RICHARD K. BETTS: Welcome to today’s final session of the Council’s symposium on Iraq and its impact on the future of U.S. and defense policy. This session will address coping with rogue states, failing states and proliferators.
Please remember to turn off your cell phones and BlackBerrys and all wireless devices. And I’d also like to remind the audience once again that this meeting is on the record.
Finally, too, I want to—on behalf of the council and all of us—thank Rita Hauser, once again, for making all this possible.
Well, we invaded Iraq because of two main reasons: one, that it was a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction, and secondly that it was a rogue state. So we want to consider during this session how the results of this experience are going to affect cases where the same problems are at issue, and to do so in terms of three possible general trajectories or outcomes in Iraq: success, or stalemate of some sort, or failure.
And my panelists may challenge me on this, or the audience may, but I think for our purposes we might define success at this point, realistically, as U.S. disentanglement without leaving a failed state or a chaotic violence that’s unresolved, or a stable state that’s in the hands of forces that are more hostile or dangerous than Saddam Hussein was. We may hope for a more positive outcome, closer to what was envisioned by those who launched the war, but I think that’s a somewhat ambitious standard to set by now.
In that case, would modest success rescue the activist impulse in U.S. policy and promote resort to a strong action against, say, Iran or North Korea? Or will any future administration decide that we were lucky to get out alive and avoid elective entanglements?
Or secondly, if there’s continued stalemate of some sort and the U.S. keeps the lid on Iraq, but instability festers, the Iraqi government fails to take hold of the country and we avoid defeat but make no solid progress, does this tie us down, preclude concentrating attention and resources against other troublemakers? Or might it create incentives to take compensating action elsewhere that U.S. leaders believe could be effective, without entangling us on the ground, as in Iraq. For example, air attacks alone against an Iranian nuclear facility or a blockade of North Korea.
And third, if the outcome is failure—after all, how long can stalemate last? Rumsfeld talks about successful counterinsurgency often requiring 10 years. Will political leaders have the stomach for that? Michael Gordon just suggested that indeed we could remain in Iraq perhaps almost indefinitely. But if not, will failure to win inevitably lead to withdrawal in a few years, no matter how disastrous it turns out to be? And if so, then we have to ask, will disastrous outcomes in Iraq inevitably produce disillusionment with interventionism? And if so, will the retrenchment that might go with that be different or longer lasting than it was in the 1970s? Or will this just magnify the perceived threat from rogues and terrorist groups, especially if we’re seen to make progress toward—(inaudible)—weapons of mass destruction.
So I hope that Lawrence Freedman and Steven Miller can help us think about what strategies become more or less likely under any of these conditions: preventive war and regime overthrow; or deterrents and containment; or withdrawal and non-intervention; and what modes of operation or classes of policy instruments might tend to take precedence under these conditions.
And finally, will the United States do more nation-building, having recognized it’s necessary, or less, having been burned by the difficulty of doing it in Iraq?
Steve, the problem you outline covers a lot of issues, like weapons of mass destruction, their role in getting us entangled in Iraq. What’s your view about how the roughly general alternate outcomes are likely to affect how we deal with Iran and North Korea?
STEVEN E. MILLER: Well, I think for our current administration it’s not clear that the trajectory matters very much, because I think they would argue not the proper frame of reference.
The way I would see it is—we all went through one ghastly morning which turned out to the be the portal into a completely different world, the kind of “Alice in Wonderland” experience. And in that new world, the president and his national security team, having been responsible parties at the moment when the worst attack in American history had occurred, had a very powerful urge to see to it that this never happened again. I think all the accounts of post-9/11 deliberations in the Bush administration make it clear that the president was obsessed that there would be no more 9/11’s. This is a perfectly understandable and responsible instinct.
But it didn’t take too much thinking to realize that 9/11 was far from the worse that could happen—that you could have a 9/11 with weapons of mass destruction—above all, a 9/11 with nuclear weapons. And so the administration, I think, views itself as in the business of preventing future nuclear 9/11’s.
Now in the run-up to the Iraq war, Vice President Cheney said over and over again, if we had been able to attack and prevent 9/11, would we have done it? His answer was, of course we would have done this. And this, I think, is the frame of mind that people had about going into Iraq, that this was part of an enterprise aimed at preventing nuclear 9/11’s. So then you ask the question, to prevent a nuclear 9/11, what would we be prepared to do? To which the answer is, almost anything. And if you ask the question, what price would we be prepared to pay in order to prevent a nuclear 9/11, the answer is, we’d be prepared to pay a quite high price. All right? So that’s one frame of reference.
Then let’s turn to the Iraq case. So the president had said over and over again, we will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most dangerous weapons. And he proved it by going into Iraq.
What were our objectives in Iraq? I think we had a destructive set of objectives having to do with our security and elimination of threats, and we had a constructive set of objectives having to do with building a new Iraq. And I believe it’s the view of the administration and the president—and I believe that they really believe it—that the destructive side of the agenda has been quite successful.
We wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein. We’ve gotten rid of Saddam Hussein. We wanted to eliminate Iraq from the roster of proliferation worries and we succeeded in doing that. It turns out that they didn’t have active programs, but no one doubted Saddam’s appetite and they had a kind of “Weight Watchers” approach. They were addressing the appetite. And they think that was very worthwhile to do, because they have no doubt that had Saddam remained in power he would have, to whatever extent available to him, pursued nuclear weapons. And since they’re nonproliferation pessimists, they believe that eventually he would have had nuclear weapons.
BETTS: But what does this point to, then, in regard to Iran? Do any of the reasons for or against taking action against Iran change because of whether we succeed or not in Iraq?
MILLER: Well, what I would say about Iran is that many of the same motives that drove us into Iraq exist in Iran. And what the Iraq experience does is it constrains our ability to deal with Iran, because of particularly the kinds of issues that Mike Gordon was talking about at lunch. We don’t have the forces to invade and occupy. We will have a much more realistic sense of the possible costs of employing military power for the sake of preventive action against nuclear infrastructure, because we’ve learned that in the Iraq case, there’s no cheap, easy, quick fix to these problems. The other side is going to fight back in some way and this could be painful and costly and protracted and potentially escalatory, and we don’t know where it will end up.
But the point I was trying to make earlier is that what’s really failed in the Iraq case is the constructive side of the agenda. We have not been able to stabilize and construct a successful democracy. But the essential missions with respect to our security—that is to say, the elimination of a deeply hostile regime, the eradication of a proliferation problem, the creation of a weak and incapable Iraq that, whatever else it is, is not menacing us in our regional or global interests. Those, I think the administration would argue, those objectives have been achieved. And therefore, I think they would have a very different calibration of what we’ve achieved and the acceptability of the price that we’ve paid for those achievements. That they’re disappointed that their constructive agenda has failed I’m sure is true, and that there’s been great cost associated with that is without question. But nevertheless, I think they would argue that a very significant gain has been achieved by the removal of one of the major threats in the post-9/11 pantheon.
BETTS: But would the attraction of more limited military options—say, the idea of a clean sort of air power attack—look more or less attractive now than it would have before, assuming that more decisive military action against either of these rogue states or some other party doesn’t look feasible at present?
MILLER: Well, if you think that a primary consequence of Iraq will be the abandonment of the constructive side of the agenda, at least via the application of military power, then you can in fact get driven to a different sort of prophylactic, post-9/11 counterproliferation strategy, which is you go after the capabilities of the bad guys and you try to buy time, delay the day when you have to face the nuclear reckoning and hope that in the interval, however much time you’ve bought, that regime change will either happen organically, because people die, coups come and go, elections happen; or alternatively, that there’s some other way.
If you look carefully at the 2002 national strategy that was published by the administration and largely reiterated in the 2006, the administration always said that there are multiple ways to achieve regime change. Regime change is the best and most effective route dealing with hostile proliferators, because it’s the only one that truly eradicates the threat. And this can be done by economic pressure. We might try political pressure. I think they believe in the North Korean case that it was economically vulnerable. I think in the Iranian case, they believed it was politically brittle. In the Iraqi case they believed it was militarily vulnerable. But you don’t have to give up on regime change just because you’re not prepared to use force. I think that would be the kind of logic that might govern us as we look to future threats.
But the president has said over and over again that it is intolerable and unacceptable for hostile proliferators to be able to threaten us. And if he really believes that, then that drives you very powerfully to action.
BETTS: Although we always considered the Berlin Wall unacceptable, but still somehow managed to accept it until the end.
SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: Just a couple of observations. First, on the sort of surgical strike, which I think “Mac” Bundy once observed, like all surgery it tends to be bloody, messy and you have to come back for more.
With Cuba—when this idea of surgical strikes first arose, Kennedy was discussing it in October 1962. The Air Force is incapable of coming up with a truly limited military strike, because you’re talking about the air defenses, you’re talking about uncertainty about whether you’ve hit the targets or—and so you end up with these massive target—(inaudible).
So first it was just a question of whether you would ever have confidence that you’d done enough if you were doing a small strike.
Secondly—where Vietnam may have a different sort of relevance to the one that’s being discussed today—look at the argument leading up to the start of Rolling Thunder in early 1965, which you know well, Dick.
Those who were worried about it said, well, I don’t think the South Vietnamese are strong enough to cope with the North Vietnamese retaliation on the ground. The problem was not whether or not you can hit things from the—(inaudible)—the U.S. has air superiority. It undoubtedly has superiority wherever. The question is, can you cope with the consequences on the ground?
So ironically, the more that you are trying to make something of Iraq and hanging in there, actually, the less you want to be provocative with regard to Iraq. You can do—you can set back the Iranian nuclear program, but you have to think pretty hard about how you’re going to cope with the consequences in the rest of the Middle East. Events over the last few years have made this harder rather than easier to cope with.
So as long as you could imagine the situation where the U.S. had given up on Iraq and achieved its structured task to a fault and left behind a great mess, make them consider themselves able to cope with the consequences. But as long as we’re in Iraq, the one thing you can be sure about is any attack on Iran would make it worse. Also, we’ve seen the possibilities with Hezbollah and other groups getting involved as well.
So it doesn’t seem to me that if you’re thinking the day after the strike, it looked a particularly—(inaudible).
BETTS: We don’t seem to be able to get away from Vietnam. You note in your paper, as Michael Gordon also noted on the last panel, that there are many obvious differences between Iraq and Vietnam. How do those differences lead to probable differences and political reactions to failure, if failure turns out to be the result?
For example, if there’s a reaction of retrenchment or restraint, what would that amount to in today’s world, as opposed to in 1975?
FREEDMAN: Well, I think they’re all very important differences, and Michael Gordon mentioned some of them, and not the least the state of the American forces themselves, which are nothing like they were at the end of Vietnam.
I think there are two important differences. The first is that when the United States left Vietnam, the people that they were fighting were clearly in charge. A unified, communist state emerged. Now maybe it’s become a nice and cuddly unified communist state; still they’re the ones who won and that’s how they still see it. Whereas if the United States leaves Iraq—or even if it stays in Iraq—it’s chaos and anarchy you’re talking about, rather than a unified state. And that’s quite an important—I mean, we talk about how you redefine victory, but there’s also ways of redefining defeat. I mean, it’s a failure, but it’s not necessarily the same as defeat.
Secondly, I think more importantly, when the U.S. began to think about going into Vietnam and the advisers and so on were being implemented under Kennedy, this was viewed at the time as a new and important stage in the Cold War, where this is the new arena in which communism and liberal capitalism were going to fight it out. And the Cold War was in a very hot stage potentially. This was the same time as the missile crisis in Berlin and all of that.
By the time the U.S. is out, and the helicopters are leaving from the top of the embassy, the Cold War’s in a very different stage. It’s reached an impasse. (Inaudible)—detente—people are talking in 1975 of the Cold War in the past tense. I mean—(inaudible)—and we now think of it as a longer Cold War, but you know, this was a different sort of period. And so the idea of sort of a good time for retrenchment, thinking about things differently, was quite strong.
Now, however you describe what we’re in at the moment, I think the fact that we find it very difficult to agree on a single form of words, the global war on terror in quotations marks—whatever it is, we’re not at the end of it. We’re in an early stage. And that’s why it seems to me you don’t have a retrenchment option in the same sort of way. You can’t say, well, it’s sort of a big, mega-conflict that has actually exhausted itself. After all, this was Moscow’s justification for the end to Vietnam is that it bought sufficient time. Well, it hasn’t bought sufficient time yet. It’s still happening, still going on. And I think that—then the challenge for American foreign policy—Western foreign policy more generally—is to find ways of coping with the sort of the broader conflict, which has many different strands and elements to it.
When you’re discredited and undermined and have a reduced capacity for a straightforward use of military power, which seem to—(inaudible). So I think what you’re talking about is all straightforward retrenchment, but probably going back to much more traditional methods of diplomacy, alliance building, supporting states that you think are largely on your side, even if you don’t like them very much, rather than just going back into a shell.
BETTS: When you say “traditional diplomacy” are you talking more about realpolitik, balance of power politics, a rejection of the Wilsonian impulse, or not? You make a big point out of liberal wars, in the paper you developed, as background for the conflict.
FREEDMAN: Yeah. Well, I think it goes back to the constructive element in all of this that Steve was talking about. I think there is a strong, has been a strong impulse to extend liberal values of democracy and freedom and whatever.
And it’s very difficult to do, and it’s particularly difficult to do after armed force has been used, wherever. It’s happening—I mean, Europe is a fantastic success story in this. (Inaudible.) Many states—in living memory pretty authoritarian and repressive, are functioning, very active democracies. It can happen. But it doesn’t happen very easily after you’ve had a war, wherever.
So the first thing we discovered was this was actually not a very easy thing to do. But if Iraq was a ground experiment—and, you know, with Iraq, if it was an experiment in this regard it was a true scientific experiment in that you—in order to prove your hypothesis you set up every possible obstacle to it happening, so as to—if you could be a beacon of democracy after this, boy, can you do it anywhere. (Laughter.)
But anyway, it’s failed in that sense. Whatever’s going to happen, it’s not going to be the same.
So you come up with a basic dilemma: If you can’t change disagreeable regimes, you have to work with disagreeable regimes, because by and large in the Middle East, that’s what you’ve got. And that, I think, does represent a major change. And getting people’s heads round this will be very hard, because you’re going to have to start making compromises with other people’s power. And you know, that’s what realpolitik in the end is about.
BETTS: What about the effect on U.S. alliances? Is it going to matter a great deal for the collaboration with allies much if we succeed or fail in Iraq? NATO has taken over in Afghanistan. Is NATO’s willingness to undertake similar sorts of projects going to—
FREEDMAN: Well, NATO’s taken over in Afghanistan because European countries—as we were discussing in an earlier session—have got a big stake in all this. I mean, it’s not because we want to help out America, particularly, but because if Afghanistan fails, never mind Iraq failing, we’re more likely to suffer than the United States.
The Europeans are the neighbors of Central Asia and the Middle East, whereas the United States is not. So our stakes are very high in this.
I don’t think—Europeans have a tradition within the Middle East, the British in particular, of making whatever compromises with whomever there is that we have to make compromises with. And when we didn’t, we had our great moment in Suez in 1956.
So I don’t think the traditional forms of foreign policy, I suspect, are going to come back into fashion. And that may be a good thing. But I think for a generation raised on the idea that you have a right to expect something good and decent coming out of those with whom you’re working, they’re going to find lots to object to.
BETTS: Is WMD proliferation, especially nuclear proliferation, Steve, a growing problem or has it peaked? Is it going to be one we have to deal with essentially in relation to a few dangerous, worrisome countries but is not going to metastasize, is not going to produce a world of 25 nuclear powers that John Kennedy talked about 40 years ago?
MILLER: Well, the acute proliferation worries have always been few in number. They haven’t always been the same few, but they’ve always been few in number.
What I think we face at the moment is a set of corrosive factors which have the potential to head in the direction of a world of more nuclear powers—firstly, because the regime has failed—the nonproliferation regime has basically been failing to effectively address the various nonproliferation challenges.
The North Korean case was referred by the IAEA to the U.N. Security Council in 1993. We’re still waiting for effective action. We’re a dozen years into this, and the end of that road, so far, is a nuclear-armed North Korea, which, among other things, has established the precedent of being the first state to exercise its right to withdraw from the NPT.
I can tell you, having been in Tehran twice in the last stretch, that there is discussion in Iran about why should we put up with this nonsense. Let’s withdraw from the NPT, and we don’t have to put up with all this aggravation. There are advocates of that. So that’s point number one.
Point number two is, what are the wider reverberations of the cases where we’ve fail to restrain proliferation? We’ve seen the South Koreans get caught doing some fishy things that—they weren’t really consistent with their safeguards agreements. We now have something remarkable to someone like myself who grew up in an era when it was unthinkable that Japan would ever have an open discussion about nuclear weapons. There’s people who advocate it; there’s a debate. Taiwan had a nuclear weapons program and could easily have one again. And, of course, there’s a similar daisy chain in Southwest Asia and the Gulf. People who know more than I say the Saudis will be tempted if the Iranians proceed and so on.
So we have both the demonstrated failure of the regime and no real ability so far to repair it or strengthen it, on the one hand; and on the other hand, the ripple effects of these failures that are changing the debates in societies that could have nuclear weapons if and when they chose to do it.
BETTS: But are the odds of this going to vary depending on how things turn out in Iraq? Or are the reasons that it will or won’t happen just unique to the situations those countries find themselves in?
MILLER: I think it’s more likely to vary according to what happens with Iran than Iraq. You know, there was—among the coalition that supported the Iraq war was a group that said this is an arms control enforcement exercise. The Iraqis have flouted their NPT obligations, cheated on an array of international obligations, dismissed or ignored the various U.N. Security Council resolutions that are meant to govern their weapons-related activities, and it’s time for the international community to stand up and actually enforce some of these agreements.
And so Iraq is off the board; however, one likely consequence of the previous Iraqi nuclear weapons program is the Iranian nuclear weapons program, so we’re still dealing with the legacy of it. But I don’t think the future of the NPT regime or the future proliferation universe that we’re going to deal with is contingent on the outcome in Iraq.
BETTS: Either of you, do you see more rogue states arising as challenges to American interests? Or are we really just talking about the same old problems of Iran, North Korea and maybe—(inaudible)—if something bad happens, Pakistan?
FREEDMAN: All states are rogues to some extent. (Laughter.)
BETTS: Just because they don’t play by our rules.
FREEDMAN: Even the United States can be a bit of a rogue, and it’s a dodgy category. There are a number of states that have—I mean, if you look at Iraq, North Korea, Iran, they all have a long history of difficult relations with the United States. And I mean, there are others that come into that category, but it’s hard to think of any unless you, you know, go back to looking at China and Vietnam and ignoring the important domestic shifts there’ve been in—(inaudible)—policy. It’s hard to think of others that come quite into the same category.
I mean, I think the issue really has been over the last 15 years, and we’re seeing it now in a rather stark way with Iraq—weak states, fragile states, states that can’t look after themselves, that have terrible, distressing things going on to their own populations as the result. And one of the things that may happen now is there’s just less capacity to address those sorts of problems, because they’re seen as marginal and not appropriate from sort of the realist, more realist world in which we may be now moving. And, you know, one wonders without Iraq, would more have been done about Darfur, for example? And I think there are those sets of problems which will still be with us and which will still be pressing, but they don’t pose the same sorts of national security threats.
I think there’s a middle area between them, which is what happens with states that, at the moment, apparently are quite stable—(inaudible)—you may have some like Syria who are sort of—(inaudible)—on the roguish side; others like Egypt, which is supposed to be more friendly but have significant vulnerabilities of their own which could be subject to severe internal shocks of one sort or another. I don’t think they will suddenly become strong and dangerous states as a result of those internal shocks—far from it. They may become weak and dangerous to themselves and others as a result. I think the potential of fragile, weak, divided states in an important part of the world is probably the thing that we should worry about most.
BETTS: An issue that often comes up in debates about U.S. intervention is whether or to what extent the credibility of American power has to become a concern in its own right. Do you see the results in Iraq necessarily having significant effects on U.S. policy and its effects outside the Middle East region? Or would they be essentially limited to the region and credibility be an overblown concern?
MILLER: Well, I think one of the effects of Iraq has been to puncture the aura of American omnipotence. You know, in the post-Cold War era, our superiority in military terms was so vast and our capabilities were so overweening—and in the largest cases where we had applied our military, which were the Gulf War of ‘91 and Kosovo later in the ‘90s, we had performed so splendidly at such low cost to ourselves—there was a perception afoot out there that, you know, you really don’t want to mess with Uncle Sam because if he comes after you, it’s going to be ugly, and he can hurt you badly without suffering very much himself.
What we’ve done in Iraq is unwittingly validated a set of asymmetric strategies. And I think the Bush administration inadvertently kind of reinforced this message by spending a year or a year and a half insisting that we were battling a mere 5,000 Ba’athist “bitter-enders,” right? And so think about that. The United States, with a half-trillion-dollar-a-year military, with 150,000 well-trained, well-armed forces in Iraq, possessing total superiority in the air, with a massive technological advantage is being stymied by 5,000 Ba’athist bitter-enders. What this told you was that there were ways for adversaries to confront American power that rendered irrelevant or neutralized many of our advantages militarily and gave them a chance to achieve their interests over ours. And I assume that anybody who’s out there on the world stage who thinks they’re on Uncle Sam’s target list has noticed this. And if we come after them, they know what to do. So I think that’s been a very important effect of the Iraq war.
There’s actually a website called Watching America which translates newspapers from all over the world. And if you just casually follow that, what you see is there is a lot of commentary out there along these lines of “Wow, we thought these guys were invincible, and now, they really don’t look so invincible.” And this is exacerbated, of course, by many of the problems that Mike Gordon was talking about at lunch. We have turned out not to have the capacity to generate substantial, sustained ground power. We’ve struggled in Iraq to do that. And what this means is that we have this spectacular military technology, but when you get into what I would call the long, slow slogs, which is what insurgencies invariably are, what really matters is, you know, the infantry platoon, the 20-year-old kids out in the street, and we simply don’t generate those at a rate that enables us to engage against serious resistance in a protracted way. We’ve taught the world that in a very vivid fashion.
FREEDMAN: Broadly I agree with that, and I think, if you look back at the 1991 Gulf War debate, I mean, it was assumed that the United States would have real trouble. (Inaudible)—optimistic presentation of a lot of the critics towards the 1991 war. And you look back at a whole series of military operations, from not just Vietnam but Grenada as well, which had not—it may have produced results, but the U.S. appeared muscle-bound and—(inaudible)—difficult. Yet, in 1991, they performed incredibly effectively. And I don’t think that basic judgment that all in all it’s a bad idea to take on the United States in a regular war will change. I mean, after all, I mean that bit of the 2003 war was sort of pretty impressive. I don’t think that will change.
So what you’re dealing with is if the United States gets itself fighting in somebody else’s country, how well will they cope? Clearly, in Iraq, they have found it difficult because of the reasons that Michael Gordon said, that this was not the war for which the U.S. Army prepared and wanted to fight, geared itself. And now, rather blatantly, it’s trying to learn the tricks of this particular trade.
However, this doesn’t mean to say that every insurgency will lead to this sort of embarrassment to the United States. And one of the things that’s quite striking at least to the British troops in Afghanistan is that the Taliban don’t fight like this. The Taliban aren’t fighting as cleverly, if you like, as whatever you want to call the insurgents—resistance, whatever—in Iraq. They’ve made themselves open targets. They fight often—I guess, they were a regular army, and yet, large numbers have been killed as a result. And they’ll learn; they’ll develop; they’ll adjust. It won’t necessarily stay that way.
So I don’t think—I think at the moment, the effect is undoubtedly that the United States can be presented as—(inaudible)—because in the end it can’t cope and it certainly can’t cope as it goes into a place where it’s not welcome. But that doesn’t necessarily seem to me that it will fail in all sorts of counterinsurgency operations. I think that’s a big leap to make, and we shall see. I mean, the occasions may not arise; hopefully, they won’t.
But what’s most interesting about the current situation as against post-Vietnam is that after Vietnam, the U.S. military made the decision that—(inaudible)—they would prepare for regular wars and make it as difficult as possible for the president to send them into an irregular war. Now, it seems to me the U.S. military understands after Iraq they have to be able to cope with irregular war. Let’s see, let’s see.
BETTS: Last word before the audience has a—
MILLER: Well, just to follow on that and to augment my earlier comment: In Iraq, our military forces were extremely good at decapitation. Where we really struggle is with “re-capitation.” And in those settings where decapitation is the most important of our aims, if you’re potentially on the receiving end of that, you can still be very worried about American power. The issue is not that our forces are not formidable, because they really are. The point is that there is now a demonstrated, asymmetric strategy that can bog down, hog tie and stymie the United States of America. And if you get them sucked in and can turn on an insurgency of whatever sort, you can tie them down, you can thwart their will.
And the reality is that the whole point of this exercise is to achieve the political outcomes we seek. And so far, we have not fully done that. We’ve partially done it, but we are far from where we expected or hoped or wanted to be. And it’s because some bad guys out there found a strategy that’s pretty damn effective against the power that we can deploy.
BETTS: Well, I’d like to invite members and guests to join in the discussion. Please speak directly into the microphone. And if there’s any hope of keeping some coherence to the discussion, I would ask people with questions about the more general thrust and policy to ask first. And if you have questions that are more specific about options towards Iran or North Korea, we might hold those for a few minutes.
QUESTIONER: Jim Creighton, Council on Foreign Relations.
Interesting comment about American capacity. The Americans do not have the capacity to generate the force. Would you think that’s a capacity question—statement? Or would you think it’s American will? Is it will or capacity that the Americans are lacking?
BETTS: Clearly, to most of the world, we have a lot of will and capacity when you consider that the United States is spending almost half of all the world military expenditures—(inaudible)—not a sort of mean gesture of will.
MILLER: Well, what I was talking about is the constraint of existing manpower availability. And that’s—you’re absolutely right—a malleable thing. And some of the most ardent supporters of this war have been saying for a long time—I have in mind, for example, Bill Kristol, who has just recently written an article with Fred Kagan in the last week or two in The Weekly Standard, the title of which is “More Troops.” And they say it’s obvious we don’t have enough troops in Iraq. It’s obvious that we can’t generate a lot more troops with our existing force posture. Plus or minus a few tens of thousands is not what they’re talking about. We’ve already varied between 120,000 and 180,000 troops over the course of our time. They’re talking about changing by an order of magnitude the level of effort in Iraq. And what that requires is a much larger Army. Now, they advocate 750,000 men. That is a 50 percent increase as a first increment to see if that gets the job done. We’re spending less than 4 percent of our GDP on defense. These are historically low levels, so we’re fighting this global war in terrorism without breaking much sweat. And if you want to spend more on manpower, you can probably buy more manpower.
Now, there’s a broader issue here, which is we have a professional army. You’ve probably seen in the current issue of Military Review there’s a recently retired general officer who says Iraq is the first serious test of our professional army and it’s failed, and we need to rethink this model. We’ve had a mobilization army built on a small professional force and a lot of Reserve and Guard components that turn out to get exhausted pretty quickly. And maybe we need to rethink that model. And that, of course, then leads you into the question of, should we have a debate in this country about a draft, because then we could generate a lot more manpower? And then we’d have to have a debate about whether half a million men in Iraq could really solve the problem. I think there’s a big discussion to be had there.
But, you know, when the, sort of, more troops guys come around our center up at Harvard, they often make the point that in 1941 when the United States was attacked, we had a few hundred thousand men in the American military. And by 1945, we had 12 or 14 million men under arms. Right? If you’re serious about fighting a world war, you can go about it in a very different way than the way we’ve done it.
MS. HAUSER: Your last point, Steven—Rita Hauser—and your earlier point—I understand the mind-set of the Bushy crowd after 9/11 vis-a-vis Iraq—(inaudible). There was an alternative strategy which was working and can work with rogue states up to some point: inspection regime, a multilateral system of enforcement, sanctions of one kind or another. You just make the leap from is it somebody who’s a potential threat and, therefore, you take them out with military force.
I suspect that we’re going to move back after this adventure to more of that sanction, inspection, multilateral regime, because it certainly—now we know (inaudible) in Iraq to a very large degree. I don’t know what comment you have about that.
MILLER: Well, I think there’s a very important insight buried in there, which is that your views about the conclusions about the necessity of what you might call the Bush framework, which I would say is privilege in the offense; focus on regime change is the only reliable solution; a willingness to engage in preventive action if necessary to achieve the regime change; and, ideally, democratization of whatever comes. Those four big ideas, I think, are the essence of it.
And the reason why you do that is because there are bad guys out there that you don’t have confidence you can deter. And you don’t think the existing restraint regimes are going to prevent them from getting the weapons of mass destruction. And an alternative strategy is let’s strengthen the restraint regimes, let’s improve as best we can the inspection systems. In retrospect, the one guy who got it right about Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was Hans Blix. And, you know, it’s often said that everyone believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, but in January of 2003, Hans got up in front of the world and said we find no evidence of it.
So you can make it hard for people to get the requisite technologies. Building nuclear weapons is a large, hard-to-hide, industrial activity. There are a lot of telltale signatures that might give us warning. There are chokepoint technologies that the whole regime has been built around that we can try to strengthen the restraints.
And so one answer, if you think we face a bigger proliferation problem, is to try and strengthen the proliferation regime. The Bush administration has made a rhetorical gesture in that direction but behaved in very different ways. The behavior reflects a deep distrust about the efficacy of the regime.
The other variable is that the real problem is not—and this is why they’re so fixated on regime change. The real problem is not the weapons but the regime. So we weren’t happy about the Pakistanis and Indians testing nuclear weapons in May of ‘98, but we lived with it; we smacked them on the wrist a little bit, and then we made peace with them, and in both cases have had very extensive, almost unprecedented detentes, particularly after 9/11 but with the Indians even before.
If we could find a way to change the nature of our relationship with Iran, for example, which has had very great interest in doing so at various moments in the past decade, we would view very differently the risks of their nuclear aspirations, whatever they may be. The Iranian view is that the United States and Iran shared a number of quite powerful common interests that might have formed the basis for a certain accommodation. Their public enemy number one was Saddam Hussein, the biggest threat in their security pantheon. And they were obsessed with this guy for the simple reason that half a million or more Iranians perished in the Iran-Iraq war. They hated this guy, and they are very happy to see him gone. Their public enemy number two, the second proximate threat, was the Taliban. They had terrible relations with the Taliban. Osama bin Laden has declared war on two states: the United States and Iran. (Laughs.) They share a deep distaste for Osama bin Laden. When we had Khatami up at Harvard just recently, he denounced Osama bin Laden and said—he spoke of his personal sense of shame. Stability in the Gulf—the Iranians say you want stability in the Gulf, we want stability in the Gulf. And then there’s a whole oil market thing where they basically say, “Your interests and our interests are very much in parallel with respect to the global fossil fuel market.”
So this is not to say that we should welcome or like the Iranian regime and many of its unfortunate domestic behaviors. This is not a question of loving them or not loving them. It’s a question of do we have common interests that we could work with to put the relationship on a different footing? Now, for a very long time, the U.S. government has simply refused to entertain any thinking along those lines. But another component of a possible alternative strategy would be to find ways of changing our relationship with some of these powers only, I would say, when there are realms of common interest that we can work with. I’m not sure, for example, in the North Korean case that any such realms exist.
FREEDMAN: The person who actually got it right, even before Hans Blix, was Rolf Ekeus, who had it exactly down to what was the Iraqi strategy. And it seems to me it was an enormous shame that Rolf Ekeus didn’t stay in charge of the U.N. inspections in the 1990s, because I think—his successor, Butler, didn’t get it. And a lot of the problems stem from that.
We’re going back to containment. I mean, it’s a containment strategy. And containment requires patience and requires dealing with regimes you don’t really like who are maybe doing unpleasant things to their own people and saying things you find objectionable, and recognizing that there’s nothing much you can probably do about it. But if you contain for long enough, then you’ve got to have confidence in the qualities of your system against theirs, which is what happened after many decades with the Soviet Union. It worked in the end, but it was quite—(inaudible)—and the same sort of arguments about—(inaudible)—and having to have detente with people who are quite disgraceful were made. But in the end, it was a successful strategy.
(Inaudible)—making a case about Iran that who’s enjoying the current crisis more? (Inaudible)—allowing it to consolidate his base, play the patriotic card, having fun teasing the United States. He would probably be quite disappointed and would not know how to deal if we sort of offered a warm and cuddly embrace, because that would actually threaten in some ways the basis of the regime because they want to keep it on a different sort of mobilized footing.
Now, my view generally is it’s in the advantage of the United States, or the West more generally, to—(inaudible)—and to move these ideological issues away from military confrontation to the economic and social and political realms where, in the end, I think we are stronger. But you have to recognize that that comes at a cost. I mean, I think the danger in situations like with Iran is—because I don’t think there are very many good options with Iran—it is, therefore, to say it isn’t a problem. It is a problem. I mean, if Iran does go on and build nuclear weapons, that will be a problem. It will cause difficulties. It would require major shifts in foreign policy. We’re back to extending deterrence and all those other Cold War favorites in these situations.
So I think—I think we’re moving into a containment period now. I think—and I don’t think—(inaudible)—but it does involve understanding that you are accommodating other people’s power and you have to let things pass if you’d rather not—(inaudible).
I mean, the Europeans have been doing it always. It’s not a big deal. But for Americans, especially in the power age, it’s a hard thing to get used to. There are some problems you can’t solve, you just have to live with. That’s a difficult thing to get used to.
BETTS: Well, there is a winner in the war in Iraq: Iran. Not exactly the best first installment in our return to containment. (Laughs.)
FREEDMAN: And just as, you know, the Americans got hubristic at the end of what they thought was the end of Afghanistan—rather a speedy judgment in late 2001 about how well they were doing in Afghanistan—the risk is at the moment the Iranians are getting—(inaudible)—about their position. And I think the dangers come as much as much as the Iranians pushing this problem as everybody else.
QUESTIONER: Steve, in your remarks and also in your presentation, you’ve suggested an alternative, which is not containment but sort of relying on the destructive power of—the destructive side of American security strategy. And I wanted to push you on that a little further, because one of the enduring mysteries of the whole Iraq business for me is what were they thinking, if—I mean, imagine in a counterparallel universe that the Saddam Hussein regime did in fact have chemical and biological weapons. Presumably, given the chaos that followed, these would now be in the hands of jihadists. You know, I—so it seems to me that this is, at least in this particular case, which is, admittedly, hypothetical and in the past, but in this particular case, the wrecking ball strategy, which you have explained very eloquently in your paper, doesn’t quite work. I’m sure we can think of situations—maybe Iran is one of them—where it would work. But in the case that brought us here, it didn’t work, unless I’m missing something.
BETTS: Well, our charge is not to dwell on the mistakes of the past. But if you want to address that quickly, go ahead.
MILLER: Well, one risk of destabilizing an environment in which weapons of mass destruction exists is that you create a kind of artificial loose nuke situation in which jihadists or other unsavory souls get their hands on really ugly stuff. I think one of the reasons why you saw an emphasis on speed in the Iraq campaign is they had a list of targets. You remember Rumsfeld before the war said, “We know he has them, and we know where they are”? And one of the first—I’m sure when Vice President Cheney first began to get that sinking feeling was when the military started proceeding systematically through that list of 77 high-value sites finding nothing at one after the next. And when they got to number 77, there was nothing anywhere. But I think the idea was get in there quickly and prevent the loose nukes scenario, if I were to try and reconstruct the thinking that they had.
The other factor is—and this administration has used quite extensively in trying to defend themselves against the later charges of deceit—if you go back and read carefully what they said, they said he had WMD programs, particularly in the nuclear realm. You could have a program but not weapons. And the claims for having weapons were much more explicit in the chemical area, which are perfectly bad enough but are next to nothing compared to the nuclear threat. So it may be that they were somewhat reassured by the thought that they were prophylactically destroying his nuclear weapons program before he got the weapons.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. Ten years ago, I chaired an independent task force of the council dealing with military implications of non-explosive technologies, which pointed out that you could take down a country just electronically. You could destroy their electricity, their power and their communications. But the problem, of course, is that if the United States is the most technologically advanced country in the world, it’s also the most vulnerable. But I still have the feeling that a future conflict might take a very different form, and that the next 10 years will see sort of a conflict between our comparative advantage in technology and our adversary’s comparative advantage in error.
That having been said, there’s been some discussion of the possibility of an air strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. I was—as Professor Freedman pointed out, surgical strikes look better on paper. They’re hard to do. Of course, the Iranians know about—(inaudible)—facility. But even beyond that, in Washington, at least, in the think tanks, there’s a lot of discussion about the fact, well, you couldn’t limit a first strike to the nuclear facilities; you’d have to take out the entire Iranian air force to prevent retaliation against oil facilities in Saudi Arabia and so on. And of course, you’d have to take out their entire navy and naval bases for the same reason or they’d turn the Straits of Hormuz into a lake of fire. And you’d have to get all the fishing boats. And I just wonder where we think this would stop and what form this sort of hypothetical or putative air strike would take?
FREEDMAN: You’ve just described it. I think it is a real problem. The first step in any military operation can be brilliantly planned. It’s the second step that’s where the problems start. And if you’re anticipating the second and the third steps, and you’re not quite sure what form they’ll take and you get into all sorts of analysis that you described where you keep on proliferating targets, because who knows? And if you’re concerned about force protection to start with, you can’t do anything without taking out air defenses. You can look back at every time these issues have been discussed—a risk averse—(inaudible)—military ends up hitting an awful lot of—(inaudible).
So I’m skeptical about whether anybody would—whether a president would risk a small air strike against the advice of the Air Force when he knows that if the retaliation comes in a variety of ways, again, as you described—(inaudible)—but we told him that we needed to attack all these other things to prevent retaliation. The trouble is, in this case, Iran has—(inaudible)—credible responses. It’s in an important part of the world—(inaudible). It has Straits of Hormuz. It has Iraq. It has potentially Lebanon and Israel. It has all sorts of bits and pieces of terrorism. There’s all sorts of ways that it can be full of mischief for us if we want.
And you just have to look at what Libya did after April 1986. That was—(inaudible)—ways of responding that were pretty unpleasant and painful. So, these things only work if you think the other side will say “enough” after the first strike. And I don’t think—(inaudible)—that we know about the situation that would encourage us to believe that would be the case.
MILLER: I agree with everything that you and Lawry have said about the escalatory risks and dangers and probably the net “un-wisdom” of this action. But if I were to try and make the case, I would say if you start with the premise that the United States cannot tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran, and you see some option, and you’re prepared to run some risks and pay some serious price to postpone or preclude that possibility, I think you let the diplomacy run its course, which the Bush administration has been doing. I never think they had much hope from the EU-3. I doubt they have much hope for the U.N. Security Council. But they can’t be accused of having shortchanged the diplomatic route.
They could frame this then as a—again, as a arms compliance crisis. They may even try to get some sort of international blessing that they’re acting on behalf of the international community, because the Iranians have been in an informal state of noncompliance for several years and they show no signs of fully remedying their non-compliant state. And there are a tiny number of chokepoint facilities which are absolutely crucial, not to Iran’s overall nuclear infrastructure but to the weapons reverberations of their infrastructure. And if you destroyed the uranium conversion facility at Isfahan, which I have visited—it’s half an hour out of the city; it’s three ordinary industrial buildings; it’s not hardened or protected in any significant way—and the Natanz pilot centrifuge plant, you’ve probably bought yourself five or 10 years, maybe more, because the principal supplier of Iran was our friend Mr. A.Q. Khan, and Mr. A.Q. Khan is now out of business as far as we know, and so it might be even more. It took the Iranians seven years so far to build the uranium conversion facility. They started in July of ‘99. And they’re still not 100 percent effective at running the thing.
And then you say to the Iranian: “This is not a war. We’re not coming after you. This is not regime change; this is an arms control enforcement. However, if you want to fight, then we will have a war, and our goal will be regime change, and your society will be massively destroyed.” So, they’re not the only ones with escalatory potential. We have that, too. I’m not advocating this. I’m just saying, how would you make the argument if you were trying to brief the president? Or what argument would the president make to himself about why you could do this in a way that brought us enough benefit and circumscribed the risk enough that you might actually say it was a “yesable” proposition? And I think that’s it. You take out a tiny number of absolutely crucial technologies, and you try to deter the reprisals.
BETTS: It’s worse than either of you have suggested, I think. First, I wouldn’t think there’s no reason to assume that the people interest in using air power to deal with Iran are particularly devoted to doing it only if it’s on a small and limited scale. I think the attraction of a very large air war that was restricted to an air war would be the prospect of doing apparently decisive and successful damage, even on a large scale, without getting entangled in the messy ground action and the sorts of problems we have in Iraq.
And secondly—well, maybe we might set them back five or 10 years, but I don’t think we can have much confidence that we know what they have hidden in places we don’t know about and how dependent they are on the facilities we know we can destroy. I’d like to believe that our intelligence on the inside is absolutely reliable and has confidence that it knows all of that to 99 percent. But I think there’s very little reason to believe that.
MILLER: If you think that Iran has a successful covert weapons program hidden in a cave somewhere, then the military option makes no sense at all, because we can only destroy the known and visible sites, and we could destroy suspected sites, but that then, you’re engaging in sort of speculative attacks.
FREEDMAN: (Inaudible)—if they didn’t have a reason for a nuclear weapons program before, they’d sure have one afterward. (Laughter.)
QUESTIONER: Thank you. I would just like to urge a broader list of alternatives than regime change or inactivity. So often, our efforts in regime change have not worked. In fact, they fortify the group we’re attacking. And quite often, the conventional object of conflict, which is to break the will of the opponent and leave it at that and then have an armistice and—(inaudible)—has worked. For example, we didn’t know it, but we had one in Iraq. They had gotten rid of the stuff, as it turned out, but without a regime change. A regime change—after World War I, we got rid of “Kaiser Bill” and got Hitler. Libya, of course, was made to reverse its course without too much violence. Vietnam was cited downstairs, a perfect example—a close friend of the United States and—(inaudible)—free enterprise, but without a regime change they won. And China even, as an extreme example, is potentially quite friendly to the U.S. and not really a regime change that we brought about.
So, I just think that the term regime change versus not regime change should be made as an alternative to the standard objective complex which is a change of the will.
FREEDMAN: You could have mentioned Castro.
BETTS: Lori Murray (ph).
QUESTIONER: You’ve been discussing the—(inaudible)—of Iraq on—(inaudible )—within nation states. I was wondering if you could address the impact of Iraq on proliferation threats and terrorists.
A case could be made that our Iraq policy has actually moved the ball forward addressing that threat. That Iraq itself is gone. The Saddam Hussein regime is gone. Libya has turned its program around—another potential source for terrorists. And also the A.Q. Khan network, as you mentioned, has been disrupted. I was wondering if you agree with that assessment, and if not, what your views are how Iraq has either moved or not moved the ball forward.
FREEDMAN: The A.Q. Khan network was dealt with before Iraq. Libya—I think there was a relationship. But again, it’s been quite a long story and it requires patience, diplomacy, persuading the Libyans that if they really wanted to look after their economy—(inaudible)—quite simple things that they could do. And they did—and I—you know, these regimes—the rogues, whatever you want to call them—that remains their weakest point. Iran—one of the reasons that Iran may have enjoyed the confrontation was they put up the oil price. If the oil price goes down, I know it isn’t enough to sustain the Iranian economy—(inaudible)—to manage just with oil. At some point, they’ve got to address those sorts of problems—partly responsible—(inaudible).
There’s enough evidence from writings in al Qaeda and other groups that a number quite like the idea of getting hold of the nastiest sort of stuff. Most terrorists, however, do perfectly well with improvised explosive devices. I mean, this is a tried and tested and effective means of terror. And by and large, it’s easy to use. They understand the technology. There’s ways of getting it to where you have to get it. Whereas a lot of the other stuff there’s big uncertainty about how you use it. So, it’s one of these areas where it’s the worst that could happen but not necessarily or particularly likely.
I think it’s a scenario where you need a lot of attention to be paid because—and there are things that can be done to keep an eye on the dangers. Interesting, if you’re looking at states where there may be a risk of seepage of technology or even systems, one we haven’t mentioned, which is where loose nukes originated, is Russia. There’s still a lot of issues there, and a lot of ways that things come out. Now, nobody, as far as I’m aware, is suggesting going in a destructive mode on Russia at the moment as a means of dealing with it.
So, there’s all sorts of stuff out there and dangers and possibilities, and you have to pay a lot of attention to this. The danger is to not be complacent. But equally, I think it’s wrong to assume that this is, because it’s the worst thing that could happen, this is what it’s all really about in the future. I still think it’s not the largest case—(inaudible).
MILLER: I would say trying to assess Iraq in relation to the nuclear terror threat that one part of the appraisal would have to look at the impact on motivations. And as near as I can tell, one consequence of Iraq is that there are a larger number of people who hate us in the Arab and Islamic world because we’ve defiled Arab lands and killed innocent Muslims and so on and so forth. But that’s a very fuzzy evaluative matrix, and I’m certainly not an expert on it.
The other, then, has to do with what capabilities might the terrorists have, where the critical question is, what impact does the Iraq campaign have on the various paths to terrorist acquisition of nuclear weapons? I think it has almost zero impact on Russia, which is the biggest nuclear candy store on the planet. We have programs in place that are moving all in the right direction—a number of very good programs, in my humble opinion, not anywhere near the urgent pace that it ought to be. Every morning, we wake up running unnecessary risks because we haven’t been prepared to spend the political capital and the money to really secure all that material quickly. Fifteen years into Nunn-Lugar and 40 or 50 percent of the material is still not securely held.
But the number one route today I think most people would say is Pakistan, which has more Taliban and al Qaeda sympathizers per capita probably than any country run by a tenuous military regime, which has nuclear weapons, at least in the public domain. And the command and control and custodial arrangements for those weapons are not well known. Whether there’s adequate and reassuring levels of safety and security is hard to say. But if you say, well, what is the impact of Iraq on Pakistan? I would say marginally, it makes things a little worse, because it forces us to ask Musharraf to do various things that are not so easy for him to do in his domestic context.
But then there are other sources. Right? There’s civilian nuclear research reactors all over the world that have enriched uranium, that has weapons applications. The DOE has now launched a program with comprehensive global cleanup. We’re in the early stages of that five out of some many dozens of sites that have been cleaned up so far.
And then the other great unknown is North Korea, whether—and there’s two scenarios there. One is that they actually, as an active policy, provide material or weapons to terrorists, which, given the extent to which they’re outside the boundaries of the norms that govern most interstate behavior is not out of the question. And the other is, what happens if North Korea implodes, because they’ve got quite a bit of weapons material?
So, I would say the Iraq case is just a small piece of a much bigger and very frightening puzzle.
BETTS: We have time for one last concise question. Please don’t raise your hand if it’s not concise. (Laughter.)
QUESTIONER: (Inaudible.) This discussion has been almost entirely focused on the Gulf and—(inaudible). The title of it is “Coping with Rogue States, Failed States, Proliferators.” There are other potential irritating states. I would like you to fit Venezuela into this.
MILLER: I’ll leave that one for Lawry.
FREEDMAN: Venezuela is indeed an irritating state, and it poses a lot of the challenges. But I think Venezuela’s ability to—Chavez—it’s not Venezuela; it’s really Chavez, this particular regime, which has tried to consolidate itself, and may succeed; it may not. There’s elections coming up in December. We’ll see.
I think you come back to the same basic point of these radical, egocentric regimes is they’re not very good at running things. And the oil price going down—Chavez is facing—throwing largesse all over the place, he’s bound to face real difficulties. I think it comes back to this question of patience. And you can’t assume that these regimes can’t find ways of surviving and enduring. They don’t inevitably all end in tears. Some of them can survive. But you can be pretty sure that if you try to overthrow them directly, they’re more likely to survive.
So, what you probably need to do is aggravate their own internal contradictions, to use a phrase. And these regimes invite their own indirect sanctions. Iran is doing exactly the same thing at the moment. If you’re in the oil business, you don’t invest in these places because they’re incredibly difficult to deal with. And over time, that will affect them.
So, the difficulty of the current situation is the need to learn patience with whomever you’re dealing. I have confidence in the end that our way of doing things—messy, crude, chaotic as it sometimes can be—by and large works, because we have a functioning economic system, and those that don’t will suffer because of that.
BETTS: And not all hostile, nasty, irritating regimes are threats to American security. Ignoring Chavez might conceivably be as effective as being—(inaudible).
Anyway, unfortunately, we’re out of time. I want to thank Steve and Lawry and all of you.
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