“I can’t tell you that if the administration does everything in this report, it will succeed,” says Haass, the president of CFR, who was head of State Department policy planning in the first years of the Bush administration. “But it probably gives the administration the best chance that exists for making progress.”
The Iraq Study Group’s report is now out. What was your general impression of it? It’s a rather bleak report, isn’t it?
The first word that comes to my mind is sober. It is sober about the situation in Iraq; it is sober about the trends; it is sober about what the United States can do about Iraq; it is sober about the consequences if we fail. So you can choose your adjectives, whether it’s bleak or sober. But also the report is something else: It is refreshingly honest. You can’t help but feel that it is written, as we used to say, with the bark off the tree.
Now, let’s say you’re in the White House, the report’s on your desk. How should you react to this? It calls for a number of things this administration has been hotly opposed to, including holding talks with Syria and Iran and outlining a timetable for withdrawal.
It represents a significant departure from the administration policy, to say the least. On the other hand, it also does not embrace some things the administration strongly opposes. For example, it rejects what it calls a precipitate withdrawal. If the administration is wise, what it will do is not simply say “thank you,” as the president has already done, but implement large parts of it. And if the administration wants, it doesn’t have to give the study group the credit. It can say the report’s consistent with changes that were already underway, and that it is consistent with what the administration’s own internal reviews are telling us. You could make the case that large parts of the report are consistent with the Rumsfeld memo that surfaced just a few days back. So my recommendation for the administration would be to implement large parts of this and to essentially co-opt it. I can’t tell you that if the administration does everything in this report, it will succeed. But it probably gives the administration the best chance that exists for making progress.
Tell me what was consistent with the Rumsfeld memo.
What you see in both of them is the same intellectual conclusion, which is namely that more of the same will not work. The departure point is exactly the same. A lot of the things that Rumsfeld threw out in the memo—about reorienting U.S. troops, reducing force levels, and reorienting missions—are to be found in both documents.
Now, you yourself have been advocating, in some of our interviews and elsewhere, that the United States should be talking to Syria and Iran, and of course this report comes down very heavily on this, as well as on the necessity for getting an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Everyone in the Middle East tends to agree with this, but to get anything concrete, how do you get started?
You need to separate the two. Some sort of a regional mechanism—I think the report calls it an international support group—could be established either through a call by the Iraqi government or the United Nations. It’s best that the United States not be the convening party. The report makes a good case that despite the differences the United States has with both Iran and Syria, there are some common interests—essentially that Iraq not implode, that we not have a country that ends up being partitioned. It is certainly worth a try. I can’t tell you if such a meeting were to be held that it would make a substantial difference in Iraq’s trajectory, but it’s not as though you can dismiss that possibility, and it’s not as though the alternatives look great. So why not try?
And the report is very careful to make clear that the Iranian nuclear issue would be effectively de-linked, that it would be dealt with elsewhere, that it should not become a precondition in any way to bring about Iran’s cooperation on Iraq, [which] is smart. On the Middle East peace process, there’s a surprising emphasis. But imagine [if] there was significant progress on the Palestinian negotiations. I don’t think it would matter at all for the future of Iraq. Quite honestly, the people who are doing the killing in Iraq are not doing it because they favor a Palestinian state.
But the focus on the Middle East peace process is significant for two other reasons. One, it’s a way to possibly get Syria to play a more hopeful role, in particular in closing its border with Iraq to al-Qaeda and other types coming in. Secondly, it’s one of the few things right now the United States can offer embattled Sunni Arab leaders in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Jordan and elsewhere, who are feeling not simply depressed but essentially worried, in the most fundamental way, for their political futures. So this would give them something. And I think that’s the rationale for that emphasis.
I interviewed one anti-Syrian Lebanese who’s caught up in the Beirut crisis who said the United States should not deal with Syria because Syria would only demand to get the [Rafik] Hariri tribunal dropped, but then I spoke to Ambassador [Abdel Raouf] El Reedy, who’s president of the Egyptian Council on Foreign Relations, and he, of course being Sunni, said the United States must speak to Syria.
Again, it’s not a hopeless effort. In 1990, Syria joined the Desert Storm coalition; there have been successful diplomatic initiatives with Syria. If you could get Syria to shut down the border with Iraq, that would help you. If you could get Syria to stop supporting to the degree that they are Hezbollah and Hamas, it would have tremendous consequences. So it’s in our interest to at least explore that possibility.
And on Iran, we’ve had no substantive talks except a bit on Afghanistan at the start of that war. I don’t even know where you’d begin.
The smartest place to begin would be in a multilateral setting, much as we had over Afghanistan. We should set up the equivalent for Iraq, the neighboring states, permanent members of the Security Council, and a few other others. Another parallel would be the Six-Party Talks with North Korea. You set up a regional mechanism. It therefore doesn’t force the administration at this point to go back and reverse its policy on Iran and only enter bilateral talks if Iran first suspends its nuclear program. So this allows the United States to park that problem somewhere to the side. To put it bluntly, we do not want to make progress on Iraq contingent on solving the Iranian nuclear problem. Ultimately, we want to make progress on both issues, but we just don’t have the luxury of making progress on one contingent on making progress on the other.
David Ignatius in the Washington Post today is in Dubai, and he met up with Ali Larijani, the Iranian national security official, who said that Iran would be willing to help out on Iraq if it had a U.S. timetable for withdrawal. Now, the Baker-Hamilton report has some sort of timetable.
A timetable, yes. But I would have thought that Iran benefited strategically from the United States being bogged down in Iraq. And secondly, Iran would clearly pay a price if U.S. withdrawal from Iraq triggered massive state failure and massive refugee flows. So it’s not clear to me why Iran would link its future behavior or potential cooperation to U.S. withdrawal. That seems to me an odd formulation.
And two other things: One interesting part of the report we haven’t discussed is the pointed message to the Iraqi government. The report essentially says the U.S. commitment is not open-ended; to the contrary, if Iraqis can’t meet clear benchmarks on national reconciliation, or governance, or the improvement of their policy on military forces, the United States is not going to hang around. What’s so interesting to me is that begins to pave the way for a U.S. move out of Iraq in a way that if push comes to shove would attempt to place the lion’s share of the burden on Iraq. It’s a way of essentially saying, “We went the extra mile, but the failure shouldn’t be blamed on the United States. It’s because the Iraqis could not simply do their part.” It’s the beginning of an effort to shape or control what will be competing narratives on why Iraq was lost, if in fact it turns out to be lost. Hopefully we won’t get to that point, but I do see this as the beginning of a hedging strategy. A lot of people, including the person you’re talking to, have recommended public benchmarks just for that reason.
Secondly, we began with the theme—you used the word bleak, I used the word sober—but the other thing that comes through the report as a whole, taking a step back from Iraq, is what a different foreign policy orientation it represents. You add it all up—a de-emphasis on military force, a renewed emphasis on what we used to call the Middle East peace process, engaging countries like Iran and Syria that are essentially members of the ”axis of evil,” a call for multilateralism, a call for bipartisanship—if you add this all up, it represents a significant departure or reorientation in American foreign policy. In fact, it’s one that goes way beyond Iraq.
It seemed to me, as an old State Department [correspondent], as a throwback to the Cold War days, or even to the last Persian Gulf War from 1990 to 1991.
It’s a throwback to traditionalism. It’s a throwback to an American foreign policy that works on behalf of more limited goals. What you don’t read in this report is a call for transformation. You don’t read about democracy. You don’t read about a new Middle East. This is in some ways a return to modesty.