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Simon: ISG Report Essentially Calls for U.S. to ‘Cut and Run’ from Iraq

Interviewee: Steven Simon, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
December 7, 2006

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Steven Simon, an expert on Middle East security issues, says his overall impression of the Iraq Study Group report is that “it was a variation on ‘cut and run,’” which President Bush has vowed he would not do in Iraq. Simon, who served on the National Security Council staff under President Clinton, says he believes Bush will balk at pulling combat troops out of Iraq by early 2008, as the report urges.

But Simon also says an American withdrawal is now inevitable. “The handwriting is on the wall because of the midterm elections. That was the death knell for the American military engagement in Iraq. The midterm elections were a clear signal that this wasn’t working for the American people.” Simon predicts that if Bush doesn’t do it by 2008, the next president will.

You’ve been following the events in Iraq very closely and I was very curious about your overall impression of the Iraq Study Group report that came out on Wednesday?

My overall impression was that it was a variation on “cut and run.” They were talking about bringing U.S. combat troops out of Iraq in a little over a year on an unconditional basis. That’s to my mind radically different from the approach that the administration has outlined.

Was this withdrawal conditioned on Iraqi actions?

Well, the way I read the report was that the timetable for withdrawal was what it was. A serious Iraqi government effort to promote national reconciliation would win continued American support in various ways for the Iraqi government—especially for its military in terms of training, and advising, and equipment—but if the Iraqi government failed to follow through on its reconciliation pledges then even that assistance would be withdrawn.

Do you see any analogy to Vietnam where the Nixon administration started to pull out troops over a four-year period?

There are two broad analogies to Vietnam here and probably many more. The first is that the United States is going through the same cycle it went through in Vietnam except it’s going through it much more rapidly. “Vietnamization” really happened early in the third year of this war when the administration position evolved into the U.S. forces standing down as the Iraqis stood up. It took longer in the case of Vietnam to get to that point.

The other analogy is the respective postures of the Bush and Johnson administrations at these respective junctures in their wars. If you look back at 1965, [National Security Adviser] McGeorge Bundy was telling President Johnson that the United States was at a crossroads in Vietnam, that there was an option to ramp up significantly but that seemed very unappetizing. Withdrawal was seen to have punitive costs on American credibility at a time when credibility was seen to be the linchpin of deterrence. Staying at the level they were at the time was problematic.

Before 1965, there were only United States military advisors, right?

This was before a big ramp-up. There’s a famous crossroads memo where Bundy is asking the president for an appointment with him and [Defense Secretary Robert S.] McNamara to talk about where to go on this and none of the options are regarded as satisfactory. Now the thing that reminds of this situation is the resemblance of this memo to the [National Security Adviser Stephen J.] Hadley memo, in which Hadley lays out many of the difficulties and then focuses—as the crossroads memo did—on the fecklessness of the Iraqi government.

In each case there are complaints about leadership that’s either unwilling or incapable to do what’s necessary for the national reconciliation measures that are required. Staunch local support for the American effort is lacking and the future of the venture seems to hinge on domestic political developments that are perceived to be out of American control. In each case you get thinking about how the United States can manipulate the domestic politics of the country in which they’re engaged [in order to] light a fire under the ruling elite, which is of course consistent with Stephen Hadley’s memo.

It seems to me that a key factor in this Baker-Hamilton report is it’s saying that unless the Iraqi government carries out a timetable of changes the United States would essentially pull out. It’s sort of blaming the Iraqis for our pullout so somehow it’s their fault. It’s what Bush said he was not looking for—a graceful pullout scenario right? You called it “cut and run.”

Nor is it very graceful but the implicit claim is that the Iraqis proved unworthy of America’s sacrifice. There are ethical issues on both sides I suppose, but it’s really absurd to hold the Iraqi government to benchmarks that it simply can’t hope to meet. Right now there’s no conceivable constellation of Iraqi factions that could come together in a coalition that could work.

So let’s start from scratch. Write your own scenario. How is this war apt to end or not end?

First you have to acknowledge the historical fact that governments that begin wars are not the ones that end them. If you look at Vietnam, if you look at Afghanistan (I’m talking about the Russians in Afghanistan), the Israelis in Lebanon, the French in Algeria, the British in Ireland. It doesn’t happen. A government that engages in a foreign adventure is generally too invested in it psychologically, emotionally, cognitively to see an alternative, let alone a need for an alternative.

The president has indicated this as well when he said the withdrawal wouldn’t happen on his watch. When I heard that I thought, “Well, it wouldn’t would it?” You know the handwriting was on the wall because of the midterm elections. That was the death knell for the American military engagement in Iraq. The midterm elections were a clear signal that this wasn’t working for the American people and it’s not working because casualty tolerance depends on three things. It depends on the American people being convinced that the stakes are high, that there are prospects for success, and that the opinion-making elite in Washington and on editorial boards throughout the country are in lockstep. Once Americans are no longer convinced that the stakes are worth it, that the prospects of success aren’t there and that there are deep divisions among influential people in Congress, journalists, pundits, and the government—once they see that unity on the issue has simply dissolved, then it’s over and none of those three conditions obtain at this point.

If the withdrawal doesn’t happen under this administration it will happen under the next. That’s almost two years away. It seems unlikely that this administration will pull forces out along the lines that the Iraq Study Group proposes.

Yes, they would have them out by the first quarter of 2008. The president would still be in office.

Yes, exactly. It’s really hard to see that happening. You also have to look at the way the White House probably sees the stakes, which is very different from the way Baker does to be sure. The issue for the president is reputation and I’m not talking about his personal reputation—though that might be a factor. I’m talking about the national reputation for reliability, for resolve, for commitment to allies; he’s looking at the costs of leaving while observers like Baker, Hamilton, and their team are looking at the cost of staying.

The Baker-Hamilton report makes a big deal about dealing with Iran and Syria and says those two countries could help out the United States and Iraq. There are a lot of people on the other side who don’t think that’s worth even trying. What do you think?

There’s no harm in trying but I agree with those who think that expectations have to be low. First, both Iran and the United States have a higher priority than Iraq and that’s the nuclear issue. I don’t see either party trading off its interest in the nuclear issue against its interest in a stable Iraq. Now, the administration can talk to the Iranians and attempt, in both indirect talks and within a multilateral framework, to persuade Tehran that it’s really in Iran’s interest to de-link the nuclear issue from stability in Iraq. But I don’t think that’s going to ring chimes in Tehran. With a sanctions resolution in the United Nations coming up probably by the end of the year, I don’t see the administration suddenly going to the Security Council and trying to put the brakes on the resolution. If it did that, it would have a lethal impact on America’s overall strategy towards the Iranian nuclear problem.

And the Baker-Hamilton report says we should separate out the nuclear issue from Iraq. Do you think that’s possible?

No. I think it’s highly unlikely. It might be in a multilateral framework that other players can persuade Iran to do what’s in its interest, and since those parties will be others rather than the United States, Iran would see it as a diplomatically acceptable way of taking on certain responsibilities in Iraq. But due to the close Iranian connections with their allies in Iraq, it’s probably unwise to overestimate the degree to which Iran can push for national reconciliation in Iraq even if it wanted to.

According to the U.S. military, Syria is allowing about one hundred fighters a month to come over the Syrian border into Iraq. I’m sure it would be better that they didn’t come to Iraq, but it’s hard to believe given the scale of the insurgency that this is a decisive factor. So that being the case, how much is the administration going to want to trade off in terms of its other priorities vis-à-vis Syria to stem that trickle? Probably not very much.

I know there are people in Lebanon who fear that if the United States started dealing with Syria, Syria would immediately demand the Hariri tribunal be dropped, etc.

I find that an implausible scenario—that the United States would consider trading off the UN tribunal, Lebanese sovereignty, or pressure for a halt of arms transfers over the Syrian-Lebanese border to Hezbollah. I don’t think the United States would trade any of that off and I’m not sure any administration would frankly.

But the Syrians would demand some payoff.

Of course. The Syrians and the Iranians actually both believe they have the whip hand now, with some justification.

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