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Iraq: After the Surge

Speakers: Steven N. Simon, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations, and Walter B. Slocombe, Attorney, Caplin & Drysdale, Former Defense Department Official
Presider: Ellen Laipson, President and Ceo, The Henry L. Stimson Center
March 7, 2007
Council on Foreign Relations

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ELLEN LAIPSON:  Good afternoon, everyone.  My name is Ellen Laipson and I'm delighted to welcome you to this session on Iraq.

Purim is over, so you can turn off your noisemakers.  And I would like to also let you know that today's session is on the record, for the working press.  So that's a rare event for the Council, but we're delighted that today is on the record.  That will keep Steve in line.  He'll make sure to think carefully about what he says.

STEVEN N. SIMON:  I have nothing for you on that at this time.  (Laughs.)  But we are watching the situation carefully, consulting with our allies and friends. (Laughter.)

LAIPSON:  We're delighted to have both Steve and Walt to talk about the rather compelling and not too humorous issue of America's military strategy for Iraq, and the question of the surge and what happens after the surge.

As you know, Steve, who has worked in the White House and the State Department -- the author of some important books on terrorism -- has recently written a Council study called "After the Surge:  The Case for U.S. Military Disengagement from Iraq." 

Walt Slocombe, distinguished attorney and former Defense Department official and who served in Iraq in 2003, will provide his own reflections and let us know where he agrees and doesn't agree with Steve.

We thought we would open it up by letting Steve make his case and give us a few minutes of the argument for disengagement.  Thanks, Steve.

SIMON:  Thanks, Ellen.

The main reason for disengaging militarily from Iraq is that the U.S. can't achieve its goals in Iraq militarily.  It can't reshape a broken political system militarily.

The reasons for Iraqi political dysfunctionality are deep, they're profound, and they've been shaped by decades of Ba'athist rule, by U.N. sanctions and by the sudden decapitation of the Iraqi government and the removal of all government services from Iraq.  This in addition has left the U.S. culpable but not capable; that is to say, responsible for events in Iraq but without the ability to shape them in a positive direction.  Those are the two principal reasons for disengaging militarily.

There are other reasons for getting out which are perhaps just as important.  One is that the war has been a godsend to jihadists, and the jihad is indeed the other strategic challenge that the United States faces.  And that is a challenge that has grown graver and perhaps more dangerous as a result of Iraq. 

The war has damaged American prestige, in some places quite severely.  This is problematic in part because the countries with which we have to work -- the governments with which we have to work -- in the region might be authoritarian, but that doesn't mean that they are inattentive to public opinion.  They need to take into account the views of their constituencies whether or not those people can vote.

The war has also distracted the administration from a host of other important issues.  We're all here in Washington.  We all know how the system works.  We know this very well and we know that no administration, Republican or Democrat, can juggle so many things at once.  And with the powerfully preoccupying factor of Iraq, the administration can't deal with other things.

Iraq has also siphoned resources from Afghanistan, raising the prospect of two strategic defeats in Southwest Asia as against only one.  The war has already empowered Iran, and at this point it's complicating a U.S. -- U.S. initiatives or the possibility of a U.S. initiative to stanch an Iranian pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability.

Finally, the support for the war in the United States, as the ABC-Washington Post news poll of a couple of days ago made clear, is imploding.  This raises the possibility that a collapse in public support for the war and a crack in a very brittle situation regarding casualty tolerance could force a hasty withdrawal from Iraq in a way that would reinforce perceptions that the U.S. had been routed.

Now, the failure of public support is going to force a withdrawal sooner  rather than later, so I would argue it's better to leave sooner as part of a volitional process in a methodical and systematic way rather than to be forced out in a panic.

WALTER B. SLOCOMBE:  First of all, it's an honor and a pleasure to be here and to share a platform with Steve, because while I have some differences with his paper, it's an important contribution to what I think is an important stage in the public discussion, which is, if it comes to an American withdrawal, how do we manage it and what are the consequences?

And there's no blinking the fact that the combined efforts of lots of brave Americans and lots of very brave and dedicated Iraqis has not succeeded in producing the kind of change that I believe most Iraqis wanted and indeed in some sense still want following the fall of Saddam Hussein.  The central reason for that is lack of security. 

The problems in Iraq are, I believe, not so much the problems that Steve lists as the consequences of a very determined, very well-managed, very well-funded, very well-armed insurrection whose strategy basically has been not to attack the occupation per se but to try to so provoke the Shi'a community as to make the country -- and also to attack Americans -- to attack Americans to make the American presence unsustainable, but much more important, to attack the Shi'a community to reassert Sunni dominance and to provoke a Shi'a reaction.  And that strategy has been, unfortunately, quite successful. 

We are seeing Iraq in the early stages of disintegrating into a civil war.  And none of the communities in Iraq will escape terrible consequences if that cycle is not broken.  Indeed one of the great follies of the war -- indeed in some sense one of the great mysteries -- is what on earth the Sunni community thinks they are getting out of this insurrection, because however it ends, perhaps the least likely outcome is the reestablishment of the Sunni ascendancy.

Now, I certainly don't believe that all the mistakes and all the problems arise from the insurrection.  There have been plenty of mistakes by the United States and there've been mistakes by other people.  Too many Iraqi politicians from all ethnicities have yielded too easily to the temptations of corruption, nepotism, and a sort of tribalism.  And too many other countries and international organizations have failed to assist the effort, including many countries which will suffer the most if this all fails. 

So, what to do now?  If the main problem was resentment at the ineptness and heavy-handedness of an American occupation, if it were really the case that the occupation is doing more harm than good, then it might be plausible to say that with us out of the way the locals will solve the problem.  But if, as I believe, the fundamental problem is the determined Sunni effort to destroy any chance of the progress, which has provoked a Shi'a response which can be just as brutal and just as heavy-handed, that's not the case. 

And I think we have to look seriously at the consequences of failure.  Those have been well summarized in a recent paper -- Brookings paper -- by Ken Pollack and Daniel Byman.  And they include the following: 

First of all, violence accompanying a massive ethnic conflict and forced, very large-scale population movements as the Sunnis bludgeon the Shi'a -- well, the Sunnis will bludgeon the Shi'a, but the result will be that the Shi'a will bludgeon the Sunnis into submission -- that will create the kind of conditions that we've seen in Cambodia, that we've seen in Bosnia, and perhaps the most troubling example is India and Pakistan, which means the possibility of intervention from outside, and in any event means refugee flows, internal and external, creating a base for al Qaeda and other terrorists, and the emergence of a deeply embittered, revanchist Iraqi Sunnistan that would be a sort of Gaza Strip on a massive scale. 

There's also a kind of subplot about what happens to the Kurds and an erosion of American leadership and influence and, I believe, division and recrimination inside this country comparable to that which followed the defeat in Vietnam.

For that reason I think it is worth making one final effort to reverse the downward spiral.  A key part of it has to be focused on security because security is a central issue, but the effort can't be just military.  The Iraqi government has to do things which are in its power -- which it's given some signs that it now finally understands it needs to do.  And there has to be a serious international and U.S.-led investment in the internal reconstruction effort so as to take advantage of whatever success is achieved on the security front.

There's been a lot of debate about whether 21,000 troops are enough -- 21,000 additional troops are enough to make the surge a serious effort.  It's hard to (dispute ?) that just $1 billion, which is lost in the rounding, in a war whose burn-rate is now reaching something like $2 (billion) to $3 billion  a week -- whether that, which is the only proposal for new reconstruction assistance, is sufficient.

I don't know if the resources are there, much less the patience and the public support, to do what's going to have to be done to have any chance of success.  And I respect the view of people who say the war was a mistake from the beginning, it's been badly handled, it is unwinnable and we should get out.  But I do believe that it is important to face the real consequences of doing so.  We went into this war with illusions about how easy the consequences of success would be to manage, and we should at least arrange that if we have to leave having failed, we do so without illusions about the consequences of failure.

LAIPSON:  Thank you, Walt.

Steve, so Walt thinks the cost of leaving exceeds the cost of hanging in there.  Would you like to address how you would envision let's say disengagement over a 12- to 18-month period?  How do you weigh or net out the cost to American interests, influence, regional stability, compared to what the situation would look like if we stayed?

SIMON:  That's a great question.  The costs of staying, I think, are pretty well known.  I think they're comprehensible.  You can wrap your mind around them.  The costs of leaving -- well, maybe they are, as secretary of Defense Gates said, incalculable.  I'm not really sure.  But among the costs that Walt discussed and the administration has discussed, it's equally unclear how bad they can possibly be.  And I'm not trying to be Pollyannaish here.  But let's look at them. 

First, the administration has argued that regional chaos, in Steve Hadley's words, will follow a U.S. withdrawal.  The idea here is that a civil war in Iraq will create interstate conflict arising from the intervention of Iraq's neighbors via proxies in Iraq itself, in the Iraqi civil war.

But if you look at the post-World War II Middle East and South Asia, where civil wars have not been an uncommon occurrence, you actually don't get regional wars stemming from those civil wars.  The civil wars tend to stay confined to the boundaries of the divided country.  Even in a kind of ambiguous case like the Lebanese civil war -- where Israelis and Syrians got involved very seriously and in one case came to blows -- both the Israelis and Syrians were careful to keep the conflict well managed and limited and it never did become a regional war.

There's the genocide issue that Walt and many raise, and this is a serious fear and we need to be thinking about how to deal with it if it occurs.   But there again I'm not sure that the Ken Pollack and Dan Byman analogies were right.  You know, generally speaking you need three conditions for genocidal conflict -- for genocidal violence really to blossom and take its awful toll.  One of those is broad communal consent on both sides for this kind of thing.  The second is an organization capable of doing it.  And the third are the weapons needed to do it.

The Balkans are kind of an interesting example.  There the weapons were heavy weapons.  These are the things that take down apartment buildings, that enable cities to be besieged and so forth.  Those weapons at present are not available in Iraq.  And I think it's certainly true that the U.S. and Iraq's neighbors and others ought to make sure that such weapons don't get into Iraq and provide one of the conditions for genocidal conflict.  But right now those conditions -- and I emphasize, right now -- are not there. 

There's another issue which is often raised in the context of costs of withdrawal, and that's emboldening America's enemies.  Well, the jihadists have already been emboldened.  They have seen themselves win twice already in Iraq:  once when the U.S. invaded, confirming bin Laden's narrative down to the last jot and tittle; and the second is in images of America being thwarted in Iraq by jihadist activity, as Walt has described very eloquently.

So anyway, I'm not sure that I would construe these downstream costs quite as catastrophically as Walt and others might, especially against the background of the established costs of staying.

LAIPSON:  Thanks, Steve.

Walt, I wonder if we could focus for a few minutes on the U.S. military in particular.  You've said that there is a debate over what's the right number to do the surge right.  I'd welcome your thoughts on whether you think 21,000 is a meaningful number. 

But I also want to bring in this week's news.  We have a change of leadership at the head of the -- the secretary of the Army, as a result of the Walter Reed scandal, and I'm sure soldiers that are about to deploy now know more about what's going to happen to them if they're wounded or when they come back, how they will be treated.  Is this an inside-the-Beltway conversation about concerns on military leadership or do you think it could actually affect the morale and the effectiveness of the troops that are participating in the surge?

SLOCOMBE:  Well, one of the reasons that this is so appalling is it is breaking faith with the soldiers.  It is breaking faith with people who have been rightly promised -- and believe they have been promised -- the best possible medical care.  You can argue about the details of who's responsible and who should have known, but I think it will have a bad effect on morale and on the sense of being properly treated by the country.

Whether it will have an immediate impact, I think it's unlikely that it will have an immediate impact on morale in Iraq or necessarily on recruitment or retention, but it's an outrage and it is beginning to expose some of the broader problems with the military medical system, and of particularly veterans' medical system, which is bizarrely expensive and manages in many cases not to provide the kind of care it ought to.

Could I just make one point?  I am not in favor of hanging in indefinitely, regardless.  Indeed I think I said, and if I'd had more time I certainly would have said that the first test is the test of the Iraqi government.  If the Iraqi government does not do the things that are entirely within their power -- they may be hard politically but they're within their power -- that is a sign that this is fact unwinnable.  We cannot have success in Iraq be more important to the United States than to Iraq.

My only point is I think it is worth -- in any event and Steve acknowledges is going happen anyway -- it is worth seeing if this can work and if it can be done right, because it would avoid the consequences both of defeat and the complications of withdrawal.

LAIPSON:  How do you interpret the early signs of the surge?  The surge has been in effect for three weeks now.  Are you seeing any data that -- can we interpret yet what the trend is?  Is the surge working in parts of Baghdad or not?

SLOCOMBE:  I mean as you know, there is both good news and bad news.  There is some sign that attacks in Baghdad are down.  However, there is also something which is entirely predictable, which is -- as is true in a lot of these situations -- if things start to go well, the result will be a lashing out by the opposition in an effort to destroy that process.  And I believe the recent attacks -- the one yesterday, the one on the book market, the one on the -- individual attacks on some Sunni cleric who was trying to promote reconciliation, I think we're going to see more of it.  It's a little bit like asking because the stock market went down last week, does that mean it's going to go up or down, and the answer is yes.

LAIPSON:  Steve, let's talk a little bit about the question of legitimacy and security in Iraq; how we establish conditions that we all agree that the security environment just can't quite get to the threshold that it needs to get to.  Is part of the problem the weakness of the Iraqi political system that is in place now?  Do you see any signs that the Iraqi politicians are improving their performance?  Is it just too little too late?  What about the question of the survivability of the current Iraqi government?

SIMON:  Well, the survivability of the current Iraqi government is a real concern in Washington now, but for somewhat different reasons than you might think.  The consideration in Washington now is whether or not the current government ought to be survivable.  And there is strong interest in rearranging things if possible.

This strategy was alluded to in -- I guess in November or December -- a memorandum that was leaked, a White House memorandum from the national security adviser, Steve Hadley, to the president following Steve Hadley's visit to Baghdad, in which he proposed as one option the rejiggering of political forces in Baghdad in order to supposedly free the government of Nouri al-Maliki from its bondage to Muqtada Sadr, who many of you know is the leader of the Mahdi Army.

This plan has evolved somewhat to an idea of, in a constitutional way if one could be found, to displace Nouri al-Maliki altogether in favor of Iyad Allawi, who at one point had been in power in Baghdad and who was seen as a somewhat stronger individual who would be more likely to do the things that the United States rightly feels should be done in favor of national reconciliation.  So the survivability of the Maliki government is -- well, remains to be seen, both on the basis of internal and external factors. 

There has been some positive activity in Iraq nevertheless.  And I think there's one bit of good news in particular that should be highlighted, which is the adoption of the Council of Ministers of a hydrocarbon law that is a first step in ensuring the kind of equitable distribution of Iraqi oil revenues to all of the constituent sectarian groups within the broader Iraqi polity.

Now, there's plenty of slip between cup and lip here.  This is just something that the Council of Ministers has managed to come up with after a year and half of wrangling.  It still needs to go through the Iraqi Parliament and then it needs to be implemented in a way that does not further aggravate sectarian tensions, because implementation will require deciding just how many Sunnis there are in Iraq.  And this is going to be very vexing for Iraqi politics as a whole.

But if I can give you just a kind of a short thumbnail answer to your question, I think it probably is a bit too late for things really to come together on our watch, on America's watch.

LAIPSON:  You were directly involved in the early plans to train and reorganize the Iraqi security forces.  What are you seeing in terms of trend lines on their side of the ledger so that the handoff between U.S. forces and Iraqi forces can continue to return full responsibility to the Iraqis?  Do you sense that there's any -- also any maturation or any progress to report on that side?

SLOCOMBE:  You get the impression that there are reports that some of the Iraqi Army units are beginning to perform better.  On the other hand, I think it's unrealistic to expect that the Iraqi security forces -- and there are a whole range of them, as you know -- are going to be able to take over the job completely, for all kinds of reasons which are well known. 

At least when I was there we made an effort, which I believe has been continued, to try to have some units in the army that are genuinely multi-ethnic or multi-sectarian and that are committed to deploy anywhere in the country, not just in their local areas.  That's not true of some of the units, even in the army, and it is largely speaking not true of police, which because they are locally recruited -- for good reasons -- naturally tend to reflect the demography and the power structure in the communities they come from.

The fundamental problem with the Iraqi military and the Iraqi police -- and in many ways I think that it is harder to train a good police force than to train a good army -- is lack of leadership.  The biggest problem in any -- I suppose in some sense the biggest problem in any organization, certainly the biggest problem in a military organization, is leadership.  You don't get leaders instantly.  There has to be a process of experience and weeding out. 

And the impression I get is that the relatively junior officers who were trained through the system that General Petraeus ran, as well as General Dempsey and General Eaton at various times, they're pretty good.  At least there are enough pretty good ones to begin to make it work.  The more senior people, who basically have been brought back from the old army, are more problematic.  And the higher you get in the system the more it becomes -- one of the hopeful signs that Steve was mentioning, there has been some talk of another replacement of the minister of the Interior, maybe the minister of Defense -- as you get higher and higher it gets more political.

And there is the problem that everybody in Iraq is a member of some group.  And when a country begins to divide along essentially sectarian and ethnic lines it is hard for people -- either the people in the security forces or the people they're dealing with -- to forget the associations of the people.  But that's not a unique problem to Iraq, as anybody who has studied American policing problems knows.  But it's an issue.

I think it's unrealistic to think the Iraqi security forces are going to be able to take over in any short period of time.  I've never thought that.  That was not in my sense -- that was not what we were training the Iraqi army for.  What we are training it for -- and what hopefully it'll get better at doing -- is working with the American military and taking on increasingly challenging missions.

LAIPSON:  So that's an argument for -- you're imagining an ongoing American engagement in some kind of support or mentoring role.

SLOCOMBE:  This is a situation in which I think we will know within a few months at the most whether this is doomed to fail because the Iraqi government won't do the things it needs to do.  It will be much longer before we know whether it will really have succeeded.  And if we are serious about this, it involves, I think, a sustained commitment, hopefully at lower levels of American involvement, American commitment and American and Iraqi casualties, because by definition, if it succeeds, the security situation will be getting better and that will produce lower casualties in all categories.  But I think if we are serious about this, it's a long-term effort.

We went into Bosnia -- which people regarded as generally speaking something of a success -- we went into Bosnia with the commitment to get out in a year.  Well, we're out, but the EU is not out, and it's been what?  Twelve years?

LAIPSON:  Right.

SLOCOMBE:  And Iraq is a harder problem than Bosnia.  Now, I don't think the level of commitment -- the level of commitment is not sustainable at this level, I don't dispute that, for very long.  But if it is to succeed, it is going to require a long-term U.S. commitment.  It's also true that if it fails -- and, you know, the United States is a great country -- we will survive.  We've survived probably worse things than this.  But managing the consequences will involve long-term commitments for a long time and cost a lot of money, hopefully not very many lives, but lots of money and lots of political commitment.

LAIPSON:  I have one last question before we open it up to the floor.  Steve, one of your arguments was that as a consequence of our preoccupation with Iraq we have neglected other regional dynamics.  Could you develop your argument about if we were to pursue the Simon plan and be out of Iraq by the end of 2008, how would you kind of recalibrate America's, kind of, regional priorities?

SIMON:  The U.S., it seems to me, would have to do three things that would be -- not equally difficult, but challenging.   The first would be to maintain confidence in America's reliability as a security partner.  And this would be especially true in the Persian Gulf region, and all the more so given the currently escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran.  So that would be one thing.  And the U.S., you know, knows how to do this.  Washington knows how to do it and it has the capacity to do it and it can do it. 

The second is to think through its commitment to democratization in the region.  This is over the long run probably a very good thing to advance.  Right now it had -- what had been an important part of the administration's agenda in the region is off the table.  The administration will have to think about -- any administration would have to think about whether or not it comes back on the table.

And lastly, there is the Israeli-Palestinian problem.  And I raise this because in the wake of a withdrawal or military disengagement from Iraq, the United States is still going to have to show that it can act decisively, creatively, imaginatively in the region and in a way that reinforces whatever lingering shreds of respect for the United States still exist in the region.  And, you know, the arena for that kind of action is going to be the Israeli-Palestinian arena despite the fact that it is a very unpromising one right now because of the towering weaknesses on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides.

LAIPSON:  Thank you, Steve.

Okay, the floor is open.  Let me just remind you all there are mikes on both sides that will be brought to you.  I ask you to please stand and give us your name and affiliation.  Over here, in the middle.

QUESTIONER:  Sherm Katz, Carnegie Endowment.  This is a friendly question.  It may not sound like it.  All of us would -- many of us would like to see a withdrawal but we are concerned about Iran in particular.  And so I wonder, Steve, if you would care to describe how the withdrawal might be structured to reduce the risks of spill-over -- or spill-in -- from Iran.  Point one.

And point two, if you have a federalized solution with Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the west, Shi'as in the south, how do you think that affects the risks for spill-over from these other countries?

SIMON:  Look, on Iran I have endorsed in the Council report a 12-to-18-month drawdown schedule -- which is pretty slow compared to, let's say, the schedule that's been put forward by the Obama campaign, which would have all U.S. forces out by March '08 -- in part because I think an orderly disengagement is necessary to preserve America's credibility.  And that's important in the context of this looming confrontation with Iran.

We can't be seen as having been routed.  So 12 to 18 months struck me as reasonable in this regard, and I was thinking very much of Iran in connection with this schedule. 

Now, between the present time and the moment when the U.S. withdraws, the potential for accidental conflict between the U.S. and Iran is quite high.  And if such a thing were to occur it would greatly complicate the U.S. position in Iraq and its ability to withdraw from Iraq because one can't doubt that one venue for Iranian retaliation in the event of a confrontation, inadvertent or otherwise, would be Iraq, would be U.S. forces and against U.S. forces in Iraq.

On the federalized solution, look, Iraq's neighbors are going to intervene by proxy in this civil war.  And they already are to one degree or another.  That's to be expected.  And one of the purposes to a diplomatic framework along the lines that the Iraqis have now proposed, that the Iraq Study Group proposed, that I endorse in the Council's Special Report on Iraq, is to manage that kind of intervention and to keep it from getting out of hand.  So I think we can either take for granted that it will occur and take every effort -- make every effort to keep it from getting out of control.

LAIPSON:  Do you want to talk about the federal --

SLOCOMBE:  Can I say something about the federal solution?  There are very few examples of countries that have been able to agree on a partition that has been a peaceful partition.  I mean, there's the Czechs and the Slovaks and so forth.  But I think it's a mistake -- you look at these maps in the newspapers and they have -- as you say, the Kurds are in one color in the north and the Shi'a are in another color in the southeast, and the Sunni are sort of in the west, and if they're being really careful they'll acknowledge that there's a little problem with Baghdad.

I was told that there's almost a million people in Baghdad who speak Kurdish, much less the large divisions between Sunni and Shi'a.  And it is probably true that as a result of the violence there's been a good deal of ethnic cleansing, ethnic sorting out, but it's not by any means done.

It may be that partition of one kind or another is the best of a bad situation.  I think -- well, the odds are it will be a very bad situation.  And bizarrely enough, it is after all the Sunnis who were against a federal solution, which is sort of bizarre because one would have thought as a more or -- with a minority with a geographic area of their own, they would think that was a pretty good deal if they could get some assurances.

An imposed partition -- I think it is much more likely that it would be what I call the "Gaza Strip solution."  That is, the Sunnis will basically get pushed into the western part of the country, and that will not be a -- to put it mildly -- that will not be a stable political solution.

By the way, I am less inclined -- there's no question that an Iraq, even a successful Iraq which will be Shi'a dominated, will be friendly with Iran.  Remember most of our allies would like to be friendly with Iran.  India is quite friendly with Iran.

I think the idea that an Iraq, even a Shi'a-dominated Iraq, will be simply an Iranian puppet is not realistic.  I suppose there's some danger of that, but I think that's less -- of all the various problems, that it will be simply a sort of colony of Iran seems to me to be relatively unlikely.

LAIPSON:  Okay.  Please.  Yes.

QUESTIONER:  David Apgar, Corporate Executive Board.

One more partition question if I could.  And it goes like this.  What if you're both right?  So Steve, let's assume that you're right that even if only as a political matter, the U.S. will largely withdraw sometime between the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009.  But also what if you're right that there really is a potentially genocidal mix right now?  After all, the most important fact is that there is a Sunni insurgency. 

It's astonishing.  We can't be sure, but it seems to mean that Sunnis -- the 5 million Sunnis in Iraq don't see themselves a viable in a unified state.  And it might even mean that they don't see themselves viable in an ethnic enclave cut off from both Baghdad and any oil.  That at least would account for the level of desperation.  That would explain the insurgency. 

So what if you are both right?  It seems to me that the most important U.S. goal becomes how to prevent essentially having been the cause of a potential genocide of those 5 million Sunni.  And if that's a real possibility, don't we have to start thinking -- while we're still there -- about some kind of border around the Sunni community large enough, I guess, to include Baghdad and the nearest oil fields -- I think they're in Kirkuk -- small enough that no group would be a majority within that country?  Don't we have to think about some different political arrangement before we go?

MR.     :  Well, Kirkuk is a long ways from -- Kirkuk is a very long ways from the Sunni heartland.  And anyway, the Kurds want Kirkuk.  There's a whole separate fight about what the Americans are going to do.  Very likely we will betray the Kurds as we've betrayed them repeatedly in the past.  But that will be an issue.  And if we don't, then we will have to figure out some way to make an independent -- either formally or de facto independent Kurdistan viable and secure.

   I mean, you may be right.  It may be that the Sunni will not accept any solution short of a restoration of the Sunni ascendancy.  The problem fundamentally is that the Sunnis have two sets of concerns; one legitimate and one illegitimate.  The illegitimate one is they think they ought to run the place.  They've run it under Saddam but for hundreds of years before that, and they were the clients who ran it under the Hashemites and the British and to a very considerable degree under the Ottoman Turks.  That's not a legitimate concern and there's no reason that anybody should indulge them in that illusion. 

The other concern is that they are, as you say, a distinct minority but a substantial minority in the country and they have every right to expect that they will be treated decently.  I mean it's easy to sit here in Washington -- for that matter it's easy to sit in Baghdad -- and say the solution is a federal system with, you know, one U.N. seat and one flag and one foreign ministry but very large degree of autonomy in the regions.  That is, after all, in the constitution, and the Sunnis object to it.

LAIPSON:  If it were only as simple as a genocide against one group; but you also have this huge Shi'a-on-Shi'a violence.  You have violence that I think one doesn't always know who's mad at whom, but people are dying.  So I'm not sure -- I don't know -- if it were Sunni genocide, if it were a sort of one-dimensional story, I think you would have regional repercussions.  Do you --

SIMON:  Well, you have multiple civil wars going on in Iraq.  And they are superimposed on one another and they interact in very violent ways.  So it's just not really as simple, as Walt and Ellen have been saying, as separating out three groups, giving them some degree of autonomy while distributing benefits -- economic benefits -- from Baghdad to keep them all on board.

It's a very volatile situation.  And if I can go back to the beginning of my pitch, for what it's worth, it's precisely because the violence is so complicated in the way it's structured that U.S. military force isn't very good at controlling it, just simply is not a good answer.

LAIPSON:  Even understanding it.  They're just working it constantly. 

On the aisle in the back.  Yes?

QUESTIONER:  Joe Collins from the National War College.  Steve, I --

LAIPSON:  Hi, Joe.

QUESTIONER:  Hi, Ellen.   I see how your proposals can help the United States.  And they're politically convenient since they seem to end about the time that we go into an election cycle -- an election itself.  We're in the election cycle right now. 

But Iraq has at least three huge problems, one of which is a weak government with questionable legitimacy, the second is a strong insurgency, and the third is a heavy dose of sectarian violence.  How do your proposals about the removal of U.S. forces help Iraq with those three problems?

LAIPSON:  They don't.

SIMON:  Well, I'm not sure that the proposal does.  This proposal is about what helps the United States.  My fundamental bias is that the United States is not in a position to fix Iraq and, as I indicated before, Iraq's ills are deeply, deeply rooted.  Ba'athist rule systematically destroyed the civil society that's the essential precursor to what we -- let's call normal politics.  And particularly under Saddam, any time an organization capable of interposing itself between the society and the state emerged, it was quickly crushed. 

Sanctions ripped the heart out of the middle class.  Those with money, those with education, were either impoverished and driven down to the lowest levels of society, or if they could, they got out of the country.  The sudden decapitation of the Iraqi regime -- which removed all governmental capacity in a way that was not replaced by the occupying power -- created the circumstances in which the militias could arise and justify the position that they were taking in Iraqi society on the basis of their sectarian identity.

This triple whammy gutted Iraq's ability to create a post-Ba'athist state -- at least right now.  And, you know, the United States Army and Marine Corps are not in a position to reverse 37 years of very profound damage to Iraqi society.  So, you know, you can say quite rightly that the withdrawal of U.S. forces will not, you know, help Iraq, but the fact is that the presence of U.S. forces won't help Iraq either in these fundamental ways. 

LAIPSON:  You're next.

QUESTIONER:  Henry Precht (sp).  At a Council meeting before the war, I asked the question, what about Iraqi nationalism after our American victory?  I was dismissed.  No interest in that question at all. 

If we suppose that the Sunnis are really Iraqi nationalists fighting an occupation, and fighting the Shi'a who are allied with the occupier, doesn't that make the American occupation the problem -- one of the big problems?  And as soon as we can get rid of that problem -- that is, withdraw our troops -- we will leave the Iraqis to sort it out for themselves.

We've seen in Lebanon and in Afghanistan, where there have been civil sectarian wars, fatigue is a big part of the solution.  Foreign intervention is another part.  But fatigue sets in after a while.  But it will never set in as long as the Americans stay there.

SLOCOMBE:  If you accept the premise, I suppose the conclusion follows.  I think the premise is wrong.  The Sunnis are not fighting for an abstract Iraqi nationalism.  They're a relatively -- as Steve rightly says, they're a relatively small minority in the country.  They may be fighting for a kind of romantic ideal of an Iraq that they dominate -- I think they probably are in some sense -- but I think some of them are also fighting because they're afraid of a Shi'a-dominated state.

But it certainly is the case that from the Sunni point of view, the American occupation is a part of the problem, a part of the enemy, a part of what they would like to change.  But I believe that this is fundamentally a fight about power in Iraq, not a fight -- (laughs) -- in which the United States is obviously a major factor.  The converse of that argument is that the Sunnis are, after all, especially in the Arab part of the country, an overwhelming -- the Shi'a are, especially in the Arab part of the country, an overwhelming majority, and we ought to be on their side if only to be on the side of the likely winner. 

I think the problem is that any solution that doesn't involve first beginning to get a handle on the suppression of the Sunni insurgency, and second -- and conversely -- convincing the Shi'a-dominated government that they have got to offer some kind of legitimacy and hope for the Sunni population is not going to work.

I mean, as I said, if you really believe this is primarily a fight about the occupation, then the argument that if we leave things will get better would be convincing.  I would not have been inclined either to hold Afghanistan or Lebanon up as examples of a successful reconciliation of warring groups within a society with or without a foreign occupation.

LAIPSON:  In the middle, in the back.  Yes.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  My name is Adnan al-Qtub (sp).  I'm an Iraqi journalist.   My contact with fellow Iraqis, almost on a daily basis, clearly shows that sadly there seems to be a lack of -- there seems to be an absence of connection between the American public opinion and the Iraqi public opinion.  U.S. public opinion seems to be very obsessed and preoccupied with the mere presence of the Iraqi forces -- of the American forces in Iraq.  That is really not the case with the public opinion in Iraq.

The public opinion -- my own contact and my own research and my own daily following of this issue shows that the Iraqi public opinion are primarily very deeply preoccupied and obsessed with four major issues:

First, billions of developmental assistance that were poured in Iraq that have never impacted favorably the average Iraqis in any way, shape or form.  Number two, the absence of a credible and effective central government that represents all Iraqis and not play dirty politics and talks trash about one against the other. 

The third is the emergence of a new, corrupt Mukhabarat, the national security organization, that is beginning to threaten the safety and the security of the average Iraqis and play games both with the U.S. and with the Iraqi politicians.  And the fourth, although not necessarily the final, is the United States attempt to make Iraq a pro-Israeli policy.

The presence of the United States in Iraq becomes an issue -- it has indeed become an issue not so much the troops but the United States intervention, daily intervention in Iraqi local politics in terms of primarily working to undermine any group that is either anti-American or pro-Iranian, or both. 

I wonder if you could comment on that.  Thank you.

SLOCOMBE:  Look, there's no question that -- and I think it's a very valuable contribution -- that I'm sure that the world looks very, very different from Iraq, that the Iraqi world looks very, very different from Iraq.

One of the things I thought you might have mentioned -- and perhaps it's on your additional list -- is that my sense is for many ordinary Iraqis the problem is personal security and crime, not political security or even ethnic security, if you know what I mean.

With respect, sir, the idea that the United States is trying to impose a pro-Israeli policy on Iraq is nonsense.  We've done a lot of stupid things, but even we weren't that stupid. 

But I think the other things are significant.  And I think you've also touched on something which is one of the reasons, I think, that the failure to back up the additional sacrifice on the military side, which will mean -- in all probability  will mean another thousand or so casualties -- fatalities at a minimum, even on Obama's schedule, with more money for reconstruction aid, is exactly this issue of infrastructure. 

   For a variety of reasons, it is easy to understand why ordinary Iraqis do not think that life has gotten better in material terms; electricity, water, health care, education.  You know, I can recite the talking points which will prove that things are somewhat better in some areas and worse in others, and more fairly distributed and so on.  But it's certainly true that given the massive investments in infrastructure, there has not been a corresponding improvement.  And if we're serious about trying to make this work, we will have to do that as well.

LAIPSON:  Steve, did you want to comment?

SIMON:  Well, I wouldn't mind picking up on Walt's last phrase about the U.S. being serious about making it work.  One of the striking things about the surge strategy and the way it was described in the president's address to the nation is the mismatch between the postulated costs of what is referred to as strategic failure and what the U.S. has actually ponied up in this crisis -- and it's a very severe crisis -- against the background of the ills that our questioner described and that Walt expanded upon.  The fact that we have been able to deploy only an additional 21,500 troops -- at least, you know, initially -- and added only $1 billion to the, what, $95 billion I guess which had been allocated previous, just underscores the gap between what we allegedly fear will happen if we lose Iraq and what we are actually trying to do to keep from losing it.

LAIPSON:  Barry?

QUESTIONER:  Just an aside.  First, the -- Barry Blechman, DFI.  The notion that heavy weapons are necessary for genocide is really not sustainable.  I think of the genocides in our lifetime; most were done with knives and machetes. 

MR.     :   Small arms.

QUESTIONER:  I can't think of one in which heavy weapons were necessary or even an important element.  But my question to Walt:  There were a lot of conditions on our intervention in Bosnia, maybe not written, but there were understandings with the administration.  I'm wondering what you think the consequence would be if the Congress -- as many have suggested -- put out some milestones or triggers or constraints on the U.S. continuing involvement in Iraq.

SLOCOMBE:  Well, it obviously depends on the content of the constraints.  And I think one certainly hopes that the administration has a sense of benchmarks even if they don't say so.  And some people have said so.  You know, Secretary Gates was asked a very good question by Senator McCain, which is, "You say you're going to know in a few months whether this is going to work, but you aren't even going to have the 21,000 over there until summer or whenever it is.  How are you going to know?"  And Gates' answer was in part, "We will know very soon whether the Iraqi government is serious."  And that's an explicit benchmark.

I mean, you could sit down and write a set of criteria which would be sensible benchmarks.  I mean, is the Iraqi government doing what needs to be done?  Indeed, I mean, I'm in favor of doing it, but if it doesn't work, at some point you should stop beating your head against the wall.  And that's not -- so that's the wrong image.  You're killing American soldiers and Marines, you're costing fantastic amounts of money.  There is certainly an ongoing problem in Iraq.

You ought to have a sense of what you will measure progress by so that you can tell whether that this is beginning to work and therefore it makes sense to continue to try to follow along.  That set of benchmarks, to kind of say "Is this working?" are conceptually different from a set of benchmarks which say "We'll get out in X months come hell or high water."  Or, you know, this sort of effort to say we'll put on some rules which may or may not be sensible as a matter of content but one rather suspects they're designed such that they can't be met as a way of preventing a policy from going forward.

If Congress wants to stop the war, Congress can stop the money.  If Congress doesn't want to stop the war -- doesn't want to really stop the war, my view is they ought to stand aside and look carefully at the progress, with always the sanction that if they want to impose a deadline they can impose a deadline.  It's been done.  I mean, argue whether it's a good idea or not, but it was done in Lebanon, it was done in Somalia, de facto it was done in Vietnam.

LAIPSON:  Steve would like to comment.

SIMON:  Thanks, Ellen.

To Mr. Blechman's point on genocidal conflict.  It's quite understandable that those who haven't kind of reviewed the literature, particularly on what happened in Rwanda, would make the analogy with Iraq.  But the analogy isn't really very good, and I'll just take two seconds to explain why.

What happened in Rwanda was characterized by a couple of important differences.  One is that the violence carried out by the one side against the other was really a surprise attack in the profound meaning of that word.  Second, the one side was organized to do the killing while the other unsuspecting side was not organized to defend itself.  And thirdly, as part of the organization of the Hutu side, the combatants were all given machetes.  Everyone had one.  On the other side they didn't have them.

The better analogy, in my view, for the situation in Iraq is the Balkans, where heavy weapons were indeed very important.  And all you need to do is think about the siege of Srebrenica and the sieges of Tuzla and what happened at Dubrovnik and so forth to recall how important heavy weapons were in that instance. 

In Iraq the two sides are organized to defend themselves.  Just looking at the Shi'a and the Sunni, they're organized to defend themselves.  No one's going to be surprised in this kind of a war, and the two sides are more or less equally armed.   So I just say this to underscore what I think are the differences between the Iraq situation and Rwanda, if I might.

LAIPSON:  Thank you, Steve. 

Unfortunately we've run out of time.  But I know this will not be the last conversation on Iraq, and I look forward to the Council convening us again for the next chapter of this long conversation. 

Thank you to Walt Slocombe, thanks to Steve Simon, and thank you all for coming.  (Applause.) 

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