Council President Gelb Says Battlefield Victory [in Iraq] Will Be Soon, but the War Will Go on for Months to Come

Council President Gelb Says Battlefield Victory [in Iraq] Will Be Soon, but the War Will Go on for Months to Come

April 4, 2003 5:10 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.

Leslie H. Gelb, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, answered readers’ questions on the future of U.S. foreign policy. The New York Times online chat was hosted by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for and former editor of, on April 3, 2003.

Other Interviews

More on:


Good afternoon, I would like to invite Les Gelb to this forum. We should have an interesting hour talking about foreign policy. The first question is from Tim Bryson, who asks: How do we define a military victory in Iraq?

I think there will be a military victory in Iraq within the coming weeks. By that I mean the Iraqi armed forces will no longer be fighting in formation, that is, there will be no organized divisions or battalions. But we are not finding many bodies on the battlefield and we are not capturing many POWs, which indicates that Iraqi armed forces are breaking down into small units. It is likely that these small units will fight guerrilla-style in cities and villages and at nighttime along lines of supply. So the big part of the fighting will be over relatively soon, and then the much harder part of fighting these units will begin. Victory over these small units will come less from American armed forces hunting them down and more from the Iraqis themselves doing the job. So battlefield victory will be soon, but the war will go on for months to come.

What will define a success for the United States after the war is over?

Success or failure will be judged by our efforts of reconstructing Iraq. If we make Iraq a better and safer place, and people can see we are making it a better and safer place in the next months, we’ll be on the road to a genuine success. But an effective reconstruction program will be difficult. The Bush administration correctly feels that only a U.S.-military led authority can provide the necessary security and make the necessary decisions in the unsettled situation of the first year or so after battle. But the international community is also correct that only they can provide the effort with the necessary legitimacy. Bush and leaders of major governments abroad will have to work out a compromise, if they have any genuine caring for the Iraqi people. So far, however, it doesn’t look like either side is willing to make those compromises, and it is the Iraqi people who will suffer because of this.

Tony Grimley from the UK asks: How much freedom do you think the United States (and UK) will permit the Iraqi people in the political sphere? For instance, will they be free to determine how close they want to be to the United States?

More on:


I think the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people need some time and security to develop a real basis for freedom. If we were to simply tell them to start voting for their elected representatives right away, there is no doubt in my mind the result would be chaos and civil war. We have to help them develop the rule of law, tolerance, and representative government with power sharing. I think America’s record in delivering on those noble goals is not a bad one. Take a look at Germany and Japan after World War II, South Korea and Taiwan during the Cold War, and Bosnia and Kosovo in most recent years. And sure, if Iraq’s future government chooses to diverge from the United States on issues of foreign policy, that is up to them.

There have been a few questions along the following lines. John Bellasks for instance asks: If the “Bush Doctrine” calls for us to eliminate all terrorists and to treat countries like Afghanistan and Iraq as the “enemy” for having links to them, it would seem obvious we have no choice but to invade Iran next. After all, it is home to the dreaded Hezbollah terror organization, which operates unchecked out of Iran. The question then becomes, where do we stop? Do we take over Syria as well?

Your logic about the Bush administration’s logic seems right on to me. If they believe their own words, they should be heading toward Iran, North Korea, and maybe even Syria. But I think they will find that military action against these other states will be more difficult to mount and sustain than even this difficult war against Iraq.

Another Middle East question: Sam Chavez asks: Why is our government so blind to the fact that unless the Palestinians have their own viable homeland and a just settlement of other related issues, the Middle East will always have this problem of extremism? In short, will the Bush administration bring pressure to see the Middle East “road map” put into effect?

I have my problems with Bush’s handling of the Palestinian-Israeli relationship, particularly in not making the United States more active in trying to move the parties back toward the negotiating table. But I think the Arab and Palestinian leaders are the main ones who have to wake up to realities, mainly to the reality that no viable Israeli leader will be able to make the necessary compromises toward a Palestinian state without the following:

Palestinian and Arab leaders saying to their own people, time and again, that they are willing to live in peace with a Jewish state of Israel.

Unless Arab leaders stand up to this issue with their fellow Arabs and unless they begin putting Israel into the classroom maps and textbooks, Israel will never be prepared to make the kinds of compromises that the Palestinian people should ultimately receive. And for very good reason, there is no trust that Palestinians wouldn’t use a Palestinian State to drive the Jews into the sea. The best way to convince the Israelis otherwise is for the leaders to show the courage to say that they will live in peace with a Jewish neighbor.

P.S. It doesn’t count to say it to a New York Times reporter of the English-language edition or to whisper it in Colin Powell’s ear.

Several readers ask in one way or other: Just how important is the United Nations to the United States? Can’t the United States just do fine in the world without the UN?

The United Nations is a building on 42nd Street inhabited by a bunch of international bureaucrats. Some of those bureaucrats do very good work with humanitarian relief, refugees, and health problems. And we need them for that purpose. The “U.N.” that you all have a problem with is really other nation-states like us, who happen to disagree with us. I refer here to France, Germany, and most other countries around the world which are members of the U.N. and a number of which are members of the Security Council. I’ve got some real problems with their foreign policies and particularly how they handled themselves on Iraq at the U.N. But then Bush didn’t do a very good job of bringing them along. Yes, we can win a military victory without any of them, perhaps with the exception of Britain. But we can’t succeed at making the world a better place or making ourselves safer at home without genuine international cooperation. We are not going to get that cooperation unless we are prepared to make some compromises. That’s true in politics as it is in life. Countries around the world, including some of our best friends, stuck their heads in the sand on important issues: Saddam’s monstrous behavior, his track record of having and using weapons of mass destruction, his support of anti-Israeli terrorists, his invasion of other countries. This guy was a genuine threat. Our friends knew this. That’s why they voted for some 17 U.N. resolutions calling on him to account for the weapons of mass destruction we knew he had. Responsibility for denying all this rests with our friends, but on the other hand, the Bush team never made a convincing case as to why they had to act with military force now or that the containment policy or inspections couldn’t be given more time. This unwillingness didn’t seem reasonable to a lot of our friends. We stopped talking to each other privately and trying to work things out. They started saying nasty things about us publicly and you know the rest. Cooperation means cooperation.

In a similar vein, several readers ask in different ways: Given the very harsh feelings between the United States and some major European nations, can --or should— -relations be mended enough to make NATO a truly viable institution, or will NATO ultimately fall apart as some experts predict, leaving the United States and the EU as separate powers?

There is no going back to things as they were, including NATO as good as it was. The purposes of NATO will have to be redefined, and political leaders of NATO countries will have to go their people and explain those new purposes and build support for those new purposes. Right now, however, there isn’t much of an alliance when so many of its members don’t really agree on what constitutes the most serious threats and how best to respond to those threats. We even have important differences with some of our closest NATO allies, like Britain. Tony Blair is much more of an internationalist than George Bush. The NATO experts will have to do some hard work together, and their political bosses will have to take public political responsibility for reshaping NATO. In my opinion, this is very important for us to do. We can’t run a foreign policy by trying to sculpt new coalitions of the so called “willing” every time we face a problem. We have to remake NATO as a solid and standing standard bearer once again. But none of this will be easy, when so many of these NATO leaders acted like such jerks these past months.

Les, you are retiring in June after ten years as president of the Council, and a successful life in government and journalism before that. So the following question, a bit of a fantasy, is from me: If you could have a dinner party with a half dozen or so of the people who made the biggest impression on you in foreign affairs during your life, who would you invite, and why?

The first guy I’d invite is someone I’ve never met, in fact whose books I didn’t ever read until quite recently. Edward Gibbon, who wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. His history is brilliant, and he writes about an era when there was one power, Rome, far stronger than all the others. At the height of the Roman Empire, they ruled with effective, but small-standing forces, Roman law, building infrastructure and economic development. It’s not a bad foreign policy.

I’d also think of inviting Gorbachev who did more for the peace of the world than almost anyone in the last century, but he talks too much.

And I think I’d invite Bernie Gwertzman, that famous chief diplomatic correspondent for the New York Times, who has covered the follies of foreign policy for more than 30 years. He can recite histories that I should remember.

I’d also invite Diane Sawyer and my wife, who are both great conversationalists and who would be the only ones at the table listening to what everyone said.

P.S. If Dick Holbrooke, the famous former American diplomat is online, I’d also include him because he is brilliant and a great storyteller. And my present boss, Pete Peterson, chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, to discuss a final salary increase in historical perspective.


Top Stories on CFR


NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

The war in Ukraine marks a new era of instability in Europe. Countering Russia’s efforts will require a stronger, more coordinated NATO.


After the rise of Chinese power during the 2010s and failed U.S. policies in the Indo-Pacific, the United States should renew the Pivot to Asia and place the region at the center of its grand strategy.*