not a lot of history of intercommunal or
interethnic conflict in Iraq. But I think this cannot be excluded once the
dictatorship is gone. Actually I think the greater parallel to what happened
in Yugoslavia relates to the situation of the Kurds. Yugoslavia, you had the
Tito dictatorship. He held the country together. And then after he died and
then 10 years after he died with the end of the Cold War, there were
democratic elections and its constituent components basically split apart.
And that was because in the end the constituent components of Yugoslavia
didn't feel Yugoslav. They felt that they were Slovene, Croat, Serb and so

Well, in Iraq the problem is that the Kurds, who live in a geographically
defined area in the North, who have been de facto independent for 11 years,
don't feel Iraqi. Over the last 11 years the Iraqi identity has been
disappearing in the North. For example, the language used is no longer Arabic
but Kurdish; the schools teach in Kurdish. There's been a flowering of media,
20 television stations of different political views, all of this in Kurdish.
For younger people, they don't really have a memory of Iraq, and for older
people the memory of Iraq is a nightmare. And so I do have concerns as to
whether over the long term Iraq is going to be sustainable as a unified and
democratic state, which are what President Bush has articulated as US goals.

GROSS: And just looking down the line, does that possibly lead to another

Prof. GALBRAITH: It doesn't necessarily lead to a conflict within Iraq if
there is a clear definition, an agreed definition of what the boundaries of
the Kurdish region are. But at the present time, that issue hasn't been
settled. If there are agreed boundaries, then the separation of Kurdistan
could be something as benign as the breakup of Czechoslovakia, which simply
divided into two countries quietly and with virtually no fuss.

GROSS: My guest is Peter Galbraith. He teaches at The National War College.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Peter Galbraith. He's a former senior adviser to the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and served as the first US ambassador to

The Kurds have a deep hatred of Saddam Hussein. He gassed the Kurds, and he
exiled a lot of Kurds and destroyed some of their villages. You helped
uncover some of Saddam Hussein's human rights violations against the Kurds.
What are some of the things you helped uncover?

Prof. GALBRAITH: The first thing that I discovered was in 1987 when for
completely fluky reasons I was given permission to go to the north of Iraq, to
the Kurdish region. And as I traveled from the last Arab town into the
Kurdish region, I noticed that things that I expected to be there weren't
there. There were villages on the map that we had that simply didn't exist
anymore. And as I went on I saw villages and towns in the process of being
destroyed. For example, on one side of the road there'd be nothing but rubble
and on the other side of the road there'd be abandoned houses with bulldozers
that were parked there, clearly there to continue the job of destruction. And
it became clear to me that there was this process, which ultimately destroyed
4,000 villages and towns in Kurdistan, of wiping out the rural areas of
Kurdistan. And the population was then being concentrated into what the Iraqi
regime called victory cities, but what were effectively concentration camps of
some 50,000 people each in which the population was very carefully guarded
without possibility of employment, dependent on government-issued rations. So
that was one of the atrocities.

GROSS: Well, let me stop you there and ask you, what did you do with that
information when you realized that Saddam Hussein was destroying Kurdish

Prof. GALBRAITH: I was working for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at
the time and I included it in the report, which was part of a larger study
that we were doing of the Iran-Iraq War. But, frankly, at that time, like the
Reagan administration, we were more concerned about what might happen if Iran
won in the Iran-Iraq War. And so this information did not get a lot of focus.
But I had it in the back of my mind and a year later, when Kurdish villagers
crossed into Turkey, reporting that Iraq had used chemical weapons, I went
back and I thought about those destroyed villages and I put the two together
and I came to the conclusion that what was really going on was a strategy
aimed at eliminating the Kurdish presence in Iraq; that this was, in fact, a
policy of genocide. It wasn't completed genocide. It was part of a process.
And so I went to the chairman of the committee, Senator Claiborne Pell, and
said, you know, `We need to do something about this.' He agreed. He asked me
to draft legislation, which I did, that imposed comprehensive sanctions on
Iraq. It was called the Prevention of Genocide Act. Got Senator Helms, who
is a very conservative Republican and the ranking Republican on the committee,
to join him, Senator Gore, Senator Byrd, the majority leader at the time, and
we got this legislation through the Senate in a single day.

And then I went out with a junior staffer on the committee named Chris Van
Hollen. Actually he's just now been elected as a Democratic member of
Congress from Maryland. And we went all along the Iraq-Turkey border talking
to these refugees who had just come out. There were about 65,000 of them and
all of them, virtually all of them, had been witnesses to the chemical weapons
attacks and we interviewed hundreds who described firsthand what had happened,
many of whom had actually seen family members or friends or acquaintances die
before their eyes. But it was a very, very brutal campaign. Overall, we
documented that between the 25th and the 28th of August 1988, 49 villages had
been attacked, but it turned out these attacks had been going on since 1987.
And perhaps as many as 180 villages and towns were attacked by Iraqi aircraft
using chemical weapons.

GROSS: Now the Anti-Genocide Act that you mentioned passed the Senate, but it
didn't finally pass Congress.

Prof. GALBRAITH: No, it did not. It was vehemently opposed by the Reagan
administration, which, however, agreed that Iraq had used chemical weapons.
But the Reagan administration's position was that taking action was premature
and so they were able to derail the process in the House of Representatives.

I think it was a great tragedy that this legislation didn't pass because I
think Saddam got the message that, while his atrocious acts might generate
protests, nobody, in fact, was really prepared to take action against him.
And I think had comprehensive sanctions passed, he might have thought twice
before he invaded Kuwait. He might have thought there would be consequences
from doing it. Incidentally, it's often argued that unilateral sanctions
don't do any good, but in this case, even though the sanctions bill never
actually became law, even though it was simply a threat that it would become
law, it did have one very positive effect, which was that Iraq never again
used chemical weapons against the Kurds.

GROSS: There's something else you did regarding the Kurds. You were one of
two people who smuggled out Iraqi documents documenting human rights
violations and atrocities committed against the Kurds. What were the
documents? How did you get them?

Prof. GALBRAITH: In March of 1991, there was an uprising in northern Iraq and
the Kurds took over all the Kurdish majority cities and towns. And when they
did that, they captured the buildings and the records of the Iraqi secret
services as well as of the Ba'ath Party. They took these records to the
mountains so that when the Iraqis retook the Kurdish area at the end of March,
they didn't recapture--they didn't get the records back. I learned of those
records in March of 1991 because I was in northern Iraq as the uprising was
collapsing. But there was nothing to be done about it then, but I had it in
my mind.

And when I went back in September of 1991, because the US had created a safe
area in which the Kurds then had started to run their own affairs, I talked to
Jalal Talabani, who was one of the two main Kurdish leaders, and he told me
indeed that most of the documents had been rescued and moved to the mountains.
So I said to him, `Well, if they stay here, you know, there's a good chance
that they will fall into Iraqi hands. And anyhow, they won't be useful.' And
so he said, `Well, I agree. I think they should go out of Iraq, but I'm not
going to give them to the Bush administration. I just don't trust the
American administration.' He was very angry at the Americans for having
called for the uprising and then failed to support it. So he said, `I'll give
it to you personally.' Well, that was a bit of a dilemma because I didn't
know what I would do with what turned out to be 14 tons of documents. But in
the end, we were able to get them out actually on US military aircraft;
cooperation of the Pentagon. And then I deposited them in the files of the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which meant they went into the US National
Archives. A special room was built for them below ground out in Suitland,
Maryland. And then Human Rights Watch, the human rights organization, began
to do research on them.

And they turned out to be extraordinary documents. They were ledgers of
executions. They included the orders for the destruction of the villages,
what was known as the Anfal campaign. They included orders for the use of
special weapons, which meant for chemical weapons. They included the tapes of
meetings of the Northern Bureau. One of these tapes, for example, is Ali
Hassan Majid, who is Saddam's cousin who had been put in charge of the
north, in which he talks about using chemical weapons. He says, `We will use
chemical weapons on the Kurds. Who will object? The international
community?' And here I paraphrase the language, `To hell with them.' So it
is an extraordinary record from the point of view of the Iraqi regime of their
activities and, of course, it mirrors rather closely what the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee documented in terms of use of chemical weapons and what
the Kurds themselves had been reporting.

GROSS: Why do you think a regime would document atrocities like that,
document the destruction of villages, document the use of chemical weapons,
document executions? I mean, talk about smoking gun.

Prof. GALBRAITH: That's an interesting question, but regimes do this. In the
case of Iraq, I had imagined, when I saw some of these documents, particularly
videos of executions and torture, that this was being done out of some--by
sadists who wanted to--who were sharing their sadistic products with the
higher-ups who would enjoy seeing people suffering. But as I thought more
about it and looked more into it, I realized that that wasn't the case. These
were bureaucrats, in the security services, who were making records of
executions, who were keeping records of meetings, who were making videotapes,
to demonstrate how well they were carrying out their orders. Some of it may
have been self-defense, so that they themselves could not have been accused of
being soft on the enemy, and some of it may have been in the interests of
self-promotion, demonstrating again how well it is that you are actually
carrying out these instructions.

GROSS: Peter Galbraith teaches at the National War College in Washington, DC.
He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with Peter Galbraith, and he
explains why he considers himself a liberal interventionist. And we check in
with psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton and talk about how the rhetoric is
changing surrounding the possible use of nuclear weapons.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Peter Galbraith. He
supports military intervention to overthrow Saddam Hussein, and describes
himself as a liberal interventionist. He teaches at the National War College,
and served as America's first ambassador to Croatia. In the late '80s and
early '90s, while serving as an adviser to the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee, he helped smuggle out of Iraq 14 tons of Iraqi files documenting
human rights abuses against the Kurds.

Have your experiences documenting Iraq's human rights abuses against the Kurds
played a big part in your analysis that the United States should militarily
intervene in Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein?

Prof. GALBRAITH: Looking at what the Iraqi regime has done, I've come to the
conclusion that it is a fascist regime that bears close resemblance to the
fascist regimes in the first half of the 20th century in Europe. It has an
official ideology that glorifies one group, the Arabs, over the others. It
has engaged in escalating atrocities against the minority that ultimately, in
my view, but also in the view of Human Rights Watch, rose to the level of
genocide. And I think that it is appropriate for the United States to take
action, preferably with others in the international community; preferably, but
not necessarily, pursuant to Security Council authorization, against regimes
that commit genocide. Genocide is an internationally recognized crime, and
there is a convention to which the US is a party that obliges states to do
something to stop and to punish the crime of genocide.

GROSS: You've described yourself as a liberal interventionist. Is there a
difference between a liberal interventionist and a Bush administration

Prof. GALBRAITH: Well, I think that there is a place for intervention against
regimes that brutally repress their own people, that engage in homicide and
genocide even when there is not some other strategic reason to do it. I
suppose the best case would be Rwanda, where the United States didn't have any
strategic interest, but a genocide was taking place, and I think we and others
should have intervened to try to stop that.

The Bush administration has made its case principally on the issue of the
threat that Iraq poses. I think Iraq does pose a threat, but probably it's
not the most serious threat that we face. For example, one shouldn't speak of
weapons of mass destruction, generally. There is a difference between
chemical and biological weapons on the one hand and nuclear weapons on the
other. Iraq is not going to be able to manufacture nuclear weapons under this
inspections regime. North Korea is in the process of manufacturing those

So if it was simply on the basis of weapons of mass destruction, then I think
North Korea should be our priority. But there are these other issues, and
because of the humanitarian issues--I place a greater emphasis on that, and
that's why I describe myself as a liberal interventionist.

GROSS: Now you've said that you think President Bush faces the legacy of his
father's action and inactions. What do you mean?

Prof. GALBRAITH: Well, in February of 1991, the first President Bush called
on the Iraqi people to rise up and overthrow Saddam Hussein. On March 3rd,
rebellion began in the south and on March 8th, a rebellion began in the north.
By the middle of March of 1991, most of Iraq was in the hands of rebels;
Saddam was about to topple.

At that time, President Bush took the decision to let the rebellion fail. Not
just to let it fail, but actually to facilitate its failure. So American
troops who were on the Euphrates Valley in southern Iraq permitted Iraqi
Republican Guard units to pass by their lines, and in some cases through
American lines, to put down the rebellion in the southern city of Basra and
Nasiryah and in some other places.

In the north, General Schwarzkopf allowed the Iraqis to use helicopters
against the Kurds. And one has to understand the role of helicopters in the
Kurdish psyche. Helicopters had often been used to deliver chemical weapons.
So for the population in the city, when they saw those helicopters flying,
they panicked, they fled. The helicopters also gave the Iraqis intelligence
that they could use to target Kurdish militia units.

The final thing that happened is that those people in Baghdad and in the Iraqi
military who were wavering, trying to figure out whether they should overthrow
Saddam or not, you know, looked at what the Bush administration was doing, got
the clear message that the Bush administration did not want the rebellion to
succeed and decided to back Saddam. We are dealing--and as a consequence,
Saddam stayed in power. We are dealing today with the failure of the first
Bush administration to support the rebellion.

Now there's one other very important point about this. The first Bush
administration has tried to slough off this question. They've always said,
`Well, we didn't have a mandate to go to Baghdad.' This has nothing to do
with American troops going to Baghdad. That war was over on the 27th of
February, 1991. We're talking about a rebellion that began after the war was
over in March of 1991.

GROSS: Well, what's your understanding of why the first Bush administration
allowed the Iraqis to put down the opposition?

Prof. GALBRAITH: The first Bush administration was afraid of the people who
were the rebels. This was a rebellion that began in the south, and it was a
Shiite rebellion, and which was in the north and was a Kurdish rebellion. And
so the first Bush administration was afraid that the Shiites would come under
the influence of Iran, which is a Shiite theocracy, and they were afraid that
the Kurds wold try to create their own independent state and that this would
alienate Turkey, who had been a key ally in the Gulf War.

Now there's an irony here, because President Bush had actually called on the
Iraqi people to try to overthrow Saddam Hussein and, of course, the Iraqi
people are overwhelmingly Kurds and Shiites. But the second problem that took
place here is that the first Bush administration never talked to anybody in
the opposition. There was a ban on talking to the Iraqi Kurds that continued
until the beginning of April of 1991. So they had no idea of what the Iraqi
Kurds were thinking. They saw them in caricature and they saw them
principally as people who wanted to break up Iraq and who Turkey hated.

The irony is that I had invited the Kurdish leadership to meet at the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee. The meeting actually turned out to be on the
27th of February, the day the war ended. I tried to get them in to see
Richard Haass at the NSC. I was told that I was behaving irresponsibly by
having contact with them. I was told that the administration's policy was to
get rid of Saddam, but not the regime, and they would certainly not meet with
them. The Kurdish leaders then left Washington to go to Ankara at the
invitation of President Ozal of Turkey. In short, the US administration was
trying to be more pure on this question out of deference to Turkey's concern
than Turkey itself was, and so they didn't appreciate what the agenda was
going to be.

The irony is that in addition to the fact that Saddam is still in power 12
years later, the Bush administration was forced to reintervene to save the
Kurds in April, and by so doing, they actually created the de facto
independent Kurdistan that they were afraid of, and that entity has functioned
for the last 12 years.

GROSS: So how do you think these actions of the first Bush administration are
playing out now? What are the repercussions now for President Bush?

Prof. GALBRAITH: The current Bush administration is not repeating those
mistakes. Paul Wolfowitz, who is the deputy secretary of Defense, has known
the Iraqi opposition leaders for many years. They are very regular contacts
with the Kurdish leaders, they're developing contacts with the Shiite leaders.
So I think that they have taken that lesson on board.

GROSS: Well, finally, do you think we're going to be going to war soon, and
do you have any sense of how soon?

Prof. GALBRAITH: I have no inside information, but my sense is that we are
going to be going to war, that it will be in the next six weeks to two months.

GROSS: And you're optimistic about this.

Prof. GALBRAITH: Going to war is a very momentous decision, and war involves
lots of risks. And there'll be risks to the Iraqi people. One of the things
that I worry about is that Saddam might again--with nothing to lose, might
again want to use chemical weapons. He probably would like to attack the
United States, but he may not be able to do so. The people he can attack are
the Kurds in the north and indeed, even more easily, Shiites in the south. So
I mean, this could end up being very devastating for the Iraqi people, so I
think there are lots of risks, but--so I don't think anybody can be
optimistic. But I do think it is necessary.

GROSS: Peter Galbraith, thank you very much for talking with us.

Prof. GALBRAITH: Well, thank you.

GROSS: Peter Galbraith teaches at the National War College in Washington, DC.
He is, by the way, the son of John Kenneth Galbraith.

Coming up, we check in with psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton on his thoughts
about the march to war.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

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Interview: Dr. Robert Jay Lifton discusses the current nuclear
weapons situation, going to war in Iraq and the impact of the
Columbia shuttle disaster

Ever since September 11th, we've been checking in from time to time with Dr.
Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist who's an expert on extremist religions, cult
groups and the appeal of apocalyptic thinking. He's also written about global
terrorism and the psychological impact of living in an age of nuclear weapons.

Dr. Lifton is currently a visiting professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical
School. We called him to see what he's thinking as America marches toward
war. He says he's concerned that if we launch a pre-emptive military strike
on Iraq, we'll be breaking a taboo against attacking a country that hasn't
attacked us first. I asked him to explain his concern.

Dr. ROBERT JAY LIFTON (Harvard Medical School): Restraints in international
behavior are not always adhered to, but they're very important to try to keep
in place. And one taboo, which is a very important restraint, is against
attacking a country when you yourself have not been attacked. In that sense,
the new American doctrine of pre-emptive warfare, if carried out in Iraq,
would be the breaking down of a very major taboo, and that would
encourage--and to a degree, legitimate--breaking down taboos on the part of
others. And it could very well bring about more sympathy for terrorism, which
is also a violation of a taboo against civilians and people who aren't
militarily concerned as victims. But that, too, would be a breaking of a
taboo which would have more support, because we ourselves are initiating that
violation of taboos. And another possible consequence here could be the use
of nuclear weapons, which is the greatest and most important taboo, on the
part of one of many different countries.

GROSS: For years, you've been studying the psychological impact of living in
a world with nuclear weapons. You started this kind of study during the Cold
War. Now we're living in a post-Cold War world where we're worried about
Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction and at the same time, we're
worried about North Korea starting to build nuclear weapons and possibly even
give nuclear weapons to other countries or to terrorist groups, and I'm
wondering how your thinking is changing as the world situation is changing.

Dr. LIFTON: Well, there's still a very grave danger of the use of nuclear
weapons and, in fact, that danger is increasing. Before, during the Cold War,
we had to be concerned with very large hydrogen bombs in the hands of the two
superpowers; one superpower threatening to use it against another with a real
danger of destroying much of the world. Now the danger has shifted more
toward relatively smaller nuclear weapons, the so-called Hiroshima temptation,
which could be to use a weapon, a nuclear weapons, against a country that
doesn't possess them.

But the danger of any regional conflict escalating to a nuclear conflict--and
that's a real possibility right now. If we attack Iraq, there's a danger that
Iraq will respond with some use of weapons of mass destruction. It could be
biological or chemical, and there's a danger that Israel may use a nuclear
weapon. There's a danger that we, the United States, will use a nuclear
weapon as we've threatened to do should Iraq or anyone else use weapons of
mass destruction. And whenever you escalate violence in a very intense way,
the nuclear option is thought about by certain powers who are involved, and
you create the danger of what I call an `atrocity-producing situation,' where
a group of people feel impelled to use a nuclear weapon.

GROSS: So do you find yourself being more worried about the use of nuclear
weapons now than you've ever been before?

Dr. LIFTON: I am more worried about the use of nuclear weapons now in the
post-Cold War ear than ever before, because on the one hand, we should be
grateful that the Cold War dangers of almost complete world destruction have
ameliorated in some degree. But on the other hand with nuclear proliferation,
and with what I call trickle-down nuclearism, the nuclear weapons-related
passions now affecting smaller and smaller groups, including nongovernmental
groups like bin Laden or even Aum Shinrikyo. This increases the danger of the
use of a smaller nuclear weapon, and there also are unaccounted-for nuclear So
weapons in the countries of the former Soviet Union. So that, all in all,
most observers would feel that the danger of nuclear warfare is greater than
before, and we have to always be cognizant of that.

GROSS: One of the things you've thought about a lot is what does it take for
a leader to say, `Yes, it's justified to use a nuclear weapon,' and do you
think that that sense of what would make use of a nuclear weapon justifiable
has changed?

Dr. LIFTON: Well, it has in certain ways, because one very important matter
is: How much you consider the use of nuclear weapons crossing a dangerous
threshold or, alternatively, how much you consider it just another weapon?
And unfortunately, this administration, our present administration, has really
opted for the latter. They've talked about nuclear weapons as though they
were just other weapons, and they've talked about more creative uses of
nuclear weapons; for instance, underground uses to attack underground caves or

So that rather than seeing that as a very important threshold to keep as a
barrier, we've taken the opposite view of rendering the weapons ordinary and
normalizing them and, really, engaging in rhetoric that eases their use. So
prior rhetoric, prior policy that justifies and encourages their use on the
one hand, can combine on the other with a sense of national emergency or a
threat to so-called national security, and that can be a combination that can
lead to their use. We have to start talking and thinking about these things
right now before they actually happen.

GROSS: You've studied the mind-set of cult group leaders and terrorists. The
Bush administration is making connections between Islamic fundamentalist
terrorists and the Iraq regime led by Saddam Hussein. But you've suggested
that if we attack Saddam Hussein, it might actually please bin Laden, assuming
bin Laden is still alive. Make that case for us.

Dr. LIFTON: Well, a terrorist like bin Laden thrives on chaos. I think if I
were bin Laden, I'd welcome an American invasion of Iraq because that would
intensify chaos. It would create something closer to an apocalyptic
situation. The use of high-tech weapons, the anger of much of the Islamic
world over this use of that weaponry on an Islamic country--all this would be
in a direction that bin Laden seeks. And he would emerge from it stronger,
with more appeal and with better recruiting possibilities.

GROSS: You were telling me that the head of Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese cult
group that was responsible for the gas attack in the Japanese subway--that he
was thrilled by the Gulf War. Why?

Dr. LIFTON: That's right. Asahara was thrilled by the Gulf War. He had a
kind of ambivalence. On the one hand, he identified with Saddam and thought
that this was another example of American aggression toward a non-white
country. But on the other hand, he was very excited by the high-tech weapons
that America was using in that Gulf War because they seemed to be a harbinger
of Armageddon, and Armageddon was what he sought. And that's a kind of
parallel to what I'm suggesting with bin Laden.

GROSS: My guest is Dr. Robert Jay Lifton. He is now a visiting professor of
psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Let's get back to our conversation with psychiatrist Robert Jay
Lifton. He's written extensively about cult groups, extremist religions,
global terrorism and living in a world with nuclear weapons. We called him to
talk about the fear of terrorism, the march toward war and the horror of the
shuttle catastrophe, which briefly knocked war preparations out of the

I think the shuttle disaster has happened at a time when people's emotions are
still very raw because of September 11th and fear of terrorism. Do you think
that Americans' grief over the shuttle disaster was deepened by post-September
11th fear and anxiety?

Dr. LIFTON: I think it certainly has been. Certainly, the American reaction
would be very strong under any conditions, because just rendering human these
astronauts and their appealing kind of human quality is enough to move the
country. But having said that, I think Americans are uneasy and agitated over
fear of terrorism and fear of recurrence of terrorist acts, and also over what
is immediately happening now in terms of the danger of an American attack on
Iraq and what that means for us and what it means for further terrorism in the
world. All of these things lead to not only uneasiness but anxiety and
intensified grief and fear of loss.

GROSS: Do you think that that connects to the amount of coverage that the
shuttle disaster has been given in the media and the desire of many Americans
to stick with it and to just--to kind of keep with that disaster and keep
learning as much as they can about it?

Dr. LIFTON: To some extent, as painful as the whole shuttle disaster has
been, there's some comfort derived by public expressions of grief and some
degree of satisfaction in doing that. Sustained coverage of that grief, and
of the events surrounding the disaster, may have the effect of warding off the
more difficult questions, the more troubling issues involving the possible
invasion of Iraq and the possible intensification of terror that that invasion
could bring about.

GROSS: You mean, because with the shuttle, we're not looking at terrorism;
we're looking at something mechanical, something in the structure of the
shuttle that went wrong. We don't know exactly what that is yet, but it's not
morally ambiguous.

Dr. LIFTON: Well, the hope is that we can uncover the technological source of
the shuttle disaster and, in that sense, deal with the problem. That may be
too simply stated because the problems are vast and there are issues about
human beings in space that many people are raising. But all of this has a
certain straightforward quality as compared to the unknowns of an attack on
Iraq and the responses of the Islamic world to such an attack. The latter,
the attack on Iraq, is a matter of a very painful and dubious decision as
opposed to the focus on the shuttle disaster, which at least brings the
country together in shared pain.

GROSS: As opposed to the division over whether we should invade Iraq.

Dr. LIFTON: That's right. Invading Iraq divides the country in the most
extreme way. And there are voices on all sides, all of which claim to see
things clearly, and everybody perceives dangers. It was rather interesting in
one recent news article that one of the people most involved with being an
architect for the attack on Iraq called back the interviewer, or told the
interviewer, that he has sleepless nights worrying about what I've been
calling unintended consequences; that is, that certain things would happen,
including further terrorism or the use of some kind of dirty bomb on an
American city as a result of an attack on Iraq. So that there's a lot of
unease about what looks like a presidential policy.

GROSS: As a psychiatrist, I'm wondering if you've been thinking a lot about
Saddam Hussein's personality and how well-balanced he actually is.

Dr. LIFTON: It's very hard to project future events on the basis of the
personality even of demagogic figures like Saddam Hussein. He has shown so
many different characteristics, including wild destructiveness, very canny
capacity for survival, responsiveness to deterrence, very bad judgment in
relation to his own self-interests. He's shown all of those things. Perhaps
the lesson should be that we can't predict his exact behavior or that of Iraq,
in general, should we attack that country. And any policy that's based upon
an assumption that he'll behave in a particular way, especially if that's the
way we want him to behave, is really ill-advised.

GROSS: Well, Dr. Lifton, thank you very much for talking with us.

Dr. LIFTON: Thank you.

GROSS: Dr. Robert Jay Lifton is currently a visiting professor of psychiatry
at Harvard Medical School. His latest book is "Destroying the World to Save
It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence and the New Global Terrorism."

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

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