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Council on Foreign Relations Conference Call: After The Surge: The Case for U.S Military Disengagement from Iraq [Rush Transcript; Federal News Service]

Speaker: Steven N. Simon
Presider: Robert McMahon, Editor
February 20, 2007
Council on Foreign Relations

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ROBERT MCMAHON:  Well, good day, everyone.  I'm Robert McMahon, the deputy director of CFR.org.  Thank you for joining us on this sort of storm-tossed Valentine's Day.

The subject is Iraq after the surge, specifically U.S. military disengagement; the title of a new report by Steven Simon, who is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.  We're delighted that Steven could join us today on the line from Abu Dhabi.

Steve is a former director for global issues and senior director for transnational threats at the National Security Council in the Clinton administration, and his work since then has focused on terrorism and U.S. security policy in the Middle East and South Asia.  His report -- just out -- minces no words.  It says the U.S. is floundering ineffectually in Iraq, and that an orderly withdrawal of the bulk of its forces by the end of next year would control damage to both its forces and credibility, among other things.

The report actually roughly coincided with the new National Intelligence Estimate, or aspects of it that were released.  And actually some of them -- some of those aspects of the report shared many of the grim findings that said if the U.S. -- but, it said, if U.S. forces were to leave in the next 18 months, it would almost certainly lead to more bloodshed and sectarian conflict and regional instability.

So on that aspect, Steve, you say in essence the risks can be minimized if a U.S. pullout is handled the right way.  Is that correct?

STEVEN N. SIMON:  Well, let me -- let me rephrase that for you.

MCMAHON:  Okay.

SIMON:  I think that that the impact on U.S. interests can be minimized to some extent by disengaging militarily from Iraq in an orderly and methodical way, as a volitional act -- as something that we are doing by virtue of a decision we have made on the timing of this, and in essence doing it before we're somehow forced to do it.  So I'm emphasizing that it's the damage to American interests that can be minimized.

Now, as far as Iraq is concerned, I think the NIE is probably correct that the level of violence will increase at least somewhat when the U.S. troops leave, and the U.S. withdrawal will probably be blamed for that increase in violence.  But what I say in the report about this falls into two categories.

The one is, well, how bad is worse?  In others words, if it does get worse, how bad will it be?  And you know, it struck me looking at other instances of genocidal violence in other locales -- which don't form perfect analogies, but are rough analogies -- you need three things to trigger that kind of widespread violence.  The one is broad communal consent on both sides -- or at least on one side -- that this -- that ethnic cleansing in a murderous and genocidal way is a desirable thing to do.  You need to be organized to do it.  And in addition to being organized to do it, you need to be equipped to do it.  And you know, in a setting like this, as in the Balkans, the key -- the key piece of equipment -- the key element to waging genocidal warfare -- was heavy weapons.  You needed heavy weapons:  armor, artillery, the kinds of things that would enable you to stand outside of city and just pound it to smithereens.

Well, those three conditions don't exist yet in Iraq.  Now, they may -- (audio break due to technical difficulties).

Having said that, I'll introduce the second point, which is that the U.S. ought to be working now with the U.N., with European allies on a plan to intervene on a multilateral basis if genocidal warfare does break out in Iraq after the withdrawal of U.S. forces.  Punto.

MCMAHON:  Okay.  And so your emphasis, then, is on the containment aspect then.  I guess, could you elaborate a little bit on how that would work?  And what does that involve in terms of U.S. force structure in the region?

SIMON:  Well, it involves a couple of things -- maybe more than a couple.

But one is that from an American perspective and the perspective of America's allies in the region, it will be very important to reassure those who depend on the security provided by the United States that Washington wasn't abandoning the region.

I assume that was no one in the group.

MCMAHON:  Hello?

SIMON:  Everybody okay back there?  Hello?  Hello?

MCMAHON:  Hello?

Hello, Operator, is the line working?

OPERATOR:  Yes, sir. 

Mr. Simon, are you still there?

SIMON:  Yes.  Yeah, I am.

OPERATOR:  Okay.  It's coming from your line.  I don't know if it's because it's an international number.

SIMON:  Well, things don't always work as well as one might like out here.

OPERATOR:  (Laughs.)

MCMAHON:  Okay.  Well, let's see if we can forge ahead and --

SIMON:  Okay.  Let's -- let me just complete that thought quickly --

MCMAHON:  Okay.  Great.

SIMON:  -- which is that, you know, to reassure allies and also to ensure that through potential adversaries, as the administration would put it, don't feel that the U.S. military disengagement from Iraq provides new opportunities.  It would be a good idea to keep at least some portion of the soldiers that are pulled out of Iraq in the region.  Kuwait really is the place to -- (audio break from source) -- Kuwait would be a willing host.  They have, you know, huge over capacity to host American forces.  So, you know, that would be a good idea.

A slight increase in the number of Special Forces that we now have in Eastern Jordan would be a good idea too because the United States is going to have a continuing interest in what's going on in Western Iraq.  And perhaps a small increase that is -- (audio break from source) -- acceptable to King Abdullah in Jordan would be a good idea.

And to these troop redeployments, the United States might want to step up its activities in the Gulf -- send out more rotational deployments of aircraft and ships, stage more exercises than perhaps it does now with local allies on the Arab side of the Gulf.

So those would be some of the things that the U.S. would do militarily as part of a containment -- (audio break from source).

OPERATOR:  Mr. Simon, are you still with us?

SIMON:  Yup.

OPERATOR:  Okay.  Great.

MCMAHON:  Okay.  Well, thank you, Steve.  I'm sure there are a number of questions on what you've sketched out, so at this time, Operator, we'll have you take some questions.

OPERATOR:  Absolutely.  At this time, we will open the floor for questions.  If you would like to ask a question, please press the star key followed by the one key on your touchtone phone now.  Questions will be taken in the order in which they are received.

And our first question comes from Ron Baygents with news agency in Washington.

QUESTIONER:  I'm with Kuwait News Agency.

SIMON:  Yup.

QUESTIONER:  Good morning, sir.  Where are you speaking from?

SIMON:  From the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi.

QUESTIONER:  Okay.  Alrighty.  My question -- or just a quick a overview -- is that your overall strategy seems quite similar to what a number of the Democratic presidential candidates are calling for.  Is that -- are you -- do you agree with that, and is that not true?

SIMON:  Well -- (audio break from source) -- of the house now.  I use "house" metaphorically, not House of Representatives, you know, on their side of the line.  Please excuse me.  (Short pause.)

QUESTIONER:  Hello?

MCMAHON:  Steve, are you there?

SIMON:  The -- Senator Clinton has focused on the issue of a cap on U.S. forces deployed to Iraq but hasn't really addressed herself in detail to a withdrawal arrangement for the forces that are now there.  In other words, she's more concerned with responding, at least at the moment, to the president's pursuit of a surge strategy.

Senator Obama is --

QUESTIONER:  March `08, I believe, or something like that.

SIMON:  Yeah.  Senator Obama isn't addressing himself to the cap issue or the surge issue.  What he's saying is the troops have got to be out -- that is to say, all the combat troops have got to be out by March `08.  Now, he hasn't fleshed that our very much, but that's become his stump speech line.

What I'm proposing is actually different than both of them.  It's -- you know, you judge for yourself, you know, how different this thing strikes you.  But, you know, from my perspective, the surge is going to happen and it's going to happen along the lines that the president is looking to have it happen, as he described it in his address to the nation on this.  So, you know, I just don't think it's that worthwhile kind of quibbling about, well, you know, what kind of a surge do you have, and, you know, should you actually put a cap on and maybe try and prevent the surge, and so forth.  I mean, from a political perspective -- (audio difficulties from source) --

OPERATOR:  I'm sorry, Mr. McMahon, we've lost Mr. Simon.  I'm going to go ahead and get him back on for you.

MCMAHON:  Okay, thank you.

OPERATOR:  You're welcome.

(Pause to reconnect phone lines.)

QUESTIONER:  Are you still there?

MCMAHON:  This is Robert McMahon.  Yes, I'm here.  We're waiting for the operator to return Steve Simon's line.  His line was disconnected.

QUESTIONER:  Yeah, okay, thanks.

MCMAHON:  Sure.

I think we will try to get him to resume "from a political perspective," I think he was going to say.  But --

QUESTIONER:  Sure.  I can hear you very well.  I got in on this just a minute or two late.  Are you still there, Mr. McMahon? 

MCMAHON:  Yes, I am.

QUESTIONER:  I was going to say, did he mention before I tuned in -- I was a couple of minutes late -- is he -- he's certainly not of the mind that we're going to establish any sort of democracy as envisioned by the president, well beyond that, I would presume?

MCMAHON:  No.  The report is really -- is focused on, I would say, damage control.  He could say it better than I could.  But it's not -- it's saying to pull out now is minimizing the damage and preserving a sense of U.S. operability in other areas, in credibility, and so forth --

QUESTIONER:  Right.

MCMAHON:  -- while at the same time exercising some containment in the region, I believe he said. 

He did mention Kuwait as a place for staging --

QUESTIONER:  I was in on that one.

MCMAHON:  You were in on that?  Okay.

QUESTIONER:  Yep.

OPERATOR:  Rejoining Steve Simon.

MCMAHON:  Welcome back, Steve.

SIMON:  Hi.  Thanks for your patience.

To complete that thought, I don't think we --

MCMAHON:  You were starting to say, "from a political perspective" -- just --

SIMON:  Well, I was saying that I could understand why Senator Clinton had certain interests from a political perspective.  But I moved on to Senator Obama and the March '08 plan.  And my view is that we can't get all our men, women and equipment out by March '08 in the kind of orderly and methodical way in which we need to do so.  And let me explain why, you know, I'd like to spend the whole year, you know, all of '08 getting out rather than try and force our way out of that country as soon as Senator Obama thinks it's a good idea.  And I'm sympathetic to his impulse here, I just don't think it's workable for a couple of reasons.

First, we want to shape the narrative of our -- that is the U.S. has an interest in shaping the narrative of its intervention in Iraq.  And it, therefore, as I intimated earlier, does not want to fashion a narrative in which the United States has essentially been routed and fled from Iraq.  Now, simple limitations on port capacity, shipping capacity, and so forth, means that it's going to take months and months to get all our people out and all our equipment out in a methodical and orderly way that the United States' larger political interests demand.  That's number one.

Secondly, we want to give some time to a post-surge Iraq and some -- and exhibit just a little bit of patience so that, you know, we draw down slowly, and as we draw down, we've still got enough residual capacity to deal with contingencies that might come up over the course of that year.  And the kinds of things I'm talking about are of two kinds, really.  One is on the negative side, okay?  There's some huge explosion of sectarian violence.  I mean things just go completely haywire. 

The other, on the more positive side, is that, you know, the surge works.  Now, I think that this is highly unlikely, virtually impossible, but suppose it did.  And suppose that the surge worked insofar as a moderate political center was able to emerge in Baghdad and pursue a systematic program of national reconciliation.  Well, under those circumstances you might want to have some presence there even for that extra little bit of time. 

So on balance, I think that, you know, the end of '08 deadline makes more sense than a March '08 deadline.  So there's a difference between what this report is saying and what, for example, Senator Obama is endorsing.

QUESTIONER:  Can I ask one quick follow-up and then I'll bow out?

MCMAHON:  Okay.

SIMON:  Sure.

QUESTIONER:  I'm in Washington, and the perception is that the president is, you know -- well, his opponents and critics say he's stubborn, he won't change course and so forth.  You get the impression when you listen to Defense Secretary Gates on the Hill he seems to have a somewhat different view, but he's very careful about his expressing it.  But I guess what I'm trying to get at is, if the surge, as you said, does not -- you know, highly unlikely, virtually impossible -- does not work and we all become aware of that in the next two or three months, four months, what do you see Mr. Bush doing in terms of -- is he ever going to be able to make another speech and say, I don't know -- what's the plan for '08 in the last year of his term in this situation, based on the surge having not worked and even he has to face up to the fact?  Do you have any thoughts on where he might go, or does he have anyplace to go here?

SIMON:  Well, you know, the administration has boxed itself in pretty effectively, although it has to be said that the president's address to the nation on the surge strategy did state that the U.S. commitment to Iraq was not, quote-unquote, open-ended.

QUESTIONER:  Right.

SIMON:  So there is a little bit of an escape hatch there.  But at the same time, he and his Cabinet members have been out there saying that the costs of strategic failure in Iraq are, quote-unquote, incalculable, which I take to mean unbelievably bad and completely acceptable.  That being the case, he will, I think, be constrained to do what it is he's already said on a number of occasions he would do, which is keep American forces in Iraq for the duration of his administration and leave it to his successor to withdraw if that's what they do. 

And historically, you know, governments that get into these kinds of foreign wars are not the governments that get their countries out of those foreign wars.  You know, that was true for the Russians in Afghanistan, for the Israelis in Lebanon, for the U.S. in Vietnam.  I mean, that's just sort of how it works.  So just on the basis of historical precedent, I wouldn't expect the Bush administration to pull our soldiers -- U.S. soldiers out of Iraq.

QUESTIONER:  Okay.  Thanks a lot for that.

MCMAHON:  Thank you, Ron.

SIMON:  Sure.

MCMAHON:  Operator, our next question.

OPERATOR:  Okay.  Our next question today comes from Nathan Birchfiel from Cybercast News Service.

QUESTIONER:  Good morning.  Just to kind of follow up on that last question.  I mean, if you don't expect that Bush would change course, would change policy, how does a plan like this, that is completely different from what he intimates that he wants to do -- how does this come to fruition?  How does a plan like this work its way into policy?

SIMON:  Well, it may well be that it doesn't work itself into policy.  The idea behind the report was to suggest a rational off-ramp for the United States in an extremely difficult situation.  If the administration is not inclined to take that off-ramp, well, then, you know, so be it.

The wild card here really is -- well, there are two wild cards, but they're really related.  And they're, A, congressional dynamics on our presence -- on the U.S. presence in Iraq.  I mean, right now, Republican support for the president is weakening by the day, although I have to say the Republicans still show a great deal of discipline on this score.  But as I indicate in the report, there are any number of things that could happen over the course of even the next six months that would lead Americans to believe that the situation in Iraq was not just difficult, even desperate, but catastrophic for the United States.  And if that were to happen, then you could see the White House hand being forced, and if it does, studies like mine but others as well will be looked at by Congress especially as models for getting the United States out of a real mess.

And, you know, the linked thing I referred to was public opinion.  You know, public opinion on -- especially on casualty tolerance cues off a couple of things.  You know, the public believes that the stakes are really worth it; now, that's one the administration is hammering away on, right, when they say, well, the costs of leaving are incalculable.  They're trying to, you know, keep a public sense of stakes being high, really alive and robust.

The second thing that the public keys off of is prospects for success.  Now, you know, that's -- there's not much that the administration can sort of do with that one, at least at this point, because, as the previous questioner noted, you know, after surge, the administration's kind of out of Schlitz.  You know, there isn't anything else to hold out to the American people to suggest success or victory in the near to medium term.

And finally, the public cues off the degree of consensus among kind of policymakers and, you know, the talking heads about the situation.  So, you know, if you've got wall-to-wall agreement of both parties in Congress and Congress with the White House and the pundits, you know, chiming in with both Congress and the White House on how key -- this is really important, there's a chance of success, and the administration's got the right strategy, well, then public casualty tolerance is going to be really high.  It'll be strong.

But once the public sees splits and, you know, they see the sort of the policymaking -- a lead and the pundits kind of really splitting on a lot of these issues, especially where there's, you know, the public sees splits within, you know, the ruling party, then, you know, the public starts to think, you know, come on.  You know, what's going on here?  We got to get these people out.

So, you know, these are wild cards that could affect the situation dramatically.  But, you know, in answer to the previous question, I just thought, well, let's kind of save the wild cards and just talk about the highest probability, which is that President Bush, who is a very determined person and who prides himself on his -- in his ability to kind of ignore public opinion, is just going to keep troops there, you know, to his last day in office.

MCMAHON:  Thank you, Nathan.

Operator, next question, please.

OPERATOR:  Thank you, sir.

Our next question comes from Talla Dowlatshahi with Reporters Without Borders.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you very much, Mr. Simon, for a very kind of well canvassed-out synopsis of what's going on in the region.

I am really concerned, through what our organization discusses with journalists and academics and so forth, about in-country, in Iraq itself and civil society in terms of the types of information that local journalists, who are now primarily being hired out to get the bulk of the coverage for international news agencies as well -- how they will be able to, as you had said, get the situation in terms -- if it's going to be genocidal or not into something that's very proactive in promoting very grassroots policy to get the people within Iraq to start talking.

And what I'm really concerned about is that they're being killed in such high numbers now that there is a great fear within the country of really speaking about what's happening truthfully.  And I wonder if you have any insight on how and if that will ever come to fruition, if these local reporters will be able to actually start promoting effective policies that will speak to members of civil society, to not engage in a genocide? 

SIMON:  You know, I think that that's, you know, a worthy goal, and really something to hope for, but I don't see it as likely in the near-term. 

Operator, am I on? 

MCMAHON:  Yes you are, Steve. 

OPERATOR:  Yes, sir. 

SIMON:  Okay, great.  Sorry, it was just very silent for a moment.  I apologize. 

I don't see it as likely, because civil society in Iraq has been, you know, so thoroughly ravaged -- first by many years of Saddam's Ba'athist rule, which made it a policy priority to dismantle civil society that had developed, you know, since the 1920 revolution in Iraq.  That was a policy objective for them that they took very seriously.  And any civil society organization -- which was to say, a citizens organization that attempted to interpose itself between society and the state was systematically taken down. 

And there wasn't, you know, a whole lot left by 1990, when sanctions hit -- 1991, actually, when sanctions hit.  And then you had 12 years of economic sanctions that essentially gutted the middle class.  Many people fled.  You know, anybody who could get out of Iraq could.  And that was also very damaging to prospects for civil society.  And then, you know, you had this invasion that decapitated the leadership but didn't substitute governing capacity for the capacity that it destroyed by decapitating the Ba'athist leadership. 

So, you know, this was a triple whammy, from which I think it is very unreasonable to expect civil society, you know, to -- it's very unreasonable to expect civil society to emerge from that kind of triple whammy.  And that sudden loss of government capacity -- which you saw reflected in the looting, for example, that went on -- created opportunities and incentives for, you know, a new kind of informal, very cruel and very chaotic kind of government that justified -- that is to say, very, very local government that justified its authority in sectarian terms.  And you know, the rest, as they say is history.  So it's not clear to me that there is a civil society, in the sense in which I think you're using the word, for reporters at this point to talk to. 

MCMAHON:  Thank you for your call -- (reporter ID inaudible). 

Steve, I would just add at this point, when you talk about Iraq, obviously, you're talking in generalities.  But are there parts of Iraq you can say are reasonably functional, where maybe we have seen some emergence of civil society?  I'm thinking either the Kurdish North or parts of the Shi'a South. 

SIMON:  Yes, I think that's true.  There is a kind of civil society in the North.  In the South, it's -- you know, the situation is a little more complicated.  It's -- you know, what you see are not the kinds of civil society groupings that are usually thought to be the kind of indispensable intermediary between authoritarianism and democracy -- in other words, trade representatives and -- that is to say trade unions, professional organizations, voter organizations, and political parties as distinct from sectarian defense organizations. 

So, you know, from my perspective, it's just a little bit more complicated than that.  But you don't have the national network of civil society organizations that would really be able to pull things together and make a kind of a national reconciliation program work on the ground that you probably need -- that this questioner is probably thinking of.

MCMAHON:  Okay, thank you.

Operator, we'll take another question.

OPERATOR:  Okay.  Our next question comes from Scott Kitching with News Talk 1290 CJBK.

QUESTIONER:  (Off mike) -- and thank you for taking my call.  On page -- I believe it's page 34 of the report, you talk about a moral obligation.  And it seems as though the question has become the moral obligation -- (off mike) -- leaving Iraq in either a (better ?) security situation than it was prior to the invasion, versus the obligation to American soldiers and not risking their lives in what appears to have become an untenable situation. 

If the decision becomes, you know, the lives of the American soldiers, what are the ramifications of that decision as it pertains to American influence in the Middle East?

SIMON:  Well, you know, American influence is not going to go away, and I'll tell you why I think so.  You know, there's certainly room for disagreement on this point, I suppose.

The U.S. is big, it's really big, and it is now very much in the region.  You know, for the next couple of years, at any rate, just looking at the probabilities, the United States is not only going to be sort of big and intrusive in the region, but will have something like a third of its ground forces in the region.  So this signifies a certain degree of continuing influence.  There are governments in the region that still depend, at least tacitly, on an American security umbrella, and that's not going to go away.  So these are all kind of the conditions for continuing influence.

Now, on the other hand, the U.S. performance in Iraq has been so unimpressive and, you know, counterproductive, that impressions of American competence have suffered.  And that, from a U.S. strategic perspective is not a good thing, and that reputation for competence is going to have to be reacquired. 

The other thing is that for many individuals in the region, the attack on -- the intervention in Iraq looked like another colonial attack on an Arab country with the aim of stealing whatever it had and controlling it.  And the intervention really fueled those perceptions.  And, you know, to the extent that people believe that -- and many, many people in the region believe it -- it's going to make it more difficult for governments on whom we rely for cooperation to be out there in front with the U.S. because they have their own publics to worry about.  So, you know, that's a countervailing factor.

So I guess my answer to your question is it's kind of a mixed bag, you know.

MCMAHON:  Thank you for your question, Scott.

Next question, Operator.

OPERATOR:  Thank you, sir.

Our next question comes from Jim Dingeman with INN World Report.

QUESTIONER:  Hi, Steve.  How are you?

SIMON:  Alrighty.

QUESTIONER:  I have a few questions for you, Steve.  First of all, I'd like you to -- first, thanks for the report.  It's a very interesting and provocative report.  But how do you see the whole mishigas vis-a-vis the United States and Iran in this mix? 

This week in Newsweek we have a quote from Hillary Mann, who was running the Iran desk in the National Security Council, saying how the Bush administration is essentially looking for provocation for a conflict with Iran.  How does that intermingle with this whole scenario of disengagement you see?

SIMON:  Well, you know, no one really knows what's going to happen between the United States and Iran.  There's just too much conflicting evidence.  And I'm happy to talk about that in greater detail, because I do follow that, and that's mainly what I'm talking to people here on the Gulf about.  

But the U.S. presence in Iraq arguably is a point of vulnerability.  So if you are the United States, and you're planning a military -- a series of military strikes against Iran that you think will generate Iranian retaliation, you've got to think:  Well, you know, we're sitting out there in Iraq, and we're pretty vulnerable, as indeed the military briefers on the explosively formed projectiles that were briefed in Baghdad a few days ago -- as indeed they have been saying.

So assuming that you're expecting a kind of prolonged conflict with Iran, you probably want to be less vulnerable.  You want to reduce your vulnerabilities.  And one way to do that is to, you know, get beyond their immediate reach, which is to say get out of Iraq.

That -- as I understand the administration, that is not how they view the situation.  Well, first, it needs to be said no one in the administration has talked about actually attacking Iran.  So let me underscore that.  They may be thinking about it, they may be planning for it, but nobody's said anything.

Those who have spoken kind of unofficially on behalf of the administration but are not part of it, you know, have been more direct.  And you know, their view has been:  Well, you know, on the question we're discussing, no pain, no gain.

And by that they mean:  Well, okay, sure, they're going to hit us in Iran -- in Iraq, rather, but we have to be -- the United States has to be prepared to absorb that pain for the more important purpose, for the greater purpose of depriving Iran of nuclear weapons production capability, which the Iranians are presumed to be pursuing, however haltingly and desultorily.  So you know, there is an interaction there. 

You know, the kind of most intriguing irony of the broader situation is the way in which the U.S. intervention had, in one fell -- well, interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan had, in one fell swoop, eliminated all of Iraq's regional rivals, all of -- I'm sorry -- all of Iran's regional rivals.  They've just -- we just knocked them all out in one fell swoop, leaving Iran essentially, you know, unconstrained. 

So you know, you could say, if you wanted to be mischievous, that the U.S. created this assertive Iran and then, you know, enabled it, so to speak.  And now, you know, we're in this very difficult situation with them. 

So there are a lot of contradictions inherent in the situation, and kind of sorting them all out is not going to be easy. 

QUESTIONER:  Now, when you talked earlier about the analogies with Yugoslavia and the lack of heavy weapons in this situation vis-a-vis the various militias involved, one thinks, of course, of Rwanda, where there were not heavy weapons, to my knowledge, involved.  In fact, the genocide was carried out with light arms and in some cases machetes.

So many bring up the question -- and we hear this this week in the House, with the debate going on -- about the, quote, "bloodbath" that will occur.  And they compare it, of course, to what happened in Indochina at the time of the end of the Vietnam War.  And certainly Cambodia comes up.

How do you respond to that argument?  How does disengagement over the next two months deal with that kind of question?

SIMON:  Well, you know, let me say at the outset that I don't minimize the problem.  It's a very serious one.  Having said that, the situation is very different from the one in Rwanda.  I mean, you're quite right.  In Rwanda, remember the phrase that a machete is a weapon of mass destruction.  But, you know, in Rwanda, the one side was more or less unarmed, that is the victimized side was more or less unarmed, and they were not expecting what happened.  They were taken by surprise by their rivals who had organized themselves to do this and did it, you know, quickly and by surprise.

That's not what's going on in Iraq.  In Iraq, you have two sides that are more or less armed in the same way.  They're both organized along the same lines, and nobody's surprising anybody.  Broadly speaking, these are two communities that have already been at war.  So taking those factors into consideration, the Rwanda example doesn't strike me as especially relevant for all its horror.

Now, what you don't want in the Iraq situation is for one side more or less suddenly to be able to outgun the other in a serious and decisive way.

So, from my perspective, the last thing you want to do is start giving the -- quote, unquote -- "Iraqi army" heavy artillery and armor.  I think that would be a very dangerous idea, and in fact, if multilateral talks among Iran's neighbors and other interested countries were ever set up, as many studies have suggested, one of the first things that they ought to be talking about is how to keep those kinds of weapons from getting into Iraq so that the balance of forces doesn't suddenly shift to the detriment of one side or the other, because that could trigger the kind of violence that people fear.

QUESTIONER:  Well, thank you, Steve.

MCMAHON:  A very good question.  Thank you.  We're going to move onto the next questioner.

OPERATOR:  Thank you, sir.

Our next question comes from Laura Rozen with America Prospect.

QUESTIONER:  Hi, Mr. Simon.  It was also kind of on Iran.  I'm just curious your thoughts on the administration seeming to define its problem in Iraq more and more as being a result of Iranian interference.  To a degree, it seems beyond the reality of, you know, of the degree to which Iran is the main cause of conflict there.

And, you know, what does it imply in terms of the administration's intentions, you know, in your opinion?

SIMON:  Yeah, I have no idea what their intentions are.  If I did, I'd be rich or I could be trying to make money.

But to be serious, there have always been two sort of competing paradigms for what's going on in Iraq.  You know, on the one side, you had those who said, look, you know, this is a problem of domestic Iraqi politics and kind of a function of some of the factors that I described earlier relating to the demolition of Iraqi civil society and the rapid loss of government capacity in the wake of the intervention.  So, you know, these are things that are kind of internal to Iraq, and they're going to have to play out.  And outside actors, the U.S. included, you know, just really don't have, you know, that much that they could do to influence the situation.

And then, you have this other paradigm, which was actually "Iraqi politics are fine!"  You know, you have a group of politicians in Baghdad.  All they want to do is have, you know, a functioning country that really hangs together, that's unitary, in which, you know, everybody feels a stake in the country, and they want to be pluralistic and democratic and so forth.  And they're being systematically undermined from the outside.  On the one hand, al Qaeda, and on the other hand, Iran.  So if you could only do something about Iran and al Qaeda, then you would see the emergence of this moderate, responsible center in Baghdad. 

And, you know, I never thought that there was much evidence for the second paradigm at all, and now this National Intelligence Estimate, you know, has come out in which they have said quite explicitly that this is -- I think they word they use is self -- the violence is self-sustaining precisely because it is the product of a domestic Iraqi political process, and that if the Iranians and al Qaeda went away tomorrow, you know, things wouldn't look all that much better. 

I don't know if that answered your question.

QUESTIONER:  Well, I mean, I agree with that sort of judgment of reality, perhaps.  But if the administration is saying, you know, Iran -- if they're saying that Iran or believing that Iran is the major cause for U.S. failures in Iraq and, you know, somehow 170 U.S. coalition casualties in Iraq caused by Iranian-made materiel somehow accounts for this more than 3,000 soldiers killed, I mean, do you understand what I'm saying, this sort of reality -- the perception of the problem from the administration seems different from the judgment of the NIE and what you're talking about.

SIMON:  Well, the administration, you know, has never felt particularly bound by the judgments of its intelligence agencies.  This goes back to the, you know, beginning of the administration.  And certainly in the first term there was a very tempestuous relationship between CIA and the White House, which the White House sought to get under control by bringing in Porter Goss to clean house.  Didn't really work that well.  So that's one thing.

The other thing is that, you know, in terms of what the administration is doing as a result of this perception of events in Iraq and around Iraq, you know, they're working to get the Iranians to back off.  And I think much of what they're doing has to be read in that light.

Now, what they're doing has more than one purpose, but that's certainly one important purpose.  So, you know, you announce that Iranian agents or soldiers that are caught being involved in some undefined way in attacks will be shot.  Well, you know, that's kind of -- that's saying "back off."  You bring in, you know, a second carrier battle group, and there's a third one now that's steaming toward the Western Pacific to put it within kind of close range of the Indian Ocean.  You know, that's also saying "back off." 

But in doing those things, you also provide yourself the means to act if the other guy doesn't back off.  So, you know, it's really not easy to draw a line between what actions are being taken to deter Iranian meddling, from the perspective of the administration, and what actions are being taken to prepare for attacks against Iran.

QUESTIONER:  Thanks.

MCMAHON:  Thank you, Laura, for the question.

Operator, any more questions?

OPERATOR:  No, sir, there are no further questions at this time.

MCMAHON:  Okay.

SIMON:  Alrighty.

MCMAHON:  Steve, thank you very much.  This was very interesting.

SIMON:  Okay, thanks.

MCMAHON:  Thank you.

SIMON:  Bye.

MCMAHON:  Bye-bye.


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Iraq: After the Surge

Speakers: Steven N. Simon and Walter B. Slocombe
Presider: Ellen Laipson

Regional experts Steven Simon and Walter B. Slocombe discuss the prospects for a post-surge Iraq and the case for military disengagement.