WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: I hope you’ve all enjoyed your lunch. Now comes the price you must pay. We’re going to move from lunch to discussion. I won’t spend time introducing the two gentlemen who are with me on the panel today because their bios—for two reasons; one, their bios are in the packet, and also, neither one of them really needs introduction.
I do want to say that with us today is someone who has played a very important role in my career, that is to say Ron Steel’s very generous and lengthy review of my first book in The New Republic a number of years ago, really gave me some credibility which was sadly lacking at the time, and others say which I’ve been abusing every since.
RONALD STEEL: You fulfilled all my hopes, Walter.
MEAD: Well thank you, Ron. He was never a very optimistic guy. (Laughter.)
And Michael Gordon, who is somebody who all of us have learned a great deal from lately, and I hope will continue.
We’re going to try to talk about where things are going, where American foreign and military policy is going, how it’s been changed by what’s happening in Iraq. And I’m going to ask both of our panelists to be prescriptive as well as predictive, a little bit.
And I’d like to start with Michael and ask, where do you see, as a result of this war in Iraq—what impact is that having on sort of the Rumsfeld plans for transformation, American military doctrine? What use is the military making of the experience that it’s having over there?
MICHAEL R. GORDON: Well, you know, the war, understandably, is having a huge impact on the military, particularly the ground forces. And they are, of necessity, changing the way they do things. It would have been better if some of these changes had been made several years ago but, you know, here’s where we are.
And, you know, one thing that’s striking—and I’m sure this audience knows—is that when the administration took office, they had a paradigm for how they wanted to change American defense. It wasn’t just Secretary Rumsfeld, it was the president, the White House, endorsed a concept of military transformation, which essentially entailed developing high-tech weapons, precision weapons, advanced command and control, systems reconnaissance, with an eye toward deploying our forces more readily; lighter forces, make them more lethal. But this was very much geared to really kind of perfecting the kind of wars we had in the ‘91 Gulf War, Desert Storm, major combat operations. It really didn’t apply to the kind of counterinsurgency that the United States is now involved in. And in fact, the administration entered with a kind of a bias against nation-building efforts and peacekeeping efforts. And all of this pretty much hobbled the military as we went into Iraq.
What’s happening now—and we can talk about it as this unfolds—but what’s happening now is everything—first of all, the military is stretched incredibly thin. You know, I was in Iraq in July in Al Anbar province for that month with the Marines and an Army task force. And there’s nobody who can go to Iraq and come back with the view that we have enough forces—it’s obvious that we don’t—to just do the things that need to be done, like protect the population. At the same time, there are not that many forces left to send. The whole Army is really on a kind of a rotation where it’s, you know, one year there, one year back, one year there—just yo-yoing back and forth with very little margin to spare. All of the training is geared to Iraq and Afghanistan. They don’t even do at these National Training Center the kind of force-on-force major combat things that they used to do during the Cold War. So let’s not (sic) hope there isn’t a high-intensity conflict, because we’re not rehearsing for it. And it’s very much geared on this, from doctrine on down.
You know, I think that sort of belatedly, the military is—they’re putting out a new counterinsurgency doctrine, which really codifies things they’re already doing out there. I think a big constraint on what’s happening now is really just the size of the force. We could surge in Iraq, but it would be disruptive, but it could be done.
And, you know, the policy of the administration, has been really, until now, not to change the defense strategy or to enlarge the force, but to change the reality in Iraq and hope that we can draw down our forces. That’s been the administration’s strategy and the Pentagon’s strategy, and that hasn’t happened.
And so what—if—my end note and kind of prescriptive element would be, I—whatever happens in Iraq—and I don’t see us leaving in a—quickly—the—I personally favor—I just don’t see how the country can get by with the size of the ground force it has now and sustain even a phased withdrawal in Iraq while taking care of its other responsibilities.
MEAD: Just to push you a little harder, what size ground—what increase do you think we’re looking at in order to be able to do—to meet the various missions that are out there?
GORDON: Well, you know, the Army generals talk on—to their retired colleagues about increasing the Army, which is around 500,000 now, you know, anywhere from 50,000 to 60,000. That said, the Army doesn’t propose doing that formally. They’re trying to safeguard their modernization budget. I think if they could get, you know, more forces and all of the weapons in the pipeline, that they would take that. I’m not sure the administration’s prepared to give them that, because there are trade-offs there.
But you know, there are, I think, 42 brigade combat teams. They’re building to 42-brigade combat teams in the U.S. Army. And concept, just to—not to be overly complicated, but the idea is, you stay there for one year and you’re back here for two. And then the two years that—wherever “over there” is—(chuckles)—and the two years that you’re here is—you can actually see your family for part of the time and go to professional school, train, and you’re also ready in case something else comes along. Well, that three-year kind of cycle is now a two-year cycle—it’s just over/back, over/back.
There’s nothing available to go anywhere else, unless you extend deployments in Iraq. So you know, I think some additional number of brigade combat teams, from my way of thinking, would just be just a prudent thing to do. But it’s a measure that takes time.
And I actually had a conversation, which should interest this group—I had a conversation with General Pace. It was a Council on Foreign Relations event, and it was in Washington. And this precise question was on the table. And his comment was, well, you know, our force level in Iraq had spiked, basically, been coming down. By the time we make the decision to build up, it’ll take a couple of years, and we won’t eventually need them anymore. I looked that up—it’s on the Council’s website—and it was February 2004. (Scattered laughter.)
GORDON: So anything that’s done now won’t have any immediate benefit, but it might relieve the strains, you know, in 2008, ‘9, ‘10.
Well, Ron, you’ve been thinking a lot about the foreign—the consequences for American foreign policy of the current situation in Iraq, maybe not so much in terms of policy in Iraq but how this experience is going to affect the kind of political and policy mix that shapes where America goes next or doesn’t go next. It would be interesting to hear some of your thoughts on that.
STEEL: Well, two of the eerie things about the Iraq war is, first of all, the parallels with the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War and at the end of the Vietnam War was marked by two things which have to do with the public reaction.
First was the quagmire. We were certainly going to always avoid a quagmire in the future. Now we’re in a quagmire.
This other thing is the Vietnam Syndrome. George Bush I said at the time of the invasion of—our good incursion into Kuwait that, “By God, at last we’ve licked the Vietnam Syndrome.” Well, now I think that there’s an Iraq syndrome. I think it will be a very long time before there will ever be public support for this kind of adventure. And of course for humanitarian interventionists, for liberal interventionists, I think that also means liberal interventions as well. Having intervened in a misguided, I think, cause in this—in the case of Iraq, I think it will be much more difficult to ever engage for a long time in what is considered a moral cause or a good cause.
So here we are, in a sense, back to Vietnam.
Now, the policy that brought us into Iraq has really rested on two legs, if you will, not a very stable foundation for a stool, but—and I think that it hasn’t been, either, in this case. First was the declared policy of military hegemony; that the United States had the ability to impose a certain order on the world; that it had, in George Bush’s words, a form of government that was right and true for people everywhere. That implies that you have the power to exert hegemony, which has certainly been proven not to work in this case, and that you have the public support for it. The public was—I’m not going into the history of the Iraq war, but the public was persuaded this was necessary for self-defense. When that was no longer the case, then that rationale disappeared .
So the quest for hegemony, I think, is not bringing about a more stable world. It’s not defending American interests. It undermines American legitimacy, on which our whole global role and our alliance system rests. It strains our economic and political resources. We are living on a credit card economy not only domestically but in terms of foreign policy as well, with the Asian creditors. And it raises anxieties, a feeling of threat, by—on the part of other nations. It has provided, I think—rather than reassurance, it’s provided fodder for enemies.
So the first leg of the project was hegemony, that the United States would be a—would provide confidence so other nations wouldn’t engage in conflict and threaten our interests and each other’s—that hasn’t—that isn’t working.
The second leg of it was the democracy project. Somehow, democracies were going to be more favorable to American interests, which certainly is not always the case. Democracies can be illiberal. Democracies can be warlike, prone to emotional binges and crusades, and that applies not only to other democracies. And also democracy doesn’t mean that this provides support for American policies. The highest expression of dissatisfaction, suspicion, disapproval of American policies comes from our closest allies in Western Europe.
It’s also a hypocritical policy, of course, because when there are democracies—democratic societies occur which pursue policies that we’re not happy with or threaten to do so, as in the case of Guatemala and Chile, then democracy becomes a lower priority.
So I think that the post-Iraq world, by force, is going to lead—have to lead to fundamental changes, because I don’t think there is either the domestic support for the continuation of such a policy or the international support.
MEAD: Well, I hate to use typologies here, but it sounds to me like you’re saying that one consequence of this may be we’re going to have a more Jeffersonian kind of era in American foreign policy; that is to say an era the crusading spirit of Wilsonianism and America trying to create a global democratic revolution may ebb for a while, and we’ll work a little harder on trying to build democracy in one country. Is that a fair description?
STEEL: That’s an interesting formulation, Walter. You should write about it sometime. (Laughter.)
MEAD: I’m thinking of doing that. (Laughter.)
Yes, I think almost certainly so, and—but I’d take it further. I think that the failure of this policy and the fact that it has turned into a quagmire has bred not only a popular suspicion about all such future projects but—and a great disenchantment as well. And I think that it’s raised something that certainly was never the intention of the architects of the policy—was a retreat, an emotional retreat, an intellectual retreat from foreign involvement.
Just beneath the surface of American society, there has always been this tendency to—not only to go it alone, which we see here, but to leave others to their fate, not go abroad in terms of—in search of monsters to destroy, in John Quincy Adams’ phrase. This—I think this episode—adventure, if you will—has raised those emotions in the American public. I see, rather than a new kind of militancy and militarism, if you will, or engagement, more neutrally, on the part of the American public, I see a strong movement toward withdrawal, just as followed after the Vietnam War.
MEAD: Well, now interestingly, though, that movement after the Vietnam War didn’t last long, Ron, in the sense that we were supporting the mujaheddin in Afghanistan in the Carter administration. And you know, in that sense, the external events even at the height of the Vietnam syndrome had the power to draw us out.
Given the kind of terrorist threat that’s out there, you know, would further—would sort of evidence that seemed to people incontrovertible of terrorist attacks on the U.S. backed by a foreign government or fear that Iran was becoming nuclear, would that retrigger the more Jacksonian response? Or do you think the sense of withdrawal is so strong that we’re almost proof against that kind of provocation?
STEEL: Well, I think two things. Afghanistan in the ‘80s was a sideshow. Most Americans didn’t even know what it was about. We didn’t know what was going on. Those who cared knew that we were aiding anti-Soviet forces. It didn’t seem dangerous at all to do so. So I think that this is a—I don’t think that was evidence of a greater engagement.
So the second part was—
MEAD: Was does terrorism—
STEEL: Oh, the terror—I’m sorry. Yeah, of course. On terrorism.
MEAD: Would that stir—you know, would you get another Pearl Harbor effect?
STEEL: Yeah, but I think the links between terrorism and policy are very evident. So what—the question that is asked is: If the United States is subject to terrorist incidents, why is it—why is this happening? I think terrorism—first of all, we have to put terrorism into perspective. Terrorism is not a new phenomenon. Terrorism is ancient. Certainly, the Maccabee’s were terrorists, if you will. More recently, there were terrorist movements at the turn of the 19 th century. An American president was killed by terrorists.
This is a phenomenon that erupts. It’s a method, obviously. You’re not going to ever control a method. So therefore, then you have to ask: What is the reason why one is an object of a terrorist attack? And that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to change American policy; we haven’t done so so far. But it does mean that that question, I think has to be asked, and the answer in this country is different than the one in Britain or France where there’s significant Muslim minorities which feel they haven’t been accepted into the society. That’s not been the case here. Therefore, one has to look to foreign policy.
So I think feeding into my earlier suggestion about an increasing movement to an isolationism will be to get out to whatever degree is possible. I think we’re going to hear voices on this. I’m not saying that we should, but I think we will of those areas where terrorist action is encouraged or provoked. And the—again, the invasion of Iraq has infinitely increased the terrorist danger. It’s provided an army of jihadis who were never there before, who’ve come to fight the United States. It’s focused attention on this, and terrorism is the weapon of the week. So—and that’s asymmetrically. So again, I think that this—that the public would be far more responsive to a policy that says not only was the hegemony project a failure, but also it’s actually been counterproductive.
MEAD: I want to pursue the Iraq-Vietnam parallel a little bit with Michael because—(inaudible)—interestingly here Ron is saying that in his analysis in the general political discourse, Iraq is already beginning to function like Vietnam in the way—you know, encouraging withdrawal and so on. But if we looked at how the military responded, again, I think this reflects your analysis as well. The military response to Vietnam was we don’t want do counterinsurgency anymore, we don’t want to think about it, we don’t ever want to do one. But you’re saying that the military is now much more focused on counterinsurgency as the wave of the future. So this is—is that right?--
GORDON: Well, I—you know, I think there are as many differences between Iraq and Vietnam as there are similarities, maybe more differences, just in terms of the nature of the war and the kind of enemy that we’re fighting. And let’s not forget this fact: This is an all-volunteer force. There’s no conscription in the United States now, which is why, when I went to my son’s college and spoke there about a year ago, none of the students there particularly were interested in the subject matter, and—
MEAD: They weren’t being drafted.
GORDON: They weren’t being drafted.
GORDON: They’re not being drafted. There is going to be no mass peace movement against this war, and there isn’t now, and there hasn’t been and there won’t be. And the kids are not—(inaudible)—and I don’t see that, and the military, despite the strains and the problems, is meeting its recruiting, and the corners they’re cutting a little bit is essentially meeting their recruiting quotas to sustain their current level force. So there’s nothing out there that forces us to withdraw.
I also think that in that sense—and whatever doubts people may have about the policy now—and I also have the sense that I don’t think—I think we’re really in this for better or for worse and entangled in this that in a way it’s very, very difficult to disentangle ourselves from this venture. There is no easy withdrawal option.
You know, in June, I wrote a story for the Times. It was—General Casey had what I think is essentially was the administration’s hoped for plan, to begin a withdrawal that from what was then 14 brigade combat teams in Iraq down to 12—probably a coincidence that this withdrawal would begin before the congressional elections—and get down to seven by a year from December and by transferring responsibility to the Iraqis. That was the plan that General Casey presented at the White House. It was all conditions-based.
Well, you know, within a matter of weeks, we’re not only—the withdrawal plan had been put on the shelf, but we’re reinforcing in Baghdad to avert a civil war, really. And the situation in Iraq is—unfortunately is there is not yet an adequate Iraqi security partner to hand over to—just in terms of these—a force. I mean, they throw these numbers out there—whatever they tell you at the Pentagon—100,000 Iraqi troops or whatever—but the reality is that—and I speak from just what I observe directly—you go out to—I saw an Iraqi battalion in Haditha. It was 700 people in the beginning of the year, and it was 400 people in July. They’re leaving Iraq faster than we are, at least that part of it. (Laughter.) And it was hard to sustain that. And, okay, Haditha—Anbar province—you can say we’re not trying to win—which we’re not—we’re just trying to hold the line—but in Baghdad recently, General Thurman, the 4 th Infantry Division Commander, just a couple weeks ago was speaking on the record that they’re 3,000 short of Iraqi army troops in Baghdad to carry out this Together Forward operation in which we outnumber the Iraqi forces we’re partnered with. And there are a number of cases in which units have declined to come to Baghdad, Iraqi units.
So this point where we can just hand over to them isn’t here yet. The will of the Iraqi government to contest the militias, I think, is a little bit uncertain. And yet, if we were to leave precipitously or quickly to avoid a value-kind of laden term, I think that the glue that’s holding this very fragile situation together would come unglued—(laughs)—and it would be—it could be even worse than it is now, and not just to the extent a little bit from Iraq into Afghanistan. You can’t forget about that. You know, if we talk about disentangling ourselves from these things—what has just happened? NATO has taken command of Afghanistan, but an American general is going to—who I met the other week—General McNeil—is going to be put in charge of that operation in the early part of next year to cement the American contribution and to alleviate any European fears that we’re somehow going to dump this on them. And the American force levels in Afghanistan are at a high, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. And General Abizaid said that in Iraq, he projects current force levels through the spring, because they’re just trying to keep the lid on the situation.
So I can imagine a scenario where gradually taper out of Iraq or send benchmarks or milestones—they won’t call it a deadline. But I don’t see this as anything that’s going to lead to the large-scale withdrawal of American forces over a compressed time frame. So if that means America is retrenching from these—its obligations, you know, I don’t think—I don’t quite see that.
And I think what the military is doing, they’re the most pragmatic people in the world. They’ve been dealt this hand. They’re the guys that are over there. They have to deal with this. And when they begin to train to this and exercise to this and try to instill this doctrine in there, I think that reflects their assessment that, however the politicians try to sort this out, through the Baker commission or whatever Plan B they come up with, there’s going to be a substantial American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan for years to come.
STEEL: Could I just throw in something here? What do we want in Iraq? We want stability. We’d ideally like to withdraw. The continuing attrition is deeply unpopular, and therefore we want it to be as—we could continue on a very low-key basis with volunteers, bringing in immigrants and giving them fast citizenship, we can have a semi-mercenary army, we can continue that as long as it’s low key, as long as it doesn’t provoke the sense of public sacrifice or public discontent. But I think we have to ask what is it that we—I think it would be difficult to consider that as part of a global program that we could do this anywhere else. I think our only hope for maintaining any kind of American force there is to keep it below the horizon. That means scaling it down.
But aside from that, what is it that we want in Iraq? It seems to me we want two things. We want stability, we want a government that is going to enforce order, and we want one that will be a balancer to Iran. That’s one of the reasons why we went in in the first place. Well, we’ve created, in effect, a Shi’ite partner for Iran. It doesn’t mean necessarily that Shi’ites will always go along together. But what we want is stability.
And stability can be achieved in a number of ways. You could try to achieve stability in a democratic government, although I think the chances for doing so in a place like Iraq are very slim, or you can do it with an authoritarian government. And I think that the policy is pretty soon going to end up as Saddam Hussein without the mustache, which is where we began, if he had only shaved it off.
MEAD: Well, this is, as so many discussions of Iraq are, not the most cheerful discussion we could have. I find myself actually thinking a little bit about the War of 1812 as I look at Iraq and try to think about the consequences. For those of you who don’t remember personally the War of 1812—(laughter)—and I feel more and more that I’m one of the people who might be expected to do that—you know, why did we go to war? Well, the war hawks said we’re going to war because the British have these Orders in Council that are stopping American shipping, but of course it turned out that the British had repealed the Orders in Council six weeks before the war started but we didn’t get the news fast enough.
So it’s sort of, “You said there were Orders in Council; there are no Orders in Council.” Then we had to deal with it because Britain was state sponsor of terrorism. That is to say, they were arming Indian tribes in the old Northwest. Obviously, the minute the war began, the British stepped up their arms and ammunition, so suddenly there were more terrorists in the Pacific Northwest and they were better equipped.
Well, then we were going to go into Canada—that was going to be our strategy—where we’d be welcomed as liberators. And we went into Canada and it quickly became a quagmire; and then worse than a quagmire, we were retreating and trying to defend ourselves from the Canadians. We weren’t hailed as liberators. There were no flowers and kisses, nothing. (Laughter.)
And then we could safely take on Britain because we had a strategic—we had a revolution in military affairs. We didn’t need those European professional armies, we had a people’s militia that was going to be a new kind of military that could win this war, and instead of those European long-distance, blue-water navies we had coastal defense, good Jeffersonian coastal defense. So the British burned Washington, D.C., as the result of our revolution in military affairs.
Interestingly, the net result of the War of 1812 was the political destruction of the anti-war party, the Federalists, who had been proved right on virtually every point of substance about the case for war. And for the next generation, in basically—in the evolving new two-party system, doves in the War of 1812 didn’t have much place.
Now, actually, I think the Democrats today are not as bad politicians as the Federalists are—were back then, and I think the Republicans are not as good, and particularly maybe not in the House of Representatives. But in trying to figure out where even something as disagreeable as the Iraq war is likely to end up, I, myself, find I just look at the unpredictability of the American system, and I think the next few years are going to be interesting anyway.
But enough from us. I’d like to kind of broaden the discussion a little bit.
QUESTIONER: Thank you.
MEAD: Would you identify yourselves? And let me remind everybody that like the rest of the sessions, this is on the record, so you, as a questioner, are on the record too.
There’s a microphone coming to you, John.
QUESTIONER: John Brademas, New York University, and I like to say 3 rd District Indiana.
Ron, I was—maybe I misunderstood, as you were reciting the reasons for the American invasion of Iraq, I didn’t hear the words “weapons of mass destruction.” I haven’t heard that phrase at all. Did I miss something?
STEEL: I didn’t use that exact phrase, but I said that the security reasons which we had advanced for moving in, and self-protection, had proved to be erroneous.
QUESTIONER: The reason I mention that—
STEEL: And discredited.
QUESTIONER:—yes—is, to be blunt about it, the falsehood of that assertion I think has profound implications for the confidence of the American people in the integrity of the president of the United States.
I yield back the balance of my time. (Light laughter.)
MEAD: Let’s just move—yes? Wait for a microphone, and please introduce yourself.
QUESTIONER: My name is Isaac Shapiro. I’m with Skadden Arps. This may sound like a naive question. Do any of you see a day when an American administration—forget the present one—will engage with Russia and China in an effort to find a trilateral common position to deal with the problems of the world, the threats to peace, the terrorism?
I think back to Nixon and Kissinger, and whatever you may think of one or both of them, there was a time when there was what they called realpolitik, different from the messianic view of the world that people in Washington seem to have today who are in power. Do either of you—
MEAD: That sounds like that’s a question in Ron’s bailiwick today.
STEEL: I hope so, because I think that unilateralism has been discredited in the sense of the United States is not capable of doing this militarily, and is not capable of doing it wisely, it needed all its allies.
I think we should go back and look at history and look at what happened after the Napoleonic Wars, in which the major powers of Europe, former enemies often, join together and do a concert of powers. At the Congress of Vienna, they agreed to do this. It didn’t work perfectly; there were wars, intermittent, peripheral wars, if you will. But it more or less kept the peace in Europe for a hundred years. And I think that is a good formula. I think it’s essential that we move from unilateralism, which doesn’t work; we don’t have the power to impose it. I think it’s all very well to talk about the case for American hegemony and the case for Goliath is reassuring, et cetera, but it isn’t reassuring and it doesn’t work. Therefore, I think the only truly intelligent policy would be precisely to move toward a concert of powers.
GORDON: You know, one thought on this, not—I think these things are a little more complicated than they seem sometimes. It’s not like the United States didn’t cooperate with Russia in the intervention in Afghanistan. Russia enabled our intervention in Afghanistan by allowing the Americans to move into Central Asia, which is essentially their sphere of influence, not—I think we even trucked supplies for the war effort—were actually brought by train across Russian territory. So they did help facilitate the American going after the Taliban. But there was a bit of a price, which was that the Americans pulled back from a lot of their criticism of Russian practices in Chechnya and elsewhere. Certainly we turned a blind eye to the situation in Uzbekistan and the human rights abuses there, because we had a Special Operations base there, at K2.
So you know, to cooperate with the Russians doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s all, you know, rosy all the time. And you know, they have their own reasons for cooperating with us, and their reasons and our reasons may not always align, especially when it comes to, you know, moral principles.
MEAD: Okay. Yes? Wait for the microphone, please, and give us your name.
QUESTIONER: (Inaudible name) at Johns Hopkins SAIS. I hope I don’t embarrass my colleagues Fouad Ajami, Eliot Cohen and Frank Fukuyama and Michael Mandelbaum by a quick question, since I don’t do Middle East. But I haven’t heard four words today: Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld or Rice. If there was—any of those were sitting at your table here, what would be the response so far to the discussions today? Would the secretary or the secretary or the vice president even understand your arguments, which are somewhat nuanced, about where we’re going in Iraq? (Scattered laughter.)
MEAD: Well, you know, my—how would you—what’s your sense of the administration view of the kinds of concerns that you’re hearing in the military and other places?
GORDON: Well, I think they’re—I think the administration is aware of the strains on the American forces, because they constrain their options.
And I think that they’re certainly aware of the risk of civil war. That’s why we have the Baghdad security operation going on and currently with the reinforcements that were sent there.
I guess my—you know, and I don’t think that the—(chuckles)—people necessarily that you ticked off would all necessarily see eye to eye. But I think what the basic administration strategy, as I interpret it, has been is that the president calls it the “Strategy for Victory.” And if you go on—and I went and read these speeches on the White House—to make sure they actually use that terminology, but they do. They call it the “Strategy for Victory” and they hold forth how this is supposed to happen, and clear, hold, build and all of that.
And my own take on this, informed by being out there and just looking how we’re pursuing the war, is that we’re not in fact trying to achieve victory, and we haven’t been for some time, because that really would require a greater expenditure of American military effort. We’ve sort of done what this American government is prepared to do. They’re at the sort of outer limit of what they’re willing to do, not necessarily what the capabilities could be or if we really wanted to win militarily.
And so I think the strategy, even though it’s kind of cloaked in victory, is essentially to hold the line against an increasingly difficult situation, a chaotic situation, and to transfer responsibility over to some kind of Iraqi entity which will fight this war forever, or at least for quite a long time. And I think this is all premised on a recognition that the insurgency is not going to be defeated in the near term and that we don’t want to do all the fighting.
And so that’s what I see the administration’s strategy as: transfer responsibility to the Iraqis, recognition that the insurgency is here for a long time, hope—all to avoid an even more chaotic kind of situation and total kind of collapse and implosion of Iraq. That, I think, is in fact the administration’s strategy. But when you go out on the (inaudible), you know, you call it “victory.”
But in a sense, it’s to—you know, they do refer to standing up and standing down, and I think that’s really what they mean, and it as being a long fight. So I think that’s what they—I think that’s what they’re trying to achieve. And I think that probably the real debate now among these people is whether even that is achievable, even those reduced set of expectations, which are their private expectations, can be fulfilled, or if we have to settle for something even less than that.
MEAD: So V stands for “victory,” but it also stands for “Vietnamization.” And it may just stand for “Vietnam,” at the end of the day. That’s the worry.
QUESTIONER: My name is Khalid Azim. Could you talk about Iraq’s impact on our ability to work on nuclear nonproliferation or trying to eliminate weapons of mass destruction elsewhere?
STEEL: Sir, I’m no authority on nuclear proliferation at all, but it would seem to me that one lesson of Iraq is that if you want to protect yourself from the United States, you better have nuclear weapons, which is the lesson that Iran learned. So I think it has a totally detrimental effect on the threat of nuclear weapons.
Remember that earlier on we were hearing about reining in or punishing or—North Korea, eliminating the North Korean threat—that’s totally vanished. There are—any prudent nation which fears that it might be the subject of an attack by a great power has no alternative, I think, but to build nuclear weapons. It’s simply prudent.
So if we want to dissuade other countries from doing it, then they have to be persuaded that it’s not going to be detrimental to their security to do so. You need a whole international system of checks and balances. You have to get other nuclear powers to go along. You have to have non-aggression pacts. We have to have recognition. We don’t even have direct diplomatic recognition of some of these states that we’re so worried about.
So if we continue on the same course, I think we’re going to have widespread proliferation. I think that—I mean, we could have a dozen nuclear powers within the next 10 years at this rate.
MEAD: Michael, would you comment on what you see as the situation vis-a-vis military options in Iran, given the situation in Iraq, and how is that a factor in people’s thinking?
GORDON: Well, I don’t know what’s happening in the—sort of the—at the highest levels in the inner councils of the government in thinking about Iran. I wouldn’t say military options are off the table, but I would say obviously there doesn’t appear to be much eagerness in going that route. You know, the intervention in Iraq was intended, I think, to have a demonstration effect with the Iranians and the Syrians and everybody around the world to show, you know, don’t mess with Texas. This can happen to you, even though it wouldn’t really in that sense, and, you know, desist from these activities. Because it was mishandled, you know, it was counterproductive and had the opposite effect. It emboldened them to pursue their nuclear option.
And the problem is we’re in a bit of a hostage situation now where Iran can easily turn up the heat in Iraq. They’re already providing shape charge technology—this is a matter of public record—to the militias to kill American forces and weapons technology. That’s—General Casey has said that. So they’re trying to keep things—you know, they’re teaching us, they think—I think this is what they think; I’m not an expert on Iran—but they’re teaching us what regime change can actually entail, and that’s sort of a negative lesson for us when you try regime change, just how difficult it can be.
And I think that, you know, when you look at Iran—because we don’t have any ground forces to do anything like this, and it’s an entirely different case; you’re really looking at air options, and anything you’d have to factor into that would be the repercussions for our forces and the situation—you know, trying to keep the lid on in Iraq.
MEAD: Okay. Yes, in the far back there.
QUESTIONER: Jim Dingman from the INN World Report. I wanted to ask you a question about the politics of the force structure that’ll come out of the conflict in Iraq. Much is made of the back and forth in developing this counterinsurgency manual. So let’s assume that in a conflict coming up, we have the ground forces in the Army and in the Marine Corps inundated with sort of the—kind of comments that were made about the British initially in the early stages of Iraq that they’re more attuned to counterinsurgency operations because of their experience in Northern Ireland, et cetera—what happens when that kind of military comes in and may take population who, even when we look at the polls in 2003, was opposed to us occupying them? Even with sophisticated knowledge of winning hearts and minds, doing combined action platoon kind of operations, no matter what happened in Vietnam, and all the buzzes and whistles of the most sophisticated type of counterinsurgency operations that were mounted in that conflict and transposed into this situation, what do you think of what would happen in that situation? Wouldn’t we have not the same kind of outcome we’re having here?
GORDON: So is there any point in all this counterinsurgency training is I guess is the real question.
Well, A, there’s a point in it because you can make a difficult situation that much worse, as we did in the first two years of the invasion of Iraq by too much force and not protecting the population, all that.
This is an aside, but—and here’s a—in the counterinsurgency manual that they’re putting out, they use the positive examples of how you go about it—the clear, hold, build, Tall Afar the White House uses—but there are some negative examples that sort of when you don’t do things in a sophisticated way or a thinking way or you don’t have the resources.
And one example that still astounds me, is that when the American forces gathered—it was a Marine-led operation to clear Fallujah in 2004, to gather the forces together to do that sort of clearing operation, which was necessary because Fallujah became kind of a hotbed of militants and Zarqawi types that had to be cleaned out, is they had to pull forces together to do that. And one of the areas they pulled forces from was the Haditha area. They kept some guys at the dam to protect the dam. And there were some Iraqi police there at the time that the American-led coalition was trying to work with. They were all executed on the town soccer field, and there were no American forces there to protect them. Now, the Americans are trying to recruit police in Haditha, and you know what? It’s not going very well because no one wants to do this now because the people who did it before were executed and the Americans couldn’t defend them; the Americans couldn’t defend them because they didn’t protect the population, they didn’t protect the population, which is the cornerstone of the counterinsurgency doctrine, because they didn’t have enough forces to devote.
But the question is a good question, and I think that, you know, because—but I think the key is—and this is in their own thinking—you know, this can’t be an American-only enterprise, if it’s to work. It may not work. But it all depends on a kind of combined effort with whatever Iraqi host nation authority you’re working with, because the whole point is to build up, you know, the local institutions, the local security forces, the local police, the local army, and have the government of the place you’re—you know, you’re standing up, dispense these benefits and provide these essential services. They have to do a lot of this to win over the population, and unfortunately, one of the things that’s—or one of the big problems now in the Baghdad security operation is a lot of that stuff is not really happening the way it should be happening. But it can’t work without a functioning government. Then you get to the problem of Iraq, what if this government is not accepted—as it isn’t by much of the Sunni population—you know, how do you make that work? And maybe it just doesn’t.
QUESTIONER: Susan Woodward, the Graduate Center of SUNY University of New York. There’s a lot of debate now in the Democratic Party side about how we get out or what we do, if they take over the administration, or even when—better in November. Does it matter how we get out of this quagmire? And I mean that from the whole range of, Michael Gordon, the sort of military way we do, from George McGovern, to Murtha, to Kerrey—there are lots of different arguments—to the regional and global context, for example, embedded Iranians; Israel, Palestine, Lebanon—does it matter? What are the consequences for us?
STEEL: Well, in Vietnam—to keep invoking that analogy—what we were looking for was what was called an “elegant bug-out”—(laughter)—and the emphasis on “bug-out” and “elegant” if possible. I think what we’d like to avoid is the humiliation of another helicopter exit from the roof of the embassy. It may come to that. Probably not.
So I can’t see any way of exiting victoriously, unless victory were so defined through manipulation of language, et cetera, to disguise it. That would be okay.
But I just think that domestic consensus for a continuation of this, and the economic costs, and the costs with the allies as well, and adversaries, is so great that despite the number of troops that we may be able to put in for pacification, et cetera, it’s just not going to be possible. I think there is a public that is totally prepared for a withdrawal. I don’t think that there’s any popular demand for staying there, and it’s really quite the opposite.
And therefore, in terms of international prestige, if you will, future relations with allies, et cetera, a great power doesn’t want to undergo a humiliating military defeat. We’ve done that once before. The defeat was probably—was not a defeat, as it turned out. It was humiliating. Vietnam is now an intensely capitalist society. It’s a friendly country. The best thing that we ever did there was to leave when we did, or should have left sooner. That’s not inconceivable in terms of Iran (sic), as well.
I think the nature, the kind of retreat, if it weren’t too humiliating, would have significant domestic repercussions, and they’d have repercussions about the quagmire and the syndrome; never again. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I don’t think the Vietnam syndrome is a bad thing, because the problem is that the alternative to a Vietnam syndrome, we’re not going to intervene in places unless in response to attack or a disastrous situation occurs, it’s going to keep us from this kind of adventure in the future for some time.
GORDON: I think it matters tremendously how we withdraw our presence. And I don’t think the issue is humiliation, I think the issue is whether Iraq is truly engulfed in a civil war and that the sectarian—all the killings and murders and terrible things you see now just become a kind of a small taste of what’s to come, whether it’s still possible to engineer some sort of solution where there is some kind of functional entity there that’s quasi-representative government that is a functional government and they begin to assert some measure of control over their country—maybe they’ll never control the Anbar Province, and the Anbar Province will be like that frontier area in Afghanistan area, wild area, but maybe that won’t matter so much. But I think it matters a lot to the Iraqis, you know, how we leave, whether we leave them in a civil war scenario or whether we try to avoid that.
And also I’d like to throw out the following proposition, for which I don’t have the answer: We don’t get out. Why do you assume we get out? They are building four large bases, to which we’re going to consolidate to—Al Asad I was at, I think probably Hajji, there are some other bases there—and there’s some residual presence of American forces in Iraq for quite a long time to come, just like there is in the Korean peninsula or the Balkans or many of these other places we go to, we don’t quite get out of so easily. And yes, we don’t do the lion’s share of the fighting, but we do some of it. And we provide the air support and we provide the military adviser teams that are going to be—the thinking behind that is they’re going to be embedded with these Iraqi forces even after our forces withdraw.
At Fort Riley they’re setting up a whole mechanism to train hundreds of these people. This is not for getting out, this is for staying in at some level. And maybe there is a division in Baghdad and they guarantee the security of the Green Zone; you know, no matter what, that doesn’t fall; and that’s just the way things are 10 years from now.
QUESTIONER: I’m Jerry Green (sp). It seems to me the premise that both of you are talking about is that Iraq will continue to be Iraq. Iraq was an artificial creation by a bunch of Europeans sitting around tables with maps not all that long ago. Isn’t one of the ways when you’re in a hole to stop digging and maybe find a way to get some of the Europeans or even some of the Asians to help find a way to divide Iraq into a federated state or even three states? I’m sure the Kurds would be happy to go that way. And there are plenty of problems any way you look at it. But it would sure take the pressure off this hopeless—and I use the word “hopeless” advisedly—mission that the Americans are in. I can’t see how more Americans are going to do anything but make matters worse, unless we find a way to tranquilize the relations between the tribes in Iraq.
MEAD: So is partition the least bad way out?
GORDON: I’m not any kind of—there are people here who know far more about Iraq than I do. I’m not an expert on Iraq. This is an idea that Les Gelb and Senator Biden and Peter Galbraith and some others have developed about some kind of more decentralized federation for Iraq. I’d say there is one thing that I think stands in the way of that, and that is—this is evident in the public opinion polls that are done by the International Republican Institute and others and also the sampling of opinion I saw in Anbar—the Sunnis don’t accept that. They don’t want to be part of Iraq because their part of Iraq isn’t any good. Their part of Iraq doesn’t have resources, it doesn’t have the oil, and they don’t trust whatever thing they—may come—system that might be set up to share these revenues and resources with them.
So, you know, the people who support this say, “Well, we’ll set up a system. We’ll share all this. It’ll all work out,” but the survey showed that Sunnis don’t trust the government to do that. And unfortunately, they have some basis for their distrust because the government today is doing virtually nothing for the Al Anbar province because there are a bunch of Sunnis that live there, and they’re not part of its constituency and it’s not a high priority for them. So if you look at the development that the government—the Iraqi government is putting into that area of Iraq, it’s not doing very much. This is why you may have heard the reports of controversial—not out there, just controversial in Washington—assessment by the Marine intelligence officer that Anbar is, you know, a very difficult situation, and part of it reflects his judgment that the Iraqi government is—doesn’t tip Anbar in the Sunni—that Sunni area to be a priority area.
STEEL: You know, the whole—just quickly. The whole notion of partition, as you very correctly pointed out, was an emphasis of the Paris Peace Treaty and particularly pushed by Woodrow Wilson, who believed that ethnic group should have its own foreign policy. Well, the record has not been good on that. In retrospect, the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, certainly the way it happened, was a terrible thing. (Audio break)—the Balkan wars, for example. The break-up of Pakistan and break-up of India along ethnic lines and the religious lines has not had a very happy ending. And the break-up of Palestine, however difficult it would have been to keep it together, has been a continuing problem.
Now, would there have been a way of getting the Jews and the Arabs to live together anymore happily in one country than they are living unhappily in two? I don’t know, but all I can say is that partition doesn’t provide real solutions. And as Michael Gordon points out, there’s nothing in it for the Sunnis.
MEAD: Well, we’ve been having so much fun setting up one Iraqi government, I’m sure it would be even more fun to set up three. (Laughter.) But we are about at the end of our session, which I suppose, retrospectively, we should have titled, “Between Iraq and a Hard Place.” (Laughter.) And the next session is going to be up in the Rockefeller Room, I believe, and it’s going to start in 15 minutes. So in keeping with the council tradition of ending meetings on time, we’ll end now.
Thank you all for making this such an interesting discussion, and thanks to our panelists. (Applause.)
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