Council on Foreign Relations
JANE ARRAF: Good afternoon, everybody. Thanks so much for joining us this afternoon. Welcome to this afternoon’s meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations. And we are extremely lucky in having Stephen Biddle on this anniversary of the war in Iraq, which actually does fall on today since that was the anniversary in Iraq, as opposed to yesterday, here.
Stephen Biddle, as you will have read, is the author of “Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in the Modern Battle,” in addition to which he’s on the faculty of the Army War College. And he’s written quite provocatively recently on the way forward in Iraq.
And let’s just start off, though, with a couple of words we’ve been hearing a lot of lately, civil war. Is it civil war? Does it matter whether it’s civil war? And is this really just—in terms of whether it matters—is this just semantics?
This is, by the way, on the record this morning.
STEPHEN BIDDLE: All right. Some people believe that this is all just a semantic issue. You say potato, I say “po-tah-toe”; you say civil strife, I say civil war.
I think, in fact, the distinction is much more important than that, for starters. Secondly, I think we are, in fact, in a civil war now and have been for quite a long time. It’s just a civil war whose tactics, for the time being at least, are low-intensity.
It’s very important not to conflate the nature of the underlying conflict and the intensity of the violence taking place within it. Because I think that if one understands what’s going on as being a problem of terminating an ongoing ethnic and sectarian civil war, you get a very different set of appropriate U.S. policy responses to it than if either you think the problem is to avert the prospect of an unrealized but potential future civil war, or if you think, as I think many in the policy community have, that the underlying problem in Iraq is to resolve what is implicitly thought to be a Maoist people’s war of the sort that Vietnam represented. Either of those three understandings of the underlying nature of the problem imply very different appropriate policies for the United States. And hence, I think understanding which we’re in is terribly important as the furthest thing I can imagine from your semantics.
ARRAF: Well, why are we seeing this difference then? Is it because the difference in terms of how to describe it and this real fear, this reluctance to actually call it civil war on the part of the administration, particularly? Is it because it sets into play a whole series of factors in terms of domestic policy? It seems a lot scarier, but does it matter?
BIDDLE: I think certainly that’s part of it. There’s been a tendency since the invasion to hold up civil war as the worst-case outcome representing failure. And if we’ve implicitly been thinking about civil war as the definition of failure in the undertaking to then describe what’s going on now as a civil war is an admission of failure and an admission that’s tantamount to a suggestion that we should simply withdraw.
And again, I think that has a tendency to conflate the nature of the conflict, which is an internecine civil war among ethnic and sectarian groups with the question of intensity. If the intensity level of this civil war were to escalate to a gloves-off, all-out, unconstrained bout of violence among these parties, that could very well represent failure of a sort that’s irremediable and in which our only option might be to withdraw. What we have is not that, and I think we still have a decent prospect of averting that if our policies are appropriately. And hence, treating civil war as this kind of undifferentiated, worst-case outcome that if it happens all is lost is, I think, a mistake.
Within a civil conflict, it’s possible to escalate or de-escalate the level of violence and perhaps even terminate the violence. If we simply refuse to acknowledge that we’re already in one, I think we make escalation more likely rather than less.
ARRAF: Now, one of your—part of your solution—let me be precise about this—as articulated in your recent article in Foreign Affairs is freezing expansion of the Iraqi forces. Now, I’ve got to say, on the face of it, this seems completely counterintuitive. Why would that work?
BIDDLE: Well, let me start by saying I’m not 100 percent sure it will work. I think it’s the best route available to us, but it’s not a guarantee. There are no guaranteed routes to success in Iraq. All possibilities have some prospect of failure.
The reason that I think it’s the best course of action for us at the moment is if in fact we are in an intercommunal civil war in the country as opposed to a Maoist people’s war, for example, trying to hand the fighting off to the locals ends up throwing gasoline on the fire of what is the underlying nature of the conflict—an intercommunal security dilemma in which each of the major actors in the country fears for its safety and its survival if one or more of the others got control of the government. At the moment, the military that we’re trying to hand the fighting off to is perceived by the Sunnis—obviously, a critical player in the country—as being closely aligned with their ethnic and sectarian rivals in the form of the Shi’a and the Kurds. So the stronger we make and the better trained we make and the better equipped we make the force that the Sunnis view as their enemies, the more threatened they feel and the likelier they are to fight back in a conflict that many Sunnis perceive as an existential struggle for communal survival.
Given that strengthening a military that they view as their enemy creates stronger resistance, and given that it has other political problems that I think are terribly important, I think the first thing we need to do is slow down rather than speed up the development, the growth, the improvement and capability of that force.
ARRAF: I have two questions, then. The first one is—there’s a real tendency to use numbers as a sign of progress. One hundred and thirty Iraqi battalions, for instance, is one we hear a lot. Iraqis will have control of more territory than American forces by the end of the year, and that integration actually is happening in Iraqi forces; we are getting Sunnis. Is that overstated based on the progress?
BIDDLE: Well, I don’t—some of them certainly are not; others may be. But I think the growth and the effect—the narrowly defined military effectiveness of the Iraqi military, as far as I can tell, is quite real.
If the underlying nature of what’s going on there is an intercommunal fight, the combat motivation of the force that consists primarily of one side in the fight, we should expect to be good and improving. And we should expect them to be accepting and absorptive of our training and re-equipment efforts.
So in a sense, it’s not surprising that—if we want to call it that—a very large, very well equipped Shi’ite-Kurd militia is becoming much more combat effective in waging a communal civil war against its Sunni opponents. In a sense, I worry less that we’re behind schedule or the pace isn’t quick enough in improving the capabilities of this force. I think improving the capabilities of the force is counterproductive rather than advantageous. But I’m prepared to accept the administration’s and the military’s perception of how rapidly that progress is taking place.
ARRAF: Well, let’s cut to the real issue of what actually matters here in Washington, which is whether to leave the troops there or withdraw them. Under your scenario, you freeze expansion of Iraqi forces. How does that mean anything other than the need to put in more U.S. forces to replace them?
BIDDLE: Well, if we had more U.S. forces to put in place, I would favor it. We don’t. So I think the issue for us represents do we draw down or do we hold constant for as long as we can. And I think, unfortunately, the nature of this conflict suggests that we’re probably going to have to stay there longer than we would like. Our options to draw down are going to be less promising than we would hope. But if we pursue the appropriate military policy in the country in exchange for a much slower ramp-down and a much longer presence in the country, with luck we can get a stable, reasonably representative, reasonably legitimate government in Iraq in exchange for that sacrifice. I think if we draw down too rapidly in exchange for the sacrifices we’ve already made the Iraqis have already made, the result could be failure rather than success.
ARRAF: And what would failure look like?
BIDDLE: Well, I think an unconstrained civil war among the parties, especially one that’s spilled over into neighboring countries in the region, would represent failure along most of the dimensions that are of interest to us. Not only does it create the prospect of a future terrorist haven in Iraq, which would pose a much more serious problem than a terrorist haven in a country like Afghanistan, for example, but it also would represent the end of any hope that Iraq would act as catalyst for political change elsewhere in the region and in fact might cause Iraq to serve as a catalyst for political deterioration elsewhere in the region. All of which, I think, are serious stakes for us in addition to things like—(inaudible)—oil out of the Mideast and other economic considerations.
ARRAF: Given that sentiment seems to be turning in this country, that very few people—or an increasing numbers of people, I’d say, seem to know what the point is in staying there. Do you think that there is the political will, that it will be possible to actually keep the troops there even if that’s what’s decided is needed militarily?
BIDDLE: Well, among the reasons why my “sellability” as a political consultant is so limited—(laughter)—is my ability to read these particular tea leaves isn’t very strong. And worse, what I’m proposing represents, I think, probably the political consultant’s worst possible case. (Normally ?) tweed-wearing academic from Council on Foreign Relations recommends that you take not just a dose of castor oil but a whole glass of the stuff politically. You can’t offer the American public an early draw-down. You replace a fairly simple narrative storyline of a noble government and an evil insurgency with this—you know, this nice—(inaudible)—tale with this very complicated story of multiparty ethnic intrigue in which we have to shift our allegiance back and forth among the players. The whole program that I’m talking about would be extremely difficult to sell domestically, and possibly even impossible to sell domestically.
And I think it’s important to recognize that what’s necessary may or may not be possible. But I think it’s important to see what’s necessary. And as I understand the strategic exigencies of the country and the conflict we’re now in, I think if we’re going to get a good outcome, this sort of policy agenda is going to be necessary. That won’t make it easy or pleasant.
ARRAF: Do we have the sort of military that is actually able to deal with what they’re facing there now? And from my time on the ground, what I’ve seen are immense heroic efforts, I’d say—by commanders, by ordinary soldiers, by Marines—to adapt to incredibly challenging circumstances they never dreamed of. And it just seems to change every day.
BIDDLE: Well, I think that’s exactly right, and my sense is that contrary to the way it’s sometimes described, the U.S. military is a pretty adaptive organization. It did not begin this conflict with a doctrine or training routines or culture that was very well-suited to counterinsurgency. The Army had been oriented primarily to major combat for generations before this. On the other hand, it’s made up of very talented people who are very capable and extremely highly motivated, and when they find themselves in a situation where the equipment intellectually that they took into the thing to begin with isn’t appropriate, they change. And I think they’ve changed faster than in many ways people give them credit for. Now, whether or not they’ve changed enough is something one can debate, and in a large organization, parts of it are always going to change faster than other parts. I mean, one of the consequences of being an adaptive organization is that you give sub units the freedom to experiment, and that means that some of them are going to have, you know, bad outcomes rather than good outcomes. If you don’t enforce uniformity and instead allow a thousand flowers to bloom as an engine for change, some of those flowers aren’t going to be very pretty.
But I think by and large, the military has adapted faster than people give them credit for. And at the tactical and operational level in Iraq, I think they’re doing a variety of very good things that are exactly what we would need them to do in this sort of conflict. My problem with U.S. policy is less with the conduct of war at the local and tactical level and more with the strategic direction of the war effort, which, again, I think tends to be informed by a mistaken understanding about the nature of the conflict.
ARRAF: And just one last one, I think, before we go to the audience for questions: I know that you have accurately predicted everything that’s happened since the start of the war—(laughs)—
BIDDLE: Probably all.
ARRAF: Well, I haven’t. I was stunned last week when I saw the riot in northern Iraq, in Kurdistan, in Halabja, where they trashed and burned a memorial to the victims of Saddam’s regime’s gassing of the Kurds. What is going on there? We tend to think of northern Iraq—we don’t have to worry about it. We tend to think if Iraq breaks up there will be three nice, neat parts. What was that all about, do you think?
BIDDLE: I mean, Iraq in a sense represents a series of nested problems. The first-order problem, one that’s biting us right now, is ethnic and sectarian conflict among Shi’a, Kurds and Sunnis. But that’s not the only problem in the country. And the serious second-order problem is the ability of any of these parties to deliver government services at the grass-roots level without a corrupt bureaucracy that serves itself and not its constituents. You know, all politics is ultimately local, and I think that a very important dimension of what appears to have happened at Halabja is people losing patience with a government that, in a sense, represented their larger ethnic interests, but that wasn’t delivering services as was viewed as corrupt and self-serving.
To get to the outcome we want in Iraq—a stable, legitimate, representative government of some form—will eventually require not just that we solve the ethnic and sectarian security dilemma—that's the first-order problem without which nothing else can be done—but will eventually require that we come to grips with the problem of corruption and find some way of delivering effective governance at the grass-roots level. And that’s another set of difficult challenges that lie around the next bend, I think, in this long and difficult road.
ARRAF: Difficult seems to be a diplomatic way of phrasing that. Is it insurmountable? When you ask Iraqis what their concerns are, it’s first security and second corruption, and there seems to be a belief that there’s no way you can ever repair this.
BIDDLE: To some extent, this ultimately turns on whether as an individual one is an optimist or a pessimist. And at the moment, my glass is a little more than half full so that means that I’m an optimist, so I’ll take the optimist brief.
I think the underlying interests of each of the parties in the Iraqi conflict at the moment are powerfully to avert the worst-case outcome of unconstrained escalation to a gloves-off, unlimited civil war in the country. That would be a disaster for everyone involved. Even the winner would pay the butcher’s bill of a huge casualty toll in the course of a conflict like that, plus the destruction of infrastructure and economic wealth within the country. The loser would pay not only that butcher’s bill, but the yolk of oppression afterwards at the hands of the victors, and nobody at this point can really know, if it came to that, who would be in which class.
But the scale of suffering associated with failure to produce some kind of stable constitutional compromise is such that there ought to be a reasonable hope that if our policies can be constructive rather than unhelpful, that we can allow the parties to realize their common interest in averting this catastrophe. And the willingness, for example, of the Shi’ites to compromise in the constitutional negotiations last December, and some recent events in the country in the last couple days, I think gives some hope for optimism that the parties understand this as well as we do.
So powerful common interest in the aversion of this catastrophe I think ought to be some source of hope that we can get this problem solved. Is that 100 percent guarantee of success? Absolutely not. If we play our cards differently, can we increase rather than decrease the odds of that happening? I hope so.
ARRAF: Are we at the point now, though, where we don’t have as much control as we think we do in terms of what the U.S. can actually do there?
BIDDLE: Well, I think it’s probably a good, general purpose description in American foreign policy that we don’t have as much control as we think we do, so I’m sure that’s the case in Iraq as well. One of the reasons why I think in the process of shepherding this negotiation towards constitutional compromise, we need to reach for more powerful sources of leverage—and in particular, military sources of leverage—on the parties to get them to bargain in good faith and reach a compromise is because I think in many ways the other levers available to us are not as influential as we might hope—I mean, promises of economic aid, diplomatic recognition, strongly worded demarches. There are serious constraints on the degree of coercive motivation that we can produce through those tools. I think we need to reach for something with more oomph, and I think at the end of the day, the potential source of leverage of ours that’s strongest is our influence over the military future of the country. And that’s why in the article I advocate that we need to be capable of realignment among the parties and the threat of realignment among the parties militarily contingent on their behavior in the negotiations, because I think we need more leverage than we’ve got.
ARRAF: I think that’s a great note to take questions from the audience. If I could just ask you to—are we doing the same rules here? I think we are. I think there’s a microphone that will go around. Is that correct? Yes. If when the microphone comes around you could just let us know, remind us who you are, your affiliation. And I realize I forgot to ask everyone to turn off their cell phones and BlackBerrys. But clearly, I did not need to remind anyone, so that’s a good thing.
I think the first question is the gentleman on the aisle there.
QUESTIONER: Thanks. Stephen, I thought your article was very provocative and insightful, and I think it—I’m Jim Dobbins from the RAND Corporation, sorry—and I thought it was a useful corrective to a lot of what one is seeing, which is the oil spot, Vietnam analogy. And of course, there are a lot of analogies that can apply partially to Iraq, and I think you’ve usefully offset that.
The problem with both—the conclusions you reach and also the conclusions the other school reaches—the Vietnam school as opposed to the Balkans school—are both that we need to take on a new set of adversaries—the Kurdish and Shi’a militias as well as the old one—and, in effect, expand the duration, if not the actual size, of our intervention, which tends to, as you’re the first to admit, fly in the face of both American and Iraqi sentiments, both of which are disinclined to have us stay in any numbers or for any indefinite period.
And I just suggest that there may be a third set of analogies, which are the Philippines in the early ‘50s—late ‘40s, early ‘50s—or El Salvador, where the United States had a much, much smaller, essentially advisory presence. It does require that one effectively take sides and it perhaps provides less leverage in terms of averting the civil war you seek. But it does strike me that it’s a lot more in tune with both Iraqi and American political realities as regards the U.S. presence.
BIDDLE: And I think especially for insurgencies of the kind that we faced in Central America, for example—a small presence with a light touch, oriented at building up indigenous military capability and pursuing political and economic reform on that side of the house is exactly the right strategy. I’m a bit concerned about that model for conflicts like Iraq simply because I’m not sure it gives us the leverage we need to compel compromise among the parties.
But I think one of the first steps to wisdom, if wisdom’s available to us, in understanding the problem of counterinsurgency is to recognize that insurgency is an approach that gets used by many different actors for very different political ends and (is ?) a function of the different kinds of political ends that they’re pursuing and the different nature of the actors—the right strategy for the U.S. can be very different. I think the strategy in Central America can be a very good model for dealing with insurgencies of the future that have their roots in, for example, class conflict. Whether they’re a tool that we can use in situations like Iraq where what we’re trying to do is resolve an ethnic or sectarian civil war I’m not as sure of.
ARRAF: In the front here. I think the microphone is coming around.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. Avis Bohlen, Georgetown University. I’m afraid I haven’t read your article so maybe this is a redundant question.
BIDDLE: I’m sure you’ve (heard ?) something.
AVIS BOHLEN: (Laughs.) How would you use military leverage to compel agreement among the parties in Iraq, precisely given, as you said at the beginning, that the problem is a lack of trust? And I’ve never seen trust come out of the barrel of a gun.
BIDDLE: Well, I think that the first aspect of that is we need to make our behavior contingent on their behavior. And right now, our policy in Iraq is that we will stay until and unless the national—which at moment is disproportionately Shi’ite and Kurdish—military is capable of waging the war on its own. And the moment that happens, we leave. That policy isn’t contingent on anybody’s negotiating behavior. The Shi’ites may very well be worried desperately about the Sunni insurgency, but their incentive to make a very risky political compromise associated with the development of a power sharing constitution, where power sharing means giving some of the power to the people who are currently fighting you, their incentive—the strategic situation they face vis-a-vis accepting those risks and getting that compromise is the military outcome is the same either way. If they don’t compromise, at least in our stated policy, the United States sticks around as long as necessary to protect them. If they do compromise and they take the risks, the military behavior of the U.S. is the same.
If we look at the problem from the Sunni standpoint, the Sunnis may very well fear the development of a stronger national military, but it’s coming regardless of whether they accept compromises constitutionally or not. In a sense, accepting the risk associated with a constitutional compromise for the Sunnis means giving up the arms that are their current defense against ethnic and sectarian rivals in exchange for what amounts to a constitutional scrap of paper if the military power in the country remains concentrated in Shi’ite and Kurdish hands.
So I think what we need to do if we’re going to use military influence as leverage in this negotiation is, first of all, make our military policy contingent on the parties’ behavior in this negotiation. I mean, the State Department would do this much more subtly than I’m about to, but in practical terms, we say to the Sunnis if you refuse to compromise, we will get out of the Shi’ites’ way and we will allow them to drop the gloves and to fight the kind of unconstrained, brutal war that you’re afraid of and that we are currently provoking them from waging. And whereas we haven’t been giving them artillery, armor, ground attack aircraft, armed helicopters in anything like the numbers they would like, that can be arranged. On the other hand, if you do compromise, we will stay in the country and protect you as necessary until the institutional development required for that constitutional compromise to become stable is in place.
We move to the Shi’ites and we say, if you don’t compromise, we’re out of here long before you’re able to defend yourself, long before you get a defense ministry that can keep your forces supplied in the field, long before you’ve got the development of the fire power that’s necessary to prevent large Sunni units from concentrating. On the other hand, if you do compromise, we will stay and we will continue to provide protection.
So now the future of our military behavior in the country is contingent on whether or not the parties are bargaining in good faith and moving toward compromise. Now obviously, you know, our Ambassador Khalilzad isn’t going to describe it in quite that way to any of the parties. This would have to be a much subtler process of signaling. But the key to that process of signaling is that there has to be an understanding on the part of the parties that there are military consequences to accepting risk and compromising as opposed to not accepting risk and insisting on the whole loaf rather than a compromised part of it.
ARRAF: You don’t think that would be an empty threat? I mean, I don’t think—I think it would be difficult for anyone in Iraq to believe that the U.S. actually would pull out, that they would arm the Shi’as. I mean, they are for more likely to believe, I think, that the U.S. will stay forever, and that’s their concern.
So how do you—I guess the real question is, would the U.S. ever in any situation be willing to do that?
BIDDLE: Well, the question of whether we would be willing to do it may rest in part on how many Foreign Affairs articles people read. I can’t at the end of the day make predictions about the future policies of the administration. But with respect to the question of can we make this threat credible, I think the only way to make a threat like this credible is to execute small parts of it, beginning very subtly with very minor changes in policy and ramping up as necessary to get people’s attention. For example, one could begin with something no more aggressive than simply not repeating at the presidential level that we will stay until and unless the conditions permit us to leave. I think if the president surgically excised that kind of language from public statements, actors in the country would see it and recognize it and think hard about what it means. If that doesn’t produce change, then perhaps we begin to allow the military command to float trial balloons about whether or not we are in fact going to leave on a schedule.
Many in this room have a much richer vocabulary at their disposal for this sort of diplomatic signaling than kind of tweedy academics like myself. But I remain confident that the language you’re signaling is rich enough, that there are options at low levels of rhetorical escalation and we can move up that ladder as necessary to signal with increasing specificity that in fact we’re not going to stay there in perpetuity, or that in fact our behavior really is contingent on their choices. And I would prefer to see us doing more of that.
ARRAF: Okay. Let’s go to some questions, perhaps. In the middle right there, and then we’ll work our way back.
QUESTIONER: Thanks. My names Joe Cirincione, Carnegie Endowment.
I really appreciate your efforts here to make a silk purse out of this fiasco. But in listening to you, I have to say I think you’re beyond optimism and it’s a little unreal, the kinds of suggestions you’re making. And for the opposite reason that you suggested, I think it’s going to be hard to convince the Iraqis that we’re going to stay.
And that for the council, this whole series would be a lot more productive if instead of being “Iraq: The Way Forward,” we called it, “Iraq: The Way Out,” because that’s where we’re going. The American public has lost faith in this effort. This is beyond repair.
So my question to you is, suppose you were to take my assumption, that we are leaving, that all the plans we hear about the U.S. forces leaving the cities, being combined at the base, the draw-down’s much more dramatic than things that we were just talking about even a few months ago are actually going to happen, how does that change your scenario? What are the kinds of things you would be doing over the next year and half—because I think that’s the time frame we’re talking about—where we’re going to see a large-scale withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq? What are the kinds of things you’d be doing in that situation to exert leverage to try to leave a situation that was as stable as possible, that gave the Iraqis the best chance possible—
ARRAF: I think we haven’t agreed on the premise that it’s beyond repair. But, Steve?
BIDDLE: Well, we don’t agree on the premise—I’ll contest the premise mildly in a moment. But for starters, I’ll accept the premise and run with that a little bit.
I think probably the best thing we could do in that situation is conceal our intention as long as possible. (Laughter.) I mean, as soon as it becomes the perception in the country that we’re going, it’s just like the problems of a lame duck president trying to get legislation through the Congress. What we’ve done is advertise to everyone involved that, you know, we no longer have any influence over events and that all they need to do is wait.
And I think in terms of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear is that sow’s ear, I think, is purse-proof. You know, maybe we could make a positive difference between an enormous catastrophe and maybe a big catastrophe. But we’re talking about shades of difference that are, unfortunately, small and unhappy.
Now, with respect to the premise—again, I’m a strategist rather than a domestic political adviser. So all I’m going to do is suggest, you know, in a couple of ways that perhaps sticking it out for a while longer to see whether if we do use our military influence in the country in a helpful way rather than an unhelpful way, maybe we can get some progress.
I noticed that in response to the president’s articulation of, you know, a more explicit strategy for Iraq, his poll numbers ticked up. I mean, there are Americans out there who would like to hope that something good can come out of this and that some degree of continued sacrifice is worth it if something good can come out.
I think the argument that’s been raised by friends and colleagues of mine in political science, that the American public is failure-averse and not casualty-averse, has a great deal of merit to it. And right now, what we’re seeing is what appears to be a narrative of pointless loss in Iraq and very little sense of how might success come out of this. The administration has been trying to contest that by, you know, making formal articulations of strategy and mentioning the word victory as many times as possible in any given sentence. (Laughter).
But I think if there were an argument and a logic that diagnoses the current situation as likely to lead to failure but suggests that another approach can lead to success, my hope—such at it is—would be that that could attract some degree of support. Now again, I’m talking about hope that large doses of castor oil will produce large lines in front of sidewalk stands dolling out the castor oil, and that may be unrealistic. But again, I’m, I suppose, more of an optimist than a pessimist by nature. And I think at a minimum, given the (sunk ?) costs that we have in this war and in this theater, trying is worth the risk.
ARRAF: On this side.
QUESTIONER: Yes, I’m Pasquale Ferrara with the embassy of Italy.
I would like to learn your thoughts about the initiative taken recently by Ambassador Khalilzad to start this new dialogue, if not negotiation, with the Iranians. Would you assess that? It has to do with the Shi’a militias—is that a tactical move or a strategic shift?
BIDDLE: Well, the administration’s description of that initiative is we’re going to explain to them our concerns in more detail. And I’m sure that’s a good thing to do. I have a sneaking suspicion that they’re probably aware of our concerns already, but the act of signaling that goes along with sitting down with them is in some ways a productive thing. So my sense of that initiative is that at the margin it’s helpful. My mortgage is not going to remain contingent on whether or not it produces a big change in the trajectory of events on the ground, however.
QUESTIONER: Judith Kipper, Council on Foreign Relations.
In your description of using our military leverage—which is not very clear to me, because I’m not sure how much it really matters on the ground to the Iraqis—one thing that I think we need to observe is that in the potential large-scale civil war—not low-intensity conflict civil war or gang war, criminal war, external-factors war—that the elected people and then the United States—(off mike)—two stories being told in Iraq. The process of democratization following the elections—(off mike)—none of those people really—(off mike)—what’s going on on the ground. Maybe the Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani can and maybe King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia could—(off mike)—the need to figure out a way.
Is that better?
You assume—I think you’re assuming in what you’re saying, and I’d like you to clarify, is that somehow the Sunnis have protected—(off mike)—and the Shi’a are less vulnerable that somehow they’re going to come around. I suppose the sheiks and the political people and the professionals and the soldiers on the ground might, but I don’t think the al Qaeda foreign elements who are lethal—because they don’t care at all about the Iraqis; they’re tiny, but lethal—and the gangs and the kidnappers and the mercenaries are going to come around.
If we abandon the Shi’a militarily, they’ve got the wherewithal to protect themselves. And they are the vast, vast majority of the country. They’ve been very restrained. So how can military leverage really work on a Sunni ragtag bunch of different elements and a huge Shi’a population that definitely has what it takes if they decide to fight?
BIDDLE: Among the various elements of the glass-half-empty part of this problem is the serious difficulty with Sunni political underdevelopment. Eventually, if this sort of negotiation is going to produce a happy outcome, there has to be some sort of Sunni leadership that can make a compromise stick in the streets. And it certainly isn’t there now.
Now we then look at the problem of if this development is to happen, what can we do to influence it, given the inherent limits on our degree of influence in the country, especially at this level of granularity. And I suspect that among the better prospects for something like that happening any time soon is we need the development of a leadership that has credibility with the people in the street who are currently waging insurgency. And that kind of person is now being hunted actively by the U.S. military.
So some way or another, something like the amnesty that we’re currently contemplating— with respect to people who have been active in the insurgency and people who were active in the Ba’athist Party before at a minimum has to expand to a point where it includes people who are viewed as legitimate by the Sunni community.
And again, I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but you know, I’m trying to be guardedly optimistic, contra Joe’s contrary view, but I don’t want to sound like I’m simply sitting up here arguing that everything is happy and bright and the future is a guarantee of success. There are many ways in which policy could fail here, and one of the several and most prominent is Sunni political development doesn’t come along fast enough.
And hence, whatever their elected representatives say in Baghdad—you know, you can’t get it implemented in the field; and that’s entirely possible—I think our strategy has to emphasize it as aggressively as we can. And Khalilzad and others in the theater are already doing this to a degree, furthering the development of a political voice that can negotiate credibly on behalf of the Sunnis, when there are similar problems, if less pressing, for the Shi’ites and the Kurds as well.
It has to happen. It hasn’t happened yet. I think there are things we can do to increase the probabilities at the margin. Whether that increase in probability at the margin is enough to warrant for the sacrifice is ultimately a judgment call which I answer yes, but other reasonable people with other value structures would answer differently.
ARRAF: I’m sorry, back to that side on the aisle.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. Bill Jones, Executive Intelligence Review. I’d just like to add a comment. I think also that it’s foolish to try and discuss an increase of military forces in Iraq where you’ll have a situation that the country’s moving toward civil war and we’re becoming the target, as John Murtha has indicated. And the more soldiers we get in there, the bigger target we become. And I don’t think there’s a way of really controlling that at all militarily—and that there has been a proposal that’s been around for a couple of years and nobody seems to act on, which I think has more of a relevance now since there are now—is now a willingness from the both the U.S. side and apparently also from the Iranian side to begin discussing Iraq, that you begin talking about the situation in Iraq as a regional issue, as the issue of Southwest Asia and how to bring peace to Southwest Asia.
And you bring in the countries in the area. You bring in Turkey. You bring in Iran. You bring in the Sunni Arab countries to discuss how can we pull something together, how can we use the leverage that each of you has on the situation to try and create stability? And I think that’s the only way you’re going to deal with this. Whether or not this leads to a unified Iraq or to some kind of a separation, I think that’s really now an open question now. But in order to avoid a continual civil war in the region, possibly spreading out in the larger regional area than is now the case, you have to try and bring the other countries together in the region. And now with this opening on Iran—how small it might seem at this point—given a competent U.S. policy in utilizing this, maybe we could bring something like that about. Because it seems to me that pouring in more soldiers in there is going to lead to a worse situation that’s really never going to end. Whether or not the U.S. populous will accept it—and I agree with Joe Cirincione that they probably wouldn’t very quickly.
ARRAF: Is that a possibility that you can get other countries involved, given that the other countries really don’t really have any sorts of agreement and Iraqis aren’t particularly keen on talking to them?
BIDDLE: Yeah, I’m in favor of maximizing leverage, but that particular source of leverage has downsides of its own that are probably comparable, if not greater, than the downsides of the forms of leverage I’ve been talking about.
I want to address very briefly, though, another dimension of the question, which is the perception that the American forces are the problem. And if we had larger forces to deploy, which we don’t, would that not simply make the problem worse, because they are the magnets for violence in the country? And I would have to disagree. I don’t think that American forces are the problem in the country right now. I think that’s a widely held view, that the nature of this conflict is nationalist resistance to foreign occupation, and hence, the more visible we make our occupying role, the more intense we make the violence. And yet, there are foreign occupiers around the country. And yet, violence and this conflict is concentrated in the Sunni Triangle.
You know, the four provinces that make up the Sunni Triangle account for more than 80 percent of the violence. The other 14, in which about 60 percent of the country’s population live, account for less than 20 percent of the violence. There are occupiers everywhere. The only places where—and they’re unpopular everywhere. Iraqis, like anyone else, don’t like to be occupied. But the only part of the country where nationalists who don’t like occupation shoot the occupiers is in the Sunni Triangle.
I think the problem in this country is fundamentally ethnic and sectarian. It’s not, at root, nationalist resistance to our occupation. If we had the wherewithal to double the size of American forces in the theater, I think by providing security to the parties from their ethnic and sectarian rivals that would substantially improve the situation and greatly facilitate progress toward a constitutional negotiation. We don’t, of course, have those forces, so that option isn’t on the table.
But I do disagree with the widely held view that American forces are the problem. We would reduce the underlying sources of tension in this conflict if we simply got out and removed this focus for nationalist opposition.
ARRAF: You had a question in the back.
QUESTIONER: Yeah, from—(inaudible)—Report. You mentioned a policy of sticks—if you don’t do this and that, then we will that. Could you tell us, if foreign countries can be involved, if you had a kind of civil war like in Lebanon that others would fight through proxies or directly, how that would influence the whole situation?
BIDDLE: Well, that would make a really bad situation an awful lot worse. And one of the more serious downside risks of misplaying our hand and choosing the wrong policies is exactly that sort of escalation into a regional conflict. And I think it’s paramount that within our ability to influence the situation we do what we can do to prevent that from occurring, because the outcome of that would be so grave.
ARRAF: There are some more questions back there, and then we’re going to come back to the front. But on that side.
QUESTIONER: Job Henning—Science Applications International, Inc.. A lot of your proposals would turn on different groups of people rationally responding to their interests and to our threats, or however we would phrase what you suggested. But aren’t we facing a classic security dilemma here, where the outcome may not be contingent upon the interest or the behavior of individual groups but more a product of structural factors?
And in that vein, maybe I could return to the question—maybe wouldn’t it be more productive to look at alternative political end-states? Is a federal state really something that’s a viable option at this point?
BIDDLE: Well, I think the underlying problem is precisely an ethnic and sectarian security dilemma. I think that implies, therefore, that our strategy needs to be oriented towards resolving an ethnic and sectarian security dilemma. And the form of resolution that I propose in the article is a power-sharing constitutional deal, in which, through a system of checks and balances, throughout the government and among the security forces, the ethnic and sectarian parties are denied the military wherewithal to oppress the others and in which an outside party, us, provides some degree of security to facilitate that process.
So I think that’s the heart of the problem and that’s the requirement for the solution, is that the fears; or alternatively, the revanchist greed of any of the three parties be damped to the point where they can coexist and interact politically, rather than violently and militarily.
Now, that absolutely requires that the parties see this problem through relatively clear-eyed lenses. If some combination of emotional engagement or past memory or signaling ineffectiveness or miscommunication or a collection of other possible pathologies in negotiation become too prominent, then the result will be failure, regardless of our behavior. And again, I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna. Failure is a distinct possibility here, regardless.
All that having been said, I think there is some evidence to suggest that at least the leadership in Iraq understands the strategic dimensions of the conflict in a way that might enable this kind of ultimate compromise outcome. There’s some evidence, for example, that Sunnis in Tall Afar during the time that the U.S. Third Army Calvary Regiment was operating there changed their perception of the United States from a threat to a protection.
To the extent that Sunnis are able to see their strategic interests in this conflict in a relatively clear-eyed way and accept the possibility of realignment of, for example, the United States, then again, given that the underlying interests here are so powerfully in the direction of compromise, I think there’s some chance that compromise can be attained. But there are many potholes along the road and many possibilities by which this approach could fail. I just think there were fewer with this approach than there are with our current approach.
ARRAF: We need a question in the front here.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. Steve Solarz.
It seems fairly clear that the best way to solve the problems we confront in Iraq is through a political settlement, leading to the establishment of a government of national unity with all of the major political forces represented, combined with an agreement on a package of amendments to the constitution and legislation that address the anxieties of the Sunni community, while at the same time being acceptable to the Shi’as and Kurds. And you’ve suggested a number of ways in which we could try to maximize the prospects for such a settlement.
But let’s assume, for the purpose of discussion, that that doesn’t happen, that the effort to establish a government of national unity fails, there is no agreement on a package of amendments to the constitution. And it doesn’t appear, therefore, there’s any realistic prospect of a political settlement in the foreseeable future, which is certainly a very real possibility.
Under those circumstances, what do you think the United States should do? And would there be any purpose to be served under those circumstances by a continuing American military presence, at least in the non-Kurdish areas of Iraq?
BIDDLE: If you posit political and constitutional failure, because that’s the only route to a stable, representative, reasonably legitimate government, I think we’re positing policy failure. And if we’re going to fail, logically, we should cut our losses. I’d rather fail less expensively than fail more expensively.
Now, I’m not yet ready to conclude that that’s the inevitable outcome. I think there is some probability that’s high enough that we could get a better result than that, that it’s worth our staying long enough to try. But if you were to—if someone were to prove that at the end of the day, this negotiation cannot succeed—not that it’s unlikely to succeed, but that it can’t—then I think the only rational response from the United States is to withdraw as soon as possible and suffer the consequences that flow from that.
I don’t accept the premise, yet, but I think that’s what it would imply.
ARRAF: I think we’re almost out of time. But just to recap, you’re essentially saying no way out unless we keep U.S. troops there as long as possible. Is that what it hinges on, do you think?
BIDDLE: Well, I’d frame it a little differently, because we have to be able to threaten that we might leave. So if we say, U.S. forces stay there in perpetuity, we undermine the Shi’ites incentives to negotiate. So I think we have to be willing, if necessary, to stay for a very long time. And we have to be willing to threaten the opposite as a function of who’s negotiating in good faith and who isn’t.
ARRAF: Just out of curiosity, three years ago—I mean, you probably—I’m sure you were watching the shock and awe campaign and all that. Did you think we’d get to this point? Did you think it would last this long?
BIDDLE: Well, I mean, looking back on it, I’m certainly surprised that it’s taken this long for the violence to escalate to this level. I think in terms of the underlying problem of an ethnic and sectarian security dilemma in the country, the Shi’ites have been remarkably forbearing. One might have expected, you know, this thing to escalate much sooner than it has.
As far as shock and awe was producing enormous clouds of smoke over Baghdad, did I expect that there was going to be a civil war? And here I have to plead guilty to having been as focused on the major combat phases as everyone else. At the time, I was actually preparing a research team to deploy to Iraq to collect evidence on the conduct of the major combat phase of the war.
So speaking for myself, at the time I was very interested in the question of whether or not shock and awe was going to shock and awe anyone and focusing much more intensively on that than on the question of can a larger political objective in this undertaking be realized, which turns centrally not on (building of ?) palaces but on establishing a government that is stable and representative and legitimate after that.
So unlike several of my then-colleagues when I was at the war college, who were worrying about those questions and who wrote several, I think, prescient monographs on the importance of those problems, I was busy trying to discover which palace you have to blow up in order to bring about this certain political change and concluding that there weren’t any—at least I was right on that.
ARRAF: I think we do actually have time for one very quick question, because I see a hand up back there.
QUESTIONER: Helen Fessenden from Eurasia Group. Just getting back to your previous point, if you make the assumption that at a certain point we do have to accept that we have to cut our losses and get out if things get really catastrophic, what are the benchmarks for that? Do you have a casualty figure in mind—or say, if certain cities fall under the control of the insurgents? I mean, what concrete benchmarks do you have to describe that as a failure?
BIDDLE: I think there are two closely related aspects to this very important question that you raised. One is, what metrics do you look at? And two, what threshold do you establish, you know, for decay in those metrics, at which point you conclude that it’s hopeless and you then withdraw?
And I think the kind of metrics we’ve been looking at are the wrong metrics, because we think we’re in a different kind of war than we are. If you’re in the kind of war I think you are, the route to success, if it’s going to happen, lies in constitutional compromise, and the key metrics would be things like are the parties reversing previous compromises in this negotiation? Or is there a good-faith process in which previous positions are a benchmark from which fuller negotiation can take place? Is there any reason to believe that the Sunni population at large is supportive of compromises that their representatives are making in Baghdad or not?
These are the sort of metrics that I would be looking at, rather than things like casualty rates or numbers of violent incidents per day, or even the numbers of intelligence leads that we get from Iraqis. All of which is very useful metrics if what you’re looking at underneath it all is a Maoist people’s war, but they aren’t necessarily that helpful in telling us whether the constitutional compromise that represents success is getting closer or further away.
And as far as what threshold I would observe in looking at that metric set, I would say if you’ve gone—and to some extent, all these cutoffs are going to be a bit arbitrary—but if you’ve gone several cycles of negotiation without any further progress, then that’s a very, very bad sign. And certainly, if the parties have come to negotiate in bad faith and are retracting prior compromises, that’s an extremely bad sign. And some reasonable incidents of this kind of pathological bargaining behavior, especially in the presence of escalating sectarian violence, might be a pretty good indicator that it’s reached the point where it’s not salvageable anymore.
I look at the December constitutional negotiations and what’s been happening in the formation of the government so far, and at least with my degree of visibility into those negotiations, I don’t see that happening yet, which is why I remain—however guardedly—optimistic. But that could turn the other way, and those are the kinds of things I would look at, from my part, to judge whether or not it had.
ARRAF: That’s a great note to end it on. Stephen Biddle, thank you for spending this anniversary with us.
Thank you everybody so much for coming. (Applause.)
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