Chat: Middle East Expert Anthony Cordesman

In the Yemeni port of Aden, a possible terrorist attack on a U.S. Navy destroyer has left four U.S. sailors dead and scores injured. Twelve other sailors are missing. And in Israel, after a Palestinian mob attack on some Israeli soldiers, Israel launched a rocket attack in the West Bank, heightening tensions in that region. Middle East military expert Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic International Studies joined us today in a live chat after his appearance on Sam Donaldson’s daily Webcast. Look below for a transcript of the chat.

Moderator at 1:12pm ET

Mr. Cordesman, can you talk a little bit about what's happening in the Middle East right now?

Anthony Cordesman at 1:13pm ET

Well, I think obviously the events of the last day have brought us potentially to a second Intifada. They have brought us closer to the risk of a real war. But we need to be very careful. The violence is still limited. The Israelis have not attacked in wide areas; the Palestinian Authority's security forces have not been involved in major fire fights. And a lot of the rhetoric we're hearing from the region is a great deal more inflammatory than the reality is.

Moderator at 1:14pm ET

Can you speculate at all about who might be responsible for the attack on the USS Cole?

Anthony Cordesman at 1:14pm ET

I think we need to be extraordinarily careful. There is a very large list of extremist groups that might be involved. Everybody instinctively uses the name of Osama Bin Laden. I think that other people will always blame Iran or Iraq. But there are a great many extremist groups, and Yemen has a long history of civil war and violence. I think we need to be very careful to wait until we have some real evidence before we start blaming any given movement or group.

Moderator at 1:14pm ET

Can you comment on the rocket attacks in Israel?

Anthony Cordesman at 1:15pm ET

We need to be very careful. These were launched by attack helicopters. They used attack helicopters because they can be very precise in hitting targets. It was obviously an escalation. It was a very strong reprisal to the deaths of the two Israeli soldiers. But it's also important to note that they used attack helicopters because they can still be used with some restraint.

Moderator at 1:16pm ET

Is there any indication of what the U. S. reaction might be?

Anthony Cordesman at 1:18pm ET

I think the US reaction is very different between what happened to the Cole and what has happened to the Arab-Israeli crisis. Obviously when we talk about the Cole there will be an immediate intelligence review to see if we can find any indicators of who might have done this. We will put the entire US government presence in this region on alert — embassies, U.S. military, U.S. business — so they can take security measures.

But when we shift back to the Arab-Israeli confrontation, I think the US reaction is clear: It is patience and persistence. It is a constant effort to find some way to deescalate the violence and to get both sides to talk to each other again. We have to understand, however, that we have no magic answers, that ultimately both sides have to decide to stop. The U.S. cannot force an end to this violence.

Moderator at 1:18pm ET

How are other nations in the Middle East reacting to the crisis?

Anthony Cordesman at 1:19pm ET

I think so far the reactions have been one of political support for the Palestinians. But with the possible exception of the movement of one Iraqi division, there has been no threat of war, there has been no movement of troops. No military forces have been put on alert. So I think that the other Arab states are pushing toward an end of the violence, not toward any kind of escalation. And there are certainly no signs we are moving to a wider form of conflict.

Moderator at 1:19pm ET

Do you expect any declaration of war will be forthcoming?

Anthony Cordesman at 1:20pm ET

This is in many ways communal violence — the peoples are too intermingled — and there is no formal requirement for declarations of war. We will see war when we see violence throughout the area, and war will consist of continuing battles between the Israeli defense forces, Palestinians, and the security forces of the Palestinian Authority. And it's important to note, we have not seen that level of conflict as yet.

Moderator at 1:20pm ET

President Clinton has reportedly been unable to contact Prime Minister Barak. Can you comment on this?

Anthony Cordesman at 1:21pm ET

I think again this report originally came from a Palestinian source about Prime Minister Barak. Both Chairman Arafat and Prime Minister Barak have been involved in ongoing operations throughout virtually the entire day. It's nighttime now. There may be more time to pause, but I think it is very dangerous to give the impression that neither side is talking. We just don't have that information yet.

Moderator at 1:21pm ET

Do you have any thoughts about the future of the process, how long this will go on, and what you see as the next step?

Anthony Cordesman at 1:22pm ET

There's no way to know exactly what will happen. The most likely events unfortunately will be probably days or weeks of violence. It could be a series of real battles between the Israeli defense forces and Palestinians. And we could even see a second Intifada, which lasted months.

The one thing we're virtually certain of is at the end of all of this there will be a lot of dead young men on both sides, the political realities will be very much the same as when we began and both sides will still have to find some way to learn how to live with each other.

Moderator at 1:23pm ET

How does the current presidential race reflect on this situation?

Anthony Cordesman at 1:23pm ET

Hopefully, it doesn't. If there was ever a need for bipartisanship, and to not try to play to ethnic votes in the US, this is the time. In fact, I'd go further: It would be a betrayal of the American national interest for either presidential candidate to try to exploit this situation to his own advantage.

Moderator at 1:23pm ET

Do you see anything of the sort happening now?

Anthony Cordesman at 1:23pm ET

No. I thought the debates made it very clear that both candidates were pursuing exactly the right course.

Moderator at 1:24pm ET

Is there anything else in the current world situation that isn't immediately obvious that could possibly affect the situation in the Middle East?

Anthony Cordesman at 1:27pm ET

We need to understand that when we have enemies elsewhere in the region, they're going to exploit it, and we've seen some of that from Iraq already. They moved a division, I think, to try to create a political symbol which will help Iraq break out of sanctions, to try to achieve a position of Arab solidarity. We need to watch very carefully what happens along the Lebanese border where there is a risk of further clashes either from the Israelis or the Hezbollah side.

But again, I think that the world has largely joined the United States in trying to bring this crisis back under control. Again, it's very important to stress that the Arab states have supported the Palestinians politically, but no one is talking about war or conflict or broadening the fighting.

But again, there's one thing I should add to that: We saw from the attack on the Cole (and that's what it seems to be) that extremists may attempt to use terrorism outside the West Bank and Gaza and Israel to block any kind of peace or any kind of negotiation, or to attack the US. That is always a possibility.

Moderator at 1:27pm ET

Rick Abrahall asks: Who are considered the moderate Arab countries?

Anthony Cordesman at 1:28pm ET

Basically another way of saying it is there are 21 Arab countries. The countries we clearly do not see as moderate at this point include Iraq. Syria certainly has a deep interest in this.

L. Williams from at 1:29pm ET

Do you feel that the world — in particular, the Middle East — is ready for a Gore/Lieberman ticket overseeing U.S. policies?

Anthony Cordesman at 1:30pm ET

I don't think that the Middle East distrusts a Gore-Lieberman ticket because Sen. Lieberman is Jewish. He's a very well-known figure — I think within the Arab community he's well-known and very respected. We've moved beyond the point at which you would paralyze American relations with the Arab world because we have a Jewish vice president.

Johnson from at 1:31pm ET

It would appear that the peace process is not only dead but has turned into a man-eating zombie. How can peace be maintained between two opponents when they go at each other's throats for the slightest of reasons (i.e. Sharon's visit) and neither side is willing to let go for fear of appearing to be a weak coward?

Anthony Cordesman at 1:31pm ET

First, they didn't explode at the slightest pretext: We were very slow in getting to the final settlement issues, they cut at the heart of both sides, and it was not totally surprising that when Camp David failed the situation exploded.

Second, I think we need to understand that regardless of how serious this violence becomes, at the end of it the Israelis and Palestinians will still be there. They have no alternative that is better than peace. They can't live with each other in a constant state of war. And while it may be a peace of exhaustion, at some point it will have to be a peace.

John from at 1:32pm ET

Does the U.S. not enact greater safety precautions around its warships during times of Middle East unrest?

Anthony Cordesman at 1:33pm ET

The answer is, it did have considerable security precautions. But there always is the risk that a terrorist can get through when you go into harm's way. We have to understand that when we take risks we also sometimes take casualties. This isn't a matter of having perfect security, because that means we can't act, we can't be a superpower.

Moderator at 1:33pm ET

Mr. Cordesman, do you have any closing thoughts for us today?

Anthony Cordesman at 1:34pm ET

I think what we really need to do is show a little patience and a little caution. We may see a tragedy in the making, and in some ways we have already seen a tragedy, but we are not at war yet, the situation is not hopeless, and there still is a chance for peace. So we need to be very, very careful about the language we use, and we should not give up simply because the situation has deteriorated.

Moderator at 1:34pm ET

Thank you for joining us today, Mr. Cordesman.