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Pollack: Bush’s Iraq Plan Deserves Chance

Interviewee: Kenneth M. Pollack, Director of Research, Saban Center for Middle East Policy
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
January 30, 2007

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Kenneth M. Pollack, an expert on both Iraq and Iran, says Democrats should give President Bush’s new Iraq plan a chance to succeed, but also prepare backup plans if it does not work out. Pollack, a former member of the National Security Council staff in the Clinton administration, also says Bush is making a mistake in trying to blame Iran for what he called the “mess” in Iraq.

“To me, it is dangerously reminiscent of how they talked about the Syrians in 2004 and 2005, when they ridiculously exaggerated Syria’s role in the Sunni insurgency,” Pollack says. “I’m afraid that they are starting to do the same thing with Iran and the Shiite insurgency.”

You and Daniel L. Byman have written a research paper on civil wars and their application in Iraq. Are we in a full-scale civil war yet in Iraq?

Our feeling is that while Iraqis definitely are in a state of civil war, it’s probably low-to mid-level. It’s not yet reached the kind of Lebanon or Bosnia-like all-out civil war, which I guess is a positive thing. Iraq hasn’t reached rock bottom yet. On the other hand, it can get worse.

To me what’s frustrating is, we know who the leaders of the Shiites and the Iraqi government are, but we really don’t know much about the other side. I mean, it’s a civil war where one side is virtually anonymous.

That’s true. And certainly there are any number of Sunni leaders out there. Few of them have the same kind of stature that some of the major Shiite figures, in particular some of the major Shiite militia leaders, have. But that’s not uncommon for these kinds of civil wars. Everyone knows the names of the Maronite leaders in Lebanon. Not too many people know the leaders of the Sunni community from Lebanon. The same thing is true in other places. In the Bosnian-Croatian[-Serbian] civil wars, there were a lot of people who knew the names of the Serbian militia leaders. Not too many people knew the names of the Bosnian militia leaders.

And of course, when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 I don’t think anyone thought of civil war as a likely scenario.

Well, it certainly was out there as a possibility. I actually talked about it in my 2002 book, The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, as: “This is the worst case. We don’t want to get to this.” I referred to it as warlordism. And I actually think that is a very accurate term for what we see going on in Iraq today. The Shiite militia leaders, the Sunnis and the insurgent leaders—they are nothing but warlords. But you’re right that no one thought that this was a likely outcome.

I remember interviewing people at the very start of the war and asking them about Sunni-Shiite relations. And I was assured by some experts who had lived in and studied Iraq:  “No, the Sunnis and Shiites are really Iraqis first and don’t get caught up in this kind of thing.” And clearly they were thinking of the highly educated classes of Shiites and Sunnis whom they knew. But clearly the masses were not so friendly.

The United States actually did quite a bit of polling in Iraq immediately after the invasion. And what they found there actually bore that out. The polling actually showed that most Iraqis did identify themselves first and foremost as Iraqis and that their ethnic and religious identities were much lower down on their lists. The problem was that we created a security vacuum. The United States pulled down the Iraqi government, pulled down the Iraqi security services. We did nothing to replace them. And what we’ve seen elsewhere in history is exactly what we’ve seen in Iraq, which is that in the presence of a security vacuum, in the absence of a government or some other force capable and willing to provide security, vicious militias arise.

You’ve also written a very good book on Iran, The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America. I’d like to ask you about the current emphasis in Washington on warning Iran that it would take action against Iranians in Iraq. What do you think the relation is now between Iran and Iraq?

Unfortunately, I think that it’s very complicated, and the Bush administration is oversimplifying the relationship. There’s a lot of good evidence to indicate there are large numbers of Iranians of all stripes located throughout Iraq. They have been actively recruiting Iraqi agents for all kinds of thing. What’s more, it’s also pretty uncontroversial that they are providing weapons, money, supplies, pretty much everything they can to an entire range of Shiite militias. There have even been a number of reports indicating that they are helping Shiite militiamen get training, just as in Lebanon, under Hezbollah’s aegis. What is much less clear are the motives behind Iranian behavior and the impact it’s having on the situation. In terms of motives, there’s no good evidence to show the Iranians are instigating any Shiite attacks on the United States. About the best anyone has been able to show is that the Iranians probably are providing advanced EFPs [Explosively Formed Projectiles, so-called roadside bombs] to various Iraqi forces, and that that those EFPs are getting used against Americans.

Whether they’re getting used by Shiites or Sunnis, we don’t know. Whether they’re getting sold on the black market, and somebody else buys them and uses them against Americans, we don’t know. And what’s more, it’s certainly not the majority of IED [Improvised Explosive Device, or booby-trap] attacks on Americans. So they are at least, very indirectly, playing some role in attacks on Americans.

We’ve seen the Iranians do some things that are unhelpful to the security of Iraq. But we’ve also seen the Iranians do some things that are actually very helpful to the security of Iraq. In particular, whenever they’ve had the opportunity, they have encouraged their allies inside Iraq to go along with reconstruction, to participate and not to fight the United States. And that’s extremely important. The Bush administration, on the other hand, seems to be regarding the Iranians as the source of many, if not all, of Iraq’s problems today. To me, it is dangerously reminiscent of how they talked about the Syrians in 2004 and 2005, when they ridiculously exaggerated Syria’s role in the Sunni insurgency. I’m afraid they are starting to do the same thing with Iran and the Shiite insurgency.

Why do you think they’re doing that?

Just as in 2004 and 2005, when it was much easier to blame the problems of the Sunni insurgency on Syria, it’s much easier today to blame the problems of Shiite ethnic cleansing on the Iranians. The truth is that Iraq is a mess. It is in a state of low-level civil war. And all of these groups are largely self-motivated. But it’s much easier to blame it on the Iranians and use the traditional methods of state power—saber rattling, deploying carriers to the Gulf—as a way to try to deal with the problem.

I also do think there are some members of the Bush administration who have always favored war with Iran. They wanted to use military force against Iran back in 2004 and 2005 to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. They were basically shut down at that time. The administration decided to follow a diplomatic approach instead. And I fear the same group of people never gave up that aspiration, and they are now finding a back door to war with Iran.

Is there any chance all this pressure might lead Iran to agree to a uranium enrichment suspension to get into a broader range of talks with the United States and other countries?

Anything is possible in this world, but it does seem very unlikely. What we’ve seen from the Iranians is that when confronted with this kind of overt threat, they rally around their government. They get their backs up. It engages their sense of nationalism. It also engages their sense of paranoia about the United States and particularly the Bush administration’s intentions. What’s stunning to me is that the American diplomatic approach to Iran, which we have half-heartedly been pressing over the last eighteen months or so but which people within the State Department in particular really believed in, was finally bearing fruit.

The Iranians were having tremendous problems. There was a huge backlash against President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad because of his mishandling of that diplomacy, and the result that Iran came under international sanctions, weak though they were. There was a real sense that Iran was about to move in a different direction as a result of this pressure. And here we’re finally having success and reaping the rewards of this difficult diplomatic process. And the administration embarks on a new set of actions which I think are going to dramatically undermine that diplomatic effort, both by causing the Iranians to basically rally around Ahmedinejad potentially, but also because the Europeans and many other countries may now become afraid that the diplomatic process, which of course ran through the UN Security Council, was nothing but another façade like the one the administration used before the Iraq War.

Are you an advisor to any presidential hopeful right now?

I give my advice to anybody who’ll take it. And that actually includes Republicans as well as Democrats.

What would you advise Democrats? They’re focusing now on troop withdrawals, which has many dangerous elements to it, I suspect.

Yes, I think that’s a very good point. The Democrats need to recognize that if President Bush’s plan worked it would be the absolute best outcome for the United States. And I think Senator Hillary Clinton and many other presidential hopefuls actually realize that. Because no one should want to have to deal with this problem of Iraq as president after 2009.

The Democrats really need to be thinking about alternatives to the president’s plan, but alternatives in the longer-term sense. What they need to be talking about are the “Plan Bs.” I think it’s a mistake for the Democrats to try to undercut Bush’s plan. But they do need to be thinking and pushing the administration to think and to plan what we do if the president’s plan does fail. It could, very well, given this late date and the other problems in the administration.

And do you want to offer one or two ideas?

Sure. In our report, Dan Byman and I posited the notion of containment of Iraq, should the president’s plan fail. Basically, the president’s plan is our last chance to get things right in Iraq. If it fails, the country is likely to descend into an all-out civil war. It seems pretty likely that at that point, the whole place is going to come apart and probably come apart pretty quickly—certainly within a matter of years if not a matter of months. Under those circumstances, only an absolutely massive deployment of American force, something on the order of four to five hundred thousand troops will be able to keep that country from exploding all together. And there’s just no question the United States is not ready to do that.

So what we propose is a policy whereby the United States tries to contain the violence inside Iraq. Doing so would be quite challenging. To tell you the truth, it’s something many countries have tried over the course of history and few have succeeded. But by redeploying our military forces, taking them out of Iraq’s cities, deploying them to Iraq’s periphery where they can help with refugees, where they can prevent neighboring armies from invading, where they can prevent or at least hinder terrorists and militiamen from crossing back and force, that can certainly help. And in addition, we’re proposing a very broad series of economic and political moves that would help bolster the neighboring states, that would make them less inclined to intervene in Iraq and more able to withstand whatever instability they feel from the civil war in Iraq.

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