The following is an edited transcript of the forty-fourth in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held on April 21, 2006, in the U.S. Capitol with Chas. W. Freeman, Jr., presiding.
Chas W. Freeman, Jr., president, Middle East Policy Council
Sooner or later –– as nearly 90 percent of Iraqis prefer, as somewhat smaller majorities internationally prefer, and as now a simple majority in the United States prefers –– the United States will leave Iraq. The question is, how and when will we do so, and what will we leave behind? The manner of our arrival in Iraq was deeply disruptive of our international relationships, including those in the region. Now the issue is the manner of our departure.
Having just returned from the region, I can attest that this is very much on the minds of rulers there. They fear that having trashed Iraq and set it afire, we will walk away from it and leave them to die of smoke inhalation. They are concerned that an irresponsible American withdrawal would transform what they regard as a severe strategic mistake by the United States into a crime –– their word. And they also should be concerned that this nonpartisan mistake –– there was deafening silence from the loyal opposition as we marched into Iraq –– may now be compounded by the introduction of partisanship, and that an American debate over who lost Iraq and who created this mess takes on a strictly partisan cast.
I’m not going to recapitulate what we have accomplished in Iraq. It’s clear that we did succeed in removing Saddam Hussein and bringing him to trial. We verified that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That’s a major achievement for our political-military strategy. However, we also destroyed the Iraqi state, dismembered Iraqi politics, destabilized intercommunal relations, desecularized political life and attracted, created, and are now in the process of training an entire new generation of terrorists. The concern in the region is not only that these terrorists will spill over the borders to display their newly honed skills in urban warfare with attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia or on the government in Jordan, but that there may in fact be something resembling a twenty-first century version of the Spanish Civil War emerging, in which fights among Iraqis gradually enlist and implicate neighbors and draw others into a widening circle of instability. Iraq might even become the cockpit for a version within the realm of Islam of the Thirty-Years’ War between Protestants and Catholics, which disturbed the tranquility of Christendom for decades.
There is thus a perceived threat to the entire Dar al Islam.
When you make a mess, you really shouldn’t just walk away from it. So the question is, can we still accomplish some of our objectives in Iraq? Can we do something to stabilize the situation rather than see it continue to deteriorate? Can we leave in a manner that stabilizes not just Iraq but the region? Can we withdraw with honor in due course and with a sense of accomplishment, or are we simply going to do what is feared in the region — wash our hands of the mess we have created and leave them to deal with the consequences?
Thomas R. Mattair, consultant to government and business
We all know the figures about the death and destruction that the Iraq War has caused so far, and we know that the original arguments for the war have proven to be false. But our presence there, the consequences of the war, and the way we conduct ourselves from now on all have an impact on our national interest, so we have to exit carefully. There are no easy or good choices.
I would first like to talk about calls for rapid withdrawal, and then about the Bush strategy. I will leave calls for withdrawal according to timetables to the people who have written their own good programs.
The people who call for fast withdrawal are basing this call on some accurate assessments. Resentment of the occupation is one of the motives for the insurgents; the lack of a timetable does fuel this motivation. The occupation has not subdued the killing. The occupation does erode the military strength, global standing and goodwill that the United States enjoyed after the end of the Cold War and after 9/11. And the war was certainly based on poor policy making. But their arguments about the consequences of a rapid withdrawal are, I think, too optimistic. It’s not clear to me, as they argue, that rapid withdrawal will foster compromise among the sectarian and ethnic groups, diminish the insurgency, lead to improvements in Iraqi security forces, or promote reconstruction. It’s not clear to me, particularly because the presence of U.S. forces is not the only motive of the insurgents; the competition for power within Iraq is another motivation. I think the analysis and the predictions both underestimate the ethnic and sectarian divisions in Iraq. It’s also not clear to me, as they argue, that withdrawal will be followed by a regional restraint that will allow the United States to prepare and repair its strategic posture.
In fact, other people argue that a rapid withdrawal would have the opposite results if we haven’t trained Iraqi security forces and forged compromises. It could in fact undermine U.S. credibility, encourage insurgents, stoke civil war, destabilize the region, spill over into neighboring countries, lead to interventions by neighbors and jeopardize U.S. security. These are the arguments made by the Bush administration and by many, many leading Democrats.
This takes us to the Bush strategy, which its promoters call a “victory strategy.” If it were successful, it could be an exit strategy; if it’s not successful, it could be a quagmire strategy. They say that they will withdraw when more Iraqi troops are equipped and trained, when a democratic government emerges, and when Iraq’s economy is rebuilt. They define that in more specific terms as [the presence of ] a constitutional representative government that respects civil rights and has security forces sufficient to maintain order and keep Iraq from being a safe haven for terrorists. It would mean an Iraq that had a free-market economy that provided basic services and was integrated into the international economy. They claim Iraq is the central front in the war on terror, that our failure would mean that al-Qaeda –– which is now evidently part of a larger Mujahedeen Shura, Council of Holy Warriors –– would control much of Iraq, that it would use it as a base to attack the West, and that because of Iraq’s oil, al-Qaeda would control a hub of the world’s economy.
This strategy seems to me to be too optimistic. Iraqi leaders may not compromise, security forces may not become more capable and loyal, and the insurgency and corruption may continue to cripple reconstruction. There are many questions to be resolved. Here are just a few of them. The Sunnis don’t think they can be assured of an adequate share of the country’s oil wealth under the current constitution, and amending the constitution is going to take a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly. This is something that the Sunnis will be hard-pressed to muster, and, even if they did, it would have to go to a national referendum. The Kurds want Kirkuk and its oil, and they don’t want to be bound by Islamic law. They may have a hard time finding Shiite partners who will agree to this.
The Shiites are divided about the question of federalism. Those who favor a strong central government and weak autonomous regions, which in my opinion is the best option, happen to be Dawa and Sadr’s followers. They did very, very well in the elections and are actually stronger within the United Iraqi Alliance than the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). But these are the parties whose prime-ministerial candidate we have opposed, evidently because he agreed to ask for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal if he were confirmed; and it would be a huge challenge for them to create a truly national security force under these circumstances, with sectarian killing rampant. And we know that reconstruction is crippled by insurgency and corruption.
Another question about this strategy is that it may be too pessimistic about the consequences of American failure. Al-Qaeda followers are few in number. Iraq is as big as California. Nationalist insurgents will turn against al-Qaeda insurgents; neighboring countries will turn against them. The United States will have Special Forces that can target them. I don’t see that they can use a large area of Iraq as a base, and anyway they don’t need it. They’ve been attacking the West successfully; they’re dispersed, and they have global reach. We’re very lucky they haven’t attacked us again.
That leads us to the calls for timetables. One thing they all have in common is the call for regional cooperation, and that’s what I’d like to talk about. Saudi Arabia and the GGC states are concerned that the Sunnis are being marginalized in Iraq. They met at their summit conference and talked about this. They’re concerned about the fact that Iran has growing influence in Iraq, and they’re trying to find ways to minimize this. They don’t want the Sunnis to provoke a conflict that’s going to spill over into Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, but if the Sunnis are the victims of Shiite death squads, and if Iran is perceived as being behind this, it’s going to be hard for them to tolerate.
With respect to talks with Iran, which so many people have called for, our ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been authorized to engage in these talks, and within the last month or so, the Iranians have agreed. But the possibility of these talks comes at a time when the United States is also threatening sanctions and maybe even military strikes against Iran because of its nuclear program. I think both sanctions and military strikes would blow back on the United States and on the GGC states. But it may be that the U.S. threats have had some kind of beneficial impact because, as I understand it, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei wants these talks, and he arranged for the invitation extended from the head of the SCIRI so that he would be able to point to this as a reason for coming into these talks. He’s apparently very worried about the pressure that’s being applied against Iran.
This means that, if he is going to cooperate regarding Iraq, he’s going to want something in return. If Iran can restrain Shiite death squads, provide intelligence about Sunni insurgents, encourage Shiites to share power and control over oil in a central government that has real power and includes the Sunnis, this will help the United States promote compromise and stability and reconstruction. But then Iran and most Iraqi factions will want the United States to leave, and the Bush administration will have to decide whether it will leave.
Iran will also want some deal on the nuclear programs, and the Bush administration will then have to decide if it’s willing to agree to a deal that tightly limits Iranian uranium enrichment and probably plutonium separation. Here, the United States would be dealing with Ali Larijani, who has the support and confidence of Supreme Leader Khamenei. I think the United States should also use this opportunity to see if talks on other issues are possible — for example, [on] the extent and character of Iran’s conventional military acquisitions and exercises in the Arab/Persian Gulf, which are seen as a threat in the GCC states. As for Iranian president Ahmadinejad, I don’t think he is a major foreign-policy player. His public outbursts may be designed to generate public support that could help him enter the club of major foreign-policy makers.
If we want cooperation on Iraq, on nuclear programs and on the Gulf, we may have to show Iran that these threats are going to cease and that there may be some limited guarantees that they’re not going to be attacked if they abide by all these agreements. This means giving up dreams of forcible regime change and banking on a slow evolutionary process of political change in Iran. Perhaps the democracy program would gain more traction in Iran if we had these agreements and Iran were not being threatened.
There’s one final issue: Israel. Clearly, Iran does not recognize the legitimacy of Israel, and that is a problem for the Bush administration and for any American administration. It has a bearing on how they are going to deal with Iran. But Barry Posen, for example, has written an article in which he talked about the consequences of Iran’s actually getting nuclear weapons and how it would be bound by the same laws of deterrence and mutually assured destruction that have usually governed these matters. Now let’s assume that Iran did not have a nuclear weapon. What kind of threat does it pose to Israel? The threat doesn’t come from its Shahab missiles. The threat comes from Iran’s ties to Hizballah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas, and that’s something that needs to be cut.
How can that be done? This may be wishful thinking, but if there were a two-state solution with a secure Israel and a viable Palestine, and Palestinians were satisfied, and Arab states entered into normal relations with Israel, I think popular support for these resistance movements would diminish. Iran would then either fall into line with that, or we would know we had an adversary that required more attention.
AMB. FREEMAN: Thank you very much, Tom. You’ve raised a lot of key questions to which we will return during the course of the discussion to come. Withdrawal, to accomplish much, probably does require a measure of conditionality and some concern for what happens thereafter inside Iraq. Second, there is a regional context. I note that, while we appear to be prepared to talk to Iran, there’s no indication that we’re talking to either the Arab neighbors of Iraq or to Turkey. So we have an odd situation: we’re talking to the country that we long refused to talk to, but we’re not talking to our traditional allies and friends. This is an interesting approach.
We can’t get away with talking about Iraq without talking about Iran, not simply because of its influence in Iraq but because of all of the issues you mentioned. And I think you correctly posed a question. Is the policy that essentially says to Iran, abandon your deterrent or we will bomb you –– and, by the way, we are dedicated to overthrowing your regime, and we won’t talk to you about anything other than your getting out of Iraq –– is this policy likely to produce anything other than a rallying of Iranian political support behind Mr. Ahmadinejad?
Finally, I think it should be mentioned in the context of possible attacks on Iran, which play into this issue, that we did conduct an operation in Iran in 1980 from Oman, “Desert One,” which didn’t work. It got us thrown out of Oman for a few years, and my distinct sense from my recent travels through the region is that there’s no appetite to allow us to stand on others’ territory and throw rocks over the lip of the volcano and then leave them to find out what comes back. There is a point here about logistics. Attacking Iran and sustaining such an attack requires an enormous amount of logistical support and basing in the region. I’m not sure it’s there for us.
Lawrence Korb, senior fellow, Center for American Progress
In trying to figure out what to do about Iraq, I’m reminded of a joke I once heard from Brent Scowcroft, a person I think they should have listened to before they got into this mess. He told a story about a very religious man who, before he went to meet his maker, decided to visit the Grand Canyon. He got on a donkey to ride down to the bottom of the canyon. On the way, the donkey lost his footing, and the poor man began to fall head-over-heels toward the bottom of the canyon. Fortunately, he reached out, grabbed onto a branch and began to pray. Pretty soon, a voice came down from on high, and it said, "Son do you have faith?” He said, "Oh, yes, I have faith.” The voice came down again and said, "Let go of the branch.” He thought for a second, and he said, “Is there anybody else up there I can talk to?” (Laughter.)
We’re in a mess. There are no good options. No matter what you do, you cannot guarantee that it’s going to enhance American security. And, after all, that’s what we’re talking about. I mean, the goal of using military power, the goal of this or any administration, is to protect and enhance American security. So what do you do? At the Center for American Progress, we put together a plan in late September. It got a bit of mention, but then, one night, Howard Dean was on Jay Leno and he said, “You Democrats don’t have any plans for what to do.” And Dean said, “Yes, we do; we have the strategic redeployment plan written by Larry Korb, who used to work for Reagan.” Then, of course, everybody wanted to read it. In fact, my kids called me up and said, “I had no idea you had a plan.”
Here is how we came up with our plan. The first thing you have to realize is that right now the Iraqis do not have an incentive to do what they need to do. They need to form a government of national unity, and they need to develop security forces that are motivated to protect this multiethnic state, however you want to define it. Right now, they have no motivation because the United States has ceded control over our policy to them. We’re saying, as the Iraqis stand up, we’ll stand down. What happens if they don’t stand up? We cannot stand down. Our plan says: what we need to do –– and we should have started at the beginning of this year –– is to tell the Iraqis that by the end of 2007, for all practical purposes, we are going to be out of Iraq. Setting this timetable, in addition to putting them on notice that they need to get their act together, will also send a clear signal to the insurgents in Iraq, many of whom are not motivated by the dream of reestablishing the caliphate of the sixth century or anything. Basically, they see us as occupiers.
I went on one of these trips that Rumsfeld sponsored. He had two of them; after the second one, there were no more. I was down at Hilla talking to a Shiite, and he said, "Don’t you guys know anything about history?” I’m thinking to myself, yeah, a lot of people making the policy don’t. I said, "What’s the problem? "He said, “You sound just like the British: Who said we came as liberators, not occupiers.” I went back and checked; Major General Maude said the same thing in 1920. So a lot of people simply don’t believe us. I was further pressed. He said, “You said you came for weapons of mass destruction; they’re not here.” And we knew that because we sent a whole bunch of Iraqi-Americans over there before the war, [and they] came back and said [that] they are not making them anymore. Ties to al-Qaeda, as Tom mentioned, are not very close at all. You came for the oil. I said, "No, we didn’t.” But that’s what they believe. So we need to tell them we are going to get out, and we don’t want any permanent bases. Will that defuse all of the insurgency? No, but it will defuse a good part of it. One of the scary statistics is that 80 percent of the Iraqis want us out, and almost half of them think it’s okay to kill Americans. That tells you exactly the way the leaders in Iraq are using us.
Why else do you want to get out? You need to get out because, the longer you stay, the more your standing in the world goes down –– and we do have other foreign-policy interests. We’re also ruining our army. General Maxwell Taylor said something I think is appropriate here: “We sent the army to Vietnam to save Vietnam; we took it out to save the army.” And you’re getting pretty close to that right now. Just to give you a statistic: 97 percent of the captains made major last year in the army. As one Pentagon official told me, “If you didn’t have a criminal record, you got promoted.” They’re going to be the ones running our military operations in the future. One out of every six kids coming into the Army today is getting a waiver. Nobody wants to bring back the draft, so you continually weaken your army as you continue to keep up this large number of ground troops in Iraq.
By the way, we have a homeland to protect, and the National Guard isn’t here to protect it. We saw what happened during Katrina. The best Guard units from Louisiana and Mississippi were over in Iraq,. I heard people say, "We’ve got plenty of Guard units left.” Yes, the numbers are here, but the crack units and the equipment are over there. We need to get them back to the United States so they can focus on the homeland. We don’t have enough troops in Afghanistan either. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s not going too well there. We should be sending some more troops to Afghanistan.
What does our plan say? We’re out by the end of 2007. I think this deals with what people say is our moral obligation; by that time, we will have been there close to five years. That’s pretty long in terms of allowing the Iraqis getting their act together. Now, we’re not going to leave the region. We called our plan “strategic redeployment.” Why did we use that term? Because anytime somebody said, “Let’s withdraw,” the words “cut and run,” “defeatist” and all that came up. Words do matter. When I was in the Pentagon, we were changing the Navy’s home ports, putting some ships in different places, to drum up support for the Navy. We called it “strategic homeporting.” So I figured “strategic redeployment” sounds better than “cut and run.” Five years in Iraq would, I think, fulfill our moral obligation.
People ask, “What happens if Iraq falls apart?” We’re not withdrawing from the region; we would leave a brigade in Kuwait. That’s 13,000 15,000 army troops in Kuwait. We would also have a Carrier Battle Group with a Marine Expeditionary Force over the horizon so that if Iraq should become another Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda establishes training camps or what have you, we can deal with it. If Iran or Turkey or some other country invades, our forces in the region could take action. That gives us the best hope of fulfilling our moral obligations, trying to bring stability to the region and also protecting our interests.
Our plan also has a diplomatic component. We would urge convening a Dayton-type meeting in Geneva, under UN auspices. Remember the Dayton Accords involving the people quarreling over the former Yugoslavia? We would also get the powers in the region together to talk about what should be done and what they can do to prevent Iraq from degenerating. I don’t believe anybody in the region wants to see Iraq become a haven for terrorists or degenerate into a complete civil war, and there are things that the powers in the region can do. It’s in their interest as well as ours.
I think if you take this overall approach, you can safeguard American security interests, relieve the pressure on the Army, and give yourself a chance for this thing to come out right. Can I guarantee it? No. No matter what plan you have, people are going to say it has one risk or another. But I can tell you this: “stay the course” or the “strategy for victory” is a much worse alternative.
AMB. FREEMAN: I think Larry correctly focused on the costs to the United States of continuing the course, both internationally and regionally, in terms of our capacity to deal with natural disasters and other consequence-management tasks in the United States, and with our own view of our national honor and our obligation to behave responsibly. But after we redeploy strategically and thus concentrate the minds of the Iraqis — like hanging concentrates the minds of convicts — what happens to the Iraqis and what is their relationship with their neighbors? Is that relationship one that the neighbors will find acceptable or not? I think the regional dimension here remains one that we need to address. If we had a Dayton-style conference, we wouldn’t be able to neglect the interests of the Saudis, the Jordanians, the Turks, the Syrians, the Iranians and the Kuwaitis.
Barry Posen, Ford International Professor of Political Science, Security Studies program, Center for International Studies, M.I.T.
Larry and I agree on probably 97 percent of the disengagement plan, and I think I can say in complete honesty that we never discussed it until after we had both written our plans. When I first started thinking about this, I used to ask myself, what does a public-policy debate have to look like in order to get to a disengagement solution? It seems to me there are three parts of that discussion: First, we have to establish that the situation in Iraq is not particularly good. I’ve been giving talks on this for a year, and I’ve never had a problem making a case that the situation in Iraq is not very good. It changes. In some months, there is progress, and on some fronts there is progress, but in other months there is regress. So I like to portray the problem as a dynamic stalemate, and the facts and figures and characteristics of that dynamic stalemate will be different at different time points.
But you always have to revisit that discussion.
The second point you need to be able to make and sustain is that there are reasons for this dynamic stalemate. It isn’t just a result of idiosyncratic factors. There are strong reasons why we have a dynamic stalemate, and some of them have been mentioned here. Just about everyone agrees –– even the senior military, who say they want to stay the course because that’s what they are obligated to do –– that our presence there activates every political “-ism” that there is: nationalism, patriotism, sectarianism, fundamentalism. Our presence aggravates all of those “-isms.” And we know from history, recent and distant, that those “-isms” are great mobilizers for entrepreneurs who want to go after power and to use violence to do it, whether within states or among states. As my friend Steve van Evera likes to say, “Nationalism is the atomic energy of modern politics.” Our presence in Iraq energizes all of these “-isms.”
You have to remember a footnote here: Iraqi society is strange to us, Sunni rural society, especially. There are very large, but very tight, extended families. If you hurt or humiliate one member, you make a lot of enemies. It’s as if he had a one or two dozen brothers, because there is great closeness among first cousins. So you also activate what in our historical lore would be Hatfield and McCoy kinds of emotions.
Second, we’re enablers. You can use whatever pop-psychology or social science term you want. You can call this moral hazard, or enabling, or infantilizing. We make feckless politics among Iraqis possible. We are their insurance policy against their own fecklessness –– feckless politics, feckless administration and feckless military organization . They are safe from the consequences of their actions and non-actions. This also means that the stalemate is dynamic, because the people we’re trying to turn into a state don’t feel under any pressure to turn into one. These are the two big causes that will continue to drive this thing in a negative direction.
The third point is that we have to make a responsible public-policy case for disengagement that says, here’s how you do it, here’s a strategy, here’s what U.S. interests are, here are the risks, and here’s why we’re willing to take them. Larry has done a very nice job of laying out his strategy; mine’s not very different. When I wrote it I was thinking, middle of 2007. Larry wants it to be the end of 2007. The important thing is to set a date certain to get some of that emotional energy out of the insurgency and to light a fire under the people we’re trying to light a fire under. But that’s only the beginning of the issue.
What are you going to do with the 18 or 24 months? One, you have to reconsider U.S. interests. What are U.S. core interests? Nobody ever wants to talk about this. People can disagree about what they think the interests are. I’m a realist; I think about power. It’s oil. Not the $2 billion or $20 billion that are going to be made out of Iraqi oil, but oil as power. That’s why we’re in the Persian Gulf. If oil weren’t a key power asset, we wouldn’t be there. We wouldn’t care about these people. We don’t want al-Qaeda to come to power in Iraq and get its hands on a big flow of oil money. We don’t want other bad people to come to power in Iraq and get their hands on oil money. We’d rather not have outsiders rip Iraq apart to get their hands on Iraq’s oil resources.
We also have some ancillary interests. It would be good if Iraq didn’t turn into a comfortable base for al-Qaeda. Remember, at least in terms of the al-Qaeda that calls itself “al-Qaeda in the land of the two rivers,” it is already a base for al-Qaeda. So whether you’re worse off or better off, staying or going, is an open question. What is it that we want? We want to fix it so that as we leave Iraq, al-Qaeda doesn’t come to power, and there’s no great international war. It would be best from the point of view of our interest and Iraqi interests if there were no civil war, but I think this is unachievable. So if there is a civil war, what we would like is for it to be short, which means to get to stalemate as quickly as possible. I think that stalemate is the direction they are going in any case.
As for the components of the strategy, we need an internal component in Iraq and an external component in the region. The internal component is what we think is a plausible solution for this state. It’s not a unitary power-sharing state; it’s a weak federal state. I think that’s the best we can hope for; I think it’s the best they can get. There are people in Iraq who don’t want to have that happen, and there are people who do. Unfortunately, we’ve already signed it away to the Kurds. And changing the constitution –– un-signing it –– would be very hard, so how are you going to stop others from getting the same thing? There are some who don’t want that; they want something else, and they might need to fight a civil war to learn that they can’t have it. We have to lead the inside people to the idea that this kind of divided federal state is all they can get.
Internally, I think the Iraqi police forces are lost to us, particularly the national police. We can’t fix the police without fighting another counterinsurgency against the Shiites, and we can’t even win the one against the minority Sunnis. Iraq’s got C-plus infantry battalions, a handful of C-plus brigades, an even smaller number of C-plus divisions, but everything else is missing: logistics, command and control, intelligence, all the rest. We have got to take the 12 to 18 months we have left to us and try to fix those things up –– not to A-plus standards, but just so they can take a punch, so that the insurgents can’t roll into the capital city and make the army collapse.
Then, as many have said here, we need an external strategy, a diplomatic strategy. It could rely on a Dayton-type conference or not. People like Dayton conferences now. I am not a big fan of them, but it doesn’t really matter. The point is, you need a diplomacy with the states in the region in which you explain to them that you’re not leaving the Persian Gulf; that you have interests there; that you are leaving Iraq because you think it’s a better way to pursue our interests; that we don’t want them to be invading Iraq; and that we have military power we can use to stop them from invading Iraq.
We also have other kinds of power we can use to stop them from doing things or at least make them pay a price. Similarly, we have to be nice guys too and say, look at the benefits: There are things we can do for you; there are things that a peaceful Iraq can make better for you.
Then there is the military component of it, which Larry talked about. We have to organize ourselves for a kind of offshore intervention, including a special-operations component. This is part of what was the global war on terror and is now the “long war.” We are going to continue that, and we will have new opportunities. As we leave places like Anbar Province, there are plenty of Sunni notables there who don’t like us very much now and whom some of our people would like to kill but are prohibited from killing because we know they are important political figures. Those people are going to need help once we leave and they no longer have us to use as a unifying force for political mobilization. They are not necessarily going to like every other opposition group that has been fighting us. We can bring some of these people over to our side with gifts of money and guns, and other things. Anybody who tells you that this is going to be pretty is deceiving you.
I would like to close with one idea that I don’t have in my paper [published in the Boston Review, http://bostonreview.net/BR31.1/posen.html]. Often agreements among disputing powers inside a country are hard to make because people don’t have any confidence that the other side, particularly the most powerful members, are going to keep the agreement. One of the big questions in Iraq is, do the Sunnis have any reason to believe they are going to get paid –– that they are going to get their share of the oil wealth. This is a very unpopular idea in this town, but we should remember that we actually know how to collect the Iraqi oil wealth. We had a program to collect Iraqi oil wealth in the Oil-for-Food Program. But we were lousy at the other side of it, controlling what people bought and how much got into Saddam Hussein’s hands. But collecting the money was not a problem; the transactions happened abroad, they happened in dollars, and they happened mostly in banks.
So the outside world has a way to help the Iraqis reach an agreement, to help the Sunnis have confidence in the agreement about the distribution of oil wealth by saying, you Iraqi political factions agree on a split and we will collect the profits from the transactions, and distribute them to people in your country on the basis of whatever split was agreed to. That is something the outside world could do. It doesn’t have to be the United States; it could be somebody else. This could be a great help to them as they come to the end of the trail in their negotiations for what I think is inevitably going to be a weak federal state.
AMB. FREEMAN: Your mention of our senior military, and your very intelligent focus on the need to set realistic objectives, reminds me of an encounter I had at Maxwell Air Force Base towards the end of last year. I gave a talk –– obviously conceived as a digression into historical irrelevancy –– on diplomacy as an instrument of statecraft. Since we have a diplomacy-free foreign policy, this was probably just reviewing the past.
But, in any event, the first question from the floor, by a very intelligent and well-informed Air Force audience was this: If civilians are supposed to set policy, and the military are supposed to implement policy, why does our president keep saying that we’ll stay in Iraq until his generals tell him it’s time to leave? I think this very pointed question illustrates the key point that everyone has made: setting realistic objectives is key.
Second, there seems to be some agreement on the notion that a date certainly would have a salutary effect on the Iraqi parties by forcing them to come out from behind the shield of American power and actually deal with each other. I wonder whether the timing of such a withdrawal date is not the subject of bargaining, and whether it’s wise to set a date in the absence of discussion with the parties who would be affected by that date, whether they are inside Iraq or in the neighborhood.
The third point, which Barry raised, is also worth pondering. It was phrased differently in the context of the Balkans, where the Dayton Accords have led to a continuing involvement; they haven’t ended anything. There was a British general, I believe, who said that the lesson was that, when one was asked to intervene in a civil war, there were three rules that should apply in answering that request. One, don’t (laughter). Second, if you do, pick the side that will win (laughter). Third, help them win fast. There is some merit in a strategy that focuses on a rapid end to the anarchy and strife that accompany civil unrest.
A final point. In discussing Dayton, and with the very imaginative and pointed reminder by Barry of the possibility of the guarantee of a share of oil revenue enforced externally, I am reminded that when we talk about Dayton, we are speaking about arrangements among the internal parties that were guaranteed by external forces. So I come back to the need for some regional framework that restrains those in the region who could wreck an agreement from doing so and which enlists them in supporting it
Gareth Porter, historian and foreign policy analyst
There is no fundamental disagreement on the direction in which U.S. policy needs to move. There is certainly agreement on the idea that we need to move towards an internationalization of the process of trying to settle the conflict, and this is what I want to focus on primarily in my remarks.
But I want to first set the context by saying that I have been talking about the need for a negotiated settlement in Iraq for now well over a year, from the time when talk about negotiating with Sunni insurgents was regarded as lunacy, when it was believed that there was nobody to negotiate with. This is simply to establish that I have embraced the notion for some time that the United States ought to try to use its leverage with both sides, but particularly with the militant Shiite party leaders to get them to make appropriate compromises in order to achieve a settlement.
Today I’m not so sure about this. In fact, what I want to emphasize is how much this conflict has changed in 18 months. I think the media have not really done a good job for the most part –– with some obviously splendid exceptions on the margins –– of conveying the degree to which the war that Americans were familiar with in 2004 and 2005 still exists.
Let me quickly tick off what I think are the most salient points about the far-reaching changes that have taken place in 2005 and 2006. First of all, the Shiite militias have taken over, particularly in the Baghdad area. This is a fundamental change from the situation that existed before that. I won’t go into detail; I’m simply jogging your memory.
Secondly, partly because of the creation of Shiite militia forces, which were relatively small and did not have the degree of power that they now have, and partly because as a result of the action reaction dynamic in Iraqi society and politics, the Shiite parties now are very strongly committed to holding onto their control over the paramilitary means of violence. There has been a steadily growing process of commitment to making sure that they don’t lose what they have gained. They believe in a kind of apocalyptic danger; if they give that up that they will lose power.
The genie has come out of the bottle and can’t be to stuffed back into it again. As a result, the Sunnis, having started insurgency for the most part as a response to the U.S. occupation and all of its attendant disruptions, now have a second and even more important reason for maintaining their arms and their armed resistance: repression at the hands of Shiite militias. It has been going on now for several months.
Finally, as a result of these dynamics, the United States can no longer get the Shiite leaders to do what they want, to make the appropriate compromises with Sunnis. They have tried. I think it is time for us to concede that Khalilzad has indeed attempted to apply precisely what Senator Carl Levin and I and many others have called for: to threaten the Shiite leaders with the withdrawal of U.S. support if they don’t agree to political arrangements in a reasonably short period of time. That has failed, and it has failed because the Shiites now are in a different position from where they were a year or a year and a half ago.
The implications of these changes can hardly be overstated. And I have to say that one of the little-noted events of the past several days is a joint op-ed by Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, General George W. Casey, in The Los Angeles Times. I’m a bit surprised that this has not received more attention. In that op-ed, the two senior U.S. officials in Iraq write the following: “The principal threat to stability is shifting from an insurgency grounded in rejection of the new political order to a sectarian violence grounded in mutual fears and recriminations.”
In my view, this has far-reaching significance in terms of the politics within the Bush administration. Khalilzad has clearly been trying to get the White House and the Pentagon to focus on the problem militias and sectarian violence for some months now. The military has not been very responsive. Their priority has clearly been to field an Iraqi army which is overwhelmingly Shiite with some Kurds and very few Sunnis. Therefore, they have not really been supportive of a policy that put its primary emphasis on trying to dampen sectarian conflict by seeking primarily an agreement between Sunnis and Shiites. Obviously, there are contradictions between a policy that puts almost exclusive emphasis on fighting the Sunni insurgents, on the one hand, and a policy that puts overwhelming emphasis on seeking agreement between Sunnis and Shiites, on the other.
The fact that Khalilzad has gotten Casey to sign onto this statement to me means that the military now has reluctantly agreed that they were wrong. In fact, Tom Lasseter of Knight Ridder did a piece very recently in which he quoted the U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad as admitting that the military had sort of missed the boat in 2005. They had not really taken seriously the problem of Shiite militias. Now they understand that they were wrong.
I believe today the United States no longer has the capability to use its military power to address the main problem. Military occupation simply is not an instrument that will help us to damp down sectarian violence. It failed utterly in February and early March to do anything about the escalation of Shiite violence and retaliation for the bombing of the Shiite mosque in Samarra. American troops stood by, the Iraqi military stood by as, apparently, Sadr’s militia wreaked vengeance against Sunnis in the Baghdad area. This means to me that we can forget about the rationale for continued occupation, which is that the U.S. military must remain there in order to prevent civil war.
So Khalilzad has failed; the military has failed. What is left? The only possible hope for peace is to bring the Arab neighbors of Iraq and Iran and Turkey together in an international conference to try to arrange a settlement. I am not confident that this is going to work. I think we have to be realistic and say we don’t know if the Lebanon model can work in Iraq, but it is the closest thing to a rational approach that we now can identify.
The details of this are going to have to be left for another occasion, but the tools that have been tried in the past –– military force and pressure through Khalilzad on the Shiites –– have not worked. They will not work. The only possible answer is to apply the approach that did work in Lebanon, which is to get the Iranians to put pressure on the Shiites to compromise. The Shiites will listen to the Iranians. And the Arab neighbors — Saudi Arabia, Jordan and even Syria, if the Syrians will listen to the Saudi Arabians, which is a distinct possibility –– would be able to put pressure on the Sunnis to lay down their arms if they get a reasonable set of compromises from the Shiites on an international settlement that guarantees nonintervention from outside military forces and involves an agreement to track down al-Qaeda remnants.
AMB. FREEMAN: I think Gareth has made a couple of very important points. One, the insurgency, meaning the resistance to occupation in Iraq, has to a great extent been eclipsed by struggles among Iraqis based on the constitutional order that the elections decreed. I am struck by the fact that no one has mentioned the pernicious word “elections.” After all, the United States devoted considerable effort to the negotiation of a constitutional framework, which was then endorsed by a majority (sort of) through an election. And everyone is, in effect, asserting that this result is unjust, unstable and must be set aside by some process or other yet to be determined. I just want to note that this will not be ideologically easy for many Americans, given the sacred character with which we imbue electoral results –– unless the Supreme Court has to intervene and set them aside. Second, the problem that Gareth is describing is a classic problem of majority rule: majorities can oppress minorities. The question is, can a majority that now has the power of the gun through its militias and army be persuaded to give the minorities the breathing room and rights that they require to feel secure? Finally, Gareth has very correctly, to my mind, pointed again to the fears of neighbors and their possible desire to cut their losses in Iraq as a possible point of leverage for both producing an internal settlement and guaranteeing it.
Q & A
Q: Is there any indication that the administration at the policy-making level recognizes the reality of the failure of the policy? And is there a sense that any of these ideas really stand a chance of being seriously taken up and implemented before the next presidential election cycle?
DR. KORB: I think you’re going to see some troop withdrawals this year, driven by the elections coming up as well as the condition of the army. Most of the generals are telling Rumsfeld, if he is listening, that a third or fourth deployment is really going to cause a lot of retention problems. Retention overall has held up on a macro level. But we are not retaining people at the right time in their careers or in the right specialties. I think General Barry McCaffrey basically said, the wheels will come off this year if we continue to keep a large number of ground troops in the region. And you can’t use as many Guard and Reserve as you did before to maintain this level, because we are running up the two-year limit for keeping them mobilized. The last thing the administration wants is a debate in Congress about extending the limit on the Guard and Reserve mobilization. So I think you will see significant withdrawals by the administration, which they can justify by claiming that the Iraqis are standing up in terms of their capabilities. My guess is that, by the end of this year, we will be below 100,000 troops in Iraq. By the end of 2007, there will be no more than 50,000 troops there.
AMB. FREEMAN: And by November 2008?
DR. KORB: Still about 50,000. You’ll have 300,000 Iraqi troops on the books anyway by then, although I don’t know if anybody can understand the C-1, C-2, C-3, C-4 readiness system that is used to evaluate the Iraqi forces.
DR. POSEN: One of the strange things about all of this is that, I think, there are many people in the Bush administration now who share the diagnosis, though maybe not at the very top. A lot of our diagnosis comes from the military, and many of them share Larry’s conclusion about the army: the ground forces can only take so much. But I think the administration still clings to the belief that something good can be pulled out of this. It’s hard to believe they don’t intend to stay. And they have reasons to want to stay beyond just stabilizing Iraq. For domestic political reasons, they don’t want to be responsible for the catastrophe because there are other things they want to do in the region. They like having the bases, they like having the access, they like being able to squeeze the Iranians.
I think their theory now is to try to harvest 50 or 60 or 70 percent of the good things that Larry and I and others think you would get from a disengagement by, in some sense, disengaging internally and hiding their hand a little bit, lying low and staying in their bases. Based on some newspaper reports, they also have a theory that maybe one push in areas that are more visible to the media, like Baghdad, can produce the appearance of more progress. There have been reports in the last few days that they are thinking about a big push in Baghdad at the end of the summer. It all sounds quite reasonable, but I don’t think that it’s going to work very well. I can’t tell you that it is not going to work in some sense, which is to say, getting Iraq off page one to the bottom of the last page in the back of the paper. I think that would be fine with them.
DR. PORTER: : This administration will not embrace any serious effort towards a diplomatic solution. I think the greater likelihood is that there will be developments within Iraq that would force our hand –– a conflagration in the Baghdad area that engages U.S. forces willy-nilly in a civil war and creates a new dynamic. I keep trying to remind people in my writing that the Shiites ultimately hold the high cards in the Baghdad area because of their ability to put hundreds of thousands of people into the streets.
One way or another, I think this conflict will end, not through a conscious act of vision and diplomacy on the part of the United States, but rather through the dynamics of this horrible bloody conflict within Iraq
DR. MATTAIR: Even last summer Khalilzad outlined the intention to withdraw from urban areas and deploy to bases, and that could be the first step of drawing down some of these troops. But Barry just mentioned that there is talk about some kind of thrust in Baghdad. It might involve street-to-street fighting. Our forces have already suffered heavier casualties in March and April than at any time since last November, and they’re going up.
Wesley Clark has a plan in which he talked about withdrawing forces to bases, but then says that there ought to be a reserve ready to go into a city such as Baghdad or Basra if there is trouble. There is going to be trouble. So is the plan to withdraw forces and then send them back in?
AMB. FREEMAN: One implication of a force draw-down is greater use of air power, and air power is pretty indiscriminate in terms of what it does to people in urban areas. It is not a particularly good instrument of warfare against guerrillas. Quite the contrary, it tends to marshal public support behind those guerrillas because of the large number of civilian casualties that it inevitably entails. So there is a dilemma here for military planners that can’t be overlooked.
Q: If we assume that there is not going to be a serious policy change between now and January 2009, will the various options that you all have laid out still be viable in 2009, or will we have to completely rethink the situation then?
DR. POSEN:: That is going to depend on how they can make it look. Gareth mentioned that there are events that could happen in Iraq to foil this strategy. Partisans of staying usually say that all the uncertainty is on the side of those who argue for getting out. But periodically I draw up a list of nightmares that arise from staying in, and periodically they come true. (Laughter.)
I am not sure quite what they have planned for Baghdad, but it looks quite as Tom suggested. If you can’t straighten out the Iraqi internal security forces, the national police, and you go into a street fight with them in Baghdad, and somebody disguised as a member of the Iraqi National Police does something that is not very pretty, there is a risk that it is going to be caught on film sometime in the next couple of years as you draw down or rely more on Iraqi forces. Then you have to start explaining that. This is just one plausible nightmare. There is another one. If you look at this provincial-reconstruction team report that they did at the end of January, one of the things that is quite clear is that Basra is gone. Basra is now an arena for conflict between two Shiite factions, but we don’t really control it; the Brits don’t really control it. They are fighting the Brits apparently for fun or to make a point; they like to kill a Brit every now and then. Iranian presence is very great. That situation is quite unstable, and if it blows up in your face in a more obvious way, how are you going to explain it to the American people? These guys who are supposedly your pals are waging their own bloody civil war and insurgency in Basra, which, by the way, is along your line of communication from Kuwait.
So in the process of trying to do these things over the next 18 months or two years, to get themselves to the elections, it is not as if they control the horizontal and vertical. Their notion is that they do, that they have so much power they can roll with the punches, but that is not obvious. A lot depends on how things go in the next couple of years. If their strategy works, people like us are not going to have much of an argument to make. And if the Democrats inherit the White House, they are going to inherit Iraq and 43,000 military there, and they are not going to pull them out, because it’s going to look safer for domestic politics to leave them in. I don’t think it’s going to go so swimmingly, and, if it doesn’t these ideas that we are kicking around are going to stay alive.
DR. KORB: One of the things I think is very important is that we do not have any control over events. Right now, the only thing preventing, for example, a full-scale civil war between the Shias and the Sunnis is Ayatollah Sistani. What do you think would happen if somebody were to assassinate him? Then Americans would be killing Shiites, because all hell would break loose. We would be killing Shiites, whom we theoretically went in there to “liberate.” But I agree with Barry. If you bring 50,000 troops home in 2009, John McCain, if he gets elected, will say, “I would have fought it differently; I would have sent more troops. But it’s too late now.” If the Democrats win, they will say, "We’ll just stay there and hope for the best, or we’ll stay as long as they want.” Zbigniew Brzezinski had an interesting idea. He said that when the new government gets established, we ought to ask them to tell us to leave. You don’t do it openly, but, if they say, “Leave,” we say, “Okay, we have fulfilled our responsibility.”
DR. PORTER: I think the point is very well taken that we don’t know what the situation is going to look like two years from now. I would emphasize how rapidly the situation has changed in a year. And this is going to continue. We don’t know whether there is going to be a structure of the conflict two years from now that still lends itself to talking about an international settlement. It is just impossible to say.
DR. MATTAIR: The other consideration would be, what is going to happen in terms of relations between the United States and Iran during this time, because there are other issues on that bilateral agenda. Is it going to be possible to elicit any kind of cooperation from them? And what is going to happen between Iran and the GCC states during this period? Are these two forces going to be getting more deeply into Iraq and have more difficulty cooperating with us?
AMB. FREEMAN: I will simply note that every year for the past five years I have been honored by a request from the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations to address their annual conference. Each year, I have prepared a set of remarks that were pessimistic, and each year I have been troubled by the pessimism that I find in myself. Yet each year, I have reread what I wrote the year before and found myself to have been wildly optimistic in retrospect. (Laughter.)
Q: I’d like for Larry Korb to talk a little bit about the reaction among the Democrats to your proposal. I am probably one of the only people in the world who actually sat down and read the entire 143-page Democratic national security strategy that came out a couple of weeks ago. It had about four lines on Iraq in it, and most of them echoed the Bush administration. Why is it so difficult for them to take up the call for a new direction in Iraq?
Second, President Mubarak recently made a comment that the Shiites obey Iran across the board. There has been lots of talk from the Arabs about a Shiite crescent in the region, and we could catalog a whole list of comments from the two King Abdullahs and others. Are the Arab states trying to talk sense to the United States about this, or have they given up hope of trying to have any impact on the way U.S. policy is being made?
DR. KORB: Recently, I have heard that the difference between the Democrats and Republicans is that the Democrats don’t know how to win elections, and the Republicans don’t know how to govern. My personal view, since I work mostly with Democrats, is they do not want to get out on the limb and seem to be “soft on defense.” Also, I think a lot of them know that they voted incorrectly to allow Bush to go to war. So they really don’t want to go back on that. And they know that if they come out with a specific plan like ours, for example, they will be put on the defensive by people who have objections to some part of it. It’s easy for us think-tank people or academics to criticize them, but we don’t have to run for public office. Their feeling seems to be that Bush made this mess; let him figure out how to get out of it. If we offer alternatives, we get put on the defensive. After we put out our plan, Senator Feinstein sent it around to her colleagues. Howard Dean endorsed it. But you didn’t see a great many members of the party coming forward. You had Kerry and Levin basically saying that if they don’t shape up, we should get out, where our plan is the opposite –– give them the incentive to shape up.
You mentioned that the Democratic strategy only mentions Iraq four times. The quadrennial defense review from the Pentagon doesn’t even mention Iraq. It’s almost as if Iraq didn’t happen. It’s kind of a side issue to Rumsfeld’s transformation of the military and the concerns over China. It’s a bizarre situation.
DR. PORTER: In terms of the Arab states’ view of negotiating a settlement of the Iraq conflict, they do talk about the Shiite crescent and the fact that the United States is playing into the hands of the Iranians and so forth. I would take that with a grain of salt. It’s clear that the Arab states do want to be engaged in the negotiations, and that means cooperating with Iran on a settlement. And there is no question that they are prepared to do that. They are realists. They understand that a settlement will only come about with the cooperation of the Iranians as well as the parties within Iraq: Shiites and Sunnis and Kurds, as well as the Arab states. But both sides are going to have to play a role in calming their clients and allies within Iraq.
It’s worth recalling that the Arab League sponsored the Cairo conference last November and played a very interesting role mediating between Sunni and Shiites political representatives. The problem, of course, was that the Sunni insurgents were forbidden to participate in it, and that limited its significance. It didn’t lead to anything more. But it does show that they are willing and able to work in a mediating role between Sunnis and Shiites and that they are eager to try to contribute to a settlement.
AMB. FREEMAN: On my recent travels in the region, I heard complaints from the Gulf Arabs that the United States had proposed a dialogue with Iran, which clearly recognized Iranian interests in Iraq but had engaged in no such dialogue with them, thus implicitly denying the validity of their interests in a fellow Arab country. Second, there is a very strong sense in the region that the leaders there on many occasions advised our government, our leaders, not to do what they did, and we went ahead anyway. Therefore, it’s somewhat futile to raise these matters with Americans, who are deaf to the interests of others or impervious to foreign advice. There is a corollary to this, which is a sense that, you made your bed, so you must lie in it. But when pressed, people admit that their own interests are very much engaged and that they’re essentially waiting for an American lead. They’re waiting to be asked to help to produce a responsible American extrication of the United States from the dilemmas that we have impaled ourselves upon. So they’re much like the Democrats in that respect, I suppose.
On the subject of the Hill generally, and not just Democrats, the Middle East Policy Council depends on sponsors — members of Congress — to authorize our use of meeting rooms in the office buildings and in the Capitol. It was particularly difficult and ultimately proved impossible to find anyone who was willing to authorize the discussion we had two weeks ago on whether and how to reestablish investment in trade relations with the Arab world.. The reason was, exactly as has been stated, that everyone wants to be to the right of the president on national-security issues, even when there are no real national-security issues at stake. So, on the Dubai Ports World issue and the fallout from that, where the United States did grave damage to our economic interests without in any way enhancing our security, people ran for cover. When you propose to them, well, if you don’t want to talk about that, why don’t we talk about responsible ways of handling ourselves in Iraq and eventually leaving it, their reaction is that that’s even worse politically. So “profiles in courage” have yet to be written for this particular Congress in that regard. (Laughter.)
DR. MATTAIR: I think the Sunni Arab states around Iraq probably have the most to gain from regional cooperation and should be, and evidently are, willing to engage in that. But I think Iran has the most to give because of its assets in Iraq. And so the question is, does Iran want to give?
AMB. FREEMAN: Perhaps we should ask.
Q: How do you really see pulling off the retention of 50,000 U.S. forces at any point in Iraq with Iran as a factor, given how this revolution in Iran came about? The numbers, even at 50,000, are almost double what we’ve had in Germany, South Korea or Japan.
AMB. FREEMAN: The American presence in Iraq is a major irritant and a cause of deterioration in our relations with the Islamic world generally. It has become a major issue, not just in our relations with the Arab world but more widely. Therefore, it’s not just a question of what might happen vis-à-vis Iran; it’s the continuing cost of the 50,000.
DR. KORB: We don’t urge that in our plan, but we were asked what we thought the administration would do, and I think that they probably will get it down to somewhere around 50,000 for the next administration to take over. As Tom pointed out, a lot is going to depend on our relations with Iran. Given some of the stories we read in the paper about planned nuclear strikes, that could obviously change the dynamic. I wouldn’t leave the 50,000 there. In our plan, you’re going to have the Marines guarding the gates of the embassies. You’re going to be able to have some Special Forces work with the Iraqis, but that will not be known. One of the interesting things I saw on the army websites is that the army has 240,000 troops in 120 countries, so I asked for a list. I can’t get one. Obviously, we have a lot of troops in places where they’re not known.
I do think it’s important for us to keep military power in the region. The Kuwaitis seem to be receptive to our being there. We have, as we saw when the Dubai Ports issue came up, facilities there. We’ve got the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, and during the Cold War we always kept a carrier group over the horizon. When I was in the Pentagon, we established the Central Command and we wanted it over there, but nobody over there wanted it. That’s why it’s still in Tampa, Florida. We do have facilities in Qatar, we have a long runway there. So I think we have enough power in the region to take care of what Barry defined as our interests there –– oil and power.
But, for the reasons you mentioned, I would not leave any troops in Iraq. Doing so does appear to be a form of colonialism, and it will continue to cause us problems.
DR. POSEN: I wouldn’t assume that a future administration wouldn’t find it in its interest to continue to make it happen, as opposed to just leaving. Yes, it looks bad to have 50,000 troops camped in an Arab country, but most of the Arab countries are Sunni, and in some sense our forces are going to be there to keep this civil conflict from going too far. So we can portray ourselves in some sense as the defenders of the Sunni Arabs. If this has some reality, you might be able to disarm some of the opposition in the rest of the Arab world.
The Iranians will have the same choice to make every single day that they have to make today. Do they want to try and stick enough pins in us that the bleeding causes us to leak and then leave, while at the same time having to worry that one pin will strike a nerve and we’ll do the thing we’ve been daydreaming about, which is to have a big war with them? How are the Iranians going to calculate this? I’m guessing that their calculation will be to keep the violence against us on the low end –– uncomfortable but not impossible –– and not to do the big things that look like they’re aiming to eject us. That would put a political knife in our hands, and you can’t be sure –– at least until the Bush administration leaves –– that we would not use that knife. I wouldn’t even be too sure that alternative administrations wouldn’t use that knife. My read on the Iran discussion is that there are plenty of people on both sides of the aisle who would be happy to have that war.
DR. MATTAIR: I think the poll data show that anti-Americanism is very, very strong in the Arab and Islamic world because of specific policies such as our presence in Iraq. So the Sunni Arab governments have to contemplate the mood of their own populations, which would not be very favorable. If there were an inadvertent escalation involving these remaining U.S. troops in Iraq or after a U.S. military strike on Iran, that would create an even bigger problem for these Sunni Arab governments. As I see it, they’ve got three concerns. The first is terrorism, the second is Iran and the third is a U.S. strike on Iran. Iran has all kinds of capabilities for retaliation, not only in Iraq but all the way down the Gulf: anti-ship missiles, mines, midget submarines that can strap explosives to oil rigs, and all kinds of bad things. The U.S. military is superior, and it would deal with overt actions of Iranian retaliation, but Iran has covert capabilities as well. That is why the GCC states do not want the United States to resolve these issues by using force.
AMB. FREEMAN: It was the failure of the United States to do what we had pledged to do and to withdraw our forces from Saudi Arabia after the end of the Gulf War to liberate Kuwait that gave Osama bin Laden the arguments that he used very successfully to build a base of support, not just in the region but in Saudi Arabia. Therefore, there is a cost to the governments in the region of cooperation with the United States when it takes the form of a resident American troop presence. Over-the-horizon is a better solution, and it needs to be thought about seriously.
Second, in any conflict with Iran, the first and most likely outcome –– aside from the panic of insurance companies, which will shut down shipping to the Gulf, from which about 40 percent of the world’s oil derives –– is a mining of the Straits of Hormuz. As far as I know, in all of our efforts to transform the military, we are not building minesweepers. So we have a strait that is 24 miles or so across at its narrowest point, 32 across in general, quite accessible to land-based missile interjection. The Iranians apparently possess a locally produced version of the Shkval, a Soviet underwater missile that is quite difficult to counter.
If we like oil at $73.50 a barrel, where it closed yesterday, we will love it at $250 a barrel, which is where it would be headed under such circumstances. So there are many reasons to expect that rational minds would pause before launching an attack on Iran.
Q: We’re focusing on the military, but there are other people in the country now –– USAID contractors, NGOs, PRTs and others. What happens to them during the withdrawal and after? Also, there is discussion about internationalizing the problem. How much success would we expect for the people in the region and others if they were to walk into this hornet’s nest?
DR. KORB: Obviously, over the next two years under our plan, we should be training more Iraqi security forces. As I understand it, the Bush administration is not putting any new money into reconstruction, so they will finish up the projects that are already underway. In terms of the countries of the world, none of them want an Iraq that becomes a haven for al-Qaeda. That would be threatening to Iran. The Sunnis do not want to see this get out of hand either. So I think they all have a vested interest in having a stable Iraq, and we’ll have military power in the region to prevent it from getting out of hand. If you have a successful Dayton-type conference where Barry’s idea of oil for peace is enacted, I think that would be terrific. That should create a reasonably stable environment. But if it falls apart, then your NGOs have to get out, as they’ve done in other places — in Africa for example.
AMB. FREEMAN: We had a collapse of Provide Comfort, which was the operation in northern Iraq, which was anticipated but never planned for. It involved the emergency evacuation of some 8,000 employees and associates of the Central Intelligence Agency, plus NGOs. The one thing in our really extraordinarily competent professional military system that we do extremely badly is the sort of issue that Paul Sullivan has just raised: how do you deal with the civilian infrastructure that supports the military in a combat zone, the NGOs, civilian workers and the like? You may think this is absurd, but I was ambassador in Saudi Arabia during Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and there were some marvelous examples of these sorts of disconnects. At a time when the military were all running around wearing chemical gear and gas masks, there were no such things available for the American ambassador and the embassy staff — (laughter) — because there is no fund-site for them on the State Department side.
When all of the military were vaccinated against anthrax, no civilians, whether they were defense workers or government employees other than the active uniformed military, were eligible for such vaccinations. I’m not sorry I didn’t get one, but we don’t know how to manage the sort of issue Paul has mentioned. Given the possibility that we might have to carry out a somewhat precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, it is something we should be planning.
DR. KORB: I agree. If you read Dana Priest’s book about the powers of what we now call “The Combat Commands” –– what we used to call the CINCs –– one of the reasons they’d go in is that they have the resources, and the other parts of the government do not. If you take a look at the defense budget, it’s 20 times as big as the State Department budget.
AMB. FREEMAN: And that isn’t even the full universe of our defense spending, which is about $720 billion when you add in supplementals, the Veterans Administration, the Department of Energy, nuclear weapons and all the other things that are kept outside the nominal defense budget.
DR. PORTER: One piece of this question is the civilian contractors who carry out security functions in Iraq. They constitute this huge unregulated paramilitary force that appears, from all the evidence that we have, to be completely out of control and really needs to be subject to an international agreement –– one which will say that these people have to clear out lock, stock and barrel from Iraq.
DR. KORB: At the end, we will need a status-of-forces agreement with Iraq for whatever forces we leave there when they have a government, as well as setting up the rules for these private contractors. If you saw the testimony of General Schoomaker the other day, there are almost 60,000 of them there now. I had thought about 20,000, but it’s close to 60,000.
Q: What would happen if our troops withdrew into protected enclaves –– probably also protecting the oil facilities and so forth –– to be available as needed? It might end up resembling Northern Ireland, but so what? I don’t think that [conflict] spread to other countries, and I don’t think the Iraq conflict is going to spread to the Arab countries.
DR. KORB: I think our plan in terms of leaving them in the region is not much different. You want to put them in enclaves in Iraq. To a certain extent, we’re already doing that. It was done in an attempt to hold down casualties, which kept dropping for five months, by letting the Iraqi security forces take more of the lead and keeping our troops in these protected green zones or whatever you might want to call them. I think that was the strategy of the administration –– to go into a place like Tal Afar, do what our troops needed to do, leave, and let the Iraqi security forces stay there. In a sense, we’re talking about the same thing. If American troops are in the region and they’re needed to go back, they can do that.
AMB. FREEMAN: I think the issue is the one that Barry posed in his presentation, and that is that foreign intervention, whether for peacekeeping purposes or pacification or occupation, as in this case, inevitably becomes part of a strategic landscape within which the contending parties operate. They, therefore, maneuver around the foreign presence. They use it for concealment to make their own maneuvering more effective. They invoke foreign intervention, when they can, to augment their own power. They use and abuse the foreign intervention; and the fact that the foreigners are there means that they don’t have to make choices that they otherwise would have to do. They’re able, in effect, to avoid choices. So you can have peacekeeping forces — perhaps the best example is Cyprus –– which are so effective that they deprive the parties to the conflict of any incentive to make peace. So merely withdrawing to enclaves doesn’t really address the Iraqi political kaleidoscope, to my mind, in a way that produces a resolution.
DR. POSEN: I’d like to be honest about my expectations on this disengagement business. I don’t think it’s a good idea to be too positive about what the place is going to look like the day after the last American armored vehicle rolls out of the country. I’m guessing that most of the people in the assistance business are going to find it in their interest to leave. I’ve not been to Iraq, but I follow the statements and the experiences of people who are there, and it’s a hell of a dangerous place for those who don’t have a military unit taking care of them.
My guess is that only the most intrepid are going to stay — people who have been doing this in lots of places and this is their thing, the rock they’ve decided to carry in their lives—and people who have gotten to know a certain set of locals and really trust them, or people who for some reason believe that the local Iraqi security forces are unusually good or unusually reliable. Those people are going to stay, but much of this infrastructure is going when we go. If we’re not ready to accept that, then I don’t suggest people follow my strategy, because they’re going to say that we didn’t know it was going to be so awful. There are going to be some tough times in Iraq the day after we leave. If you’re not prepared to see it and explain to the American people when it happens that we counted on this—that in some sense the Iraqis need this to sort out their power and their will and to come to an accommodation that’s their accommodation and not the one that we invented or imposed—then don’t follow my strategy. Just stay and pay that cost.
DR. PORTER: I would say the opposite: just go, instead of having this carefully calibrated plan for two years or a year and a half or whatever. The United States should either help make peace in Iraq or just go. The only reason for the United States to have any presence in Iraq today is to contribute to trying to make peace in that country. What else is there to justify an American presence today? This could lead into a discussion of why the U.S. military is still going out on operations to kill Sunnis. There is absolutely no reason for it, no rationale anymore, but it’s still going on.
Q: Why can’t we get out by engaging the four largest, by population, Muslim countries in the world –– India, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan –– to lead an international force to replace us? I don’t suggest an Arab force because there are so many inter-family, inter-tribe fights going on in the Arab world that it would be very difficult to control an Arab force, but the Arabs could be involved if it was led by Muslim forces from these other four countries, and maybe others. And why can’t that be done sooner than the end of 2007?
My other issue is that what we have done in Iraq is to create a live-fire exercise for our real enemy, al-Qaeda. I served 23 years in the Marine Corps, and a live-fire exercise is the top training exercise that you do. We have an enemy that doesn’t care about their casualty rates, and we’re creating in Iraq a cadre of junkyard-dog fighters who can cause all kinds of trouble in the Middle East. Our problem is, what is the Middle East going to look like five years from now?
AMB. FREEMAN: You raise two very important points. In any plan for dealing with withdrawal from Iraq, there are residual functions that have to be performed, and who would perform those I think is a very important question. Second, you raise the issue of Iraq as a training ground and recruitment source for increasingly formidable urban warriors.
DR. MATTAIR: These two authors on the panel have talked about Special Forces that would continue to deal with al-Qaeda in Iraq. I think one of the good things about Larry’s proposal is that he’s talking about shifting forces to places like Afghanistan and home so that we can deal with the global threat from al-Qaeda, the major problem. Iraq had nothing to do with that; it just makes it worse.
DR. KORB: The British ambassador to Italy, giving what he thought was an off-the-record discussion, said our invasion of Iraq was the best recruiting tool that al-Qaeda ever had. Not only do we recruit them; they are developing capabilities that can be used against us elsewhere. I think that’s why you should have looked at the unintended consequences before you went in. It’s very hard to find any realistic person who thinks we’re not in a worse position now than before we went into Iraq. The question is, how do we recover from that? That’s why I think you’ve got to begin to get out of Iraq. On the al-Qaeda website that the Norwegians brought to our attention, they said that they thought they could tie us down in Afghanistan, but we used the local warlords as our ground forces there so we didn’t get tied down. They’re thrilled we’re tied down in Iraq, because it helps them.
There’s a big difference between Iraq and Afghanistan. When we went to Afghanistan, we didn’t tell the countries in the surrounding region that we’re going to come in here, get rid of the Taliban and have Jeffersonian democracy, and all you guys are going to be gone. That’s why we got cooperation. In Iraq we’re saying we’re going to put in a democratic government and it’s going to undermine all the other governments in the region. Why would they cooperate with us? Once we renounce that goal of transforming the Middle East, we may be able to get some cooperation from the other countries.
DR. PORTER: If I were the Democratic party grandees, I would be ginning up a strategy and making it public, getting it out as quickly as possible, that is based on really dealing effectively with alQaeda in Iraq and in the surrounding countries. This strategy would be based on reaching a peace agreement with the Sunnis as the first priority, because the Sunnis are the political and military forces who are best able to kill, capture and expel the al-Qaeda bases from Iraq. As we know, over the past year, the conflicts between the Sunni insurgents of various stripes and al-Qaeda have multiplied and become deeper. We ought to be taking advantage of that. We’re not, even though the administration, in its own inimitable way, tries to capitalize on it in the media by saying, this is a great victory for us somehow. In fact, it is a factor that they have not really capitalized on and they should.
DR. POSEN: I’ve argued this to others for a long time, although not exactly with your colorful turn of phrase, junkyard-dog fighters. I’ve called it a Darwinian school for terrorism. I like yours better, and I may steal it with a footnote. It’s not a gigantic number of foreign fighters who get into Iraq, but it remains a puzzle to me that the flow is relatively continuous, and some of the people who get in there come from countries that are friends of ours, ostensibly, and countries that have problems with these sorts of folks. I have a sneaking suspicion that they’ve made a calculation that this is a nice safety valve: these elements go to Iraq and we get to kill them for them. I have this working hypothesis that if we weren’t there doing their killing for them, they’d be a little more careful about letting them go there in the first place because they wouldn’t be sure that more wouldn’t get training and come home.
I’m skeptical of the Islamic peacekeepers, because we don’t have a peace to keep, and peacekeeping requires the conflict in some sense to be ripe. I don’t think we’re going to get others to want to send their troops in there to engage in this kind of omni-directional brawl that we’re in at this moment.
AMB. FREEMAN: I think Barry is making a very fundamental point. Nobody is stupid enough to go in there to replace us under the current circumstances, whatever motivations they may have. The only manner in which your very sensible suggestion of an Islamic conference operation makes sense is if there is both an internal settlement of some kind and external guarantees of it, and conditions are therefore set for the replacement of whatever residual training and other security role U.S. forces might otherwise have to play. The removal of the United States under those circumstances, and our replacement by a predominantly or exclusively Muslim force, would remove some of the main negative international effects of this exercise.
With respect to terrorism, there are many examples in history of successful management of terrorist problems. The British have provided us with several in Malaysia and Ireland. Saudi Arabia is now providing us with yet another example of success. What these successful campaigns have in common is a predominantly nonmilitary approach. That is, in the first instance, you discredit the ideology of your opponent, which the Saudis are doing by removing extremists from the pulpits in the mosques, and by discrediting those who preach extremism. Second, you cause a defection of those who would otherwise go to train in places like Iraq and become a serious threat. And you do this either with rewards of a financial nature or with amnesty programs and the like, which they’re doing. Anybody who is left who is a real problem, you kill.
We’re very good on the last point and no good at the first two. We really ought to look at Iraq with the lessons of history and current experience in the region in mind. If we cannot address the ideological issue, if we’re unable to find a way to make peace with our enemies, if we’re only able to kill them, then we will generate more enemies, for the reasons that Barry and others mentioned earlier.
Q: Can we come back to the question Barry was the only one to focus on, oil turmoil? Who is going to end up with the lion’s share of access to influence over Iraq’s oil resources? We have helped to rejigger a constitution that now makes it possible for the north and the south to give new concessions to anyone they choose. Russia has past concessions with sovereign signatures on them. France has, too. We have nothing in that regard. I think China has at least initialed some agreements, and we don’t even have that.
DR. POSEN: There’s a lot of enthusiasm among “Kurdophiles” about the Norwegian concessions in northern Kurdistan up near the Turkish border, and the idea that this is going to be some kind of salvation. My guess is that a lot of this is going to be in the background because it’s not going to be very safe to invest in Iraq. Those concessions are not going to be worth that much for a while, even in the south.
Q: Those who pushed hardest to overturn the doctrine of dual containment were rather transparent. It had to be overthrown and the regimes changed if indeed we are to have significant access and a more atmospherically favorable climate for investment. The moment was propitious for American access to these two countries that are bountiful in both oil and gas, but dual containment was an obstacle. Getting rid of dual containment implicitly required regime change. We’ve done it in one and we’ve rejiggered the constitution, and we’re still thinking about it in the case of the other one.
DR. POSEN: The U.S. oil industry certainly preferred an alternative other than regime change in Iraq. In fact, on the eve of the invasion they had an alternative proposal, which was to work out a deal with Saddam’s government on oil. They believed that was possible and that it was preferable to another regime change.
AMB. FREEMAN: I think it’s interesting that neither the “infantile left” nor the “predatory right” seem to be represented on this panel, and no one has been thinking deep thoughts about how to purloin the oil of the Middle East to American advantage. I would simply note two things. First, the result to date of the American adventure in Iraq has been to remove Iraq from the list of reliable oil suppliers to the world, and therefore to contribute to the price rises we now see. Second, the answer to your question, who is going to get what, when, how and so forth in terms of Iraqi oil, is pretty clearly not the Americans.
Q: If we posit that regional stability is the greater value here that needs to be protected, how would an Iraq that becomes three successor states secure regional stability?
DR. MATTAIR: Will Turkey tolerate an independent Iraqi Kurdistan? Would the provision of oil to Turkey by this independent Kurdistan help Turkey make the decision? The independent Sunni state would be oil poor, and that would not be tolerable to them. They would become a burden on their Sunni Arab neighbors. I think that’s fraught with complications.
AMB. FREEMAN: One might also speculate that the south would risk either becoming a satellite of Iran or a source of instability for Iran, given the population in Arabistan in Iran that is Arab and the strong pull of Najaf and Karbala for Iranian Shiites. It’s not clear which way the influence would flow. It could be very destabilizing.
DR. POSEN: That’s sort of a worst-case analysis. When I talk about a weak federal state, I think this is one of the things we have to be able to dangle in front of others in the region to get their cooperation –– that three de facto and de jure sovereign states in the area are not in the interest of anyone in the area. It may not even be in the interest of Iraq; those states are going to be small and vulnerable to more interventions from others outside. So part of our negotiating strategy in the months before we go is to go to others and say that we need you to help us keep this thing together as a de jure entity, and it’s in your interest. It’s a fine line that we’re walking here, but I think that’s the direction we have to try to go. If we end up with the worst case, there are people inside Iraq who are going to be very sorry. The Kurds, I think, are the ones who are going to turn out to be the sorriest. I don’t think we’re going to be able to do much to stop the Kurds, and I think the Kurds are going to pay.
AMB. FREEMAN: One other item in your question is the expectation that were such a breakup to occur, the impoverished Sunni state at the center of the current Iraq would be a safe haven for terrorists with broad reach within the Arab world generally, given their religious affinities. In any event, the clear consensus in the region has been that this is a catastrophe too dreadful to be contemplated and that the preservation of Iraqi territorial integrity is something of great importance.
DR. MATTAIR: I’m rooting for the administration to succeed, because it would be a breathtaking success, but I don’t see it as being very likely. It seems to me that the sectarian and ethnic divisions are too great. And I think that, especially when you consider the circumstances under which we got into this war, U.S. troops do not deserve this. They do not deserve to be in the middle of a civil war that gets continually worse and that they can’t resolve. These proposals about maintaining U.S. forces over the horizon are really right on.
DR. KORB: I think we’ve got to take control of events. And let me mention a Democrat, John Murtha, who put it very well. He said, our military has done what they can, and so it’s time to get them out; the problem has to be solved differently. In the op-ed that Gareth was talking about, both Khalilzad and Casey said, this is not an insurgency anymore. It’s a civil war, and you can’t solve it militarily; it has to be solved diplomatically.
DR. POSEN: I would alert you to three things. One, where is the debate and the coverage going to go in the next six months to a year? A lot of effort in Iraq and a lot of effort by the administration is going into portraying the United States as now finally understanding counterinsurgency and having an appropriate counterinsurgency strategy –– we’ve got it right, and we have just enough time and the right assets, etc. You have heard it all before, but this is one thing that’s going to drive the debate.
Second, in all possible situations in which you find yourself, I urge you to ask partisans of staying what their worst-case analysis is. The way they’ve structured the debate is that they demand people who want to get out to confront all their worst-case predictions about what’s going to happen if we get out. They’re never forced to talk about the plausible worst-case predictions of what happens when you stay in.
Third, if we’re going to have a disengagement strategy, policy makers are going to have to give Iraqis responsibility for their own politics. This means that there are going to be some unpleasant things happening in Iraq. There are a good many people who may be very unhappy with what’s taking place in Iraq now –– policy types –– but there are also people who were big advocates of American humanitarian military intervention back in the ‘90s. Those sorts of people are in a kind of box, and there needs to be a discussion with them about which costs you think we’re obliged to bear, which costs the Iraqis should bear, which costs are progressive, which costs are not progressive. That conversation has to happen in some sense before you try and do this. If you yourself don’t have some realistic image of what the situation will look like afterwards and why you think it’s better, then you have a problem with this discourse.