Bronson: Success in Iraq an Open Question

Bronson: Success in Iraq an Open Question

September 19, 2003 12:32 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Conditions in Iraq remain “very unpredictable, very dangerous,” says Rachel Bronson, Olin Senior Fellow and Director of Middle East and Gulf Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. That’s the result, she says, of the Bush administration’s failure to win international backing for the war. But she also chides the Europeans— and the French in particular— for blocking efforts to forge a postwar consensus.

On other Middle East issues, she urges the United States to make a clear declaration of its vision for peace between Palestinians and Israelis and says that a critical reconsideration of U.S.-Saudi relations is long overdue.

Bronson was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on September 18, 2003.

In our last interview, shortly before the end of the fighting in Iraq, you described the results of the Bush administration’s efforts to win Security Council backing for the war as “a diplomatic train wreck.” Now, the United States is again seeking U.N. approval of another Iraq resolution. Have the “tracks” been cleared yet?

We are still sifting through the rubble of that original train wreck. Post-conflict Iraq would have been a lot easier to manage had there been international unity, rather than division. The United States didn’t work hard enough to make it happen. It let military timetables, rather than diplomatic prudence, drive the train. It was predictable that, even under the rosiest scenarios, Iraq would be very difficult for the United States to manage alone and that Iraq would be very expensive to reconstruct. The situation we see today is very unpredictable, very dangerous. It is not clear that postwar Iraq will be a success, that Iraq will see a better, more stable future. It might, but it is not a sure thing. A lot of heavy lifting needs to be done.

At this point, would getting a U.N. mandate and additional troops help much?

The Pentagon wants another division’s worth of troops. According to a convincing Congressional Budget Office report, the current U.S. military posture and operating tempo are unsustainable after March 2004. Something has to give. It is not necessarily a case of the more troops the better, but there is a certain number of troops that the United States thinks is required to make its presence sufficiently robust.

The United States is also under-resourced in terms of money. The president has just requested $15 billion for Iraqi reconstruction, as part of the $87 billion he’s asking from Congress. The White House itself estimates that Iraq needs between $50 billion and $75 billion. Those estimates are based on projections of petroleum revenue that oil experts think are probably high. In other words, the cost could be even higher than $50 billion to $75 billion. And right now, it looks as if the United States will arrive at a donor’s conference on Iraq in Madrid next month with very anemic funding support from its partners and allies.

No one’s made a substantial offer?

No. When the president earmarked $15 billion for reconstruction, I thought that was a serious number. Until recently, the United States was saying its contribution of $2.7 billion for reconstruction was enough. It was farcical, embarrassing. Had the Americans continued with that low-ball number, we— rightfully— would have been laughed out of the Madrid conference. Fifteen billion dollars is serious money. It’s the equivalent of what the United States put into Germany under the Marshall Plan.

Unfortunately, now the Europeans and Arab states are not coming up with serious money. I agree with Thomas Friedman of The New York Times— the Europeans, the French in particular, should be ashamed of themselves. I can understand arguing that they refuse to financially support an American policy they oppose. But what the French and other Europeans should be saying is, “If you do what we want at the Security Council, if you internationalize the Iraq mission, if you start thinking about a process to shift political control of the country back to the Iraqis, we will increase our funding, we will do something.”

But the Europeans— and in particular the French, who are the authors of a joint French-German proposal— aren’t providing any incentives for the administration to listen to them. Neither side is helping themselves. The president has raised the possibility of a larger role for other countries in Iraq but still seems reluctant to cede authority. The French and others in the international community want a larger role but are not providing any reason for the United States to acquiesce. The Pakistanis and the Indians until recently were saying that a U.N. Security Council authorization would allow them to provide the troops. Now even they are backing away.

The Americans and the Europeans generally remain at loggerheads?

What the Europeans want, in many respects, is right. They want to internationalize this process. They want a plan, though the timetable in their proposal for shifting political authority to the Iraqis is too rapid. The basics of what they want, the United States should want, too: internationalization and a plan. But to the administration’s ears, it sounds as if the Europeans are demanding that the United States internationalize the mission and include them in the political process but they are refusing to pay anything or otherwise contribute. Such an unthoughtful and unhelpful diplomatic strategy frustrates those of us who think the mission should be internationalized. Maybe the Russian proposals will be more helpful. The Russians are much more important to the U.N. debate at the moment then are the French.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said this week that Germany would help train Iraqi police and lend a hand restoring infrastructure. What do you think of the German position?

I have much more sympathy for the Germans than I do for others because they have been so active in Afghanistan. They didn’t support the U.S. Iraq policy but, demonstrating that they are not anti-American, they energetically backed U.S. policy in Afghanistan. They took charge of Afghan security and helped shift control of [the peacekeeping operation] to a NATO-led force. They have been very involved, even regarding Iraq— much of the U.S. military equipment ended up being shipped through Germany.

Will the Turks send troops?

The United States and the Turks are looking for ways to heal the rift that developed in the run-up to the Iraq war. Now that the United States is desperate to get others to contribute troops, Turkey, which has always wanted a role in Iraq, might be a natural partner. But the Iraqi view, which I think is legitimate, is that the neighbors— Turks, Iranians, Saudis— should not send troops.

Regarding the other pressing Mideast issue, in June, President Bush seemed enthusiastic about putting the full weight of the United States behind the road map peace plan. Now it seems the United States doesn’t want to get too involved.

The road map, which I was never very optimistic about, seems to have failed. I don’t think the president will now enter into anything new. The administration has so much on its plate, and it doesn’t have many new ideas on how to move forward on this. The trouble is, the United States has been focusing on process and allowing the parties to negotiate toward an end-point. Instead, the United States should announce its vision of an end-point and let the Israelis and Palestinians build a process to reach it.

What should the end-point be?

The only way to get a peace between these two parties is for the United States to declare its support for two states whose borders would follow the pre-war 1967 lines [in 1967, Israel took control of the West Bank, all of Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, and other territory]; the division of Jerusalem; and a limited right of return that permitted Palestinian refugees to go back to Israel only in order to reunite families and offered settlement in Palestine or compensation to all others. This should be official U.S. policy.

Such a policy would slowly build constituencies on both sides for an alternative to what their leaders are providing. If the Israeli public felt that [Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon was blocking a legitimate deal, it would sweep him aside. [Palestinian Authority President] Yasir Arafat would support a deal if he felt that his constituents supported it. After all, he is a survivor. The United States can’t wait for him to build support. It should create it, despite him. This doesn’t imply sending force or imposing a peace. That would be a recipe for disaster.

What’s happened to the idea that a free Iraq could become a democracy and a beacon throughout the Middle East?

That was a very good idea, and I agreed with its premise. But achieving such goals will take years. The president should continue to talk about democracy and continue to insist upon it in Iraq. Promotion of democracy is a goal the United States should be supporting around the world; it is who we are and what we should be behind. But the administration made the prospect of Iraq’s democratic transformation sound so simple, as if it could happen next year, painlessly and effortlessly. If Iraq is moving in a positive direction, that will inspire hope in the rest of the region. If it is not, that will contribute to the dismay, disappointment, frustration, and radicalization of the Middle East.

Is there an easy solution to the crisis brewing over Iran’s nuclear program?

The problems of the Middle East will be solved only through transatlantic cooperation— Iran, Iraq, Israel-Palestine, all of it. Iran poses a very serious problem and the United States must have intense consultations with its European partners. They’re Iran’s trading partners; they’re the ones who have had contact with Tehran over the last 20 years. The good news is that U.S. and European views on Iran are starting to align.

How are U.S.-Saudi relations?

The basic premise of the U.S.-Saudi relationship has collapsed. Throughout the Cold War, Saudi Arabia was important to the United States because of its oil, because the United States wanted to keep it out of the hands of the Soviets, because of its geographic position, and because of its ideology. As a theocracy, it provided a natural antidote to communism. Today, the pillars of this relationship have fallen away, and it is not clear what this relationship is about except a crude exchange of security in return for oil. This arrangement is unacceptable to both the American public and the Saudi public. There needs to be a fundamental rethinking of this relationship.

On the terrorism front, something has happened, which is under-appreciated. The Saudis defined the May 12 bombings in Riyadh [that killed 34] as an attack against them. They have aggressively rounded up religious zealots, acknowledged al Qaeda’s presence in the kingdom, and broken up terror cells. If that bombing had occurred before September 11, I believe the Saudis would have swept it under the rug and done nothing. But they defined the May bombings as a major attack on Saudi Arabia, which allowed the crown prince to adopt some reforms— that the United States had been urging him to take— and portray them as a Saudi initiative. It took 18 months for the Saudis to respond to September 11.

Some good news at least?

A small silver lining in a very gray and cloudy area.

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