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Iraq--The Way Forward: Session One [Rush transcript; Federal News Service, Inc.]

Speaker: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus, Council on Foreign Relations
Presider: Judy Woodruff, Broadcast Journalist, Former CNN Anchor
September 26, 2005
Council on Foreign Relations Washington, DC

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Council on Foreign Relations
Washingon, DC

 

JUDY WOODRUFF: Good afternoon everyone. I think you can hear me in the back of the room. Please at anytime during the program if you can’t hear, raise your hand back there because we want to make sure everyone can hear. This is a wonderful building and a wonderful room, but they have fans that are going to be going throughout the hour and it may make it harder for some of you to hear. So if you can’t hear me or you can’t hear Les, please raise your hand and we will speak up or repeat what we said.

I am Judy Woodruff. I am really honored to have been asked by the Council to be preside—presiding today over what really is the first of a series of discussions on "Iraq: The Way Forward." This truly was the brainchild of Nancy Roman who is a director of the Washington office and a vice president of the Council. The thinking being that there is so much attention and so much focus on what’s wrong and what was done wrong in the past and what we—what should have been done differently that it—there is much to be gained by thinking and discussing what could be done going forward to change the situation, so we are so honored to have—audio keeps changing.

We are so honored to have the former president—the president emeritus of the Council here, Les Gelb. I am going to do a very brief introduction before I get underway, not because you don’t recognize him, but just to remind you of the depth and the breadth of his experience. He not only headed the Council for ten years from 1993 to 2003, he of course is a long time scholar, he was with the Defense Department, he was at the State Department, he was at the New York Times as a correspondent—diplomatic and national security correspondent. He won a Pulitzer Prize. He was an op-ed page editor, a deputy editorial page editor, and a columnist of course. He has a uniquely rich background that we are going to tap into today and I am told that I must remind all of you to turn off your cell phones and to remind all of you as well that unlike most Council meetings this meeting is on the record. We are going to end promptly at 1:30. I am going to ask questions of Les for half an hour and then we are going to open it up to you all for the final half an hour.

So here we go. Les Gelb, we look at Iraq, the news is relentlessly negative and yet they had a vote earlier this year, they have a—they have a constitution that they are going to vote on in a few weeks. What do you see? You were last there in the spring of this year?

LESLIE GELB: Yes.

WOODRUFF: What is the situation as you see it right now?

GELB: Well, I will tell you what I see, but I don’t have terribly much confidence that I know a hell of a lot. When I went to Iraq, as we discussed in our phone conversation, you go from one green zone to another green zone. Even when you go north to Kurdistan it’s like being in a green zone. It’s like being in mars: you are really cut off. It is hard to get a feel; it is hard to get a sense of talking to people in their places, so you have to be very modest, very careful. And it is not just the visitor who was in that situation; most legislators who go there go there for half a day. The Americans who run the show in Iraq are in the green zone almost all the time in Baghdad—just cut off. It’s all through a glass darkly from a great distance, but with that rather tragic caveat about the way we have to make decisions about that war.

What I see is this: I see the country already in effect in three parts. If you go north to Kurdistan, you see more construction than any place I have seen on earth outside of China. It is extraordinary. There’s a real economic boom and you don’t have that kind of construction without security. It is a relatively safe place. You go south and it is filled with a lot thievery, you have militias beating up on the population, sometimes on one another. That is a pro—a very pro-Iranian militia and a less pro-Iranian militia, but there is relative stability there, too, and they are pumping oil: 70 percent of Iraq’s oil is in the south, and they are pumping oil. Pumping oil is a good sign that there is "relative stability."

In the center you have the world that we hear about all the time, essentially the Sunni insurgency, a combination of Ba’athists who supported Saddam and jihadis who are very anti-American fundamentalist extremists.

It seems to me that the insurgents cannot win the war militarily as long as the United States stays there in force. We can throw them out of any place at any time for as long as we want to occupy that place. And we can’t win the war in any meaningful sense without there being a real political deal among the major leadership groups of all these three parties and that’s getting increasingly unlikely.

WOODRUFF: So what happens? I mean, we have—there is a vote coming up middle of October on the constitution. That very document of course was put together with enormous distrust and after it was put together, the Sunnis went away very unhappy. Is that—this is not the positive forward-looking question, but we are—we will get to that in a second, but is this constitutional process—is there something within that process that can bring Iraq to the place where it should be?

GELB: Well, that’s the focal point for trying to strike a political deal. I don’t think that the Iraqis themselves or the United States government did nearly as good a job as they had to do in working out this constitutional draft. It leaves the Sunnis too far outside of what they need to be able to take the risk of signing on to disagree with this constitution. They didn’t get enough for the political leaders to say, "Yes, do it," and consequently there is a pretty high risk that the constitution is going to be turned down and will go back to square one.

WOODRUFF: What then?

GELB: Well, what I would do and I have no idea whether this will work—we are all grasping at straws here. It is a horrible situation and the longer it goes on the more difficult it is to work things out, but what I would do is I would have—and I have been writing this for two and half years now—I would have the constitution built around an Iraq with a limited central government and three largely autonomous regions. To bring the Sunnis into the deal—to bring the Sunnis into the deal I would make them an offer that was too good for them to refuse. Give them more than their fair share on two specifics. First they are very upset about the oil agreement that was struck in the recent constitutional bargaining. They—they were given a share of oil revenues proportionate to their share of the total population, which they claim is larger than what the Kurds and Shi’ites say, but on top of it they were given only a share of the revenues of current wells being pumped, not future.

I would make them a deal where I’d give them a percentage of the oil revenues above their population percentage and I would give it of both current and future wells and—and I’d embed that agreement in the constitution itself so it wouldn’t be subject to the changes and vagaries of ordinary law. I would put the deal in the constitutional so that they would have a strong and steady revenue stream which they couldn’t have otherwise. They would always be at somebody’s knees begging for money. I would put this good deal in the constitution.

Secondly, I would tell them, you can have your own regional state. You can have your own regional state and you run it. If you have a central state that you keep pushing for, it makes no sense for you because that central state is not going to be run by you, it’s going to be run by the Shi’a or the Shi’a and the Kurds, and they are going to tell you what to do. If you have a strong federal system with a Sunni state, basically you will run your own affairs including if you want to have the Ba’athist part of the political system, they play in the game too.

So here is a chance for you to have a future where you are not dominated by the people who you know are just going to get even otherwise. I would make that kind of deal and I still don’t know whether they would buy it, but I would like to put it on the table to see if you could get some coalescence of Sunni leadership backing it, saying, "Hey, this is good enough for me to try to put my head on a chopping block."

WOODRUFF: And you think the Shi’a and the Kurds would be willing to give up the oil revenue in any other bonuses you would be giving to the Sunni?

GELB: The answer is, I don’t know, but right now we have more leverage on both the Kurds and the Shi’ites than we will six months from now or a year from now when we start to take out a few troops and when they see an anti-war feeling building up in our country prior to the elections. We have maximum leverage now; I would play those cards now.

WOODRUFF: The Sunni—what makes you think, I mean, other than that it sounds like a good idea, what makes you think that this is something that could work?

GELB: You know, the only thing that makes me believe it might work is that it follows the contours of Iraqi history and of the current situation there. Now, this a country that was a single country only by virtue of the exercise either of outside power coming in and pushing everybody together or by one of their own—Saddam—terrorizing the others and keeping the country under his dictatorship, so it was even more artificial than lots of other countries. So on top of it, the Sunnis who have been the bosses of that place throughout modern times didn’t treat the Kurds and the Shi’ites very well, and they really want to get even. Now, I hear from Middle East experts all of the time that that’s not so, that they all consider themselves Iraqis—one big happy family. I think that’s truly dangerously naive.

When I went there, I asked these people—and I saw lots and lots of them—what do you consider yourself, an Iraqi or a Shi’a or an Iraqi Shi’a, a Shi’a Iraqi? And except for the people in the foreign ministry who consider themselves Iraqis like the State Department, they consider themselves Shi’a or Shi’a Iraqis or Sunnis—Sunni Iraqis, so I don’t think there is much loyalty to a nation except for the Sunnis to the nation they used to run. The others don’t have it. The Shi’a are happy to run the whole country. You let them run the whole country as we promised them: one man, one vote, one country. They’d do that, but otherwise I think if—the proposal I am talking about follows the natural contours and the current political alignments, so it has a chance.

That doesn’t mean they will do it. That doesn’t mean they will do it. It may be that the Shi’ites have now got into the point that either they want to run the whole show or they want to run just their own show in the south, and give as little as possible to the Sunnis, and get revenge that way.

And the Kurds for all intents and purposes are running their own show in the north, and do enough to keep Iraq whole to please us. We are their ultimate protector because they know if they go independent one day—I hope it never comes to that. I hope Iraqis kept whole, but if they go independent one day because the country is split apart by civil war, they need us as their defender against the Turks and even the Iranians, so they want to stay in good terms with us, so they by and large bend to our will where it does not affect their core autonomy.

WOODRUFF: Are you talking about the Sunnis now or—

GELB: The Kurds.

WOODRUFF: The Kurds. I am sorry. Okay, you were talking—well, before I get to that I was going to ask you about Iran, but what about the trial of Saddam Hussein, the plan is a public—

GELB: He is guilty. (Laughter.)

WOODRUFF: The plan is, though, for a—apparently a televised, very public trial in the next month.

GELB: Right.

WOODRUFF: Is that going to have an effect on a potential solution—a way out?

GELB: Sure, for the Ba’athists who are still, you know, linked to him as a kind of titular leader. They are the only ones who have that kind of loyalty. The other Iraqis—I mean, I haven’t polled the place recently, but if they like that guy who has tortured and killed their people for all those years it would surprise me. I think they’ll all be happy if they—if he were found guilty and contrary to what President Talabani feels about capital punishment, executed as quickly as possible. They don’t care what the results are—what the effects are on the political process.

WOODRUFF: What do you think the effects would be?

GELB: The effects will be to drive the Sunnis even further away and, you know, personally in order to take that best shot that I think we still ought to try to bring the Sunnis on board, I would have delayed the trial a bit further to take that best shot.

WOODRUFF: Until?

GELB: Until we saw whether we could strike that political deal.

WOODRUFF: And if not with this constitution with another bite at the apple?

GELB: Maybe at the next round, yes.

WOODRUFF: Iran, we were talking when we spoke last week about what you heard about Iran when you were in Iraq.

GELB: Yes.

WOODRUFF: Talk about that.

GELB: Well, the Sunnis and the Kurds bring up the Iranians all the time. They say—you know, I hate to tell you this that—we love you Americans but you really are dumb. Don’t you realize the Iranians are already running this country, particularly in the south? They are all over the place. There are thousands of Iranian intelligence operatives, military officers, Iranian money, Iranian arms and as usual you Americans are the last to know. The Iranians basically told the Shi’as, go join the U.S. Army and America will pay your monthly salary, $200 to $250 to $400. You’ll will do better than we can do; they can afford more than we can and that basically they are consolidating their political ties and their control in the south and that they want to take it as far north into Sunni land as they can and if it’s going to involve killing Sunnis and Kurds, they are prepared to take that on too, but it’s—they regard it as a very serious Iranian threat.

I didn’t hear, of course, the Shi’ite accept that version of reality, nor did I hear it from American officials as well. I mean, they know that there are Iranians there but they reject this degree of control or influence. And as you know, Judy, there is a school of thought among a lot of American Middle East experts that there is an important difference between Iranian Shi’ites and Iraqi Shi’ites; that the Iraqi school is essentially what they call a quietest school, a school that argues that clerics ought to stay essentially out of politics and to which the Sunnis and Kurds say, you know, tell me that and I will sell you the Brooklyn bridge. They may be sort of staying out now, although they are not really. They quite active in saying, support the constitution vote for certain political parties. They are doing all that stuff. And once they have power, they are going to assert themselves.

WOODRUFF: Which—

GELB: And we don’t know.

WOODRUFF: I was going to say which version do you believe?

GELB: I have no idea. Learned people on both sides convince me when I listen to them, but I have no independent judgment on that. What’s more important, our government can’t begin to figure it out.

WOODRUFF: Given all this—given not only your suggestion about working the constitution, giving some more to the Sunnis to get them back into the process, but also given the reality on the ground, what has to be done to prevent Iraq from just dissolving into civil war?

GELB: Yeah, well it’s much harder now than it was a couple of years ago. We made so many mistakes that everything now has become a long shot. You know, people like us are really in the business, or we should be in the business, of trying to come up with solutions to these problems. I think that’s really our role. Unfortunately, most outsiders with real knowledge have became warriors rather than problem-solvers—political warriors, but we owe it to our country to help our government to think through problems like this, and it’s very hard now to figure out what to do.

You know, I find myself—and I was telling you this in a phone conversation—I find myself thinking back to Vietnam not because the contours or nature of the fighting or politics in Iraq are anywhere near identical to Vietnam. They aren’t. But in terms of American choices at this point—at this point there is a tragic similarity in my mind to Vietnam and I was thinking back to it and thinking back to the arguments that were made and people like me—many in this room throughout the Vietnam war were essentially trying to find some middle way out of it. Let’s find a middle course where we can sort of satisfy our needs and realities and we struggled with that for years trying to make some middle course viable, and we never really did.

A lot of conservatives during that period where the choices become so hard, a lot of conservatives during that period were saying that we are not facing up to the fact that the real choice is to win or get out; that that makes much more sense than any middle course, which is never going to lead to America prevailing or losing, just to end this warfare. And I’ve kind of thought my way around to that same choice now: I think some problems are just too difficult to be solved with that middle course. Most things we deal with can be. Most things can be wrestled within that middle way, but some problems are from hell and you can’t wrestle with them that way and you have to make some basic choices and I think the basic choice really is between President Bush explaining to our country how we could win in any conventional sense militarily and politically, or coming up with a strategy for flexible withdrawals that leaves Iraq better than we found it, but short of the maximum goals of democracy and stability and happiness that we have heard so much about these last few years.

I think it comes down to that. I think it is very sad that it comes down to that, and we could not find a middle way, but I think that’s where we are and I would be interested in what—you know some of our colleagues are going to think about that in the question period—whether they see it differently.

WOODRUFF: Has the military—before we do turn it over the audience, though, has the military establishment already made a choice of its own though? I mean, we have read—you’ve talked about this, you have written about this before. David Ignatius writes about it in the Washington Post today, essentially that the military has already decided that there is going to be a gradual drawdown and they are talking about how to make the best of it.

GELB: You know, when I was there in the spring, the military almost to a man—military leaders, the senior officers were saying that we had to begin to phase out American presence, not because they argue that we could, given the state of the training and preparation of the Iraqis. They weren’t saying that, but because they believed we needed to do it in order to preserve a viable American armed forces; that the strain for the regular armed forces, the reserves, the National Guard had just become to great. Recruitment was becoming such a serious problem.

On the other hand, they were well aware of the powerful feelings among our men and women who have fought there that they don’t want the U.S. government or American politicians to make a mockery of their sacrifices, that they fought in this terrible war for two and a half years and they don’t want anyone to say, "April fool!"—that this was a not so serious and we can just get the hell out of there.

So my sense was—they didn’t say this and this is now me talking—that they wanted to see a phased withdrawal—they were talking. I think Ignatius is correct. But I sense that they found themselves torn between these two feelings: the need to get out to preserve the armed forces and the need not to jilt their own troops by in any way demeaning the sacrifices.

WOODRUFF: Does a withdrawal necessary mean that you have let down and undercut the whole reason for having been there in the first place?

GELB: I think that unless we can leave and show that we really accomplished something, that we didn’t leave the place in turmoil, we didn’t say, "Lets wash our hands of it. To hell with this." Yes, that would make a mockery, so we have got to find some stratagem that provides a plausibly better place, and I think we ought to be devoting the best minds in this country to help figure out that kind of Iraq.

And at the same time I think we need to use whatever leverage we have left in the world—and after both Iraq and Katrina it’s been seriously depleted, and Bush himself is seriously depleted it—to call a regional conference to have a nonaggression pact so they don’t start picking the pieces apart. And all this has to be done as part of a strategy to leave having accomplished some of what we wanted that’s important and to leave the place better off.

WOODRUFF: It’s a good point to open it up to the audience for questions. We are going to ask you to—when I call on you, stand, identify yourself and your affiliation and we will make sure that we can hear your question. We will start right here, yeah. There is a microphone that’s going to come around.

QUESTIONER: I am Priscilla Clapp. I am retired Foreign Service and I once worked with Les Gelb. Les, I must find—I do find your proposal for the largely autonomous tripartite solution very appealing, but having pretended that we are not dictating the constitutional process are we in a position now to step in and try to force something quite that drastic to happen? And we would have do it pretty quickly, I think, to make it work.

GELB: I agree with you, Kitty. I don’t think that we can force it, but I think they are almost there. I mean the Kurds are there or they have been there all along. The Shi’ites are very strongly in that direction, more and more so all the time although there are crosscutting trends, and maybe—I don’t think we would have to twist their arms. Maybe we’d have to twist their arms to have two southern regions instead of one because you don’t want such a big block. I am not sure about it, but I don’t think we would have to beat up on that. It’s the Sunnis and with the Sunnis I wouldn’t beat up on them, I would make them this delicious offer and try to show them that if they got what they been arguing for—a strong unitary state with a powerful government in Baghdad—they would be the ones who suffered from it.

Now, you know I am saying that, while I am writing a book on power in the 21st Century taking note to the fact that I can count on the fingers of one hand those occasions in which I have convinced people that I understood their interest better than they did. It very rarely works. Persuasion is very hard, but to me the argument is so obvious in this case that you have a shot at it.

QUESTIONER: (Off mike)—I don’t know if am thinking realistically—yes? I don’t know whether I am thinking realistically or surrealistically, but on the basis of what you said—

GELB: I don’t know whether I am either.

QUESTIONER:—and on the scenario of what you call flexible withdrawal or flexible disengagement, is it within the realm of the possible that the administration will help itself to two thirds of the Aiken Formula, declare victory in the north and the south and concede defeat in the center?

GELB: I don’t think so, Bernie. You know, first of all it’s very hard to tell what’s going on inside the administration. The real administration is five people and you can talk to a lot of sensible people who work for those five people, but it’s not clear they really know what’s going on and it’s not clear how much thinking is going on at this strategic level at the highest levels of the administration or what information they have or how decent that information is. You need some good information to begin thinking about strategy. These folks—and you are hearing this from somebody who favored using force if necessary to get rid of Saddam. I don’t have any problem with it. I thought he was a threat. These folks went into that war without a strategy, almost carelessly, almost absolutely irresponsibly, without thinking about what they are going to do with the place.

And so far as I can tell from Bob Woodward’s book, which they say is accurate, they never even held one meeting of the National Security Council, not even one meeting to discuss overall strategy or postwar strategy. I mean, that’s the dog that didn’t bark in the Woodward book. It didn’t bark several times.

QUESTIONER: Who are the five?

GELB: Pardon?

QUESTIONER: Who were the five?

WOODRUFF: Of the—yeah, off the record, who were the five who are running the administration?

GELB: Who were the five? The president of the United States, the vice president of the United States, Steve Hadley, Condi Rice and Don Rumsfeld. It used to—there used to be six. The other is now an antipoverty advocate. (Laughter.)

WOODRUFF: All right. Who is next? Right here.

QUESTIONER: Hi, I am Bob Dreyfuss, a journalist with Rolling Stone magazine. With regard to the Sunnis, I did an interview over the weekend with Aiham Alsammarae, who—as a former electricity minister, he has tried to put himself in between the insurgents and the Iraqi government and the U.S. government. He told me that he has had zero interest, except for low-level people at State and other places, in talking to the Sunnis. In fact, he said what’s happening in Tal Afar and other places is making it far harder for us to corral the Sunnis. In fact, the head of this group just disappeared over the last few days. He thinks he was probably killed or kidnapped by death squads operating on behalf of the current militias that are attached to the Iraqi government.

So in other words, where—where in the world does your strategy fit into what we are doing in Iraq, which seems almost calculated to drive the Sunnis away when we have people on the Sunni side—they just met in ( Oman ?)—saying we want to talk, we want to negotiate, we want a deal and they are getting absolutely no response at all. So I don’t get how we get from here to there?

GELB: Well, I don’t disagree with anything you said. You are not arguing with me. You are just expressing my pessimism maybe more strongly than I did. They are not focused on the Sunnis and as I—as I thought I said, the center of our negotiating strategy should be the Sunnis and to make them that offer that’s better than they deserve and that they shouldn’t be able to refuse on commonsense grounds, but they aren’t really totally focused on it and they weren’t in the—in the last plays of the cards before the constitutional deal was set.

WOODRUFF: Over here. Yeah. Stand up.

QUESTIONER: Yes, Mark Feldman. I am an attorney now, formerly of the State Department.

GELB: Hello, Mark.

QUESTIONER: How are you, Les? My question is—relates to the Sunnis. Are we underestimating their attachment to a central government controlled by themselves? In other words, do you think they might believe that they have a military solution to the problem? What do you think really would happen if we were to disengage and there would be a civil war in some form or another there?

GELB: Yeah, it’s a good question. I put that question to a number of Sunnis when I was in Iraq and a lot them, I think, did think that once we get out the others would cave to them. They are so used to being the rulers there they think that the others will behave like slaves again given half a chance—given an opportunity. And the truth of the matter is—and, again, I haven’t spoken to enough of them recently to be confident of this, but when I was there the Shi’as were still scared of the Sunnis. They were. And I think one of the reasons—one of the reasons they turning to the Iranians is as protection against the Sunnis. So they are worried about just what you are saying.

As far as the Kurds are concerned, the peshmerga, their militia are the best fighting units in Iraq except for our best units. They can take care of themselves and I believe they will take care of themselves, but in the end I don’t think the Sunnis are as concerned about them as about the Shi’ites in the south. And the—so there are Sunnis who I think they are delusional. They will never run that country again, but there are some whom—some of them who think they can.

WOODRUFF: Let’s see, right here the blue coat over there.

QUESTIONER: Hi, my name is Mercedes Fitchett with the U.S. Trade and Development Agency. I have been working on Iraq for just a little over two years and was in Baghdad as a commercial attache. Okay, that’s better.

My question pertains to the future military presence in Iraq with regards to permanent U.S. military bases. How I see it, we are going to have a permanent military structure, yet I don’t hear much about that in the military dialogue concerning our withdrawals and the fact that we are looking to hedge our military presence there via Saudi Arabia with our bases there and the potential instability in Saudi Arabia. And also that the fact that so much things to be focusing more on Iran and the fact that we have a lack of diplomatic relationships with Iran and there is lot teeing up with the nuclear weapons question, so I would just like your thoughts about that.

GELB: All right, I saw Mick Trainor earlier. Mick, are we—are we largely out of Saudi Arabia. Are you there, Mick?

WOODRUFF: Okay, wait for the microphone.

QUESTIONER: Yes, in terms of major ground forces and air forces. Command and control facilities, particularly for aviation, remain in Saudi Arabia.

GELB: Yeah, and it’s not—you know, we establish bases in some of little Gulf states as a substitute and there is continuing talk of the Kurds offering us bases in the North whether there is one Iraq or three Iraqs, so I think that the world it’s likely to be over the next ten, twenty years, we need some sort of military facility in that country and personally I would put it in Kurdistan.

WOODRUFF: Does that answer your question?

QUESTIONER: To a certain extent. That’s fine, thank you.

WOODRUFF: Okay.

GELB: I am sorry.

QUESTIONER: I’m Mark Ginsberg. Les, there was a study recently that over 160 of the monthly jihadists who make their way across into Iraq through Syria are coming from about three or four countries in the Arab world, all of which opposed the disintegration of Iraq during the Gulf war and wanted us not in march our way into Baghdad.

In your discussions, why do you suppose the Arab states, our alleged Arab allies, seemed to have turned such a blind eye to the flow of jihadists and then into the country knowing full well the results? And secondly—the second part of my question—Syria has actively facilitated the insurgency. Why do you suppose the administration has been so lackluster and in some respects inept in managing the Syrian issue with respect to the violence inside the central part of the country?

GELB: Yeah, well there are people here, Mark, who can give you a better answer than I could on that question, and I invite them to react as well. But I remember years ago, Judy Kipper, who I saw before, too—Judy, where are you? Anyway, Judy Kipper wrote an op-ed piece where, if I remembered correctly, it was about the Saudis. It said the Saudis conduct an insurance policy, not a foreign policy, and I thought that really hit the nail on the head; that their overwhelming focus is on their survival, not surprisingly. And it’s politically safer for them to support these jihadis than for them to beat up on the jihadis to help us out, and I think they all made that kind of choice. There is also Sunni solidarity. They feel this way. Up until quite recently you had a lot these Sunni leaders in Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah in Jordan, publicly talking about the need for the return of a Sunni strongman to run Baghdad. You know, just throwing oil on the damn fire. So they don’t want their fellow Sunnis to be run by the Shi’ites.

And on top of it, you know, they—I think they’re delusional, too, if they think the Sunni’s are going to run Iraq again, and that’s the way they’ll head off growing Shi’ite power, growing Iranian power. That’s a problem that they—they’d be far better off cooperating with us in dealing with and a problem that we would deal with better if we figured out a way to connect with the Iranians so that we could begin to have—we could begin to have a dialogue where we could exercise our influence.

So in terms of handling Syria in particular, I think you have the same problem there. Assad is a minority ruler of a Sunni state. And he is trying to get through next week. And as he sees it, he’s got—he can’t bottle it up because the pressure cooker will boil over inside Syria. Now, I can’t attest to the validity of that reasoning. Maybe they’re being unduly nervous about it. Maybe they are playing games with us about this, but you have to know far more about those societies than I do to make those judgments.

WOODRUFF: Speaking of a strongman, what about—I mean, the idea that there really has not been a strong—one or two strong leaders to emerge from any one of this communities that can transcend their own parochial interest, how much is that a problem, or are there individuals who might fill that bill?

GELB: Yeah, I was impressed with the political leadership I saw in Iraq. I really was—on all levels and with all the three groups. I thought they were quite able people and they compared favorably to our own political elites. (Laughter.) You know, these people know how to do politics—quite smart. They know how to do deals. Their interests were so disparate, which is hard for them to get together and there was no one person who stood out—you know, or two people who stood out there.

Almost every country is having a kind of leadership crisis to the point where we ought to begin to question Darwin’s theory of evolution. You know, it just seems that they get worse all the time and in Iraq, you haven’t had a real democratic stalwart step forward or somebody on the order of a Sadat who might unify the nation. And they all remember what happen to Sadat.

WOODRUFF: Way back in the back with the book up in the air.

QUESTIONER: Thanks. Gary Mitchell from the Mitchell Report—

WOODRUFF: We can’t hear you.

QUESTIONER: Apparently it’s working. I’m not sure. I was thinking when you were talking about sort of, I think—

WOODRUFF: Tell us your name again. Okay, here you go try another mike.

QUESTIONER: Garry Mitchell from the Mitchell Report.

WOODRUFF: It will, they have it flipped to him right now.

QUESTIONER: Before the—(audio break)—marched into Baghdad, there was a lot of discussion about whether the road to Baghdad ran through Jerusalem or whether the road to Jerusalem ran through Baghdad. Given where we are today, where do the roads run in that part of the country—in that part of the world?

GELB: I have very strong feelings on this issue. I don’t believe that the factor that has delayed democracy or economic development or the solution of problems in the Arab world is the existence of the state of Israel. I think that’s the excuse, not the cause, and I think they use it for their own political reasons to try to shift the focus of attention within their countries away from their own misrule and greed and dictatorships onto the Israelis. I think it’s been the history from the beginning and I don’t see that issue in shades of gray at all. I think that’s exactly what happens there.

Now, as between the Israelis and the Palestinians, that’s another matter. It’s a matter for negotiations and mutual compromise, and I think we all know the kinds of compromises that, in the end, could work. And I think we also know that the great majority of Israeli citizens want to live in peace, and basically they are living in fear. And if they felt that there were fundamental changes among Palestinians in terms of accepting a Jewish state of Israel, they would make deals that involve real risks along the lines that Barak offered at Camp David and Taba. But when you have parties like Hamas dedicated to the overthrow of Israel, period, as part of the political system, it doesn’t engender much confidence in the Israelis. So I know there are different feelings and views out there on this subject, but that’s how I feel.

WOODRUFF: All right, let’s see. Right here in the middle, we haven’t had anybody in the middle, and then I’ll come to the sides again.

QUESTIONER: Is this one on? Can you hear me? Hi, David Apgar. Two very quick questions. The first is if—(audio break)—do you have any reason to think that there is any elevated troop level which if in place for a year might make a material difference by providing temporary security? And the other, just thinking through your own least bad possible solution, what would be the disposition of Baghdad? Would it—would you split it down the Tigress, would it be simply a Sunni city, or would it be a second Jerusalem?

GELB: I prefer to answer any question but the Baghdad one.

QUESTIONER: Is there—do you have any reason or have you heard any plausible arguments about an elevated troop level that might provide necessary security?

GELB: On the first one, you know, again you have Mick Trainor here, Jim Kimsey, John, Helen—I really would like to hear from them on this, whether they thought having 200,000 or 250,000 troops now would do the trick. The senior military officers I spoke to in Iraq, bar none, all made the argument that I believe to be correct that you’ve got to fix the politics before you can fix the military side of it—that the two are profoundly intertwined and there is no military solution by itself.

On the second question of Baghdad, I was waiting for somebody to ask that because it is really the major weakness in what I’m proposing. I try to get through sessions like these hoping nobody will ask it. It is so tough about Baghdad. I mean, I can give the kind of silly, easy answer, that I’d make it a federal city, but I don’t know anything else smart to say about it, and there have to be people who know more about Iraq and about that city who can come up with a better idea than I can.

WOODRUFF: Okay, right here.

QUESTIONER: Joe Robert. Jim Kimsey and I just got back from Iraq Friday or Saturday. One of the common refrains that we heard from every military commander, from Abizaid down through the rest of them running each of the regions, in charge of each of the regions, and their subordinates was that this is a war that could not possibly be won militarily. The military has in effect done what it could do, and from here on it’s going to be won by the Iraqi people through a strong government.

One of the things that we heard—and we met with the opposition, some of the opposition Sunni leadership—is that they believe that this constitution is going to pass regardless of how they feel about it, but one of—the big question I have is the other common refrain that we heard was that the military showed up, has done a terrific job, I believe, but the rest of the United States government stayed home. And in each of the meetings that we had, when you talked about coordination between the various U.S. government departments, whether it’s Justice or Treasury or Commerce or Energy, no one showed up, and the people who did show up were of limited quantity. When I say limited quantity, generally less than three, and generally so young and inexperienced as to not be in a position to really make a difference.

So what would your recommendation be given that we probably have six more months to have a meaningful impact on the formation of a real government, which for the first time it looks like that we will likely have, to help them build the ministries and the bureaucracies to support those ministries going forward? How do we get the rest of the United States government to show up to help them?

GELB: Yeah, it’s a damn good point. You can’t help but see that when you’re out there—the difference in the military operation and the civilian operation. All of it was really made far worse by the Bremer regime and it really put us behind the eight ball. You say there were a lot of young people. There were very smart, young people who went out there, but they are young people—haven’t made enough mistakes yet, and you have to make a lot of mistakes to know how to handle situations like that. You know, they were smart as hell and now they’ve made some of their mistakes. The next Iraq, they’ll do better.

We sent out a number of good people. I sat and watched them in their daily meetings, the ones who were involved with the different Iraqi departments, the counterpart group—I forget the name—ERMA (ph), and they seem like some pretty damn good people. It’s just that it’s an overwhelming job. The Iraqi culture, political culture, bureaucratic culture, it is so profoundly different from ours. You know, it ought to give pause—the political culture, the bureaucratic culture ought to give pause to all among us who have over the years lost ballast and start to believe in our capacity to transform societies. It is a dangerous idea. We can—we can do certain things slowly and through a military presence slowly. We did in a number of places in Asia; did it in Germany and Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, but these things happen very, very slowly and in situations where they’re not in the middle of civil wars—not in the middle of civil wars.

And those among us who have dragged us into such enterprises always end up, I think, leaving before they have to pay the price and others pay the price of having to make the hard decisions that they ignored—they ran away from. But at certain point, we’ve got to learn the lesson about transforming other societies through warfare in two years or five years or whatever it may be. Not that we shouldn’t promote democracy; we should, but you do it largely transformationally and through evolutionary means by building civil society. And then if we’re lucky they can do better. There is no reason that Arabs can’t have democracies, but it takes time. When you try to hurry it up, only the Bolsheviks win. Every time you hurry it up, the Bolsheviks win.

WOODRUFF: All right, right there, the woman in the beige suit.

QUESTIONER: Thanks. Amy Christensen, CG Strategies. I read some press accounts that the American administration on the ground was actually undermining some burgeoning labor organizing and labor movement development because of sort of a knee-jerk opposition to unions in general here in the United States, and I was just wondering two things. Have you heard any of this is actually happening on the ground, first? And second, do you think that that type of organizing of labor and empowerment and sort of civil society engagement and growth is useful to building democracies?

GELB: Well, we happen to have here the world expert on this, one of the most outstanding Americans I know, Tom Donahue. And Tom, this is going to be your question. Just one second, Tom.

TOM DONAHUE: I think initially on the labor side we expected rather quick action to enable the unions to grow and form and so forth. And what we wanted was a change in the law, which the administration said, no, no, we’re not going to change Iraqi law. They’ll do it in their own time with their own constitution.

And so, in that sense, the development of trade unions in Iraq has been delayed and postponed. There are still—there are currently about six different federations in Iraq, they seem to be thriving in the sense of being active and growing. They have some purchase on the job of representing workers and trying to improve their condition. A good deal of support has come into them from the Solidarity Center of the AFL-CIO and more particularly from the ICFTU, the Worldwide Trade Union Organization. They have been taking people out of Iraq for at least a year now and trying to do some training in Amman, and I think that’s beginning to help the situation.

GELB: You know, I have a public debt to repay to Tom Donahue. In the 10 years I ran the council, nine of them Tom Donnie (ph) was on the board and he was one of three people over the course of those 10 years on the board whom I called for everything under the sun and who really was an enormous help to me and to this institution. He is just fantastic. Thank you, Tom.

WOODRUFF: We got about a minute left. Let’s take, maybe just two more quick questions. There is a hand up right there in the back. Give it to him.

QUESTIONER: Can you hear me? (Unintelligible)—NTV. Do you think an independent—do you hear me? Do you think an independent Kurdish state is feasible and viable?

GELB: An independent?

QUESTIONER: Kurdish state in the north is feasible and viable? And instead of pushing for a territorially united Iraq, should the United States let the Kurds go their own way?

GELB: You know, I am very partial to the Kurds. I really like them a lot and they’ve achieved incredible things in the 12 years they’ve had under our protection. They’ve had kind of Mayor Daley democracy. You got, you know, Barzani and Talabani—two Mayor Daleys—that gives you a democracy. It’s even better than one Mayor Daley. (Laughter.) And they have an economy that’s clean enough so that they can have real economic expansion. So they deserve enormous praise for what they’ve done with themselves and for their people. It’s tremendous.

That said, I would hope Iraq stays one country because I think—even as a loose confederation—as long as it’s one country because their neighbors will cause enormous problems otherwise. They’ll never stop and the people of Iraq and those who live on the borders—their lives will be in misery for decades to come. So I think we ought to make every effort to keep it one state and that, paradoxically, the way to keep it whole is to decentralize it.

WOODRUFF: Okay, last question, right there.

QUESTIONER: Don Oberdorfer. It’s not really a question, it’s a comment, and not a helpful comment I’m afraid. I just have to express a great deal of skepticism that there’s some political solution to the Sunni issue. It seems to me that a lot of the people—the 500 or so people have blown themselves up earlier this year and a lot of the people who are the problem here are not doing it out of some constitutional-type objections. They’re doing it for a combination of religious reasons and also opposition to occupation, which I think among a substantial part of the Sunni population and a good many of the militias, now somewhat quiet on the Shi’ite side, are just very much opposed to foreigners occupying their country.

So as long as we are occupying, I must say, unless we don’t—unless we have a clear sort of sign of how we’re getting out, it seems to me that these political solutions as—I’m not saying it shouldn’t be tried, but I’m just skeptical if that’s going to solve the problem.

GELB: Well, what you say, Don, doesn’t come as a revelation to me. I think I expressed some skepticism myself, but it’s good that you end on a pessimistic note—(laughter)—because we ought to be pessimistic. I would only point this out. I’ve written on this subject a number of times and I always do combine the political with a flexible American withdrawal plan, just for the reasons you’ve cited. If I were to put my whole plan on the table, I would’ve added that.

I’m still not sure even adding that, that it’s enough to get the Sunnis to do it for all the reasons I cited and you just cited, but I think we’ve got to give that the shot and basically, as I said, I think we’ve got to go back to the president, to this administration, to whoever is making the decisions with whatever information they possess and say to them, either show us how you’re going to win in any conventional, political, military sense, or give us a strategy for phasing out American troops and leaving that country better off than we found it.

WOODRUFF: Do you want to add anything to that in closing?

GELB: No, just that it’s always a treat to come back here and visit with you folks and council members, and I thank Nancy very much for the invitation, and a treat to have Judy interrogating me.

WOODRUFF: Well, it’s the—thank you. The theme again of this series is—as Les and I have been saying, is to constructively looking for the next steps in Iraq. So there is a positive focus, believe it or not, that overlays all of this. And there will be another in this series coming up soon and you’ll get information about that. But Les Gelb, thank you very much.

GELB: Thank you.

 

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