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Editor Questions the Administration's 'Misguided' Approach in Iraq

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Gideon Rose, Editor, Foreign Affairs, and Peter G. Peterson Chair, Foreign Affairs
August 20, 2003

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Gideon Rose, managing editor of Foreign Affairs and a former associate director for Near East and South Asian affairs in the Clinton administration National Security Council, says the Bush administration "botched" the diplomacy leading up to the Iraqi war. What's needed now, he says, are several things simulaneously: "First, pouring more resources in so as to improve circumstances on the ground quickly and show everybody that things are getting better. Second, bringing in help and partners from the world at large, giving others a stake in the mission's success. Third, getting non-exile Iraqis more involved in local governance. And fourth, preparing the American people for the kind of serious, long-term, high-cost involvement that will be necessary, so support doesn't slip when things don't improve dramatically overnight."

Rose participated in an August 20, 2003, forum on the nytimes.com website. This is an edited version of that exchange.


Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, said recently that there weren't enough troops in Iraq to stabilize and secure the country. Do we need more? Why hasn't troop deployment been more seriously debated in the U.S. government?

I do think we need more troops on the ground there, and particularly more light troops--for example, civil affairs forces and military police--who could manage many routine occupation duties in a less intrusive and more sensitive manner. Certainly, previous comparable occupations have needed far more personnel to be successful. As to why the administration failed to recognize this and plan properly for the postwar era, this is one of the great questions of the day [and] nobody outside the Pentagon or the vice president's office seems to know the answer. Either it was simple incompetence or wishful thinking, or [it was based on an] intention to turn things over to a chosen group of exiles like the Iraq National Congress. Now the need is to provide security and make sure the operation is a success, and that will require more people, time, and resources than the administration thought it would. We should bring in some international help as well as stepping up our own efforts, both to spread the burden around and to increase the perceived legitimacy of the occupation.

Will the August 19 bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad lead to greater cooperation between the United States and the United Nations in Iraq? And how much blame can be assessed to the United States for this security failure?

I hope that one silver lining of this tragedy would be a greater sense of shared purpose among the United States, the United Nations, and other major powers. Clearly, the sadists who did this are out to sabotage the hopes for a new and better Iraq, and that should make all those in favor of moving forward recognize that they are on the same side. I have seen no reason that the United States should be held responsible for a security failure, because the United Nations has traditionally operated by its own choice without the heavy security that United States and coalition forces could provide.

Given that the explosives included Soviet-era munitions, do you suspect it was carried out by former Iraqi military personnel or Baath Party members, or could outside terrorists have been responsible?

At this point we just don't know, and it would irresponsible to speculate. Both terrorist groups and elements of the old regime would probably have had the ability to pull this off.

If the chief justification for the war--namely, security for Americans--is now considered largely suspect, why should we believe that the billions of dollars being spent on the war in any way benefit me, my family, or any American who doesn't have major holdings in oil company stock? Why shouldn't we advocate the end of the occupation and the investment of those resources in healthcare, education, infrastructure, programs to encourage greater participation in democratic deliberation, or even the arts?

Actually, "the investment of resources in healthcare, education, infrastructure, programs to encourage greater participation in democratic deliberation," and so forth is precisely what is required--only in Iraq, not just in the United States. What happens in Iraq is critical for all Americans, whether or not they favored the war, so I think there should be a shared sense of common purpose at home as well as between the United States and the international community.

Why does the success of a new Iraq matter? For three reasons. First, having intervened so directly and forcefully in Iraqi politics, we now have an obligation, I think, to finish the job properly. As [New York Times columnist] Tom Friedman has put it, this is like a Crate & Barrel: "You break it, you buy it."

Second, the world economy happens to run on the fossil fuels that lie so abundantly beneath the Persian Gulf and its environs. So, regardless of whether you are invested in oil companies, and regardless of whether the United States gets its oil from the Middle East, Americans have a huge stake in seeing that the region's energy resources flow relatively smoothly, cheaply, and abundantly to the world at large. Actually, pretty much everybody has a stake in that, but only the United States is strong enough to do much about it. An Iraq that descends into chaos or turns really nasty is a major threat to everybody, now just as before.

And thirdly, right now the credibility of the United States in the eyes of both the Arab and Muslim world, and the world at large, hinges directly on whether we can make a success out of postwar Iraq. If we can't, or won't, then, despite all our vaunted military power and material dominance, we'll be revealed to be a paper tiger, and few people will take our word seriously anymore when it comes to international commitments. That would be very, very bad.

The United States has a notoriously short attention span regarding international military engagements. Do you think it is possible that the United States might pull out of Iraq before the job is done?

For the United States to pull out of Iraq before the job is done, and done right, would be a disaster, for all the reasons I just enunciated. I think the administration recognizes this, which is precisely what makes its failure to devote more resources and competence to the situation so puzzling. To head off discontent, the administration should be doing several things simultaneously: First, pouring more resources in so as to improve circumstances on the ground quickly and show everybody that things are getting better. Second, bringing in help and partners from the world at large, giving others a stake in the mission's success. Third, getting non-exile Iraqis more involved in local governance. And fourth, preparing the American people for the kind of serious, long-term, high-cost involvement that will be necessary, so support doesn't slip when things don't improve dramatically overnight.

Should the administration go to the U.N. Security Council, ask it to help out, and give the Council a say in the occupation and rehabilitation of Iraq? That way, we could expect to get troops from India, Pakistan, Turkey, and perhaps France.

Yes. But the specifics of exactly how the rapprochement with Europe and other countries is carried out are less important than the basic point, which is that the administration needs to recognize that its basic approach--jealously guarding everything about Iraq and eyeing the rest of the world suspiciously--is misguided. The administration seems to have had three objectives regarding postwar Iraq: make it democratic, limit American involvement, and keep others out. The first element is ambitious, noble, and worthwhile--but to make it happen, the other two elements will have to be jettisoned. Along, perhaps, with the people who sold the president a bill of goods on how easy all this would be, and who failed to get things working quickly.

Any thoughts on the diplomacy that led up to the Iraq invasion?

Former Assistant Secretary of State James Rubin has a good piece on the botched prewar diplomacy in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs. I largely agree with his points, so I'll just refer people to the piece. One thing I'll say is that we should hardly be surprised that the diplomacy failed, because it seems to have been guided not by any diplomats but rather by the folks in the administration who would prefer that the rest of world just take a hike. I think the rest of the world got that message, and responded in kind. That doesn't mean that the French, Germans, and others didn't screw things up also, in stupid and perfidious ways. I don't think anybody really came out of this looking good.

Knowing what we know today, did we make a mistake going into Iraq?

I don't think so, because the problem posed by Saddam Hussein never had a good answer, and so any course we chose would have been fraught with difficulties. I personally supported the war, for the kinds of long-term national security reasons Ken Pollack laid out in his book "The Threatening Storm," but I thought that the administration didn't have to go about the operation as hastily, tactlessly, and deceitfully as it did. While it would never have been an easy sell, if handled properly, a campaign to rid the world of one of its most evil tyrants and greatest menaces need not have provoked the backlash that it did.

Had we gone about the whole thing in a more forthright and deliberate fashion, I think we could have brought more people on board. All that said, even now I think the war brought many major benefits, the most important of which has been the elimination of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's regime. That threat was real, even if it was also hyped, and so I'm glad it's been--almost entirely--dealt with. And the chance to help nurture the emergence of a successful modern democratic state in the heart of the Arab world is a great opportunity that could potentially have huge ramifications. The problems that have cropped up since the war could and should have been largely avoided, had more sensible and less ideological people been tasked with the postwar planning. Even now, I think that those problems can ultimately be brought under control. I think [Coalition Provisional Authority head L. Paul] Bremer [III] is a good man doing a good job, and deserves more support and backing. Whether it will all work out to the good in the end, we'll just have to wait and see.

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