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Iraq: The Way ForwardóReporting Iraq: Perspectives from Two American Journalists [Rush Transcript; Federal News Service]

Speakers: James Fallows, National Correspondent, The Atlantic Monthly; Author, Blind Into Baghdad: Americaís War in Iraq, and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Assisting Managing Editor, Former Baghdad Bureau Chief, The Washington Post; Author, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraqís Green Zone
Presider: Deborah S. Amos, National Public Radio
September 28, 2006
Council on Foreign Relations New York, NY

DEBORAH AMOS: I would like to invite everybody to take a seat. I know that people were—thank you. Thank you. We will—we have two great speakers, and so I’d like to use every second that we have, because we always promise to get you out in an hour.

I’d like to welcome you to Iraq: The Way Forward Series. And as I said, we have two great perspectives.

James Fallows, author of Blind into Baghdad. It’s great to read his essays, even though I read some of them the first time, but somehow they have a different impact now.

And Rajiv—(hesitates, chuckles)—

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: (Chuckles.)

AMOS:—Chandrasekaran—we were discussing tonight that the reason we all call him Rajiv is because that last name is tough—author of Imperial Life in the Emerald City and the assistant managing editor of The Washington Post. Just a great piece of journalism, a collection of impressions and reporting and investigation into the early days in Iraq.

I have a couple of housekeeping announcements, and that is, please, turn off your cell phones.

Also, this evening’s event is being teleconferenced to council members around the nation and the world, so we may get some questions. When we get to the question-and-answers, which will happen in about 30 minutes, please identify yourself and, as many moderators often say, make sure your sentence goes down at the end. We want questions and not speeches.

I’m not going to give you the bios of either of these gentlemen. They are very well-known. Their books are on sale outside, and I suspect that you can get both of them to sign them if you go outside and buy them.

But I want to start with James Fallows. And I want to talk to you about something that struck me as I read your essays again, and that is the idea that in the Pentagon, even after the peace in Iraq broke out, that there was an idea in the top levels of the Pentagon that postwar planning was an antiwar activity. And I wonder if you can describe that mind-set.

JAMES FALLOWS: Let me put this in a little bit of context, if I could, in first saying that I would—I want to join in what Deborah is saying, both in pleasure of being here but also in praise for Rajiv’s book. His book is really phenomenal.

AMOS: It is.

FALLOWS: And I think it really is very much worth reading.

The—one reason that I put the reportage I’d been doing in The Atlantic over the last three and a half years together with a lot of new material is to—is it seems to me that the conduct of the war to date and the war on terrorism is entering the stage where we can say: What actually happened here? Let’s look back and ask some questions.

And I think one of the hardest ones to answer is related to the point you’re raising, which is if the transformation of Iraq into a democratic model for the Arab Islamic world was so fundamental to the vision of the administration politically and in substance and as a way of damping down the sources of terror in the long run, why were they so sloppy about it? Why were they so slapdash? Why were they half-assed? Why didn’t they take it seriously? Why was it done in such a cavalier fashion?

I think we won’t know the answer to that for a very long time, but among the various hypotheses now available is the one you mention, that if from all the material that we now know was available in, let’s say, six months before the war, all the planning inside the Army and the troop deployment plans and all the rest, the objective effect of almost any of those things, if you took them seriously, is it would take a little it longer to get the invasion ready than the administration apparently wanted. You would have to get more interpreters on the scene. You’d want to try a little harder to get some neighboring countries to be more supportive. You probably will want more troops, so it would take longer to get them there.

And so my admittedly limited understanding of what was available now is that it seemed—if you combine that sense it was going to slow down the invasion plans with the hard-to-believe in retrospect but, I think, sincerely felt at the time sense by the administration that it wasn’t going to be that hard, that it was going to be more like the transformation of the Czech Republic or Poland than like Somalia or something else, those two things, I think, tempted a lot of people to say, “Let’s worry about this later. You know, let’s get the hard work done. Let’s get going. This is the best chance we’re ever going to have. And let’s deal with this other stuff later.” That’s my understanding.

AMOS: And you have taken a brilliant portrait of the result of that. And I wonder if you can sketch out for us “the Emerald City,” for those people who have not seen it.

CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, the Emerald City was the Green Zone, the American headquarters in Baghdad. And it was the seven-square-mile enclave that Saddam Hussein had built for his Republican Palace and other palaces for his children and offices for his cronies and ministers and guards.

And when the Americans arrived in Baghdad in April 2003, it was the ideal place to set up shop. It was self-contained. There were already walls. All you had to do was park some tanks at the gates.

Of course, over time, the walls grew bigger, and it became, as I write in my book, like a little America.

Even in those days when it was safe to go out and about, you had a lot of people in the American side, particularly the civilians, who would just spend a lot of time in this bubble.

And the bubble came to really represent the American isolation from the rest of Iraq. It wound up being a place where they set up six bars and a disco, and they filled Saddam’s swimming pools with water. And Halliburton brought in scores of brand-new Chevy Suburbans, which people would drive around on the flat streets. They even posted 35-mile-an-hour speed limit signs.

The—you know, outside those walls, it was chaos. There were no traffic police. The traffic lights were out. There were violent attacks. But inside, as I write, you know, it was—sort of the calm sterility of an American subdivision prevailed. You couldn’t hear the muezzin’s call to prayer. You couldn’t smell the acrid smoke of a car bomb. You didn’t get a sense of what was really going on. You know, outside the walls, there were eight, 10 hours of electricity a day; inside, 24/7. The conference rooms in the palace were chilled to a nice 68 degrees.

And you know, it would have been fine if, you know, this was simply a place where, you know, this was an office, a place to live, and people would spend all day outside. And some did. I don’t mean to tar everybody as isolationist. There were a lot of brave, courageous people who went out in Iraq. But there were also a lot of people who just holed themselves up in there. And they would sit in conference rooms and, you know, say, “All right. We’ll just get on the white board and diagram how Iraq’s education system needs to be fixed,” instead of making this sort of a participatory process with people out and about in the community.

And there was all sorts of things that were just sort of transplanted there. You could stay in the Green Zone for six months and never eat Iraqi food. You have a better chance of eating Arabic food on the streets of New York than you do in the Green Zone. The fare was always American. They’d serve pork bacon. Imagine!. In a Muslim country, where you had many Iraqis in that Green Zone working as translators, as janitors, eating from the very same buffet in that dining hall, they were serving bacon for breakfast, hot dogs for lunch, pork loin for dinner. And Halliburton must have gotten some great, big discount on a shipload of pork.

You know, there were salsa dancing classes and Bible study classes. It was like a little American town transplanted smack dab in the middle of Baghdad.

AMOS: And I want you to also talk about—one thing that struck me is that the people who work there, to get those jobs—someone was asked their opinion on Roe versus Wade—(chuckling)—which has nothing to do with Iraq—but there was a certain winnowing of who went.

CHANDRASEKARAN: You would have thought that perhaps, with such a complex undertaking like the governance and reconstruction of post-Saddam Iraq, we, as the United States, would have sent our best and our brightest, the people with specific skills, people who spoke Arabic, people with experience in the Middle East, in post-conflict reconstruction, veterans of the Balkans or Kosovo or Somalia or Haiti.

Instead there were a good number of people who were sent who were recruited by a fairly obscure office in the Pentagon, the White House Liaison Office in the Pentagon. And the recruitment process went as such: requests for resumes were sent out to Republican offices on Capitol Hill, conservative think tanks, other parts of the Bush administration. And it seemed, for many people who were brought out there, that the chief criteria was political loyalty, not subject matter expertise.

And so some of the people asking questions in pre-deployment interviews asked questions such as “Did you vote for George W. Bush in 2000? Are you a member of the Republican Party?” Two people have even said they were asked for their views on Roe versus Wade.

I recount in the book how a young man in his pre-deployment interview was subjected to a 10-minute speech by one of the interviewers, and the speech included statements opposing abortion, supporting capital punishment. The young man didn’t agree with what was being said but felt compelled to sort of nod his head in assent. And he told me that, you know, “I felt like I had to agree if I wanted to go out to Baghdad.”

And yet another fun story from the book:

A man who worked in the office was handed a resume of a young man, and the head of the White House Liaison Office, Jim O’Beirne, pronounced that man an ideal candidate. His chief qualification? He had worked for the Republican Party in the presidential recount in Florida in 2000.

AMOS: I want to ask you, Jim, about—and you write early, when one could read—the Future of Iraq Project that was done by the State Department. And they look at—spend a year having Iraqis look at it. And for a long time after, it was clear that the postwar planning was not there, and it wasn’t going well. State Department people were giving interviews saying, “It’s not our fault. We had this giant document.”

However, I have heard it said by reporters in Washington at the time this was a document, as good as it might have been, that didn’t have an executive summary, which apparently in Washington is—one must do that if you expect anybody to read it; and two, it wasn’t run by anybody with a name.

And so how serious do you think was that document? Did people pay attention to it? Were they supposed to pay attention to it, or it was simply an exercise?

FALLOWS: Let me say something about this exercise itself and the larger question about knowledge and the use of knowledge in making major decisions like invading Iraq and preparing for the aftermath.

This document itself was a pretty woolly thing, as I think anybody in the room who’s been involved with it knows. I think I was the first reporter to get a chance to look at it in its entirety. Somebody brought me into a government office, and I was appalled to see these gigantic stacks of paper. It was, you know, 17 crates worth or something, and about half of it was in Arabic.

And it was really a mixed bag. There was a big—there was one essay on the effect of the “Baywatch” TV program and how this was compromising Arabic views of the U.S. And there were things about—very detailed Power Point slides about the oil industry and how it would be reconstructed. It was very—very diverse, something quite impressive, but not coherent. And it had the feel of an exercise done to engage a lot of Iraqi exiles in thinking about the future of their country, as opposed to an actual planning document of here is what you would do.

There were, to be clear, a lot of other actual planning documents. The one that I think was crispest in its execution and probably has become most notorious is the Army War College document, which they did in the late winter of 2002, early weeks of 2003, and had an actual checklist—you know, this 85-stage checklist or whatever—of watch out for looting, deal with the Iraqi army, get the security forces going, recognize you’re about to become occupiers rather than liberators. So that was more—although that wasn’t in the main channel of “A-team”-type planning in the Pentagon, it was much more directly designed as an executive summary-type “here’s what you can do” plan.

The larger point that is interesting to me from all this proliferation of sort of foreknowledge about what the U.S. would face in Iraq if it went in there is that it’s not that the U.S. government institutionally lacked any sense of what was going to happen. Again, there’s this question we’ll be looking at for years and years of why there was a sort of decapitation exercise; that apparently none of that got to people either in the Pentagon or in the White House in a position to make decisions informed by it.

And I think there’s a related question for the press and the political process in general, that in the months leading up to the war, there was very little political discussion or public discussion of what was going to happen if we went ahead with this thing and then we were suddenly the occupiers of Iraq. So, how a democracy and executive branch deals with complex information is one of the many thorny lessons we’re going to be looking at when this is over.

AMOS: And let’s look at a specific. You give us details that we haven’t had before on two major decisions and how it happened; one, de-Ba’athification, and the other is disbanding of the army. And I come away reading that part of your book thinking that there was no focus. It kind of happened. And even the White House wasn’t directly informed that it was going to happen the way it did.

Can you tell us about who played roles in that decision?

CHANDRASEKARAN: Sure. The White House’s role was at a very high level and early on. There were two meetings among President Bush and his war cabinet that discussed these issues in, I want to say, if I’m correct, the 10 th and 12 th of March, 2003. And the decision made on de-Ba’athification was that it was going to be a very narrow process going after just the top level. The president was shown and signed off on Power Point slides that there would be a truth and reconciliation process, this would not be punitive.

What’s interesting here is that nowhere along the line at the NSC or elsewhere did anybody bother to lay out what the top ranks would be and which levels would be subject to a de-Ba’athification order. It’s not like this information didn’t exist. You could have found it in academic libraries. And I don’t get into this much detail in the book, but when NSC officials asked the CIA for information about de-Ba’athification, they claimed that what they got back from Langley did not include much detail at all. So there was this sort of general approval of sort of a top-level ban on Ba’athists.

And then with the army, it was briefed to the president that the Iraqi army would not be disbanded, that they would be kept around to do reconstruction work and would form the basis for the new Iraqi army. And the president signed off on that, as well.

What happened was that these two topics then went into the depths of the Pentagon, into Doug Feith’s office and other parts of the Pentagon bureaucracy, for actual implementation. And in the depths of the Pentagon, those folks who were then going to translate this broad kind of decision from the White House into actual edict, decided to take, in my view, a very aggressive interpretation, and informed also by a paper on de-Ba’athification and de-napthacation (ph) written by Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, and as well people within Doug Feith’s office who possessed a very aggressive notion of de-Ba’athification.

The order was generally worked up that it would include the top four levels of the party, and that fourth level, the udi fertha (ph) level, we now know included more than 10,000 teachers, included, as I write in the book, shop floor janitors in state-run factories who happened to have been prisoners of war in Iran, who came back to Iraq and were given promotions in the party as a way to get sort of an annual bonus, or a monthly bonus. They were all caught up in this.

And when Bremer was going through the Pentagon on his way out to Baghdad, he was really searching for some bold initiatives. He was coming to replace Jay Garner, who was at least seen in Washington as somebody who was foundering, who didn’t have a clear direction, and Bremer really needed to go and show that he was the man in charge and he was going to have some bold initiatives. And when he heard about de-Ba’athification, which was something he had already been thinking of, but he saw the work that was being done, this seemed like the ideal thing and he seized upon it.

There were people around him who questioned the approach that was being taken and suggested it was far too aggressive, that it would turn people out of—would exclude people from government who would be very essential in the reconstruction of the country, would catch up a lot of unintended people. But Bremer, as other people have described to me, just didn’t want to hear that criticism and was determined to push ahead with it.

With regard to the army, you know, what’s amazing to me here is that during the war, the U.S. military airdropped millions of leaflets over Iraq urging Iraqi soldiers not to fight. There were even leaflets showing sort of a soldier at home eating with his family, urging them, you know, “Leave your bases, go back home.” So they did that. Some of them put up a little bit of a fight, but by and large, they went home.

So then after U.S. troops arrived in Baghdad, it was reported back, “Well, the Iraqi army bases are deserted.” And of course, deserted things get looted, so they were looted. And so then it became this kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. The army has disbanded itself.

Well, they could have been called back. There were two firms, NPRI and RONCO, working, hired by the Pentagon, by Feith’s own office, who were staged in Kuwait ready with plans to work on a call-back of Iraqi soldiers and setting up programs to vet them, to register them and to eventually get them working on some of the cleanup and reconstruction projects. But the executive order signed by Ambassador Bremer essentially prevented any of that from taking place, and those people were essentially cast off.

And it wasn’t until some weeks later that they were told, “Well, maybe you can apply for another job.” But there was this period of limbo. And as I lived through in Baghdad, almost overnight there were street protests. People were incredibly upset about this. You could see the impact. Yet there was no immediate reconsideration.

AMOS: You write about it earlier, and I want to ask both of you this question. It has come to my attention much later that actually—(short audio break)—was delighted that the army—I mean, you know, there is a general sense among very many people it was the biggest mistake made at the time, but I’ve come to understand that there are many, many, many Shi’ites who say, “We couldn’t be where we are today if the Americans hadn’t done that; that there are some people who argue that it wasn’t such a bad decision. You write about it—talking to Walt Slocum earlier.

FALLOWS: Right. And then I talked to Doug Feith and others about it. And that, in fact, is the—they make two main arguments retrospectively. One is the one that Rajiv mentions, which is they say the army disbanded itself, what could we do, there was nothing to build with. And the other is that the army was seen as a tool or as a symbol of Sunni repression and Sunni crimes, and so there would never be—you wouldn’t be able to sort of get any good reaction out of the Shi’ites if the same army was there. So that at least is a rationalization they offer.

I wonder if I could just say briefly a point connected to what Rajiv is saying. You know, he’s talking about how there seemed to be no real consideration—well, there were considerations before the war on the merits of disbanding the army and de-Ba’athification, but they didn’t sort of translate through to the actual policy.

It is still my judgment—I wrote two years ago and I believe it still to be true—I can’t find evidence of any meeting that was ever held to consider the full merits not just of de-Ba’athification but of invading Iraq. I don’t know there was ever a meeting saying, “Let’s think about invading Iraq; what are we going to gain; what are going to risk?” I haven’t found any memo about that, any record that this ever happened. There were the very early post-9/11 conferences in Camp David where this idea was floated, but to the best of my knowledge, there was never a sort of first-principles meeting. Does anybody have contrary knowledge to that? (No audible response.)

AMOS: When you write about the army decision, one gets the idea it’s the same idea, that there were a couple of people who talked about it in the CPA and moved forward with it almost without White House approval. That’s not what they expected.

CHANDRASEKARAN: Oh, it took many people in Washington by surprise. Colin Powell was totally blindsided by this. When Bremer was leaving to go to Baghdad, he left sort of a draft of the disbanding-the-army order with Rumsfeld’s office, saying, “I’m thinking of doing something along these lines,” and then it just happened. There wasn’t a full interagency process to discuss it.

Back on the Shi’ite issue, of course many Shi’ite conscripts would not have wanted to come back. The plan never was to bring all the conscripts forcibly back into the army. But what would have happened was that the Sunnis were now incredibly disaffected. They would have come back. Those who at least wanted careers in the army would have come back. Then you could have vetted them. You could have determined who you keep, who you don’t.

And you would have certainly had to go out and recruit more people. I mean, it would be wrong to say that you could have kept the army and it would have been the panacea for all your internal security issues. You would have had to do a lot of work with it. But it wasn’t just you didn’t have an army; you took people who were in that army you turned them against you by the way you treated them.

AMOS: One of my favorite quotes in the book—I remember when you first published it. And it is an American who is working in the Ministry of Education, and he says, “I am a neocon mugged by reality.” It’s just lovely. (Laughter.)

And so I want to ask both of you—you know, the book “Fiasco” shows that the military didn’t need to be mugged to understand reality. And that is the import of that book, that there were plenty of people who understood that there was something wrong with the plan.

I just wondered if you thought if enough people had been mugged by reality in the CPA, if they understood early on, could they have changed things? Could they have made a difference?

And then, do you think if the warnings had—you know, the think tank papers, all the people in Washington who, whenever there’s policy, you know, churn out those papers, if there had been a better plan, could it have been different?

FALLOWS: Certainly it could have been different. To my mind, you know, on this list of really difficult questions in the long run is the one that we’ll never know the real answer to, but we can speculate about, which is, could it have worked? Could this ever have been a success? If you had, you know, all the right troop levels and if you had all the right set of allies and you did everything else, could it have succeeded in the way that Paul Wolfowitz was talking about before the war?

And I guess as an intellectual matter, it seems to me you can hypothesize a whole bunch of perfect circumstances where you had enough Arabic-speaking interpreters with all the troops and you had enough preparation to make sure there wasn’t looting and the electric system was there and the water system was there and you had the right kind of selection of the people who were going to go to the occupation force.

Theoretically, you can imagine it, but it seemed to me in the real world of politics it’s sort of a—it’s such a vanishingly remote possibility that certainly it could have been different. But could it actually have worked? My judgment is no. We will never know the answer to that, but that’s—you may have a different view.

CHANDRASEKARAN: I mean, it’s somewhat coming full circle to the first question you asked of Jim. You know, I think if the true cost of rebuilding and governing Iraq was on the table from the get-go, we never would have gone in. And I don’t believe many of these things were unknowable. There was a lot of willful blindness. I mean, the true state of—the decrepit state of Iraq’s electrical infrastructure, for instance, which—people who went to Iraq for the CPA after the fall of Saddam’s government, you know, reacted with such surprise, you know, “I didn’t realize it was so bad.” Well, you know, there were reports published quarterly by the United Nations Development Programme that detailed this stuff.

FALLOWS: Way before the war, right.

CHANDRASEKARAN: I mean, this material was there if anybody wanted to see it, and people who were experts in Iraq knew a number of these things.

So I think that, you know, if we had marshalled all of that stuff, I think—you know, people would have said, “Whoa, wait a—you know, you’re telling me we have to spend $50 billion to rebuild this country?” But, you know, if that had happened, I mean, I still think we would have had an insurgency. I think it would have been smaller. I think that the contours of it would be very different, but there would still be, as some have coined them, “bitter enders” out there. I still think you would see a degree of civil strife between Sunnis and Shi’ites, but I think that both the civil strife and the insurgency would be of a very different scope if we’d done things differently.

But let me go back to the question that you had posed to me about being mugged by reality. And sadly, John Agresto, who was my neoconservative who was mugged by reality, was I think just one of a few who realized that at the time. I think that subsequently, as many CPA personnel returned back to this country, saw Iraq from abroad, went back into their daily lives, they began to understand that the plan they went in with, the agenda that they had, their ambition was, A, not commensurate with resources, and, B, in some ways not commensurate with reality.

And a lot of those people did become fairly disaffected, and a number of them were very gracious and spent time helping me understand it for my book. I joke that there are a fair number of people who have done time in Baghdad that were in real need of therapy, and I provided them with my note pad and pen and said, “Hey, talk to me for four hours and I’ll listen.”

But had they realized that at the time, I do think things could have turned out a little bit differently, or a lot differently. I think that had there been a better understanding of the missteps of the policies enacted by the Coalition Provisional Authority, and had they done things differently, given the lack of planning before the war, given the lack of resources that were marshaled, I still think we could have made some real tangible progress.

I mean, I recount in the book these wacky stories. I mean, Bremer’s first economic czar shows up there and sees a country 40, 50 percent unemployment, and one of his key agenda items is to implement a flat tax. (Laughter.) You know, 15 percent, mind you. You know, we sent people over there who rewrote the traffic code, who gave them a new intellectual property law. There was a lot of, you know—I don’t mean to exaggerate here, but there was a bit of, you know, kind of shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. I mean, there was a lot of resources that were devoted to things that in the long run were fairly inconsequential. And had the limited resources been more targeted and focused on the most basic elements of governance and reconstruction, and had the ambition been better tied into resources—I mean, when Bremer and the CPA got that $18 billion in reconstruction money, for instance in electricity, had more of that money been devoted to small-scale sustainable power plants in local communities that would have then enabled local residents to have protected those facilities from bad guys, as opposed to awarding billion-dollar contracts to large American conglomerates to build these big Western-style power plants, you could have seen, I think, by now more tangible progress in electricity generation. Unfortunately, today we’re in a position where electricity generation is really, on average, no greater than it was under Saddam’s government, while we’ve poured billions of dollars into this effort.

AMOS: I just want to raise one more thing before I open it to the floor, and that is Dexter Filkins said in a recent interview—the New York Times correspondent—that 98 percent of Iraq is now off limits to journalists—and discounting his math, because Kurdistan is safe, unless he thinks it’s independent—(laughter) --

CHANDRASEKARAN: Depends on the day.

FALLOWS: Yeah.

AMOS: It depends on the day. It’s an interesting figure. What he essentially is—(brief audio break)—(besides ?) Kurdistan, is 98 percent is off limits.

I, on the way over here, was checking an e-mail from a blogger named Michael Yond (sp) who is a—you know, he’s been embedded with the military now for quite some time. And he says there’s six embeds in all of Iraq; that the military now is not allowed to have reporters, by and large, in their units; that the people at the top are not allowing it in Baghdad.

So here’s a question. What are we missing? And does it matter?

FALLOWS: Let me address the “does it matter” point. I have a somewhat dark and, untypically for me, Spenglerian view of this. I think that the body of American public opinion is moving just because of their sense that every day they notice 100 Iraqis have been blown up, and this and that Reserve unit has been remobilized, and somebody in their hometown has died or been made paraplegic, and that’s why public opinion polls have changed the way they have over the two or three years.

My sense about the media, which I know you disagree with, and we can discuss this briefing, is that on contentious issues like Iraq, most Americans have sort of aligned themselves into non-overlapping information spheres. And so that some people—when people see the news of the latest fiasco out of Iraq, they either think, “Gee, we knew this was going no place” or “This is the media just bad-talking our effort once again.”

So I don’t know that it matters—I mean it matters—theoretically, this is not how a democracy should work. I don’t know if matters actually in the decisions we’re going to make.

And I have one other 15-second thought drop right here. When we’re talking—we’re starting now to assess this whole effort from the perspective of history, and we’re describing how different could it have been. My understanding is the time when it really couldn’t have been much different is after the month of looting, you know, just the U.S. presence looked entirely different after that. We just—you know, the objective circumstances were—

CHANDRASEKARAN: And that was the first month.

FALLOWS: Exactly.

CHANDRASEKARAN: I mean, the looting began right away, and we set ourselves back.

FALLOWS: And that was a foreseeable problem.

AMOS: And just quickly, are we missing something that we desperately need to know?

CHANDRASEKARAN: Yeah. And I will disagree slightly with Jim. I think right now, you know, the key indicator for stories, to understand what’s going on, is the body count, and that drives the daily story. And that’s what—it’s about all journalists are left to be able to tell from their walled-off compounds, from using Iraqi stringers and other journalists to help get out and about.

What we’re not seeing are, you know, the indicators that will help tell us where things might be headed in a month, six months, a year. I want to know in mixed Sunni-Shi’ite villages to the north and south of Baghdad, what’s happening, what are the population movements that are taking place there? What’s happening at a very sort of low-level between, you know, various sort of competing tribal groups and how that plays in with the Sunni-Shi’a dynamics. I want to know what’s really happening on the ground in Fallujah. We laid rubble to that city in the fall of 2004 to deny the terrorists sanctuary, you know, who’s really back there? I don’t feel like, you know, we have any sense of what is really happening on the ground outside of Baghdad. And even in Baghdad, we get a sense of what’s happening in certain parts of the city and not others. I mean, when you flip it around and look at the Shi’ite element of this, I mean, what are the real dynamics of the Madhi Army militia in Sadr City today? Nobody has really told that story. And I just feel that, you know, not knowing that blinds us to what’s going to be coming down the line in the next many months and the rest of, you know, the next year or two.

AMOS: I hate to give them up, but I’m going to. I’m going to open the floor to questions. And I suppose I probably should have said this earlier, but it is on the record. I’m assuming you all knew this.

FALLOWS: (Laughs.) Now you tell us!

AMOS: (Laughs.) Exactly. But for the rest of you.

Let’s go here first. And please remember to say your name, and stand up.

QUESTIONER: Yes, my name is Jim Dingeman. I’m with the INN World Report. I wanted to ask you two questions. First of all, the issue of the pre-war intelligence debate, where are we at on this? I interviewed William White, who was in charge of INR intelligence, and he told me that before the invasion, he had issued an estimate that there was not going to be a domino effect if Iraq was taken and democracy—in fact, he said, just forget about it. And none of this has come out in any of—I know there’s been a big political meshuga’as down there in Washington on this.

And secondly, a question to Jim. I had a friend of mine who was a senior officer, served 18 months in Iraq. I sent him a PDF of your Atlantic Monthly article. And his response to that—and he was involved in training the Iraqi army—was that’s true as of 2004, but the situation has changed around. And I wondered where we’re at with Iraqization, because, you know, the problem Rajiv just raised is like we really don’t know what the heck’s going on.

FALLOWS: Let me talk about this article I published called, “Why Iraq Has Nor Army,” almost a year ago. And I was—the premise of that article was, of course, that having a viable Iraqi security force was the precondition both to Iraq surviving and the U.S. being able to extricate itself. And if anything, that situation has become worse in the year since then. If you say the purpose of an Iraqi security force is to dampen the level of civilian carnage day by day so the U.S. can decently leave, the level of civilian carnage has gone up.

The basic argument I said actually is consistent with what your colleague would have been complaining about, because I said that the United States has learned from this experience, thanks to some very able leaders who had gotten into the training effort, had learned, and it was actually improving the ways it was being able to work with the Iraqi security forces, but it was probably too late. And I think both parts of that judgment I think have been strengthened over the year since I wrote that article. The United States has continued to refine its tactics, but the evidence seems to be that it is too late in terms of the—whether the security forces are, objectively, helping keep the peace or pursuing other sectarian and vengeance and militia agendas.

CHANDRASEKARAN: Can I pose a question to my fellow panelist? To what degree do you think efforts by the United States military to create various Interior Ministry paramilitary forces to deal with the insurgency threat, back a year ago plus, as an effort to help, you know, accelerate a potential American draw down, have now come back to bite us because these sort of new forces have been completely riddled with militia elements. And to what degree are sort of the problems we see with the Interior Ministry forces today, our own creation?

FALLOWS: I accept the premise of your question that a lot of this is just a descending spiral of sort of action and reaction. And again, this is sort of depressing from a policy point of view, but I think from an analytical view, you have to say that the conditions in, say, the three or four months before the war and the three or four months after the invasion made it difficult to really do anything much now because the short-term steps taken a year ago, as you say, to try to shore up some of the security forces, have now, because of the gyre of history, they’ve had this perverse effect. So query again: Is it possible to adapt in a more positive way now so that as the level goes down, the U.S. can leave?

AMOS: In the back. Sir.

QUESTIONER: My name’s Gary Sick, Columbia University. First of all, for Mr. Chandrasekaran—and I read the extended excerpts of your book in The Washington Post—an absolutely superb piece of work, and I thank you for that.

Jim, it’s good to see you again. And—

FALLOWS: We are colleagues in the Carter days.

QUESTIONER: You ran a war game at Atlantic Monthly, headed, I think, by Sam Gardiner, who basically tried to answer the question, what would happen if we invaded Iran? The answer to that was unequivocal, as far as I could tell, and very, very—it was catastrophic, basically, what the results would be.

We are now seeing a new round of proposals that we attack Iran, and also projections. What do you think? Have been people in Washington actually listened to what you were saying? Or is this being ignored completely in the interests of some kind of ideological crusade, if we can use that word?

CHANDRASEKARAN: Let me make briefly a journalistic point, and then sort of an explanatory point, and then a political point.

The journalistic point is the war game we had in the Atlantic Monthly in the December 2004 issue was a solution to a terrible journalistic problem the Atlantic Monthly had. Our December issue went to press in the middle of October and came out in early November of 2004. What might have changed in American politics between the time we went to press—you know, we wanted to say, what could we cover that’s going to be a problem, whether it’s a second Bush administration or a first Kerry administration, and the answer was Iran. You know, they’re each going to have to deal it. So we assembled a panel, under Sam Gardiner’s direction, of intelligence experts—you know, David Kay; I think Jim Woolsey was part of this, military people—and they played a scenario if the United States, putting all diplomatic concerns aside and everything else, wanted by force to take out the Iranian nuclear capability, could it do so? And the answer, in brief, was no. And there were two reasons.

One, the Iranians had gone too far. The sites were too dispersed. It would be too chancy to be able to get them. And, of course, Israel would have much less chance of doing it.

And second, the Iranians had too many other weapons on their side. They could make things really tough in Iraq, they effect the oil market, and everything else.

So that was the state of play as of almost two years ago, and in the intervening two years, you’d have to say the correlation of forces has then gone farther on the Iranian side. They’ve had more time to develop all of this, we’ve become more vulnerable in Iraq, et cetera. Therefore, what do we make of the talk in reports and some comments by officials—I think the vice president always says no option is off the table; Seymour Hersh often reports the possibilities of attacks—how do we understand these?

I choose to understand these as a negotiating policy. We all know Richard Nixon’s crazy man theory—if the other side thinks you’ll do anything, you know, that sort of puts more pressure on them. And if even I were negotiating with the Iranians, I might let them think this is one of the things I might do, because why rule it out preemptively? So that’s what I choose to believe.

If the other interpretation ends up being true and we wake up one morning and see the president saying, “This morning, in response to a dire threat to international order, I have directed the Air Force to attack the following 16 sites”—if that happens, it will be in defiance of all available logic and sort of threat assessment, and against, as far as I can tell, the collective view of the U.S. military, which is essentially the peace party on this front. (Laughter.) And so you can’t rule out that it would happen. But it seems to me, if this happened, it would be—and somebody can contradict me on this, if you have a different view—I think it would be the most reckless governmental action in my lifetime. And so it could happen, but it would be stunning if it did.

AMOS: Do you have anything you want to add?

FALLOWS: No.

AMOS: The woman on the—

QUESTIONER: Frances Fitzgerald, The New Yorker. You’ve touched only briefly on Iraqi politics. And a Foreign Service friend of mine, an Arabist, said that one of his criticisms of the administration policy was that we held elections before making a deal—before getting the Iraqis to make a deal together so that—but do you think that it was possible at any time to—I mean, that there were players that were powerful enough that a deal could be made, and that they would have at any point wanted to come together to some agreement to disagree?

CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, you know, I think it’s inherently contradictory to think of—you know, you can make a deal that would then, you know, presuppose an outcome in elections.

Certainly the efforts to try to bring various groups of Iraqis together in the immediate days after the war to form some sort of big-tent government did not come to fruition. And there’s been considerable debate about why that was the case and whether or not the U.S. government and Bremer and his staff were as inclusive as they should have been, and whether there was either too much reliance or too little reliance on exiled political leaders.

There is not a good answer to the question of if you were to sort of do the elections differently, how would they turn out? You know, I do wonder whether if elections were held—the first round of elections were held not in January of 2005 as they were, but maybe even a year earlier, and you had started out with some local elections and moved on up—whether by doing that sooner, one might have denied some of the harder-line religious Shi’ite parties the advantage that they then had. And that—because they would not have had as much time to organize, you would have gotten a—more of a mixed bag that would have resulted in the forming of alliances that might have led to a slightly more moderate, less religious-focused government. It’s hard to know.

The argument—the counterargument raised by Bremer and his people was that if you do the elections too quickly, you run a risk that an ex-Ba’athist would win, that other types of extremists would have an advantage. You know, I tend to think, though, that we dragged our feet with elections, particularly elections at a local level that might have helped to create some at least regional leaders of legitimacy who could have then filtered up the process, as opposed to thinking of this entirely as a top-down process.

QUESTIONER: Yes. Marlene Sanders, formerly CBS News, now NYU. I have to say, this has been really depressing. (Laughter.) And I would like to ask each of you to speculate on how we get out of there and what the consequences will be.

CHANDRASEKARAN: (Chuckles.) I wish I had a magic bullet. I just don’t see an easy exit strategy. You know, I think that if U.S. forces were to leave en masse tomorrow or next week, the daily death toll from the sectarian fighting would go from several dozen or, you know, on average—it was somewhere near a hundred today—to several hundred. And would we be content sitting back here and watching a bloodbath like that ensue in Iraq?

At the same time, I think we have to be realistic about what our end state is, what our goals are there. And, you know, this much is clear—I mean, the creation of that sort of stable, secular, progressive, Jeffersonian democracy that we were all led to believe by our leaders would be created in Iraq, certainly I don’t think, is in the offing any time soon. And, you know, there needs to be, at least in my view, you know, a continued effort at sort of recalibrating and refocusing efforts to build sustainability among Iraqi security forces to handle what they have to do.

But I don’t see any sort of easy solution. We’ve gotten ourselves into quite a mess and there’s no easy way out.

AMOS: Jim, that’s one picture of if we stay. Does it look any different if we go?

FALLOWS: Let me slightly answer that, and also answer the question Rajiv began by saying that he didn’t have a magic bullet or a magic plan. I think the most important political and intellectual point is, in fact, no good options exist. It’s a matter at this point of finding the sort of damage-limiting solution within a very bad set of constraints.

It seems to me there are two dilemmas that shape everything we do. One is the dilemma—we can’t go and we can’t stay. You know, we can’t stay for obvious reasons, because of the political pressures here, political pressures there, the strain on the military is probably the most important. And we can’t go in the short term for the reason that Rajiv said. You know, there’s a factual point which weighs here: if one’s understanding of the facts, which Rajiv said—and I agree, too—is that at least in the short term, American departure would lead to a much higher civilian death toll, then you can’t decently leave suddenly. If that factual interpretation changes and either it becomes so bad that it can’t become any worse—which is, you know—there’s always failures of imagination of things that can’t get worse—but if that fact changed, then what would be different?

The other dilemma is it’s always difficult to negotiate when there’s a kind of clear deadline. But there is a deadline. The deadline is January 20 th, 2009. I mean, essentially until then, the administration has made clear that nothing that looks like being forced out of Iraq will be countenanced, and after that, Republican or Democrat will have an “out of Iraq” policy. That’s just, you know, sort of the hydraulics of our political system.

So it’s how within the next two-plus years the U.S. can dampen down the civilian violence sufficiently that we can get out of there in a decent way. And so this—I don’t want to add to your depression, but I think that intellectually it’s worth recognizing, at least from my understanding, there is not—it is only a way of finding the least bad solution now.

AMOS: Sir?

QUESTIONER: Thank you. I’m Roland Paul, a lawyer. Maybe I’m one of the few questioners not from the media.

You mentioned earlier that the journalists—98 percent of the country is off-limits or something, and I’ve heard similar things from the correspondents with The New York Times, of the difficulty in getting out in the field. I’ve also seen statistics that said more than 60 percent of the population is in a relatively peaceful setting.

How do you—therefore, maybe the picture that you portray, which is of course the car bombs in Baghdad, is not representative of the country. I’ve wondered if you could kind of clarify that.

CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, you know, certainly there are large pockets of the country that are fairly quiet. Up north in Kurdistan, relatively peaceful. Large sections of the Shi’ite south, again, relatively peaceful.

But it is something of a mixed bag in places like that. I think that Basra is incredibly violent and dangerous—criminal gangs, Shi’ite militias. There’s a lot of intra-Shi’a fighting. When you look at other cities throughout the south, there are real questions about the central government’s ability to project authority in those places and the degree to which Shi’ite militias, particularly Muqtada Sadr’s Mahdi Army, has effective control, even if they’re not swaggering on the street in an organized way, that they are the effective power brokers in places like that.

But you know, the far north and the far south notwithstanding, Baghdad is the center. It’s a city of 6 million people. It is the fulcrum. And that is—I think that is in some ways, you know, misleading to suggest that, you know, if you have other sections of the country that are quiet, that the situation is actually, you know, better than it seems. If you can’t get your capital in order, you’re never going to be able to get that whole country in order.

And so I think that, you know, that is a(n) important—the stability of Baghdad is a very important indicator of where things will be headed.

And I think it was a and has been a smart decision to commit additional troops to try and stabilize Baghdad. I think that that was a much-needed and belated strategic decision by the U.S. military.

FALLOWS: One sentence here. It may be true that only, you know, 40 percent of the Iraqis live in upset areas. Less than 5 percent of the U.S. population was directly affected on 9/11. I mean, those small shares of the population can have a big effect.

AMOS: Carroll

QUESTIONER: Hi. I’m Carroll Bogert from Human Rights Watch. Just a few months ago, in this very room, we were treated to what I thought was a really astonishing speech by the secretary of Defense, in which he argued that the Pentagon public relations machinery was being outmaneuvered by the insurgents’ media outreach efforts, and the DOD was not up to the modern age in getting its message out.

I wondered, Rajiv, if you could talk a little bit about what the DOD PR machinery feels like when you’re the correspondent for The Washington Post.

And Deb, I’d love to hear you opine about that as well.

And I wondered if you had any comment also about the CBS cameraman, Iraqi national, who was recently released from long-term Pentagon custody, having never been charged with any crime. Bilal Hussein, the Pulitzer Prize-winning AP photographer, is still, after many months, in the custody of U.S. forces, as are several other Iraqi nationals who work for U.S. media organizations. Why do you think they are there? Does it have anything to do with the secretary of Defense’s speech?

CHANDRASEKARAN: (Chuckles.) Yeah, I obviously cannot draw a connection between the speech and what’s happening there on the ground. But my God, being a journalist in Iraq, particularly if you’re an Iraqi, is incredibly dangerous business these days. I think there is an unfounded belief on the part of some in the military that because Iraqi photographers, cameramen and still photographers, wind up showing up very quickly at attack scenes, that they’re somehow in cahoots with the insurgents.

And I think that in most cases—I can’t claim to know the details of every case, but I think that in at least some of the cases that I’ve been familiar with, I think that’s just a thorough misreading of the facts. I think that in many cases, those Iraqi cameramen are very enterprising. They have their—you know, they have informants who call them up when they hear an explosion, and they zip out on their own motorcycles. They’re acting like good journalists. They often get, you know, paid by the picture. So they’re hustling. And you know sometimes they get rewarded for their initiative by getting, you know, sent to Abu Ghraib.

And so I think that, you know, it is in many ways just an unfounded set of allegations made against many of those journalists. But again, I can’t comment specifically on individual cases that I’m not personally aware of.

But going back to the broader sort of Pentagon effort at dealing with the news media, it’s interesting you asked that question, because this morning I was actually out in Chicago at a McCormick Tribune Foundation event, at a conference between senior military officials and members of the media. And I was on a panel this morning with a deputy assistant secretary of Defense who is in a charge of a new DOD effort called the Pentagon Channel. And I really didn’t know much about this until today, but they have their own TV channel that—and news that’s designed for members of the armed forces. But it’s not just disseminated within sort of the Armed Forces TV Network or other kind of secure, closed-off networks for members of the military, but it’s being sent up on commercial satellites. There are a number of cable television providers across the country that are piping this into people’s homes.

The Pentagon’s argument here is that we’ve got 20 million National Guard and Reservists who need to be able to see this. But you’ve got a lot of people out there who are being—you know, civilians who have no connection to the military can channel-surf and get Pentagon TV. And you know, it’s hard to discount the possibility that there are people within the Pentagon who think that this is a great idea that, you know, you’re able to bypass the mainstream media filter and get that message out directly to people.

The other thing, as we were talking about beforehand, just worth noting, apparently the Lincoln Group—

AMOS: Is back in business.

CHANDRASEKARAN:—has got a $6 million new contract to—you know, these were—this was the group that The New York Times had written about that had been planting stories written by Americans in the Iraqi press, purporting to be written by Iraqis. Apparently they’re getting more money now from the U.S. government.

AMOS: Six-point-two million (dollars).

But I think there is no doubt that the propaganda campaigns and the ability to manipulate the media both from the al Qaeda side of the house—and I saw it this summer with Hezbollah; Al-Manar did a brilliant job of portraying their message into Arab households. And you know, these are young, dedicated people who, you know, have a real sense of the media and how to get a message out. And they are very good at it.

FALLOWS: Again, in one sense, your question involved Donald Rumsfeld, who is on track to be the longest-serving Defense secretary. When you consider the political cost to the administration, the disaffection with his military leadership, the chain of command accountability for Abu Ghraib and the rest, and the simple errors in judgment, you can only see it as a gesture of spitefulness by the administration to keep him in his job. (Laughter.)

QUESTIONER: Edwin Wesely, long-time member of this council. It is reported that some 300,000 Iraqis have fled the country. Who’s left? What sort of people are they? And what does all this bode for reconstruction in that country?

CHANDRASEKARAN: Unfortunately, it’s—the best and the brightest are leaving, professionals.

I know many of them. They’re people who are—some of them are friends. Some of them are relatives of people who worked for me while I was in Iraq. These are people with university degrees. These are people who are largely more secular in outlook, both Sunnis and Shi’ites, who fear that because they are not as enthusiastic supporters of one side or the other, that they would be targeted.

And they’re people who have the means to do so. If you go to Jordan today, you drive around Amman, you’ll see, you know, just a huge Iraqi diaspora. And you’ll—large numbers of Iraqis in Syria and Lebanon—

AMOS: About a million.

CHANDRASEKARAN:—and elsewhere. Yeah.

These are the people who Iraq really needs if it wants to get back on its feet. These are the technocrats, the people who form the basis of civil society. The outflow of professionals is an incredibly alarming disturbing trend.

AMOS: I think we’ve got time for one more question. I can’t see the clock exactly from here, but very far in the back.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Steve Hellman, council member. Two very quick questions. One, is there any good news? And two, it’s been an axiom of U.S. policy that Iraq should be held together as a single state. Is that axiom still valid or would you look at things differently? And would Iraq be more stable if it were broken up into three countries?

FALLOWS: On the—on the good news, I’ll defer that to Rajiv. On the—

CHANDRASEKARAN: (Laughs, laughter.) Thank you.

FALLOWS: Any time. It seems that you can make a persuasive theoretical case why partition would not be a good idea. There is—you know, the oil is unevenly distributed, it would be destabilizing regionally, the people aren’t neatly a portion of these areas or at least they weren’t before they were starting to flee into these areas. But just as a matter of realism, that seems to be where things are headed. And the cost of holding it together as a coherent state may exceed, you know, either Iraqi or U.S. resources to do so.

So my—I don’t know whether the premise of U.S. policy as voiced by the administration has changed, but it seems a realistic observation of the trend of events makes you think that it—de facto or official partition is the end state.

AMOS: And Rajiv, good news?

CHANDRASEKARAN: Good news, I guess—you know, there is—I’m trying to think of something. (Light laughter.) It’s difficult. The Iraqi parliament looks at the sort of pushback for a year, if not more, the Shi’ite-Kurdish proposals for further—you know, regional autonomy in the fact of concerns by Sunnis. There’ll be some discussion, but it looks like they’ll at least—some of the key decisions will get some pushback. And I think that’s fundamentally a good thing at this point, given the reaction this would cause in the Sunni community.

But getting back to the second point of your question and what Jim was saying, I think we are headed down the path of sort of a de facto partitioning of the country. And the question is, you know, what do you about Baghdad and the area around it, and that perhaps becomes some sort of special zone. And you can’t evenly spit the city with Sunnis on one side and Shi’ites on the other side of the river because of the way the populations have moved over the years.

But I think you’ll wind up with a city with a lot of enclaves, and the ability of people to move back and forth between one neighborhood and the other will be very restrictive. And it’s going to pose a great challenge because Baghdadis are used to living in one place and working in another, and it used to be a cosmopolitan city in which people mixed.

So I think the fundamental nature of one of the world’s most ancient cities is going to change here over the next couple of years.

AMOS: And there’s tiny, tiny good news in Basra, which was pulled back from the brink of real mayhem. It was almost worse than Baghdad for a while and in Kurdistan, but they are very slim, slim reeds.

I think we are out of time, unless—yeah. Thank you very, very much for being here and our two guests as well. (Applause.)

 

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