The Lessons and Legacy of the Iraq War

Friday, April 12, 2013

Experts discuss what lessons the military learned during the Iraq war, and how the war in Iraq will influence future policy making.

SUSAN CHIRA: So thanks for coming. We have this wonderful panel to talk about the lessons and the legacy of the Iraq War. I'm going to briefly introduce our panelists, but you have their full bios.

Richard Betts, who is the Saltzman professors and director of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia. Michael Mandelbaum, the Herter professor of American foreign policy and director of the American Foreign Policy program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

And Ambassador Dennis Ross who's now counselor for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and has a distinguished career, as you know, in foreign service including most recently former special assistant to President Obama and member of the National Security Counsel.

And I'm Susan Chira. I was foreign editor of the Times from 2004 to 2011, so my tenure pretty much encompassed most of, but not all, of our adventures in Iraq.

I'm going to ask each member of the panel to briefly frame our discussion, which among ourselves we've talked about. We'd like to look at the lessons of the war with an emphasis on how they apply to current debates today.

So please start out, Professor Betts.

RICHARD BETTS: Well, I think, as in many cases, we probably overlearn if not mislearn the lessons of our wars. It seems to me as a student mainly of strategic studies, I'm not a Middle East expert, there are a couple of main lessons. And one is that nothing fails like success. One of the reasons we got into the last war in Iraq was the surprising, indeed stunning, cheap, very successful war in the Persian Gulf in 1990 and '91, which led many to believe that for the other reasons they wanted to fix problems in Iraq, that it should be easy.

We will probably learn the lesson from this case that it's much harder than it need be in other cases, or we may overlearn the lessons as we probably did from Vietnam for a while. But that's -- I think we should never underestimate the extent to which we tend to fight the last war, in both a positive and a negative sense.

There was another one -- I confess it's slipped my mind.

CHIRA: We underestimated the cost.

BETTS: Oh, right. I'm sorry. It's a reminder that if you look at the record of planning and expectations for the wars we get into, we tend to underestimate the costs more often -- and the duration -- more often than we overestimate them.

And how -- related to my first point -- we overestimated the costs and how difficult it would be in 1990 to '91. And that is one of the few cases in which that has happened rather than our getting into a war that turns out to be longer and more difficult and with consequences we hadn't anticipated.

The -- I think, arguably, the Israelis have had the same problem. There are occasions like 1967, when the costs and duration turned out to be much less onerous than anticipated. But compared to several other Israeli wars after that, it looked like an unusually good outcome.

So to me, that's just a reminder that -- and so-called wars of choice, what I would -- I would rather characterize the 2003 attack on Iraq as simply a war we decided to start -- that that record of relative underestimation is good reason to be extremely skeptical about making the choice.

CHIRA: Thanks. Professor Mandelbaum.

MICHAEL MANDELBAUM: Thank you. I'd like to look forward by looking backward and engaging in some revisionist history about the war itself. There are some things, despite the divisiveness of the war, on which everybody tends to agree. And I think those things that everybody believes are not true, and therein lie a couple of lessons.

I want to mention two things. First, everybody believes, accepts, that whether the war was a good idea or a bad idea, it was carried out very badly. Serious mistakes were made, and if they had not been made, the war would have been -- maybe not easy, but easier. I want to say that the things that people all believe the United States should have done were, in fact, not feasible.

Now, the most important mistake that's always noted is, there were too few troops. And indeed there were. But I don't think there was ever really an option for the number of troops that would have been required to pacify Iraq at the outset, because the U.S. government didn't have enough troops. And if it had tried to mobilize those troops, that might have created more domestic opposition.

One obvious place to get more troops was from other countries, but no other country was volunteering. There was a great deal of talk about the need to get the allies in line to get a Security Council vote. And the French, from time to time, talked about the conditions in which they might be prepared to support the war. But they never talked about conditions in which they and the Germans and others would be prepared, actually, to contribute troops.

So -- and if somebody had come to President Bush and said -- a representative of the Europeans had come and said, you wait for six months, follow our course; if it doesn't work, we'll not only support you, we'll go to war with you and we'll contribute a large number of troops, I don't think President Bush or any other American president could have turned down such an offer. But of course, such an offer was never made, could not have been made and probably never will be made, from which I infer that the much-discussed, much-vaunted multilateralism is somewhere between a disappointment and a mirage.

Well, it's also argued, especially by members of the administration, that the United States should never have taken control of Iraq directly, that we should have stood up an Iraqi government initially, and probably, taking control was a bad idea. But where was this government going to come from? How would it have been possible to find competent, credible people who could bridge the divide that -- the divides that led to such bloodshed? I don't think it could have been done. And certainly, the government that was assembled under Ayad Allawi at the end of 2003 didn't do much to heal the rift. So I don't think that was feasible.

It's also argued frequently that it was a mistake to disband the Army and disband the bureaucracy. Now, Walt Slocombe, who presided over the military for the Coalition Provisional Authority, argues that the Army had disbanded itself and couldn't be reconstituted, but even if it could have been, that wouldn't have solved our problems, I believe, because the Army and the bureaucracy were the instruments of Sunni oppression of Shia. They were the instruments of Saddam's rule and of sectarian rule, and the Shia probably would have revolted sooner and in greater scope than they ultimately did.

So I conclude from all this that although you can point to things that would have made the path smoother, they really weren't feasible, which means that we did about as well as we could have hoped to do in Iraq, which, of course, was not very well at all.

One other point here. There's a great deal of talk about weapons of mass destruction. It seems to me that weapons of mass destruction actually had nothing whatsoever to do with the war. First, they were not the reason for going to war. And people in the administration have said as much. They weren't the main motivation, they were just a common denominator. Second, they were never a good reason to go to war. The weapons of mass destruction that the Bush administration, I think, genuinely believed were present in Iraq were chemical weapons, not nuclear weapons.

Chemical weapons are not really weapons of mass destruction. They're weapons of mass destruction by courtesy. They're unconventional weapons, but they're not nearly as dangerous as nuclear weapons. Lots of countries have them, including Syria, and no one ever suggested that having chemical weapons was a reason to go to war with any other country. And third, the presence or absence of weapons of mass destruction really had nothing to do with what was most crucial for the American conduct of the war, and that is its unpopularity.

What caused its unpopularity was American casualties. And I'd be willing to argue -- although of course, one can't prove it -- that if the weapons of mass destruction -- if chemical weapons had been found but the war had proceeded as it did, it would have been just as unpopular, whereas if chemical weapons had never been found, but if what the president advertised in his much-publicized landing on the aircraft carrier off San Diego had been true, if the mission really had been accomplished, if Iraq really had been pacified without further American casualties, nobody would have cared whether there were weapons of mass destruction or not, from which I infer a lesson from Iraq, which is also, as it happens, the lesson or a lesson of Vietnam and Korea, and that is that in any war of choice -- and we fight almost nothing but wars of choice these days -- in any war of choice, the public has a very limited tolerance for casualties. And one that tolerance is exceeded, the public very quickly turns against the war. That was true in Korea. That was true in Vietnam. That was true in Iraq. It was ultimately true in Afghanistan, and I believe that it will be true for any future war the United States might conceivably fight.


Ambassador Ross.

DENNIS ROSS: We've heard two very interesting kinds of observations. I'd like to take a step back and offer a comment as it relates to the process for how we got into this war, and if nothing else, suggest that if you're going to think about going to war as a process, it ought to be rather different than the one that got us into Iraq.

I start with an interesting premise. I would say, everybody here would assume that if we're going to go with war, that we would debate that issue at least internally, correct, right? It would seem illogical if not incomprehensible and maybe even irresponsible to go to war without debating it internally, correct?

But this war was not debated internally, in the Bush administration. This was a war, actually described by Richard Haass, who has some relationship with this organization, as a war that just happened because there was a kind of presumption, and there was a kind of presumption because 9/11 had this searing impact -- an understandable searing impact on the administration. But one of the impacts it had was within the administration, there was a kind of group think that took over. If you weren't part of that group think, whatever it is you had to say about an issue was pretty much discounted. And as a result, we never debated the pros and cons of going to war, which is -- by the way, I'm not offering an observation on the merits of the war. I'm saying that if we're going to get into a war, you're going to assume any administration is actually going to debate it because the consequences are so significant.

I would say it's had an impact, by the way, on the -- on the Obama administration, because the Obama administration is a very process-driven administration, and I think part of the reason for being so driven by process is precisely because it looked at the Bush administration and how it got into Iraq. So the first point is, create a process and have the process reflect what are the needs that you have if you're going to think about going to war, which is you better debate it.

A second point about process. Again, you probably heard a lot about the day after. Was there -- were there day-after assessments? Because if you're going to go to war, you're not thinking only about the military operations -- which is part of what Michael was addressing -- you're going to think about, all right, what comes next?

And it's -- again, it's pretty clear that within the administration, there was an enormous amount of work that was done. In fact, I think there was, like, 10 volumes that the State Department put together that was put together by people who had -- who were drawn from the outside, people from the inside who had had experience within Iraq. And it wasn't just that it was ignored, it was simply completely dismissed. And it -- by the way, it's not to say that it was going to be -- as Michael's suggesting, it's not to say that it was going to be easy. You're getting into a war, you're replacing the regime. When you replace an authoritarian regime -- and this, by the way, is a larger lesson not only for us but what's happening with the Arab Awakening -- when authoritarian regimes disappear, there's a vacuum in the aftermath. Something and somebody is going to fill that vacuum. Frequently it's just chaos. But if you're going to go to war and you're going to change your regime and that's your -- that's your strategic objective -- and I would say in the Bush administration, apropos of what Michael was saying, there was a confusion of objectives, because we publicized that our objective was weapons of mass destruction, but the real objective was to remove Saddam Hussein, and so we weren't clear in terms of how we framed the issue. But if you were going to replace the regime, then what was going to take the place of the regime? And all the work that was done pretty much to anticipate that was simply put to the side because, again, for the most part, it was seen as coming from those who just didn't really get the situation, meaning get the world and what we were confronting in the aftermath of 9/11.

So the Bush administration, again, in terms of planning, didn't do a lot. And there was a kind of presumption we're going to go in and then we'll get out, but actually, when we got in, we understood it wasn't so easy to get out.

So here again, if you're looking back, then think about process. Process number one, debate the pros and cons. And the more you debate the pros and cons, it's going to lead you to what comes next. And I would say here, if we're looking today, if we're looking at the region, if we're looking at involvement or intervention in Syria, if we're looking at the issue of Iran, I would also say don't overlearn the lessons of Iraq, meaning, OK, because we did Iraq and Iraq went so badly, then you can't do anything else.

I mean, we have an interesting tradition in this country. There are two schools of thought when it comes to our traditions, is: We have an idealist school of thought, which says, we should intervene in those cases where we have a high moral imperative, where there's a humanitarian need, where we can prevent genocide. We should have intervened, for the idealists, in Rwanda. We should have intervened sooner in the Balkans. Libya was the right thing to do. And then you have the realists. And the realists basically make the case that you should only intervene in those places where we have concrete, tangible interests are unmistakable. So the first Gulf War was a legitimate war, but the -- to be involved with -- but the others -- Iraq in 2003 was not -- Libya was not and didn't meet the standard.

And the point here is not to be sort of high-bound by either one of those traditions. Look at what the circumstances are and make judgments. Don't be, in a sense, paralyzed by the experience of Iraq. You can take a look at these cases. You can make judgments in terms of the pros and cons. You can look at what's at stake. You can look at the consequences of action, and you can look at the consequences of inaction. And you can make a decision about can you bound what you're doing? In effect, in Iraq, we didn't do any of those things. And if we're to learn the lessons from the past, we should probably do all of them.

CHIRA: Just to pick up on that point, let's think about how our current policymakers and the current Obama administration, how they've internalized what they think the lessons of the Iraq War are and perhaps Afghanistan, peripherally, and how that is shaping the discussion right now. Let's start with Syria where, you know, there are camps are aligned in very sharply different ways, where there is enormous discussion about whether a failure to intervene in a more forceful way is creating a future strategic disaster or abiding by the hard-won humility of the Iraq War. And anyone can start.

BETTS: Well, I think the question, probably in the minds of many in the administration, is not just whether we should try to promote the right side in Syria or try to use American power to push things in the right direction but to calculate whether efforts to do so have a chance of success as compared with being counterproductive. And those with a lack of confidence that the U.S. has the leverage to make an intervention come out with effects in the direction we want is probably so far outweighing the beliefs of those who focus on the necessary result. Some people -- and policy debates tend to be most focused on the ends, that is, what it is should be achieved. Others tend to focus more on the costs and the obstacles -- difference between conservatives and liberals, perhaps, in a sense. And people's views on that probably vary with recent experience. And the Obama people, in large part, were more affected negatively by the Iraq experience perhaps than some others.

CHIRA: Dennis, you wanted to --

ROSS: Yeah, I -- look, I think what Dick described is right. I think the reason there is this hesitancy is because there is a sense that we will get sucked into something with little prospect of really being able to shape it and then paying the price for it, including being held responsible for what will be seen as a failure, including in the area. And it's not that that's an unreasonable concern. It's a completely reasonable concern. The problem is, of course, we're being held responsible for what's happening now. We want to distance ourselves from it, but we're being blamed increasingly in the region and certainly among the masses of the Syrian public.

This is an interesting case. I cited the kind of idealist-realist dichotomy because if you think about Syria, Syria is the one place where the two come together. There is a moral imperative, there is a humanitarian disaster that's taking place. I mean, literally, you have about a quarter of the population of Syria that has been displaced. You have about 80,000 who have been killed. Every day it gets worse. And so there is a -- there is an imperative to do something, just from a humanitarian standpoint.

But there's also a realist national security interest involved as well because right now -- I like to say that the Las Vegas rules don't apply to Syria. (Laughter.) What takes place in Syria isn't going to stay there, and it's not staying there. You know, it's -- it threatens to destabilize Jordan. It is likely to produce a rekindling of the sectarian conflict that we saw and hoped was a relic of the past in Lebanon. It may be doing the same thing in Iraq. It creates problems for Turkey, and it -- the border that was Israel's quietest for 40 years is unlikely to remain that way.

So you destabilize the area, and you have chemical weapons, which, even if they're -- according to Michael, they're really not weapons of mass destruction, these are not weapons you want to see in the hands of al-Qaida if Syria becomes a failed state and disintegrates. Not only does that threaten the neighborhood, but it could end up threatening us as well.

So here are two kinds of idealist and realist reasons to get involved. The question then becomes how to get involved. And I wouldn't argue for putting American troops in there, but I do think we're not going to affect the situation or have any influence on the situation unless we provide lethal assistance.

I would also do one other thing. I think that we could at least do a no-fly zone on the cheap. By that I mean get nine Patriot batteries along the Turkish-Syrian border, you could declare right now that any plane flying within 50 miles of the border would be deemed to have a hostile intent, and Assad would then have to decide, does he really want to risk that, because there's already attrition rate with his air force. Now, again, is that cost-free? It's not. But you weigh that cost versus the cost of basically staying on the path we're on and facing what is likely going to be what President Obama has described as a game changer. If chemical weapons get used or we see them getting into the wrong hands, we're -- then we're going to be driven to intervene. And I think the question is, is it better to position yourself in advance to try to shape the landscape, or do you want to wait until you hit that moment?

CHIRA: Michael, do you want to weigh in?

MANDELBAUM: Yeah, I think there are three different kinds of goals that the United States can plausibly have and really does have in Syria, following the distinction that Sue mentioned. There are humanitarian goals; we'd like to save lives. There are political goals; we'd like to have some kind of decent, stable regime, possibly pro-Western, even, the far end of the spectrum of unlikelihood, democratic.

And then there are strategic goals, goals that bear on America's national interest, of which I think there are really two. One is, not to put too fine a point on it, to injure Iran. Iran is our biggest problem in the Middle East. It is America's strategic adversary. We have an interest in reducing Iranian power and also -- and this is a point that Dennis made in conversation; it's an important point -- we have an interest in deterring Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and by intervening in Syria, if we could do that, if we could reinforce that kind of deterrence, it would be a good thing.

And then three B, the other strategic goal is to prevent the war from spreading, as it already has, as it surely will, because it will adversely affect American allies, I think the most important of which is Jordan, which has a real problem. Israel may be affected, but the Israelis can take care of themselves.

Now, I would say that of those goals, only one of them, that is, three A, that is, injuring Iran, can be achieved without putting boots on the ground. I don't think that we have any feasible chance of limiting the humanitarian damage or shaping in a significant way the -- whatever government ensues in Syria, or whatever series of governments, because it's just as likely that it will break up into separate pieces.

And I'm pessimistic that we can keep the war from spreading, unless we put troops on the ground, which I think no one wants to do. There's no support for it in the country. The president doesn't want to do it. I wouldn't be the one to urge that he do so.

So we're left with Dennis' option, and let me make -- and I think Dennis makes a good case for it, at least I'm more favorable to it after listening to him than I was beforehand, but then that's always true when I listen to Dennis. (Laughter.) It's why he was so effective in government.

But let me make two points.

First, in general, I think, in international relations and in foreign policy, as in life, you get what you pay for. And if we're not willing to pay very much, and we're not, then I think we have to limit our expectations as to what we can achieve.

And there is yet another caveat here, which bears on this region and which is, I think, one of the lessons of Iraq. And it's summed up nicely in the last scene in the movie "Chinatown," which I trust everyone here has seen --

MR. : It's the right demographic. (Laughter.)

MANDELBAUM: It is the right demographic.

CHIRA: (Laughs.) I'm afraid so.

MANDELBAUM: I don't have to explain who Jack Nicholson is, but you'll recall that he plays a private investigator who became a private investigator because he was on the L.A. police force, and his beat was Chinatown, and something terrible happened, and he had to resign. And he takes a case, and it's very complicated, and he follows it out and this -- the -- this -- the theme of this movie is a version of Balzac's line that behind every great fortune stands a great crime. This is behind every great city stands a great crime. The crime has to do with water. But there are all kinds of terrible things that he discovers.

And in the last scene, he traces them all to Chinatown. And he hasn't been back since his horrible experience. And he's with the guy who's still on the force, who used to be his partner, and something terrible happens. And he can see that all the wrong things are happening and injustice is going on and evil is about to triumph. And he lunges to try to stop it, and his partner grabs him and says, forget it, Jake; it's Chinatown. (Laughter.)

CHIRA: Well --

MANDELBAUM: The Middle East is Chinatown. (Laughter.) And whatever we do and whatever happens, we're not going to get a happy outcome, it seems. (Laughter, applause.)

CHIRA: Right, so actually, that's a great segue. I want us -- (laughter) -- want to -- before we open it to our members, I want to sneak in one more question that we should probably address briefly to give everyone enough time for general questions, which is, speaking of Chinatown as a neighborhood, one of the criticisms of the Iraq War has been the empowerment of Iran strategically by empowering a Shia-led government in Iraq. And yet recently, there's less worry about the Shia crescent than the Sunni crescent.

So I wanted to get your quick take on how the Iraq War has left us vis-a-vis Iran and how our perceived lessons are effecting how we are dealing with the threat from Iran. Anyone can jump in quickly. Yes -- Dick.

MANDELBAUM (?): Well, I was pointing to Dick.

CHIRA: Oh, yeah -- (chuckles) -- so --

BETTS: Well, I think on balance, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the Iraq War did not help our position vis-a-vis Iran.

CHIRA: (Chuckles.) Indeed.

BETTS: And I don't know to what extent, if at all, that question was considered a dozen years ago. I suspect it probably really wasn't. I wouldn't exaggerate the effects, on the other hand, either, in that it's hard to see instrumentally exactly what sorts of present activities and effects Iran can inflict in the region are being really facilitated by what we accomplished in Iraq.

But it's another reminder that in wars of this sort, as in what happens in Chinatown, the unanticipated consequences usually outnumber those that you figured out in advance.

CHIRA: Dennis.

ROSS: The only thing I would -- I think what Dick said is right. There's no way to say today that Iran's position in Iraq is weaker than it was prior to the war. On the contrary, Iran has a much stronger position in Iraq. It has different kinds of militias that it continues to use as a form of coercive leverage against the regime. You know, this particular government in Iraq is sensitive to Iranian concerns.

To be fair, having -- almost any Iraqi government, after the 8 1/2-year war that they fought before, was going to take into account Iranian interests. I think that Maliki has sought from time to time to demonstrate his independence. But if you talk to Sunnis and you talk to Kurds in Iraq, they will say that he is very heavily influenced by the Iranians. I think it's less because he identifies with Iranians; I think it's more because he feels that they have leverage.

But he also is someone who from time to time has acted and has -- you know, when he sees the Iranians overplaying their hand, it triggers a backlash within Iraq and the Iranians have to be careful not to overplay that hand. But you know, for us to think that -- you know, I think Dick put it well. I mean, I think -- I don't think that when the Bush administration was concluding they were going to change the regime in Iraq that this was going to strengthen Iran's hand. I think they thought, we're going to remake the Middle East. We're going to create a democratic regime in the heart of the Middle East that's going to radiate outwards. It's going to transform this area, this area that's sort of lagged behind the rest of the world, and you're going to find a transformation.

Well, there's an interesting irony. One, as I said, when you change regimes, especially authoritarian regimes, you create vacuums. For those who think that the Arab awakening has no relationship to the Iraq war, I would at least give you a suggestion to think a little bit more about that. I do think Saddam was seen as someone who was invincible. The fact that he was changed from external intervention doesn't change the reality that it meant that these leaders who were thought to be immovable and invincible in fact were neither. And I do think it has played a role in terms of the broader upheaval. The problem, of course, is: This is an upheaval, and it's going to take a generation to play out, and anybody who tells you they know how it's going to play out is kidding themselves or kidding you.

CHIRA: Have a quick comment before we open it --

MANDELBAUM: Yeah, I agree with my two colleagues. I think they put it well. The United States fought two wars in the first decade of the 21st century and those wars took down the neighboring regimes most opposed to and most troublesome to the Islamic Republic of Iran. So if you give any credence at all to the concept of a balance of power, this was not helpful to the United States in dealing with Iran, but on the other hand, as Dick noted, because this was the Middle East, failing to do that wouldn't have improved our position either.

CHIRA: So at this time we'd like to open up to our members. Please remember, this meeting is on the record, and please state your name, (stand up ?) and your affiliation, and please limit yourself to one concise question so we can recognize as many as possible. Thank you.

QUESTIONER: I'm Kenneth Bealkin (ph), Scaddon Arps (ph). Dennis raised the point of change of regime. I would like to ask you, to what extent did the change of regime here in America -- which occurred in '08 with the election of the present administration which replaced the Bush administration -- affect operations in Iraq and affect the conclusions that we reach about all of it? That is, Dennis suggested that the Iraq war planted in the Arab world, potentially, a spark of an interest in democracy and a spark of an image of a change. A new administration comes in which from the very beginning was against the Iraq war, criticized everything about it, and changed so many things operationally and policy-wise, that I'd like to ask you: To what extent does our American change of regime affect the dialogue that just transpired?

CHIRA: Thank you.

ROSS: I'll start. We actually had a discussion over lunch that is relevant to this.

CHIRA: Yeah, we did. Yeah.

ROSS: I guess I'd make a couple of points. The first is, there was a strategic framework agreement that called for withdrawal that was negotiated by the Bush administration with the Iraqi government, and that mandated a complete withdrawal of all American troops by December 31, 2011. It also mandated other things. It mandated a series of milestones along the way, including the withdrawal of all American forces out of the cities by June of 2009. I do believe that the Obama administration when it came in was reflecting what the president said; it was determined to get out of Iraq but it wasn't necessarily determined to withdraw all forces from Iraq.

And prior to the beginning of the uprisings in the Arab world, which didn't take -- you had Mohammad Bouazizi (sp) in December of 2010 set himself on fire and set a spark that created flames across the Middle East. Prior to that time, you know, every sign the administration had from the Iraqi government and the different leaders of the different groups within it was that they were prepared to negotiate an enduring American presence -- not a large presence but an enduring American presence.

After that took place, that changed. There was much less willingness because there was a much higher degree of sensitivity to what I'll describe as the kind of populist sentiments throughout the area. So I'm not sure that things might have been very different regardless of who was in power. I mean, it's true maybe a different administration that had not come to power based upon certain commitments with regard to Iraq, they might have approached things somewhat differently, but the reality was, whichever administration came in was inheriting an agreement that mandated all American forces being out by December 31, 2011. And if you were negotiating what amounted to a new status-of-forces agreement to preserve some presence, that required an Iraqi government to be prepared to accept that.

And as circumstances began to change in 2010, 2011, you weren't going to have an Iraqi government that wanted to be responsible for an enduring presence of the Americans, which might look like it was a continuation of occupation. So I wouldn't -- I'd be careful to draw large conclusions based upon the change in government here as it relates to Iraq.

As it relates more generally, I will just say ultimately I don't believe that -- while I'm saying I think there's some relationship between what happened in Iraq and what later on happened in the rest of the region, it's one factor. There are many other factors that lead to the upheaval. And ultimately we're not the authors of that upheaval; it's coming from within. And so I would not exaggerate how much influence ultimately we're going to have on its shape and direction.

CHIRA: There was a hand over here -- sir -- and then I'll get back to the center. Please. Yes.

QUESTIONER: Is there a microphone?

CHIRA: I believe it's coming your way.

QUESTIONER: Yes. William Haseltine from Access Health Isn't a lesson that we can draw from the extended war that it's possible now to have an extended war by managing American public opinion and manage the press, especially during a war, so we don't see the body bags, we don't see the blood? Isn't that a lesson that we can all take from this war?

ROSS: No, I think it's the opposite lesson. There's a limit to the number of casualties Americans will accept. And when that limit is passed, public opinion will turn against the war, and that will ultimately affect policy, and it doesn't matter how the administration of the time tries to manage it.

CHIRA: Do you want to --

BETTS: I think you're both right, in that we certainly did have a long war. It wasn't the first. The Vietnam War lasted for a long time, and people may forget that it wasn't until very late in the game in the Vietnam War that objections beyond the elite and intelligentsia really amounted to much of anything.

But this war was very long. And what was remarkable to me was how little negative public opinion mattered. Yes, the public turned against the war, but they didn't care very much. If you looked at the polls, it, you know, ranked very far down in the list of priority issues that people were concerned about. And whether that's simply because there's no draft and it was perhaps the first war in our history where taxes went down instead of up, or whatever, most people didn't have any material stake in it. And I suspect, therefore, that while opinion was negative, it was not an overwhelming political constraint, except insofar as politicians naturally care about being on the right side of what seems like evolving history.

ROSS: Can I --

BETTS: But the only other --

CHIRA: Dennis.

BETTS: Well, OK.

CHIRA: Go ahead.

ROSS: I was just going to say I think -- I agree with both. No. I would say -- I think it's also context-dependent. You know, if you talk about a war now, in the aftermath of the last decade, where the American public feels we've spent, you know, $2 (trillion) to $3 trillion, we've lost a lot of people, I think the appetite for getting into a conflict now given this context is one thing. But if you go a period of time and the context is different and it looks like maybe America's power in the world is waning or see different kinds of threats or this is a precipitating event, you change the context, I think the attitude toward the conflict is different. That's where I think Dick's point really comes in.

CHIRA: Go ahead.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. I'm Roland Paul, a lawyer. This is a short question. I asked Henry Kissinger what he thought about the war about three years ago; in other words, at the end -- toward the end of the war, and I will virtually quote him. He said, well, we had to get rid of Saddam Hussein, but we should have put our own man in and gotten out.

And I've always wondered about the second part of that conclusion. Are we going to say the great man was naive, or what?

BETTS: Was he serious? (Laughter.) Who was their own man, other than Chalabi, who didn't work out very well?

CHIRA: I think we thought some people were our own, but they weren't, were they?

ROSS: Yeah, I'll tell -- I'll tell you an interesting story. I had a conversation with Kissinger six weeks before the war began, and he asked me a question, and he said, so they have it, right? And he was referring to the WMD. And I -- proving to be far more naive than he, I said, well, it's inconceivable to me that the Bush administration could be saying what they're saying publicly unless they have it absolutely cold; it would just be irresponsible, so they have to have it cold. So he pauses, he waits 10 seconds, then he says, so they have it, right? (Laughter.)

CHIRA: Good answer.

You had a question, sir. And then I'll go over here.

QUESTIONER: Changing the subject a lot, maybe more for Dennis. Is there any scenario where --

CHIRA: I'm sorry. Could you identify yourself?

QUESTIONER: Oh, Henry Jacklin (sp). I'm very sorry. Is there any scenario where you see Turkey playing a role? Because in the last 10 years, they've come of age. They've tried; they've failed. They don't have the maturity, let's say, to exert the influence that they dream of. But do you see them as a player in all of this at some point rather than just being another partner?

ROSS: You mean a player in the region as a whole?


ROSS: Well, they certainly have a -- they certainly have a self-image and self-definition in that regard. They tend to shy away from terms that refer to neo-Ottoman-esque, although you'd be surprised how often the actually internally do seem to refer to it, which says that, you know, they clearly have an ambition for the region, but I would say beyond. I think that's true for Erdogan.

I think the real question is do they have the means; do they -- have they framed a way -- (coughs) -- excuse me -- to play such a role? You would think at one level, with the rise of political Islam and the need to have a successful model, they would be it because they've demonstrated that they can manage an economy, and nobody who's rising right now in the Middle East is proving any competence in that regard; quite the contrary.

So you would that there would be a basis there. But just to give you one example, in Egypt, when Erdogan went there, he was really wildly, you know, received enthusiastically, until he gave a statement where he said, but you do you need to keep a separation between the religious side and the governing side. And the Muslim Brotherhood didn't much like that.

So the question is does the search for some successful model, which has been, frankly, a search for the last 60 years in the Middle East -- does that make Turkey more likely to play a role? You know, I would say Turkey has had a foreign policy that -- whose premise was zero problems with neighbors. The problem today is they seem to have only problems with neighbors. So I wonder -- I can see the ambition, but I haven't yet seen the effectiveness of their diplomacy.

MR. : (Off mic.)

ROSS: Yes.

CHIRA: Yeah.

Yes, ma'am.

QUESTIONER: Norma Globeman (sp), ex-UNDP. Mr. Ross -- Ambassador Ross, I was very taken with your -- with the contrast that you drew between -- in the Iraq run-up, the nondeliberative process in the Bush administration and the very deliberative process in the Obama administration vis-a-vis Afghan war decisions. And my question is very simply, do you -- can you see a clear difference -- (laughter) -- in the -- in the quality of the decisions and the quality of the outcome of those decisions from a greater deliberative process?

ROSS: Well, as you could probably tell from my comment, I would like to see such a result. There's no guarantee. What I'm -- what I was suggesting is one thing you know for sure: If you don't debate it, you're going to get into trouble. Just because you debate it isn't a guarantee that you're going to have a successful outcome. The fact of the matter is you can -- you can be looking or get involved in situations that are so difficult, there are so many different factors at play, so many factors that are beyond your control to be able to somehow manipulate or shape, that just because you debate it isn't going to be a guarantee of a better outcome.

But it's just the idea that you can go to war and not debate it -- on its face, it ought to just be unacceptable. And I -- you know, I was -- you know, we want to be sort of the masters of what we do. And we want, if we're going to get into these kind of conflicts, to have a higher level of conflict -- higher level of confidence that we can shape the outcome that we want. You have to have a high degree of humility when you approach these kinds of cases, and you have to -- the truth is you have to make hard judgments. And sometimes, you know, you're faced with choices, all of which are bad, and you're choosing what you think is the least bad. But you also have to -- you have to weigh the choices in terms of what is the cost of action and what is the cost of inaction.

When I was citing this about the decision-making process of the Bush administration, I was criticizing the process. You know, the fact is the Bush administration was affected dramatically, as any administration would have been, by the trauma of 9/11. Any administration would have been profoundly affected. It would have been -- it was a searing experience. It shaped their outlook. It shaped the decision-making process. It shaped who they decided should be listened to. And that had a set of consequences. And I just -- all I'm trying to suggest is at least have what is the right kind of process. The right kind of process isn't -- is not a guarantee for success.

CHIRA: All the way in the back, and then over there.

QUESTIONER: Tessa Bourbon (sp) from The New York Times. I'd like to ask, how do you assess the U.N. rights record of U.S. troops in Iraq? Does it leave a legacy of damage?

BETTS: Yes, insofar as occurs in virtually any war. The people who are surprised at the incidence of atrocities or collateral damage, I think, need to be reminded that in any war of consequence, this still remains virtually inevitable, not desirable, not intended, not a matter of policy, but in the nature of war. Someday, with modern technology, the fog of war and human emotion and all the other vagaries involved may be overcome, but not yet. That doesn't detract from the fact that people notice. There's more publicity about it now more effectively than there was in previous wars because of modern communications technologies, and those tragedies will be noticed more and have more of a political effect.

CHIRA: Gentleman there in the middle.

QUESTIONER: Steven Blank (sp). This is a big legacy issue question. The countries of the Middle East -- we're talking about more and more we realize were products of the 1919 of colonial powers. Certainly the loyalty to those countries -- Lebanon, Syria, after the revolution, Iraq -- have diminished -- (inaudible) -- sharply. If there are loyalties left, they're contingent, and there are more fundamental loyalties have emerged, whether they're Shia, Sunni, Kurdish. If you go out 20, 30 years, do you expect the borders of this area to be the same, these countries to be the major players, or are you anticipating something different in the area if you look that far in advance?

MANDELBAUM: I think it's entirely possible that these borders will disappear. We don't know. There's been a strong preference for and a lot of geopolitical momentum in favor of not changing borders since World War II, and when borders have been changed, with the end of the Soviet Union and the end of Yugoslavia, the next-largest units have gotten sovereignty. It's a form of social promotion, if you will. But that might not happen in the Middle East.

And you're quite right, the loyalties in these countries are not to the country itself. And one reason is that these countries were not only artificial -- the borders were artificially drawn in 1916 by a British and French diplomat, but they -- in -- as they have existed, they have involved one group oppressing all the others and monopolizing power. I think in -- when -- at the time of the unification of Italy, Garibaldi said, we have created Italy; now we must create Italians. Well, given the regional differences, you can wonder whether, after 150 years, they've been successful. But nobody has created Iraqis or Lebanese or Syrians, and you can even wonder about other, more coherent countries.

So we -- I think there is a serious chance that these borders will disappear, that these countries will fragment. What comes afterward, we don't know.


QUESTIONER: Wolf Schafer, Stony Brook University. I -- the first war I observed in this country was the Grenada War, when I came here to this country. And I was coming from Germany. And as you know, it has become very pacifistic in its attitude, public attitude. And I was struck by the lack of discussion of the war. And so I want to come back to what you are saying, that there needs to be more internal discussion.

And I find that the internal discussion, as you framed it, is more the internal discussion of the elite and the involved. And I mean, this country, the country being that's going to war rather often, comparatively speaking, and does not have a draft, so kind of precludes the skin in the game of many of the people.

And so I think I would like to add to your request for more internal discussion. That includes the media and the civil society of this country. And that would certainly create -- I mean, it would create certainly more noise, which would be uncomfortable, in a way, but on the other hand, I think it would also force this more advanced or informed internal discussion.

ROSS: Look, I don't -- I don't dispute that. I -- to -- again, to be fair -- to be fair to the Bush administration, go back to 2003, there was still very much the overhang of 9/11. And in the aftermath of 9/11, we saw a loss of the basic checks and balances. The media wasn't playing the same role that it had. Certainly, the Congress wasn't playing the same role that it had. So to sort of hold the administration to a certain standard, which I'm doing in retrospect, which I think is right, it still needs to be put in the context of the time. You have that kind of a searing event, and it had a set of consequences which should inform us today. I mean, one of the reasons I think we ended up getting into this war was we were still, in a sense, thinking in the aftermath of 9/11, and you didn't have the normal checks and balances. And that applied not only on the outside. What I'm suggesting to you, it applied on the inside as well.

CHIRA: And last question here.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Joseph Kerry (sp). My question is, what lessons economically do you take away from this war? Let me frame that question a little better. At the end of the second world war, when the greatest foreign policy initiatives we did was the Marshall Plan, there was a thoughtful, economic lesson learned after the first world war. Is there any lesson here? Is -- I don't see any discussions about the economic -- or the economics of what was learned by this war going forward to avoid another type of war?

CHIRA: What do you think?

MANDELBAUM: Well, I guess there are two things to say. One is that -- one lessons is that we should pay for our wars and not put them on our credit card. This was the first war in American history where people were not asked to pay for it, although it does have to be said that the war -- and leaving aside the legacy cost, which might be very large -- but compared with other wars, especially compared with Vietnam, was relatively cheap; it took a much smaller slice of the American GDP. And our huge deficit problem is not primarily due to the war, but the war didn't help.

As for the effort to build peace in the aftermath of the war, we put a lot of money into Iraq, and we don't have much to for it, and the reason is -- to put it in oversimplified but I think not inaccurate terms -- because the Middle East is not Europe.

CHIRA: Actually, we do have time for one more question. I think -- in the back there -- in the middle right there. Yeah.

QUESTIONER: Dennis Chet (ph), Penn State. I just wonder how much we really have learned from our previous wars. It seems to me our policy with regard to Iran is all sticks and no carrot, or maybe the only carrot is we hit them less with one of our sticks if they do what we want. So what are the chances of avoiding a war with Iran, and what are the unintended consequences of going ahead with that war, which we seem to be on a march to doing that, the unknown unknowns that Mr. Rumsfeld famously told us about?

ROSS: Well, I disagree somewhat with your premise because I think certainly the Obama administration made a serious effort to reach out to the Iranians, and the Iranians were completely nonresponsive. And so when you try to reach out and the other side is not responsive, then you -- then you do move to focus more on the pressure side of the equation than the other side of the equation.

But in -- but what has been implicit all along, both the Obama administration -- and I would say even in the -- there was a proposal made to the Iranians in July of 2008 by the 5 plus one, during the Bush administration -- the Bush administration signed onto this -- which offered the Iranians a whole series of incentives if they were to be responsive. I mean, it included a significant number of economic benefits. It included things like light-water reactors. So there was -- there have been offers made to the Iranians.

Part of the problems with the Iranians, particularly this regime, is that the supreme leader has built the regime based on a premise, and the premise is hostility towards the United States. So to do a deal with the United States, in many ways, he sees as threatening the underpinnings of the regime. If you're going to have a diplomatic way out of this, in the end, he has to decide that the greater risk to the regime comes from having no deal than from doing a deal. There has been an economic ratcheting up of pressures. The president has been very clear. In the end, coercive diplomacy, to work, depends upon the threat being seen as being credible because you're prepared to act on them. And I think -- I still believe there is a diplomatic way out with the Iranians, but I also think the Iranians have to be prepared to take it.

CHIRA: Well, thank you all for your helpful questions, and thank you to the panel. (Applause.)

Top Stories on CFR


With its comparatively open and well-regulated immigration system, Canada has become a top destination for immigrants and refugees.

United States

Recent killings by U.S. officers have sparked widespread calls for police reform and an end to systemic racism. Here’s how U.S. policing compares with other countries’ approaches.


Secretary Pompeo, advocating a policy of transforming China, is proposing a course that is bound to fail.