James M. Lindsay, the Council’s director of studies, says Iraq “has consumed the Bush foreign policy agenda,” and as a result, “for the administration, it’s important that [the October 15 constitutional referendum] goes well and that the Sunnis rally to the new constitution.” If it does not go well, he says, “and the insurgency continues, it’s unclear how long the administration will be able to sustain its policy on Iraq.”
Comparing the Vietnam War with the war in Iraq, Lindsay says there is one overarching difference: “It was always hard to sustain the argument that if the United States withdrew from Vietnam there would be immense geopolitical consequences. As we look at Iraq, it’s a very different issue. It’s a country in one of the most volatile parts of the world, which has a very precious resource that modern economies rely on, namely oil, and it is a very real possibility—small, but nonetheless real—that we can see a wider war within that region that would do no one any good.”
Lindsay, who is a Council vice president and holds the Maurice R. Greenberg chair, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on October 11, 2005.
It’s now almost a year since President Bush was reelected and the key foreign policy issue seems unchanged: Iraq. He’s been down in the polls on Iraq for over a year now. There’s another major vote coming up there this weekend on the ratification of a constitution. Is Iraq dominatingthe administration’s foreign policy?
Iraq is clearly the issue that has consumed the Bush foreign policy agenda. If you were to go back to the heady days of May 2003, just weeks after organized fighting had stopped, the expectation was that we were going to get out of Iraq fairly quickly with an impressive military and political victory. That quick exit has not happened; the death toll of American soldiers in Iraq is now nearing 2,000; the administration has hitched its fortunes on the outcome of the Iraqi constitutional process and, as we have seen, there are great divisions in Iraq among the various sectarian groups over the wisdom of the constitution. For the administration, it’s important that this vote goes well and that the Sunnis rally to the new constitution. If that does not happen and the insurgency continues, it’s unclear how long the administration will be able to sustain its policy on Iraq.
Do you now see an analogy between President Lyndon Johnson’s administration and its policy on Vietnam and the Bush administration’s policy on Iraq? In other words, both of them started out with great popular support, but toward the end of the Johnson administration, of course, they were desperate to get negotiations going with the Vietnamese, which they did finally—but it probably helped propel Richard Nixon to the White House. Is it an analogous situation? I don’t sense that the public is as opposed to Iraq today as it was toward the Vietnam War in 1968.
One can always draw analogies between historical events, and here there are some parallels. The most obvious one being the confidence that the application of an American force would make a difference and the slow and dawning realization that it’s a much harder issue than anyone had anticipated. There are also some differences: Johnson had never been an enthusiast about Vietnam as President George Bush is about Iraq. The bigger issue for this administration going forward is to try to sustain political support in the near term because here is where Vietnam and Iraq are different: It was always hard to sustain the argument that if the United States withdrew from Vietnam there would be immense geopolitical consequences. As we look at Iraq, it’s a very different issue. It’s a country in one of the most volatile parts of the world, which has a very precious resource that modern economies rely on, namely oil, and it is a very real possibility—small, but nonetheless real—that we can see a wider war within that region that would do no one any good.
Do you think the policy of staying in Iraq is really the only viable one right now?
None of the policy options are terribly attractive and that’s the great difficulty in Iraq. Ultimately, the American soldiers are going to have to come home; the key trick is to figure out a way to do so in an orderly fashion that leaves Iraq in reasonable shape. But no one has any magic solutions for this. It’s clearly a matter of debate within the administration, within the broader policy elite, of how you can withdraw American troops without bringing about the more horrific outcome that we all hope to avoid.
In the president’s last major speech on Iraq he linked it very closely to terrorism again, and said the war on Iraq is against terrorism—trying to bring in memories of 9/11 and so forth. Is that still a legitimate argument in the American public’s mind or are they tired of that?
If you judge by the polls, most Americans have moved to the position that Iraq is not helping us in the war on terrorism. I think when the history of Iraq, or the American involvement in Iraq, is ultimately written there’ll be a great irony which is that Iraq had essentially nothing to do with the war on terrorism when it began. It became all about the war on terrorism at the end. Because we clearly do see jihadists flocking to Iraq to fight American troops—the insurgency is still mostly driven by indigenous Sunni forces—but ultimately, the jihadists are getting hands-on training in the art of urban warfare. And, at the end of the day, many of those jihadists are going to leave Iraq and we can only hope they don’t end up here in the United States.
Now Bush did speak also at the time of his inauguration and in his 2005 State of the Union about the importance of democracy in the Middle East as whole, and on making progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. The only progress that seems to have been made on the Israeli-Palestinian front is that the Israelis, on their own, pulled out of Gaza. It doesn’t seem that there was as much U.S. involvement in this process as might have been anticipated when Bush spoke in his State of the Union address. Can you comment on that?
The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was a unilateral decision, not a decision that was engineered or brokered by the Bush White House. Going forward in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian process, the room for maneuver that the administration has is actually quite small. Obviously, one of the immediate steps is to see whether or not the Palestinian leadership will be able to put together a semblance of organization or control over Gaza; there are some reasons to be concerned about what has happened in Gaza over recent weeks, but only time will tell on that account.
Bush did make a trip to Europe soon after his inauguration and it seemed he was seeking to soften relations. There’s now possibly a new chancellor in Germany [Angela Merkel] who, presumably, will be more favorable to the United States, although her hands will be limited by the coalition she’s forced to be in. Anything you can say on the European policy? Has that been important for the administration?
On the specific question of Chancellor [Angela] Merkel, she is going to be more open to the United States than her predecessor Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was, but ultimately she’s still going to be constrained by German public opinion, which is deeply skeptical at a minimum toward President Bush’s foreign policy. If we step back a second, it’s clear that the Bush administration’s foreign policy has changed in the second term. There are two important questions. One is, how much of that change is substantive as opposed to rhetorical? The second is, to the extent that policy has changed, is it changed by choice or necessity?
On the first point in dealing with Europe, the administration made a calculation early on in the term that it was important to change the tone of the dialogue in speaking with the Europeans. So out went the reference of Belgians as chocolate-makers—parenthetically I’ll add, very good chocolate-makers—and out went the talk of old Europe and new Europe, and there’s been a lot more talk of working with our fellow Europeans. That has not translated into dramatic changes in the substance of our policy with Europe; on a number of fronts we’re still at odds with the Europeans, in particular the case of Iran. We are less far apart than we used to be—although the Europeans are nowhere near adopting a policy on Iran that Washington would like to have.
In the second question about whether these changes were made more by choice or by necessity, the answer really is by necessity. Iraq is the issue that has consumed the Bush administration’s foreign policy agenda. It has engendered a great deal of resentment in other parts of the world; issues that have nothing to do with Iraq have been infused with anti-American spirit. Even on something as obscure as controlling the Internet, there is now an effort being launched by a number of countries led by Brazil to take control of domain names and other related materials away from the United States and give it to a larger international body. I think the administration, confronted with a lot of pushing back from the rest of the world, is now in a situation where it is trying to focus its attention on the one issue it clearly has to get right for its own sake and for the country’s sake, which is Iraq. It’s willingness to push other countries on other issues has diminished substantially.
And North Korea is one you haven’t mentioned yet. On that one, there seems to have been a substantive change in U.S. policy, or do you not agree with that?
That’s the $64,000 question. What we have is an agreement to have an agreement. What was notable about the North Korea accord was within days of its signing there was disagreement about what it actually meant. And so I think the jury is still out on that one. It’s easy to make the argument that this represents a dramatic change in the behavior of the administration because it has reached an agreement with the leadership in Pyongyang, which it has been derisive about. By the same token, the agreement doesn’t require the United States to do all that much, so we will ultimately see whether this was a real breakthrough or whether it was a convenient agreement to serve both the interests of Pyongyang and to leave it for Washington to pursue the issue further down the road.
Let’s conclude on Iraq because that is a major issue. I think most experts expect the constitution will pass because the Sunnis will not be able to muster enough opposition. If that happens, do you think it’s possible for the politicians in Iraq to put together some compromise or will this widen into a civil war?
Nobody knows. We will only find out after the vote. What is going to be crucial for American policy, for the Bush administration, is that once this vote occurs—if it goes as you speculate—is to have a clear set of policies and to try and bring as many Sunni leaders in as possible. Obviously, many Sunnis are deeply upset over the constitutional process—partly upset at themselves because they boycotted the process way back in January, which left them on the outside looking in—but also angry because, from their point of view, the constitution has been written by Kurds and Shiites and it has cemented them in a minority position and gives too much power or autonomy to the north and south. And ultimately it will be up to the Sunni Arabs to see how they respond.
They’ll have another election in December for a new government. That will give the Sunnis a chance to change the complexion of the parliament, I suppose, and that could affect the writing of the implementing laws that will be necessary.
The optimistic case for Iraq is the one you just pointed out, which is that Sunnis feel like their interests are being neglected and so they do what people who feel like their interests are being neglected in a democracy do: They mobilize, organize, and turn out to vote. But that optimistic scenario depends on people believing that the process is going to solve their problems. If they believe the system is written against them and they can’t win, or they’re intimidated by insurgents into not participating, then you can have a far less optimistic result. I do think that civil war as we normally would understand it is not a likely outcome. It is a possible one, and one of the goals of American foreign policy has to be to try and prevent that outcome.
It’s interesting that the latest suicide bombers were against Sunnis. Presumably, the insurgents are now so desperate to prevent Sunnis from voting that they’re hitting their own areas.
The bombing you referred to fits in with broader criticisms of the insurgent movement in Iraq. Within the Sunni community many people are becoming increasingly disapproving of the tactics of groups such as [Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi’s—most notably we have the interception of the missive from [Ayman al-] Zawahiri, the No. 2 person in al-Qaeda, [to Zarqawi] which is critical of the suicide bombings and the targeting of the Shiites that have been conducted by al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the group headed by Zarqawi. This is one of the more interesting developments worth following; whether one of the consequences of the kinds of policies that jihadists have pursued in Iraq is a schism within the Muslim community and having Muslims turn on the insurgency. Ultimately, if you want to win a war against terrorists, it is crucial to get people who belong to that community the terrorists claim to represent to turn their back on the terrorists. So that’s in many ways an optimistic development.