CFR Fellows Respond to Iraq Testimony

September 11, 2007


Following congressional testimony by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, the top two U.S. officials in Iraq, six CFR experts offered their own insights.

Peter Beinart: Decision Should Be President's, Not Petraeus's

Max Boot

Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies

Charles A. Kupchan

Senior Fellow

Vali R. Nasr

Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies

Steven A. Cook

Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies

Stephen D. Biddle

Adjunct Senior Fellow for Defense Policy

This is what happens when presidential leadership breaks down. David Petraeus is, by all accounts, a gifted soldier and an honorable man. But it is not his job to decide how much longer America should keep troops in Iraq. That decision, at its core, is political. It requires balancing the occupation’s costs—financial, institutional, diplomatic, and human—against the potential costs of withdrawal. And thus, it requires views on the broad scope of American foreign policy. For instance, how much damage is America suffering in Asia because our top policymakers are so preoccupied with the Middle East? What would a withdrawal mean for America’s relationships with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Turkey? George W. Bush is paid to have opinions on those topics; David Petraeus is not. But since most Americans no longer trust President Bush on the subject of Iraq, he and his advisors have made it seem as if the president is following Petraeus’s lead when constitutionally, it’s the other way around.

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There’s an irony here and a lesson. The irony is that in 2002, when many in the military were perceived to be skeptical of invading Iraq, Bush supporters stressed that it wasn’t their decision to make. The president was reported to be reading Eliot Cohen’s book, Supreme Command, which argues for keeping wartime decision making in the hands of civilian leaders. Now, having spent months trumpeting the “Petraeus Report,” with the implication that he sets Iraq policy, the Bush administration is sending exactly the opposite message, with worrying consequences. It is terribly unfortunate that is essentially calling Petraeus a Republican hack, but it’s the logical result of the position the Bush administration has put him in.

The lesson is about the importance of presidential credibility in times of war. The easiest way to maintain that credibility, of course, is for wars to go well. But when a president launches one, he can never be sure. That’s why it’s wise to bring prominent members of the opposition into government, preferably before the first shot is fired. Doing so requires ceding some control, but it means that if things go sour, political competitors—and the voters who back them—are more likely to see it as the country’s problem, and not just one president’s and one party’s. That’s what Woodrow Wilson didn’t understand between 1917 and 1919, and what Franklin Roosevelt—who appointed Republican Secretaries of the Navy and War in 1940—did. Sadly, it’s a lesson President Bush never learned. Perhaps if he had, he would be able to speak effectively today to Americans of both parties about the terrible dilemmas we face in Iraq. Instead, he is asking David Petraeus, who already has one of the toughest jobs on the planet, to do his as well.

Max Boot: The Surge is Working

In the lead-up to the testimony today by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, some antiwar campaigners seemed to have a nervous breakdown., a prominent leftist lobbying group, took out a full-page advertisement, at a cost of around $100,000, in the New York Times headlined: “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?” Their accusation is that Petraeus is “cooking the books for the White House” and what follows are ill-informed efforts to poke holes in the mountain of evidence showing that the situation in Iraq has improved since the surge started earlier this year.

Such desperate attempts to besmirch one of the most admired soldiers in the entire American armed forces, a man who has spent much of the past four years on the frontlines in Iraq, are likely to backfire, especially when juxtaposed against the image that Americans who tuned in to the hearings could see for themselves. Petraeus was, as usual, calm, reasonable, and unemotional. His testimony carefully laid out the progress that had been made, while conceding the substantial problems that still exist. He was backed up by the equally respected Ambassador Crocker. For all the political histrionics attending their testimony, their view—that the American people should continue to support the military mission in Iraq—is likely to prevail. That is good news because the alternative—a victory for Iran and al-Qaeda—would be nothing short of catastrophic.

Charles Kupchan: Bush Administration Just Buying Time

Despite the decline of violence in Baghdad and Sunni cooperation in fighting al-Qaeda in Anbar Province, claims that the surge is achieving its broader objectives simply lack credibility.  The issue at hand is not whether U.S. forces and their partners in Iraq have achieved discrete tactical successes; they no doubt have.  The central issue is whether the surge shows signs of providing sufficient security in Baghdad and elsewhere to promote political stability, sectarian reconciliation, and functioning state institutions.  The answer is unequivocally, “no.”  There is no unity government and no indication that one is soon to form.  If anything, the sectarian divide is growing and soft partition is becoming a reality.  Even if some of Baghdad’s neighborhoods may today be safer than in the past, the city is still wracked by continuous violence.  Simply put, the surge has failed to illuminate a light at the end of the tunnel.

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Hints by administration officials that a modest drawdown could begin late this year and early next undercut the White House’s repeated insistence that the U.S. presence will shrink only when conditions warrant it.  Indeed, if the surge were enjoying the successes claimed, the administration should be making the case for sustaining it, not ending it.  Looking toward the balance of the Bush presidency, the administration appears to be preparing to “stay the course” while making a modest drawdown to silence its critics.  If this week’s events are any indication, the administration is simply buying time—in the United States more than in Iraq—and intends to hand to the next president the primary challenge of figuring out how and when to get the bulk of U.S. forces out of a fragmenting Iraq.

Vali Nasr: Next Phase Could Spark Broader Regional Tensions

Even if the administration’s claim of rapidly improving security conditions is taken at face value, there is no evidence that the Iraqis are impressed with what they have seen so far. The surge has not stopped the tide of ethnic cleansing of Baghdad neighborhoods that has turned that city into a Shia stronghold. Nor has it thwarted the spate of spectacular attacks on Shia targets.

American commanders in Iraq concluded that if they defeat al-Qaeda, Shias will stop supporting the Mahdi Army. Shias however see al-Qaeda as only the worst of their Sunni opponents but not the whole problem—they view America’s Sunni allies with equal fear as they do al-Qaeda. They do not see developments in al-Anbar as positive and are not likely to warm up to Sunni tribes.

Both America’s Shia and Sunni allies are sectarian forces with mutually exclusive claims to power and, buoyed with U.S. arms and patronage, will prefer being masters in their own territories to sharing power at the center. The stronger they become, the more intransigent they will be. Already Shias are unwilling to meet the benchmarks the Congress has put before the Iraqi government, and Sunnis will not lay down their arms even if the Shias were willing. Strengthened with U.S. arms, Shias will continue to seek domination and Sunnis restoration as those goals become more unrealizable. What these forces will instead settle for is what the Kurds have: an autonomous region with its own powerful American-backed militia.

The forces that the United States is arming today may serve America’s short-term security goals but will also undermine its long-term political ones. This is a consequence of the surge having no political framework. In the next six months, the U.S. alliance with Sunnis, along with Shia alienation, will heighten tensions with Iran. The Iraq war will increasingly become an arena for the U.S.-Iran confrontation, which will intensify as the United States pushes its security plan into the south. Without a regional engagement—especially with Iran—the next phase of the surge will become more difficult and could spark broader regional tensions.

Steven Cook: Iraqi Factions Don't Share Vision for Future

The underlying assumption driving the surge was that security would provide enough “political space” for Iraqi factions to negotiate a series of compromises.  Yet there was a fundamental flaw with this hypothesis: none of the major factions in Iraq—Sunni, Shia, or Kurd—have common interests or a shared vision for the future of Iraq.  Even in an environment where security has improved, the Iraqis are deadlocked and will likely remain that way.

There has been much discussion of the “Sunni awakening” in Anbar, but let’s be clear about what is actually happening and what risks are involved.  The United States is providing the Sunni tribes the tools to destroy al-Qaeda of Mesopotamia (a good thing).  The unstated goal of this policy is to provide the Sunnis enough arms to create a balance of threat between Sunni and Shia militias in the hope that these groups will deter each other.  Yet, Washington is more likely enabling an intensification of the civil war as the Sunnis are convinced that they should be ruling Iraq and the Shia do not want to give up the gains they have made since the fall of Saddam.  Once the surge ebbs, expect the Sunni and Shia to do what they have been doing since at least early 2006—fighting over who will dominate Iraq.

Stephen Biddle: May Be Time for Bottom-Up Approach

Monday’s testimony yielded a mixed picture in at least two important respects. First, while some things have gone well, others have not, yielding an ambiguous prognosis. Second, and perhaps more important, the original logic by which U.S. strategy would bring stability to Iraq has expanded to embrace two different models—and these models’ military requirements pose important, but largely unrealized, tensions.

The surge’s original logic was that by providing population security through an expanded U.S. combat presence in Baghdad, the surge would create a political space within which Iraqi leaders at the national level could reach a grand reconciliation deal. Baghdad is now more secure than it was, but the deal has not materialized. This “top-down” model, however, has been joined by an unplanned, unanticipated, “bottom-up” model stemming from the surprise realignment of Sunni tribes in Anbar Province. This realignment is reversible and could prove temporary. It might also prove impossible to replicate in enough of the rest of the country to matter. Arming tribesmen (if necessary) could fuel Iraq’s violence if the policy fails. Even if successful, the resulting ceasefires would produce a patchwork quilt of uneasy local balances of power among factions with the ability to resume fighting if they choose. This network of uneasy truces could easily collapse into renewed warfare if not policed by outside forces—i.e., us—for a generation. These risks and costs are real. But in exchange, the new bottom-up Anbar Model offers at least some chance of stability in Iraq—and a better chance than the nearly moribund top-down model of years past.

To realize the bottom-up model’s potential, however, will probably require different military means than those designed for top-down reconciliation. The latter focuses on direct population security in Baghdad via sustained presence by U.S. combat brigades; this is needed to create the political space for a deal in the capital. Direct population security on this scale, however, ties down an enormous fraction of U.S. combat strength. To replicate the bottom-up model beyond Anbar will probably require an increasingly forceful application of leverage by the United States to induce now-unwilling parties to accept comparable local ceasefire deals. It will be hard to provide the needed leverage when our most important source—the U.S. military—is mostly tied down providing population security in places that are not immediately central to the negotiation of additional ceasefires. The new bottom-up model and the older top-down one thus pose tensions for U.S. military strategy; while it would be desirable in principle to pursue them both in parallel, in practice we may be forced to choose. And if so, it may be time to choose in favor of the bottom-up approach.

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