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A Discussion of Iraqi Futures

Speakers: Stephen D. Biddle, Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, "How To Leave A Stable Iraq", and Steven Simon, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, "The Price of The Surge" (Foreign Affairs, May/June 2008)
Presider: James F. Hoge, Editor, Foreign Affairs
September 8, 2008
Council on Foreign Relations

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JAMES HOGE:  (In progress) -- and said, "Okay, militarily it has had some success in stabilizing the situation, but ironically that may turn out to be fatal to U.S. strategic aims rather than helpful to it."  Explain that a bit.

STEVEN SIMON:  Well -- I should introduce what I have to say by noting that writing for magazines is really challenging -- (laughter) -- and Foreign Affairs, no less than most.  And one of the things they like to do is put their own titles on the articles so that people buy the magazine.  And as a CFR fellow, I couldn't applaud that objective more.  (Laughter.)

HOGE:  You've got a lot of readership, I'll tell you that.  (Laughter.)

SIMON:  And it's really great -- the royalties -- (laughter) --

HOGE:  We'll pass right by that.  (Laughter.)

SIMON:  Yeah.  Well, anyway, the subtitle "American Strategy Hastens Iraq Demise" was substituted for something like, "Some Scattered -- (inaudible) -- on Selected Episodes in Modern Middle Eastern History."  (Laughter.)  I don't know why, but that's what they did. 

I'm not sure it was making such a grand claim, but in a nutshell I'll tell you what I did in the article, which was to look at Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and look at the way in which Jordan and Saudi Arabia both came together as states at a crucial time in their history.  And there was one sort of common denominator in that process that was very striking.  And that common denominator was the need perceived by those who were seeking to fashion states out of the raw material they were working with to corral the tribes and to bring tribal leaders under the rubric of the state.  Where that process in the Middle East and South Asia hadn't worked out, you wound up with weak, unstable states that are today sources of real trouble. 

So, for example, in Yemen that process was never completed and Yemen today is, I suppose, to be generous, you could call it a state but it's basically a couple of big cities and hinterlands that are largely independent of political leaders in those big cities.

The other example I would give is not in the Middle East per se -- although some people would consider it to be a part of the greater Middle East -- and that's Pakistan.  There the Pashtun tribes were never really pulled into the rubric of the state, and as a result you have serious problems even today with respect to the unity and cohesion of the Pakistani state.  And this is in the headlines every day now so, you know, I won't belabor it.

The punch line to my argument was that the U.S., in the process of exploiting the awakening movement that had begun in Iraq in 2006, had proceeded to do exactly the opposite of what has been necessary in the development of other successful states in the Middle East.  So instead of bringing the Sunni tribes into the state and co-opting the sheiks, in fact the United States created an independent -- well, largely autonomous Sunni stand out in the Sunni areas; they empowered the sheiks, and they created a huge army -- an army of 100,000 fairly well-armed people who are not happy with the current political dispensation in Iraq. 

My prescription was only that if Iraq were to emerge as a successful state from the horrendous tribulations it's experienced over the past 30-plus years, the process that the United States initiated would have to be reversed, and that state formation in the Iraqi case would have to, in a way, get with the program, and the tribes would have to be folded once again into the state.

Since I wrote that, I was dismayed that the current Iraqi leadership didn't take the article to heart.  (Laughter.)  I would have thought they'd at least read it. 

And anyway, they're going in the opposite direction, and what's happening now is that the Maliki government is actively seeking to undermine the process of reconciliation with the Sunnis and is targeting Sunni sheiks instead of incorporating them into the rubric of government.  That's really the argument in a nutshell.

HOGE:  Let me ask both of you this question then:  Let's assume for a moment that we are going to withdraw somewhere around 2011, which is getting to be kind of de-figured -- it sounds to me what you're saying, Steven, is that the forces on the ground -- Sunni, Shi'a; and within the Shi'a, different divisions -- are waiting for us to leave and they're going to resume their battle over who's going to run the state rather than compromise and have them all have a hand in it.  And if that's the case, do -- would you agree with that?  Or do you think the progress of the last 18 months has been sufficient to keep a different ball rolling down the mountain?

Let's start with Stephen.

We have two Stevens!  (Laughter.)  Stephen B. and then we'll go to Steven.

STEPHEN D. BIDDLE:  Okay.  There's a widely held view that says that this is all just a lull. 

HOGE:  Yeah, right.

BIDDLE:  You know, all the -- (inaudible) -- are waiting us out; as soon as we're gone, it'll all resume.  And I don't subscribe to that view. 

I think the reason you've got a negotiated ceasefire -- or actually a large series of them that swept across the country with the speed that it did -- is because it's a reflection of a profoundly different underlying strategic reality in this conflict beginning about the middle of 2007 than you've seen in 2006, in which for the first time all of the parties -- all of the internal combatants' military self-interest lay in stopping the war.  Sunnis believed that as a result of their defeat in the Battle of Baghdad over the course of 2006, if this war went to a fight to the finish, they would lose.  They previously thought they were the stronger side; the wave of sectarian violence in Baghdad in 2006 persuaded them otherwise.  They don't want to go back to war.  If Sunni -- if war resumes in Iraq the belief on the part of the great majority of the Sunni -- now called the Sons of Iraq organization that had implemented the ceasefire is, the result of that would be defeat and potential genocide for them unless they can bring their neighbors into -- (inaudible).

HOGE:  But do they no longer have the objective of once again ruling the country?

BIDDLE:  Oh, of course they would love to rule of country. 
And, in fact, if you spend much time with them you'll often -- one will come up and put his arm around you and take you aside and point out -- "Now that we've gotten rid of al Qaeda in Iraq, it's time to go after the Persians" -- by which they mean the government -- the Shi'ite-dominated government. 

But they understand that if we don't cooperate, that is not going to happen.  And there is no way in the world we are going to cooperate with -- (inaudible) -- Sunni dreams of someday or another producing a new Ba'athist dictatorship in Iraq.  We have it in our power to prevent that by simply not acting.  And the Sunnis understand very, very clearly that if we don't help them, they can't do it themselves.

Similarly the primary Shi'ite militias like, for example, the Jaish al Mahdi -- the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al Sadr -- now realizes as a result of a series of military defeats at the hand initially of the Iraqi government aided by us in Basra and then in Sadr City, that they can't win, renewed open warfare with their various internal rivals. 

I don't think this is sort of a widespread breaking out of humanitarianism on the part of really brutal and cruel actors within the Iraqi war.  I think the reason they've -- nor do I think it's that they're off polishing their Kalashnikovs and waiting for the right moment.  I think the reason these ceasefires occurred with such breathtaking speed -- faster than anyone in Iraq or here I think, certainly, including myself, ever thought was going to happen -- was because there was a military change on the ground in Iraq that made it in their self interest to get this war over as quickly as they can -- in their part, don't think it's going to -- (inaudible).

HOGE:  I guess the key question, though, is, was there a change of mind -- for a period of time was it more substantial than that?  For one of the argument's made is that none the parties have given up their real objectives -- Maliki is not trying to get Sunnis into the government; Kurds are not trying stay an integral part of Iraq life, and the Sunnis want to be back in control. 

Steven S., having gone bottom-up rather than top-down looking for security, maybe out of desperation, what could we do now that might affect the dire scenario which you were about to draw, which is you return to tribalism, and look what you get -- you get a Yemen writ large.

SIMON:  Well, you know, I'd rather think that the outcome will be, you know, a strongman arrangement.

HOGE:  Coming from the American-trained Iraqi army?

SIMON:  Well, you know, there has been some interesting developments.  First of all, I do share with Steve a -- I mean, Steve -- (laughter) -- I share this distaste for the "oh, those stupid Arabs will kill each other constantly and forever without stopping" narrative.  I don't think it's generally true, and it's certainly not true with regard to Iraq. 

But, you know, I've been thinking about Iraqi futures, and talking about it with some friends, we concluded on the basis in part of what was going on with the army and an analysis of Maliki's movements over the past few months that the likely outcome would be something we called a "national unity dictatorship" -- as opposed to a national unity government.  A national unity dictatorship -- a NUD -- (laughter) -- and the people who would -- the people who would endorse this would be "NUDniks."  (Laughter.)

Well, if you look at what -- speaking seriously now -- if you look at what Maliki's been doing, he has been carving out a role for himself, a position as a strongman in the face of these shifting dynamics and also, of course, looking down the road at the prospect of U.S. withdrawal.  He's working with the Iranians and the Americans -- not bad if you can do it.  He made some progress in the south and is in a position to portray himself as the guy who cleaned up that militia mess in Maysan and parts of Baghdad.  He's going after the Sunnis, as I mentioned a minute ago; he's reneged on his promises to integrate 20,000 of the 100,000 Sons of Iraq organization members into the Iraqi Security Forces; and he's gone on a campaign of intimidation and assassination.  And certainly there are very few Sons of Iraq organization honchos in Baghdad anymore. 

Interestingly in Qhanaqin province up in the north, he's made a play against the Kurds -- his first loyal allies -- going up to Qhanaqin and saying, "Okay, peshmerga" -- which is the Kurdish militia, "out."  Now a deal was ultimately struck in a crisis atmosphere to get the Maliki -- to get Maliki kind of off that, to walk that cat back, but it was a pretty clear signal that, you know, he was not in a mood to tolerate Kurdish provocations either. 

So here you see this kind of broad push, and he's doing it on the back of his army -- and I emphasize "his" army.  Certainly it's the Iraqi army, but it answers to Maliki.  And their esprit de corps, interestingly -- for those of you interested in "NUDnikology" -- the esprit de corps of the army has advanced markedly over the past year.  They had an Army Day parade last fall that was quite impressive -- marches, parades and so forth.  This was an army that was recovering its self-confidence that felt (its head of mission ?).  And, you know, they operate relatively effectively, and certainly the general -- the U.S. general who has been administering the training of late of Iraqi army units has had pretty good things to say about their progress and has predicted a fairly robust state of readiness for sometime in early or mid-2009.

So the army's coming together and they are Maliki's.  Now I hasten to add that he could be picking sides -- that at the end of the day he's not going to be able to win.  But nevertheless, the impulse behind Maliki's actions is pretty clear.  So I see politics in Iraq headed in that direction.

HOGE:  Speaking of politics in Iraq, the consensus -- whatever it is -- that 2011 is roughly the date to have a major U.S. retrenchment of position there -- seems to me in part based on the fact that that allows for one more round of provincial and federal elections.  Are those really pivotable?  We had them in 2005, and what followed was political paralysis and then sectarian battles of a rather high order.  What has changed to make the upcoming elections -- I think it's 2009, 2010 more promising than the last?

Steven?

BIDDLE:  What Steven do you want?  (Laughter.)  Okay.

They may turn out to -- this coming round may turn out to be just as destabilizing as the last. 

SIMON:  Yeah.

BIDDLE:  I think elections are an opportunity for substantial improvement or for things to become substantially worse.  That's one of the central reasons why I would argue the importance of a U.S. presence through that wave of elections, to reduce the odds that they destabilized the situation because people believe that they were fixed or thrown or controlled in some way by the government. 

The key potential difference between then and now is the willingness of key Iraqi participants -- and especially the Sunnis -- to take a part.  In the last wave, not just Iraqi Sunnis but also many of Muqtada al Sadr's followers boycotted the elections, and the result was a formal government that was radically unrepresentative of the Iraqi population at large and unrepresentative in very systematic ways -- I mean, large, relatively coordinated groups of excluded people with an incentive to act against the government. 

There is a chance that this next wave will be inclusive.  And in particular the Sunnis have decided that they made a serious mistake to sit out the last wave.  And unless they are prevented from doing so -- and one possibility here, per my friend Steve's suggestion -- is that the government will try to exclude actors like the Sons of Iraq and other new Sunni forms of representation like Muqtada al Sadr's people.  There is a possibility the government will again try to exclude major blocks of voters from the election.  If it does not, they are now willing to participate.  There will be very few voluntary boycotts. 

That both creates the possibility for more representative government out the other end; it also creates incentives before the elections for a variety of actions that, if we take an active shaping role, can in principle be positive rather than negative. 

For example, the Maliki government is actively competing to try and secure the allegiance of Muqtada al Sadr's political base, which is now up for grabs because of Sadr's fall from grace.  One can imagine good ways and bad ways of going about that.  With proper U.S. coercive leverage, I believe the Maliki government can be pushed in the direction of competing for that constituency by providing actual services in places like Sadr City.  Left to his own devices, my guess is that his natural instincts will be to suppress by military force potential political organization activities in places like Sadr City that might oppose them. 

Again, I think much depends on the role that the United States plays, which is one of reasons why I think it's a mistake for us to disengage both politically and militarily too early.

HOGE:  One last question and then we're going to go to the audience.  I've got plenty more but it's their turn now. 

But Steven S., there are some people who make the argument that you're not going to get the reconciliation, the accommodations -- some have been made but some very big items are still out there like -- (inaudible) -- and so on -- you're not going to get that as long as the U.S. military presence is there because we're making it possible for everybody to continue to dream about their ultimate fantasy in the Sunni stage ruling the country as a whole again and so forth and so on.  But actually if we wanted to see more political action towards reconciliation, we should get out of there before the elections, not after.  What do you say?

SIMON:  Look, you know, my sense is that the United States has had remarkably little leverage over Iraqi politics despite the very large force presence we've had there now for years.  We've been as high as 180 after the invasion; you know, we're -- we'll shortly be at 145.  I don't see the enormous leverage. 

Well, you know, coming from that perspective, it's not clear to me that it matters very much for the course of Iraqi politics whether we're there to enforce deals or hold hands or whatever.  And you know, it's possible that there'll be real political advances -- serious progress when the United States leaves because factions who feel that they'll be so vulnerable in the absence of U.S. protection, they'll have to cut deals. 

Now, I'm just not really convinced -- and let me take it a step further.  These are serious, intelligent people we're dealing with in Iraq.  The political players are really savvy.  And there's a discounting process that takes place in a situation like this.  They read the news; they can log on to The New York Times and Washington Post and CNN, and my guess is they've already discounted a U.S. withdrawal.  In other words, they're assuming that it's going to happen and it's going to happen in the relatively near term.  And some of the jockeying that we're already seeing -- in particular Maliki's maneuvering -- is a sign that that recognition is not lost on the Iraqi political players. 

And certainly if you look at specific groups -- let's take the Sons of Iraq organization -- we either have or are just about to stop footing the bill.  Well, the tab is not going to be picked up by the Maliki government, and our withdrawal from the bargain that we made with the Sons of Iraq I think will be interpreted correctly.  Now, I don't know exactly how they're going to react, but they will try and protect their position and they will either do so through accommodation or resistance or some combination of the two. 

The only party in Iraq that really has no need to think about an American withdrawal are the Kurds because I think they're quite confident in continuing American military protection of one sort or another.  They may or may not be right about that, but I'm sure all the other parties are planning already for a withdrawal even if it hasn't taken place. 

HOGE:  Okay, before I go to the floor, just a quick plug for Foreign Affairs -- we now have audio versions of selected essays from every new issue, including audio versions of the essays by our two guests this evening.  And also the contents of the magazine and the archive going all the way back to 1961 are now available at our website, which is foreignaffairs.org.

With that, let's go to the floor.  Way in the back.

QUESTIONER:  My name is Frederick Eisman (sp).  My question is, what is the nature of the withdrawal?  And I'm thinking particularly about Iran -- is it a complete withdrawal or is it a continued presence sort of along the lines of what we had in Germany for many years where we have U.S. bases and we continue to pose a threat to the Iranians, or do we leave completely?

HOGE:  Steve?

BIDDLE:  Let me say what I think it should be.  If you're more interested in what the candidates think it should be, we can talk about that as well.

Given that I think the purpose of the U.S. military presence is peacekeeping, I think we have to have a visible presence.  I think it would be a mistake if we withdrew into the desert or if we took all of the combat formations out of the country or if we did other things that made it impossible for a threatened, aggrieved Iraqi party who believes that the ceasefire participant on the other side of Haifa Street isn't holding the terms to come to an American officer and say, "What are you going to do about it?"  We need the ability to respond to enforce the terms of these ceasefires at least until they begin to become self-enforcing downstream. 

Given that, when I think about the trajectory of the U.S. presence in the country over time, what I would like to see is a couple of years in which it changes as little as possible.  It's probably going to have to change some just because of the institutional requirements of readiness on the part of the U.S. military, but it changes as little as possible at least until the dust settles after the second wave of these elections, and it then gradually thins but it doesn't radically change its nature or composition.  We don't remove the entirety of one component, for example.  We don't remove all of the combat forces and retain only support elements.  We gradually, proportionally draw down, providing less and less of the ability to enforce these deals, but some continued ability to enforce the deals for some significant time.

Now, implicit in your question was also an issue of U.S. basing and whether there's -- this presence is to be perceived as permanent. 
Certainly I have no interest in a permanent presence in Iraq.  If Steve Simon could persuade me that we could withdraw within a year and everything would be fine, I'd favor it.  And I don't think there's a substantial body of opinion in the United States that favors any kind of permanent presence.  We need whatever basing structure is minimally adequate to feed, house, repair and care for however many troops we have there at the time.  But as that presence starts to ramp down, there's no reason why the basing structure can't ramp down at the same time. 

HOGE:  Under that sort of wishful scenario, what period of time are you looking at for a significant American presence to be maintained?  Is it 2011 or is it longer?

BIDDLE:  Well, a lot depends on how you're defining "significant."  I think within a year or two of the last of these waves of elections, assuming that the national elections in what we hope will be 2010 --

HOGE:  Right.

BIDDLE:  -- go smoothly, wait a year and then start a drawdown that at the end of another 16 months puts you at something like 50 percent of today's troop count.  And after that ramp down to the point where 10 years after that you have 10 percent of today's troop count.

HOGE:  Let's bring the campaign into this.  As you mentioned before the session, we are not used to having presidential campaigns while we're in the middle of a war, and it can affect both the campaign and it can affect the war.  Now, we haven't seen that much as of now, but suppose we're -- do you expect that during this campaign the candidates are going to feel the pressure to become more specific and stick with a particular date and a particular size of the presence that will be left behind?

BIDDLE:  My sense is that neither campaign wants to be any more specific than they are right now.  They both feel whipsawed by events in different ways, but nonetheless they both feel whipsawed. 
And given that, neither one of them has been creating a requirement on the part of the other to be more specific by attacking them for their Iraq policy.  Iraq has been absent without leave from the election -- (inaudible).

HOGE:  Well, they've both had fairly fixed positions for quite some time.  The only change I've seen recently was on, of all places, the O'Reilly Show where Obama admitted that at least in a security sense the surge had been successful -- something he hadn't been willing to say before. 

Steven Simon, what are your feelings about Iraq as an issue in the campaign?  Is it likely to complicate matters or to clarify matters?

SIMON:  Well, there will be some forcing events like the debate.  The first debate is going to be focused on national security, and I imagine that Senator McCain will point to the lowering of violence in Iraq and say that's a direct result of a policy that he had pushed, a lone voice in the wilderness for a number of years before it was finally embraced reluctantly by a floundering Bush administration.  I mean, it's going to be in his interest to distance himself in this way from the Bush administration, even as he carves out a very distinct stance from Senator Obama's.

And if you look at the disaggregated polling, Senator McCain has one real plus.  There's a serious spread in his favor on the question of, who do you think is better equipped or better able to protect the United States?  So he's going to push this I think for all it's worth. 

You know, Senator Obama's position I don't think will change.  He's got a party base that he needs to take seriously I think as he goes into this election.  And there's been not a peep from the campaigns that I've detected -- and, you know, I don't detect anything -- but anyway, I haven't seen any signs that he's backing off the 16-month withdrawal schedule except to say that he would attend to the views of ground commanders.  But he hasn't said that he would do what ground commanders might recommend one way or the other.  And he's sticking to his position on a residual force.

He hasn't specified -- for reasons, I think, that Steve Biddle made abundantly clear, he hasn't specified how big that force is going to be.  He has talked about missions for it, so the anti-terrorism mission, the training mission, protecting Americans and so forth.  But he hasn't put a number to that.

HOGE:  Right.

Another question.  Yes, in the back.  Bill.

QUESTIONER:  (Off mike.)

SIMON:  I think Iran is pretty happy with the situation.  I mean, ironically, they may be somewhat less happy after the United States leaves.  But for the moment, I think they're pretty happy.  They were the broker in the battle in the south that led to Muqtada al-Sadr's backing down.  They were, in fact, the indispensable player there.  The U.S. certainly put its thumbs on the scale in favor of Maliki's cause in the south, but it was the Iranians who brokered the deal that brought that episode to a satisfactory conclusion, I think, from both a U.S. and an Iraqi government perspective.

The Iranians have penetrated that part of Iraq very thoroughly.  They have enormous economic interests there now.  They control banking.  They control the flow of commodities that are necessary for everyday life.  They've got a pretty good situation.  And they're also looking at a United States that's on the run, from their perspective, and moreover, a United States that is now abandoning the Sunni allies it had courted in the effort to tamp down violence in the context of the surge.

And Maliki is very close to the Iranians.  And the closest political party in Iraq to Maliki's position, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution, is essentially a creature of Iran.  So the ties there are very close.  So if I were an Iranian, I'd say, "Hmm, I seem to have gotten most of what I want, so why not just sit tight?"

HOGE:  Yes, sir.  A mike coming your way.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  Josh Difol (sp), recent graduate and unemployed.  (Laughter.)

I was wondering what your perspective is on Saudi Arabia.  Everyone's been talking about Iran, but Saudi Arabia has kind of gone under the radar about how they are likely to respond as troop withdrawals occur, don't occur, and how they react to growing Iranian influence in Iraq.

HOGE:  Stephen, do you want that one?

BIDDLE:  Steve's the regionalist, so I defer to him.

SIMON:  Regionalists.  (Laughter.)

HOGE:  I thought it was -- (inaudible).

SIMON:  A strategist and a regionalist.  When will we have reconciliation?  (Laughter.)

You know, the Saudis don't have a strong hand to play.  They do see Iraq in the broader framework of their relations with Iran.  They see Iran doing fairly well in Iraq.  They had, in theory, I suppose, you know, an ideal constituency in terms of the Sons of Iraq movement, but there's not a whole lot that the Saudis can really do to improve the lot of the Sons of Iraq or assist them militarily.  The Saudis don't really have much in the way of a cross-border military capability.

Now, if tensions, inter-ethnic tensions, inter-sectarian tensions, rise in Iraq, they will rise in surrounding countries, including Saudi Arabia.  But the Saudis, as do the surrounding states, have very strong internal security arrangements.  And I don't think any of them, including the Saudis, is particularly concerned about an insurgency of some sort in consequence of rising tensions within Iraq.

So, you know, on balance you have a Saudi Arabia that's just kind of stuck watching what's playing out in Iraq and hoping that things work out well.

HOGE:  Let me ask a strategy question, following up on that, and get Steve back into this a little bit.  And this is a next-administration question.  I'm assuming that there's too much baggage with this administration to really have a new effective strategy.  But one that's been taken, and I think you favor it, is that we really need to have more of a regional approach to get some of the answers that we need here -- a contact group, which might include neighbors, might include Europe, might include some U.N. representation, and so on.

Contact groups don't have that good a record, it doesn't seem to me.  What do you think a contact group, under a new American administration, could accomplish, and how, that we're not able to accomplish at this point in terms of getting some kind of reconciliation?

BIDDLE:  I guess I'll start; Steve may disagree with me.  Not very much, I don't think.  I think it's a good idea.  And I think either candidate will pursue something like that.  I see very little down side to more aggressive regional diplomacy.  And, in fact, this administration has actually been engaging in more aggressive regional diplomacy, largely unnoticed by the general public, in part because of its utter lack of progress.  There hasn't been much to report; hence there hasn't been much reporting.

I frankly doubt that a new administration will fare that much better absent events in Iraq that compel it.  I mean, if, for example, there are -- sizable U.S. withdrawal begins early, let's say, and the result of that is that the Sons of Iraq, which we are not abandoning -- our current U.S. policy is we will pay them as long as they are not incorporated into the Iraqi Security Forces -- but nonetheless, they feel threatened.

If a large-scale U.S. withdrawal begins early, you could easily imagine that they wouldn't necessarily go back on the warpath, but they could very easily re-admit al Qaeda in Iraq into the central part of the country by allowing cells, safe houses, bomb-making factories that they're currently giving away to the United States, just allow them to exist and allow that level of terrorist violence to recur.

If the result of that is a gradual ramping back downwards towards the kind of violence that you saw in 2006, then the equities of the neighbors become engaged in ways that they aren't if things are looking relatively peaceful.

Either way, though, I've never believed that the neighbors have any kind of leverage on the internal parties within Iraq that's required to resolve the conflict.  This is an existential identity war within Iraq.  Given the stakes involved in that conflict, I don't think the neighbors have the kind of leverage required to resolve it.

And hence I think the upside potential in regional diplomacy, although it's unquestionably the right thing to do, and although a new administration, whoever they are, will unquestionably pursue it, I think, at the end of the day, it's helpful but unlikely to be central.

HOGE:  Yes, sir.

QUESTIONER:  (Off mike.)

HOGE:  Coming your way, a mike.

QUESTIONER:  Alex -- (inaudible).  A question for the regionalist, Mr. Simon.

You spoke of Iran before and you spoke of its growing influence, especially in the south.  Under that influence, do you ever see Iraq becoming something similar to Lebanon in how it's influenced by Syria and maybe indirectly by Iran?  Or what in general do you see the role that Iran will play in the future in Iraq?

SIMON:  I don't think Iran has any interest or ambition to directly control any part of Iraq.  I think it is objectively in their interest, and I think it is, from their viewpoint, in their interest to do so indirectly through a friendly central government in Iraq, in this case that of al-Maliki.

HOGE:  Yes, sir.

QUESTIONER:  Charlie Harris.

Would either of you care to address the refugee problem and how you see it playing out?

BIDDLE:  Do you want to go first, or shall I?

SIMON:  Please.

BIDDLE:  Obviously there's a huge refugee problem.  And if you look down the road and you want to paint a grim scenario for the possible disaster that could loom in Iraq, if violence reignites within the country, these refugee populations and the neighbors are potentially serious sources of instability in the neighboring governments.  I mean, they don't see a risk of insurgency and instability as a result of the Iraq war today.

Five more years of internal warfare in Iraq, with another couple of million refugees leaving the country, and the potential serious undermining of the interests of co-religionist communities within Iraq, I think, has the substantial potential to change those regional perceptions of their stakes within the country.

Now, to try and prevent that, some means of accommodation in the event that Iraq remains stable and refugees begin returning is important.  And obviously the problem with this is when refugees return, the homes they left are very often occupied by others when they get back.  And frequently they'll be occupied by others from a different sectarian community.  So there's a tremendous potential flashpoint in refugee returns, especially when the Iraqi government is proceeding so slowly in its ability to deliver services.

So, for example, ideally what we would like is a situation in which the Iraqi government adjudicates property rights disputes, not unlike -- (inaudible) -- from Germany, for example, after unification.  There is some sort of judicial process.  Competing claims are weighed.  Rights are established and compensation is offered.

The government of Iraq has zero administrative capacity to do that today.  Unless they dramatically improve their bureaucratic performance soon, they won't have much potential to do that for quite some time.  If the United States doesn't act, for example, to act as the catalyst in the construction of alternative housing for returning refugees such that they don't have to kick out the squatters from a competing sectarian group that are now occupying what had been their homes, but can instead be housed and situated in the same province, perhaps, but not in the same buildings, unless somebody does that -- and it's not going to be the government of Iraq for quite a while -- this is a tremendous potential opportunity to reignite the violence in the country.

Again, when we talk about engagement, continued engagement by the United States and Iraq, part of that is the troop count needed to provide peacekeeping services, but part of it also is the political and the administrative and the advisory effort with respect to the civilian government to enable them to manage things like the return of refugees.

HOGE:  Let me add a footnote to this general question, which is the difficult situation up around Kirkuk, where I think sectarian ethnic cleansing is still going on at a pretty ferocious pace, and I don't get the sense that the Kurds are going to take much leadership from us or anybody else on what they do about this.

Is it still going on?  How big a problem is this likely to become?  Could this be the flashpoint for something much bigger?  Steve.

SIMON:  Kirkuk is an accident waiting to happen.  I don't think it's unmanageable, actually, but -- it's not unmanageable, but I don't think that, given Maliki's aspirations right now and Kurdish feelings of entitlement, bode well.  I think, in fact, that those two things bias the outcome in favor of violence.  And that will create more refugees, as it already is.

I think it's well to bear in mind that about half the refugee problem is actually outside the borders of Iraq, and the other half is actually within the borders of Iraq in the form of internally displaced people.  This is an enormous number when you consider that the population of Iraq is something like 27 and a half million.  That's a lot of people.

And just to put a gloss on what Steve was saying, or maybe to just reinforce one of these points, if these people come back -- and it doesn't look like they're going to come back anytime soon -- but when they do, they're going to put a correspondingly intense load on the responsibilities and the capacities of the Iraqi government at that time in terms of public health, in terms of housing, in terms of education infrastructure, in terms of just plain sewage.

I mean, there are going to be serious issues, and the government won't be able to meet them.  And when that happens, the government's legitimacy is further derogated, and that in turn creates instability.  So the refugee thing is something that needs to be gotten right.

And I'll just conclude this by saying here we have an area where international involvement can probably make a difference.  If you're convening some kind of international political process and you're actually pressing belly buttons and hitting participants up for things that they can do, it's dealing with the refugee problems and doing some of the things that Steve talked about that are essential and that publics and parliaments in contributor countries and donor countries, I think, would be willing to fund.

HOGE:  Let's go in the back a bit.  Yes.

QUESTIONER:  Edward Goldberg.

My sense is that with the U.S. economy starting to get very shaky, the political will for staying in Iraq, no matter who gets elected, will disappear fairly quickly.  So the question is -- and then we will find a way to get out -- (inaudible).  So what will happen to the region then and to (the areas ?) then?  What's -- (inaudible)?  We hear, well, if we stay troops so long after so many elections, that would be positive.  But I wonder if that's realistic.  What's the political reality if, in a year, we leave?

HOGE:  I guess the question is, will Iraq remain a continuing running sore, or will it start triggering other events in the Middle East that lead to larger confrontation?  Let's hear from both of you?  Steve.  (Inaudible) -- and I'm afraid this will have to be our last question; we're running out of time.

BIDDLE:  I'm very concerned with the downstream risk that if the Iraq war reignites, it could eventually spread beyond its borders.  I don't think that's likely to happen in the near term, partly for some of the reasons Stephen suggested, and partly just because the odds for any given state in any given year taking an action as dramatic as intervening in someone else's civil war are low.

But Iraq has many neighbors, and this civil war, if it reignites, could go on a very long time.  It's not uncommon for civil wars of this kind to last five to 10 years before they burn themselves out.  And the trouble is, if this war does reignite for whatever reason, if the United States stays and it reignites or if we leave and cause it to reignite, the time dynamics are mostly negative.

This refugee outflow, which has been serious and problematic already, will grow substantially more serious and more problematic over time.  Eventually the neighbors, that have so little capacity to intervene bodily in an Iraqi civil war today, are going to become more capable of it as the end stages of an ongoing arms race get realized.  All the neighbors are starting to hedge their bets against unfortunate outcomes in Iraq by increasing their arms acquisitions.  That will gradually improve their ability to intervene.

Sooner or later, an ongoing civil war in Iraq is going to reach the point where one or another of the contestants attains the ability to project power, take and hold ground, and eventually conquer the rival group's territory.  And as that happens, you can imagine a scenario five, six years down the road where the poorly housed, poorly fed, dispossessed, and classically, in other situations, in other places and times, politically radicalized refugee populations in neighboring countries are looking across the border and saying, "Our co-religionists, our birthright, our patrimony, our homes and our property are being extinguished by the enemy.  And if you people are going to -- you, the host government of we, this dissatisfied refugee population, are going to sit back and do nothing while that happens, then we're going to take action ourselves."

And I think the risk down the road that this war regionalizes is that the downstream consequences of an ongoing re-escalated civil war increase over time.  The tendency of neighboring regimes, whose primary interest is regime survival, to perceive the exigencies of regime survival as increasingly mandating that they do something about the problem rather than sitting back and trying to wall the problem off.

Now, none of that is to suggest that if things go bad in Iraq and current trends south and we get a renewed war, that there's something like a certainty that this war will regionalize.  A separate project I'm involved in now is trying to get a sense of the likelihoods and the relative odds that the war would regionalize by looking at a much, much larger data set of empirical experiences, civil war intervention in other times and other places.

The net result of that research suggests not that the likeliest outcome in six or eight or 10 years is a region-wide version of the Iran-Iraq war, but that there might be something on the order of a 30 to 40 percent chance that, after five to 10 years of continued warfare, we get the neighbors being sucked into the conflict, and some probability, not a guarantee, but some probability that the entirety of the energy production potential of the region becomes embroiled in a conflict beginning in a mess the United States leaves behind from a failed war in Iraq.

Now, during the Cold War, we worried to the tune of trillions of dollars about much, much smaller probabilities of catastrophes.  I think a chance, in the neighborhood of one in three, that if we bollox this up and violence returns, we could end up with a regional war in the Persian Gulf and the Mideast is something that I think is daunting enough that we ought to take seriously into account, when we decide how much can we afford in maintaining a presence in Iraq for a year longer at 12 brigades rather than year shorter at 12 brigades.

HOGE:  Steven Simon, your own assessment of this rather fundamental question, and if it's anywhere close to what Steve Biddle has outlined.  What does this say for American engagement?

SIMON:  Well, I haven't looked at any large data sets, but, you know, in the Middle East or the broader region, if you look at the civil wars, say, since the '60s -- Yemen, Algeria, Lebanon -- well, Pakistan predated that, but let's throw Pakistan in there -- you didn't get an internationalization of the conflict.  I mean, Lebanon is a bit of a funny case, because you got Israel and Syria essentially splitting up Lebanon, or chunks of Lebanon, between them.

But in these other cases, where there actually was some foreign intervention, say, in the case of Yemen, it didn't suck in -- these civil wars didn't suck in the rest of the region and they didn't have the kind of cataclysmic, apocalyptic effects, whatever you want to -- however you want to tag them, that some people fear.  And I wouldn't think that that would be the case in Iraq.

I guess, you know, my conviction, perhaps misplaced, that you'll get a leader in Iraq who's kind of like Abdel Karim Qassim was in the late '50s/early '60s, somebody who embodies enough of sectarian traits -- I mean, Abdel Karim Qassim was -- you know, he was part Shi'ite, part Kurd, part Sunni.  He was a little bit of everybody.  He was a one-man -- he was a walking Star Wars bar.  And, you know, and he had control of competent military units, and he just kind of managed to take over.

I sort of -- that somehow strikes me as sort of plausible.  And I think if you get a scenario like that, both the Iranians and the Saudis would be -- they would acquiesce.  It would be okay.  The Iranians might actually like it a lot.  The Saudis might like it less.  So I guess I tend not to see the prospect of complete disintegration or this kind of endless -- (inaudible) -- wound.  But, you know, I'm a congenital optimist.

HOGE:  (Laughs.)  On that note, I hope you all can join us for a glass of wine and other refreshments across the hall.  And thank our panelists.  (Applause.)


.STX


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