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Haass: 'No Silver Bullet' to Resolve Iraq's Problems Quickly, Sees Security and Constitutional Troubles Ahead

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
Interviewee: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
June 29, 2004


Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and, in 2001-2003, the head of policy planning in the State Department, says it is difficult to make an accurate prediction about Iraq’s future now that sovereignty has been restored. But he says “my hunch— it’s actually half a hunch and half a hope— is that gradually Iraqis will come around to see the interim government as essentially legitimate and will come to appreciate their own stakes in the success of the interim government.” He adds that questions about security and constitutional issues must be addressed.

Haass says he sees little difference in future policy toward Iraq between President George W. Bush and his putative Democratic opponent, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts. “There is a general sense that we need to stay there as long as we are welcome; that the stakes are enormous, both in Iraq and, symbolically, beyond it; and that we need to do everything possible to get others to assist— whether it’s the Europeans, the United Nations, the Arabs, whatever,” Haass says.

He was interviewed on June 29, 2004, by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for

Now that there’s been a formal turnover of sovereignty to the Iraqis, what do you think the chances are for the new government to succeed?

I don’t know how to qualify that other than to say, there’s a chance; there’s a decent chance, but I simply don’t know how to ascribe percentages or odds.

This situation seems to defy prediction, because you can just as credibly predict disaster as success.

Predictions are just that, they are predictions. One hears a lot of extreme predictions: on one end of the spectrum, Jeffersonian democracy; at the other end of the spectrum, chaos. My hunch is it’s in between, but the real question is exactly where in between, and I don’t think anybody can answer that question.

If you were asked for advice by the U.S. government, what would you say the United States should be doing?

I don’t think there’s a lot we could be doing that the U.S. government is not already trying to do— accelerating, to the extent possible, the training of Iraqi police and security forces, trying to get the rest of the world to help with security and economic reconstruction, and keeping U.S. forces somewhat in the background.

I say that to simply underscore the reality that there are no ideas that haven’t been floated; there is no silver bullet at this point. If there were easy answers, and I don’t think there were, there sure as hell aren’t any easy answers now. So at this point, it’s an old-fashioned struggle, essentially trying to help the interim government. Every day that they stay in business, every day that they send the message that Iraqis are running Iraq, is a good day.

Is there an analogy to Vietnam? In Vietnam, the United States was supporting the South Vietnamese government, but I guess the analogy is poor.

I don’t see any analogy here. And now that the occupation is formally over, my hunch— it’s actually half a hunch and half a hope— is that gradually Iraqis will come around to see the interim government as essentially legitimate and will come to appreciate their own stakes in the success of the interim government and in keeping to the calendar— having elections late this calendar year or early next, then turning to the constitutional question.

It will be interesting to see if the Iraqis can get support from other Arab states.

That’s important. I don’t think this was one of the principal focuses of U.S. policy. Essentially, the United States has spent the last few days working on the Europeans with, at best, limited success. It would help to get even a symbolic Arab presence that would somehow participate in the training of Iraqi forces.

Not only the training of Iraqi forces, but secondly, television and newspaper pictures of the Iraqi leadership meeting with their Arab counterparts would help the interim government to be seen as legitimate in the eyes of the Arab world.

If President Bush wins again in November, will things change? And if Senator Kerry wins, what will be his Iraq policy?

I don’t think there’s a lot of difference between the two on Iraq at this point. Obviously, there would have been differences going backward, but going forward, I don’t see fundamental differences between a second Bush administration and a first Kerry administration. I’m not even sure if I see modest differences. There is a general sense that we need to stay there as long as we are welcome; that the stakes are enormous, both in Iraq and, symbolically, beyond it; and that we need to do everything possible to get others to assist— whether it’s the Europeans, the United Nations, the Arabs, whatever. So I don’t see, at this point, any real policy debate.

Does Bush get much credit for the Middle East Initiative? I’m surprised, given the animosity toward the Bush administration in the Middle East, that there’s that much interest in reform coming out of Arab states.

What the Bush administration has done, in some ways, is to reinforce the debate going on in the Arab world about these ideas dealing with reform, democracy, elections, and the rest. These ideas were out there, but the administration has given them much more visibility.

I don’t think there’s any turning back. These ideas have been debated and discussed in ways that they haven’t been before. These issues have made their way onto the agenda. I still think it is important for the United States to raise the reform agenda. Basically, it’s important when an American president meets his Arab counterparts that this issue is discussed both privately and publicly. The United States, if it continues to discuss these issues publicly, helps create some space in the Arab world by essentially sending the message that these issues can’t be avoided in the way they were for decades.

I think the American public has largely missed this.

I predict that this is going to be one of the most important foreign policy legacies of this administration. When you think about it, for decades U.S. policy toward the Middle East largely consisted of the [Arab-Israeli] peace process, energy issues, and security issues. The question of the quality of societies, the nature of economies, the details of political systems, even human rights questions, rarely, if ever, came up. The Middle East in that sense is an anomaly because these questions came up in every other part of the world. So this anomaly has ended. In some ways it took 9/11 to do it. It was the realization that flaws in societies in the region ultimately helped produce radicalism and terrorism, which in turn affected us; flaws in the societies in the region could cause instability, which in turn would also affect us.

You said the results of the NATO meeting were not so impressive. Was it not an accomplishment to get everyone to agree to help in Iraq?

It’s a modest accomplishment to get people to agree that they all have a stake in the trajectory of Iraq. What was disappointing were the specific results: the fact that NATO is not prepared to send forces to Iraq; the fact that NATO is not even prepared to send trainers into Iraq. If this was an accomplishment, it was a very modest one.

On Afghanistan, NATO members agreed to increase their support, but I suppose that’s still disappointing?

In Afghanistan, you still have what I would describe as “nation building light.” You have an extremely modest international presence outside of Kabul, and it shouldn’t surprise us that the central government has had very little success in asserting its authority outside of Kabul. In nation building, as in most else in life, you get what you pay for. We approached Afghanistan in an extremely circumscribed way, and the results, or the lack of results, speak for themselves.

If you had to grade the administration’s tenure in Iraq until now, could you give it a grade?

It would be easy to criticize. On the other hand, this is still a process that’s unfolding. Neither you nor I nor anyone can predict for certain where Iraq will be in six months, let alone six years. As a result, any grade we might be tempted to give now would be heavily affected by where things ended up. But clearly, there were some questionable decisions along the way that made a difficult situation more difficult. Historians will no doubt have a field day on this. The focus now has to be on getting it right, which means helping this new Iraqi government, sticking to this calendar.

There are some really difficult questions— above all, the security challenge. It’s an open question whether U.S. and other international troops will be able to stay for as long as they are needed. What concerns me is that as Iraqi nationalism continues to build, the welcome mat may not be left out as long as is needed. We could face a gap between the security challenge and what Iraqis are able to do if either the interim government or its successor asks U.S. and other forces to leave or places them under such heavy constraints that they can’t really act.

Even if we can work ourselves through that, there’s the constitutional challenge over whether you can come up with a constitution that— to bring it down to the most basic— is acceptable to both the Shiite majority and to the Kurds. It’s clear that the so-called Transitional Administrative Law— the interim constitution— is not. The balance between the center and the periphery is too heavily tilted to the periphery; the degree of federalism is too great. But walking that back in a way that would satisfy the Shiites but still be acceptable to the Kurds is going to be an extremely difficult political exercise.

The Kurds, I suppose, have benefited these last few years, and now they are being asked to give a little.

They are going to be asked to give a little. I don’t think you’ll see that until early in 2005 when that issue comes to the fore. So you can see Iraq really in two phases: the next six to nine months, the focus is on bringing the security situation to a point where you can have elections; and then in early 2005, we enter the phase, assuming the security situation has still held up and assuming you’ve held elections, where we can resolve the tension that is inherent in the constitutional issue.

Without asking you to be chauvinistic, is it going to make much difference with the State Department becoming the prime player in Iraq?

I think it sends an important symbolic message. With the arrival of [Ambassador] John Negroponte, with the State Department taking a more visible role, it sends the message not only that the occupation has ended, which is an important symbolic message, but also it sends the message of a degree of normalcy: Iraq is now less different or more like everybody else. That’s healthy. It also will probably mean the United States is taking a lower profile, which, again, provides some opportunity for Prime Minister [Iyad] Allawi and others to fill the political space.

Who is Negroponte’s deputy chief of mission, or does he have several?

I don’t know. It will be an enormously large staff, and it’s hard to imagine a more difficult diplomatic assignment than the one John Negroponte is undertaking.

I’ve heard they’ve had more volunteers than they can accept.

It doesn’t surprise me, and that’s great. For a lot of younger Foreign Service officers and younger people in general, this is one of those special moments for a generation, and a lot of younger people— several of whom worked for me when I was at the State Department— volunteered to go to Iraq because there was this sense that this was going to be the test of their generation; this was their defining experience. They didn’t want to miss out on that.

And for a few people who did go, it proved to be exactly that. One— Drew Erdman, a young man in his 30s, a historian from Harvard, who’s now on the NSC [National Security Council]--ended up being the person who advised the Iraqis on their system for higher education. Another, Meagan O’Sullivan, who also worked with me at the State Department and is now heading to the National Security Council staff, was one of [Coalition Provisional Authority head L. Paul] Bremer’s inner circle and dealt on a daily basis with the Iraqi opposition and then with the interim government. So for people in their early-to-mid 30s, Iraq became an extraordinary opportunity to make a difference and do something that’s truly historical. I’m not surprised that a lot of people volunteered.