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Mead: Timing of Troop Withdrawal from Iraq Looms Large in Blair, Bush Meeting

Interviewee: Walter Russell Mead, Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
May 23, 2006

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Walter Russell Mead, CFR's Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy, says that when British Prime Minister Tony Blair meets with President Bush on Thursday, the timing of allied troop withdrawals will probably loom large in the conversation. "I wouldn't be surprised if we started to hear some things, slightly better news, about the chance for troop withdrawals to begin at some point," says Mead, an expert on U.S. foreign policy.

He says Sunni and Shiite politicians are both conscious of the impact that allied troop withdrawals would have on their political power. "We're reaching a point where holding out the prospect of troop withdrawals starts possibly to become an asset in brokering the kind of pluralistic compromise we're looking for," Mead says. "And if that's Bush and Blair's judgment, then this meeting of theirs might well be the time when they start to talk about this."

Prime Minister Tony Blair is coming to Washington on Thursday. He's just been to Baghdad to confer with the new Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. The conversation with President Bush will be dominated by Iraq, I would suppose.

Well that, and probably a little bit about Iran too.

That's, of course, true.

[The] price of gas, I imagine, will come up in the conversation. But probably both Bush and Blair would be very happy to be able to report some news on at least the distant prospect of troop withdrawals. I gather that they were waiting for the formation of an Iraqi government before they started looking at the next set of possibilities. So I wouldn't be surprised if we started to hear some things, slightly better news, about the chance for troop withdrawals to begin at some point.

Of course, we had this unusual situation, I guess, yesterday when the new Prime Minister Maliki of Iraq told the press and everybody else, "well, sure, we can start taking over control of some of the provinces later this year."

That's right. I imagine Bush, Blair and Maliki are not going to want to get into deadlines and timetables, but if you were an Iraqi politician you would certainly feel that getting the foreign troops out of the way sooner rather than later would strengthen your authority and your government's. So I think what you've got is a situation where Bush, Blair, and Maliki would all like to see, as soon as possible, foreign troops moving, in the first place off the street, and becoming less visible, and then ultimately leaving the country.

Now, how does that play politically right now in the United States for instance? If Bush announced or gave some firm indication that some troops would be phased out, is that going to improve Republicans' chances in the mid-term elections?

Well, it certainly wouldn't hurt, and as I said, U.S. troops might be coming home, but my guess is that the price of gas has as much to do with the elections as anything else. That's something that people feel a lot in their daily lives, and because in people's minds oil is connected to the Middle East it kind of reinforces a generally negative feeling about the way things are.

That's true in Europe too, I guess?

That is interesting. If you look at politicians across the Western world, Bush is actually doing better—even in the low thirties—than many European politicians. I think [French Prime Minister Dominique de] Villepan is around 20 percent [approval ratings], Blair is, I think, 26 percent, so he's a little weaker than Bush. In general, the shorter a politician has been in office in Europe, the better their pollings. So [Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez] Zapatero and [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel are probably doing better than anybody else in Europe. [The new Italian Prime Minister Romano] Prodi, interestingly, is an exception; his polls seem to be dropping within weeks of the election, although he's still one of the more popular European leaders.

As we talk, the president will be meeting with the new Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Do you expect much to come out of the talks?

Well, it's hard to see much happening in the Middle East as long as the impasse between Hamas and Israel remains, and I don't see anything changing that anytime soon. Under those circumstances, Israeli withdrawal, unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank, might be about the best thing one could hope for in terms of stability there. But clearly that wouldn't get you to where you'd ultimately like to be, which is a real peace process.

Now I guess that can't be until there's some sorting out of the Palestinian situation.

Right. But I wouldn't dismiss Iran as a possible subject for conversations with both the Israelis and the Brits. The person in the British government who spoke most strongly against the possibility of Britain participating in any military action against Iran was Jack Straw, who Blair removed from [the post of] foreign secretary in the last cabinet reshuffle.

Has Blair spoken much about Iran?

As I understand it, his sort of general tenor is military action against Iran would be an extremely bad idea, however, you don't take options off the table. I doubt that Blair is looking to lead the British into another war, but at the same time, I think as an experienced negotiator you'd feel that if the Iranians know that not a whole lot is going to happen if they don't do what the West wants, the chances of getting them to do what you want are not great.

Blair's popularity, you said, is at what percent?

About 26 percent in the last poll I saw.

And is he likely to have a new election soon?

Well he wouldn't. I mean his commitment is that he won't lead the party into a new parliamentary election. So the question is when does he turn over the Labor leadership. In the British system he could call the election anytime within five years of the last one, so he's got some time.

Supposedly, in his mind, he has time to improve his standings in the polls?

I get the sense that he would like to see British troops out of Iraq or well on their way to being out before he leaves.

I guess there's an inevitability in the air now that a troop withdrawal will begin this year.

Well who knows? Of course in Iraq it always depends on what's going on on the ground, and I've had a lot of conversations with American officials over the years where people solemnly assured me that they were getting control of this thing and then they somehow don't. However, although there's been a spike in the last six weeks, in general the long-term trend for U.S. casualties in Iraq seems to be down.

And it's also very clear that Iraqi forces are capable of handling more of the burden. To some degree I think what's happened in Iraq, and I've talked about this a little bit on the News Hour [news program], is that in the beginning, after the United States defeated Saddam, the civil war really began and the Shiites were so weak that U.S. forces essentially were fighting for the Shiites against the Sunnis, whether they were jihadis or Baathists, in an attempted reconquest.

Now what seems to have happened is that it's increasingly clear that the Sunnis don't have the ability to reconquer the whole country. And so the balance of power in Iraq has tipped away from the Sunni and toward the Shiites. And that's partly obviously because the foreign forces are there. But as the Shiite forces are getting stronger in Iraq, there are more incentives for the Sunnis to make a deal because they perceive themselves to be losing, and to some degree for the Sunnis to make their deal before the foreign forces leave, because chances are they'll get a better deal while the Americans are still here to broker it than they would when they're left alone with some very angry Shiites in the room.

On the other hand, as the Shiites get stronger you see more of the radical Shiites saying, "let's not take a half victory here, let's not compromise." So the Shiites tend to be getting more radical and pushy, while the Sunni are developing some signs of moderation. And the American effort has got to be to try to bring these two together with some help from the Kurds sooner rather than later because the fact is that the last thing the Americans would want to see is the Shiites crushing the life out of the Sunni, and a massive kind of a war going on that would be very destabilizing in the region.

So in a way it's trying to find that sweet spot, which is very hard to do, but the alternatives don't look good, so I don't see that we have much choice but to continue ourselves in trying to do that. So you could see where, from Bush and Blair's perspective, the case for troop withdrawals, or at least talking about troop withdrawals, might now start to be getting a little stronger.

So, we're in the final poker hand in a way?

That's right. And some of the folks like [CFR President Emeritus] Les Gelb and [Senator] Joe Biden (D-DE) and others who are critiquing U.S. policy but also coming to grips with this basic dynamic, that to some degree we're reaching a point where holding out the prospect of troop withdrawals starts possibly to become an asset in brokering the kind of pluralistic compromise we're looking for. And if that's Bush and Blair's judgment, then this meeting of theirs might well be the time when they start to talk about this.

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