Council on Foreign Relations
DAVID IGNATIUS: I’m David Ignatius, columnist for The Washington Post. I want to welcome you to the Council on Foreign Relations fifth in its series “Iraq: The Way Forward.” This is especially auspiciously timed since the way forward is this very week with the elections that are scheduled for Thursday. And we’re very lucky to have with us one of the most articulate architects and practitioners of U.S. policy in Iraq, Ambassador Blackwill. I’ll introduce him in more detail in a minute.
Some ritual reminders. Please turn off your cell phones. I’ve been instructed to tell you that any violators of this rule will be dispatched for the airport, put on a plane for Baghdad as poll watchers in Anbar province. (Laughter.)
This meeting, unlike many at the council, is on the record. And Ambassador Blackwill and I have had to sign a form attesting to our recognition of this. We’ll begin with 30 minutes of questioning that I will direct to Ambassador Blackwill, and then we’ll open the floor to all of you at about 1:00 for another half hour of your questions. And then we will adjourn promptly at 1:30. Let me ask you, please, not to leave before that, out of politeness to our guest.
As I’m sure most of you know, Ambassador Robert Blackwill served with distinction in Bush 41 and Bush 43 administrations with, in between that, the perhaps unlikely stint as an associate dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he spent the 1990s. He is known as one of the original “Vulcans,” one of the formulators of the foreign policy of this administration. He served as ambassador to India from 2001 to 2003, returning to the National Security Council, where he served under the first President Bush; he handled European affairs. Returning as deputy national security adviser handling a range of issues, but increasingly Iraq, where he served as the president’s special envoy; was deeply involved in working with Paul Bremer and other officials in implementing our strategy there. He left the National Security Council in November of 2004 and became president of the consulting firm Barbour Griffith & Rogers, International.
And so it’s a pleasure to be here with Ambassador Blackwill.
And let me ask you to start our session by setting the stage for Thursday and Thursday’s elections in Iraq. We’ve had so many milestones or things that were advertised as milestones that have proven less than initially advertised. But—so tell us, as frankly as you can, what you expect, what we should expect from these elections. And specifically, how realistic do you think the moderate secular coalition government, perhaps headed by your old friend Iyad Allawi, is?
ROBERT D. BLACKWILL: Well, first of all, I’d say that handicapping an election on Monday that’s going to take place on Thursday is probably not the smartest thing to do. But courage—I’ll proceed.
Just to remind you, there are 275 seats in the Iraqi parliament. In the last election, January election, the Shi’a Alliance got 140 seats, so an absolute majority in that election. The Kurds were at 75 seats, and Allawi’s party was at 40. And the Sunnis had, if I remember correctly, 16, because, of course, they didn’t participate. And it was a national election, one constituency, so it favored turnout.
This election will be quite different. It is organized by provinces. And of course the Sunni are—every sign—going to participate widely and enthusiastically in this election.
So let me take a guess here—as I say, somewhat foolhardy, but luckily, no one’s watching, and it’s not on the record, so what’s there to risk?
First, start with the Shi’a Alliance. All of the parties that are in the coalitions that I described before are going to have fewer seats, because the Sunnis are going to have more. So start there.
Yes, as you look toward Thursday and then afterwards, when the votes are counted, I think a crucial analytical question are—is the Shi’a Alliance over a hundred or under a hundred? And how much over a hundred? Question number one.
I was in Iraq two weeks ago, and this of course is the buzz around the country. But—so that’s question one.
If I had to guess, between 100 and 125. But of course it makes a lot of difference if it’s on the low end or the high end, with regard to forming a governing coalition.
The Kurds will be down, maybe in the 50s, low 60s, perhaps.
The—Allawi is coming on fast, apparently, in Baghdad, especially. So I don’t know whether it’ll be 40-ish. Could be lower. Could be somewhat higher.
And then the Sunnis, 40 to 50.
Now let me say that those are the numbers depending on you—how you count them—and then 15 or so other members of Parliament.
Depending on how you calculate them, you could just barely imagine a coalition being put together of other than the one led by the Shi’a Alliance. You could just barely imagine that.
If you were Ladbrookes and you were touting it today, you’d tout it that the next prime minister of Iraq is going to be from the Shi’a Alliance, if you had to guess. And if you had to guess, it would be Adel Abdul Mahdi, who is the current vice president of Iraq, the Shi’a vice president, a former finance minister, member of the Governing Council and so forth.
But one last cautionary note:
There are now polls—the infection has spread to Iraq, so there are polls all over the place about outcomes. Let me just say—and this will be vivid for you, if it hasn’t already been—if someone you don’t know comes to your door and knocks on your door and asks you who you’re going to vote for in the presidential election, a variety of things go through your mind, not including who you’re going to vote for. This could be a fatal decision on your part. So I don’t really pay much attention to any of these polls. But that’s my best guess.
It’s also true, just to remind ourselves, that the parliament has to vote in favor of this new government that’s formed after the elections, sometime, we hope, in January, by a two-thirds margin. So that too will put pressure on whatever of the various coalitions lead the government to make it broad-based.
I would expect the Kurds to be part of the next government. I would expect Allawi to be uncertain about it. There are both pros and cons for him.
But I think the most interesting question is whether the Sunnis or how many of the Sunnis can be persuaded to join the kind of government I described. And we’ll see.
IGNATIUS: I would just note, in light of what you said, that the phase “exit poll” may have a special meaning in Iraq. (Laughter.)
Let me ask you about one element of the political situation that will be, I think, hauntingly familiar to you, and that is, what does Ayatollah Sistani want? As you know, Ambassador, that the statements issued by him, one initially suggesting that he was calling for support of the UIA, and then that seemed to be withdrawn, and Iyad Allawi went to Najaf and he either did or didn’t meet with Sistani, and he was pelted with shoes and rocks. What the heck is going on with Sistani and with the howza key leadership?
BLACKWILL: (Off mike)—keep your shoes on.
BLACKWILL: Well, Sistani. Let me first say that without any question, my net assessment concludes that Sistani, Ayatollah Sistani has been a very positive person and factor in the development of the Iraqi political process. It took the outsiders, including the administration, a little while to figure that out, but they did figure it out quite some time ago. So that’s one.
Two, it’s very hard—and I’ll speak on the basis of personal experience—it’s very hard to know which of the statements that are meant to be released in Sistani’s name actually represent his views. It’s very hard to know that.
And since I wasn’t there last Friday, I don’t know what was said in the Shi’a mosques last Friday. That’s the question. That’s a fact. And I don’t know what was said. The papers suggest that maybe even over this last weekend he would have issued another statement, and one that perhaps went further than before in endorsing the Shi’a alliance candidates. But I’m not sure if that’s true. And also, again, the election will take place before the next Friday.
So I think—let me put it like this. He certainly wants a government led by a Shi’a prime minister. I think there’s no doubt of that. He thinks that Shi’as are the majority in the country and it’s only fair that that be the case. But he also has been a moral leader—the most important moral leader among the Shi’a in preventing Shi’a—significant Shi’as retaliations for the suicide bombings on the Shi’a mosques by the Sunni, or at least—yes, by the Sunnis; mostly not Iraqi Sunnis, by the way, but by the Sunnis.
So he has an inclusive notion in that regard. But I do think—one last point. Once the election’s over and if he sees that a Shi’a is going to be the prime minister, then I think he has no further interest or influence on the makeup of the Cabinet or what have you.
When I was there with Ambassador Bremer and U.N. Representative Brahimi working on the interim government, we found a way to ask Sistani which of the Shi’a candidates or members, potential prime ministers, he might support, and he came back with three names. Two of them were Abdul Mahdi and Iyad Allawi. So I don’t have any reason to believe that’s changed.
IGNATIUS: We have to ask you who was the third name.
BLACKWILL: Well, the third name I’d rather not say because he ended up being the big loser of the process. And it’s a while back, anyway, so I’d rather not.
IGNATIUS: Let me take—with your caveat about making prognostications a few days before an election—take your prediction that the total for the united Iraqi list, the SCIRI list, if you will, will be between 100 and 125. I know that Allawi’s people think that at that level, they will have difficulty forming a government. And so take your prediction as the most likely figure would be Adel Abdul Mahdi. So the question that we wonder about is whether Abdul Mahdi is a person who could lead the kind of government of reconciliation that would have an outreach to Iraqi Sunnis that would begin to change the trajectory from what we’ve been seeing with the current Shi’a government.
BLACKWILL: I think so. I know him well and I have very high regard for Abdul Mahdi, very high regard. And he has had as a preoccupation Sunni outreach for a long time. It was difficult to find an instrumental way to pursue that as vice president of Iraq, since there are very few powers and authorities that reside in that office; and of course, as finance minister, even less. I think he’ll reach out. But again, the—as—if he is the prime minister, he’ll be the prime minister of a group, a substantial part of which is deeply emotional about the Sunnis and the terrorism that the Sunnis, in their view, visited on them for decades and decades and decades. So in that respect, he’s like a democratic politician trying to manage his base, if I may put it like that. And that will be no easy thing to do.
Because, as I say, when one discusses—as I have many, many times with Shi’a—the idea of outreach to the Sunnis, they instinctively say two things, neither of which is helpful to reconciliation. The first is, of course, the history; this dreadful history of tens of thousands and maybe even hundreds of thousands of Shi’a being in mass graves in the Iraqi desert. But the second is more recent, that is to say, the Sunni bombings of Shi’a mosques; and if one says to them, which they often accept, “Well, these aren’t even Iraqi Sunnis; these are others,” still doesn’t always carry the day with them. So he’s going to have a substantial challenge to face.
But at the same time, if the Kurds are in, and especially if Allawi is in, which is a possibility, and then, if the Sunnis are involved in the domestic politics, as they will be of Iraq, I’m hopeful that all those pressures together will—to finally like this—will help produce the outcome—which you imply and I think all of us would agree—is a much greater Sunni political participation in the government.
I will be surprised if the Sunnis are not represented in a substantial way in the government. Because for them to make the decision to forego any ministerial seats when the next election is not scheduled for four years, would be an enormous decision on their part, when there’s, again, not much of a tradition of the loyal opposition in Iraq, which, of course, in the Saddam period was murdered.
IGNATIUS: Perhaps since you do know Abdul Mahdi well, if you could share with us, you know, anecdote, just a sense of him as a person. He may soon be the decisive personality in Iraq. He’s not well known in this country. So much will be riding on him and his judgment, his personal qualities. Just say a little bit more about him, and why you think he might be an appropriate person.
BLACKWILL: Well, he’s French educated, has a couple of degrees in economics from French universities. He is a quiet, reserved person, so there’s no energetic flamboyance about him. He has spent, as many of these Iraqi figures have, in Saddam’s prison. He’s been tortured in Saddam’s prison system. He is very cosmopolitan, lived years of his life in Paris, and has been regarded inside Iraq as one of the very most competent people involved in the Governing Council, then in the Iraqi Interim Government and now as vice president.
My own view is that he is—he’s very competent. His political skills I think to some degree have yet to be tested in the way we were describing it because this will be a substantial political challenge. But, as I say, he is a formidable person.
IGNATIUS: Let me now put to you a more negative view of what will happen Thursday and where Iraq is. You can argue that this is a—what’s emerging is a government of checks but no balances; that this is a government where everybody wants to be sure—and now happily the Sunnis are part of this—everybody wants to be sure that their interests are protected and the other guys’ are blocked to the extent possible, but that there’s no sign whatsoever, Ambassador Blackwill, yet that there is anything like a real governing consensus in Iraq. That, you know, rather than pulling together, the country continues to fragment; that the pressures for regionalization are overwhelming; that we’ve let the Kurds, in effect, drive a wedge right through this country; and that the permanent government that will be elected Thursday and will—has power for four years, there’s simply no reason to believe that this government will be competent enough, strong enough politically—even, you know, thinking the best of all concerned—to put the country back together.
How would you respond to that?
BLACKWILL: Well, we’ve—I think we’ve had one success and one failure so far, so it’s 1 to 1 in the top of the third here. The success was the interim government, I believe, with Allawi as the prime minister. There was a consensus. I think the government wasn’t run perfectly, but I think that there was energy and focus in that period. I agree with you, the last year has been very, very negative. And I think you’ve described it fairly with respect to the leadership during that period and the ministers and so forth.
I think—so why shouldn’t it continue? Well, first of all, we’re going to have a new leadership in the Iraqi government. We’re going to have a new prime minister. I would suspect we’re going to have a very substantial change in the ministers of the Iraqi government. I think the Interior minister is unlikely to continue in his position, but others as well. And I would suspect that you’ll find more competent people appointed to these positions, so that’s good, too.
Thirdly, there is a feeling—at least I felt it in Iraq, and of course, I see them when I come here, other places too, in Europe—there’s a feeling in Iraq that there’s an enormous amount at stake in the formation of the new government and its performance. And it’s my impression that they understand the stakes are extraordinary; that this next Iraqi government will either superintend with Coalition assistance, the stabilization of Iraq, and Iraqi pluralism, and economic development and so forth or, or, be present in office when one of the more catastrophic scenarios evolves. And I think this is a different feeling than I felt there over the last year as well, partly because this is, of course, a four-year mandate. Everybody knew the last time around that it was limited, including through the TAL. So I think there’s reason to hope.
Let me just say—and this is perhaps a good time to say it—for all of us who try to follow Iraq closely, and I think outside the government, it is extremely difficult to know what’s going on, extremely difficult. Now, you wouldn’t conclude this by reading the morning pages of the press, which seems from the Green Zone to think it has a comprehensive notion of everything that’s going on in Iraq. And David knows this, since he visits there frequently. It’s not their fault. They’d like to get out and cover Iraq, but they can’t. It’s too dangerous.
And just to give you one example of that—I was recently up in Kurdistan for several days. Kurdistan is booming. There’s no security threat to Kurdistan essentially. And the greatest danger in Kurdistan is being hit by a Turkish cement truck which is on its way to the building boom that’s going on up there. Now, again, you would not get this notion that a quarter of Iraq and a quarter of the people of Iraq are leading normal lives without security worries and, as I say, in the midst of an economic boom. I think that’s also true to a lesser degree, but substantially in the South, in Najaf and Karbala, all the way down to Basra. So I think trying to get a holistic picture of what’s going on in Iraq is extremely difficult, and I think one needs to be modest about drawing definitive conclusions.
I’m optimistic on the basis of the political, military and economic developments there. But this could still go wrong for sure. And I think you’ve asked a question which is the dominant one in my mind. It’s not the insurgency, which I think will wear down; it’s not economic reconstruction, because that will happen and I can speak to that; it is will the politics of Iraq produce a government that is capable of promoting the objectives that we all have with respect to this. I’m pretty optimistic about that, but it could go wrong.
IGNATIUS: Just note as a point of clarification, whatever our shortcomings in reporting the situation in Iraq, Washington Post reporters and those of other major news organizations are not in the Green Zone, nor are our Iraqi staff. We’re outside.
BLACKWILL: Well, that just means—but you’re in Baghdad. I was just making a—
IGNATIUS: We’re certainly in Baghdad. And, obviously, we’re not moving around a whole lot. But I just wanted to note that to my colleague.
BLACKWILL: Good. Thank you.
IGNATIUS: Let me ask you, Ambassador Blackwill, to follow what you frankly and admirably said, which is we don’t know how this is going to turn out. Certainly it’s possible to imagine that even with goodwill, the best efforts of all concerned, that the forces driving this country apart, you know, leading people to seek security outside the government will continue, will increase; that you’ll have a kind of civil war scenario accelerating, gaining momentum. You talked about us being in the bottom of the 3rd inning, I think, and that’s a longer ballgame than most people are thinking about, I think.
So I want to ask you, what would be the appropriate policy for the United States if things don’t go well? If you have a country that really is slipping toward civil war, if the army we’ve trained is increasingly a sectarian army fighting for one side in that civil war, wouldn’t it make sense, as some argue, for the United States to force Iraqis to peer into the abyss, an abyss where there is no America around to protect you from the other guy. Why doesn’t that make sense, if the worst happens?
BLACKWILL: Well, because it would bring on the worst. That is to say that thinking, in my view, and talking like that, that is to say “we really need to start hedging our bets against the possibility of Iraqi failure,” will substantially increase the possibility, the odds for Iraqi failure because they will start hedging their bets. And if you’re the leaders of the Kurds and you smell that the Americans are leaving quickly, you will make different decisions with regard to the future of Iraq and yourselves than if you think the Americans are going to stay and finish the mission. And the same is true of every one of those communities.
So this is something that we can talk about here as private citizens and can be debated by the Harvard faculty. But it would be extremely dangerous for our government to start speaking in that way—extremely dangerous.
The last point is just, again, an analytical point. I don’t think it’s going to happen. One probably needs to—it’s a problem—this is a broader issue, but it’s difficult to do serious contingency planning in Washington because, of course, you read it in the newspapers the next day. So that’s a problem.
But I don’t think in this case there are signs that that is happening. As a matter of fact, I think the signs—and I tried to say analytically earlier why—are for—if you had to bet, we’re going to have a much better Iraqi government than we have had in the last year, and it will face very, very serious challenges, for sure. But it can’t succeed without an enduring American commitment. If it feels—if this Iraqi government and the Iraqi people feel as if the United States is wobbling, is wobbling in its commitment to Iraq, it can bring on the worst in Iraq. And so it’s important for them not to get that impression, and certainly they do not get it from the President.
IGNATIUS: Let me ask you about another element of the equation here in restabilizing Iraq, and that is the regional players. And let me divide them into two categories. First, Iran, which—with the likelihood of Shi’a dominance in whatever form in this new government, will have a key role, perhaps a hegemonic role. And then secondly, the Arab League, which has gotten very involved in convening the Cairo conference, which had interesting, in some ways surprising, results several weeks ago. Amr Moussa told me this past week he’s off to Tehran next to take the Arab League solution on the road to the other regional powers.
So talk about what the regional powers can do and what they shouldn’t do.
BLACKWILL: Well, let’s start with Iran. Iran is deeply involved in Iraq’s domestic affairs through its covert action programs, through its information propaganda. It’s spending tens of millions of dollars in Iraq. The British believe, as you’ve seen in the newspapers, that Iran has transferred higher-technology roadside bombs to the Sunni insurgents.
In the south, in the Shi’a south, as one senior Iraqi politician told me two weeks ago, there’s a domestic political machine in southern Iraq run by the Iranians. And that’s everything from posters to money, to radio, to television and so forth. The Iranians are buying property in southern Iraq. They are building churches. They are building schools. And all of this is quite unhelpful and seems to suggest that the current government in Tehran finds the prospect of success in Iraq a lethal challenge to their regime.
So number one is, they should take their hands off Iraq in all these different ways.
Again, just to quote a couple of senior politicians who I met with recently, they think Iran is THE major strategic threat to Iraq, not the Sunnis insurgents, the Sunni Iraqi insurgents, not Zarqawi’s non-Iraqi Sunni suicide bombers, but rather Iran.
And by the way, I think you’ve noticed that the administration offered that Zal Khalizad, our able ambassador in Baghdad, would talk to the Iranians about the situation in Iraq, and they rejected it. So that’s by far the most serious external problem that Iraq faces. And I think what I said is generally recognized by the majority of Iraqi politicians.
Syria , another problem—you’re familiar with it as a base for the suicide bombers coming into Iraq.
I think more broadly the—I know the administration is trying to do this; I don’t know with what success—to persuade the Sunnis—the moderate Sunni Arab regimes in the region to recognize that the greatest threat to them is not an Iraq which has a Shi’a prime minister but an Iraq which starts to come to pieces and becomes a base for Islamic terrorism against them. And I know the administration’s working hard on that. It is—I think it’s a tough sell, partly just because of all the history and religious arguments over the centuries. But anyway, that’s it.
I have to say I—and the Arab League—I think that Iran is the crucial question. I’m not optimistic they’re going to change their policy, because, as I said, I think they think it’s a mortal threat if Iraq is successful.
As for the rest, I don’t think it’s going to have a substantial effect on what we’ve been talking about. We need to keep reaching out diplomatically. But I this war is going to be won in Iraq. And by the way, it’s going to be won by Iraqis, in the end. It’s going to be won—and when you say the bottom on the third, I wasn’t talking about the American commitment; I was talking about the entire political process by which Iraq becomes a normal country. And I think we are in the bottom of third. So—
IGNATIUS: Fair enough. Let me ask one more question before we turn to the audience.
President Bush was speaking today in Philadelphia about Iraq, in one of the series of speeches that he’s given recently. And his tone was very upbeat, very positive, talked about the need for victory in Iraq and creating a democracy that would be a shining example for its neighbors and an ally in the war against terrorism. Do you find talk like that realistic?
BLACKWILL: Yes. I do. But you have to—
IGNATIUS: Why? (Scattered laughter.)
BLACKWILL: Look, I—well, I tried to say earlier, to some degree, at least in some ways, why that—Aristotle said that analysis is illumination through disaggregation. Illumination through desegregation. I tried to disaggregate earlier why I think that.
But part of it, of course, is the rhetoric of a leader in a war in a democracy. Churchill comes to mind. Well, you know, he did not say we could lose the Battle of Britain. I mean, leaders in democracies have to, it seems to me, in realistic ways, persuade the citizens of democracies that the war they’re in is worth fighting and that success can be achieved.
And Churchill, if I may again cite him, never minimized the threat and also was candid with the people of Britain about setbacks—by the way, not every one of them—(chuckles)—if you read—especially the ones in which he was personally involved, if you read the history.
So it seems to me that the President’s leadership in this regard is well-placed, and as I’ve said, I think well-founded. It isn’t automatic, of course, that we’re going to succeed. Absolutely not. But I tried to say I think on the political side we finally—we have the Sunnis in the process, and I think we’ll have a more—much more effective Iraqi government. Could not happen, but my overall net assessment is that.
On the military side, we’re, I think, more effectively dealing with the Syrian border and the problems along that. And there’s an inexorable process through which more Iraqi battalions are joining the fight, and they are fighting, and they are fighting. Just to remind ourselves, in April of last year during the Mahdi rebellion, they didn’t fight. They ran away. Well, they’re fighting now. Thirty battalions control their own AORs, and 70 are fighting with us. And as I say, I think it’s inexorable—there were 100,000 members of the Iraqi armed forces a year ago. There are 200,000 today. There’ll be 300,000 next year. And I think it’s inexorable that they will be ever, ever more effective.
And then on the economic side, we haven’t talked about—and of course these numbers are soft—but the GDP now—per capita income is about $1,000, 30 percent more than before the war. Thirty thousand new businesses in Iraq. The currency is stable, the banking system is modeled on the West. There is almost no or manageable inflation, certainly. It’s welcoming foreign and direct investment, which will happen once the security situation is secure, and is happening in the Shi’a South and the Kurdish North, although not through Western investors, but through Arab and other investors.
So if you put all that together, it seems to me there’s reason to believe that even in this extremely tough fight, this war with a resilient insurgency, which it is; absolutely brutal, with, as far as one can tell, no moral foundation—one can argue about other insurgencies in that respect, but this is one in which men get together in dark rooms and plan to blow up children. That’s who they are. So if you put all this together, I think there’s a reason to be optimistic about the outcome. But it’s a tough fight. These are tough people we’re fighting.
IGNATIUS: With that, let me turn to the audience for your questions. If you would please raise your hand, and when recognized, identify yourself. Keep your questions short.
QUESTIONER: Pauline Baker, [inaudible].It seems to me the most important political task after the election, of course, is rewriting the constitution in a way that gets sustained Sunni buy-in, which is, I think, the major incentive for them to turn out in the election. What would you think is the minimum requirement that the Sunnis would require to really stick this—through this process and stay with it?
BLACKWILL: Could I quarrel with your premise? I don’t think that is the most important challenge of the new government—although I don’t dismiss its importance. But let me give you an aphorism which I’ve heard in Iraq. It goes like this—and it’s in the context of this being, I think, a quite remarkable constitution that came out of this process, by far the most progressive in the Arab world and so forth. Here was the aphorism: “If we have an effective government in Baghdad which is moderate and only mildly Islamist or even partially secular, it won’t matter what the constitution says. And if we have the opposite kind of government, it won’t matter what the constitution says.”
I think, myself, that how the Sunnis are treated in their daily lives, whether they’re welcomed into the government, whether they’re welcomed into the army, whether Sunni businessmen can raise capital in Baghdad and all the rest, is more important for Sunnis than words in the constitution. That is my guess. The quality of life—and by the way, I think this is true elsewhere in Iraq as well. It doesn’t mean their politicians didn’t fight fiercely for every word in this constitution, which they certainly did.
But I don’t think that’s the most important task. Iraqis—they have despaired about the quality of governance in their country, quite apart from getting blown up, the quality, the delivery of services—of government services and all the rest. That it seems to me is the most important—the preeminent task after security and both of those well before the constitution.
IGNATIUS: Yes, sir?
QUESTIONER: Hi. Robert Murray, CNA Corporation. Bob, could you disaggregate the insurgents of this and relate them to the politics of Iraq which you were talking about?
BLACKWILL: I can do a typology of the insurgents, which I don’t have any confidence in but which is bandied about: the dead-end Ba’athists; the Iraqi nationalists who are Sunni; the non-Iraqi Zarqawi foreigners.
I think that every number that’s bandied about here is soft about how many there are and who they are. And by the way, I think there are weekend warriors here too among them, and so it’s hard to count them, about “Well, do they drive a car on Sunday mornings? Are they part of the insurgency if they’re taking a note to somebody else?”
So I think that indicator is a just very hard to get at. I think an indicator which is better, but hardly perfect is the number of attacks—the number of attacks—because that says something about their resilience, their capacity over time to keep generating their activities. The number of attacks, both suicide attacks and attacks on our forces and Iraqi forces, were substantially down in November. I’m interested that like the last time around, we haven’t so far seen spikes before this election, which one might have anticipated, but that’s a more reliable one. I mean, but even that, because they have surges or they save up and get ready to try to have it politically.
So we know—I think we know the broad categories, but numbers—I don’t know. I think it’s very hard to know.
QUESTIONER: I’m Ed Spannaus from Executive Intelligence Review. Ambassador, you made a passing reference to the Interior Ministry, which may refer to the fact that in the past few days there have been a number of additional secret prisons discovered, run by the Interior Ministry in which maltreatment and even torture of prisoners is taking place. The problem is that we have lost the high ground on this issue, and many Iraqis will laugh in our faces when we say you shouldn’t mistreat or torture prisoners. What kind of problems does it create to have the vice president, who was openly campaigning, threatening to veto in fact, the McCain amendment and campaigning for an exemption for certain agencies to carry out such activities?
BLACKWILL: Well, let me first say something about Iraq before I get here—and this may come as a surprise—and I think, again, it reflects the history; the terrible, tragic, painful history of Iraq; the relations between these communities. I was in Iraq during the Abu Ghraib period, and let me tell you, the Shi’a were not in mourning about Abu Ghraib. Most Shi’a I spoke with said, “These people are getting exactly what they deserve.” So one has to be careful about long-distance high mindedness with regard to that country. Now, of course, we Americans could never accept such a proposition, could we? Of course we couldn’t. And we dealt with the Abu Ghraib scandal. But I just point that out.
Here, I’m going to confine myself to this answer to you, which I hope you won’t think is evasive. I taught at the Kennedy School for years, as our moderator has said, and at the place where you do case studies. And we had executive programs; 2,000 senior executive folks were in that program every year, including very distinguished members of our U.S. national security team.
And we taught them many cases. The case which caused the most moral and political and policy confusion was on this subject. That you give them a case and you say—if it’s in its most radical, theatrical form—you have in your custody a terrorist in a situation in which his mother organization is threatening to detonate a nuclear weapon in New York and you have reason to believe he knows where it is; do you torture him? And as I say, it just created enormous moral and policy confusion.
It does seem to me that circumstances matter here. And I myself—and again, I see my red light back there, but I’ll say it anyway—I’m not an absolutist in this regard. Of course the torture should not be widespread. And I’ll call it for what it is. Of course it should not be widespread. And of course there should be extraordinarily astringent top-down requirements in this respect. But never? But never? I’ll let you struggle with that and with the case, but I wouldn’t say never.
IGNATIUS: The woman—yes, ma’am. Yes?
QUESTIONER: Carol Giacomo with Reuters. You mentioned that you saw Iran as the greatest external threat to Iraq. And obviously, Iran has said they won’t talk to Ambassador Khalilzad. So what else should the United States be doing? Is U.S. Iran policy on the right path?
BLACKWILL: Well, let me say again, asking a former practitioner—many of my friends out here I see who’ve had—(off mike), that I can, I think, confirm what they’ve found; that every day I’m out of government, the policy problems seem easier and my prospective solutions seem more obvious. (Laughter.)
So I think that we’re on the right track with the Iranians. We’ve offered to talk to them about this; they’ve refused it. But to deal with a government whose president says he wants to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth and in the last week has denied the existence of the Holocaust, I think those who believe that negotiation is always the answer to international problems may want to think that one over.
And let me say my friends—I don’t think I’ve revealing secrets here—my friends in Europe who are negotiating with the Iranians with respect to their nuclear weapons program—that is to say, the so-called EU-3—are very dispirited about the new Iranian team that has turned up to deal with them.
So I think this is a very tough policy problem, but I don’t have any epiphanies with respect to a change of policy. I think our policy’s about right.
IGNATIUS: Can I just follow up Carol’s good question by asking, if what you just said is true, that we have a crew in Tehran now that is just absolutely beyond the possibility of engagement, did we make a big mistake in not engaging President Khatami when we had the chance on your watch?
BLACKWILL: Well, a penetrating question, to be sure. (Laughter.) I could break a Washington tradition and say yes. Yes, crucify me, Saint Sebastian. (Laughter.)
Anyway, just because this group is incandescently extreme doesn’t mean their predecessors were flexible, which they weren’t. So I just think—again, one can’t be sure, because to a very great extent the inner deliberations of the Iranian regime are a black box. We don’t know. We don’t know. You don’t turn up in Tehran and go to the Supreme Leader and say, “You know, I’ve always wanted to be part of your endeavor; could I come to your next staff meeting?” You don’t—we don’t know.
But the evidence suggests that they have concluded that an Iraqi-American coalition success in Iraq would be deeply threatening to them and deeply threatening to their vital national interest. And I think they’ve come to this conclusion. They’ve come to this conclusion, and I’m doubtful that words or the shape of tables or ingenious negotiating formula or track two meetings is going to have much effect on that.
IGNATIUS: Yes? All the way back, please.
QUESTIONER: Cam Simpson from the Chicago Tribune. Ambassador, one of the key tasks of the new assembly is going to be the creation of a petroleum law. It was an issue that was left open significantly, at least open to interpretation, in the new constitution. Can you tell us what you expect to see on that front, who’s going to dominate that process and what it’s going to take to get the tremendous potential up to reality in Iraq?
BLACKWILL: I’d expect to see very tough negotiations. And the only way out of this is a compromise, obviously. Perhaps you saw that Abdul Mahdi, talking not directly about oil, but about resources going to the south, expressed his frustration that the Shi’a majority feels as if they’re being shortchanged on resources going from Baghdad to the south.
The Kurds in the north think the same thing. I suspect that the problem is the amount of resources, not the way it’s divided. So that—and, of course, the issue of energy in the Kurdish north and in the Shi’a south is going to be a big one. And I expect very, very tough negotiations. And we’ll see how they come out. I can’t predict how they’re going to come out. But this is—out of the constitution, it seems to me, this is an issue—just to return to that question about changes in the constitution and the enactment of the many laws that are required, this is an issue that is one of the more important ones to be resolved, and it won’t be resolved easily, for sure.
IGNATIUS: Here on the aisle, please.
QUESTIONER: Martin Walker—from UPI. I wonder if you could talk a bit about some of the other neighboring states and the role that they’re playing, particularly Syria and Turkey, and whether you think that the governments in Amman and Saudi Arabia are also playing a positive role with the Sunnis in Iraq?
BLACKWILL: Well, Syria I said a word about. It’s entirely unhelpful in allowing al Qaeda and the Zarqawi folks to have a platform in Syria. The notion that a country—that Syria, with its vast, vast intelligence penetration of the society doesn’t know where these safe houses are in Syria, as the terrorists fly in—or actually come by road, but mostly fly in—begs the imagination. So I’ve said something about Syria.
The others—the Jordanians are helpful. There’s a very large police academy for Iraqis that is now in Amman. I think they’re helpful.
The Saudis I think—I’ll say something more generally and then more specific. The Saudi—U.S.-Saudi cooperation now on counterterrorism is absolutely terrific. But the Saudis have the problem that clearly the al Qaeda recruitment call has resonance inside Saudi Arabia. And I think the Saudi government is trying to do what it can in that regard. But this is a problem it faces. So—but I believe—and again, others may know better. My impression is that the Saudis have increasingly concluded that a defeat for Iraq and for the coalition and for the Americans would be a disaster for them. And so it’s a matter of turning that into policy, which my impression is that’s what they’re doing.
Well, Turkey is preoccupied, of course, with the Kurds. And again, lot of Turkish investment in Kurdish Iraq, and most of the economic development that’s happening in Kurdish Iraq is coming across the Turkish border. I find that odd, given the Turkish preoccupation with the future of Kurdistan. But the Turks, of course, are among the strongest supporters of a unified Iraq, because for them, the consequences—as with the Iranians and Syrians—of Iraq beginning to splinter are very serious. So again, I think their influence is positive. But I want to repeat, I don’t believe that—other than the direct support that Iran and Syria are giving to the insurgency, I don’t, myself, think that the other outside powers are crucial here in the outcome.
IGNATIUS: The gentleman here on the right-hand side of the room. I don’t know if you still have a question, sir.
QUESTIONER: Mark Feldman, (off mike). Your earlier discussion of the consequences of U.S. withdrawal, premature withdrawal, I understand the diplomatic implications that occur. But the premise seems to be that you believe that our forces there have actually been helpful in maintaining security. This is clearly not obvious from the press. And I would like to invite you to elaborate on that.
BLACKWILL: Well, perhaps the best indicator of this is the reaction of Iraqi leading politicians, none of which have called for a timeline for American withdrawal. Abdul Mahdi was asked about this two days ago, and he said this would be extremely dangerous because—and then he gave all the arguments that one hears in the American debate. And I think that’s telling, that this Shi’a politician has this view.
So I guess what I would say is that the Iraqi political elite—and there—by the way, there were a few exceptions among the Sunnis. But the Iraqi political elite is preoccupied—it’s interesting to say, I think, given our own domestic debate—not with how we got here, although they overwhelmingly, the Shi’a and the Kurds, of course support the proposition of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, given what he did to them—but they—their conviction is, wherever we came from, we need American and British and others, but especially the Americans and the British, military forces, until we’re ready to defeat this insurgency and keep it defeated on our own.
And if I could just use this opportunity to say something about exit strategy, which we—you mentioned the exit polls earlier. It seems to me that the argument now in the United States is not about exit strategy, should you have one. You of course should be able to at least to some degree foresee in general what your strategy is for victory, for success. It’s rather the issue of setting timelines for withdrawal. That’s what the argument is about now, and it’s fine. This is—we’re in a democracy, and you have freewheeling debate.
But as I say, it’s very difficult to find anyone in Iraq except the insurgents who think—who support a declared timeline for U.S. withdrawal.
IGNATIUS: Let me—I saw two hands raised on this side and one just here. Let me collect those three questions of the last three for Ambassador Blackwill. There were two people who had their hands up. If you’d like to just—yes, go ahead.
QUESTIONER: Well, if you don’t have a timetable, what do you have? I mean, you’re arguing that the war is going to be won in Iraq, but it seems to be wiser to argue that the war is going to be won or lost in Washington. Would you comment on that?
IGNATIUS: Was there another hand that was raised here? I thought I saw one. If not, ma’am, go ahead.
QUESTIONER: (Inaudible)—Institute of World Politics. Given the enormous propaganda effort of the Iranians, what is your opinion about the Pentagon’s paying for positive stories? And without any implication of moral equivalence, should the United States be involved in political warfare, public diplomacy, and should the Pentagon specifically do so?
BLACKWILL: Oh. Just two? Okay. Sorry. Thought there was a third.
First, the issue of exit strategy. Again, conceptually, it seems to me, does the mission dive the timeline, or does the timeline drive the mission? And it seems to me the administration, beginning with the President, have argued the mission has to drive the timeline. And who thinks that they know enough today to make a strategic judgment about the proper timeline for American troop withdrawal, unless one is just tired and demoralized? But that’s not a strategic judgment.
And I would say, if I can just make one other historical point, Lord Halifax was after Churchill in 1941 to negotiate with Hitler—and if you look at Lincoln’s Cabinet in 1962—in democracies, of course there is debate about the proper future direction. And it’s part of the vitality of our system, and we should luxuriate in it.
But I think that the war isn’t going to be lost in Washington, because the President is not going to change his mind. And the President is going to see this through along the lines that he has said. That’s my own judgment.
Paying for press stories—I must say I didn’t see all that many successes—(chuckles)—successful press stories. It’s the wrong thing to do, of course. We shouldn’t pay people for—it’s a very, very old instrument. Go back a very long time. But I don’t think it should be done.
IGNATIUS: I can’t remember the last time at a council session when Aristotle was quoted so appositely. And I want to thank, on all our behalf, Ambassador Blackwill for being so frank in his comments. (Applause.)
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