Holbrooke Says U.S. Must Prepare for Long Stay in Iraq; Calls on Bush to Make Major Effort to Repair Ties with France

April 18, 2003

Interview
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.

Richard C. Holbrooke, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in President Clinton’s second term, warns that disorder, anti-Americanism, and disunity in Iraq will require a very long American commitment to keeping that country together.

While praising the U.S.-led military campaign against Baghdad, Holbrooke says the diplomacy preceding the war was a “train wreck.” He urges the administration to undertake major efforts to patch up relations with its longtime allies. He cites the Group of Eight summit in France this June as an occasion to take steps toward that goal.

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Holbrooke was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on April 18, 2003.

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Now that the war in Iraq is winding down, what’s your view on how the administration handled this?

Let me divide my thinking into three parts— the military effort, the diplomacy that led up to the military effort and its consequences, and finally where we go from here.

First, the military effort appears to have been quite brilliantly conceived. While it was widely reported that there were tremendous arguments between [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld and the armed services in advance, the result of these arguments, whatever they were, was a very successfully conceived and executed military plan, of considerable daring, especially the decision to start the conflict without the Fourth Mechanized Infantry Division in southeastern Turkey, which meant that they couldn’t fight on the northern front. As we learn more about this, [CENTCOM Commander] General Tommy Franks will probably emerge as a very successful and creative tactical military leader, and Secretary Rumsfeld deserves very real praise for his role in this process. It took a lot of nerve to do this. I’m glad that it was quick and that the casualties were low on the coalition side, and I think reasonably low on the Iraqi side.

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The diplomacy is harder to assess. The president was correct to go to the United Nations General Assembly on September 12, and make what was maybe the best speech of his presidency. And [Secretary of State] Colin Powell did an excellent job of creating a superb outcome in early November with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441 [which passed 15-0]. The administration also was right to get a congressional vote of approval for its actions. So that phase, after a summer of criticism last year and public disarray between [Vice President Dick] Cheney and Powell, was well carried out. But early this year, they began to stumble diplomatically. It was a mistake to seek the second— and unnecessary— Security Council resolution. I wrote an op-ed about this six weeks before the disaster in The Washington Post, and predicted that we were heading into a diplomatic train wreck, so this is not simply hindsight.

But the administration needed that resolution for the British, apparently.

Their excuse for seeking the second resolution was that [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair needed it, but in the end Blair didn’t need it, since he went ahead with the war without it. He simply inflicted on himself and the United States an unnecessary process which had the following negative effects. First, it advertised the divisions between countries instead of their common ground. Second, it sent us into battle with a small international coalition and the greatest possible international opposition, and vitiated much of the value of Resolution 1441. Third, it did immense damage to the United Nations and particularly the Security Council. And fourth, it appears to have left a legacy, as one can see from the headlines concerning the emerging new argument over lifting sanctions. So it was a diplomatic miscalculation of the first order.

Now administration officials, including close friends of mine with whom I worked for years, ascribe it to two factors. One you already mentioned— the British desire for a second resolution. We should have told Blair that this was a highly risky operation, that at best would produce a resolution which would never get a 15-0 vote as 1441 had done, and at worst wouldn’t pass at all. This was clear from the beginning, although my friends in the administration dispute that. They say— this brings me to their second point, not mine, I disagree with it— they say that if the French hadn’t behaved the way they did the U.S. would have had the second resolution. Maybe they would have, maybe they wouldn’t have, but the fact that Washington and Paris could not determine in private a common position in advance represents one of the greatest breakdowns in relations between allies in memory, maybe the greatest since [the British-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in] 1956.

You think this is more serious than the differences over Bosnia?

Yes. The Bosnia differences were serious, but we managed them. And it’s very important to underscore that when we did the bombing in Bosnia, and again did the bombing in Kosovo, we did it without Security Council resolutions, because we knew that the Russians would veto.

In order to protect the U.N. system, we bypassed it in the [case of the] Balkans. Jean-David Levitte, the French ambassador in Washington and President Jacques Chirac’s former national security adviser at the Elysee Palace, said at a Council on Foreign Relations meeting in Washington three weeks ago, at which I was the moderator, that he had gone to the White House, on instructions, and told the NSC [National Security Council] at a high level that the French did not think we should seek a second resolution and we should bypass them— in other words, precisely what we did in Kosovo.

This public statement by Levitte at a Council meeting attracted little press attention except from the Financial Times, but I think it’s an important insight. To blame the problem on being blindsided by the French is both correct and an evasion at the same time. It is factually correct that the French blindsided [U.S. officials], and caught Washington off balance and set in motion this diplomatic train wreck. However, allied relationships require constant communications at every level, and this should never have happened. I don’t believe it would have happened with the kind of diplomatic representation that existed in Paris when Felix Rohatyn was ambassador. Whatever happened, it left Secretary Powell understandably angry at what he considered— and here I agree fully with him— a breach of the code of conduct between foreign ministers of a great alliance.

It has led to an extraordinary outburst of French bashing in the United States and an outbreak of anti-Americanism in France. But, French bashing, fun though it may be, is not a substitute for policy, and to have a constant struggle with the French will not benefit our own national interests. I think the French behavior has been wrong, self-defeating, and self-destructive. But in advocating an improvement in U.S.-French and U.S.-German relations, I am not doing this because I want to excuse French or German behavior, I am advocating this because it is in the United States’ national interest to do so.

There is the perfect moment coming up for this— the Group of Eight summit will be in France this year, in Evian, in early June. Of course [German] Chancellor [Gerhard] Schroeder and [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin will also be there, as will Blair and [U.N. Secretary General] Kofi Annan. It will be an important opportunity, and the whole world will be watching everything from handshakes and hugs to individual slights and snubs. The United States should act not out of pique but out of its own national interests. And its own national interest involves strong ties with key NATO allies, and difficult though they are, that includes the French. And so if Chirac is willing to back off, and he started that by his recent phone call to Bush, which I understand he initiated, that’s a useful first step.

What should happen at the Security Council now? There’s a lot of discussion about lifting sanctions, what do the French want?

The sanctions issue is a highly technical issue. The French and the Russians, according to the newspapers, are going to bargain for lifting them. They’re going to try to get something out of it, but that’s natural, as long as it does not return to the mess in February and March.

What is the likelihood we can get order restored in Iraq any time soon?

We should all celebrate the triumph of the American-led coalition, and above all the end of Saddam’s regime. Having said that, we need to be honest with ourselves. The first week since Baghdad’s liberation has not been as easy or as triumphant as many people had hoped. It’s not just the looting— some looting was to be expected. It’s not just the destruction of the museum and the library, which is a tragedy for the whole world.

It is the near anarchy that now exists in much of Iraq, and the speed with which different factions are going to try to fill that vacuum, including factions that are notably not pro-American. There is no pro-American faction that has yet emerged with any credibility. One rapidly emerging faction is among some Shiites, who are chanting, “Saddam Hussein, no, no, no, U.S.A., no, no, no.” And the [April 10] murder of the Shiite leader [Sheik Abdel Majid al-Khoei], brought back to Najaf by the Americans in the holiest mosque of Shiites, was an act right out of the Middle Ages. [U.S. civilian reconstruction chief, Retired] Lieutenant General Jay Garner’s efforts are very hard to read. Watching the picture on television, I could only think of the famous scene in “Lawrence of Arabia,” when Lawrence gets to Damascus and total chaos breaks out.

How do events in Iraq compare with other nations where the U.S. has recently been involved?

If you compare the first week of post-Saddam Iraq to the first postwar week in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, it’s been very different. In Kabul, the removal of the Taliban really did provoke dancing in the streets, even in Kandahar. And while the Taliban is making an effort to come back now and while the situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating, the initial weeks were very good, and the United States found its dream leader in [Afghan] President [Hamid] Karzai, an articulate, telegenic, very smart leader, who may have his limits but was ideal at the time. This was vital in showing the world that America had been well-received in Afghanistan. But [Ahmad] Chalabi [the head of the Iraqi National Congress] is not Karzai. That is self-evident.

Now I’m all for trying to instill democracy in Iraq, but based on what is happening, I think we should prepare ourselves, the nation, and the Congress, which has to foot the bills, for a long, protracted, and potentially difficult presence. By the way, I would footnote that we’re still in Bosnia seven years later, after the Dayton agreement [that ended the war in Bosnia]. There are only a few thousand troops, two or three thousand, but we’re still there.

In Kosovo, we’re still there four years later with a few thousand troops. In Afghanistan, we’re going to be there for a long time, and in Korea we have 40,000 troops 50 years after the end of the war. The part I want to underscore before is that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this. We’re the world’s greatest power, we’re the leading power, and we have to be ready to accept these heavy responsibilities. The three most important cases in the last 55 years— Germany, Japan, and Korea— have succeeded, and these commitments, which are smaller and less costly, are legitimate extensions of American foreign policy. But we still have troops— in large numbers— in all these nations.

But, going back to Iraq, there are two issues, both within the context of the fact that in Afghanistan the situation is deteriorating. The American public and the Congress need to face up to a long-term commitment which won’t be cheap, and we have to be prepared to pay the bill, which will be very large, even with Iraqi oil to cover part of it. And secondly, and this is tricky, we’ve got to figure out a way not to make it appear to be an American, i.e., a Western occupation of an Arab land which includes some very holy sites.

That comes back to the U.N. again. Can it help out?

The U.N. is a potential cover for part of this. But there are a lot of other things involved. I know that the Pentagon is going around to many countries— I was in Warsaw earlier this week and talked to [Polish] President [Aleksander] Kwasniewski about this— and asking for troops for security [duties]. The Poles are going to send more troops, Bulgaria is going to send troops, the Czech Republic and Hungary— I was also in Hungary this week— they’re all going to send troops. These will have some important symbolic value, but nobody is going to view this as a Polish-Bulgarian-Hungarian security force. So in the end, no matter what the cover, no matter what the Security Council resolutions, this will be viewed by many in the Muslim world as an American occupation, and that carries with it great risks. History is not a straitjacket, but it’s an important guide. And the history of Iraq since Winston Churchill and Gertrude Bell rather unwisely created its current boundaries in 1922, is a difficult one for outsiders.

Can Iraq be transformed into a democracy?

To govern this country as a democracy would be very hard, since a true democracy would almost certainly lead to Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders who hold extreme positions. This would be worse than Bosnia, because the passions are much deeper and the Bosnian war will not resume, whereas fighting between Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds could easily begin any day if we aren’t there.

So democracy, desirable as it is, is a long way off. In the meantime, cobbling together a civil structure is immensely difficult. We’re caught in a kind of a Catch-22, but one that we have to stand up to. Nothing I’m saying should be read as advocating anything other than an intense effort that recognizes the complexities of the task but doesn’t shy away from it. The dilemma is this: if we have an accelerated withdrawal schedule, the chances of Iraq holding together are low, and the chances of it being seized by extremist elements or civil war are high. On the other hand, if we stay a long time, the risks of it turning into an anti-American crusade are very real.

So it’s a tricky problem. I assume that administration officials are well aware of this— you don’t have to be a genius to figure this out. I do not agree with those administration officials who say that this kind of talk is somehow undermining morale, unpatriotic, or to use The Wall Street Journal’s editorial headline of earlier this week, “liberal pessimism.” I’m just being realistic. I am totally in favor of these efforts, whether it’s Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, or Iraq. But as we go forward, we have to be realistic. This effort is going to be difficult, long, and expensive.

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