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Haass: Petraeus, Crocker Blunt Congressional Criticism on Iraq

Interviewee: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
September 11, 2007

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Richard N. Haass, president of CFR and a longtime expert on the Middle East, says the congressional testimony by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker has to a large extent “regained control of the Iraq debate” for the Bush administration. He says that by proposing withdrawals of U.S. troops in Iraq to the pre-“surge” levels by next spring/summer, Petraeus has “co-opted the reductions argument” of the Democrats and others. Haass also believes Iraq may not remain the chief foreign policy issue in the 2008 presidential campaign. “My growing sense is that while Iraq will be part of the backdrop to the campaign, it will not have the salience as an issue that it has had for the last six months,” says Haass. “It’s not clear to me that Iraq will necessarily be the dominant issue. It’s not even clear to me that Iraq will necessarily be the dominant foreign policy issue.”

What was your impression of the dual presentations of General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker to the House Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees yesterday?  

My overriding impression is that the administration has, to some extent—maybe a large extent—regained control of the Iraq debate and that two arguments seem to be gaining traction. One is that anything that smacked of what the Iraq Study Group termed a “precipitous withdrawal” would be a strategic error. Secondly, there has been sufficient progress, at least on the military side in certain areas, to justify some continuation of the policy. On top of that, Petraeus added the dimension of some withdrawals and as I understand it we are essentially looking at a return to pre-surge levels by next spring/ summer.

So in some ways, as a result, he has co-opted the reductions argument. Let me complicate things with one more point. Even a lot of the Democrats who opposed the policy aren’t calling for total withdrawal. If you deconstruct their position, a lot of them are talking about residual forces in certain places for certain missions. So essentially now we are talking about the pace of drawdown and the size and the role of the residual force. That to me is an “inside-the-Beltway” debate. So what this suggests to me is that sixteen months from now, when a new president takes over, you are likely to see a U.S. presence of plus-or-minus 100,000 troops in Iraq, doing a lot of training, but still doing some combat missions in the central part of the country. Again, I think the bottom line is that the administration has probably bought itself sixteen more months of something that looks a lot like the status quo.

I thought what was interesting was in Crocker’s testimony, he really couldn’t hold out the hope of any immediate breakthrough on a reconciliation front. He was, I thought, in State Department-ese as gloomy as you could be.  

What’s interesting about Crocker’s testimony is how sober it was. He was making no case for the improvement of the central government. He was not holding out high prospects of reconciliation. He was basically saying that benchmarks hadn’t been met and were not likely to be met. This is part and parcel of a larger story. Crocker’s testimony was entirely consistent with the moving away from a policy and an argument that national politics have to progress if U.S. policy is to succeed. And what I think you’re seeing is the administration has fallen off that position, largely out of necessity because national politics of reconciliation weren’t happening and showed no sign of happening.

I think the bottom line is that the administration has probably bought itself sixteen more months of something that looks a lot like the status quo.

U.S. policy has moved to what some called a bottom-up or periphery approach where essentially you try to consolidate a largely successful Kurdish area, where you allow the Shiite militia and the Iranians to try to sort out the south for a while, and you focus your attention on the center, not on the central government but on strengthening the Sunnis. That could be a way of taking on al-Qaeda of Iraq. It could be also part of a larger policy of setting the stage for a longer-term approach to Iraq where the United States continues with this periphery-based policy and essentially builds up the Sunnis as a way of coming up with a modus vivendi, not just in the center, but in all of Iraq. It also fits into a larger anti-Iranian policy because you essentially set up an axis among Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United States, and Iraqi Sunnis. This has the advantage of pushing back against Iran and its proxies. In Iraq we are beginning to see the emergence of an Iraqi strategy that has a regional dimension.

And of course Crocker did say that there had been some informal agreements that were not really put into words. He said there is some oil revenue being shared without the parliament actually being able to pass anything. But do you think the politics of this in the United States is that the 2008 presidential campaign is going to be fought largely on Iraq or is that going to be pushed off?  

My growing sense is that while Iraq will be part of the backdrop to the campaign, it will not have the salience as an issue that it has had for the last six months. It’s not clear to me that Iraq will necessarily be the dominant issue. It’s not even clear to me that Iraq will necessarily be the dominant foreign policy issue [in the 2008 presidential race]. I can sketch out scenarios where, say, Iran comes to the fore as a foreign policy issue or, if there is another terrorist attack, where that whole question comes to the fore. But imagine a scenario where the United States by next summer is at 120,000-125,000 troops and U.S. casualties are down and Iraq looks roughly like it looks today—that level of messiness plus-or-minus 10 or 20 percent. It is quite possible that this will become a new baseline and will become less dominant in debate. Already, Iraq is not dominant on the Republican side. It has not been a dominant primary issue. It has been more so obviously on the Democratic side but it’s quite possible that once the Democratic candidate emerges, which could be as early as February, then given the need for that person to begin to focus on winning the general election, it’s quite possible that he or she won’t be talking a lot about Iraq.

It was interesting how much Iran came up in the discussion yesterday because of Petraeus’ concern about Iranians helping Shiite extremists and also Crocker saying that in the talks he had with Iran it was a lot colder and less productive than when he met with Iran on Afghanistan back in 2001.  

It is quite possible that Iran, in its new-found imperial role in Iraq and beyond, is going to have its hands full in Iraq. We are quite likely to see a prolonged phase of intra-Shiite fighting; the British departure from Basra is one of the contributing dimensions of that. That said, I would still favor a more regular regional meeting involving the Iranians, the Syrians and everyone else to deal with Iraq-related issues. The $64,000 question about Iraq is whether, as retired General Jack Keane has suggested, the Sunnis have thrown in the towel. He has suggested that there is potentially an accommodation here; that the Sunnis are willing to accept a modest slice of the Iraqi pie and Shiites are willing to give it to them. I’m not sure of either. So it’s quite possible that we can see in Iraq a largely separate Kurdish area, but a messy center and messy south, and continued Shiite-Sunni clashes on top of it all.

Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected in 1952, pledging to end the Korean War, which he more or less did. Will the new president in 2009 be able to resolve the Iraq crisis? 

Americans are prepared to have a significant number of troops around the world so long as the costs are not unreasonably high. As you know, we kept troops in certain places for decades. I can imagine an American presence in Iraq of say 75,000 troops for years if the costs were not high, and by costs I mean human as well as financial, if people continue to believe that the alternatives are dire, and that there is at least some case to be made that their presence is achieving some tangible progress. So, I think under those conditions you could have a relatively long-term presence. I don’t think people are demanding tremendous success.

It’s not even clear to me that Iraq will necessarily be the dominant foreign policy issue [in the 2008 presidential race].

It comes back to the basic question of how do you define success in Iraq. It’s very hard to see anything like a normal outcome there. One can imagine a messy society, a weak central government, continued fighting for some time to come. It will be very hard for a new administration simply to walk away. The United States can walk away from Iraq but we can’t escape the consequences of both the reality as well as the perception that if Iraq implodes that somehow our lack of staying power is partly or largely responsible. I actually think a new administration will be somewhat hemmed in. But even by reducing our numbers and role in Iraq, the new administration will not have its foreign policy dominated by Iraq to the degree that this one has. Also, a new administration can intensify the diplomatic dimension of Iraq. It can add a greater diplomatic dimension vis-a-vis Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian situation. If I’m right, we may be entering a slightly different era of Iraq where the emphasis would be less on bringing about a strong united Iraq and much more about bringing about some sort of stalemate where the U.S., Saudi, Egyptian, and Iraq Sunni connection may be the basis of a U.S. policy to try to simply hold off or balance out an Iranian-backed Shiite government that is national in name only.

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