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Daalder: Democrats Struggling with Iraq Policy

Interviewee: Ivo H. Daalder
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
June 15, 2006

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Ivo H. Daalder, senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, says he sees no end to the heavy violence within Iraq following last week's death of insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. "To argue that Zarqawi's death is going to make much of a difference I think is quite mistaken," says Daalder. He says President Bush's visit only underscored the lack of security in Iraq when it was revealed Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki only learned Bush was in Baghdad five minutes before their meeting.

As to the political implications in the United States, Daalder, who worked in the Clinton administration's National Security Council, says the Democrats are split between those who think the United States can still play a positive role and those who advocate an early withdrawal. He says, "I am more comfortable with a policy that says we will remain engaged so long as the Iraqi government itself is able to move in a positive direction," and if it does not, prepare to withdraw.

The murderous leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed last week, and that's touched off renewed interest about the politics in Iraq, both among American and Iraqi politicians. And of course President Bush just visited Iraq. What do you make of this situation? Do you expect any real changes to occur?

I don't think we'll see a lot of change either in Iraq or, frankly, here. I think the death of Zarqawi appears to have come too late to have a real impact on what happens inside Iraq. He was an evil man. His death is to be welcomed at any point, but the violence inside Iraq and the causes of the violence have spread well beyond Zarqawi. This has become a significant sectarian conflict that has become increasingly violent as time has gone by. One would argue this is a civil war in all but name, and the number of deaths inside Iraq is frankly astonishing. Fourteen hundred people showed up in the morgue in May. That's about fifty plus a day. That's just in Baghdad. That's just the people who actually go through the morgue. We're seeing people killed inside Iraq at a rate of between fifty and a hundred a day. That's fifteen to thirty-five thousand people a year. At that rate, to argue Zarqawi's death is going to make much of a difference I think is quite mistaken.

In other words you don't see any rapprochement between the Sunnis and Shiites?

There is the welcome news that the cabinet, six months after the election, is now complete, where we do have senior Shiite and Sunni leaders willing to sit at least around a table. What we haven't seen yet is either a diminution in the kind of violence between various sects and indeed among them. In Basra, the fight is among Shiites. It's not between Shiites and Sunnis. But in Baghdad it is still between Shiites and Sunnis, and in Kirkuk it's between the Sunnis and Kurds. So the kind of ethnic and sectarian violence that has engulfed the country over the last couple of years has gotten worse. The political process does not seem to have put a dent in that violence.

Do you think this may change?

The capacity of the Iraqi government to suppress violence and to monopolize it is frankly not there, and I think the president's visit sort of underscored this. The president of the United States travels to Iraq, doesn't tell anybody—even the prime minister of that country is not told the president of the United States is not only in his country but indeed is in the building in which the prime minister has just arrived, and they will meet within five minutes. If you want to underscore the lack of security in the Iraqi state, this is it. We don't trust the Iraqi government enough to even inform him that President Bush is about to visit. That, I think, is symptomatic of the problem we are confronting in Iraq, which is that there is no government capable of doing what states do, which is monopolizing violence and controlling what goes on inside its borders.

What about the impact in the United States of Zarqawi's death and the president's trip? The Democrats seem to be undecided what kind of program they want. How will all this affect political developments in the United States?

The Republicans will seize any bit of good news to go back on the offensive. We already saw that with Karl Rove's speech in New Hampshire on Monday in which he accused Democrats of cutting and running and argued if the Democrats had been in control Zarqawi would still be alive—cheap political theater on his part. I think polls are likely to at least halt Bush's slide, perhaps even bump slightly up, but as violence returns as the main topic of conversation, we will continue to see the public's attitude being that it has lost faith in this administration's ability to guide us out of the mess.

Do you expect the Republicans will definitely lose control of the House and the Senate, or one, or both?

As things stand now one would expect them to lose at least the House, possibly even the Senate, but as former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said, "A week is a long time in politics." So things can change. I don't want to make a prediction about what will happen. In part it will depend on whether the Democrats will be able to have a coherent set of points on Iraq, and so far that has eluded them. A number of Democrats, in fact quite a few, voted for the war in the belief that was what made them tough and strong, and the belief also that in the end the war was a good thing. They have now concluded it was not a good thing, but they are stuck with their votes. And there is a basic division between those who have given up on Iraq and those who have not.

What did you think of the differences that were evident Tuesday, when Senator Hilary Clinton said we have to stay with Iraq, and Senator John Kerry, both putative presidential hopefuls for 2008, said we should get out in six months?

I think there is a political part, which is Kerry has finally positioned himself as the antiwar candidate, something he was not in the actual campaign he ran in 2004. And Clinton remains steadfast in the belief that the problem with Iraq is in the execution, not in the fact that it took place. So there's the politics. There's also substance behind this, which is that some people believe there is nothing more the United States can do to either improve or prevent the situation in Iraq from getting worse, and therefore the time has come to get out. I think Kerry has basically concluded that. Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) clearly has concluded that, and there's a whole slew of other Democrats too.

And House Minority Speaker Nancy Pelosi too?

Pelosi, yes. There is a substantial group of foreign policy hawks who are Democrats, who believe that conclusion is still premature. They believe, one, there perhaps are things we can do, as long as we do it better, that would improve the situation or at least prevent it from getting worse. And second, they believe the consequences of failure in Iraq are so tremendous, it's of such strategic importance for the United States, that we must do everything possible within our power to prevent those consequences from occurring, particularly a large-scale civil war in a country that would become a new haven for al-Qaeda-like terrorists, and therefore one needs to stay engaged, and the question isn't whether to stay engaged but how. I think that fundamental difference, which is a difference within the Democratic party but also a difference within the country writ large, is being debated in some substance by Democrats and is the right debate to have. I know there's a variety of people who continue to believe that if we stay we can do things better and therefore prevent the worst from occurring. There are others, I think I'm closer to that camp, who believe the time has come to admit our presence there is not helping things and to think about redeploying the troops sooner perhaps rather than later.

Do you yourself endorse Kerry's idea of six months?

I am more comfortable with a policy that says we will remain engaged so long as the Iraqi government itself is able to move in a positive direction. This is more the Senator Carl Levin [D-Mich.] point of view. Levin has said this for a long time—that we threaten, and in fact do withdraw, if and when the Iraqi government fails [to resolve] the underlying political differences that are necessary to repair. And I would make now the test the constitution. Rewriting the constitution, figuring out a way in which power can be shared between the different ethnic groups and between the central and the regional governments, and how resources are going to be shared, figuring out a way to monopolize violence are all involved. Those are the fundamental questions now before us. Those need to be decided and it ought to be our posture that we will remain supportive and engaged in the process as long as these issues are being discussed and resolved. If not, we should leave. In many ways U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad made that point. He didn't threaten to leave, but he said "We have six months."

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