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Cordesman: In Iraq Speech, Bush Must ‘Admit Failures’ and Produce ‘Credible Plan’

Interviewee: Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
January 5, 2007

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Anthony H. Cordesman, a prominent analyst of the Iraq war, says if President Bush does not produce a credible, persuasive plan in his Iraq policy speech, “he is going to be perceived relatively quickly as a failed president heading a failed presidency.” Cordesman, who holds the Chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says Bush needs to stop acting like “a cheerleader” and level with the public on the critical situation in Iraq.

President Bush is due next week to make a speech to the nation outlining his latest policy approach on Iraq. What kind of chance does he have for really changing the downward drift of events in Iraq?

As grim as it is to have to say it, if the president doesn’t succeed, he is going to be perceived relatively quickly as a failed president heading a failed presidency. This means there will be two years of an administration that most people will try their best to forget.

What about a success in domestic politics?

He has no real chance of a personal domestic program at this point. Whatever happens domestically will be seen as a result of the Congress’ doing. And regardless of what happens in other military and foreign areas, he’s going to be judged by Iraq. I say that because one great question with this president is, “Can he be frank enough in admitting past failures, and can he equally understand the need for acting in the future?”  

Can he go beyond being a cheerleader, which has often been the role he has played, spinning events in the most favorable light and making promises presidents shouldn’t make? Can he admit this is a high-risk operation with uncertain results, that success will take years in a long war? It will take resources and sacrifices. And if he does say that, can he convince Congress that he has more than concept and slogans, that there’s a practical plan that can actually be implemented? Now this has not been one of the strengths of this president so far. But it is absolutely critical if he’s going to succeed at all that he demonstrate to Congress and the American people that he fully understands the risks and problems, the mistakes that have been made in the past and the need for a plan that has a credible chance of success.

One thing he has to go far beyond is the so-called “surge” [an increase of U.S. troops for a short period] which has become one of the strangest debates probably in American national security history, because it is almost completely irrelevant. So many people who should know better have focused on it. If a “surge” or any other development is to have meaning, there has to be progress in political conciliation or at least in finding some form of nonviolent coexistence. That is right now the most critical single problem in Iraq. Iraq is not a conflict dominated now by insurgency or by active open civil fighting. It is a struggle for the control of space and resources, which is playing out at a sectarian and ethnic level, not only in the different regions of Iraq, but in each of its major cities.

Could the argument be made that the United States should just get its troops out of Iraq and let the Iraqis settle it themselves?

You could always make that argument and many people have, and we may ultimately have to do it. The difficulty is that given these political problems, and this ongoing ethnic and sectarian struggle, if this country explodes it could very easily become an even bloodier version of what happened in the Balkans. It can drag in Iran on the Shiite side. It can drag in Sunnis from many countries in the region. It can involve the Turks with the Kurds. It will create an image of an American defeat, almost an abdication of power, which will immensely reinforce the extremists of all kinds in the region.

It will be perceived and claimed as a victory by [Osama] bin Laden and al-Qaeda, as well as all the other neo-Salafi [extremist] Sunni groups. It will be exploited by Iran in its somewhat opportunistic effort to expand its power. There’s no way to know exactly where this stops.

And how does the United States live with the aftermath in Iraq? We can talk all we want about energy independence. But so far no one has made a dent in reducing a projected rate of increase in U.S. dependency. It’s all been price driven. We’re tied to a global economy, so energy exports to other countries are as critical to us as they are to them. And 60 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves are still in this long, narrow region. Can we get away with a withdrawal? It’s always possible. But that’s true of virtually any form of isolationism or withdrawal. There’s always the possibility it will work.

Now the word is that the president in advance of this speech is apparently going to replace his top commanders in the region. In fact, he’s said to be putting the head of the Pacific Command, Adm. William J. Fallon in charge of the Central Command in the Mideast, replacing Gen. John P. Abizaid, which strikes me as a bit strange since Fallon’s never worked out there. And he’s putting Army Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus in charge of the forces in Iraq. Do these kinds of top-level changes mean anything or is it just a bit of window dressing?

What we don’t know yet is any of the broader context. You have to know what the president’s political strategy is and how he’s going to use these new commanders to either resolve the situation in military terms or create better Iraqi forces. When you put it in that context, a couple things are fairly clear. First, this is a region where naval operations for all of CENTCOM [the Middle East command] are just as critical as our air and land operations. Admiral Fallon has an excellent reputation in joint operations and has vast experience in them. Then you look at the problem of creating an effective command structure in Iraq, and we have to remember Afghanistan as well. And you look at General Petraeus—this is somebody with unique experience in joint air and land operations, who basically helped write the Army’s field manual on counterinsurgency that’s just come out. He knows perhaps as much as anyone around about how to build Iraqi capabilities if the political context can be created to make them effective. Petraeus is someone who has made it very clear that he understands the need to combine, not simply tactical operations with counterinsurgency, but to give them an economic and political dimension. So what you are doing is basically putting one of the most effective commanders we have in charge of as much a campaign as any can be at this point. The other issue that gets almost totally ignored is that you have a remarkably effective command structure in Afghanistan. [Lt.] General Karl Eikenberry has performed extraordinarily well. You’re putting in another Army four-star to replace him, General Dan McNeill, who is currently the commanding general of the United States Army Forces Command. This is a product of rotations, not some massive policy change.

General George W. Casey Jr., the current commander of troops in Iraq, is being promoted which is scarcely a radical change in strategy, particularly when you’re making him chief of staff. So I think we are looking at changes in command structure which should improve effectiveness. One of the problems that’s existed in the past has been that General Abazaid and General Casey have, to some extent at least, overlapped. Moving in Admiral Fallon in a way gives General Petraeus the opportunity to take over operational command in Iraq on a more direct basis.

But the other change, which I think may be equally important, is that Ryan C. Crocker, who is a career diplomat, will replace Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in Baghdad. What Ambassador Khalilzad tried to do, by way of political conciliation and compromise, was what had to be tried. Basically at this point, it may well be that we have to accept a different, weaker Iraqi government, one which is going to be harder to influence, one where they will resist far more having a U.S. ambassador try to assert direct political pressure. It was simply time to make that kind of change. But unless we can find a solution to conciliation or coexistence, it almost doesn’t matter what we do in the military dimension.

I guess it’s really late in the game to say who was responsible for this possible disaster.

Fault-finding is something we can all do after we either win or lose, but the real question is, “What’s the president going to say?” If he’s going to succeed, he not only has to admit the difficulty of the problem, he has to present a real strategy, and a strategy isn’t a set of concepts. One lesson we should all have from the past strategy that the president presented, or from equally vacuous documents like that issued by the Iraq Study Group, is we don’t need concepts.

If he can’t present a plan that’s credible, if he can’t actually show what kind of resources, what kind of capabilities we’re going to deploy, and how we’re going to do this over time; if he can’t combine solutions in the political, military, and economic dimension, he will have failed. Again, that is as much a challenge for this president as to admit past mistakes, and to actually address future risks and costs. It almost requires a fundamental change in political behavior. But if we’re going to have success in Iraq, he has to meet those tests.

You have said it could take five to ten more years of American support for nation building in Iraq. Do you think any Congress has the stomach for that?

One of the great problems the president has in dealing with Congress is that he can give this speech and he can present concepts to the leaders of Congress, but whether or not he admits it, all of the people who actually work on developing these strategies will agree on one thing: To succeed, you need a long, enduring U.S. effort. Failure can be very quick, and we can get out under a whole host of circumstances in a very limited amount of time. Now what has to be said to Congress is, “This is what is necessary.” And again, to say it to Congress you have to show Congress you have a credible, operational plan. And you not only have to say it in a speech, you have to make another fundamental change. One thing this administration did was manage to alienate most of the Republican leadership in critical areas like the Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees. It didn’t follow up. It didn’t explain. It far too often was antagonistic when it was asked to provide detailed reports or detailed plans. And that simply can’t happen when you have a Democratic majority and sharply critical American public opinion. You’ve got to go out and work the halls of Congress. And you’re going to have to do it on a bipartisan basis. And if you don’t, you can’t then complain when a Democratic-controlled Congress reacts in a partisan manner.

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