IRAQ Editorial Briefing with Max Boot

September 12, 2003 1:04 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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Max Boot, a senior fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, participated in a Council-sponsored conference call on September 9, 2003, to brief editorial-page editors at U.S. newspapers. The topic was Boot’s late-August tour of Iraq. Following is an edited transcript of the call.

Briefly describe your trip and give us your general impressions of conditions on the ground.

I spent 10 days in Iraq, and returned about a week ago. First I went out with the First Marine Division, which was headquartered in Babylon. And then I went up to Mosul, in northern Iraq, with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. I came back with a fairly optimistic impression of the progress that is being made, despite the fact that I went over there the day after the [August 19] bombing in Baghdad that destroyed the United Nations building. And the day before I came back, there was a huge bombing in Najaf [on August 29], which killed 100 people, including a leading cleric. Despite all of that, I was struck by the progress that the troops are making with the various projects they’re undertaking to win hearts and minds. To rebuild schools, to train police, to stand up Iraqi city councils, mayors, and governors, and do all these other things that are necessary in order to get Iraq back on track. I generally got a sense of optimism from the troops, and felt they felt they were doing important work and making progress.

There were also, of course, a lot of problems. The big one I found was with the Coalition Provisional Authority, the CPA, which tries to run things from Baghdad. Some of the troops joke CPA stands for “can’t provide anything.“ It hasn’t done a very good job of supporting the work the military is doing. And, of course, there are a lot of problems with lack of electricity, lack of employment, lack of fuel—all sorts of woes that are plaguing the country. But, as I said, I came back with a generally positive impression that despite all those [difficulties], things are moving in a positive direction.

I think that President Bush’s $87 billion request is appropriate and overdue. And I think that money is needed in Iraq, and will help achieve some of the goals of the occupation— repairing Iraqi infrastructure and putting more Iraqi police and security forces on the street, which I think has to be the top priority.

What should be the criteria for deciding when the United States should intervene in a country that may or may not be a terrorist threat to us?

American use of force is most successful when it marries national security interests with high moral purpose. And there is no question that, in the long run, both are very present in Iraq. The moral purpose should be obvious, which is that we are replacing a brutal dictatorship. And we have a chance to create the first democracy in the Middle East other than Israel, which would be a tremendous achievement.

The strategic purpose right now is also pretty clear. Whatever you may have thought about the intervention in the first place, I refer you to a story on the front page of The Washington Post on September 7 about how al Qaeda is trying to open a front against the United States in Iraq. Clearly, we have a huge stake in defeating these jihadists flooding into Iraq hoping to kill Americans. And likewise, if we were to pull out now, our enemies would see that as a victory. We would suffer catastrophic consequences, because it would reinforce this sense that was fostered by Beirut, Somalia, and Vietnam that we’re this paper tiger, as Osama bin Laden said, and can be attacked with impunity. For all those reasons, I think President Bush was right to say [in his September 7 speech] that Iraq is a central front in the war on terrorism.

In an article you wrote before you went to Iraq, you made a pragmatic case for the United States to get more international help in Iraq. Did your trip change your opinions, or do you still feel that way? And what kind of help specifically are you interested in?

I still feel that way. In fact, in some ways, my trip strengthened that view. As I mentioned, I heard a lot of complaints about how the Coalition Provisional Authority is not doing a tremendous job. It doesn’t have a lot of presence in the provinces. It hasn’t been able to create an Iraqi satellite TV channel. So in places— huge blocs of the country, in northern Iraq, for example—we’re completely ceding the media war to Al Jazeera and other anti-American media outlets. The CPA has had a lot of other problems with various programs. So getting more U.N. involvement in the civilian side of the occupation wouldn’t be a bad thing. It would be fine if the CPA were to cede some responsibility, if [CPA head L. Paul] Bremer [III] were to get a U.N. deputy, or if Bremer himself were to become the deputy to a U.N. administrator. If we could inject some more personnel and some more money into the CPA in particular, that would be a good thing.

The only thing I saw in Iraq that would make me at all concerned about getting the United Nations involved has to do with the security side. I was in southern Iraq when the Marines were turning over responsibility to coalition troops—Poles, Ukrainians, Spaniards, and various others. I think some of them will do fine. But with others, I got the clear sense they were just not up to the quality of the U.S. Marines, and probably would not do as good a job there. And I think that would be even more true with other foreign troops that you might bring in. You have to be careful about which foreign troops you bring in, and what responsibilities you give them. But if we can get at least another division out of India, that would be great. Not because I think we need to beef up the number of foreign troops so much, but to allow army units to rotate out of Iraq within a year’s time. Our own military is over-stretched right now.

Still, we have to realize the responsibility is ultimately on our shoulders. We’re not going to get more than 10,000 or 20,000 troops out of the United Nations. I think money would be the big thing we can get out of Western Europe and Japan. It would be great if they paid some of the bill of the occupation so we don’t have to shoulder the entire cost ourselves. But, realistically, we are going to be in the leading role for Iraq until it’s turned over to Iraqis. And that should be our goal. We have to realize it’s our responsibility and step up to the plate, which President Bush is now doing. A lot of people, including me, were saying months ago that we needed to put more money into reconstruction in Iraq.

Did you get any sense of how long it will take to turn the country over to the Iraqis?

It’s hard to say. Part of the difficulty is in defining what you mean by turning it over to Iraqis. I can easily foresee within a year’s time that there would be an Iraqi president of Iraq, possibly even an elected Iraqi president. But the question is, how much of a presence would we still need to have in Iraq in order to provide security and other assistance? I suspect it would have to be substantial. In my mind, the analogy is Afghanistan, where there is a president, Hamid Karzai. He hasn’t been elected formally, although he was selected at the loya jirga. Nevertheless, there are something like 15,000 foreign troops helping his government try to keep the security situation under control. And of course, the United States is providing a lot of reconstruction assistance as well to his government. I suspect we would have to do something very similar in Iraq, probably on a bigger scale, even after there is an Iraqi leadership. And even after Iraqis are in control of the country, we’re going to have to provide assistance to the democratic government. Because the jihadists and Baath Party remnants and so forth are not just fighting now to defeat Americans. They also don’t want a democracy in Iraq.

Do you think the invasion of Iraq has provoked more recruitment for jihadists?

I don’t think anybody knows how many jihadists are out there in the world now, as opposed to three months ago. The figure probably is in flux all the time. There’s no question that probably some people were inflamed to journey to Iraq for the sole purpose of killing Americans, who might not have done that if we hadn’t been in Iraq. When I was there, one of the officers I talked with showed me some passports that they had seized from foreign fighters. These were Syrian passports, Jordanian, and other Arab nationalities. On the visa application, stating the reason why they wanted to come to Iraq, they would list “pursuing jihad.“ That would be their reason for coming to Iraq. They were very up front about it. And that’s why they got in. These [papers] were taken off of killed or captured fighters.

There is something to the notion that there are a lot of people out there who want to kill Americans, no matter what. And if we’re in the neighborhood, they’re going to go out and target our troops in Iraq, instead of trying to infiltrate the United States. I’m sure there are a number of people who are in that position, because getting into the United States is much more difficult than getting into Iraq. And there is something to the argument that we want them targeting 130,000 well-armed American troops, wearing flak vests and Kevlar helmets, instead of targeting civilians in New York or Los Angeles. But what the overall balance is, it’s hard to say. I will say that I think that if we can prevail in Iraq, if we can install a stable constitutional government, that will be a huge setback for the jihadists, for al Qaeda, for the anti-American forces out there. And conversely, if we fail, if we pull out, and disorder takes over in Iraq, that will be a huge blow to us. It will be seen as another Vietnam, or Somalia, or Beirut, and that will be a huge boost for the terrorists and a huge blow for the United States.

If the war did provoke more fighters, and considering that we haven’t found weapons of mass destruction, isn’t there a risk that we are more vulnerable than before the war?

I don’t think it’s going to leave us more vulnerable than before the war. I don’t think that the fact that we’re in Iraq itself is vastly increasing the number of fighters against us. Certainly the Iraqi people are not being inflamed into violence. I was down in the southern region, and the Marines have excellent relations with the people in Karbala and Najaf, and all these other places where the holiest Shiite shrines are located. And they have good links with the imams. We’re definitely making friends overall in Iraq.

What the balance is in the rest of the Arab world, it’s hard to say right now. Because clearly, there are some people who are saying, “Oh my God, the infidels are in possession of the land of the Muslims. So we have to go and blow them up.“ Clearly, there’s some of that. But I think a lot of these people are going to hate us no matter what, and try to kill Americans no matter what. And I think long term, we have an opportunity. If we can turn Iraq around, we can undo some of the causes of the violence in the Middle East. We can show that America is not only backing despotic regimes, as in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but also is actually doing something positive for the people of the Arab world. I think that will be a tremendous opportunity, and one that will lead Arabs in neighboring states to ask, “Well, if the Iraqis are getting democracy, why aren’t we?“

Are you confident that, if the situation in Iraq remains unsettled and U.S. casualties continue, President Bush will be able to sustain his argument to the American people and to Congress that we need to stay the course?

It’s hard to say. It generally depends on whether there are signs that we’re making progress. If there’s palpable progress being made on the ground in Iraq, then I think the American people will tolerate casualties. This notion that Americans want to pull out every time a soldier gets killed is, I think, just wrong as a matter of historical fact. In Vietnam, even as late as 1968, after we’d suffered tens of thousands of casualties, more Americans in opinion polls wanted to escalate than wanted to withdraw. And if you look at the Cold War, we stayed the course for decades, with a huge commitment of money and resources, in order to fight the Soviet Union. The American people are capable of making these long-term sacrifices. But they’re going to get pretty fed up if they’re not seeing signs of progress. The only thing that in the long run can really defeat us is a sense back home that we’re losing the war. That’s the only thing I think that would lead the American people to want to pull out.

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