REUBEN BRIGETY: (In progress)—George Mason University. I’m also a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations. We’d like very much to welcome you to this symposium on Iraq and the Middle East, co-sponsored by George Mason University’s Center for Global Studies and the Council on Foreign Relations.
Before we go on any further, I’d just like to invite our president, Alan Merten, to make a few introductory remarks. President Merten.
ALAN MERTEN (George Mason University president): Thank you, Reuben.
I’m very honored and privileged to be able to be part of the George Mason community in so many different ways. To have an event such as today, where the Council comes together with our faculty and with our students and staff is particularly important to us at George Mason.
Our goal at George Mason University is to do the best teaching, to be involved in high-quality research and to reach out to the community. Our successes in reaching out to the community are dependent on groups such as the Council on Foreign Relations being willing to come to George Mason University to address key issues among our students, our faculty and staff.
I want to thank again our faculty and the Council for making today happen, and hope that we all are going to be engaged in dialogue and make a difference in the world around us and make a difference in the lives of members of not only the George Mason community but far beyond.
Thank you all again. Have a good day. (Applause.)
BRIGETY: Thank you very much, President Merten.
We are very privileged to have as our partner for today’s event the Council on Foreign Relations, which is widely regarded as America’s leading think thank and membership organization for U.S. foreign policy and international relations. To tell us a little bit more about the Council, we have Ms. Jacqueline Miller to make a couple remarks.
JACQUELINE MILLER (CFR Washington Program deputy director): Hi. My name’s Jacqueline Miller. I’m deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Washington Program. I just want to say we’re thrilled to be here, very excited to get the discussion going. And now everyone’s here, we can get started on that. I’ll just take one quick minute to tell you a bit about the Council, and then we’ll go straight to an interesting and engaging discussion.
The Council, as many of you probably know, is a foreign policy think tank. Our mission is to produce and disseminate ideas to give a better understanding of the foreign policy issues facing the United States government and facing the world. We do this through our staff of experts, our fellows, two of whom are with us here today, Stephen Biddle and Steven Cook.
Another one of our strengths is our members. The Council is a unique organization, a think tank but also a membership organization. We have 4,000 members throughout the country. About a third of them are here in D.C. One of them is sitting on the panel with you today, Reuben, who is going to be presiding.
And we also think it’s really important to help inform the next generation, and that’s why we’re here today, and we do these outreach events with lots of local universities. We want to hear your thoughts. We want to hear what you think about the issues, what you think is important, what you think is going to make a difference in your lives.
And we also want to point out our website. If you haven’t been there, I would highly recommend you go there. It’s www.cfr.org—nice and easy. If you have research projects, don’t go to Goolge go to cfr.org. As some of our reviewers have said, it is the Google for the foreign policy crowd. But take a look at it. It can help you organize your thoughts, organize your papers, organize your arguments.
But without further delay, I want to get started here. So thanks, all. (Applause.)
BRIGETY: Thanks, Jackie.
Let me just dispense with a couple of housekeeping notes before we move into the bulk of the presentation. Again, welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting. Please turn off your cell phones, BlackBerrys and other wireless devices you may have.
I would like to remind the audience that this meeting is on the record, and we invite all of you to join in the Q&A afterwards. So what we’ll do is just have a bit of a conversation amongst our panelists for the first part of the presentation, then we’ll open the floor to questions from the audience. When you come to a microphone, please stand, state your name and affiliations, and keep your questions and comments concise to allow as many speakers to speak as possible.
As our theme suggests, we are here today to talk about Iraq and the Middle East, and the Middle East broadly. And for purposes today, we’ll talk about the Middle East and also Central Asia, which has traditionally been very important to American foreign policy interests, obviously for access to oil resources, but also for protection of America’s long-standing ally Israel.
In the wake of September 11 th, obviously, the region took on a new—(short audio break)—as the location for groups that are spawning radical versions of Islam, groups that are hostile to the United States and to its interests, but also as a region that many have identified as overdue for democratization and for additional development to help it become a much more stable part of the world.
So as we talk about these themes today, we are very fortunate to have a very distinguished panel of experts to help us sort through these issues.
Starting from my immediate right, we have Dr. Stephen Biddle, who is a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. His bio, along with the bio of all our speakers, is listed here in detail in the program, so I won’t go into too much depth, but it’s enough to say that he has previously taught on the faculty of the Army War College, also at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He’s also, I have to say, one of the smartest people I know and a good friend. So Steve, we’re all very glad you’re here.
To my far right is Steven Cook—
STEVEN COOK: Not politically.
BRIGETY: Not politically. To my far right geographically is Steven Cook, who is a Douglas Dillon fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He’s an expert on Arab and Turkish politics. He has his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and has published very broadly in a number of leading publications on foreign policy and foreign affairs.
To my immediate left—geographically again—is Dr. Peter Mandaville, who is associate professor of public and international affairs—of government and politics here at George Mason, and also is the director of the George Mason University Center for Global Studies. Peter is an expert on political Islam. He’s published widely and has his Ph.D. from the University of Kent in the United Kingdom.
To my far left is Eric McGlinchey, who is also one of my colleagues, an assistant professor of government and politics here at George Mason University. He’s an expert on issues of Central Asia, has written broadly on the subject. He’s also an expert in democratization movements, has just gotten back from Romania, I believe, and is going back to Georgia and Ukraine before the end of the year. His Ph.D. is from Princeton University.
President Bush has called Iraq the central front on the global war on terror. He has said that it is vital to beat the terrorists there so that we don’t have to face them here. And we have committed some 144,000 troops to date in Iraq. That said, it would appear that things in Iraq are challenging, to say the least, at the moment. The current U.S. death toll for the month of October so far is 86 deaths, the third-highest death toll since the war began, an 80 percent increase in deaths since the start of the summer—since the end of the summer. We have seen increasing attacks on civilians by various factions. We’ve even seen factions attacking each other—for example, in the southern city of Amarah just this past week.
So when the president suggests that victory in the war on terror depends on victory in Iraq, it would suggest—makes us ask today a basic question: One, what does victory in Iraq look like, and two, how do you get there?
So with that very easy question, Steve Biddle, what’s victory? How do we get there?
STEPHEN BIDDLE: Well, let me start by outlining what victory was going to be when we started this undertaking, and then maybe I’ll backtrack into what’s achievable at this point.
Victory, when we got into this, constituted, aside from preemption of a WMD program, weapons of mass destruction, that proved not to be there—centrally, the first part of what was going to be a program for political re-engineering of the region as a whole. The idea in creating a stable, functioning democracy in Iraq was to create a demonstration effect that would act as a catalyst in bringing about democratization elsewhere in the region.
The importance of that stemmed from the administration’s view that the wellspring of al Qaeda’s recruitment and planning capacity rested ultimately in political dissatisfaction with the existing governments in the region. If you’re going to defeat al Qaeda in the medium to short term, so this logic went, you had to remove its recruitment base by politically re-engineering the region and solving the liberty deficit, as some called it, that was held to give rise to al Qaeda in the first place. The way they were going to go about that is by creating an exemplar democracy in the heart of Arabia, which would then create a domino effect, a positive domino effect, elsewhere in the region.
At this point—not 2003, but 2006—that’s flatly implausible. If there is a demonstration effect going on in Iraq, it’s the opposite of what we’d hoped for. It’s mostly convincing other people in the region that democratic reform on this kind of timetable is much too painful, much too costly and much too risky to dare. So if anything, the current state of Iraq is creating a demonstration effect that will retard, not facilitate, the democratization project on the region.
At the moment, then, victory in the sense that we conceived of it in 2003 is no longer possible. It’s not on the table.
By contrast, though, it is possible to come away with something other than a worst-case abject defeat, I think, though maybe by tomorrow morning that too will have slipped out of our grasp.
A worst-case outcome, the polar opposite of this best case that I sketched a moment ago, that we were striving for in 2003, would be a full-scale, unconstrained, unlimited version of today’s already ongoing civil war in Iraq that spreads to other countries in the region and creates a region-wide version of the Lebanese civil war, which would pose serious risks to U.S. interests in many, many different ways.
And I think, at this point, central to U.S. policy is to avert that worst-case outcome. And the trick in averting that worst-case outcome is to recognize that we have long since left behind democracy as an achievable outcome and to recognize that what the problem is about now is civil war termination. And unfortunately, in a variety of ways, the standard playbook for how you terminate an ongoing communal civil war is the opposite of the standard playbook for how you wage a classical counterinsurgency effort of the sort that we thought we had in 2004 and maybe early 2005.
Given that you’ve got other panelists who would also like to wax eloquent on Iraq, I will leave as teaser for the group the notion that the strategic choices that you would choose if you thought your problem was terminate an ongoing civil war are in many cases the exact opposite of the strategic choices that make sense if you think the problem is how do you counter a classical ideological insurgency. And I’d be happy to go further with that in Q&A, if folks would like.
BRIGETY: So, Steve, you’ve raised at least two important points, as I see it. One is, how do you stop what’s happening in Iraq from spreading sort of broader to the—more broadly to the region?
The second is the death of democratization, which is interesting, particularly if one is to believe the reports on what the Iraq Study Group that’s chaired by former Secretary of State Jim Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton—seem to be able to suggest what they’re going to say, which is that democratization is essentially off the table.
Steven Cook, I wonder what your perspective is on that. I know you’ve written about democratization in the Arab world broadly. Is it not possible, or is it not possible through force? What is, from your view, the impact of the Iraq project on the democratization agenda for the Middle East?
COOK: Sure. Thanks for the question. It’s an important one, and it’s one that it’s—the question of U.S. democratization—project of democratization in the Middle East has been confused with the war in Iraq. If you remember back to the run-up to the war, the primary justifications for the invasion of Iraq were weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s alleged—alleged—ties to al Qaeda. It was only after we discovered that there were no weapons of mass destruction—nor was there ever a connection between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and al Qaeda—that the administration raised the issue of democratization as a primary justification for the war.
That being said, I think that the Iraq war has had a number of salutary effects on the question of democratization in the region, in ways that we don’t really expect nor in ways that will give U.S. policymakers cold comfort. I don’t think that democratization in the Middle East is a dead letter, but that does not necessarily mean that (democracy ?) in the Middle East is impossible or is not happening.
In fact, the administration continues to plug away by pressuring our allies such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia on the question of democratization. But that actually means much less than the political dynamics that were unleashed by the invasion.
And what I mean by that is, essentially you have a series of grass-roots movements, you have people who have been toiling at the edges of the political systems in these countries that are semi-authoritarian or authoritarian, that the invasion of Iraq coincided with the president’s policy—(brief audio break from the source)—forthrightly about democracy and freedom has allowed these people to pursue their agendas in ways that they haven’t been before—been able to before. And what this has done has allowed people to question the sources of power, legitimacy and authenticity in places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other countries in the region.
Now, much of this, however, is born of anti-Americanism. And many of the pro-democratization movement—for example, one that we’ve heard a lot about in the press in 2005 and early 2006 was Kifaya, the movement which translates into—an Egyptian movement that translates into “enough.” This is a movement that is made up of what people believe to be liberals and democrats and so on, but it really is a bunch of ideologues from a bygone era—Nasserists, neo-Nasserists and socialists who are looking for reform of the Egyptian political system and more democracy in the Egyptian political system for the very reason that they want an Egyptian foreign policy that is separated from the United States.
So I think that rather than (withholding ?) the process, as Steve suggests, I think that in many ways, our failures in Iraq and the fact that many of these countries are our strategic allies and are aligned with us is giving those who don’t like these governments, who want to see a change, who want to see more represented and more open governments in the region warn of their anti-Americanism, (bring ?) in an opportunity to press for change and are more willing and more (involved ?) to take on these regimes than they ever had before.
Brigety: So—Peter Mandaville. The (rift ?), it seems to me, between Steve Biddle and Steve Cook’s presentation is one of, on the one hand, trying to contain the worst aspect of what’s happening in Iraq, and on the other hand, I suppose trying to manage the unleashing of forces, if you will, what Steven Cook has talked about. And the obvious fault line that connects both of those is the Sunni-Shi’a split that is taking on a grand display in Iraq right now.
I was wondering if you could comment a little bit about how you see that playing out in Iraq and what you think the Sunni-Shi’a split means, particularly as other forces question the authority of their governments throughout the region.
PETER MANDAVILLE: Sure. Well, I think that in the specific context of Iraq, the historical lessons really bear—we’re guarding very carefully. If we look back at Iraq, we’ll see that the situation of a Shi’a majority being dominated by a Sunni minority was not a situation obtained simply under the regime of Saddam Hussein nor under the—(audio break)—directly preceded it. It’s something that has been in place since the time of the—(audio break)—Empire’s initial occupation of Iraq. So this is a—(audio break)—legacy that we’re dealing with in the sense that there are sectarian issues in Iraq that have been lingering and have never been—(audio break). Because at various—it was various periods of change in Iraq when a political system, when the political order was reformed fairly quickly. A set of actors rose to the fore, that basically we instituted that same situation of minority dominance over a religious majority.
Now, the spectacle of the Sunni-Shi’a conflict as it plays out in the news and in the casualty reports that we hear every morning, I think, has a lot of people thinking, quite rightfully, about the extent to which this wider Sunni-Shi’a split could actually spread to the entire region as a whole. (Audio break)—carefully in particular at countries along the Gulf Coast of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia itself has a—which people usually think of in terms of Salafi-Wahhabi-style Islam—actually, Saudi Arabia has considerably more religious diversity than we usually imagine, particularly the east coast of Saudi Arabia, where you have a large Shi’a population to the tune of 20 percent in certain areas of the east coast of Saudi Arabia. Not only that, but the majority Shi’a areas of Saudi Arabia are actually right at the heart of the Saudi oil industry, so that the prospect of sectarian violence spreading into Saudi Arabia becomes not just a sectarian issue, it turns into a much broader geostrategical issue.
It’s also not the case that the Shi’a of Saudi Arabia have been politically quietist over the last 50, 60 years. There have been incidences and times where tensions have flared, instances in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, low-scale protests and riots in Eastern—(audio break). But for the most part, the Saudi government seems to have—(audio break)—royal family seems to have reached some sort of accommodation with—(audio break)—Saudi Arabia over recent years. I think the—(audio break)—is if the scenario of the full-blown—if Steve Biddle’s worst-case scenario of a full-blown situation does come to pass in—(audio break)—then I think you may have the potential for smaller versions of it, but happening in very strategically—(audio break)—right down the coast of Saudi Arabia.
One further piece that I can’t resist—(audio break)—before turning over to Eric relates to this question of democratization. But I’ll also sort of hold it as something that we can get back to later, which is the idea that I certainly agree that democratization and the possibility for democratization in the Middle East is—(audio break). I would perhaps question whether it is actually in the interest of the United States for the Middle East to go democratic, and I—(audio break)—standard fear that’s usually trotted out about, if you open Middle East democracies, Islamists will become elected into power and will get rid of the democracy. I’m saying that real democracy may not be good for the United States in the Middle East.
BRIGETY: It’s interesting. It’s a provocative thought. We’ll come back—(audio break)—in a couple of minutes.
Eric, I wonder if these trends that we’ve talked—spent the last couple of minutes talking about—do they stop at the Persian Gulf? Is there an effect that the war in Iraq is having broadly on—(audio break)—regimes throughout Central Asia? And if not, I mean, what are the principal differences one sees in that region as opposed to the Middle East/North Africa as we see it?
ERIC MCGLINCHEY: Thanks, Reuben.
I’d like to just say first of all, of course, these trends don’t stop when we go beyond the Middle East. But unlike the flow of some of these—(audio break)—the first thing I’d like to stress is that the flow of radical Islam itself—(audio break)—supernational radical Islam is certainly not inevitable, contrary to what many people here in Washington might be arguing.
I think the first thing that Central Asia at least informs for the Middle East is that radical Islam is by no means inevitable. There has been much fear that radical Islam would take off in Central Asia, that we’d find terrorism-based activities based on radical Islam in Central Asia, and there really hasn’t been that. So the first thing I’d want to put on the table for us to consider is perhaps if radical Islam isn’t as present in Central Asia, maybe we are overblowing the role of radical Islam in the Middle East as well.
The second—(audio break)—like to stress is there’s been much talk, particularly in the Iraq case, that certain groups, namely Shi’a and Sunni, cannot get along. Fortunately in Central Asia, we’re finding that both groups (like ?) Sunni and Shi’a—we could add Sufi and also interethnic groups—in fact do get along. So the second thing I’d like to put on the table—(audio break)—are opportunities for cooperation, opportunities for peace, and I think fortunately the Central Asia case demonstrates how this might be done.
The last thing—and this is where the bad news comes in, and I think this really get to Stephen Biddle’s initial comments—is contrary, perhaps, to what Peter may have just said, I am not an optimist as far as democracy’s concerned, not simply for the Middle East but also for Central Asia. If you look at Central Asia—and this is really a best-case scenario for where democracy could have been achieved through U.S./Western intervention—we look not simply in Central Asia, but you look into the entire former Soviet Union, Ukraine, Georgia, we’ve seen color revolutions sweep—(audio break)—and after an installation of new regimes, new faces, we’re finding that these new faces are—(audio break)—no more progressive, no more economically (enlightened ?) than the previous regimes. So I think what Central Asia suggests as far as on the negative side of things is we should really temper our enthusiasm for affecting democracy, for creating democratic regimes. Because if—even in this best-case scenario we don’t get democracy, when you look to places like the Middle East, it’s going to be even more difficult.
That does not mean—and I’ll conclude with this—that does not mean that we should not engage these regions. Because there is a worst-case scenario, and that is if we don’t engage places like Central Asia, if we don’t engage the Middle East, much worse outcomes could happen. We could find increasing authoritarianism, even worse than the authoritarianism that we currently see, increasing—(audio break)—increasing things like narcotrafficking coming out of Afghanistan through Central Asia or the Middle East, increasing poverty. It could be a real nightmare, and then, we would really see the effects—(audio break)—not based on radical Islam, but based on demographics, socioeconomic instability.
BRIGETY: I believe our panel’s given us an awful lot to think about, and we could just sit up here all day amongst ourselves talking about it, but obviously, the reason we’re here is for students and others in the audience to engage.
So at this point what I would like to do is open up the discussion for questions and answers from the audience. There are two microphones here—one there and one there. So if you have a question, don’t be shy, please come on up to a mike and offer your question or your comment to the panel. Would you please also just tell us your name and your affiliation.
QUESTIONER: (Name off-mike)—(audio break). For the first Stephen, I agree with you certainly that the prospects for democratization in Iraq don’t look very good, but if the prospects for democratization are poor, what then are the prospects for stability either there or in the region?
COOK: Well, Steve spoke first, but I think you’re addressing the question to me. The prospects for stability in Iraq or in the region—(audio break)—I’ll answer as well.
I’m an Iraq pessimist in many ways, and I think we may have gotten to the point where people talk about a civil war. And for many months we’ve been saying, “Oh, it’s a civil war”—nobody really wanted to say it. Now you’ve crossed that line and you talk about civil war. But a civil war connotes the contest, the violent contest over the state—the control of a state and its institutions. We may be entering a period where we have all-out sectarian and ethnic (chaos ?) in which the country essentially is ripping itself apart, and you can’t really talk about a civil war, so to speak.
So I’m not quite sure whether we’re going to see an effort—a possibility of stabilizing—(audio break). I was shocked today when I was reading The New York Times about the—what the administration’s new plan is, and now, they’re going to talk to Nouri Maliki and say, “Okay. If you don’t get all these people together and stop, there’s going to be penalties.” The guy must be saying, “My God, this is what you’ve done, and now you’re going to penalize me for not being able to corral the political forces that you’ve unleashed.”
My own sense is that a unified, stable Iraq no longer makes sense to many, many Iraqis, despite the fact that many Iraqis still feel strongly about their Iraqi nationalism. You see it happening. There are movements of people—Shi’a moving south; people are moving—Kurds are preparing quietly for their independence. There are “no go” zones in Baghdad. So my own sense is, while I don’t sign on to the Gelb or Biden plan or whatever is, some sort of unity through decentralization, we may need to start thinking about the nightmare scenario, something that people in Washington have been steadily avoiding, and how that affects us regionally, and how it affects our regional partners.
One of my other areas of great interest is Turkey. And I know that if in fact the country pulls itself apart and there is the emergence of an independent Kurdistan, it will likely, likely disrupt our relations with Turkey for at least a generation.
So but what—my point is, is that there’s been very little thinking about this subject and how it’s going to affect us from here on out, and more thinking about how do we avoid this scenario. I think we may be beyond that.
But Steve might have a much different opinion.
BIDDLE: Well, in the interest of equal opportunity for Steves.
Until fairly recently, I have been guardedly optimistic—(audio break)—prospects in Iraq. And the basis for that guarded optimism, until, you know, the last several weeks had been that if we decided that the problem is now civil war termination and we changed our policies towards an approach that makes sense for that—a combination of compelling a power-sharing compromise on the parties within the country, and keeping outside forces in the country to act as peacekeepers, to police whatever power-sharing deal was arrived at, i.e., the standard solution to civil war termination elsewhere in the world, that in principle, we can imagine that solving the problem because all the key parties in Iraq are so fearful of an unconstrained, unlimited version of this chronic low-intensity civil war, that shared awareness of the catastrophic consequences of an unconstrained escalatory spiral, if the outside party—us—played our cards right, we could exploit it to bring about some reasonably stable outcome, even if it didn’t look like a Jeffersonian democracy.
The difficulty with that is that it requires and is driven by some underlying reservoir of willingness to coexist as a way of stopping an unconstrained escalatory spiral into genocidal conflict. And the problem with what’s been going on in the country, really ever since the Samarra bombing, but increasingly over the last month or so, has been the increase daily in the sectarian death toll is drawing down this reservoir of willingness to coexist and increasing the countervailing emphasis on retribution and revenge. Eventually some threshold will be crossed at which the minimum willingness to cooperate that’s required in order to get the parties to commit to compromise on a power-sharing deal evaporates. I don’t know where that threshold is. I am quite confident that such a threshold exists, and I’m quite confident that if we don’t stop the escalation in sectarian death toll, we will cross it. I can’t tell you if we’ll cross it next year or next month or tomorrow morning, but I can tell you it could be any of the above.
And as we get closer and closer to wherever this threshold lies, our sensitivity to the consequences of random chance events that we can’t anticipate, like the next Samarra bombing, whatever that may be, increases. And given that, I think we’re faced with a situation of extraordinary urgency in Iraq. We cannot afford to sit back and insist on only pristine, low-cost, low-risk policy options for the United States, because if we insist on that level of fastidiousness, while we’re deciding on exactly what the best way to proceed is, the situation is going to explode on us in the meantime.
And I’m not convinced that the administration’s sense of urgency in this problem is up to the pace of events in Iraq, and I’m very concerned that we’ll pass this threshold before we change policy in a way that increases our leverage on the parties to reach the critical power-sharing compromise in a way that gives us—(inaudible)—to get that compromise before we lose control of the situation.
So I’m grow less and less optimistic with each passing hour, and since it’s now closing in on four, I’m that much less optimistic than I was this morning.
BRIGETY: Other questions? Yes, please.
QUESTIONER: Yeah, I’m (Chip House ?) also from George Mason, in search of Common Ground. It’s probably not a good idea that two members of our department ask the first two questions.
But I heard Steve talk at the APSA six weeks ago. And I got a question working since then—(inaudible)—because you haven’t seen these data.
QUESTIONER: (Inaudible.) A poll was released on Friday that suggests that 70 percent of Americans want to see a change in foreign policy—(inaudible)—have you seen it?
QUESTIONER: So that leads me to the question, 15 days from election, almost everyone wants to see change. You’re a foreign policy wonk. What would be your suggestion to someone like me to help make that happen?
And the rest of you can—(inaudible)—as well.
BIDDLE: Okay. Well, as the lead Steve, I think, on that question—
COOK: The only Steve on that question! (Laughter.) Because I got your back.
BIDDLE: I absolutely believe that a major change is necessary to prevent a catastrophe here. The president has said that he’s willing to change tactics but not strategies. I think we need to change the strategy because I think the strategic approach we’ve adopted in the last several years to this conflict is fundamentally misguided because it presupposes that the problem that strategy has to solve is countering a classical ideological insurgency. That has not been the problem for a least a year. And therefore, the strategies that make sense in that context are ill-suited to the conflicts we now face (sic) ourselves in.
The difficulty I see is that most of the interest in strategic change in Iraq right now represents a change to something that’s maybe even worse than what we’ve got. We clearly need to be talking to the Iraqis about withdrawal of U.S. forces. The trick is that talk about withdrawal has to be contingent not on a timetable, but on Iraqi behavior.
If you look at the standard playbook for how you resolve an ethic civil war, partially deal policed by outsiders because the locals don’t trust each other, nobody believes that the national military is national, they all think it’s a tool of one or the other of the internal contesting parties. If the trick is generating more leverage, which we currently lack, to get the Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds to make the risky compromises necessary in order to get a real power-sharing deal that brings about a truce and a cease-fire, what we need to do is make our threat of withdrawal or other military behavior in the theater contingent on whether or not they’re making the compromises they need to get the deal, not whether or not it’s January 1 st or December 1 st or March 1 st.
Right now, our policy in Iraq removes the incentives on all parties to make political compromises, because what we’re doing is saying, in a sense, to the Shi’ites: Not to worry, guys, whether you compromise or not, we will stay here and we will build up what amounts to your ethnic militia, the national military, which is perceived by the Sunnis as a Shi’ite-Kurdish militia group on steroids—we will stay here, we will build up your own militia until and unless it’s perfectly capable of dealing with your enemies—(audio break)—and then we’ll leave.
So why compromise? If that’s the promise on the table—looks good to me. I’d much rather just sit and wait until we get strong enough to deal with this problem by ourselves rather than risking some sort of succession of power to the Sunnis, as is inherent in the compromises need to bring about power sharing.
So our policy removes the Shi’ites’ incentives to bargain.
Now to look at the Sunnis. The Sunnis may very well be worried that their military prospects are heading south as the United States builds up the national military, which they view as their enemy. But we’re going to do that whether they compromise or not. All compromise does is risks laying down their own weapons, which they’re relying on to protect them, in exchange for the uncertainty of a possible political bargain that may or may not go anywhere, but that’s going to be enforced by a national military that they see as mostly Shi’ite and Kurd.
So U.S. policy removes the Sunnis’ incentives to come to a political bargain.
We’re caught—I hate the creation of verbs, but we’re currently disincentivizing everybody in Iraq simultaneously by the way we’re constructing our military policy in the country. Given that, the kind of strategic change that I think is necessary is we need to make our military policy, including but not limited to do we stay or do we go, contingent on changes in political behavior by the parties leading to compromise. If the Shi’ite bloc fractures, breaks down and ends up fighting with one another, we have to tell them the continuation of this leads to our withdrawal. But if you come back together and begin to bargain as a bloc again, we will stay and protect you. If you back out on implicit deals to the Sunnis that you will not pursue a Shi’ite mini state of the south, we will abandon you to your fate because that’s moving you away from compromise. But if you get off of that and retain the concessions that you’ve made before and move toward further concessions with the Sunnis, then we will stay and we will protect you, if you take those risks.
And we could behave similarly toward the Sunnis.
Only if we, A, are willing to make our policy contingent on their bargaining behavior in this way; and B, if we’re willing and able to make good on our promises and, in fact, stay with the—(inaudible)—promise of protection to those that collaborate, I think do we have any prospect of success here. And all of that will leave the table tomorrow morning if some random event occurs, we pass the threshold of coexistence, and the thing spirals out of our control in the meantime.
Cook: Could I just add something here? Steve’s analysis is elegant and makes a tremendous amount of sense, and it’s befitting of someone who was asked to give a talk at the American Political Science Association this past Labor Day. (Laughter.) But I think that it presupposes a number of things that I just don’t think exists in Iraq. And that is, of course, the Shi’a and Sunni, and to some extent Kurdish willingness to compromise over what the political outcome will be.
Essentially, to my mind what has occurred is there is a fight over who is going to dominate this entity, if there is an entity. And the Shi’a don’t need to compromise because in the absence of U.S. troops, they’ll just roll right over the Sunnis. There will be a bloodbath in which the Sunnis can in no way, shape or form withstand what the Shi’a militias, divided as they are, can mete out to them.
The Kurds, from the very beginning have masked what their true intentions are, which is to establish their own state and essentially to freeze out the Sunnis, and the Sunnis are left to their own devices in the hopes that some external power will save them.
But I don’t think that there’s really—the reason why we can’t get these compromises, the reason why we can’t get these agreements is because nobody really has an incentive to compromise because there’s no agreement on what to compromise about. Essentially, we have set in motion a process in which the Shi’ites will either dominate through a bloodbath and the Kurds will go their own way, or we’ll continue to be bogged down trying to get these parties to compromise on something they have no intention of compromising over. So it really sets up an extraordinarily difficult policy problem for us.
We should go into discussing with the Iraqis that nobody there, none of the parties—the Kurds, who are favored in Washington—the Sunnis or the Shi’ites, none of them are telling us the truth about what they actually want. We should listen less to what they say and pay more attention to what actually they’re doing. And they are setting up for who’s going to dominate this country, if it exists after U.S. forces ultimately leave.
BRIGETY: Do you want a counterresponse, or do you want to go back to the audience?
MR. : If something’s burning in your heart. Please, the audience.
Biddle : Well, just a quick counterresponse.
In many ways, the problem of civil war termination gets more and more unlikely to (be) resolved every day. And one of the several ways in which that happens is the stronger the national military gets, the weaker the leverage we’d get from abandoning the Shi’ites. I mean, they have no meaningful, organized military; this threat would be much more powerful than it is today.
And one of the reasons why I grow less optimistic with each passing hour is because the relative marginal influence we have through our military leverage decreases with each passing hour. But again, I think the implication of that is we need to act with extreme urgency to get whatever bargaining leverage we can get before it evaporates. Now, I’m open to the possibility that it may have evaporated yesterday or last week, but I think the implication for what the United States should actually do at the moment is if there is any chance of pulling the roast iron out of the fire here—
MR. : I like that word.
Biddle : (Inaudible.)—then we need to do everything possible immediately. And again, I don’t see that sense of urgency in the White House at the moment.
BRIGETY: Eric, did you have a point you’d like to make on this?
MCGLINCHEY: Yeah. Actually, this gets back to Chip’s point about public opinion. What concerns me more about the public opinion issue is not (so much ?) the U.S. public opinion, leaving alone all the complex details of Iraq that both Steves are outlining; I think what is equally distressing is world public opinion and the implications this has for U.S. geopolitical interests more broadly.
I’ve been going to Central Asia since 1995, and I can’t recall a time where the U.S. stature in Central Asia has been at a worse low. And what’s happening is countries that were former allies of the United States, places like Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, even Kazakhstan, even—I was just in Romania, a place—you will not find a place that’s more staunchly U.S. in Eastern Europe than Romania, yet, even so, people are beginning to reconsider strategic relations with the United States, their support for the United States because of what’s going on in Iraq. So it’s not simply a question of Iraq, but it goes much more deeply than that. And what does this mean for U.S. interests more broadly? And it’s quite disturbing when we look at our former allies beginning to turn away from us because of the policies that we’re pursuing currently in Iraq.
BRIGETY: There—do you have a question?
QUESTIONER: Hi. My name’s—(name inaudible). I’m a senior focusing on democracy and development. My question is for the whole panel. I recently read a study conducted by Robert Pape, who is a professor at the University of Chicago, and what he found was that suicide terrorism is a cause of foreign military occupation. And my question for you is, do you think democracy can survive in Iraq with the U.S. military presence on the ground? And a follow-up to that: do you think that the development community is reluctant to go into Iraq because of this rising violence?
BRIGETY: Peter, can I ask you to take that?
MANDAVILLE: Yeah. Could you clarify again the thesis by Pape that you stated that suicide bombing is—
QUESTIONER: Suicide terrorism is a result of military foreign occupation.
QUESTIONER: He found that that was the main cause for suicide terrorism.
MANDAVILLE: Right. Okay.
Well, you know, looking at the Middle East more generally and other incidents of suicide bombing there, you will see, obviously, a very high correlation between, you know, the situation of the military occupation, such as that by Israel, and the prevalence or the prominence of suicide bombing as a tactic. Of course, it is a tactic usually of the weak, groups who have no other option, who have, in some cases, tried other avenues of political engagement and have not been able to do so.
Now, with regard to the question of the development community, the development community has actually been in Iraq. The development community was in Iraq. The National Endowment for Democracy in the United States threw millions and millions and millions of dollars at a whole range of non-governmental and semi-governmental organizations in the United States and abroad who are going to do things like train and staff within the new Iraqi parliament on all the latest parliamentary staffing techniques used around the world on things like this. And little by little, as the insurgency gathers force, as the security situation deteriorated, the spaces in which they are staffed could operate in a secure fashion, their ability to actually have any efficacious role within the political development of the country was eroded bit by bit by bit. And groups that performed an essentially humanitarian role or a political developmental role that’s about training and knowledge transfer for the most part, they simply cannot do that in situations where the key problem on the ground is a fundamental lack of security.
Witness what happened to the—very unfortunately—with the United Nations. You know, once it established a position in Iraq—and it was a very clear, very carefully tactically chosen target—that sends a message, don’t you be coming in here and thinking that you’re going to be able to perform this work.
And so, yes, I think it’s had an enormously deleterious effect on the possibility of the democratization community, even those that were not part and parcel of the current administration’s drive to democratization. Groups that have been doing his work for, you know, a full generation before that have simply not been able to operate on the ground.
BRIGETY: Is there a question from this side of the room before I come back?
MR. : If I could just respond—
BRIGETY: Oh, sure. Please, please, please.
MR. :—to the question on Pape’s thesis about suicide bombing and terrorism. I just wonder about his model and his theory, only because if you think about it—think about one of the places where we associate suicide bombing with, and that is in the occupied territories and in Israel. Israel had occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip 25 years before we observed suicide bombing. The question that I have for Pape is, well, why did we not see suicide bombing in those 25 years prior to 1995 or 1996?
The other question I have is just another example—and I’m sure Professor Pape would find some methodological reason why these are not good examples—but just something that I throw out—if you think back to 1995, there was an Air France hijacking in which the Algerian militants who took this plane had intended to fly the plane into the Eiffel Tower, kind of eerily similar to what happened ultimately on September 11 th, but they didn’t know how to fly the plane. Their hijacking was presupposed on the pilots doing their bidding for them. But France hadn’t occupied Algeria since 1962. So I—you know, there was a real disconnect for me in the data, and it is a data-rich question and the ultimate conclusion that Pape draws about military occupation and suicide bombing.
I think it’s a complex issue. I think there are many, many factors that drive this issue. And military occupation is almost certainly one of them that it can’t be the only explanatory factor for them.
BRIGETY: Is there another question? Yes, ma’am? Who was first? Yes, ma’am, please. I think the lady behind you was first, please. Thanks.
QUESTIONER: Thank you very much, gentlemen, for—(off mike)—this afternoon. My name is—(off mike)—I served overseas in the Middle East in 2003. (Off mike)—for your time—(off mike.) I have three questions, and the first one is for Professor Brigety. The second one is for Mr. Mandaville and the third is for Mr. McGlinchey.
Professor Brigety, I realize that—(off mike)—public affairs office, there is a motto—it’s not fair that—I think their general attitude is that—(off mike)—the Cold War. So if you’re trying to get a military service person on this panel—(off mike)—but I—(off mike)—service person on the panel today.
QUESTIONER: Mr. Mandaville, my question to you is—(off mike)—you mentioned Islamic—you actually mentioned—(off mike)—be a good idea—(off mike).
QUESTIONER: And although I—(off mike)—something like—(off mike)—but my question deals with something we’ve read about in the newspaper, which is—(off mike).
And Mr. McGlinchey, you had mentioned that economically speaking, it’s—(off mike)—is not really the big problem—(off mike). And if you haven’t, I’d like to suggest it. It’s about that—(off mike)—what they did to discourage insurgents—(off mike)—if any of you have—(off mike)—and are interested in a book that—(off mike)—I’m interested in hearing your take on this and how do you think they’re doing—(off mike)—
MR. : Sure.
QUESTIONER:—and would you consider—(off mike). Thank you.
BRIGETY: Well, let me just respond very briefly to your first question. It’s not—we don’t have a military person on the panel for any nefarious reason. It’s simply the way in which the Council has organized these events generally. The Council brings two of their experts, and George Mason University provides two of their experts.
That said, I would say just again that Steve Biddle has extensive experience with the Army, has been on the Army War College staff as well and is consulted regularly by the U.S. Army. So I think he provides a very useful perspective.
Thanks for the opportunity to expand on the question of why I think democratization in the Middle East might be bad for the United States.
But let me answer your direct question first, about Islamic democracy and how it differs from the American model. I think it’s a really important question, and the answer, at least to my mind and my analysis, is that there is no such thing as an Islamic model of democracy, a distinctly Islamic model. If you open the Koran, if you look at the gesunna (ph), the body of the teachings of the prophet, based on things he said during his lifetime, he does not ever sit down and say, “All right, folks. Here’s how you lay out a state. Here’s the institutions. Here’s how the checks and balances work. Here’s how it works.” In that sense, there is no Islamic model of democracy.
Within Islamic teachings, there are stated a number of broad principles that relate to notions of the importance of those who are governed to be consulted by those who are authority, in authority, and their requirement to provide that input; the importance and the value of decision-making via consensus, rather than decision-making that is handed down from above.
That said, if you asked that question to Muslims—you know, we’re dealing with a world civilization of 1.4 billion people here—you are going to get a very different range of answers. You will find Islamists who will tell you: Oh, there’s a very clear Islamic model of democracy, and they’ll lay it all out for you, based on their particular interpretation of the text.
There are others who will say: Look, Islam and Western liberal democracy—and I think that’s kind of what you’re getting at when you say “American democracy,” Western liberal democracy—Islam and Western liberal democracy are not necessarily inherently incompatible with each other. And they would further say that, look, Islam does not prescribe any particular institutions. So long as the set of institutional arrangements that are put into place do not transgress certain boundaries that are contained within the Koran itself, then a Western style liberal democracy is perfectly compatible with Islam and could in fact be called Islamic democracy itself.
So the answer to your question is, it depends on who asks. And this is the debate that is itself raging quite vociferously within the Muslim world.
I would refer you and others who are interested in watching these debates play out to the various publications produced by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, which is actually based here in Washington, D.C., and has an annual conference here in D.C., where a number of the leading people who work on specifically that question come in and talk about it.
Very briefly, on the—if I may, the—why democratization may be bad for the United States interests going forward—this is a maybe. This is a scenario. You’re going to have to allow me some “Well, I don’t know; maybe” as I lay this out. And a good portion of the credit for it goes to a good friend of mine, Graham Fuller. It’s a scenario that he and I put together. Graham is the former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council and a land analyst.
Steve Cook mentioned the Kifaya movement in Egypt. The Kifaya movement in Egypt is essentially the Howard Dean campaign in terms of—for presidentials—everyone got excited, lots of people. Things were being waved. Millions were gathering. It was grass-roots. But when it came to Iowa, there was no there there. Likewise with the Kifaya in Egypt.
The only politically organized force in Egypt are the Islamists.
The Mubarak regime, who has no ideology—their ideology is “stay in power.” That’s what their ideology is—“stay in power.” They have so wonderfully—they are the commensurate liberal autocrats.
Would there be elections—and go with me; assume that a new Islamist version of the Muslim Brotherhood, that you can see within the younger generation of the brotherhood starting to gain flavor and currency—let’s say that they effectively take over the Muslim Brotherhood. So you have in power an Islamic group, not necessarily Islamists, a political party based on Islam, something like the AKP in Turkey, but with an actual governing agenda, who are essentially an anti-corruption force—they get in power, they actually bring something like meaningful democracy to the Middle East.
Let’s say this starts to spread around the Middle East.
Let’s say that the Israel-Palestine thing gets solved, which—by the way, my two cents for how you solve this problem is, do what the first President Bush did the last time there was an Iraq that finished. The first thing he did was go to Madrid, get Israel and Palestine together, because that will remain the linchpin-anchor issue in the region. You’re not going to change the region using Iraq. It will have to be Israel-Palestine. It is the only way. They knew that.
Let’s say democracy happens. You’ve got an Israel-Palestine accord, peace agreement with Syria. You have the possibility of a whole new geopolitical area that’s composed of the Mediterranean Basin, whereby countries in North Africa and the Middle East begin to be able to cooperate with Europe and its allies far more easily. You have a new geostrategic space that gets created that contains a heck of a lot of energy resources, reaching from Spain right the way across to the Middle East.
A number of countries in the Middle East decide that it’s in their long-term interest to actually go with Europe, rather than with the United States, as their long-term strategic partner, partly working off the point that Eric made about the prevalence of anti-Americanism, so that by democratizing the Middle East, the United States actually ends up creating a huge new geostrategic competitor for itself.
MR. : There we go.
MCGLINCHEY: I’m not familiar with the book that you cited, but I think you are right, in that texts are incredibly important. And two texts that often serve as the foundation for a lot of my thought on Central Asia, perhaps in a negative way, are books by Bernard Lewis and Sam Huntington. Unfortunately, Bernard Lewis overlaps or is—from my former institution at Princeton, and I can’t say—I can say I can’t disagree with the theses that are promulgated in these books strongly enough.
Unfortunately, these theses have motivated, continue to motivate and, I’m afraid, will continue to motivate the current administration. And that is that there’s something intrinsic in Islam, there’s something intrinsic in the Middle East, in Central Asia that is anathema to democracy. And I think this can’t be further from the truth. As Peter was saying, there are multiple views of what Islam is in the region. There is not a march of civilizations across borders. And in fact when you actually ask people in the Middle East and in Central Asia whether or not democracy is something that you would like, you’ll find almost overwhelmingly that indeed this is what they’d like.
Of course, it’s going to look different, probably, from what we see here in the United States or in Western Europe, but I just—the—my, I guess, two cents would be that indeed texts are very important and that anything we can do to get away from this ascriptive view of what Islam is, this intrinsic primordial view that Islam is somehow incompatible with democracy, we should do. And no, I take your suggestion to read this book, and I’ll go seek it out. Thanks.
BRIGETY: I’m going to go with the student here and the gentleman on the right. Let me encourage the students in the audience to ask their question. I know there are a number of my students here who know how to ask a good question.
MR. : (Grade it ?).
BRIGETY: So—(audio break).
QUESTIONER: (Audio break)—in fighting the war on terror. Many people have accused the Bush administration of authorizing torture. Some examples of this include accusations of water-boarding, President Bush trying to reinterpret the Geneva Conventions. Recently, President Bush signed into law—I believe it was the Military Commissions Act, which in essence suspends habeas corpus, which many claim is unconstitutional.
So my question’s a two-part question. One, does the panel believe that what the Bush administration has authorized constitutes torture? And two, does this help—does it help fight the war on terror, as President Bush claims? Or does it make it more difficult to get the information that we need get? Does it create more terrorists? Does it create more anti-U.S. sentiment across the world? And has it made our mission in Iraq that much more difficult?
MR. : That would be you.
BRIGETY: That would be me. (Laughter.)
(I view this ?) initially as the prerogative of the chair—
MR. : You just don’t have to ask—
BRIGETY:—I’m going to use the prerogative of the chair to pass the buck.
Does anyone want to address those and—
MR. : I’ll take a stab at the second part.
BRIGETY:—the second one. Does—the first one—does the Bush administration authorize torture?
Cook : Of course it does. (Laughter.) It said it does. (Laughs.)
Cook : I don’t think there’s really any question. I mean, fine, I’ll go—I’ll take it, since you’re bunch of chickens. (Laughter.)
But it’s abundantly clear that the Bush administration authorizes torture. They use a tremendous amount of obfuscation and circumlocution to justify it, but I think they do, and it’s a stain on the United States. And I’m not an attorney, and I’m certainly not up on every aspect of international law. I can just tell you from my own experience—not from being tortured, but from being in the Middle East—that this is contributing to a—the severest crisis of American public image that I’ve experienced since I started going to the Middle East in the early 1990s.
And just to give you one example, I was giving a talk at the American University in Kuwait, and a Tunisian got up and started lecturing me about human rights—a Tunisian, of all cases. Tunisia is one of the worst police states on the face of the Earth. So this is where we’ve come to on this issue, and I think it is a stain on the United States.
And I know that for the next 25 years that I’ll be going to the Middle East, people will be showing me pictures of Abu Ghraib.
And—but—and one thing that people should recognize, on this question of Guantanamo Bay, is something that was reported either in The New York Times or The Washington Post within the last couple of weeks. There is some desire on the part of the administration to close down parts of Guantanamo Bay with people that they know are not terrorists, but the problem is that the countries that they would be returned to don’t want to take them back. So these people are in limbo. And we don’t know what to do with them, and their countries around the world don’t want to take them back. So it remains our problem, but, of course, one of our own creations.
BRIGETY: So, Peter, if, hypothetically, the legislation talked about does permit torture, does it help? Does it help fighting the war on terror?
MANDAVILLE: The short, (very brutal ?) answer: no, absolutely not, and it in fact, I think, cuts the other way. And I’m going to make this remark in relation to U.S. public diplomacy efforts and errors, I think, over the last—not just particularly the last few years but for over a couple of generations now.
The rest of the world looks at the United States and sees this incredibly schizophrenic thing. It sees this country that has such power, such might, the ability to do such good things in the world, and in many cases does do such good things in the world, and then at the same time does things that just make people go, “What’s your thinking? What are you doing?” We send these—and particularly in the last few years, when our explanations to the world have been cast in such morally categorical terms, the United States bringing things that are good and liked to the world, and then things like Abu Ghraib happen.
We talk about bringing democracy and liberty to people in the world, but yet when it’s expedient for our—in our political interest to do so, we prop up and support fairly authoritarian figures, and we don’t seem to get the disconnect there. The rest of the world sees it. They see the disconnect. Hence, this sense of schizophrenia about how the United States is perceived. If the United States describes itself as a source of all things good in the world and then passes a piece of legislation—and I agree; there’s been great circumspection, there’s been great circumelocution (sic)—but at the end of the day, I think when you read between the lines, terror—torture—and, in a sense, terror—is being authorized by this legislation. To do that, I think—I can’t think of a better tool to recruit for the global jihad.
BRIGETY: Do you want to—(off mike)?
McGlinchey : This is—yeah, just a quick comment, and this is—it almost pains me to make this comment, and partly because it contradicts Peter, and I hate to do that. But I think—there’s a lot of people who will say that the United States authorizes authoritarian leaders who condone terrorists, or it supports them. And there’s one person who made this argument in the case of Uzbekistan, which is one of the seven most authoritarian countries in the world, a place where I know and love dearly—not because it’s authoritarian but because I love Uzbekistan—is this guy Craig Murray, former ambassador to Uzbekistan, and said that the United States should not be dealing with this Karimov government whatsoever.
The United States is simply going to make a choice. It was kicked out of Uzbekistan. It was kicked out of its (space ?) and was kicked out of Uzbekistan almost entirely. And one sad repercussion of the United States no longer engaging Uzbekistan is that all the human rights activists who were prominent there, who were lobbying for reform, who were trying to protect against human rights abuses against domestic Uzbek citizens have now been imprisoned or killed or are in exile.
So it’s a complex question. And I’m not saying that we should not—we should tolerate the authoritarian abuses of places like Uzbekistan and their leader, Karimov. But the flip side is, you can’t simply walk away. And if you do walk away, you end up leaving high and dry the very people, the human rights activists, who are working hard day in and day out to make a change.
So it’s—you can’t simply point the finger at the Bush administration, however much we might want to, and say, look, you’re engaging these terrible people. It’s a little bit more complex than that. And the goal is—and I’d pose this to Reuben as well, given your background on human rights—how do you engage regimes like this without, one, appearing to support authoritarian dictators but at the same time keeping a lifeline—perhaps the only lifeline open to the human rights activists within these countries?
MANDAVILLE: Yeah, just to clarify, I think I’m asking for something even more simple than that, which is why—I agree, this a really complicated issue. How do you deal with these authoritarian regimes?
I think—I’m just asking for the United States to actually tell the truth, to call it like it is. I’m not expecting some huge sea change in U.S. foreign policy. It’s not going to happen. One thing that can change, though, is, you know, when we do trade with people who are somewhat less than wholesome in their political conduct because it’s in our interest to do so, at least have the magnanimity to admit that that’s what we’re doing. The rest of the world can see it. But don’t sit there saying, “Oh, no, we’re doing good things. We’re bringing good things to the world,” when we are clearly sometimes propping up people who are doing quite the opposite of that. People will at least say, “Well, okay. We may not like it, but at least you’re calling it like it is, at least you’re owning up to what you’re doing,” and you know, sometimes it’s in the interests of a state to do that kind of thing. So you know—but I’m not even getting into that complex area in what we actually do in terms of the policy.
BRIGETY: Sir, you’ve been very patient. Please.
QUESTIONER: (Name and affiliation inaudible)—at George Mason. And this is for Doctors Biddle and Cook. After our initial military victory in Iraq—(inaudible). And there was, you know, a lot of open-ended discussion about what would happen, and there was a significant amount of discussion in the press—and partly my question is to what extent was this accurate (reportage ?)—that we were severely constrained by the fact that our allies in the region in no way, shape or form would accept a restructuring that carved up Iraq into multiple countries, that it was—even though historically it was clear that the Iraq that the British had created early in the century was not a real nation state, and even though there was considerable thought that this was an opportunity perhaps to reconstruct it along some more—(inaudible)—lines, that this simply wasn’t going to be permitted by countries like Turkey and others, who thought that the idea of carving up the country did not set a good precedent for the region. And so that this was a very severe constraint that we faced, and so we were forced to move ahead to try to keep this country together and to come up with some kind of a constitution that would work within the context of the original Iraq.
And so I guess what I’m asking, in view of the fact that both of you are so pessimistic about being able to resolve these ethnic—you know, the ethnic divisions, I guess the question I’m asking is—it’s a kind of a—it’s a hypothetical, it’s kind of another factor—but my question is: In hindsight, would we perhaps have been wiser to withstood the pressure from our allies in the region that wanted to keep Iraq intact and said from the outset, look, this has to be a really decentralized, federalized construction in which you maybe have multiple sovereignties?
BRIGETY: Steve Cook, do you want to take that?
COOK: Sure. It was never the policy of the U.S. government to seek a decentralized Iraq or an Iraq that is partitioned. Unfortunately, the discourse in a place like Turkey is if a Kurdish state does come into being and the country is split apart, then that ultimately was somehow the U.S. goal. But it certainly wasn’t the U.S. goal.
There are a variety of reasons why the neighbors opposed this. For the Turks it’s an obvious one—they don’t want the emergence of a Kurdish state on their border because they have a large Kurdish population, and they believe that this would be a threat to their national security.
But the other parts are—for the other neighbors, there’s a whole range of geostrategic reasons why they don’t want to see this country split up. But most of all, they didn’t want to see what we said we were going to produce, which is a stable, multiethnic, relatively democratic, if not democratic, country in the heart of the region that runs counter to everything that the leaders, particularly in the region and the neighbors believe to be something that’s in their interests. And in fact, shortly after the war began, and after a military victory was at hand, the discourse throughout the Persian Gulf, including even the small emirates—Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia was, “Look, we didn’t like Saddam. But you don’t know what you’re in for. You should find another general with a mustache to hold that place together, because otherwise you’re going to have your hands full for a long time, and we told you.”
But beyond—I think the point that I want to make is beyond the geostrategic reasons, there are fundamental issues of political (views ?), things that go back to—people talk about how Arab nationalism is dead, but some of the basic tenets of Arab nationalism remain the way in which even the leaders of Saudi Arabia, which never actually bought into Arab nationalism, viewed the world. And what we reported we were going to do and we were going to do relatively easily was anathema to their world view.
BRIGETY: We have time for a few more questions. I’ll ask that you make your questions brief.
Yes, sir. Please.
QUESTIONER: Yeah, I’m Peter (Black ?), I’m president of—(inaudible). Richard Sarbone (ph), in a New York Times op ed piece on the level of knowledge that the U.S. Congress, and I think more widely the U.S. government, about Islam, about this region, was really pretty amazing. I mean, it’s a pretty—(inaudible)—just floundering around—(inaudible)—that they know the difference between Sunni and Shi’ite.
This is for the panel. How accurate a representation was that, in your opinion, of the level of knowledge among policymakers in the U.S. government about Iraq, Iran, Syria?
BRIGETY: Peter, you spend a fair amount of your time consulting with such people on Sunni issues. Do you want to offer a comment?
MANDAVILLE: Well, Peter, it’s just—on a personal anecdotal basis, I have to say that I don’t necessarily agree with that assessment. Most of the people in government that I deal with have actually a fairly sophisticated understanding of the things that are going on, particularly government analysts of all sorts working within the national security establishment, broadly understood. I think what a lot of them feel, in my experience in the last few years, is that they haven’t been able to do their job, that the analysis that they put forward is either ignored by people who have a certain agenda that’s already been decided or that the analysis they put forward is sometimes cherry picked for bits of evidence and analysis that suit, again, decisions that have already been made.
Now, that said, I think there is, broadly speaking—and certainly, you know, in the enormous creature that is the United States Congress, there is a lot of desire to know more about the Muslim world, to know more about Islam, and that there are sometimes decisions that are made that are based often on the sorts of stereotypes that my colleague here has put forth. But in terms of the people making executive branch high-level decisions, I think that the actual analysis they need to avoid the mistakes that have been made was actually available to them during this entire period.
BRIGETY: Yes, sir? Please.
QUESTIONER: (Name off mike)—a student at George Mason. My question is to anybody to answer. (Off mike)—discussion about Iraq—(off mike)—costs of the war, or is it—(off mike)—more specific mission to keep them off streets and—(off mike). I’m very (vague ?) as to whether this discussion is about over in Iraq or beyond that. I’d like to have it clarified what the discussion might be about.
BRIGETY: May I ask, do you mean the discussion we’re having today or the discussion broadly that’s happening in the public sort of domain in the country today?
QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)
MR. : Steve Biddle.
BIDDLE (?): I think at the most profound level, what the discussion about Iraq at the moment turns on is what’s the nature of the conflict and what in the world can we do to solve it?
I think the central problem in that debate so far is that the presumption until recently has been that Iraq, because it’s a guerrilla war, is therefore much the same problem as Vietnam posed: That it’s an insurgency, insurgencies are all alike, the way to deal with the Iraq problem is to take policies that look sensible for dealing with insurgencies, apply them in Iraq.
And the problem is that Iraq is not, in fact, a classical insurgency. It has very little in common with Vietnam in terms of its dynamics and in terms of its requirements for success, and hence that debate that we’ve been having over Iraq is largely misguided.
The way it’s been framed often in the last several years has been that the problem, the bad guys in the U.S. debate are these sort of dull, reactionary, head-in-the-sand battleship admirals and cavalry generals who don’t understand that the future of the world is guerrilla warfare, and they want to go fight the first Gulf War all over again, big tank fleets struggling with each other in the desert, and these dumb generals just don’t understand that this is a guerrilla war where what you need to do is win hearts and minds, create a democracy, build up the economy and hand the fighting over to an indigenous military; that that’s the right way to go because this is a guerrilla war; these dumb generals are too busy using too much force, operating in large formations, seeking out large enemy formations to try and do battle with because they want to refight the first Gulf War.
But that whole debate that the (goats ?) are the battleship admirals, the heroes are the few that understand that this is really Vietnam all over again, has missed the point that it’s neither of the above. It’s not a classical insurgency like Vietnam, nor is it a traditional war like the first Gulf War. It’s a termination of civil war challenge.
And to hark back to a comment earlier about John Nagl’s book, “How to Eat Soup with a Knife,” it’s a wonderful book, but it’s in some ways evocative of the same sort of tendency to debate the old—(off mike). Nagl’s book is chiefly about institutional learning, but the frame for it’s an argument that the British succeeded in counterinsurgency in Malaya because they won hearts and minds, they created—they facilitated democracy, they did economic reform and they handed off most of the fighting to an indigenous military; the reason the United States lost in Vietnam is because we tried to fight a big-unit war against a conventional opponent; if we had just done it the way the British did it in Malaya we would have won in Vietnam; therefore, the next time around, use the Malayan playbook and not the Vietnam playbook.
And the problem is that many of the parts of the Malaya playbook make things worse in Iraq rather than better. The classic example is handing the fighting off to an indigenous military. That makes sense if what you’re engaged in is an insurgency in which an insurgent group that aspires for the loyalty of all citizens is pitted against a state that aspires for the loyalty of all citizens, and a contest where the loyalty of all citizens in a contest for the loyalty of all citizens which is (up in the air ?).
Under those circumstances, having an indigenous government military do most of the fighting makes some sense because the (military ?) is considered at least to have some claim to legitimacy as a representative of their interest. In a civil war, there’s nobody in the middle who thinks that the national government is going to be a plausible representative of their interest unless they’re a member of the ethnic group controlling—(audio break).
Everybody is already situated in an ethnic group or a sectarian group. There isn’t this huge body of uncommitted middle that the two sides are fighting over. As a result, when you hand the fighting off to an indigenous national military, what you’re really doing is handing it off to a party that most of the country will view as a representative of the other group—ethnic groups in combat.
So given that, I think part of the problem with the debate is that it’s been over the wrong question. And it’s been using the wrong analogies, the wrong metaphors to fight a war. And as a result of that, I think sacrifice of our soldiers and the service that’s been rendered has been in many ways in pursuit of something that couldn’t solve the problem no matter how well or badly it was executed in the field. And I think that’s a problem for those in Washington who are charged with directing this conflict at the higher strategic level.
BRIGETY: I think we have time for one or maybe two more questions at the most. So I’ll come here.
QUESTIONER: Hello. My name is Andrew Knotts (ph) and I’m a student here at George Mason in government and politics. My question is based on a number of experiences I’ve had—(off mike)—candid conversations with several flag-rank officers at the U.S. Military Academy. Based on your (account ?) that you don’t view the three-nation solution for Iraq as feasible, (whether ?) this is what I’ve seen primarily advocated by these generals—and I’m not simply just interested in there being a phenomenon of mismatch between what they view as—(off mike)—and what the administration views—(off mike). So my question is, what does the—(off mike)—foreign policy establishment view as the best—(inaudible word)—on Iraq? And to what extent can they influence the end result?
BRIGETY: Just as a note, since we’re here with the Council, I note that the president of the Council, Richard Haass, Thursday said, “The Iraq war is not winnable in any real sense of the word ‘winnable,’” end quote.
So Andrew’s question is an interesting one. To what extent does the sort of non-—up the highest echelon of U.S. foreign policy establishment have a role to play in getting to the vision that you talked about, or some other alternative vision?
For anyone on the panel.
MR. : I’ll just take a quick shot. First of all, I don’t think that there’s any agreement—there’s clearly no agreement on what’s to be done in Iraq amongst foreign policy establishment intellectual types like ourselves.
But I do think there’s extraordinary opportunity to influence policy. Just take the so-called Baker commission, the Iraq Study Group. It’s not just the commissioners of the Iraq Study Group but is composed of four expert working groups, pulled from all of the most prestigious think tanks in Washington, in New York and prestigious universities, that have gotten together over the course of the last—better part of eight months on a monthly basis to discuss key issues related to the Iraq issue.
Now, that’s just one example. On other issues, perhaps the foreign policy community doesn’t have that kind of influence. But certainly my own experience has been that people are interested in what our views are.
The problem is that nobody has a good answer. Everybody, you know, sits you down at the table, gives you a cup of coffee and a piece of danish and say(s), “Okay, what’s the answer?” And nobody really has one, because they really are no good solutions to the problem right now.
And that—and there’s a real robust debate about whether to get out of Iraq sooner, break this country into three pieces, stay the course. And this is what—because there is no real, clear way to see out of this mess, that’s why you don’t have—perhaps the flag rank officers that you are talking to have a vastly different opinion from what some other people do, because we just have different opinions, and we have no good answer.
BRIGETY: We have time for one last question. There’s a question over here, on the right.
QUESTIONER: Hi. My name’s Peter (inaudible surname). I’m a sophomore at George Mason. And I’d like to ask what would be the practical consequences of a full-scale troop withdrawal tomorrow versus staying the course, as George Bush likes to say, and continuing with our policy right now.
BRIGETY: If you could do it, if you could pull everybody out tomorrow, what would happen?
MR. : Well, let me start by saying that almost no one is advocating that at the moment, that that’s not what the Democratic Party supports. It’s certainly not what the president supports.
But just as a thought experiment, what would happen? Well, I think you’d see a very rapid escalation in the scale of sectarian killing. Right now the U.S. military in the country, for whatever else it is or isn’t accomplishing, in garrison or not, is acting as a damper on the severity of sectarian killings within the country. It obviously isn’t preventing them, but on the other hand, it’s keeping a lid on them.
The kind of negotiations leading to a power-sharing compromise that many people want and that the U.S. government is currently pushing, albeit ineffectively, requires time to sort out and work out.
And if nothing else, the parties to the negotiation are radically disunified and politically underdeveloped. If tomorrow you simply removed the primary government on the level of violence in the country, I think long before these parties could organize themselves, come to a compromise and implement it, the result would be a tremendous increase in the scale of killing, and whatever threshold might exist for tolerance required to get a compromise would be passed almost overnight.
MR. : I’d just—there are two more—I think there’s two other consequences of withdrawing too—perhaps not overnight, but precipitously—is, one, the lesson that people in the region, our enemies and our friends, will learn from withdrawing the troops. And that is, one, our enemies—al Qaeda, other terrorist organizations—will learn that the United States can be beaten. And that will lead us to open up the field for more terrorism directed against U.S.interests and perhaps even here in the United States. That’s not to fear-monger; it’s just natural. What did al Qaeda learn from the experience in Somalia? What did Hezbollah and Hamas learn from Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in the spring of 2000?
Our friends—the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Jordanians, the small Gulf states—will learn that the United States cannot necessarily be counted on in the crunch.
And what we see right now in the region is, you have Iran, which has been absent from this conversation—Iran in a very real bid for regional hegemony. And you would find that those countries in the region who no longer can count on the United States reaching an accommodation with the Iranians—something that we wouldn’t want to see. And it’s probably something that people don’t really talk about when they discuss this question of withdrawing troops, is what—they’re going to have a moral obligation to the Iraqi people. Perhaps it was not wise to invade Iraq, not fully understanding what the political dynamics were there. But to withdraw from Iraq and leave this country in chaos, for people—and many good people to really fend for themselves, and leave this dreadful security situation would be a black spot on the United States for more than a generation to come and would certainly—if we’re concerned about our image in the region right now, it would certainly have a devastating effect on the United States for many, many years to come.
BRIGETY: On that happy note—(laughter)—let me thank all of you for coming, for a wonderful presentation. I thank our speakers—Stephen Biddle, Steven Cook, Peter Mandaville, our own Eric McGlinchey—and most especially thank the Council on Foreign Relations for sponsoring this event. Thank you all very much. (Applause.)
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