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Foreign Affairs Media Call on Iraq With Max Boot and Ned Parker

Speakers: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies, Council on Foreign Relations, and Ned Parker, Former Baghdad bureau chief, Los Angeles Times
Presider: Gideon Rose, Editor, Peter G. Peterson Chair, Foreign Affairs Magazine
January 8, 2014



OPERATOR: Excuse me, everyone. We now have all of our speakers in conference. Please be aware that each of your lines is in a listen-only mode. At the conclusion of today's presentation, we will open the floor for questions. At that time, instructions will be given as to the procedure to follow if you would like to ask a question.

I would now like to turn the conference over to Mr. Gideon Rose. Mr. Rose, you may begin.

ROSE: Hi, everybody. Gideon Rose here, editor of Foreign Affairs, and delighted to have you with us for a conversation on what's going on in Iraq and why it matters and what, if anything, can be done about it. We have two great experts that -- who have written about it often for us and who have traveled there sometimes -- in some cases recently, many cases often. And without further ado, let's get right to it.

So we have Max Boot, who is the Jeane Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, who has written a number of books, including the most recent, "Invisible Armies," which is a spectacular global history of guerrilla uprisings throughout the ages, and we have Ned Parker, who is an independent writer and journalist at this point, long a foreign correspondent for the L.A. Times, and the author of some wonderful stuff on Iraq, who actually is just back from Iraq.

So, Ned, let me start with you. You wrote a major piece for us on essentially the Iraq we left behind. And the implication was, as we were on the way out, the U.S. was on the way out, that Iraq would deteriorate, was a kind of failed state in the making, and the Maliki government was not going to be able to manage things well, and it was a very pessimistic assessment. Is it fair to say that in the couple of years since then, all the stuff that you predicted is coming to pass?

PARKER: I mean, unfortunately, Iraq does seem to be in quite dire straits today. In that article, I wrote about the lack of a real rule of law and credible institutions for all Iraqis, how the security forces were abusive to segments of the population, and there was a lack of a reconciliation process between the Sunni population and the Shiite-led government, as well as how the United States had really stopped engaging on the diplomatic level, effectively brokering political solutions among the different sides.

So all of this kind of gave me the fear that the future of Iraq would be quite dire. And, unfortunately, today it is.

ROSE: OK, Max, let me bring you in here. What would you say to the people who would say, oh, all those surge advocates who talked about the great successes we've achieved and how everything worked wonderfully have now been proven wrong because the minute we stop keeping our finger in the dike, everything falls to -- falls apart? So is that what the story here, which is the surge only bought us temporary stability while we were supplying a long heavy train of supports and supplies and personnel?

BOOT: I don't think anybody imagined that the surge would be a panacea. The surge was really an opportunity for Iraq to get back on its feet and become a stable, semi-democratic state. The surge made that possible, because it led to a fall in violence of 90 percent between 2007 and 2009.

Unfortunately, the opportunity provided by the surge has been squandered -- needlessly, I think -- because of decisions made in Washington and Baghdad. I would assign most of the blame to Baghdad, to Prime Minister Maliki, who has been very vindictive and short-sighted in his persecution of Sunnis and turning his back on the Anbar awakening, which made possible the success of the surge.

But I think a secondary role has to be assigned in this fiasco to President Obama, who did not try very hard to keep U.S. troops in Iraq after 2011 and did not take a very activist role, as Ambassador to Baghdad Chris Hill in particular took a very hands-off attitude towards Iraqi political machinations, and as a result of that, we've basically been an enabler of Maliki and his sectarianism, and now we're making it worse by shipping munitions to Maliki, which makes it seem like we are now -- after having abandoned our allies in Anbar, we are now making possible Maliki's campaign against them. At least that's how it's going to look to people in Iraq and throughout the region.

ROSE: What do either of you think could have been done or should have been done differently on the part of the U.S. over the last couple of years, if we had, indeed, as Max said, tried harder to keep troops? Would that have succeeded? And would that have been able to -- would we have been able to do so even against the will of the Iraqi government? And would that have done anything to keep things from falling apart so quickly?

PARKER: Well, I don't think -- Gideon, I don't think it would have -- we would not have kept troops in Iraq against the will of the Iraqi government, but I think there were a lot of indications that Prime Minister Maliki and other Iraqi leaders were actually open to keeping U.S. troops there, but that President Obama did not try very hard to get over the hump of some of their objections about national sovereignty. And I would refer you for details to the excellent book, "Endgame," by Michael Gordon and Mike Trainor, which I think spells this out in detail.

And if we had succeeded, I think, in keeping U.S. forces there, I don't think they would be in combat today, but I think they would continue to be a stabilizing force and they would give us some leverage to press Maliki and press the -- the Anbar sheiks to come together as they did in 2007-2008. But we have lost that leverage right now, and, you know, those of us who were in favor of keeping troops after 2011 warned of what would happen. Unfortunately, I think our -- our warnings have come to pass.

ROSE: OK. Ned, do you have any take on that?

PARKER: Well, sure. I mean, I don't -- I think the issue of whether troops on the ground would have made a difference is -- it's debatable. One could argue that the -- if troops had stayed, they would have been assisting Iraq's counterterrorism forces, which many Sunnis refer to as the Nouri brigade. It's a force that's seen as going into areas and, you know, running roughshod over the population and then people disappear inside jails in Baghdad, like the Baghdad airport, where they're not seen for several weeks or a few months before they materialize into the regular prison system.

So the danger in troops staying without an effective diplomatic policy of engagement to promote issues like a credible judiciary, a credible prison system, credible rule of law, and national reconciliation, without that, I think we would have been in danger of having U.S. troops there, but as today, the White House is seen as rushing weapons to Maliki. The troops that would have been there arguably would have been helping facilitate, you know, Maliki's counterterrorism policies, which are seen as helping promote dissension.

BOOT: Gideon, can I just make two fast points in response?

ROSE: Sure.

BOOT: first, I think one of the most important functions that U.S. advisers performed working with the Iraqi security forces was serving as a break on sectarian tendencies, because what would often happen is, they would get wind of some politically motivated operation that Maliki wanted to execute and they would blow the whistle, and then the commander of U.S. forces and the ambassador would come rushing in to Maliki's office and say, hey, you can't do this.

Unfortunately, that break has absolutely completed disappeared with the -- with the end of the U.S. troop presence. And I agree -- secondly, I agree with the point that Ned was making about how we need to have a political strategy, not just the military strategy, and that has been lacking, because basically ever since the troop pullout, President Obama has insisted on clinging to this fiction that Iraq is a fully sovereign functioning state and we have normal diplomatic state-to-state relations with them, like we do with France or Britain or somebody else, whereas in fact, as we know, Iraq is this barely functioning entity with a sectarian government and a bureaucracy that doesn't really work, and it needs a much higher level of American engagement to keep things on track. And, unfortunately, that level of engagement was sorely lacking around the time of the 2010 election, where Ayad Allawi got the most votes, but did not get a chance to form the government. And I think it's been downhill ever since.



PARKER: ... just had one quick point. I mean, I agree with Max's points completely, but I do think that the faults or the sins of the Obama administration of wanting to present Iraq as this functioning, sovereign state even before it left so it could leave was very much a problem of the Bush administration, as well. With the exception of the surge period from '07 to mid-2008, I think there's always been this tendency by the U.S. military and the U.S. officials in Iraq to present the government and the security forces as credible and by doing that papering over these serious problems of sectarianism, lack of rule of law, going after awakening leaders. I think all of this started to happen almost immediately -- well, both before the surge and immediately after troops started to draw down in the summer of '08. So it's been a problem across the board with both administrations, I would say.

ROSE: OK, so let me play cynical devil's advocate here. It seems to me that the Obama administration has essentially traded the gains of the surge, the temporary stability that had been achieved, for a classic sort of Nixon-Kissinger decent interval, in which we walked out while things relatively stable, and then the collapse happened afterwards. Who cares about Fallujah now? Why should Americans really be bothered by whoever is in control there? And even if you're right that we could potentially have stabilized the country more with a deep, ongoing, lasting presence, most Americans -- you know, do most Americans agree with you? Are they happy to basically let the Iraqis fight it out and be free of this, seeing our involvement only is something that really is best viewed in the rear-view mirror?

BOOT: Well, I don't think that most Americans cared that much by the end of 2011 if 10,000 U.S. troops or some such figure stayed in Iraq, as long as they weren't taking casualties. And I don't think they would have been.

But in terms of who cares, I think we need to care, because what we're seeing in western Iraq right now and in northern Syria is the establishment of a new Al Qaida state which is going to become a magnet for international terrorists, much in the way that Afghanistan was prior to 9/11. This is one of the biggest national security disasters in the world that we face right now with Al Qaida establishing effective de facto control of these areas of western Iraq and northern Syria. This is a huge issue for us. It's not something that we can allow to stand, but it is happening right now.

And I think anybody who thinks that we can just discount what happens in Iraq and turn our back on it or discount what happens in Syria, I think that's very short-sighted thinking, for which we have paid a heavy price in the past and will pay a heavy price in the future.

ROSE: Do you really think the Al Qaida affiliates or the local jihadists are the same as Al Qaida central? Are these the types that essentially flew planes into our buildings? Or are they the types that terrorized over their own people and caused local and regional trouble?

BOOT: Well, I don't think it has to be either/or. I think the -- the right answer is probably both. I mean, I was just meeting not too -- I was at a meeting not too long ago at the Council with a senior intelligence official who will go unnamed who was saying that, you know, his biggest area of concern in the world right now is in Syria, because he sees it as being a new Afghanistan, a new training ground and launching pad for jihadists who are not going to stay confined to Syria, but will move out to Europe and other places, and conceivably even to the United States, but certainly to our allies in the region.

And Iraq is the same way. Even if most of these guys have localized concerns, they're still going to serve as a magnet for foreign jihadists, many of whom will make their way out of Iraq and out of Syria and present a clear and present danger to the United States and our allies.

ROSE: We have in the last several years developed technological tools for remote strikes in various ways, drones, other kinds of things. Is -- is it possible now to maintain control over the terrorism problem regionally and internationally without the kind of massive presence on the ground in a kind of neo-imperial venture that we have had so much nasty experience with over the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan?

BOOT: Are you asking me or Ned?

ROSE: Both of you.


BOOT: Well, I mean, I'd be happy to go first. I think there are huge limits to what drone strikes can do, and you've seen that in Pakistan, the tribal areas, where we've had a huge campaign of drone strikes, especially under President Obama, which, you know, I've been in favor of them. I think on balance they're useful, although there is some blowback, but we shouldn't exaggerate what they can accomplish, because unless you actually have some sovereign entity controlling the ground 24/7, these groups will regenerate themselves, even after losing leaders in decapitation strikes, whether carried out by drones or commando raids or other means.

And I think exactly the same thing is true in Iraq, where between 2003 and 2007, the Joint Special Operations Command, most of that time under General McChrystal, ran a very aggressive campaign of leadership targeting against AQI, and it didn't do that much good, because we didn't have a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy. And I think that's still what you need in places like Pakistan, Iraq and elsewhere, and that's not necessarily something that we're going to carry out ourselves, because there's no chance we're going to send substantial numbers of troops to these areas.

But somebody has to carry out a real counterinsurgency strategy. Otherwise, there's very little hope of defeating these determined terrorist entities.

PARKER: I would just add, I think particularly in Iraq, it's -- we come back to this need for a more forceful diplomatic engagement. And even if we have a drone policy or find a more effective way to aid the counterterrorism forces in Iraq, the battle in Iraq right now -- and to an extent in Syria -- it's breeding not just a really very dangerous, virulent, you know, Sunni extremism, but in Iraq, certainly, we're seeing a real growth spurt for Shia radicalism. Shiite militias like Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata'ib Hezbollah are sending fighters to Syria. They're carrying out -- at least Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq is likely carrying out assassinations in Iraq against Sunnis.

You go to a place like Basra, where I believe 80 percent of all of Iraq's oil exports leave the country, and you drive around there, and you see pictures of dead fighters from Syria who -- Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq fighters with a smiling face of Ali Khamenei. None of that is good. What's -- if we don't have a clear -- not us, but if the United States doesn't have a clear policy for engagement on the political level, the danger of this kind of more virulent Sunni-Shia war in Syria and Iraq can only be bad news for stability in the world.

ROSE: We've got a really great audience of participants here, including many who've written extensively on this subject themselves, so I want to bring them in. So, Operator, let's bring in questions and comments from the field.

OPERATOR: OK. At this time, we will open the floor for questions. If you would like to ask a question, please press the star key, followed by the one key on your touch-tone phone now. Questions will be taken in the order in which they are received. If at any time you'd like to remove yourself from the questioning queue, just press star, two. Please limit your questions to one at a time. Again, to ask a question, please press star, one.

OK. And our first question comes from Lee Hu Chen (ph).

QUESTION: I just wanted to ask, you know, it seems from Robert Gates' memoir, you know, Obama believed from the very beginning that this whole thing is wrong. He didn't believe this. So can we say -- can you say that, you know, the whole campaign to sort of turn Middle East into freedom and democracy as Bush is starting 2003 and 2004 is a total failure, it gives the U.S. a lesson in how to have a new Middle East policy? Thank you.

ROSE: Max, you want to take that one?

BOOT: Sure. I mean, I don't think, you know, anybody imagined that -- that the policy that -- that Bush launched after 9/11 was going to transform the Middle East overnight. I think the Middle East is -- is changing, but sometimes not in positive ways.

I think the more immediate issue in the Middle East has been President Obama's policy of disengagement, wanting to pivot away from the Middle East, pull back in Iraq, pull back in Afghanistan, and Secretary Gates' memoir reveals how the president lost faith in his own strategy in Afghanistan, even as he was continuing to publicly support the surge. He's tried to stay uninvolved in Syria.

I think what we're seeing is kind of the -- the pendulum swinging in American foreign policy from a policy of very active engagement in the Middle East under Bush after 9/11 to a policy of disengagement. And I think both of those policies have carried heavy costs. And I think a lot of the reason why Obama wants to disengage is because he opposed the war in Iraq. He thought that we were too focused on the Middle East. And, obviously, there were casualties associated with that and other costs.

But now that we're disengaging, we're seeing that there are huge costs of disengagement, as well, as the civil war in Iraq increases, as civil war -- as civil war burns out of control in Syria, as -- as Iranian operatives in the Quds Force and Hezbollah exercise growing influence from -- from Lebanon to Iraq, as Al Qaida fighters on the other side operate from Iraq to -- to Syria, to Lebanon, that's, to my mind, a lot of that could -- is part of the cost of American disengagement, which I think is -- is proving to be a failed policy, as well, just as in President Obama's eyes, the policy of intervention earlier on was -- was a failed policy.

ROSE: Although the policy of disengagement, Max, it should be worth bearing in mind, has to bear the consequences not just of disengagement, but of the delayed costs of the earlier failed engagement policies. In other words, the -- are these really costs of the disengagement policy or simply follow-on delayed costs of a screwed-up engagement policy in the first place that were just being kept at bay?

BOOT: Well, in the case of -- well, in the case of Iraq, as I think as we discussed earlier -- and I would completely agree in criticizing Bush for all the huge mistakes that he made between 2003 and 2007, but he did get one thing right, which was the surge, which actually did manage to finally, in the end, stabilize Iraq. And, unfortunately, that stability is disappearing right now because of the lack of follow-up.

ROSE: OK. Next question?

OPERATOR: OK. Our next question comes from Karen DeYoung.

QUESTION: Thank you. I'm sorry I missed the very beginning of the conversation. And I guess my question, if -- if Bush's engagement was a failure and Obama's disengagement was a failure, if you -- if you to some extent leave aside the question of whether Obama tried hard enough to get a follow-on force in Iraq, and go to the issue of the fact that the Iraqis really didn't want a follow-on force there, what specifically could the Obama administration have done to be more engaged in a way that would have, if not eliminated, at least ameliorated the current situation in Iraq?

PARKER: Could I answer that? I think...


PARKER: ... part of the problem there is -- thanks -- it's -- so, I mean, one of the reasons why the troops were not able to stay on was because of the lack of -- lack of management from a high U.S. level of the Iraqi political process. Management is the wrong word. Engagement is what I should be using.

But when we look at the period, I think the critical period for Iraq and the American ties today would be the end of 2010, after an eight-month deadlock, when the new Iraqi government was formed. At the time, the United States presented itself as the broker between the Sunni-backed Iraqiya list, headed by Ayad Allawi, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition.

The deal on signing the government was cemented with a meeting between Maliki, Ambassador Jeffrey, and Barzani, and -- at, I think, Barzani's residence. The Americans were in the room. One of the terms were the, you know, security ministries were supposed to be shared between Iraqiya and Maliki's list. Allawi was also supposed to head this new national security council of sorts, which was an idea the Americans proposed.

Now, for many reasons, none of this happened after the fact. But -- but when you look at it, during that year of 2010, I believe Vice President Biden made three or four trips to Iraq. The last visit would have been right after the government was seated, so beginning of January 2011. For then on, you know, Vice President Biden did not show up in the country until the end of the year, when the troops were leaving.

In that timeframe, between January and the summer, Iraq's politics went south. The new sectarianism of today we started to see. Maliki for different reasons did not share this post, the security posts. Allawi did not get his position. There's blame to go around. And the mood on the streets of Iraq became quite ugly and divisive. That would have been the time for high-level American engagement to make sure the road map for a successful Iraqi government with Shias and Sunnis in it went ahead. That did not happen.

And I think America played a role in that. When there's been this history of high-level American involvement at the position of secretary of the cabinet, when those people stopped coming to deal specifically with the issues that they're tasked with, like Vice President Biden, it has a cost and the message is, America is not involved anymore. And that really played into the events later in the year, when Iraqi politicians didn't want to risk their neck to have U.S. troops stay on, because to do that, it would be a poisoned chalice. If Maliki did it, then he knew Allawi would hammer him. If Allawi did it, Maliki knew he would be hammered.

So I think the neglect started earlier. And even today, we see the ramifications of that.

ROSE: OK, so, you know, you guys know that -- that period very well. If we had on the call -- this is Gideon (inaudible) if we had on the call Chris Hill or Vice President Biden or Tony Blinken, what would the -- their response be to what you just said? Max, you guys know the arguments. What would -- how would they respond to what Ned just said?

BOOT: Well, I'm sure they would say we tried our best, but I think the bulk of the evidence indicates, as Ned says, that they did not try their best because, in fact -- I think it starts at the top. It's not Vice President Biden or Ambassador Chris Hill, although they were the primary players involved. I think it really -- the responsibility -- the buck rests and stops in the Oval Office.

And I think they were basically carrying out the vision of -- of a president who was opposed to the war in Iraq and wanted to disengage as much as possible and didn't -- didn't try very hard to -- didn't want to play this activist role in Iraqi politics that George Bush played when Bush was having weekly teleconferences with -- with Prime Minister Maliki.

Obama wanted to step back from that. And unfortunately -- and he succeeded. And unfortunately, I think Ned is right, that we're seeing the costs of that American step-back, not just militarily, but also, crucially, politically.

ROSE: OK, let's go back to the Q&A.

OPERATOR: OK. Our next question comes from the line of Terry Moran.

QUESTION: Yes, I wonder -- you had mentioned Syria glancingly, and I wondered if you could talk a little bit about the regional context here, in particular the -- the whole Shiite-Sunni conflict that's -- that's engulfed the region as a result in part of the Syria conflict and, in particular, if there are any signs or if you get any sense of the involvement of gulf money and -- and the support of private and public money from the gulf for opponents of the Baghdad government in Anbar. Thanks.

PARKER: I'll take that. I don't think you can -- you can see it. I was in -- I mean, it's -- it's spoken about. Sunnis will talk about gulf money going to different Sunni parties or groups. Normally it's thought to be money of private citizens in the gulf, not actual government officials.

The -- last February, I was in Ramadi for about a week during the Sunni protests that were going on there, and at the time, there was so much talk about gulf money and money from Turkey going to Ramadi to fund the protests. But I think that stuff can be overstated, because I was looking around, and I saw a bunch of tents, you know, some cheap food, and a loud -- a big P.A. system.

So it wasn't as though they needed that much money, the Sunnis of Anbar, to have protests. So while there's probably an element of truth to it and it can be a spanner in the works, in terms of promoting extremism, I think the core issues in Iraq that Al Qaida is trying to exploit right now are these broader issues of the -- you know, a failed state, the failed social contract. And when people are angry and they have many relatives who are locked away for years on end and they've been de-Baathified and don't have a job and are afraid to go to Baghdad, and these troops come in, they're angry, frustrated, and radicals will take advantage of that. And while there might be money involved, that's not the mover.

BOOT: I agree with Ned, but I would just also add in the impact of the war in Syria, which I think is having a bleed-over impact not only on Iraq, but also on Lebanon. And I think this again has been a huge failure of American disengagement, because we have not had an active policy to try to end the war in Syria. President Obama turned down the advice of Secretary of State Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus when the uprising in Syria began in 2011 to arm the moderate opposition and the Syrian National Council. We stood back.

And essentially what that allowed is -- our stepping back has allowed the extremes on both ends to flourish with the Iranians going all in with Hezbollah and the Quds Force to back Assad on one side, and on the other side, groups like the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria, an offshoot of Al Qaida in Iraq, and the Al-Nusra Front and others becoming very powerful among the Sunni community in Syria, with some support from the gulf states, whereas, you know, the more moderate nationalistic elements in Syria have gone begging.

And that has been a disastrous mistake, I think, which has not only allowed the civil war in Syria to rage out of control at a cost of 120,000 or more lives, it's also fostering the civil war in Iraq, because groups like AQI can operate very easily across these artificial borders drawn by colonial states many years ago. And, you know, AQI is now able to, as I suggested before, to create this new state that spans western Iraq and northern Syria.

PARKER: I would just add on, you know, I don't think that it's even a matter of needing a state. You know, Al Qaida in Iraq and greater Syria, they don't need a state to formally control Anbar and Idlib or -- they just need -- they just need places where they can roam and roam freely. And right now, even in Iraq, many Sunni tribesmen are rising up against Al Qaida and fighting amongst themselves and hating the government.

So -- but that's all for the good for Al Qaida, because as long as the chaos is there, they don't need to control all the territory. They just need to be able to move more and more freely, and the ball of sectarianism that's being stoked is feeding Shia sectarianism, as well. And that's incredibly dangerous. And that has a bleed-over effect regionally as much as, you know, the specter of Al Qaida.

ROSE: Next question?

OPERATOR: OK. Our next question comes from Garrett Mitchell.

QUESTION: Thanks very much. I want to pose a question here that would ask us to think a little differently about the specifics of Iraq, but the broader set of our engagement both in the Middle East and South Asia, and that is, instead of looking at -- through the prism of presidential leadership and the notion that, you know, the buck stops here, the fish rocks from the head, however one wants to place it, I wonder to what extent we can put that aside for the moment, not that it's not important, but that it isn't necessarily all important or controlling, and say, what is it that we learn about ourselves -- and I'm talking about the American political wherewithal -- that is instructive at both Iraq and Afghanistan about our capacity as a nation to sustain engagements for as long as they need to be sustained and/or our -- our inability to -- or our relative inability to understand the sort of social complexity of what we get ourselves into in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, et cetera, so that what we end up with is presidential leadership that, arguably in the case of George W. Bush in 2003, blindly leapt into something about which they had grossly insufficient knowledge and understanding to an Obama administration that can be characterized as wanting to get out as soon as possible, pivoting to Asia, however else we do that.

I wonder if the -- if the longer-term lessons and the greater learning opportunities aren't sort of sub-presidential, if you will, and more about the -- about the polity itself.

BOOT: Well, I agree with the thrust of that question about our lack of understanding of some of these lands where we become engaged. I mean, that was something that was brought home very vividly to me in -- I think it was in August in 2003 when I was out with the Marine force reconnaissance unit in -- just south of Baghdad, and we were on a raid. We were hit by an IED. And, you know, I remember jumping out of this armored personnel carrier with a Marine lance corporal standing next to me, and this Iraqi man approached us, and he was trying to tell us something. He may very well have been telling us who was trying to plant the bomb, but the lance corporal didn't speak Arabic, I didn't speak Arabic, this guy didn't speak English, and there was no translator with the convoy, so we couldn't understand each other.

And that's -- I think that's an indication of what the caller is talking about. And that's something that we do need to address, and I've argued for a long time, we need to address it with a better cultural and language learning and inculcate that within the military, as well as within the intelligence services and State Department.

But I think there is a capacity to learn. And I think one of the most impressive things that I've seen is the way that the U.S. military, in particular, was able to learn lessons from those disasters in 2003 and 2004, ultimately culminating in the promulgation of a new counterinsurgency field manual in 2006 and General David Petraeus going back to lead that come-from-behind campaign known as the surge.

By that point, there were a lot of people who had rotated through Iraq, had a lot of experience, knew what was going on. The same thing, by the way, is happening in Afghanistan over the course of our decade-plus, where we started off very foolishly and naively, but at this point, we have built up a lot of expertise and knowledge. The problem is, a lot of that -- that in-built -- a lot of that process of learning that's gone on, I think, is wasted.

And the military services don't try to preserve a lot of that knowledge, and I don't think that, you know, fundamentally at the top there has not been the kind of political engagement that Ned talked about which would be necessary to harness the kind of experience that we've garnered in these kinds of -- in these very complex situations.

PARKER: I'd just like to add on just kind of a point to Max's about how the military learns these lessons. And I think whenever a new administration comes in, it's naturally hostile to the last. For instance, you know, the Bush administration didn't take seriously the Al Qaida threat before 9/11, even though it was warned by the Clinton administration. So then the Obama administration was very dubious and skeptical of the legacy of the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, including the nation-building and counterinsurgency of Bush's final years.

So with Syria, I mean, the irony that's always struck me was this issue of being engaged and the plan to arm whatever, quote, unquote, "good" or "moderate" Syrian rebels at the beginning, the American military in many ways had the knowledge and the capability to do that from Iraq, of working with the awakening, working with the various Islamist parties that had their paramilitary wings.

So they had the experience and the capability to do something like that with a light footprint in Syria, but because of the real serious concern and aversion to getting involved on the ground, they did not, and that just struck me always as an example of what Max was talking about, the military lessons learned perhaps not being applied when they could be by the political leadership, for better or for worse.

OPERATOR: OK. Our next question comes from Francis West.

QUESTION: That's a fascinating (inaudible) and I'd just like to take to one immediate practical issue, and that is that this war going on, and we're apparently standing by the sidelines. We've said that we're not going to tolerate an Iraqi Islamist safe haven, wherein we're bombing in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan. What is the rationale for us not using Predator, which is an extraordinary tool, when we have all of these targets now in Ramadi and Fallujah? At least don't lose.

BOOT: I think Bing makes a valuable point. And, you know, very few Americans have had as much on-the-ground experience in Iraq as -- as he has had. I -- you know, my -- my replies in general, I'm a little bit skeptical of a purely military solution to what is essentially a political problem in Iraq or, for that matter, in Afghanistan or -- or Pakistan. And I think in some ways, some military solutions actually make the problem worse, like some of the punitive and indiscriminate operations that the U.S. military ran, for example, in Iraq in 2004 and earlier on in the war.

Likewise today, I think, you know, the military approach that Prime Minister Maliki is taking with the -- that we are, you know, essentially enabling with our sales of Hellfires is probably not going to be very productive, but I think, you know, if there -- if there is a military option that can be effective under these circumstances, in a very limited way, at least, I think, you know, the use of Predators controlled by presumably the CIA would -- I think would be certainly more helpful and more useful than just us selling military hardware to Maliki to use as he sees fit, because he will probably use it to enhance his sectarian agenda.

But I'm not sure that Maliki is going to give permission to the CIA to operate their own Predators over Iraq, precisely because he wants to keep complete control of the situation. And those are not -- as Bing knows, those are not aircraft that we can put in there without the permission of the local government, because they're very short-range aircraft, so they need local support to operate.

ROSE: Bing, what would you do? Let's bring back that previous questioner, because, Bing, I'm curious, what would you do right now in Iraq, aside from the Predators and this immediate thing? Would you try to get back in, in a major way?

OPERATOR: He was cleared from the questioning queue after he asked his question.

ROSE: OK, no problem.

OPERATOR: He can press star, one.

ROSE: It's a very -- it's a very interesting question, guys, because I think the -- you know, the question about essentially what you guys are saying is, there's no way to promote stability there, except for the major, ongoing engagement that the administration clearly isn't up for and that many in the American public isn't up for. And then the question becomes about whether to tolerate sort of the disorder that inevitably follows engagement. It's an interesting -- interesting debate.

OK, next question. Sorry.

OPERATOR: OK. Our next question comes from Jeanie (ph) -- and I apologize for the mispronunciation -- Nugan (ph) -- Nuyan (ph)?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) I'd like to make two points and then raise a question. First, we have to see that this is the war (ph) that the Iraq -- Iraqi government has to defend itself. Secondly, this is the regional stability that all the stakeholders should pay attention to, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and all others who now their economy stabilities is banking on it. And, thirdly, this is a global situation, because we're dealing with Al Qaida.

So I think this is the best time for the U.S. to take the leadership to support the Iraqi to defend itself, to build the capacity. Secondly, this is the best opportunity for the U.S. to take the leadership to create an architecture in the region, a regional architecture and asking all the stakeholders, including Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and all others, including the support of Russia, China, and the U.S. and the U.N., to see to it that we resolve the situation in Syria (inaudible) USAID is already in (inaudible) the situation to help (inaudible) and helping with humanitarian is the best way to counter the (inaudible) because we know that terrorists, Al Qaida build from the poor, build from the people who are resenting the current government.

So I could see that this is the best situation for the U.S. in our current economic crisis, in our current sequestration, and (inaudible) to take the leadership once again and see to it that we have a regional architecture build up. That's the only answer that we could ever have in the Middle East for a long-term sustainable (inaudible)

ROSE: OK. Operator, let's get a couple of other questions in to -- to get as many people as we can into the conversation.

OPERATOR: OK. Our next question comes from Steve Holitson (ph).

QUESTION: Thanks. It seems objectively that the White House lacks a coherent strategy for dealing with this tide of sectarianism that's coming from the (inaudible) through Iraq and Syria and even Lebanon. If they were to sit down today and say, OK, this is not working, what would a coherent strategy look like? And how much -- I mean, is it too late? Does the -- is the situation too splintered and virulent for the U.S. to affect much impact on it? What -- how much sort of leverage and sway does the U.S. have in tackling this challenge right now?

PARKER: I would just -- my remarks on this would be somewhat limited, but I think what the U.S. can do, we hear, you know, the question about, you know, boots on the ground or Predator drone strikes. And as I think Max and I are both saying, the military response is limited in what it can do without a clear, you know, policy program. And I think something based more upon the soft power that -- that the United States has in these places, like a Predator strike in Ramadi, where the -- I think it's -- it's not clear that all the targets are so clear-cut, because there is fighting, internal fighting among tribes who -- who both hate Al Qaida, but are rivals and would be happy to see the other one dead.

I mean, there are all these kinds of questions in terms of what one does in getting involved with a drone strike, probably even in Syria, as well, though I don't know enough there. But where we can make a difference, at least in a place like Iraq, is trying to focus and help push through incremental programs in the country that can ease the core grievances that feed sectarianism, such as trying to help fix the judiciary, fix the penal system, but that all depends upon the Iraqi government wanting to.

Likewise, in Lebanon, you can't -- you can only do so much to influence what's going on in Syria, and then the bombings that happened in Lebanon and the assassinations, but you have a caretaker government there for months, so my guess is there are initiatives that the United States can take, being seen as the world power in the world to help try to move -- move and find policy solutions to problems that bother the people inside those countries and then feed the greater regional and sectarian conflict.

BOOT: I mean, I think unfortunately our leverage is very limited right now, for reasons that we've discussed. In the case of Iraq, I think our best bet is to condition our sales of military equipment to Maliki on the condition that he actually reach out to Sunnis and that he start pursuing a more inclusive political strategy. Otherwise, we're not going to keep sending him Hellfire missiles he can -- he can shoot at Anbar.

And the situation there may get desperate enough that Maliki might be willing to make some compromises, as, in fact, he did in 2007 and 2008, when much -- much against his initial inclination, he did reach out to the Anbar awakening, pushed and prodded by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker.

The -- the other point I would make is just the previous question about regional architecture and stakeholders and all these other trendy buzz phrases I don't think have much relevance, because to me that's just a pipe dream to imagine that we can bring together all the different international players and somehow get them to agree on something that will solve our problems for us.

That's not going to happen. Now, a lot of people thought that -- that was the way to go in Iraq in 2007 instead of the surge. A lot of people say that's the way to go now. But the reality is, the international stakeholders don't agree. In fact, we're seeing basically a major Cold War playing out in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia on the one side and Iran on the other. They're competing for influence. They're not going to come together to reach agreement in Syria or Iraq or any place else.

And countries like Russia and China have not been helpful factors. They've been essentially, you know, trying to foster client states or trying to sell arms or trying to do other things that are very removed from the goals that we seek to pursue in the region.

So I think it would be nice if there was some grand international conclave that could come together to solve all these problems, but as we've seen from Secretary Kerry's repeated frustrated attempts to convene a conference on Syria, it's not going to happen.

ROSE: OK, let's get two more questions in and then wrap it up, guys.

OPERATOR: OK. Our next question comes from Jonathan Blakely (ph).

QUESTION: Hi, Max and Ned. As always, good to talk to you guys. There have been bombing after bombing after bombing in all parts of Iraq, and last year was particularly bloody, but I'm wondering if you can go a bit into -- with the events in Fallujah, why now? And is it your opinion that this is tied to the national elections coming up in April? And on those elections, once all is said and done with the elections, do you think Maliki will be re-elected as prime minister?

PARKER: I think you're right, Jonathan. It's great to speak with you, as well, always. I think the election plays a huge part in what's happening right now. There's a saying that people have said about Maliki that he's given to an old -- I think it's an Iraqi phrase about, if someone has a fever, make it higher.

And I think that's what he wants now. He's a canny politician. He lives on crisis and usually benefits from crises. And Iraq has been going through -- as a politician, there's this election coming up April 30th. He's getting (inaudible) from all sides. The Kurds hate him. His Shiite partners hate him. The Sunnis hate him. He wants to stay in power, because if he doesn't, he doesn't know what's out there for him. Will he be able to survive, for that matter? And his community's getting hit hard.

And I was just in Baghdad. I would go around to different bombing sites, talk to survivors of the bombings, and it's truly devastating. I was doing the count last night, based upon numbers that AFP compiles on incidents in Iraq, and I believe -- and a conservative count just on November and December of straight suicide bombing alone would be about 41, including car and truck bombs, 91.

So for every attack, not only are there the dead and the wounded, but there's a huge ripple effect that affects dozens of others and neighborhoods. And this is Maliki's community, so he has to do something. What does he do? What served him well before -- not in the conspiratorial level -- but he took on the Shiite militias in Basra in 2008, and that made him -- it helped redefine him. So what he's done now is taken on terror in Anbar. Now, that serves him very well with the Shia community. It silences his Shia critics. It gives him a better chance to stay on, because if there's a war going on that continues to go on in April, in May, in June, particularly, if the results to the election are not clear-cut, which they likely are not to be, and he's seen as the defender of the Shia, protecting them from this terrorist scourge, it will be much harder to unseat him.

So on some level, there are legitimate reasons for why he's doing what he's doing. On another level, it's also probably driven by survival and self-interest. And when you look at what happened in Anbar, at first he was welcomed by many Sunni tribesman, not all, to hit Al Qaida compounds in the desert. After he had a military debacle, over 24 of his officers were killed, including a general, he decided to take out the Sunni protest camp in Ramadi, which was not a -- there might have been terrorists floating through, but it was clearly a center of legitimate Sunni grievances about their marginalization in Iraq.

So when he went and hit that, the camp in Ramadi, that was a huge mistake in terms of national reconciliation, but within his community, it made him look very strong. Even if he miscalculated and it gave Al Qaida this opening to move in and take over the province, that was a tactical miscalculation. At the same time, politically, it's helped him, because right now in Baghdad and in the south, the Shia are behind Maliki as he fights the Al Qaida threat.

ROSE: OK. So we'll take the last two in the queue or just two more in the queue, if we can, and then -- and then wrap it up tight at noon.

OPERATOR: OK. Our next question comes from Alexander Thompson (ph).

QUESTION: Hi. I was just wondering if you could comment a little bit on how this Iraqi violence is affecting Afghanistan, both from the way that the Afghani government is now considering keeping U.S. troops there in the long term, and also, you know, from the U.S. perspective, of how we now view the Afghani surge and whether or not you think the administration thinks it was successful or if they think they need a prolonged surge.

BOOT: Well, I think the example of Iraq is a huge cautionary tale for Afghanistan. In fact, you recently had the foreign minister of Iraq telling the Afghans, don't make the mistake that we did. Don't let the Americans leave, because this shows what can happen.

And I think to -- to President Obama's credit, he has shown more dedication to keeping a troop presence in Afghanistan after 2014 than he showed towards keeping a troop presence in Iraq after 2011. But in the case of Afghanistan, that accord, which has basically been negotiated, has been stymied by President Karzai's mystifying and infuriating refusal to sign it.

Hopefully, Karzai will change his mind or, if not, then hopefully his successor will change his mind and -- or will decide to sign it. But the political leadership in Afghanistan has to understand that Karzai is playing with fire here, because as the Bob Gates book makes clear, President Obama's commitment to Afghanistan is very limited. He lost faith in the surge, and, you know, a lot of people think that he's -- he would be happy for an excuse to pull out, to implement the zero option. And, unfortunately, Karzai, in his -- in his mulishness and bullheadedness may give Obama that very excuse. And if that were to happen, I think the situation in Afghanistan would probably be even worse than the situation in Iraq today, because the state in Afghanistan has many fewer resources at its disposal than the state in Iraq.

ROSE: OK. Last quick question?

OPERATOR: OK. Our last question comes from Mitch Potter (ph).

QUESTION: Thank you all for taking the time to do this. I'd like you, if you could, both of you, to take a step back and look at the broader question of declining -- the declining ability for an American influence in a political outcome. I'm -- I was particularly struck by the latest Pew survey of America's place in the world and to the claim a majority of Americans, 52 percent, say the United States should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along as best they can.

We've never seen a 52 percent an American majority express that. And I'm wondering if that jibes with your view of the situation on the ground and -- and the actual realpolitik of how much Americans can influence the outcome.

BOOT: Well, I think Americans can have -- the United States remains the world's only superpower, and I think we can have a positive impact if we engage in a constructive fashion. And I don't really think that the American people are going to force us to disengage. I think what those -- what those polls really reflect is kind of war-weariness and a rise of some isolationist sentiment, as you often see after previous wars, like in the 1920s or the 1970s.

But I think the political leadership can overcome that. And, for example, in the case of Afghanistan, even though only about 20 percent of the public supports the continuing war effort, there is no real political impediment to keeping troops in Afghanistan after 2014, because if President Obama is on board, the Republican leadership and Democratic leadership in Congress is going to be on board.

And so I think we still have the capacity to pursue our interests around the world, even though the polls do reflect a tide of sentiment of retreat and isolationism, but I think the feelings are very mixed, because Americans want to pull back, but they don't want bad things to happen when they do pull back. And if they see bad things happening, I think the lesson of history is that generally we disengage -- we re-engage, rather. We end our disengagement and re-engage when we see the negative consequences of our disengagement.

ROSE: OK. Ned, do you want to have a quick last word?

PARKER: I'm fine.



ROSE: Thank you all. There's going to be a lot of future discussions as the Middle East continues to spiral out of control and we continue to watch. And hopefully we'll have you all here and back and continue until the next time. Thank you very much. Bye-bye.

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