Ruppersberger's tour of duty overseas

March 05, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

WHILE nobody was paying attention, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger slipped into Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. In a desert tent, he met with Col. Muammar el Kadafi and talked about Libya's abandonment of nuclear weapons. In Afghanistan, he met with President Hamid Karzai and talked about the search for Osama bin Laden. In Iraq, he met with soldiers from Maryland who wondered what awaits them when they return home.

Ruppersberger was part of a small congressional delegation -- members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence -- that went to the Middle East last month to assess U.S. intelligence there, and to receive briefings from military commanders and diplomats.

In Iraq, said Ruppersberger, "we were taken to a huge room where Saddam Hussein would hold banquets once a year for his top people. They told us he would announce, `In 10 or 15 minutes, half a dozen of you will be dead, because I have poisoned your food.' And, in 10 minutes, they were gone."

In Afghanistan, he said, the poverty was overwhelming. The annual income is $150 per person. The drug traffickers from Pakistan slip easily into Afghanistan, resulting in the second-largest poppy crop in history. "That's their economy," Ruppersberger said. In the midst of a conflict that has slipped from many Americans' minds, there is the added concern of Afghanistan becoming a narco-state flooding the United States with ever-larger shipments of heroin.

In Libya, en route to meeting Kadafi, the congressional delegation raced through the desert at speeds topping 100 mph. They were the second U.S. delegation to visit Libya, after no American contact for more than 30 years. In December, Kadafi surprised the world by announcing his intentions to abandon his once-secret nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs and renouncing Libya's ties to terrorist groups.

"He got caught," Ruppersberger said, "and this is the best way he had to deal with it."

They met Kadafi in a huge desert tent, "half the size of a football field," empty except for carpeting, a TV set and a few scattered pieces of furniture. The delegation was ushered in and told to wait. And wait. When Kadafi entered, he was polite and sat in a plastic chair. Clearly ailing from back pain, he explained that he had a disc problem.

"He didn't look well," Ruppersberger said. "There's talk that he's been sick. He has a son who's pretty sharp, and we've been told he wants to create a legacy for him. Plus, Kadafi's life could be in danger. Al-Qaida doesn't like him."

Kadafi spoke through an interpreter, though it became clear he spoke English. Occasionally, he would correct his translator. He would smile when he heard himself being complimented in English. He said his decision to ban weapons programs and denounce terrorism were based strictly on self-interest, and that U.S. sanctions and reprimands never had an impact.

"Why would I want a nuclear weapon?" Kadafi asked. "What would I do with it?"

"He talked a lot about our two countries getting along," Ruppersberger said. "It sounded good. But I'd never take my eyes off him."

In Afghanistan, Ruppersberger was moved by the look of things, "the severe poverty, the rough terrain and weather, the lack of any kind of infrastructure. The countryside's still dangerous. You don't know who the enemy is. It's going to take a lot of work there."

But political reform is progressing. The country has a new constitution, which specifically protects women's rights. Elections are scheduled for June, but voter registration is slow. There are only 54 places to register to vote. Afghanistan is larger than Texas. There are plans to increase the 54 locations to several thousand.

In Iraq, Ruppersberger met with soldiers from Maryland, "all National Guard people. They have a real good sense of team. Their morale is good. But their big concern was: When they come home, what about their jobs? One captain said he'd been there for a year, and his wife has now been called up. That was upsetting.

"And, of course, they hear the political talk. They ask, `Are people back home going to be against us?' They've heard complaints about the war. They want us to stand behind them."

Some remember Vietnam, when many Americans did not distinguish between the nation's war policy and those called upon to do the dirty work. In Afghanistan, Ruppersberger's sense of it was a circle of coalition forces closing in on Osama bin Laden. In Iraq, he says, he sensed people learning to trust America. He brushed off questions about the existence of weapons of mass destruction.

In Baltimore at the Charles Theatre, moviegoers can now see The Fog of War, a documentary interview with former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, the architect of American war policy during Vietnam. The interview was conducted before the United States entered Iraq.

Asked about the enduring lessons of Vietnam, McNamara says America should never go to war on its own -- and that, if our valued allies do not join us, we need to ask ourselves why.

Ruppersberger sloughed off the comparison. "We're there now," he said, "and we can't leave."

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