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Haass: Bush's Speech Marks 'Re-Americanization' of Iraq Policy

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
January 11, 2007

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Richard N. Haass, CFR president and a well-known Middle East expert, says President Bush’s Iraq speech marks a significant “gamble” by “putting a troop surge at the center of the new policy.” He says what the new policy “represented more than anything else was the re-Americanization of the effort. What we are doing is increasing not simply the scale or the size but the operational role of American forces in the short run in order to create some sort of an opening for the Iraqis in the medium run. That represents a major shift in tactics.”

Haass says it was a mistake for Bush not to test the diplomatic waters by expressing support for the diplomatic goals of the Iraq Study Group, which had advocated engaging both Syria and Iran in discussions. “I simply disagree with the rejection out of hand of a regional diplomatic strategy. Again, I don’t see where the United States would be worse off if we were to pursue that, and if it were to work, great, and if it were to fail, so be it.”

The president has now made his report to the nation on Iraq. What is your general impression of his speech last night?

My general impression is that this is someone who has rejected the calls that he walk away from Iraq. He’s clearly persuaded by the [administration’s] analysis that were the United States to do so, it would have disastrous consequences. He has, though, gambled considerably by essentially putting a troop surge at the center of the new policy. And given all the buildup to the speech, he has put himself in a place where, if this isn’t perceived to have changed things significantly for the better, the pressures will grow exponentially for the United States to reduce or even withdraw its forces. It’s potentially ironic that he sees himself, I expect, as having increased the odds the United States will succeed in Iraq, but he’s also increased the odds the United States will have to back away from Iraq down the road.

I was struck by the fact that he put so much emphasis on the need for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to comply with the “Iraqi” plan to work together to wipe out all insurgencies.

I agree with you, but there are two things then that are inconsistent. First, if that was the going-in position, it’s not clear to me why the administration then did not require from the Iraqis some up-front demonstrations that they were able and willing to change their behavior. Instead, the president said: “If down the road, over time, you don’t show you’re willing and able to take political and economic and military reforms, then the American people will lose their patience.”

The administration has taken a fundamental step back from what you might call ‘Iraqification.’ And what last night’s speech represented more than anything else was the re-Americanization of the effort.”

A different approach would have said, “We’re prepared to do more, but first you have to do more, in certain ways.” The administration clearly rejected that kind of conditionality. Secondly, and this is at the heart of the gamble, the administration seems to be banking on the idea that the Maliki government has fundamentally changed and is now going to become a truly national Iraqi government, rather than a government more interested in consolidating the primacy of the Shiite populace. Like most people, I hope the administration is right. I just don’t see evidence that either Mr. Maliki or those around him are both willing and able to act as truly national figures, which would require them to provide a lot more political and economic space for the Sunnis, and demand that the Shiite militias disband, and that the Shiites accept that while they will have a plurality of political power, they will also have to share it meaningfully.

Now, when we talked after the Iraq Study Group issued its report, you said implicit in that was a way out for the administration if the Iraqis didn’t comply with their part of the bargain. That’s still true, isn’t it?

Pretty much so. The president either intentionally or unintentionally has actually reinforced that by doubling down the U.S. bet on Iraq. He has bought himself some time, but at the cost or risk of increasing the odds. The pressures will grow for a dramatic change in U.S. policy if this doesn’t seem to succeed. And it sets up the argument that “We did everything we could, but we simply didn’t have an Iraqi partner.” But while that’s true, or while that may be true, it still doesn’t shield the United States from the strategic consequences of having to leave if it comes to that.

It is ironic, just in passing, that the United States went into this war in a way to liberate the Shiites, and it’s the Shiites now causing us many of the problems politically.

I would highlight it another way, which is that the administration has taken a fundamental step back from what you might call “Iraqification.” And what last night’s speech represented more than anything else was the re-Americanization of the effort. What we are doing is increasing not simply the scale or the size but the operational role of American forces in the short run in order to create some sort of an opening for the Iraqis in the medium run. That represents a major shift in tactics.

When the Iraq Study Group’s report came out, there was a lot of attention played to its call for diplomacy with Iran and Syria. The president took the opposite tack, saying that Iran and Syria are the bad guys and we have to step up pressure on them. Is this a big mistake?

In my view, yes. I can’t sit here and guarantee to you or anyone else that sitting down in a regional forum with Iran and Syria would materially improve things. But I would think that’s certainly a possibility worth exploring. Iran does not want to see an Iraq that splits apart; Iran does not want to see massive refugee flows. Syria similarly doesn’t want to see those things, plus Syria has a larger regional interest in establishing ties with the United States and reentering a political dialogue with Israel. I simply disagree with the rejection out of hand of a regional diplomatic strategy. Again, I don’t see where the United States would be worse off if we were to pursue that, and if it were to work, great, and if it were to fail, so be it.

Why do you think the president implicitly rejected it? He didn’t discuss it directly, but he called for diplomacy only in the sense of getting other Arab states to support Iraq.

You’re asking me to try to explain a policy I disagree with. It’s consistent with six years of administration policy that has tried to isolate both governments. It’s ironic, but when the United States was riding high at the beginning of the administration and in the immediate aftermath to 9/11, it rejected the idea of diplomacy with Iran on the basis that we didn’t need it. Oil prices were low, the United States was strong, the Iranian government appeared weak, and people were hoping that regime change would follow. Now the administration seems to be rejecting diplomacy with Iran because they are riding high. The United States has precious little leverage. For what it’s worth, I think there were better opportunities five years ago, but I still believe there are opportunities worth exploring now, even with Iran, given all the signals we’ve had of [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s relative political weakness in the aftermath of the recent elections, and the problems facing the Iranian oil industry and the Iranian economy more generally.

And militarily, the addition of 21,000 or so more troops, that’s not going to make a difference, is it?

Militarily, no. At the end of the day, an addition of troops of this scale is simply not enough to change the momentum, much less transform things. Another way of putting it would be that if the Iraqis were really prepared to do what needs doing, additional U.S. troops would not be necessary. And if the Iraqis are not prepared to do what needs doing, this sort of increase won’t be enough. So I simply don’t see how this approach will turn a corner. To put it bluntly, a surge is not a strategy. I don’t see how a policy with this at its center will dramatically change the situation for the better.

Politically, the president’s not going to gain much in the polls, obviously.

No, I don’t think he will gain much, and indeed on that level the speech seemed almost defensive, in terms of admitting past mistakes, in lowballing expectations, and in signaling that U.S. policy would change dramatically in the other direction if the Iraqis do not behave constructively.

Do you think the Democrats will really follow through in an effort to cut aid?

I don’t foresee the Democrats using the power of the purse to curtail the American commitment to Iraq, and if they were to do so, I think it would be politically self-destructive for them, simply because it would put them in a position of assuming responsibility for the administration’s policy, a policy that looks unsuccessful. But let me add one other thing: If a surge is not a strategy, neither is opposing a surge.

“At the end of the day, an addition of troops of this scale is simply not enough to change the momentum, much less transform things. ”

The challenge for people who disagree with the president, either Democrats or Republicans, is to come up with a viable alternative. I would simply suggest that withdrawing dramatically and precipitously, to use the adjective of the Iraq Study Group, is also not a viable policy. If I had to articulate the alternative I wish the administration had come up with, in addition to introducing a regional diplomatic dimension to U.S. policy, I would have argued for something that looked a lot more like staying the course—essentially avoiding the drama of a new policy which has now raised pressures, raised expectations, and increased the odds of a withdrawal if it doesn’t work. I would have argued that the administration would have been wiser to stay the course of what you might call “Iraqification,” a gradual dialing down of the U.S. presence, getting us increasingly out of the civil war and taking a subsidiary role.

The advantage of that is it would have calmed the American political debate. It would have bought the administration time, and it would not have changed the reality that the Iraq commitment would rise or fall, more than anything else, on the willingness and ability of the Iraqi government to act as a national government. I would have thought that would have been a better approach than putting the United States at the center of things, and raising expectations, and, as a result, pressures.

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