What to Do About Iraq
Adjunct Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Council on Foreign Relations; Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University
Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs and Director of the Geopolitics of Energy Project, Harvard Kennedy School
President, Council on Foreign Relations
Experts discuss latest developments in Iraq and options for dealing with them.
Each meeting in the What to Do About... Series highlights a specific issue and features experts who put forward competing analyses and policy prescriptions in a mock high-level U.S. government meeting.
HAASS: Welcome, everybody, to this New York meeting's program conference call here at the Council on Foreign Relations. This is a short-notice gathering based upon a quickly gathering crisis in Iraq and, indeed, beyond Iraq in the Middle East. The title of it is "What to Do About Iraq," and this is the latest in our "What to Do About" series. And the whole idea is to in some ways mimic a National Security Council meeting where we have individuals who would be present not as representatives of a particular agency or organization, but rather as ministers without portfolio or counselors, able to weigh in as they see fit across the board.
We have three individuals who are particularly well-equipped to do this today: Stephen Biddle, who's a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, and is also connected to us here at the Council on Foreign Relations as an adjunct senior fellow for defense policy. We have Max Boot, who is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for our national security studies here at the Council. And last, and far from least, we have Meghan O'Sullivan, who is also the Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor, in this case, of the practice of international affairs, and she—at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where she also directs the geopolitics of energy project. And Meghan is also linked to the Council, where she, like Steve Biddle, is an adjunct senior fellow.
What we're going to do is the four of us will talk for probably about the next 20, 25 minutes, give or take—no more than that, I promise—on the situation there, and then we will open it up to you all.
Let's just begin as any such meeting of the NSC would begin, with the setting. So here we are. It is mid-June of 2014, and the crisis seems to have been triggered by the unexpected rapid advance of foot soldiers, and some not on foot, of this organization known variously as ISIS or ISIL, that straddles the border between Syria and Iraq, as if there were little or no border, and made major inroads in the north of Iraq. It seems that those inroads then triggered a response by both the Iraqi government and the government of Iran, and it looks like Al Quds Forces have been send to Iraq. It also looks like the Iraqi government has woken up to the challenge it faces.
I'll be curious to ask the three individuals gathered here whether they sense that the situation has perhaps somewhat stabilized. There are all sorts of reports of various executions, and worse, committed by ISIS members on their way into Iraq. And the United States government has been meeting rather nonstop over the last few days deciding exactly how it might respond. And we will get in a few minutes to the possibilities for response.
But, first, I want to just turn to the three individuals—Steve Biddle, Max Boot, and Meghan O'Sullivan—to flesh out the situation on the ground and, if you will, beyond the ground, in terms of what is happening and so far, at least, what have been the consequences of what is happening. So why don't we start with you, Steve?
BIDDLE: OK. I think we're looking at a situation where there is an initial acute crisis phase, when the Iraqi military in the north more or less evaporated and ISIS started rolling south, and there was some concern that they would roll all the way to the capital and the government would fall quickly.
I think that initial acute phase is mostly over, not entirely, but mostly. And I think what we're looking at now is a transition into what's likely to be a very long, ugly, ethno-sectarian civil war that's more on the order of years of duration, rather than weeks or months, and that poses as a result a variety of important stakes for the United States, partly as a function of who is waging it on the other side, but also just as a function of the likely length and cost and humanitarian issues associated with a long civil rights in a place like Iraq.
There are obvious humanitarian stakes involved. There's some risk of terrorism that might flow from this, but there's an enormous risk that a long, grinding civil war in a place like Iraq could spread. And if it spreads in this particular part of the world, producing in principle the possibility of a regional Sunni-Shia conflict, then the economic risks to the United States and to the developed world at large are potentially quite serious.
HAASS: But just to be clear, before I turn to Max and Meghan, this is your last concern about war-widening, if you will, and the potential threat to some of the most significant oil- and gas- producing parts of the Middle East, that's in the basket, if you will, of potential longer-term problems, rather than immediate.
BIDDLE: That's right. And I think the longer-term problems are the ones we need to focus on. I mean, obviously, there are important immediate stakes in Iraq, per se, but however you look at this, whether it's in humanitarian terms or in terrorist terms or in economic terms, the stakes rise dramatically if the war regionalizes. So one set of issues that we'll need to think about when we move to the discussion of options is containment and dealing—and trying to limit the prospect of spread associated with this conflict, in addition to options with respect to dealing with the problem within Iraq, per se.
HAASS: OK, let's hold off the options for a few minutes. Max, what in the way of setting would you want to add—either disagree with what Steve Biddle had to say or add to it? BOOT: Well, I would just say, Mr. President, that the conflict has actually already regionalized, because ISIS—you know, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—got its start in Iraq, then migrated across the border into Syria once the civil rights began there, and has carved out a substantial degree of control in areas of northern Syria and is now expanded back into Iraq, where it's essentially in control of much of the Sunni triangle right now.
And I agree with Steve that, you know, the odds of ISIS taking Baghdad anytime soon are slim, because there is a substantial Shiite population there and you see the Shiite militias mobilizing to stop ISIS. But it's still an incredibly worrisome and urgent concern to my mind, because I think what you're seeing in Iraq is pretty much what's already happened in Syria, which is the division of the country into radical Sunni and radical Shiite states, with the radical Sunni state being dominated right now by ISIS in collaboration with some former Baathists. And with Iran, the IRGC, and its proxy militias being increasingly prominent in the Shiite part of the country, you're seeing this polarization which occurs during a civil war. And to my mind, this is pretty much the worst of both worlds, because I think what you're seeing is the emergence of Iraq—in Iraq of two terrorist states, one dominated by Al Qaida, the other one dominated by Iran. I think that's pretty much the last thing that we want to see in that part of the world.
HAASS: Meghan, let me turn it over to you in the way of setting the stage here.
O'SULLIVAN: Sure. Just in terms of bringing people in the National Security Council here up to speed on what's actually happening on the ground and reinforcing the points made by Steve and Max on the question of, has the situation stabilized? I agree completely with Steve that we're moving into a different phase, and maybe it's quiet now. I've talked to a lot of people in Baghdad who say Baghdad is actually quiet, but, in fact, I think we're, you know, just on the verge of something that could be far more detrimental and the civil war that Steve spoke of.
And we're seeing already kind of indications of that. In the last 48 hours, there have been killings of Sunnis by Shia militia, Sunni clerics in the north. This is very inflammatory, obviously, and also of concern is the mobilization of tens of thousands of Shia men who responded to Ayatollah Sistani's fatwa or call for all able-bodied men to pick up their weapons and, you know, to support the security services.
But, of course, the security services don't have the ability to integrate these numbers of people into the formal security structures. And so what we're really seeing is the mobilization of groups that really U.S. and Iraqi policy works for years to get them to put down their weapons, join the political process, and that has effectively been undone in the last few days.
Just two other quick points, one noting what Kurdish action has been. It's an incredibly important part of the situation that—as people on this call will be aware, the Kurds, you know, lost no time in moving in and actually taking control of areas that have been regarded as disputed territories for the last 11 years, and they're now firmly in control of the—with the Peshmerga forces. And that was relatively easy for them to do, and it makes sense for them to do, given their desire to have a buffer between, you know, now this ISIS effectively controlled territory and the Kurdish state. But that's going to be a big part of, you know, what we talk about going forward.
And the third I would just mention, in the last few days, the Baiji oil refinery, which is the largest oil refinery in Iraq, has been taken over by ISIS, or to the best extent of our knowledge that's what's happened. And that could have—or will have major implications for the energy situation inside of Iraq. Even if it doesn't affect exports, basically, that refinery supplies the domestic market. It supplies refined products for 11 of Iraq's 18 provinces. And it supplied the huge amount of the fuel that goes to Baghdad, and so keep in mind, in Baghdad, it's probably 125 degrees right now and it also has a 600 megawatt power plant that ISIS is now in control of. So that's also going to (inaudible) an important weapon in the hands of that ground.
HAASS: Let me just then summarize in terms of then the stakes. Obviously, we don't want to see Iraq become, if you will, the new Afghanistan, like Afghanistan was, and to some extent still is, a large place for which terrorist groups can set up shop. We're concerned for any number of reasons about the humanitarian situation. There's direct and indirect energy consequences, and there's obviously concerns about what you might call the widening or regionalization or further regionalization of this conflict. And it could exacerbate the already incredibly raw Sunni-Shia relations in parts of the region.
But I want to follow up on one thing Meghan mentioned, which is you have the Kurds took advantage of the situation, so to speak, in gaining control of Kirkuk. Is that essentially now a done deal, that that's the new normal? And broader than that, is one of the stakes for the United States recreating a unified, intact Iraq? Or is that or should that no longer be an interest of the United States moving forward?
BIDDLE: Well, as far as an intact Iraq goes, I don't think that's an ultimate end, but it may be a necessary intermediate goal for the United States. I mean, a lot of the partition proposals that have been made over the years, going all the way back to before the 2007 surge, has been that it has very little in it for the Sunnis. If you get kind of a standard tripartite division of the country into Kurdistan, a Shiite south, and a Sunni west and northwest, the trouble is, it leaves the Sunnis in the only part of Iraq that doesn't have meaningful economic assets. And it's not clear that they would accept that. And if they don't accept that and continue fighting to contest it, none of the—none of the more important U.S. interests involved are actually satisfied.
Now, the question of Kurdistan, per se, could in principle have a role that's independent of larger issues of kind of grand mal partitions of the country, in that one of the important issues for the United States in all these options is the question of leverage over the political behavior of the Maliki government, and leverage requires conditional carrots and conditional sticks.
And the question of the U.S. position vis-a-vis Kurdistan is potentially one of a variety of issues that the—in which in here is some degree of potential leverage vis-a-vis the central government in Baghdad, but I think the—partitioning the country as a whole in a formal way I don't think solves any of the problems...
HAASS: We're not talking about a formal way, necessarily, and partition has a legal dimension to it, often that I'm not necessarily suggesting. But there is an argument or at least a question on the table whether the United States should essentially accept what looks to be the effective breakup of Iraq and, in some cases, even embrace it, in part to strengthen the Kurdish area—and that could be a check on ISIS—and also given the fact that Iran has used or responded to this crisis in a way that, if anything, has deepened its already extensive influence over Iraq.
So I'm just simply putting it on the table whether the United States should now try to—should be willing—however, we'll get to options in a minute—but whether this is—that it's either desirable or doable potentially to bring back an intact Iraq.
BOOT: If I—Richard, I guess what I would say is that in theory I'm agnostic about how many states exist in the territory that is now called Iraq. But what I'm very concerned about is the nature of those states. If we could be assured that Sunni and Shiite states would emerge that would be as moderate and pro-American as the KRG currently is, I would be fine with that.
The problem is, as a practical matter, right now, if you see the de facto partition of the country, which, in fact, I think is actually happening as we speak, you're seeing the IRGC dominate the Shiite areas through its proxies and you're seeing ISIS and Baathists dominate the Sunni areas. And that I do not believe is in our interests.
And I think also, if we completely give up on the fiction of a unified Iraqi state, I think it also loses one of the key anti- extremist elements there, which is the Kurds, and their participation in the government, I think, has been generally a good thing, because they tend to be more on the pro—on the moderate end of things and a positive force in the greater Iraq. You take them out of the picture, if they're only defending the KRG, I mean, the KRG will be OK, but I think the rest of the country will burn around it.
O'SULLIVAN: Yep, just one word about stakes. In terms of the implications for energy also meaning that this has potentially widespread economic ramifications for the global economy, if the price of oil goes up considerably, and it also will have an effect on how the U.S. is able to manage other foreign policy problems. And maybe we'll talk more about Iran later.
But certainly if the price of oil goes up considerably, if Iraq's energy goes off-line, it's going to be harder to keep people not buying Iranian oil. It's going to be harder to put on more sanctions with Iran if those talks fail, all of those kinds of repercussions.
On the Kurdish issue, I think this conversation really does dovetail best with a consideration of options, but let me just say briefly that I think the ideal is still unified Iraq, and that is for some of the reasons already laid out, and I totally underscore what Max said, that actually having Kurdistan in Iraq is a moderating influence on the rest of the country, but the Kurds, you know, have generally played a constructive role in bringing the government, you know, back to moderation.
But I think, you know, we're not talking about the ideal. In fact, we are so far from the ideal now that it may be desirable to keep Iraq together—and I think people are understating how easy it would be for Kurdistan to go on its own. There still would be major, major regional issues stemming from Syria, from Iran, and from Turkey. So—but it may be desirable to keep Iraq together, but it may be—you know, it may not be possible.
I personally don't think the Kurds are going to relinquish the territories that they have taken. And that may be consistent with them staying in Iraq, but only under very specific political circumstances, which we can talk about. And while the U.S. and others should be working to create those circumstances which try to keep Kurdistan inside of Iraq, it really is essentially that we think about how to manage a possible Kurdish succession or, you know, simply a different kind of model of political organization for Iraq, because to continue to say that the territorial integrity of Iraq is our number- one goal, without at least behind the scenes really thinking hard about how to manage the breakup of Iraq, I think, you know, we would be really remiss as our duty as policymakers in doing that.
HAASS: I would just simply—I want to move it to options, but I would say two things. There's too interesting things on the table here. One is, if we decide that it's either inevitable or desirable that Iraq is going to break up, the management of that process and some sense of what we want the outcome to be is obviously important. And I thought Max made a good point that potentially more important on whether there's one or more states in the territory formerly known as Iraq would be the character. And that holds true about whether it's a single Iraq or multiple, that what matters more is what's going on within its borders.
With that, let's turn to options. I can think of any number of options, so I just want to put—in the interest of time—it'd be a little bit—it'd be more systematic if we had several ours, but we don't—but there's been any number of things put out there. Let me just mention a handful and then have you all react, and we'll probably reverse the order.
I've seen all sorts of things on the military side. I've seen three ideas at least. One is the provision of military assistance, further military assistance, intelligence and the like, to the Iraqi government. Secondly, I've seen the idea of coordinated military strikes, where the United States would provide airpower, if you will, in some way in concert with actions undertaken by the Iraqi government, conceivably also actions undertaken by Al Quds forces. A third option I've seen is what you might call uncoordinated counterterrorism strikes carried out by the United States, with the United States using drones or airpower or what have you would simply attack ISIS targets, be they in Syria or in Iraq, pretty much the way the United States would attack terrorist targets in Libya or Somalia or Afghanistan or Pakistan or Libya or anywhere else.
I've seen ideas put forward about doing more to cut off financial support for ISIS from various—you know, particularly working the Arab governments. I've seen calls for diplomacy, either regional diplomacy—and that could include Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq, and others. I've also seen talks about—more narrow talks aimed at Iran about what the United States and Iran might do. There's obviously been ideas about helping Jordan cope with its—with the refugee burden. That might be the least controversial of all of the—all of the ideas out there.
And then there's, again, some of the things we were just talking about in terms of helping the Kurds and, if so, under what conditions. And one of the ideas that's been suggested is the United States would try to help an independent Kurdish state or de facto state, so long as it agreed to stay within its current borders, i.e., within Iraq's borders, rather than talk about a greater Kurdistan that would threaten the territorial integrity, among others, of Turkey.
And then I think it was Steve Biddle who early on introduced the idea of containment as an option and what that might—what form that might take. I don't think my list of options is exhaustive. They're also not meant in any way as mutually exclusive. So I just wanted to get lots of ideas out there in the 5 or 10 minutes we have left among ourselves before I opened it up to questions.
So why don't we reverse the order, begin with Meghan O'Sullivan and then go to Max Boot and then go to Steve Biddle?
O'SULLIVAN: Thanks, Richard. There is a lot to respond to, so let me just make a few points and I'm sure we'll get to the full range of options. First, on the military issue—and, really, what you laid out, you know, my response, my initial response is sort of all of the above, plus one thing that you didn't touch on.
On the military response, you know, there's obviously pros and cons to doing this. I actually think one of the major pros of military provisions—military assistance is that it creates leverage with Maliki and the political class that—in that leverage that, you know, has been diluted over time and really compensated for by Iranian support.
And so the military action, I think, will help provide leverage that will help make us a player in the political conversation, which really is, you know, what is needed to seek some kind of sustainable solution to the current crisis.
Looking at the various elements of military support, one thing you didn't mention which I think is extremely important—and I understand it's under consideration—is sending U.S. special forces—you know, small numbers to help train and advise the Iraqi forces.
The combination of that and some use of airpower will have a lot of positive impacts on the morale of the Iraqi army, which will help push back or help stave off the threat from ISIS, and it will, you know, and very importantly, that will be one of the main ways that we can kind of minimize Iranian military support is actually—you know, if there's a real threat to the holy cities, I think it's going to be impossible to keep Iranian military assistance inside of Iraq at the lowest level possible.
So I would be all for the military options, but they have to be done in conjunction with the politics. And President Obama has been very strong on this. I think there's a few options within the political arena—and I'm talking about domestic Iraqi politics—President Obama has really made political progress of military assistance conditional on political progress. I think this is the right way to move through that conceptually, but I think there's just an inherent flaw with that approach, and that is time, that it takes a long time to forge new political compacts in Iraq, and it's not realistic to think that there's going to be a meaningful political arrangement forged before the window for useful military action has closed. And so that's something that needs to be square.
And then there's the whole question of inside the political basket. You know, do you try to just get Maliki to form a more inclusive government, which I think people are attempted to do because that looks like the easiest thing? I think that over the long run, that is not sustainable at all, that Maliki has more or less demonstrated that he is kind of incapable of maintaining an inclusive government and inclusive institutions, and then there's the ideal, which is basically getting a new political arrangement, and then there's what has to happen in the interim, because you can't really move to the ideal right out of this current crisis. But I'll leave that for others to flesh out.
Just on one point on Iran, I know Max had a piece today in the Wall Street Journal and others have chimed in on, you know, what we can do with Iran, and I would say, again, if we were in an ideal world, we wouldn't want Iranian involvement, we wouldn't want to coordinate with the Iranians, for all the obvious reasons.
But again, we are so far from the ideal. And the reality is that Iranian coordination on political matters is essential. Nothing will happen politically inside Iraq that the Iranians are going to be against. And for that reason, Iran is going to be a part of this political outcome that is at the core of a solution.
And so talking to the Iranians on a political level, which is different than a military level, I think is not desirable, but it's essential. You know, I mean, it's not what we want to do...
HAASS: Meghan, before—before I turn to Max, let me just ask one question so I totally understand your position. It seems to me you're saying that as much as we would like Mr. Maliki to demonstrate that he's a changed man, one, it's unlikely, but, two, we probably couldn't get the sort of broad-based political participation we would want anytime soon enough as a condition of helping the Iraq government in this crisis.
So is—what would flow from that, I assume, then is we would be willing under your thinking to provide various forms of help, whether it was arms or intelligence or training or advising to the Iraqi forces, even in the absence of believable commitments from Mr. Maliki that he was going to meaningfully broaden his political base.
O'SULLIVAN: Well, I think—I mean, it's a little stronger than I would go, your statement of it. I think, yes, if we are going for some kind of solution that just asks Maliki to be more inclusive, that's not going to be credible with other regional actors, except maybe Iran, and it's not going to be credible with the Kurds, at least not for long. So I think that's not a long-term solution.
And I think that, of course, we're not going to be able to get the kind of political commitment we'd want or I think that President Obama would be comfortable with before putting forward some kind of military assistance. But I think, you know, we should be able to get some kind of indication that you have, I don't know, an interim council working together that you can reintroduce some of the power- sharing mechanisms that, you know, characterize the transitional period of 2003 to 2005.
There are lots of precedents in the last decade that the Iraqis could go back to. And I do think we're going to have to—if we're going to be a meaningful part of what happens in Iraq—and there's a lot of these (inaudible) in our interest—then I think, you know, it's not realistic to think we're going to get comfortable with the political situation and then we're going to begin a military engagement. These two things are going to have to happen simultaneously. We're going to have to, you know, create leverage that we have lost over the years. And that will mean, you know, providing assistance that perhaps can be terminated, but certainly, you know, needs to happen sooner, rather than later.
HAASS: Lastly, Meghan, before I turn to Max—sorry—one thing you said surprised me. In your all-of-the-above answer to the options, does that mean that one of the options you would contemplate or even support is the idea that the United States would do coordinated military strikes in conjunction with either the Iraqi forces or the Iranian forces inside Iraq?
O'SULLIVAN: Actually, no, I should have qualified that. I would actually say that coordinated airpower with Iraqi forces makes sense, because, again, you know, keeping the big picture in mind, this is about one of the factors. Of course, it's about pushing back on ISIS and creating more space and galvanize the Iraqi army and all of those things.
But it also about creating leverage, and so coordinating and working with the military is something that you can cease to do—I mean, you can cease to do uncoordinated strikes, but I would not—I'm not an advocate of coordinating with the IRGC. I just don't think—I mean, I think they're a little bit of the reality on the ground, but I think that if the United States puts a little more visible skin in the game, that's actually the best way to minimize IRGC military support.
Of course, you know, there's the reality that some Iraqi forces will share information to the IRGC. I think that will be hard to avoid. But certainly I wouldn't advocate that we kind of get into a military, you know, coordinating relationship with the IRGC.
I've talked to a lot of Iraqis. My firm impression is that they would prefer to rely on American military assistance given a choice, but if that is not forthcoming in a reasonable time period, that they will rely on Iranian assistance just given that that is so far the only assistance that's being, you know—being unconditionally offered.
HAASS: Thank you. Max?
BOOT: I would pretty largely agree with what Meghan just said, and I would want to stress two points about—because Meghan talked about what we should do, let me—and I largely agree with her on what we should do, but let me stress what we shouldn't do, because this is something that I hear talked about a lot in Washington, one idea being just to launch air strikes.
And in theory, airpower can be a great element of a broader counterinsurgency campaign, but it should not be done in isolation. And in the case of Iraq, I don't think we have enough situational awareness of what's going on, on the ground right now to usefulness launch air strikes because we're not fighting a regime with tanks and uniform troop formations and so forth. You really have to be able to identify targets.
And to do that effectively, I do think we need to put a force of special operations troops on the ground. We need to have more military trainers that go back into Iraq to work at the higher level headquarters of the Iraqi military to get eyes on in terms of what's going on. We need to, you know, dramatically increase our intelligence commitment to Iraq, as well, all these things to get a much better awareness of what's actually going on, because, you know, if we rely on the Iraqi military as currently constituted under Maliki to tell us who to target, their idea is basically any Sunni is a terrorist.
We don't want to be drawn into the middle of that kind of civil war. What we want to do is to be able to sidelines as much as possible the sectarians of both sides, both the Sunni and the Shiites, and bolster the professionalism of the military, which has badly deteriorated since the pullout of U.S. forces in 2011.
So I think that is—that should be a priority. I think Meghan is right, that should be done concurrently with seeking political reform in Baghdad. And I would underline what she said—or what I think she said—which is, Maliki is not a credible future leader for Iraq. And right now, there is actually an opportunity to get rid of him. It would not require a coup. All it would require would be to use whatever political muscle we have to work with the other political factions in Iraq to deny Maliki a third term, which he is now seeking. And I think it would be a disaster, because he has consistently alienated the Sunnis, and Iraq desperately needs a more unifying, less divisive leader.
And the fact that—you know, that the Iraqi Army has fallen apart on Maliki's watch, that he's lost Mosul, as well as Fallujah, should count as a major mark against him. The final point that I would make is, I do think it is important to counter Iranian influence. We should not—you know, we should not take this kind of simplistic conclusion that I hear some reaching, which is to say that, oh, Iran doesn't like ISIS so we can cooperate with Iran against ISIS.
In point of fact, Iran has had a very checkered history with ISIS and its predecessor organization, Al Qaida in Iraq, because there's actually a lot of evidence from the Treasury Department and other sources about Iranian support and certainly Syrian support, Iran's ally, for AQI and now for ISIS. They've been playing in many ways a double game.
But even if they were these wholehearted opponents of ISIS that some imagine them to be, we just don't want any part of how the IRGC wages war. As we've seen in the case of Syria, that involves dropping barrel bombs on civilians using chemical weapons, pursuing this quasi- genocidal campaign. If given half a chance, the IRGC and its militias, Asa'ib al-Haq and Qutb Hezbollah (ph) and others, in Iraq will carry out exactly the same kind of campaign, and that will lead to a further polarization of the country between Sunni and Shiite extremists, pretty much the last thing we want.
What we actually should be doing is what we did so effectively in 2007-2008, which was, among other things, to covertly counter Iranian machinations within Iraq and to sideline and to reduce as much as possible the influence of the Iranians, so that should certainly be one of the things that we're doing as we're trying to work with the Iraqi military to counter ISIS and as we're trying to work with the Iraqi political system to get more inclusive and less divisive leadership in Baghdad. That's—I think those are the main lines of operations that we should be pursuing.
HAASS: Thank you. Steve, let's get word from Steve Biddle, and then we'll open it up to the questions from our members. Mr. Biddle?
BIDDLE: Yeah, I tend to agree with Max on the limitations on the utility of air strikes, especially in the short term. But I think in general, across all the military options, given that what we're looking at is a long sectarian civil war, the kinds of things the United States can do militarily are helpful at the margin at best. None of these things are decisive instruments that can bring the war to an early conclusion.
And central to U.S. interests in this thing is that we end this war as soon as possible. The longer the war grinds on, not only the bigger the humanitarian consequences, but the greater the prospect that the war spreads across Iraq's borders and becomes even wider than it is already.
HAASS: So what, Steve—let me interrupt—what would you then do? If—if that was your assessment, what is it then we could do that would hasten, rather than—hasten an end to a war, rather than see it prolonged?
BIDDLE: Well, I think this brings us to Meghan's comments. The thing we can do is to promote political change to create an earlier defection or realignment of some part of the Sunni side to end this war before we just simply get a long-term annihilation of the Sunnis. We want a 2007-2008-like development here in which the opponents of the GOI split, some part of them come over to the government side, the rest gets isolated.
Conditionality in what we do is the key to that. If all we do is just unconditionally strengthen Maliki or his successor—I don't think the issue is Maliki's personality. I think the issue is the structural incentives on whoever runs a Shiite government right now. If all we do is we strengthen the government side with new conditions attached, we encourage them to press the Sunnis harder and fight for an absolute outcome that just lengthens the war.
The only way we've got of producing a split in the other side sooner is compelling some degree of greater willingness to accommodate on the part of the GOI. And the way you get that leverage is not providing unconditional goodies to the government. It has to be sticks and carrots that can be provided if we get behaviors we need, but withheld if we can't or if they don't.
If we're unable to manage that kind of conditionality, then simply providing stuff to the government is as likely to make things worse as it is to make things better.
HAASS: OK. Now that we've put a lot out there, let's open it up for questions from our members. I think it will be explained to you how to do this.
OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, at this time, the floor is now open for your questions. If you would like to ask a question, you may do so now by pressing star, one on your touch-tone phone. If at any time you need to remove yourself from the questioning queue, press star, two. Again, to ask a question, please star, one now.
Our first question comes from Charles Cogan with the Harvard Kennedy School.
QUESTION: Thank you. As I stated in a blog a couple of days ago, I think the way forward in Iraq and Syria is very clear: number one, increase aid to the Free Syrian Army in Syria. Number two, do not intervene militarily in Iraq, do not go back into that war. The Maliki government has forfeited any credibility with the United States because they've been totally irresponsive. I think now is the time to let the Iraqis sort themselves out.
HAASS: This is sort of—thank you, Chuck—this is the, if you will, Syrian approach. I would just say one thing, based on a conversation I had this morning, because I also have advocated that we should do more in Syria to help individuals and groups that are not associated with ISIS in Syria. It is also at this stage easier said than done, that the opportunity for doing so was clearly significantly greater one or two or three years ago than it is now. That said, I'm happy to have anybody else comment on trying to do more in Syria as a way of accomplishing more in Iraq.
BOOT: Well, I mean, I think you're right, Richard, that it is much harder to do now, practically speaking, than it was a couple of years ago, but I think there's still an imperative to try to do what we can to hit ISIS on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border and to bolster the more moderate forces on both sides, the moderates being pretty weak in both places right now, and I think they need help. And as a practical matter, you're right. It's not that easy to do right now, given how weak the Free Syrian Army has become and how powerful the Nusra Front and ISIS have become at its expense.
But I think that still has to be part of any strategy. And I think, you know, we should—there's a good chance to use American airpower in combination with more moderate forces on the ground, whether it's the Free Syrian Army, the Peshmerga, more professional units of the Iraqi army, other allies, to try to push back and prevent this terrorist state from hardening control of this vast region across Syria and Iraq. I think that—you know, dealing with that Syrian component has to be a vital part of it.
But I would just, you know, disagree with Chuck's point about how we can just leave Iraq to sort itself out, because if we leave Iraq to sort itself out, it's going to wind up looking a lot like Syria looks like today, and that's a disaster.
O'SULLIVAN: If I could just briefly add onto that, that I understand that it would be a lot of people's impulse let's do more in Syria and let the Iraqis kind of stew in it. I think the reality now is that prescription doesn't have as much logic to it as it looks at first glance, because I think it's useful, if a slight hyperbole to think that basically over the last week Syria's border just extended way into Iraq. And so we're dealing with effectively, you know, one kind of theater.
And the benefits we have on the Iraqi side are much greater than the benefits we have on the Syrian side. And so if we're trying to affect this one theater, you know, on the Iraqi side, we have potential ally with the peshmerga, who, you know—which is a very serious asset. We also have an Iraqi government that is likely or already has, I understand, asked for military assistance, which means that you don't need to deal with U.N. resolutions, you don't need to deal with Russia and China in the same way, and we also have a much greater knowledge and understanding of the Iraqi actors than we do of the Syrians.
So I certainly would say that, you know, we should look for a more regional solution to this and that we should couple what we're willing to do in Iraq with what we're doing in Syria. But to say let's focus more on Syria and leave Iraq alone, I think it probably doesn't make the most sense for the reasons I just laid out.
HAASS: OK, let's get the next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Raven Bukowski with the United States Military Academy.
QUESTION: Hi. My question is for Meghan O'Sullivan. I was just hoping you could go into a bit more detail on how you would advocate the use of special forces, especially considering that these capabilities are quite stretched thin across the globe doing various missions, and also can you comment on the time that you think it would take for these forces to be effective in bolstering the confidence of the Iraqi security forces?
O'SULLIVAN: Sure. And I welcome Max and Steve to chime in on that. I think—again, I can't give you a percentage of our special forces contingents or all of that, but I don't think we're talking about necessarily very large numbers. Certainly what we've seen in the past is that the insertion of a fair—or more of a coupling of a fairly small number of American forces even at the headquarter level with Iraqi forces has a pretty dramatic impact on the morale and cohesion and organization of the Iraqi forces.
And I think that we would see similar positive effects. And I imagine those would be relatively short term. It's not a panacea, but I think it is actually something that would visibly affect morale, as well as affect capability. So that would be my kind of general response that I'll ask, you know, Max and Steve if they have more specific numbers to share with you.
BOOT: Well, I mean, I do think that the Special Operations Command is stretched thin, but it also was doing a lot in both Iraq and Afghanistan at one point, more than it's actually doing now. Certainly, what it's doing now in Iraq is non-existent. You know, I think we should give serious consideration and we should try to get, in fact, the joint Special Operations Command task forces back into Iraq in the way that they are now in Afghanistan and the way they were in Iraq prior to 2012 and get them operating in conjunction with the Iraqi special forces, because that's the most effective leadership targeting element that we have.
And I think we also need to get lower level special operations forces, ODAs, the Green Berets, out there working with Iraqi battalions and brigades to try to instill some greater professionalism into those forces. I think we also need to put in some non-special forces trainers to work with the Iraqis, because we just don't have enough special operators to go around and there's some higher-end capabilities that the Special Operations Command lacks in terms of higher-level headquarters.
So I think we have the resources to do all that. We've—I mean, we're drawing down—we've left Iraq. We're drawing down so far in Afghanistan, where by the end of the year we're only going to have 10,000 troops overall, so I certainly think we have the capacity to buttress our capabilities in Iraq.
BIDDLE: I think the central issue for the morale and performance of the Iraqi military is not how many American advisers they have or how much American training they have or even whether they get air strikes. I think the central issue here is Iraqi politics, and especially the politicization of the Iraqi military that Maliki has deliberately brought about for understandable, but self-serving reasons.
So I think if what we do is unconditionally we simply provide things like, you know, special forces teams or other advisers or air strikes or you name it, mostly what we're doing is reinforcing Maliki's policy of worrying first about whether the military mounts a coup d'etat against him by ensuring him that the Sunni threat to him can be dealt with by the American air strikes and, therefore, he can allow the Iraqi military to continue to be basically one big political satrapy. I think if we were really...
BOOT: Can I just jump in?
BOOT: Can I just jump in to make a fast point on what Steve was saying, which is—I mean, I think he's right to worry about Maliki's politicization, the way he's politicized the Iraqi military, but I think, in fact, getting Americans back working with the ISF can be an important check on Maliki's ability to politically influence the military, because certainly that's what they did prior to 2012. Maliki would send down target packages saying, go get all these Sunnis, and the Iraqis would come to the American advisers and say, I don't know why we're targeting these guys. These are just political opponents of Maliki. They're not terrorists. The Americans would blow the whistle and stop the raids from going down, whereas right now there's no buffer, there's no check in place to prevent that kind of maligned political action. And I think getting Americans in there could actually be very important for doing exactly what Steve talks about.
BIDDLE: When the Iraqi generals were talking to our people we picked for their professional expertise, they will come to us and they will ask us those questions. If the Iraqi generals we're working with are political henchmen of Maliki that he's put in specifically because he doesn't trust people that are willing to work with us, stationing some Green Beret captains in their headquarters is not going to solve that problem.
We have to deal with politicization in a more fundamental way than just adding some American military gloss to what's otherwise going on in the Iraqi security forces.
O'SULLIVAN: I know we need to move to the next question, but just very quickly. I agree with Steve's overall point, but, again, we're so not in the world of the ideal.
And that—I mean, obviously, this isn't going to fix anything. But is it part of a way of moving things in the right direction and being able to exert some leverage on the political system and getting the Peshmerga in the fight? Those types of things I think on balance, it's a positive move.
HAASS: Thank you. Let's get another question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Joseph Lapamurrow (ph) with Yale University. QUESTION: My question is, the possibility of accepting what I think Richard Haass was suggesting earlier, namely that we would see the country break into more than one state, two—two or perhaps three states, most of what I'm listening to, it seems to me, goes on the assumption that we want to preserve Iraq as a unified single state, and it seems to me that the potential costs of that to the United States are relatively unknown.
I just wondered if the panel would like to say something about what it might mean to the U.S. were we to go in the direction of supporting two or more states.
BIDDLE: I think our central interest is we need to get the war over. And I don't think supportive for de jure breakup of the country helps us move that agenda very far. There's a de facto breakup of the country taking place, but only in the sense that there are secure areas—Shiites in the south, Sunnis in the west-northwest, Kurds in the northeast—separated by big areas of contested territory. I don't think some U.S. decision that, oh, my gosh, we've been holding out for some unrealistic, blue sky, political perfect Iraq, let's stop doing that, is going to move the ball very far in terms of meeting the casus belli in the conflict right now.
So I tend to think that partition with—with the exception of the issue of the status of Kurdistan and its potential use as leverage, with that exception, I don't know that it gets to the central issue in the war.
O'SULLIVAN: I would say that—you know, I completely agree with Steve. And, you know, certainly a policy pronouncement for the U.S. that suddenly we're supporting the breakup of Iraq seems to me to have absolutely zero value. You know, it certainly will be very much rejected by the Iraqis, who—you know, when this happened before, they have no interest in Americans telling them exactly what the nature and the organization of their state should be, particularly something as dramatic as that, and I think that we should not fool ourselves to think that Kurdistan can just, you know, kind of quietly and peacefully break off in this current situation.
They are now in control of areas where Arab Iraqis will fight for those areas. And so, you know, I think that you could see Kurdistan either move to—Iraq move to a confederation or Kurdistan move to independence, but that would have to be very carefully managed. And I don't think it's possible to manage that in this current situation.
So, you know, you've got to think about how to manage this current situation. And it may be in doing so you're creating the opportunity to have that conversation with the Kurds and the Iraqis and manage a change in the fundamental organization of Iraq in a more peaceful way.
And certainly if you think of military options, you know, the Kurds have built incredibly long runways in their country, you know, for the expressed purpose of being able to, you know, welcome U.S. airplanes or whatever. It may be that you end up creating new options, even when you're trying to go for Plan A, you're still actually creating the ground to move to Plan B or C or D, or wherever we are at this point.
BOOT: Final fast word on partition. I know we need to move on, but Baghdad. Don't forget, Baghdad is a city that has lots of Shiites and lots of Sunnis. And so it may look good on paper to break Iraq apart into Sunni and Shiite states, but there's a big question as to who controls the capital. And that would likely result in a genocidal battle, which is not something that we would like to see.
HAASS: Well, I'm probably the odd person out here, just to answer the professor's question. You know, there's questions about what's desirable and what's doable. But go back a minute. You know, the reason the United States is historically supported an intact Iraq originally was to be—to offset Iran. Well, those days are over, because Iraq no longer offsets Iran so much as it's an extension of Iranian influence.
It's—we obviously don't want it to set in motion all sorts of regional trends, but guess what? I think all sorts of regional trends are already happening. Iraq's as much a reflection of what's already going on in the region.
I don't see a breakaway Turkish entity—Kurdish entity as necessarily destabilizing. It could be quite stabilizing. I think we're going to have problems about how to make sure Iraq is not used as a terrorist launching pad, regardless of whether it's a single state or multiple states, and I think we're going to have questions about humanitarian welfare, particularly for minority Shia and Sunni dominant areas, or vice versa, again, regardless.
So I guess I would be agnostic now, going forward, whether the United States spending blood and treasure on keeping Iraq intact is either—whether it's feasible, and I've also got, you know, increasing questions about whether it's desirable, given the changing realities that we're unlikely to have an Iraq that is going to be a liberal in the classic, you know, sense of the word, tolerant society.
We don't need to argue that at length, but I'm just sort of saying I think—I think the reality has moved in some ways. It's outpaced the evolution of American policy. And at least it's an issue that ought to be on the—squarely on the agenda.
I would actually recommend that it's something the National Security Council look at, in terms of—it's not simply what we come out and support. It's also a question of what we would acquiesce to. Let me open it up to some more questions.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Keith Richburg with Princeton University.
QUESTION: Yeah, hi, thanks. Yeah, I was just—when I was listening to all the various options here, the first thing—and, really, kind of a two-part question, but the first part is, when I heard the speakers talking about sending U.S. forces in to help train the Iraqis and instill some more professionalism there, it makes me just raise the question, I mean, didn't we do that over eight years of occupation? And what makes us think that we can suddenly go in with a small force now and do what we were not able to do?
But the broader question is—it's really kind of getting to what Richard Haass was saying. And I mean, I would like to ask about the political environment, and not the Iraqi political environment, but the American political environment. I mean, do you really see realistically that the Obama administration, which basically was priding itself on having pulled us out of Iraq, really has—has the political will to go back in, in the kind of, you know, numbers or—and the kind of robust way that all of your options are suggesting? And do you think the American public would support us going back into Iraq in the kind of way—you know, do you think the American public really wants to wash its hands of this thing and the Obama administration does, as well?
BOOT: Well, not to be—not to be too blunt and undemocratic about it, but I don't think that in the short term the American public is going to get a vote, because the—fundamentally, in our political system, the president has a lot of discretion in the conduct of foreign policy. And whatever President Obama decides to do in Iraq, his hand is not going to be forced by Congress or public opinion. He's a lame-duck. He doesn't have to vote about—he doesn't have to worry about re-election. And there is certainly—while there is a lot of disquieting concern in the country and in Congress about the possibility of sending some U.S. troops back in, I think there's also a lot of disquiet about what's actually happening right now with Al Qaida terrorists taking control of Fallujah and Mosul and other major cities.
So I think people are looking for leadership. And if President Obama decides to do some of the things that we've been talking about on this—on this call, particularly what Meghan and I have been advocating, I think that he will get a lot of support from the Republican leadership, as well as the Democratic leadership, and—you know, in terms of where public opinion winds up, a lot of that, I think, will depend on the success or failure of his policy.
And it's striking to me to see the latest public opinion polls, because, you know, President Obama has been pursuing a more disengaged policy, not—you know, claiming the tide of war is ending, pulling U.S. forces back. And on some level, that's popular. But the consequences are not popular, which is why his approval rating for foreign affairs is now down below 40 percent, very, very low.
People don't want to intervene, they don't want wars, but they also don't like to see this—the advance of chaos and extremism, which they're seeing not just in Iraq, but in Syria, Ukraine, and elsewhere. So I think there would be more receptivity than appears obvious at first for a tougher American push-back.
HAASS: Meghan or...
O'SULLIVAN: Just—if I could make—yeah, just to jump in very quickly to address the other points in your question, first, I would just question the characterization of what we've been advocating or discussing, rather, as very robust. I think that was the word that you used. Keep in mind that President Obama sent special forces to Uganda to work with the forces there to go—you know, to help coordinate going after the Lord's Resistance Army. So, you know, this is not—this is nothing along the lines of reengaging in the war. President Obama's been very clear that he's not going to send troops into combat. I don't think anybody's advocating for U.S. forces to engage in combat roles. So I think characterizing this as robust could be a little bit—a little bit misleading. Of course, robust, I guess, is a subjective term.
The second point about, didn't we already do that with the Iraqis? And I completely understand Americans feeling that way. And what I would simply say is that we did do that with Iraqis, and actually we really helped them, you know, build up what I would consider, you know, a really—I don't know—burgeoning professional force, and that started to be eaten away at very, very soon—in the matter of days—after U.S. forces departed at the end of 2011, because as has been mentioned in this call, I think by Steve, that Maliki, after U.S. forces left, Maliki started replacing commanders, Sunni commanders in particular, professional commanders with political partisans. And that is something that we had pushed back on for years. You know, that was a constant conversation that we had with Maliki and others about how you can't do that and there's something—the chain of command and all that.
And suddenly there was more push-back and we didn't have the insights into the Army. And so over the course of the last two-and-a- half years, I think you saw a real de-professionalization of the army. So rather than the lesson is, we tried that, it didn't work, it's we actually know how to do that. The question is, can we—can we get the political leverage to play that role that's necessary to make the forces constructive? And I think that's an open question.
HAASS: Stephen Biddle?
BIDDLE: Again, I would just reinforce the point that the military performance institution is primarily determined by Iraqi politics. It is not primarily a matter of how many training courses they've been through or what weapons and equipment they have.
O'SULLIVAN: Yeah, that—that—Steve, I completely agree. That—that is the mega point. I think that's right.
HAASS: OK. We could go on, but we won't. A lot on the table. This is clearly—I think as Steve Biddle said at the beginning—likely to be—if it's a crisis, it will be a prolonged one. We think of crises as relatively short in time. This could go on for—indeed, is likely to go on not just for days and weeks, but months and years. And I think it's part of a larger crisis in the—in the Middle East that could end up—certainly de facto, if not de jure, redrawing the maps and with a very changed complexion within the region.
Second of all, the United States has significant stakes, though what the last exchange made clear, our influence in some—in certain cases is less than our interests, which is always an uncomfortable situation for any policymaker. We do have a range of options, diplomatic, economic, military, so we're likely looking at—to heard a word I heard—robust debate.
And I do think, as our conversation about U.S. interests in the nature of Iraq and its integrity, territorial integrity and political integrity, it's probably also going to be necessary to revisit some of our assumptions, because the situation in mid-2014 is quite different than it was years ago.
So much to chew on. Let me, again, thank Stephen Biddle, who in addition to being on the faculty at George Washington and associate here at the Council, was for many years an important adviser to General Petraeus and others in the U.S. effort in Iraq, to Max Boot, who's here at the Council and is one of the most thoughtful analysts of things military and diplomatic, and to Meghan O'Sullivan, in addition to her positions at the Kennedy School and here at the Council, also was the deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan, so sat through not simply mock NSC meetings, but real ones on this subject for some time.
So let me thank the three of them and let me thank all of you who were able to listen in. And let me also apologize to the many of you we were not able to take your questions from directly, but I hope we did—I hope we were able to at least cover many of your most important concerns.
So with that, thank you very much, and we'll be signing off from here at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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