CNN International: May 2, 2003

SYNOPSIS: Krugman discusses the war in Iraq and the Bush administration's ever-changing justifications of it

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Christiane Amanpour, in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big issues of the moment. Six weeks since the war in Iraq began, the American President George Bush is telling the nation that the combat operations there are over.


GEORGE W. BUSH, U.S. PRESIDENT: Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed. The transition from dictatorship to democracy will take time, but it is worth every effort. Our coalition will stay until our work is done.


AMANPOUR: But despite America's victory in Iraq, the burning question remains: where are the much-debated weapons of mass destruction? On this side of the Atlantic, Bush's partner, the British Prime Min. Tony Blair, insists, like Bush does, that these weapons will be found.


TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MIN.: Our first priority has got to be to stabilize the country. The second is the humanitarian situation. And the third, and we can take our time about this, and so we should, is to make sure we investigate the weapons of mass destruction, and we will do that. And as I say every time I'm asked, I remain confident they will be found.


AMANPOUR: So just how important is it? And should the media be taking the British and American governments to task on this issue? Joining me to discuss this, from New York, Paul Krugman, columnist for "The New York Times," and in Washington, D.C., James Harding, the Washington bureau chief for the "Financial Times." Paul, I'm going to talk to you first, because you wrote a very trenchant column recently. Let me quote: ""We were not lying," a Bush administration official tells the ABC NEWS network, "but it was just a matter of emphasis."" They're basically saying that they essentially selectively told the world what kind of a threat Saddam Hussein posed. What is this telling us about the motivation for the war and the questions we should be asking now?

PAUL KRUGMAN, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": It's clear now -- actually, it was clear all through the buildup, but not very well reported -- that the bush administration wanted this war. They wanted to attack Iraq, and they were searching for justifications, and throughout, we had a lot of -- it was almost like a cardsharp throwing out -- I'm sorry, an unfair metaphor, maybe, but throwing out one thing -- try this, try this, try another one. They tried out many different possible reasons for the war. Many of them failed to pan out. At this point, they're retroactively justifying the war on a very different basis from the claimed immediate threat that was used to justify the war in the first place.

AMANPOUR: Well, one of your esteemed colleagues on "The New York Times" op-ed page has said, hey, it's enough for me that liberation and relief from this human rights abuse was the reason for the war. But, of course, many people, yourself included, want to know, well, where are these weapons of mass destruction, which was the legal, if you like, reason and motivation for this war. Are those questions being asked?

KRUGMAN: They're being asked, but not very loudly. And let me say, I think the reason we should be worried about this is not so much a question about Iraq, though there are questions there, but a question about ourselves. Were we essentially persuaded into a war for reasons that had nothing to do with the ostensible reasons.

Was this a case of a deliberate attempt to distract the public from other issues? Was it a case of some obsession on the part of the administration? It's kind of disturbing. It's more than kind of disturbing, it's extremely disturbing that now it appears, whatever may actually be found in Iraq, the imminent threat, the mushroom cloud that President Bush warned about, was clearly not there, and, you know, this is something -- it's being asked, but, you know, they got what they wanted and it's very much now receded into the background.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me ask you, James, one of Paul's quotes in his column was to quote the "Independent," the British newspaper, which basically says that the intelligence community was scandalized that the politicians essentially selectively chose or ignored some of the high level briefings that they were given in the rush to war. Do you think the American pres, in fact even the British press, has done its duty and asked the tough questions and asked the follow-up questions about the justifications, their own motivations, for this war?

JAMES HARDING, "FINANCIAL TIMES": Well, frankly, no. I think that it's extraordinary. Today, we found ourselves, the press, I think particularly the press that's covering the president and the White House, in the same excruciating position as Hans Blix was in about two, three months ago, which is that you are endlessly chasing a quarry that may not exist. You can't run on the front page of your newspaper everyday "Weapons of Mass Destruction Not Found Today." And yet that is the story, as clearly we have an ever-diminishing pretext for this war. And as much, as you mentioned, Blair and Bush insist that they will find WOMD, and we've had senior administration officials here saying they will find WOMD, the sense is here that Bush administration officials are shifting what they call the emphasis, but what is clearly the ground. They're now talking about, we were worried about breweries and distilleries which could be developed at some time in the future. We were worried about the team of scientists that could be used, and it's a very subtle shift in emphasis, but it has a fundamental and quite alarming implication for what preemption means, which is not just somebody with the capability, but someone with the intention to develop the capability who becomes a target. I think that the press is struggling to put this in an aggressive and forceful way on the front pages of the paper.

AMANPOUR: But that's precisely the question. Why is the press struggling? Let's say the vice president of the United States, Dick Cheney, a couple of days before the war began, said on "Meet the Press," quote, "Iraq has a constituted or reconstituted nuclear weapon." Nobody has followed that question up. Why not?

HARDING: Actually, to be fair to people.


HARDING: Sorry. I was going to say, to be fair, people are following up. Obviously, the columnists are following it up. There's some quite shrill commentary on both sides after this war, and that possibly is canceling itself out. The straightforward piece that analyzes what Bush said on September 12, if you remember that speech in Cincinnati, where he talked about a softballs-worth of plutonium that could be used to fire up a nuclear program -- all of that stuff does get reported, and it gets reported in the light of an absent find of weapons of mass destruction. The problem is, it's not dramatic news, and it's drowned out a lot of the time, I must say, by the television, which this Washington has proven to incredibly smart in using, as we saw on the Abraham Lincoln yesterday.

AMANPOUR: Paul, you were asking the questions, and you wanted to jump in there. Why aren't these tough questions being asked?

KRUGMAN: I think there's two reasons. One is simply it doesn't make a very good story, at least it's viewed as not making a good story, that a page one story about this, what the administration said and what has proved to be the case and how they aren't really the same, apparently is not as much of an audience-grabber as a story about war itself, which all looked pretty good. The other is, look, there's a lot -- there's very intense pressure on the U.S. media to go along, to -- it's -- you -- I get multiple mails after any one of these columns, saying real Americans don't want to hear from you, and some of these campaigns are organized. This is a situation in which the questioning of the venture, even though we all know that there is something odd about how we got to fight this war, questioning the venture is regarded as unpatriotic. Most major media don't want to -- don't want to take the risk of pushing the issue more than just marginally, pushing it on page A-13 or something like that.

AMANPOUR: And how long is that going to last? How long is the mainstream American media going to tolerate being brow-beaten, if that's what you're suggesting, by the shock troops of the right wing, into feeling unpatriotic by asking legitimate questions?

KRUGMAN: Well, I think there's a division of opinion. Some of us think -- some people think that we'll emerge from this, you know, in a few months, that, now with the war past, we'll get back to normal journalism. Other people worry that this is a fundamental shift, and a fundamental shift in the role of the press, a fundamental shift in general in how politics is conducted in this country.

AMANPOUR: James, America, this superpower with so much influence now around the world, does it matter that the American press and to an extent the British press is, you know, as some people would say, colluding in sort of being misled?

HARDING: Well, clearly it matters in (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and can I say, I think we should make a distinction between the British and the Americans, because I think that the American press, and this is not just the shock troops of the right wing as you call it, this is the mainstream press, is much more deferential to their commander-in-chief than the British press is to the prime minister. I mean, we were actually laughing yesterday as we watched President Bush get out of the plane in full "Top Gun" regalia, make his address on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. And just thinking to ourselves, can you imagine if Tony Blair tried a stunt like that? He would have been absolutely pulled apart in the British press. People would have asked the question, how many hospital beds could have been used with the jet fuel that was used in order to enable the prime minister to have a good sound-byte on television, a good clip in the evening news. That kind of thing is just not tolerated, and it's a much more robust and aggressive press corp. in that sense. Having said that, I think that there is a sophisticated way of asking questions and a way of reporting here. Of course, there is something deeply troubling if the U.S. media, at a time when the U.S. government is clearly shifting its target, shifting its objectives in what it will do in the world -- and we may (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the Muslim world with modern and moderate government, as this administration has said it would, using preemption as a tool in its military toolbox. This is clearly very worrying, if those issues are not being tested, if the tires aren't being kicked, on the administration's policies.

AMANPOUR: Thank you both very much indeed for joining us -- Paul Krugman, in New York, James Harding, in Washington, D.C.

And coming up on the program, serious allegations surface against the French President Jacques Chirac and his government. But why is this story falling on deaf ears? When we come back.


Originally broadcast, 5.2.03