Iraqi Kurdish soldiers and Syrian rebels join the battle against ISIS in Kobani, the search continues for missing students in Mexico, and the last U.S. Marines pull out of a key base in Afghanistan. A panel of journalists joins guest host Susan Page for a conversation about the week's top international stories.
Guest Host: Tom Gjelten
Iraq’s biggest oil refinery is partially on fire after an attack from the Islamic extremist from the group, ISIS. The militants have already taken over large areas in Iraq including several major cities. President Obama meets today with Congressional leaders on the US response. Yesterday the White House announced the capture of a suspected leader of the 2012 Benghazi attacks. The administration’s explanations of those attacks prompted sharp criticism from Congressional Republicans. Please join us to discuss the latest from Iraq, the role of the US and security in the region.
- Michael Eisenstadt senior fellow and director, military and security studies program, Washington Institute for Near East Policy
- Trita Parsi president of National Iranian American Council and author of "A Single Roll of the Dice - Obama's Diplomacy with Iran."
- Yochi Dreazen managing editor for News at Foreign Policy; author of the upcoming book "The Invisible Front."
- Robin Wright analyst and joint fellow, U.S. Institute of Peace and Woodrow Wilson International Center author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World."
MR. TOM GJELTENAnd thanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR sitting in today for Diane Rehm. President Obama meets with congressional leaders today to discuss the increasingly deadly battle between Iraqi security forces and the al-Qaida inspired militant group ISIS. Many say security in the entire region is at risk, but U.S. strategy remains unclear.
MR. TOM GJELTENJoining me to talk about what's at stake in Iraq and what we can do about it: Yochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy, Robin Wright of the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center, and Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
MR. TOM GJELTENAnd if you could join us, we'd appreciate that. Our phone number is 1-800-433-8850. Our email is email@example.com. If you have ideas about what we should do in Iraq, you can also post us -- post on our Facebook page or send us a tweet. Yochi Dreazen, let's begin with you. What's the latest this morning from Iraq? I know that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki spoke to his country this morning on television. We've got this oil refinery, which is very important in Iraq, under siege at least. What's the latest?
MR. YOCHI DREAZENIt's one of those things right now where the latest depends slightly on who you talk to. Almost all the reports from around the region -- one of my former fixers, when I was living in Baghdad, is physically there now -- say that the refinery in its totality is under ISIS control. The government is saying that that's only true of part, that they've repelled the offensive and are pushing them out. But all reports from the region, including again the one that I had from a colleague of mine, say that that is not true.
MR. YOCHI DREAZENMaliki's saying that his forces have doled the advance and are beginning to push back. His -- the military is saying the same thing. That said, that's what they were saying with Samarra, which they lost. That's what they were saying with Baqubah, which is what they lost. It's interesting and important to point out that if you look at Iraq right now, if you look at a map of what ISIS controls, they now have three routes into Baghdad.
MR. YOCHI DREAZENThey can come in from Anbar, they could come in from Baqubah, they can come in from Samarra, all of which are on the major highways of Iraq, which are actually in very good shape. Theoretically -- and I stress that -- because if they went towards Baghdad, that's where the Shia volunteers, the Shia armies would make their stand. But they now have three directions into the city. And that's a point that I think we don't focus on enough, that these aren't just random cities being captured. These are strategically very important to encircling Baghdad.
GJELTENWell, Robin Wright, what's the outlook here? I mean, this has been a very fast advance. On the other hand, Baghdad's a whole different situation. What's your view of, you know, can Iraq survive this onslaught?
MS. ROBIN WRIGHTThat's the basic question. And you effectively have the beginning of a Sunni rump state under ISIS control in very important strategic areas of Iraq. The question is whether the Maliki government can motivate the military still under its control to fight back. The question is, what role does the outside world play? And the more fundamental question is, was or is Iraq created rather artificially a century ago by European and French -- British and French powers, a viable state in the 21st century?
MS. ROBIN WRIGHTIn some ways, you could argue that the Kurds are becoming their own state in the north. They've deployed their peshmerga militiamen along that border. This could offer them the pretext to say, whether it's formally or de facto, we're going to protect our own. We're going our own way. They've had kind of autonomous rule there now for well over a decade, almost two.
MS. ROBIN WRIGHTAnd is it a battle between the Shiites and the Sunnis for the rest of the country? Baghdad is kind of a city state unto itself. It has traditionally had a mixture of Shiite and Sunni, but you've also seen the exodus in recent days of a lot of Sunnis who are worried about -- and you know what happens.
GJELTENMichael Eisenstadt, what's the U.S. interest here? I mean, how important is it to U.S. interests that Iraq survive as a unitary state, as opposed to the kind of partitioned state that Robin is talking about? And, obviously, what then are the U.S. options?
MR. MICHAEL EISENSTADTWell, clearly a fragmented Iraq, where ISIS has a safe haven or actually is able to set up a state in the north, as well as in Eastern Syria, is very much against our interests. That will be a source of instability for the entire region and a possible springboard for terrorist operations overseas, potentially. So, you know, it's not clear to me what interest we have in a unified Iraq anymore, but I think we very much have an interest in preventing the emergence of an ISIS state in the north.
MR. MICHAEL EISENSTADTNow, that being said, I think we have to say that the situation there is very unclear. We're getting a lot of contradictory reports. ISIS -- I think the days of rapid victories are over for them. They've, you know, the conditions that allowed them to achieve those successes, the fact that the Iraqi security forces were viewed in Northern Iraq as an army of occupation, no longer obtain or apply in the Baghdad area.
MR. MICHAEL EISENSTADTAnd now you have the security forces. They're organized now. They're prepared. They were surprised previously. And they have the support of tens of thousands of militiamen. So I would argue that it's best -- it's very important for the United States not to overreact, you know, because I think now we're probably settling into a war of attrition. And it remains to be seen what kind of success the Iraqis will have pushing back.
MR. MICHAEL EISENSTADTI will just say the city of Fallujah, which was lost earlier this year and is still surrounded by Iraqi security forces, has not been won back yet by the Iraqis. So given the problems they've had in dealing even with just one city and taking back one city from ISIS, which is very close to Baghdad, I think that portends a very hard fight ahead for them if they want to get back the north.
GJELTENNevertheless, you say the U.S. should not overreact. What do you mean? Elaborate.
EISENSTADTOK. I think it would be very unwise for us to directly intervene in the fighting at this point. First of all, I'm not sure there's a lot we can do. Plus, for us to be seen as openly intervening in this fight on the side of the government -- now, clearly, we should be providing intelligence support and advice to the government, but openly intervening would be the best recruitment device for the -- for ISIS.
EISENSTADTAnd it would enable them to greatly increase their numbers. Right now they're overstretched, I suspect. But if we were to intervene directly, there would be many people in Iraq and elsewhere who would rub their hands at the opportunity to come to Iraq to kill Americans. And if we do it with the Iranians, that's a double good from their point of view.
GJELTENOK. Well, the two issues of military intervention here, Yochi Dreazen, are, one, as Michael says, the U.S. intervention, but, two, Iran's possible military intervention as well.
DREAZENYeah. I mean, I think Michael kind of hits on a very important point, which is, one, should there be an intervention, and, two, what form would it take. As far as we know -- and there's more news out of this today -- the possibility of American ground troops in any kind of number is pretty much nil. The possibility of several hundred Special Forces troops as advisors, as sharing the intel that Mike mentioned, much likelier.
DREAZENAir strikes could, of course, be done from a distance. And, obviously, the risk to U.S. personnel would be very, very low. That said, I agree with him, that as a recruiting tool, this would be fantastic. When we think about ISIS, even the phrase al-Sham, there never was an al-Sham. They're calling themselves, you know, the Islamic -- that's the second half of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Every war of the 20th century, World War I, World War II, borders disappear.
DREAZENThere were countries that existed before the war, there are countries that existed after the war and they were not always the same. The border between Syria and Iraq, which was somewhat artificial in the first place, is gone. So it isn't a question simply of is it a rump state in the Sunni part of Iraq. It's how much of Syria do they control, and does that ever disappear? So you potentially have a rump state that is crossing what had been two countries and may not be in the future.
DREAZENOne quick point on the Kurds. Kirkuk for them had always been described as their Jerusalem. They've been willing to fight for this for 13 years, if not longer. It fell to them in a few hours without firing a shot. So when we think about the break-up of Iraq, that's a point -- that's a signal, kind of, unimaginable point, that a city that these two sides had almost gone to war over became Kurdish overnight with no violence.
GJELTENFor more than a decade.
DREAZENFor more than a decade.
GJELTENYeah. Well, Robin Wright, what's the -- I mean, this certainly -- the facts on the ground certainly seem to be heading in this direction, that you identified earlier. And that is of a partitioned Iraq. Yochi says that the border between Iraq and Syria has already disappeared. Kirkuk is finally in the hands of the Kurds, a city they've been fighting for for years and years. What is this likely to mean? I mean, even these boundaries were set up by foreign powers. What would the sort of reorganization of this region mean strategically?
WRIGHTWell, it could have extraordinary rippling effects on whether it's the pattern of trade and energy flows. Oil -- Iraq is obviously a very important source of oil for many countries. It would have a more basic strategic realignment. It would divide, I think, the Sunni and Shiite worlds more deeply, arguably, than at any time since the original schism between Shiite and Sunni in the seventh century and with rippling effect across, you know, other parts of the Islamic world that are not in the Middle East.
WRIGHTThis is really a danger that I think we haven't fully absorbed. This is a moment that will be tough, I think, for the outside world to figure out what to do. But on that point, as Obama meets with members of Congress on what Washington's reaction is, I think it's important to remember that the starting point has to be political rather than military, that we have to begin dealing with the core problem of how do you bring the Shiites and the Sunnis and the Kurds back into some kind of coexistence?
WRIGHTWhether it stays as one state or crumbles into three, the fact is they still have to engage in some kind of coexistence. We still want to insure that extremism isn't the way part of that territory is ruled. And in that case, that's where Prime Minister Maliki is the pivot. And Obama -- President Obama was, I think, right in saying on Friday that the prime minister really needs to begin dealing with others.
WRIGHTThe tragedy is that in the last two days Maliki has instead come out and blamed Saudi Arabia, charging that it's responsible for funding and aiding these guys in ways that have allowed them to engage in what he calls genocide. And that kind of attitude is not going to foster any kind of healing, reconciliation or unity that will allow the Iraqi government to exert its authority again in any part of the country.
GJELTENWell, Michael, in fact, Maliki is saying, and his allies are saying, this is not the time for political reconciliation. We have to focus on the military aspect.
EISENSTADTYeah, I mean, he's digging himself deeper into the sectarian hole. And while I think it might yield short-term political dividends for him during the crisis, in the end, I think it's a losing bet. In the end, I think we should continue to push him. Look, we've been talking about Sunni outreach since 2003, during the days of the coalition provisional authority. And we need to keep emphasizing this. In the end, the way to succeed here is by trying to get Sunnis to get rid of ISIS. And that's the only way it -- really, I think this will come to succeed.
GJELTENMichael Eisenstadt from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. We'll take a break. We'll be right back.
GJELTENAnd welcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten from NPR, and I'm sitting in today for Diane Rehm. And we're talking about what to do in Iraq where each day seems to bring more alarming news about the advance of this group ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. My guests are: Yochi Dreazen, managing editor for news at Foreign Policy magazine -- actually, I should say Foreign Policy magazine and .com. I guess it's both, isn't it?
GJELTENAnd author of the upcoming book "The Invisible Front." Robin Wright, analyst and joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace in the Woodrow Wilson International Center, she's the author of many books, including "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion across the Islamic World." And Michael Eisenstadt, senior fellow and director of the military and security studies program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
GJELTENSo just before the break, Robin, we were talking about Maliki blaming Saudi Arabia for funding ISIS and thereby backing, in his word, genocide. We've got Iran meanwhile backing Maliki. The United States' allies -- has been allies for a long time with Saudi Arabia and Iran is -- you know, I mean, President Obama has said at one point that Iran is the number one national security threat facing the United States. How does the United States proceed vis-a-vis Iran and Saudi Arabia at this point given that, you know, at least our short-term interests may align us more directly with Iran than with our longtime ally Saudi Arabia?
WRIGHTWell, this is another unintended consequence or a byproduct of the war in Iraq. And that is the potential for a strategic realignment, at least over the issue of Iraq. Because for the first time Iran and Washington actually are on the same page. They feel common cause over the threat to Maliki. They are both committed to the territorial integrity of Iraq. They don't want to see the instability. They don't want to see the breakup. And they're terrified by the emergence of Sunni extremists in ISIS. This is, in many ways, the worst nightmare.
WRIGHTThis is the Talibanization of Iraq. And they were always opposed to the Taliban in Afghanistan. And now they see it basically on two of their borders. And so there's the potential there for cooperation, but we need to make a very important distinction. It's one thing to consult as number two at the State Department did this week in Vienna with some of the Iranian diplomats. It's a totally different thing to talk about military cooperation.
WRIGHTSo the idea that we're likely to see anytime soon American drones providing air cover for Iranian revolutionary guards from Iran fighting on behalf of the Iraqi military or the missing Iraqi military is very unlikely. So we shouldn't leap to conclusions that we're going to see both sides. And the United States, I think, will be very sensitive to Saudi Arabia's concerns, but this is a moment the U.S. also has to be very tough with the Saudis and say, what are you doing or what are you allowing your citizens to do?
EISENSTADTYeah, I just want to say I think the distinction between consultation and coordination will be probably be lost on a lot of our allies in the region. And we have -- and Sunnis in Iraq -- and we have to be very, very careful how we handle this because the kind of the thinking out loud that we saw from our secretary of state a few days ago about the need to talk with the Iranians and others, I think, deepens the perception that the U.S. is conspiring with Iran against the Sunnis in the region.
EISENSTADTAnd that's the best way to already -- to further complicate the already tense relations we have with the -- many of our Sunni Arab allies in the region. And also, again, I think this has the potential to create the perception to the degree that, you know, we'll be perceived as thinking that the best way to fight Sunni Jihadists is by allying with Shiite Jihadists will be the best way to ensure that there are more volunteers for the battlefield. And then finally the Iranians are going to seek compensation for their help -- you know, they're giving us help in the nuclear negotiations -- and again try to get paid for something that they are doing anyhow.
GJELTENWell, speaking of the nuclear negotiations, let's go now to Trita Parsi who is president of the National Iranian American Council and author of "A Single Roll of the Dice - Obama's Diplomacy with Iran." And, Trita, I believe you are in Vienna and joining us on the phone. Is that right?
MR. TRITA PARSICorrect.
GJELTENAnd what is the -- we've heard here, and I'll talk about what kind of cooperation or consultation -- you choose the word -- might be possible between Iran and the United States in dealing with what's happening in Iraq. What's your view as someone who's following the Iranian situation very closely?
PARSIWell, I think, first of all, over here in the midst of the nuclear talks, clearly Iraq is looming all over what is happening here right now. It's what's on everyone's tongue, even though it's actually not part of the negotiations. On Michael's point, that if there were to be any coordination or collaboration that the Iranians would ask for a softer position from the U.S. on the nuclear issue, I don't think that's a likely scenario.
PARSIOn the contrary, the Iranians are, in many ways, more in need of the United States than the other way around. It's not as if ISIS has taken a border city in Mexico. They've taken a border city in Iraq right next to Iran. And the Iranians are extremely worried about a Sunni Jihadist takeover, the Talibanization of Iraq, as Robin so correctly put it.
PARSIThe question that they have in their mind, it appears, based on conversations I've had here with Iranian diplomats, is that they're very suspicious. They're afraid that the U.S. actually is quietly pleased with the situation because they're finding a way to overturn the result of the elections in Iraq a couple of months ago. And at the same time, mindful of the fact that there's not been a particularly forceful response by the United States against Saudi Arabia and its support for ISIS further fuels their suspicion not -- the United States may actually not entirely be against some of these developments. I personally believe that they're quite incorrect in this.
PARSIThen there are others who do view this as an opportunity in which there could be some coordination between the United States and Iran. Nothing close to what happened in Afghanistan in 2001, which I think is important to keep in mind. Back then the Bush Administration coordinated and corroborated extensively with the Irani north to ask the Taliban both intelligence, military and political collaboration coordination.
PARSII don't think we will get anywhere near that. But if there is some form of coordination, I think that will further push things in the region in the direction in which the U.S. and the army not any longer automatically find themselves on the opposite side of issues even when they actually do have common interests.
GJELTENWell, Trita, you say that the -- that Iran is upset by this ISIS advance in Iraq. You know, most of the analysis that I've read puts a lot of the blame on al-Maliki for having alienated the Sunnis to such an extent in Iraq. Is it your view -- is it your understanding that Iran understands that Maliki's intransigence on this issue may have contributed to this problem? And do you see any evidence now -- and we were talking about this before the beak -- do you see any evidence that Iran is now, at least, putting some pressure on al-Maliki to sort of mend fences with the Sunnis?
PARSIOn the first part, yes. Privately, Iranian diplomats do complain about Maliki and believe that he has mishandled the situation quite extensively. At the same time they criticize the U.S. for openly criticizing Maliki at this very moment because they believe that criticizing Maliki at this very moment actually helps ISIS and the supporters of ISIS. But privately you can see they're very displeased with Maliki, and I suspect that they are now looking at their options on how they can pressure him in order to be able to overcome some of these problems.
PARSII posed a question to them directly -- and these are very senior diplomats from the Iranian side -- can Iran handle this issue alone? And they say no. Can America handle this issue? No. Can American and Iran collaborate and then potentially handle this issue? And then there's a slight yes, potentially if the two sides collaborate. But alone Iran cannot do it.
GJELTENOK. Trita, Trita stay with us because one of the things that we want to get back to is what's going on with the nuclear talks. But let's stick for a moment on this issue of whether there's an opening or an opportunity here for the United States and Iran to sort of cooperate. And I'd really like quick answers from our other panelists on whether you see anything promising here. First, Yochi Dreazen.
DREAZENYou know, one question we have danced around a little bit is kind of the fundamental one which is, can there be any political deal in Iraq with Maliki still in power? Is he, at this point, so toxic to the Sunnis, so toxic to Gulf States that he has to go? I mean, that's sort of the core question that we don't yet have an answer to. He is in power in large part because of the U.S. twice. I mean, both the U.S. helped pick him in his first term. When the last Iraqi election took place in 2010, 2011, he did not win the most seats. The U.S. could've intervened slightly more directly in favor of Ayad Allawi who is seen as a lot less sectarian and did not.
DREAZENSo question one is, can this take place with him still in power? And if he has to go, can Iran help usher him off the stage? It is worth pointing out that news cycle story one, out to story two, out to story three and we sort of stopped talking a little bit about Syria. And in Syria, it isn't simply a question of is Iranian influence on a political level. There have been Iranian troops -- elite Iranian troops fighting in Syria for a long time. So the question is, if we have something in Iraq, do we then turn a blind eye to Syria? And if we do, what then (unintelligible) on the anti-Assad fight?
GJELTENRobin, do you see this as a turning point in the relationship between the United States and Iran?
WRIGHTPotentially yes, but because it in part comes in parallel with the nuclear negotiations. And clearly, if there is nuclear negotiation, we make broader progress generally. But I think, when it comes to Syria, you know, there is commonality in Iraq. But there's a difference between Iran and the United States on Syria.
WRIGHTBut at the same time, having been in Iran twice in the last six months, having talked to the foreign minister just last week, I do think that the Iranians are not whetted to the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, that, for the moment, they are willing to do everything to help keep him in power because there's no viable alternative. But they also feel just as threatened by ISIS and the Sunni extremist movements in northern Syria. And they see this as part of the same phenomena happening in Iraq.
WRIGHTAnd I think they would walk away from them. I think they would cooperate with the west in trying to find an alternative. But the problem is there isn't anything viable yet. And so again, there's potential but not progress.
EISENSTADTYeah. I think coordinating or cooperating with Iran on the political piece, I think that's an area where perhaps -- in Iraq, I think that's an area where there is the potential for cooperation. And we'll see what comes of that. With regard to Syria, I think there is an opportunity here because, again, to the degree that ISIS might be overstretched and that right now there is -- they are not experiencing any pressure in Eastern Syria.
EISENSTADTAnd this is now the time to ramp up our support for the moderate opposition in Syria in order to A. both put pressure on ISIS so that they have to then draw back troops from Iraq in order to deal with that threat. And also keep pressure on the government of Bashar al-Assad that hopefully that could then facilitate down the road a political solution. But he realizes there's no way he can win militarily.
GJELTENQuickly, Trita, before we go to a break here, what's your view on the flexibility of the Iranian government with respect to Bashar al-Assad in Syria?
PARSII think, rather than put it quite right, on the one hand, there is a lot of dismay in Tehran about their support for Assad. And they feel quite angry about the way that he's handled many of these things. On the other hand, they also don't see an alternative in the sense that if they hadn't supported him, they believe, there would've been a takeover of Syria by forces similar or if not ISIS itself.
PARSIAnd that would've put Iran in an even worse situation. They want to get -- I don't think they're wedded to Assad, but I think they are wedded to the Syrian state structure. They don't want that to fall apart because then they believe that Syria will go the same route that Afghanistan has.
GJELTENTrita Parsi is president of the National Iranian American Council. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And, Trita, fill us in quickly now on where things stand in the -- with respect to the nuclear -- the negotiations over Iran's nuclear program in Vienna? And you are there right now, so I'm assuming you're up to speed on it.
GJELTENMixed signals, you know, sometimes it appears -- there's a Reuter's story this morning that said that Iran was digging in its heels. On the other hand, other stories saying that this may be just part of the negotiations and that actually the situation looks pretty promising for some kind of progress in these negotiations. What's your view on that?
PARSIWell, the atmosphere here is much more positive than it was in the last round where things really didn't go that particularly well. At the same time, the issues that are -- the sticking issue's still there and they haven't necessarily been resolved. But there is talk now that both sides view it as a failure if they do not get a draft text done by Friday so that they will leave having at least a draft and then come back in a week or two to continue it. If they don't manage to at least get a draft going by Friday, both sides view that as a failure.
GJELTENOK. Let's -- I want to bring some of the listener comments into this conversation right now. We have a couple of emails first that I'm going to deal with. Robert wonders, "How can targeting airstrikes at ISIS forces be so difficult, as is widely reported, when these forces must cross open desert to move around Iraq, particularly in approaching Baghdad?"
GJELTENAnd in the same vein that is discussing sort of the military situation, the military options here, Justin writes from Michigan, "What's the total number of Americans in the Baghdad embassy? Is there a way to get them to State Department planes at the airport safely? This is not Vietnam. We won't be grabbing 10 people at a time with a chopper. In the event of a siege, I can't imagine that there are enough security personnel to secure the perimeter of what is the size of a small American town." You want to deal with those two questions, Yochi?
DREAZENSure. And they're both very, very smart questions. On the first one, the window of time which U.S. involvement might actually be helpful on the battlefield is very rapidly closing. This isn't Syria where there's this multi-year process of figuring out, can you arm the rebels? If so, how? He's right. I mean, the ISIS forces are moving. They're moving largely actually along highways because the highways are in good shape. Airstrikes are most effective when you can get them not in a city.
DREAZENI was in Mali last year where a somewhat similar dynamic of Islamist forces conquering cities and French airstrikes trying to dislodge them. Once they're in a city, it's very hard. It's very dangerous picking up targets. They don't wear uniforms, so he's exactly right, that the moment sort of if we're going to do something is now.
DREAZENTo the second question -- like I think a couple of other of us have spent a good deal of time at that embassy -- he's right about the size. It's 5,500 people right now. There's a consulate in Basra, a consulate in Erbil. There are more Marines being sent although not in large numbers. But this is the most fortified site arguably in the entire country of Iraq. It is in the green zone -- or it happened in the green zone. It's next to the British embassy which is also fortified.
DREAZENGetting anywhere near this embassy will be a tremendously difficult thing. There are plans in place to try to evacuate them. It would be military evacuation, not state. There are plans, but he's right. With this many people, if you had to do it quickly, it'd be very hard.
GJELTENRobin, anytime you talk about protecting a U.S. diplomatic compound in the Middle East, you have to consider it in the context of Benghazi. What's your view on this issue?
WRIGHTWell, I think when it comes to the drone strikes and the possibility of U.S. intervention, we have to not ask, you know, can we do it or where are they? The question is whether we should do it. And once we cross that threshold, we are involved. And, you know, if we don't succeed at pushing them back, then it will be chalked up as a military failure.
WRIGHTThe bigger problem is that you can kill fanatics, as we have in Yemen and Pakistan for the past decade, but drones don't kill fanaticism. And that's why it's an illusion to think that there are military solutions to either Syria or Iraq. In the end, it will all be about politics and finding formulas that everybody in the region in those countries will accept.
WRIGHTAnd that's why the gut instinct is to say, how do we pull these bad guys back? How do we keep them from taking territory and killing innocence when there are much bigger, bolder ways that will deal with both crises in Syria and Iraq? And I don't think frankly that we've done enough thinking about those things. We've kind of let it slide in Syria.
WRIGHTAnd we're finding in Iraq that we've, for eight years, allowed Maliki to get away with not coming up with the formula for sharing power. This is a basic issue behind the surge in 2006. The military came through and said, we think we can achieve a military goal, but we're worried about going in because we're afraid that there won't be a parallel diplomatic process. And in fact, they did achieve their military goals. And to this day, we still don't have that political solution that would've prevented this.
GJELTENRobin Wright is an analyst and a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace in the Woodrow Wilson International Center. We're talking about the situation in Iraq and more broadly the Middle East. We're going to take a break here. When we come back, we'll go to the phones.
GJELTENAnd hello again. I'm Tom Gjelten from NPR sitting in today for Diane Rehm as we discuss the situation in Iraq with my guests: Yochi Dreazen, managing editor for news at Foreign Policy and author of the upcoming book "The Invisible Front," also Robin Wright who's an analyst with both the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center -- and she is the author of many books, including "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World" -- Michael Eisenstadt, senior fellow and director of military and security studies program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and, on the phone from Vienna, Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and author of "A Single Roll of the Dice - Obama's Diplomacy with Iran."
GJELTENAnd before I go back to you, Trita, Michael, let's finish up this discussion about the security of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. A lot of listeners are wondering about that, wondering whether the 300 military personnel, plus or minus, is enough to secure that facility. And of course that question, what does it take to secure a U.S. diplomatic facility, is all the more burning in light of what happened in Benghazi.
EISENSTADTFirst thing I should mention is that the embassy's a hardened compound that enables it to take rocket strikes. So they can hunker down if need be. If they want to withdraw people -- and, you know, hopefully that doesn't come to that -- it appears that they've already drawn down to some extent -- the 5,500 people that are there -- sent some of them to Erbil, some to Basra. We haven't released numbers.
EISENSTADTOne way out is by Baghdad International Airport, but that's to the west in the Sunni area. Keep in mind that the insurgents are in Fallujah, which is only 20 miles away. So that might be vulnerable. They may not be able to get out by there, and they might end up going down south through Basra on the way out. And there's probably also a Marine expeditionary unit in the Gulf which would probably assist with the withdrawal of embassy personnel if it came to that.
GJELTENI have another email here from Judy who is asking about Russia's and China's views about -- and participation in -- Iraq. And we can discuss that, but, you know, this email, Trita, makes me think again about the nuclear negotiations in Iran because, if I'm not mistaken, both Russia and China have actually spoken out a bit about Iran's nuclear program in the last few days in ways that they had not before. Is that correct? Trita. We may have lost Trita. We will get back to that bit 'cause there were some interesting pronouncements coming out from Vienna on Russia and China's views on that.
GJELTENLet's talk for a moment about the Benghazi situation. It's been a real hot point in relations between Congress and the United States, the Obama Administration. Robin Wright, President Obama is meeting this afternoon with congressional leaders about the way forward in Iraq and consulting with congressional leaders about U.S. options and sort of looking for their support, or at least their understanding. To what extent is that relationship between the Obama Administration and Congress really overshadowed now and perhaps even damaged by the ongoing rancor around Benghazi?
WRIGHTWell, Benghazi is clearly a flashpoint, has been for a long time. But it also comes at a time of deepening polarization between Republicans and Democrats generally. So Benghazi is only a part of it. It'll be very interesting to see what impact the capture of a man allegedly involved in the attacks on -- in Benghazi that killed four Americans may have at this juncture. I mean, coming at it after President Obama seized Osama bin Laden after a long search, now getting someone else, being able to hold him accountable this time in an American court may diffuse a little bit of the pressure.
WRIGHTBut I think at the end of the day that this is really as much about politics as it is about Benghazi. It's about the upcoming congressional elections and the fact that you'll have a presidential election two years down the road where you won't have an incumbent. So it's a good development for the Obama Administration. Is it going to play a big role in negotiations on Iraq? Probably not very much. The fact is that divisions are so deep it's really hard, living in Washington, to believe that this is -- that the rivalry between two parties could undermine our national strategic goals. It's a pity.
GJELTENMm. Well, actually, I think some critics of the administration have even speculated that the news of this man's capture, which happened, what, on Saturday, I believe, was delayed in order to divert attention from the challenges in Iraq. So there seems to be no end of possible scenarios here. I'm going to go to the phones now. Theresa is on the line with us from Middletown, Conn. Hello, Theresa. Thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."
THERESAYes. Thank you for taking my call. Like millions who protested the war, I paid close attention to news report. I remember President Bush on TV saying that he was having our planes drop leaflets all over Baghdad telling the Sunni army, put down your guns, go home, don't fight us, and we will take care of you and your families.
THERESAPrince Bandar then, who was the ambassador from Saudi Arabia, he even told Bush, $20 million to pay the Sunni army, it's good insurance. Well, Bremer disbanded the army, and about a month later, the officers came out of the Sunni army and said, you betrayed us, we're going home, and we're getting our guns now. I believe that was the beginning of the insurgency.
GJELTENThank you for that call, Theresa. Michael Eisenstadt, it certainly seems that the developments in Iraq are rekindling all the debate about whether we did the right thing in the first place.
EISENSTADTYeah. I mean, it's hard to argue with the fact that we did make mistakes. And now we are paying the price even till today for a lot of those errors. And it's, you know, interesting -- one thing that a lot of the focus has been on ISIS and their leading role in the insurgency and in the military gains of recent days.
EISENSTADTBut it's important to keep in mind that they are part of a coalition which also includes the Naqshbandi Army, which is a insurgent group of former Bathists and military officers headed by the one surviving member of Saddam's inner circle. And so we are still, in many ways, fighting the same people that we were fighting in 2003 and thereafter. So, yes, I agree with the caller on that.
GJELTENWell, Yochi, what do we know about ISIS? Michael says that there are some remnants of the old Saddam Hussein regime in there. But you've also written -- and others have written as well -- that ISIS gets a lot of its arms and money, one, from crime and, two, from Gulf allies.
DREAZENThat's kind of the most interesting thing to my mind about ISIS. When we think about terror groups over the last 10, 20 years, including the Taliban, they relied very, very heavily on outside donors. It was Gulf states. It was individual wealthy donors in those Gulf states. In the case of Qatar, it was the Qatari government. ISIS now operates like a mob. We had a story this week about ISIS can self-fund. It does not need money from the Gulf, and that is a massive, massive difference from the recent past. They are still getting Gulf money, but they have extortion. They now have oil. They have smuggling. They have protection racquets.
DREAZENThey have bank heists, like in Mosul where the initial reports were exaggerated, but they did get several hundred million dollars. They've taken other banks. They can now operate indefinitely without Gulf support. So even if by some miracle we cut off the support from other states, which is unlikely -- but even if by some miracle we did, they have the money to keep fighting indefinitely solely based on their ongoing operations.
GJELTENI heard a guest on this show say the other day that you can't talk about ISIS as a terrorist group. You have to talk about it as a terrorist army.
DREAZENThat's right. And I think, in some ways, the question for ISIS is, what model does it go? Does it go the model of Hezbollah or the Taliban where they set up a governing structure -- they set up schools, courts, et cetera? Or is this purely an army? If it is purely an army, eventually armies have to do something else.
DREAZENIf it's a government, that's a very different issue altogether.
GJELTENLet's go now to Doug who's on the line from Reston, Va. Hello, Doug. Thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."
DOUGHi. Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I was just curious if the Sunni and Shia would ever be able to get along. I understand -- according to my understanding that, during the 1970 war with Iran, that many Shia had decided to fight on the side of Saddam under the flag of nationalism, you know, against this Iranian revolutionary guard fighting under the banner of Shia Islam.
DOUGAnd although many Shia did in fact affect, especially those with -- especially with Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, a group which eventually formed SCIRI and the Badr Organization, I understand that many Shia Iraqis decided to fight for Saddam under his secular government uncoerced. And my understanding's that Saddam, he worked with the Shia by providing a more inclusive Ba'ath party, and he improved much of the living standards and promised subsidies that many of the Shia lost to fight Iran. And many of the Shia chose to fight for Saddam under this nationalist government.
DOUGUnfortunately, after the war, I know that Saddam obviously marginalized and persecuted the community to radicalize many of their views. I guess my question is -- I was just curious that since Maliki is under the power -- or was put into power because of the United States, if we did pressure him to incorporate many of the Sunnis (word?) for the government and for the day-to-day operations, would that have alleviated -- or could that alleviate much of the tension in the future?
GJELTENOK. All right. Let's put this question to Robin Wright. You know, I suppose that the concern is that it's too late for something like that. What happened to Iraqi nationalism, the sense of Iraqi identity and patriotism?
WRIGHTWell, that's a big question. I actually covered the war in the 1980s between Iran and Iraq. And it is true that the Iraqis in Iraq -- I mean, the Shiites in Iraq did fight for the Iraqi government. And that's where you do get nationalism, and you get old ethnic tensions as well. The majority of people in Iraq are Arabs. And in Iran, the majority of people are Persians. And there is that historic tension between the two. And so that was, in some ways, stronger at the time. The different nationalisms, the different ethnicities were more defining than the sectarian issue.
WRIGHTBut I think it is true that, in trying to find a political solution to this, the question is whether Maliki has just -- has failed for so long that he has to go and that there has to be an alternative who emerges to try to reconcile the two that you get, perhaps a coalition of Iraqi -- I mean, a Shiite, a Sunni, and a Kurd or whatever to try to form an alternative coalition government. But we get back the same question we face in Syria. Who are the alternatives?
WRIGHTI mean, the divisions are now so deep, Maliki did so much damage in alienating Sunnis. Do the Sunnis even want -- and this gets back to Yochi's point about the fact is that many in the Sunni world have actually -- and many of the Sunnis in Iraq have actually welcomed the ISIS presence. They don't like Baghdad. They don't like Maliki. And they don't particularly feel very nationalistic when it comes to Iraq anymore.
GJELTENTrita Parsi is back with us. We lost you earlier, Trita. And I wanted to put a question that we got from an emailer to you. And that was about the Russia and -- Russia's and China's view of the developments in Iraq and what should be done. And I tacked onto that the issue of Russian and Chinese views on the negotiations in Vienna over Iran's nuclear program. Can you fill us in on what the Russians and the Chinese are saying, both with respect to Iraq and Iran?
PARSIWell, in respect to what's happening in the nuclear negotiations, I think the big thing that folks were worried about earlier on was that, as the United States and Russia got into some pretty heavy tensions over the issue of Crimea and Ukraine, there was a fear that this potentially would have affected the negotiations and that the Russians would have done something that would be unhelpful.
PARSIBut so far we have not seen any signs of that. On the contrary, we actually -- I've heard some complaints from the Iranian side in which they seemed to have been hoping that the Russians would put a bit pressure on the United States on their behalf, which has now taking place. If -- the more you come here to the talk here, you realize that ultimately the negotiations is really about the United States and Iran. Even if the Russians...
PARSI...wanted to sabotage something, it would be very difficult for them to do so. This is coming down to the fact that the United States and Iran have been at odds with each other for about 35 years. And it is now -- the issue that has come to symbolize this whole enmity is the nuclear issue.
PARSIAnd ultimately it can only be resolved if there is understanding between the United States and Iran on that issue.
GJELTENOK. Trita Parsi from Vienna. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Well, Trita, before you go, give us then your bottom line. Are you feeling confident or any more optimistic at this moment that this stalemate over Iran's nuclear program might actually be breaking?
PARSII still remain optimistic about the fact that they actually can meet the July 20 deadline. It's going to be very, very difficult, and it's by no means guaranteed. But I think, when you take a look at the alternative and how difficult it will be for both sides, if they have to extend this, then I think you realize why there's such a strong motivation to get this done fast. The obstacles are significant, but the obstacles that they will face if they don't get an agreement are even more significant.
GJELTENVery good. Let's go now to John who's on the line from Bowie, Md. Hello, John. Thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."
JOHNHi. Good morning.
GJELTENWell, we're talking here about Iraq, a little bit about Iran. We've also mentioned Benghazi. Which of these stories interests you?
JOHNWell, the whole -- the whole Middle East. I just think the United States has this naïve idea where we don't understand the mind of a third world country much. We just look at the politics on top. We don't understand the deep-rooted hatred that these people, you know, possess among each other for whatever reason.
JOHNAnd I feel like these dictators that we didn't like were holding them together, whether it was because of their fear of them or whatever the reason was for them have to explode like they're exploding now 'cause, you know, our side wonders that the people that are fighting against him were terrorist, which I did believe because I feel like what they did was they pushed people in front, say, oh, we want a democratic government or whatever the case might be, when in the background, it was the -- you know, the Islamic military that were really ready to take over.
JOHNAnd when they take over, they were going to be worse than the dictators that we don't like. But because we don't like them so much, it's almost like we don't care who replace them, but we don't like these people (unintelligible)...
GJELTENOK. Hang on. Hang on. Hang on, John, 'cause you've raised a question that we need to deal with. We don't have a lot of time here for commentary. Michael Eisenstadt, what about this idea that the United States just doesn't understand the cultural situation, the forces, the political forces, the history in this region, and we just mess things up by getting involved?
EISENSTADTWell, let me just say, as an outsider, it is very difficult to understand, you know, the -- how people in a different -- of a different culture, a history, and (unintelligible) see the world. And as a result, we have to be very modest in what we try to accomplish.
EISENSTADTAnd I think that's why I think we're also being very careful in Syria now, for instance, in trying to affect a political transition there, not regime change through a military victory by the opposition but as a result of a diplomatic process. Because we saw what happened in Iraq when you take the lid off the system, and it basically just kind of falls to pieces. So I think that is informing our policy now. We have learned at least some lessons.
GJELTENRobin, go back to the point you made in the beginning, and that's the -- the coming fragmentation of Iraq as you see it. You've written that we're now in, what, the third phase of our conflict with Iraq?
WRIGHTOh, our intervention is that...
GJELTENYou talked about Iraq one, Iraq two, and...
WRIGHTAnd Iraq three. And I think this is different than either Iraq one or Iraq two. The first time around, we had international support, 34 nations. We deployed over a half million troops and had another almost quarter million more from other countries. Saudi Arabia picked up the tab of $60 billion. The second time around, we ended up paying in $1.7 trillion with an enormous impact on our own Treasury. And we ended up being there eight years.
WRIGHTNeither one is a model for Iraq three. And I don't think there's today the appetite, the will, the enthusiasm. I think our military's fatigued, as you would know better than all of us, and that, in looking for what Iraq three looks like, it would be very different because we don't have the same alliances as we did before. We don't have the resources. And we face real challenges from the military in general.
GJELTENRobin Wright's a long-time analyst of the Middle East. She's now at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center. My other guests are Yochi Dreazen, another long-time correspondent in the region, and Michael Eisenstadt, also Trita Parsi in Vienna. Thanks for listening. I'm Tom Gjelten.
Most Recent Shows
Last-minute campaigning with just days to go before the midterm elections. The Federal Reserve ends its bond-buying program. And debate continues over Ebola quarantines in the U.S. A panel of journalists joins guest host Susan Page for a conversation about the week's top national stories.
The author of the bestselling book "The Plantagenets" picks up the story of the English crown where his last book left off. It describes how the longest-reigning British royal family tore itself apart and was replaced by the Tudors.
A new study says bike traffic deaths have spiked after years of decline. As cities adapt to growing numbers of cyclists, some say traffic laws should be more strictly enforced. A look at the debate over sharing the road with bikes.