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Daalder: Withdrawal Timetable From Iraq Not Useful, but Iraqis Must Be Told They Have to ‘Step Up’ Politically and Militarily in 2006

Interviewee: Ivo H. Daalder
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
November 17, 2005

Ivo H. Daalder, a senior fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, says the recent compromise approved in the Senate on Iraq is a "message" to President Bush that says, in effect, "We don't have any confidence anymore that things are going well in Iraq. We need you to lay out a clear strategy and a clear plan for what we're going to do, how we're going to do it, and when we're going to be finished. If you don't do that, we will likely step in later on to do it for you."

Daalder, who holds the Sydney Stein, Jr. Chair at Brookings and worked on the National Security Council in the Clinton White House, says that rather than setting a detailed timetable for withdrawal, the United States must tell the Iraqis they have to "step up" and do well enough politically and militarily in 2006 to warrant a draw-down in American forces. He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on November 17, 2005.

There has been a heated debate in Washington in the last couple of weeks involving the Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, and the president and the vice president, over the issue of whether there should be a timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. The Senate has worked out a compromise which avoids setting a specific timetable but seems to move in that direction. What do you think about the latest compromise?

I think the importance of the compromise is less about the specifics of what was actually voted upon in the amendment, than the message we're trying to send, which is this: "Mr. President, we don't have any confidence anymore that things are going well in Iraq. We need you to lay out a clear strategy and a clear plan for what we're going to do, how we're going to do it, and when we're going to be finished. If you don't do that, we will likely step in later on to do it for you."

I think that's the message. The fact is the Senate could have just defeated the [Senator Carl] Levin [D-Mich.] amendment and moved on. It didn't do that. It defeated the Levin amendment but was able to do so only by offering an alternative which incorporated much of the disquiet of the Democrats, and importantly, pushed the same line, which is to say: 2006 is the moment of truth. Either we're going to find the Iraqis, politically and militarily, really step up and solve some of their fundamental political issues, and take on more of the responsibility of the security in Iraq, or they're not. If they don't, then the real question of whether we should continue to do so is on the table. I think that's the message the Senate sent.

It's interesting. The anti-administration sentiment sort of snowballed this summer when there was a protest by Cindy Sheehan [mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, now head of a movement protesting the war], outside [President George Bush's] ranch in Crawford, Texas. It built up gradually over the fall, with the administration coming under attack for its handling of Hurricane Katrina; then we had the media attention on the 2,000th military death in Iraq and the indictment of [Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff L. "Scooter"] Libby. How do you see the actual situation on the ground in Iraq? In one of your recent blogs, I think you said things were actually going a little better. What is your reading?

I think the one piece of positive news which makes me move from 99.9 percent pessimistic to 98 percent—which may not be a lot, but the shift is significant—is that inside Iraq, what we saw with the runup to the referendum and the actual referendum on the constitution were two very important developments. One was a willingness of the Shiites and Kurds who have effectively run the country for the last year, to say to the Sunnis, "We're not prepared at this moment to change the constitution, but we are prepared to have a serious dialogue with you folks within the first four months of the new year to address some of the big questions that were raised by you and many other people on the issues of federalism, who controls resources, and representation by the Sunnis who had a role in the previous regime."

That was number one. Number two was, you did have a very large turnout among the Sunni voters. Yes, it was all against the constitution, which is not unimportant, but it was a large turnout. That suggests the door is open for some serious deal-making in the first part of 2006. This also assumes the Sunnis [will] continue to participate in the same way when [parliamentary] elections are held one month from now [December 15], and [will] be prepared to have a serious discussion in the new national assembly on how Iraq can move ahead in a way that continues to make it a united country, as opposed to dividing along either sectarian or other lines.

That's my optimism, and to pull the plug out now, or even to say we will leave by the end of 2006 or 2007 no matter what [Iraqis] do, doesn't strike me as sending the right message. I would turn it around and say: We like what you're doing and we want to encourage you to continue. In fact, we will remain part of this process as long as you, the Iraqi people and their leaders, demonstrate a willingness to make this work. But if you don't demonstrate that willingness, if you continue down the line of sectarianism, if you engage in the kind of behavior that was just exposed—where you have Shiite militias running literally underneath the Interior ministry torturing their fellow citizens—we don't want to be part of that. That's the kind of Iraq we tried to get rid of. We are not going to be part of that kind of Iraq. If you want to go down that line of sectarianism, of civil war, of moving from covert to overt civil war, if you are not willing to train your security forces, and are only interested in maintaining your militias—then frankly, we don't have a role there anymore. We cannot want a united, independent Iraq more than the Iraqis. That's the message I think we should be sending.

Do you think the administration is sending that message on its own to the Iraqis?

Yes. Partly I think they are. If one person is to be more congratulated than anybody else on the recent progress that has been made, it's been the [U.S] ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad. He is the one who really has gotten his hands dirty, who has started to talk to everybody in Iraq, not just our friends but also our potential enemies—Sunnis who are very sympathetic to the insurgency—in order to pull them into the political process. He is the one who has pushed the Shiites, in particular, to take another look at Sunni grievances and to figure out a way in which to share power. I think the administration on the ground has a good team, with the ambassador actually out there doing things that are important. I think the military folks, General George Casey and others, remain extremely competent and not starry-eyed by any means. The problem has always been in Washington. It's not been on the ground.

Of course, this major election for the new National Assembly takes place on December 15. I noted with interest that Ahmed Chalabi, who currently is a deputy prime minister, was recently in New York and he's still in Washington. He's leading a new party of more or less secular Shiites. And Ayad Allawi, who was the former prime minister under the transitional authority, is also trying to revive a more secular party. Another major development is that [influential Shiite cleric] Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has said he won't endorse any particular list in this next election. Do you think there is a chance the more religious, Iranian oriented-parties will lose some seats?

Well, almost by definition they'll lose seats because there is a different electoral system

It's by district now?

It's now by district rather than a national district, so there are certain seats that are not going to be won by Shiites because there are no Shiites living in many places. You know there are the Shiite seats and the Kurdish seats, so almost by definition, you're going to have less influence among Shiites and Kurds in the [new] National Assembly. I do think what you're seeing is now an increasing openness of the political system at large, and particularly among the Shiites—less so among the Kurds, and still to be seen among the Sunnis.

Among the Shiites, there continues to be a fight, at least at the elite level. I'm not a specialist on Iraqi politics, so I don't know to what extent it will translate itself into votes, but at least in the elite level you see a disquiet among sectarian and non-sectarian Shiites. It seems to me the fact that Sistani has stepped back does open up the political process to one where competence, as opposed to ideology or religion, may be a more important factor in determining how people will vote. In that regard, I think it's hard for Chalabi to run on the competence side; I'm not sure what program he's running on other than he happens to be able to get to see the Americans, which frankly says more about the Americans than it says about him. It's not as if he is well-loved or liked or even known in Iraqi. I do think that Allawi is a more interesting prospect, because not only is he secular, he's also multiethnic. He's really saying, "I am an Iraqi first and last, I'm really not a Sunni or a Shiite or a Kurd, and I'm political as opposed to religious." I think that's an interesting ticket. If I were Allawi, the last thing I would do is get any endorsements or seek any support from the administration, which is probably a death note. So far, he hasn't done it. What you're seeing is a political process taking place, against a background of sectarian violence, that suggests there is at least some hope you can move forward in a positive direction. I didn't see that six months ago, and that's the change.

Let's talk a bit about American politics. How significant do you think the Iraqi war will be in the 2006 elections?

It depends on two fundamental issues. One, what is the state of affairs inside Iraq? Are we seeing a U.S. casualty rate equal to or larger than we have today? I think we're now at two to three American deaths a day, and a general sense that Iraq is in a state of disintegration. Secondly, what is the overall troop level in November or October 2006? If it is over 100,000 and the violence has not diminished, I think this will be the issue of the election for a very simple reason: every Democratic non-incumbent is going to run against the war. It's already happening.

What you're seeing is a movement in the Democratic party of people who did not vote for the war. They have embraced an anti-war message as fundamental both in the primary and then presumably in the general election. If the election were held today, and the situation today prevails at the time of the election, I think Iraq is going to be a major, major issue.

On the other hand, if Iraq goes reasonably well, if the violence diminishes, if a political process is in fact moving forward, if, as a result, large troop reductions have been both executed and are on the way, if troops are down to 80,000 or lower—I think then other issues are likely to be at least as important: Issues of general competence, the role of government, the energy crisis, and the state of the economy. But my view is, this war is a losing proposition politically. I think last August was a turning point. That's when the public turned on the question of whether we are better off or worse off with the war. I just don't see that pulling back, even if things go well. If the general view within the country is good then people will say, 'Good, now we can go home.' If the general view in the country is bad, they will say, 'Now we can go home.'

Carry this across to the 2008 presidential election. Obviously we don't know who is going to be the candidate for either party.

The 2008 election is much more difficult, because you may have a situation in the runup to 2008 in which both political parties run against George Bush. You have an open primary in the Republican side as well as the Democratic side. You can have, in fact, two candidates heading the tickets who are anti-Bush. You know, [Sen.] John McCain [R-Ariz.] or [Sen.] Chuck Hagel [R-N.D.] on the one hand and any Democrat on the other.

Do you think McCain can get a nomination? He's getting on a bit in age.

What you need is a moderate on foreign policy who still lives happily with the right wing of the party. McCain actually comes pretty close, though he's such a maverick on a lot of other issues. It is not a given that the Republican candidate for president will have to defend foreign policy. I think people will want to run away from this president as fast as they can. By the time we get to the election, [Bush] may be down to 25 percent in popularity in the polls.

Unless, as you say, there is a miraculous change politically in Iraq....

But even then I don't think it would help. I think the wheels have come off the Bush presidency.

You said at one point, I think in one of your articles, that Bush reached his apex in foreign policy when we invaded.

Yes, and it's been downhill ever since. The question is, at what point did the American public get it? It happened for a variety of reasons. A not inconsiderable reason had to do with the candidate the Democrats had in 2004. Bush's downfall only really happened in 2005. It was the combination of what was happening inside Iraq, the refusal to meet with Cindy Sheehan—which I think people will look at as one of the great failures of this president because he could have gotten rid of the whole issue for August—and Katrina. Katrina sort of exposed the emptiness of the presidency in terms of leadership, competence, security, safety, and the role of the government. It just devastated this president.

Refresh my memory, what was your view on the war when it was launched?

My view of the war, on the day of the war, was: When we did go to war, I supported it given where we were. I regret it. I spent a lot of time in 2002 and 2003 against precipitous war but I am on record, something that I hate to be but I am, drafting a letter with moderate Democrats and the neoconservative wing of the Republican party that says, "Now we're at the brink of war, we may not have agreed on how we got there, but now that we're there we ought to support it." And we listed a number of things we needed to do in the postwar period.

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