Thursday, December 22, 2005

A Night With Scott Ritter – And Some Other Guy

"Hey, you guys are great taxi drivers," laughed Scott Ritter, the former United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq, as he warmly shook my hand and gave the traditional ribbing a former Marine gives to an ex-Navy guy like myself. (It's a joke among Marines about how they believe the Navy exists only to give Marines a ride.)

I met Ritter and got to spend a few minutes with him after attending a debate on the Iraq war between him and neoconservative apologist Christopher Hitchens Tuesday night.

Moderated by talk-show host Jay Diamond after the scheduled moderator, Air America's Laura Flanders, took ill, the debate was held at the old and austere Tarrytown Music Hall in Westchester County, NY.

Ritter, the author of Iraq Confidential: The Untold Story of the Intelligence Conspiracy to Undermine the UN and Overthrow Saddam Hussein, was a top U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 through 1998 and frequently served as the chief inspector. Prior to his employment with the U.N., Ritter was a major in the U.S. Marines, where he served for 12 years as an intelligence officer and a ballistic missile adviser to General Schwarzkopf in the first Gulf War.

He struck me one-on-one as much the same person I watched dismantle Hitchens in front of a crowd of perhaps 600 people Tuesday: ramrod straight and solid, without an ounce of military bearing lost in civilian life and more than capable of debating both the technical and political nature of pre-war intelligence leading up to the Iraq mess.

The Gulf-war Veteran, who described himself in introductions as a "Reagan Republican who voted for Kerry," made it clear at the start of the evening exactly where he stood.

"I am opposed to this war as much as one can possibly be opposed to this war," said Ritter firmly. "I cannot come up with any justification worthy of a single American life, as to why we should be in Iraq today. And we must take a look at how we got there. That is the foundation of our involvement and, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is as corrupt a foundation as you can possibly imagine."

Hitchens, the acerbic British author and Vanity Fair contributor is a self-described "proponent of the Iraq war," and, while sometimes hard to pin down on his overall political views, clearly came to this event prepared to defend George W. Bush and the Iraq war.

"Another confrontation with Saddam Hussein was inevitable," said Hitchens in defending the Iraq invasion. "Who should have determined the timing of that confrontation? Saddam Hussein? Or the U.S. and other democratic nations?"

When asked point-blank by the moderator whether Saddam Hussein's Iraq had the credible capability of harming the U.S. at the time of the invasion, Hitchens, who was in no position to challenge Ritter's expertise on the subject, stuck to vague GOP talking points.

"As long as Saddam Hussein was in power, it was not possible for the U.S. to ever relax," Hitchens said.

Ritter, whose last role at the U.N. was as chief of the "Counter-Concealment Team," fired back at Hitchens.

"The Iraq Survey Group, headed by David Kay, found [in post-invasion Iraq] that Iraq had destroyed the totality of its nuclear weapons program and confirmed what the CIA had already said about them having destroyed it as far back as the summer of 1991."

The best Hitchens could respond with was the worn-out story of Mahdi Obeidi, an Iraqi scientist who in 2003 was found to have hidden spare parts for developing a nuclear bomb under some rose bushes in his yard, where they had been buried for 12 years.

The parts, Ritter pointed out, proved nothing about Iraq's WMD capability and were just the desperate actions of "... a scientist who didn't want to let go of his life's work."

But the lame spare-parts-under-the-rosebush offering was typical of an evening that saw Hitchens insulting people not there to defend themselves – Lesley Stahl, of CBS News, may want to see a transcript -- making nasty asides to both Ritter and the moderator and, at one point, asking Ritter to "...stop saying how many times you were in the Marine Corps."

Of course, like most people of a neoconservative bent arguing in favor of the Iraq war, Hitchens is snide about Ritter's military service while – and you just know this other shoe is going to drop – having never served in the military himself.

Ritter controlled the entire debate with his knowledge and straightforward style, saying "The mission in Iraq was never, ever about disarmament. It was about regime change. And that's all it was about."

"Stop evaluating Iraq from a national security perspective – you will go insane. If you evaluate America's policy in Iraq from a national security perspective, it makes no sense across the board," said Ritter. "This had nothing whatsoever to do with the security of the United States and it had everything to do with correcting a political embarrassment to the U.S. and that was Saddam Hussein remaining in power."

Hitchens even threw out that old neocon line about Muammar Khaddafi being frightened out of his wits by U.S. actions in Iraq and giving up his own weapons capability as a result -- at which point Diamond questioned whether Khaddafi's move wasn't actually the culmination of 10 to 12 years of negotiations with the Libyan dictator.

Said Ritter in response: "It represents a process that, had it been applied to Iraq, 2,125 plus Americans would be home with their families alive. 15,000 Americans whose lives have been torn asunder would have their bodies intact, their mental facilities intact and tens of thousands if not more Iraqis would be alive..."

Near the end of the debate, Diamond asked Hitchens to explain the constant linking of Saddam Hussein, al Qaeda and September 11 by the Bush administration, despite no proof of any such linkage. Hitchens stunned the crowd by saying the following:

"I think you'll find that with the exception of one slightly clumsy statement made by the vice president, there hasn't been any other allegations made to that effect."

While the mostly-liberal crowd either laughed or booed at that whopper, Hitchens continued to blather on while not answering the question, before being cut off by Ritter.

"We have not destroyed al Qaeda, we have not destroyed those who gave them safe haven and succor. al Qaeda still exists. Osama bin Laden still exists," Ritter said. "To make the link between September 11 and Iraq is absurd in the extreme. And it's wrong and it's morally wrong. And this is what the President of the United States does every time he makes a speech to this day."

Ritter ended the debate with passion that brought the most enthusiastic reaction from the crowd.

"This is a war that's not worth the loss of one American because it's a war based on a lie. And there's no way the revisionists of history can undo that," he said. "And if you buy into the notion that the ends justify the means and you call yourself an American, then throw your passport on the ground and get the hell out of my country because America is about the rule of law and due process!"

That part sure got my heart racing and my hands clapping.

Ritter was cool and calm after the debate as he met well-wishers and signed copies of his book. As we talked, I asked him if I was correct that, despite his tough-guy talk, Hitchens has never been in the military and was thus just another neocon chickenhawk.

"Well, I don't think Chris has ever served himself. But I know many in his family have a proud military history, so I think he has an appreciation for what people in uniform go through," said Ritter.

While I'm not sure I agree with that statement, it was a fitting end to the evening from a true officer and a gentleman.