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Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Baghdad today amid the threat of a widening sectarian war. Over the weekend, Sunni insurgents captured a key border post with Syria. As Nouri Al-Malaki’s Shiite-led government continues to lose ground to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Kerry is expected to urge the prime minister to form a more inclusive government. President Barack Obama has ruled out U.S. military intervention in Iraq for now, saying he will send up to 300 advisers to better assess the situation on the ground. But some say Americans can’t turn the tide in Iraq without major political changes there. Guest host Susan Page and a panel of experts discuss the latest on the crisis in Iraq and the security threat it poses to the region and to the U. S.
- James Kitfield contributing editor, National Journal, Atlantic Media's Defense One and the National Interest; senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.
- 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."
- Deborah Amos NPR correspondent reporting from Erbil, Iraq.
- Kenneth Pollack director of research at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution; author of "The Persian Puzzle: the Conflict between Iran and America;" former director for Persian Gulf Affairs and former director for Near East and South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council; former Iran-Iraq military analyst, Central Intelligence Agency
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Baghdad to push Iraqis to form a new inclusive government as Sunni insurgents capture a key border post with Syria. Joining me to talk about the latest on the crisis and the security threat it may pose to the region and to the United States, Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, Robin Wright of the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center, and James Kitfield of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.
MS. SUSAN PAGEWelcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. KENNETH POLLACKGood to be here.
MR. JAMES KITFIELDThanks so much for having us.
PAGEFirst, we're going to joined by phone from Erbil by Deborah Amos of NPR. Deborah, thanks for being with us.
MS. DEBORAH AMOSThank you for having me.
PAGETell us, what is the latest coming out of Iraq now? What's the news today?
AMOSThe news today is really the news of the weekend, which is ISIS, their Sunni allies, taken most of Iraq's western border. That is the border with Jordan and Saudi Arabia and some of those border posts and towns are still in contention, but for the most part, Iraqi officials say that they actually pulled back to protect Baghdad.
AMOSIt's really another sign of the vanishing national institution of the army, that they would leave those posts to ISIS. And what it means is that ISIS and their allies control about 70 percent of Anbar Province, which is the western province, as well as Nineveh, which is the northern province, which is where Mosul is. So it's a large swath of territory.
AMOSIt's not that ISIS is so good. It's that they have so much help. Every time they show up, there are Sunnis there who believe in what they're doing and so join the fight or make it easy to take over some of these towns.
PAGEDo you think it is a surprise on how rapidly this situation has unfolded, how much territory ISIS has managed to control in a short period of time?
AMOSYes, I think certainly for Western governments, it has been a surprise, but if you talk to diplomats here, especially if you talk to Kurdish intelligence people, they will tell you that they sent warnings about this and they have been sending them for months, that ISIS was building up in Mosul, that there was a clear alliance between former Ba'athist military officers, tribal leaders angry over what was happening in Baghdad.
AMOSAnd I spoke to the French consul just two days ago and he said, look, it's easy to say we weren't surprised, but the truth is we did know that there was serious unrest in Mosul. So when it happened -- now, remember, they were able to take enormous amounts of military equipment once they were able to take the town and the army just dropped tools and ran.
AMOSSo they got an immediate arsenal when they took Mosul. We've already seen pictures of them riding around in U.S. Humvees, which we know that the Iraqi army has. So all of a sudden, they were a committed army with a whole lot of equipment.
PAGEThe U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Baghdad at this moment. What can he do? Is there anything he can say or do that could affect what's happening there?
AMOSWhen you talk to people who are close to those who are running Mosul -- I'm not talking about ISIS, but I'm talking much more about the tribal leaders and some of the expats, they'll tell you there's nothing that Kerry can do. But there are plenty of moderate Sunnis who do not want the disillusion of the state of Iraq and so that is Kerry's job in what essentially is now in overtime.
AMOSIt is game over for the northern parts of Iraq. ISIS and their allies have really taken that part of the country. So Kerry has to score a couple of goals. One, he has to convince Sunnis that there is a place for them in Baghdad, that there can be inclusive politics. It is not going to be an easy job. I think that Prime Minister Maliki will not go quietly or easily and so it is really up to the Baghdad political class to find a solution to this.
PAGEAnd Deborah, a final question, as you look in the next few days, what are you going to be watching for? What would be a key that would tell us something about what will happen next in Iraq?
AMOSThe question that I have and I've been trying to find the answer to this is who's running Mosul? It is not ISIS yet. They are on checkpoints in the city, but people have been called back to work. And when I tried to say, well, who called you, it is like the head of the water department or the hospital asking people to come back to work.
AMOSI think that there is a military council in Mosul. I think that it's not ISIS. I think they are not showing their hand just yet, but they will have to do so soon and I think we will begin to know who's running the show in Mosul. I'm told that they are very hesitant to show their hand because they do not want ISIS to have the upper hand in Mosul.
AMOSThey know that they are powerful and committed and they want to keep at bay. They lost this fight in Fallujah. It happened this way six months ago. They don't want a repeat of that. So I'm watching who is going to emerge as the leadership of Mosul and that will tell us a lot about how this movement is going to go.
PAGEDeborah Amos of NPR, thank you so much for joining us.
PAGEJames Kitfield, what do you make of Deborah's report and do you think this Iraqi state is going to be able to hold together?
KITFIELDI think the chances are much less than 50 percent that Iraq holds together. I mean, well, the key thing that she said was -- and I'm getting this from senior Sunni sheikhs and former military officers who I've been in contact with. This is not just ISIS. This is a general uprising. They call it a war of Sunni liberation. That is why they were able to go so quickly from Mosul down to the rest of northern Iraq and capture these very large cities.
KITFIELDIt's why very quickly you saw in Mosul the administration was handed off to something called the General Military Council of the Revolutionaries, a bunch of former Ba'athists, former Sunni military officers, disenfranchised Sunni tribes that after reaching an agreement with us and the Baghdad government and part of the Anbar Awakening feel like they were betrayed. So it's a large alliance.
KITFIELDI've seen as many, you know, reports of as many as 14 different former resistance groups now cooperating with ISIS. ISIS is the shock troops, but, you know, this cannot be used as some terrorist organization that somehow miraculously, you know, made divisions disappear and swept right to the gates of Baghdad. That is not what this is.
PAGEKen Pollack, you're nodding your head.
POLLACKYeah, I think that James has it exactly right, is we've got to look at this as a Sunni coalition. In some cases, a reluctant coalition. I think that Deb is right. I think that James is right. You've seen a lot of Sunni tribes, a lot of other Sunni militant groups that have come on board with this, not because they like ISIS or the other Salafi jihadist groups, but because they dislike Maliki much more.
POLLACKAnd on the one hand, that makes this much bigger, exactly as James said. We cannot see this as purely a counterterrorism problem. It is a mistake to see this as a bunch of terrorists that have overrun a third of Iraq. It is a much bigger issue than that. By the same token, it does hold within it some seeds of future problems, right? These groups are going to split.
POLLACKISIS does have a very different ideology. AQI has a very different ideology from what the tribes want. We saw that in 2007, 2008 where the tribes sided with the U.S. against these very same groups. So what it suggests is that you're likely to see a de facto partition of Iraq because it's probably the case that the Sunni groups don't have the ability to take Baghdad and the Shia cities.
POLLACKAnd, you know, think about what Deb Amos just said. The expansion that you're seeing from ISIS over the last week or so after that initial blitz has mostly been lateral. They're moving west into Anbar. They're moving east into Diyala. They cannot make more progress south because the Iraqi army is consolidated. It's defending the line south. It's mostly given up on Anbar and the other Sunni regions.
POLLACKSo the battle lines are likely to harden, but what you're likely to see over the course of time is that both of these coalitions, both the Sunni coalition and the Shia coalition are going to start to develop internal splits which will make this more complicated, more bloody, not less.
MS. ROBIN WRIGHTWell, look, there are two different problems we're facing here. First is the onslaught of ISIS and the fact it has been a jihadi juggernaut as it's moved across part of Iraq. It now holds territory the size of Indiana. That gives you a sense of how big it is. But the counter of that is that the prospect of the Iraqi army at any stage, moving back is almost nil because now, according to various reports, 60 of the 240 army combat battalions are unaccounted for.
MS. ROBIN WRIGHTTheir equipment is basically lost. Five of the 14 army divisions are combat ineffective. So it's a process of actually rebuilding the Iraqi military in order to try to retrieve the country. And then, there's the separate political process, which is what John Kerry is trying to help facilitate today. Iraq had elections in April and now it has to move forward in forming a new government.
MS. ROBIN WRIGHTIt's staggering that the Iraqi government, the last time it was formed after the last election in 2010, broke a world record in how long it took to pull together, nine months, before they could find a prime minister or president and 34 members of parliament. And the last time you had 80,000 American troops based there and they had just beaten back the insurgency by Sunnis.
MS. ROBIN WRIGHTToday, you have 300 military advisors who are there really with a very simple mission to kind of assess what's gone wrong and the insurgency has the upper hand. So both on the political and military front, Iraq is starting from scratch.
PAGEJohn Kerry has started a news conference in Baghdad. He has told reporters, "this is clearly a moment when the stakes for Iraq's future could not be higher. They very future of Iraq depends on choices that will be made in the next days and weeks." We're going to take a short break and when we come back, we're gonna talk about what the choices are for the United States.
PAGEWhat's at stake for the United States when it comes to the unrest in Iraq? What can we realistically do? We're gonna take your calls and questions. You can call our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email at email@example.com. Find us on Facebook or Twitter. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio, Robin Wright, an analyst and joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace in the Woodrow Wilson International Center. She's author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World." And James Kitfield. He's a contributing editor at National Journal, Atlantic Media's Defense One and the National Interest. He's also a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.
PAGEAnd Kenneth Pollack, director of research at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. He's author of "The Persian Puzzle, The Conflict Between Iran and America." He's a former staffer at the White House National Security Council. Well, Ken Pollack, obviously the stakes for Iraq and Iraqis are incredible at this moment. What's at stake there for the United States and our national interest?
POLLACKSure. I think this is an important question because I think a lot of Americans are having a tough time grapple with this. And we keep coming back to the terrorism issue and obviously there is a terrorism issue here. ISIS needs to be thought of as being more than just a terrorist group. And as James and I have both pointed out, the Sunni coalition is about a lot more than ISIS. But there's nevertheless the case, there are terrorists in this mix. And we've had the U.S. intelligence community say that they believe that ISIS and these other groups are now thinking about targeting Americans. And if we do have this big ungoverned space in which these groups can operate, we may face terrorist threats from them.
POLLACKBut I think just as importantly we need to think about two other considerations. First is oil. Iraq is now the second largest producer in OPEC. It is critical to low oil prices in the future, even more so than North American shale by many of the projections out there. And so our economy, because it is still tied to the global oil market and tied to other countries whose economies are tied to oil, they could all be affected over the long term if there is a major drop or simply a failure of the Iraqis to continue to expand their oil.
POLLACKThe last thing is our allies. We've got a lot of other countries in the region who are now very much under pressure. I mean, just think about Jordan. Jordan is a tiny little country. It has absorbed refugees from Palestine, from Iraq, from Syria and now Iraq again. It is being swamped almost literally by refugees from these other countries. And it's just not clear how long the Jordanian monarchy can continue to tread water.
PAGESo taking that third issue first, which is our allies in the region, James Kitfield, what are they thinking now about U.S. leadership. I mean, there are -- there is of course a theory that the failure to intervene in a more serious way in Syria in the civil war there has contributed to the crisis we're seeing now in Iraq.
KITFIELDNot only contribute to it. That was the -- I mean, there's two decisions here that were in retrospect disastrous. One was not to reach a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraqis. It left some residual force not just to enable the Iraqi security forces and not just to conduct counterterrorism missions, but to buffer them from the polarization that we've seen from Maliki's interference, which has basically corrupted that whole force.
KITFIELDSo now we've got the only glue that held Iraqi together as a national entity has disappeared from the battlefield. We saw that, you know, when he quickly called -- when Bagdad was threatened did he call up the other ten divisions that haven't disappeared so far? No. He called up the Shiite militias. So it shows you there's no faith left at all in the Iraqi security forces.
KITFIELDThe second one was Syria. Everyone has said from the very beginning, if you let that civil war burn, the fractures along the Sunni Shiite divide will spread throughout the region. That has happened in a big way. There is no more western Iraq in Aleppo area around Syria. They are merged now by this group. They've captured the border crossings. So that was a disastrous move. And now all our options are very, you know, more likely to fail than not. But we can go through some of those options if you wanted to.
PAGEWell, what do you think, Robin, that leaders like King Abdullah II in Jordan and other leaders in the region are now thinking about what they can expect the United States to do, what they want the United States -- what they can trust the United States to do in this situation to protect them?
WRIGHTWell, trust is the big issue. I think there are many in the region who feel the United States has kind of sat back and watched as the region has disintegrated. But there's also the truth that the United States, in the 21st century, has less power, not because of its own making but because of what's happening kind of around the world with globalization. The fact is, a lot of countries feel they want to make their own decisions and not have outside powers always dictating to them. We've seen that play out beginning with the Iranian revolution and with the crumbling of -- the Arab uprising and the crumbling of some of the current states.
WRIGHTBut there is the sense that the United States is the only one that can broker a deal that will salvage Iraq. And that's where I think the Arabs are very nervous that they think the United States is the only one to do it, but they're not sure the United States either has the ability or the willingness to be the one to do it. And this is where America's allies also play a role. The fact is, you know, the Europeans haven't done very much. This is not just an American problem, even though we are the de facto responsible party for creating Iraq in the current mess we're in.
WRIGHTBut, you know, there are other players who have as much of an interest in Iraq and its oil resources and geostrategic stability in the world's most volatile region. There's a lot at stake and not many are actually stepping up to the plate. John Kerry is in Baghdad now. How much he'll be able to broker a resolution, chances are probably pretty small. And if he -- if the United States can't do it, then what happens to the entire region?
WRIGHTBecause we are beginning to see not just the crumbling of Syria and Iraq, but challenges to the borders and to a lot of our allies, whether it's in Jordan or in other gulf countries. Poor little Lebanon now has a million refugees from Syria. A quarter of its population is refugees. The spillover from Iraq and Syria is very serious. So we're -- again, there are a million refugees in Turkey that the whole region is under unprecedented stress.
PAGEYou know, you talk about U.S. leadership. Certainly President Obama won the Democratic nomination in 2008 in part because he opposed the war in Iraq and promised to bring it to an end. I think the administration saw that s a big achievement when the last of the U.S. combat troops withdrew at the end of 2011. What's the appetite by this administration, Ken, to get involved in a -- what's the appetite for getting reengaged in Iraq?
POLLACKZero. Absolutely zero. I mean, we've seen that from the get go. This administration has had absolutely no desire to engage itself in Iraq. I want to be careful here because I really don't like the efforts on the part of both Republicans and Democrats to blame the other wholly for what's going on in Iraq. I think both the Bush and Obama Administrations are culpable for what happened, both of them.
POLLACKThat said, we -- you know, the Obama Administration came in wanting to get out of Iraq. They did far too little on Iraq. Ultimately I think there were lots of things that the administration could have done that would've fallen well below the threshold of using force or doing anything along those lines that the administration simply didn't do because it wasn't interested.
POLLACKI mean, a perfect example of that is even after the troops were pulled out of Iraq -- and again, like James, I think that that was a mistake. I think that we could have, should have tried harder. I think things might've gone differently. But even setting that aside, there were things that we could've done afterwards. In particular, filling out what's called the strategic framework agreement that we signed with the Iraqis, which would've built a much bigger bilateral relationship, which would've repaired at least some of the damage and restore at least some of our influence.
POLLACKIt would never have been as much as having troops there but it would've given us more influence than we have today. We simply failed to do that. And that was not going to be a big cost to the United States. It was mostly about the administration putting in the time and energy to do it and they simply didn't.
PAGEThe administration might argue that they wanted to negotiate an agreement that would allow a residual U.S. force there and that the Iraqis wouldn't agree.
KITFIELDWe'll never be able to test the thesis because they never really tried very hard. They might've been right. Maliki might've seen his ability to consolidate power as the United States is an impediment to that. So he might never have reached any agreement. That's possible. We won't know because we really didn't try.
KITFIELDBut to the point of Syria, I mean, I'm not into the blame game either. I think you just look at this in a rational way because you have to figure out what to do now. And letting Syria continue to burn I think is not an option. And I think, you know, you've seen, you know -- all of President Obama's top advisors to include Hillary Clinton, to include Leon Panetta, to include David Petraeus said, we should arm the moderate secular groups because if we don't it'll create a power vacuum that will be filled by the extremists. Exactly that thing happened.
KITFIELDSo the politicos inside the White House have to, you know, now tell us, you know, why we should still let Syria continue to burn without any assistance. Because it's spreading throughout the region, as we've made very clear here. The one thing I think that Kerry has to do, and I'm not sure that he can do it. I'm not sure the United States still has the influence, but they are in an existential crisis. So we have a fair amount -- we've had more influence now than since we left.
KITFIELDMaliki has to go. The Sunni tribal sheiks will not be a part of any government that includes a guy who they feel had betrayed them for eight years plus. So if he can arrange some deal, and you have Ayatollah Sistani, probably the most influential Shia leader inside Iraq, saying that he thinks maybe Maliki is not the person to lead the next government, that to me is the only way to get at Ken's divergence of goals between the ISIS and the Sunni tribes.
PAGEAnd John Kerry at his news conference has said quote, "The United States is not choosing any leader. We are not making any preconditions with respect to who can and can't take part." Robin, how do you interpret that comment?
WRIGHTWell, the United States doesn't want to be seen to be choosing who is the next leader of Iraq, but I think the message is much more fundamental. John Kerry is going to tell the Iraqi government that as it forms a new configuration, that it has to be inclusive, that it has to re-Sunnify Iraq. It has to bring the Sunnis back into the power equation. That it has to reach out and potentially even bring back elements of the Ba'ath Party, one of the first U.S. decisions after the occupation was to disband, the Ba'ath Party of Saddam Hussein and to dismantle the military.
WRIGHTAnd that was the first trigger that led to the alienation. We managed to bring the Sunnis back in in 2006, 2007 during the awakening that ousted the first Sunni insurgency. We mobilized 90,000 Iraqis, tribal leaders and basically a militia among the Sunnis in volatile Anbar Province, the area now taken over by ISIS, to fight off al-Qaida. But the deal was that the Shiite-led government would then incorporate these people into the military, into the security forces, into the government, give them jobs, give them a sense of security and a sense of being invested in the new Iraqi state. And that was Maliki's deepest problem.
WRIGHTHis fatal flaw is that he arrogantly ignored the deal that was cut to preserve Iraq that first time around. And now he's paying the price for it. And it's very unlikely that the Sunnis will agree to participate as long as he's in power. But Maliki can also dig in because he's making the argument among Shiite politicians today, even those who don't like him, don't trust him, that his ouster would amount to a victory by ISIS. And so I think that the next few weeks were likely to see a real power play, whether it's by Maliki to try to stay in power or his side of the political factions trying to preserve their place in the system, their domination of the political structure.
WRIGHTThere are a lot of things besides the prime minister that have to be solved. The presidency, which has been in the hands of the Kurds, also has to be named. The current Kurdish president had a stroke 18 months ago. He's been hospitalized and the question is, do you give that position to the Sunnis and to try to say, you're going to be a co-player, co-partner in the new government.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We'll go to the phones shortly, 1-800-433-8850. Before we do that, Ken.
POLLACKYeah, I think that Robin's made a number of really good points there but I just want to pick up on that last one, which is that, you know, I think one of the problems that a lot of Americans are having, understandably so, we're a very powerful nation and we have very clear interests in Iraq. But this is one of these instances unfortunately where I think that our interests and our influence don't line up well. And we need to recognize that our influence, our ability to actually protect our interests is much less than those interests would necessarily imply.
POLLACKAnd I think that you see that everywhere, the political, the diplomatic, as robin just described. But it's also true on the military side. I mean, in general, within the scope of this current crisis, I find myself broadly agreeing with how the administration has handled things. But, you know, tactically there are still some very big questions. These 300 advisors that we sent over there, one of the big questions that I have, and I hope the administration has worked this out with the Iraqis but we haven't heard that they have, is what strategy are they there to implement?
POLLACKBecause I think right now our strategy is simply that we want them to help the Shia government, the Shia dominated government, to defend Baghdad, to not let it fall to ISIS. I think Prime Minister Maliki's strategy, as Robin as already suggested, is to re-conquer all of Iraq, which means going back into the Sunni areas with those Shia militias who will probably be responsible for all kinds of massacres and atrocities. And are our advisors going to be providing -- presiding over -- are they going to be advising Iraqi formations that are conducting massacres if they push into Sunni areas? That's a big question we need to think about.
PAGEWell, James Kitfield, what's realistic to think that 300 American military advisors can actually achieve?
KITFIELDYou know, any idea that they're there to sort of rebuild or to provide a backbone to a functioning Iraqi security force is a dream. There are 300 guys. I mean, they're going to be split up. They're mainly an intelligence gathering apparatus. We don't have a lot of visibility either on the strength and the formations of ISIS, nor do we understand really how bad the situation is for the Iraqi security forces. We need to find out both of those things.
KITFIELDBut what they can do, if a political deal is reached, as Ken says, we cannot be the air force for a bunch of Shia militias who are massacred, and that is untenable. So the only alternative is we reach a political deal and then we can probably try to find some ISIS formations, hammer them with military strikes, airstrikes. And if you do that you might force the pressure between the Sunni tribes and the Iraqi -- I mean, the ISIS, the terrorist group. If you don't do that, you don't have any leverage because you're not offering what the government in Baghdad has to have.
PAGEYou know, Robin, we're on radio not TV, but you're making a face that looks quite concerned.
WRIGHTWell, I'm worried for a couple of accounts. First of all, drone strikes, airstrikes, missile strikes on ISIS positions, whether they're along the border or inside Iraq, really open up our culpability for -- or liability for what happens long term. Because if that doesn't defeat ISIS, then we get -- we could get into a slippery slope.
WRIGHTSecondly, airstrikes may eliminate fanatics but they don't -- they won't eliminate fanaticism. This is a much bigger problem. It is at the end of the day political and that's why it has to begin with a political solution. And the idea that military strikes, the same problem in Syria, is going to in any way change the dynamics on the ground, the motive of the people who are challenging Iraqi sovereignty today, very doubtful.
PAGEHere's an email from Marilyn who writes us from St. Augustine, Fla. She says, "I never hear media discuss why the U.S. with all their surveillance and intelligence did not know how organized ISIS was. All we hear is how fast they took over the country and nothing about why we were supposedly caught off guard." What do you think, Ken?
POLLACKAs a former intelligence analyst, as a former military analyst, you know, we need to recognize, first of all, that the intelligence community was providing some degree of warning in a lot of people outside of the U.S. intelligence community. Some of our allies, the Kurds, as we were talking about earlier on, a lot of people outside were all saying, look this is a very big problem. At some point these guys are going to move but let's remember, this was a few hundred guys in pickup trucks, right. This was not an army of 1,000 tanks massing on Iraqi's borders.
POLLACKSo it's very difficult to provide immediate warning of that. I think the best that you can do is effectively what happened. It was a warning to the U.S. government that, look, the situation is getting out of hand. And we have lost the ability to really predict things specifically.
KITFIELDQuickly to Robin's point, you know, if we're not going to offer any air power, if we're not going to offer any airstrikes, we're not going to -- we're not offering anything that they need. So what leverage are we going to have to force the political deal that could -- you know, I don't understand. Our good wishes is no longer, to me, enough for them. But onto the situation with that group, they now have heavy equipment. They're not going to be -- they're going to keep infiltrating -- they have the initiative. They're going to keep infiltrating the Sunni belt around Baghdad. They're not going away.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll go to the phones, 1-800-433-8850. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio Ken Pollack from the Brookings Institution, Robin Wright from the U.S. Institute of Peace and Woodrow Wilson Center and James Kitfield from the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. Let's go to the phones and let some of our listeners join our conversation. We'll start with Kathleen in Chillicothe, Ohio. Hi, Kathleen.
KATHLEENHi. Thanks for taking my call. You know, in the mainstream media we're always hearing, oh, let's not play the blame game when it comes to Iraq. But, you know, I just want to bring up, Ken Pollack, you pushed hard for the invasion. You know, out here in the real world, lay people are always dealing with accountability issues, so why not our leaders? And you pushed hard for that invasion. And then you were also under investigation for the APAC espionage investigation, and then that trial was dismissed.
KATHLEENBut so talk about, how many Iraqi people have literally died as a direct consequence of our invasion? And why is there such huge discrepancy, say, for instance, between The Lancet report that came out in 2006 and several other reports that came out later. So please talk about the direct results on the Iraqi people and...
PAGEKathleen, thanks so much for your call. Let me give Kenneth a chance to respond.
POLLACKSure. I mean I will start by saying that, yes, I believed in a war with Iraq. And I think I'm the only person who has apologized for his role in that. I did believe, like many other people -- the intelligence community, our own and many others -- that Saddam had reconstituted his WMD. And so I publicly apologize for that and I do feel absolutely terrible for my role. Of course, that came out in a book, which many people are aware of but not very many people seem to have read. And even in that book, I was warning that the reconstruction of Iraq was far more important than the invasion.
POLLACKIf we weren't ready to do it right, we shouldn't do it at all, because we would create as many problems as we solved. And that it would lead to chaos, warlordism and civil war if we did it wrong. And since then I have very consistently criticized both the Bush and the Obama administrations for the different failings which unfortunately have led us to this point.
PAGEKathleen, thanks again for your call. You know we saw former Vice President Dick Cheney out talking about this issue. He was, of course, a big advocate for the invasion of Iraq. Does he have a part in this debate that's coming up now, do you think, James?
KITFIELDWell, I mean whenever Dick Cheney says something and he elbows his way into the debate. You know, I think that he's lost a lot of credibility on this issue, but it doesn't mean that he's always wrong. I mean he does make the point that a huge swath of the Middle East that is a territory ruled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is going to cause us huge problems and probably will, you know, ratchet up -- not even probably -- it will become Afghanistan in the 1990s on steroids. And we saw the result of that was 9/11.
KITFIELDI don't think any terrorist analyst I've talked to doubts that if you let these guys hold territory, have their training camps, they will -- I mean, they want to have credibility. The way, in the terrorist pantheon, you get credibility is you attack the West, you attack the United States. You know, every time they've got a territory, we've come to regret it. And in this case, when, you know, you talk about this current crisis, as soon as they got territory in Syria, there was a lot of warnings going on from the intelligence community.
KITFIELDThese guys have got territory, they've got money, they've got oil, they're becoming rich. Look out, Iraq. Now we're saying the same thing in Iraq. Again, when they get territory, problems soon come to us.
PAGEYou know, I think some Americans look at this though and think, this is the debate we had a decade ago and it seems like we're having it again. Here's an email from Margaret who writes us from Alexandria, Va. She says, "I rarely agree with Rand Paul, but agree with his statements on Sunday that he wouldn't send his son. We certainly broke it or added to the breaking of it in the issues in the region. But they own it and need to fix it themselves. Benign neglect sounds good to me." Robin, I wonder to what degree you think that reflects a broad American attitude when they look at the situation there?
WRIGHTWell, the United States is now facing its role in Iraq for the third time in a quarter century. In 1991, we helped retrieve Kuwait from Iraq's occupation, then obviously in 2003, and now we face that challenge again. But this time is different from the last two in lots of different ways. We don't have the will, the enthusiasm, the sense of this is a just war to engage in. Our treasury, the first time around, didn't have to pay for the war because the Gulf States, Germany and Japan picked the $80 billion tab.
WRIGHTThe second time around, we picked it up at a cost of $1.7 trillion, with hundreds of millions still to be committed for helping the veterans who fought that war and who suffered seriously from it. So we have treasury issues as well. In terms of the international community, you know, we had a huge coalition of 34 nations the first time around. The second one, we had a much smaller token coalition of the willing. And this time around, I think, we find far less enthusiasm even from countries that are beholden to us for other things to play any role.
WRIGHTAnd so when you look at the national mood, the international mood, there is a sense that Iraq is just so messy. Do we let it fall apart? Do we try to contain the damage in a way that it -- whether Iraq falls apart and you have a rump state. But the appetite, I think, for getting involved again, particularly with a traumatized and fatigued military...
PAGEFatigued U.S. military.
WRIGHT...U.S. military is, you know -- and this one is so messy. Do we want to try to contain the dangers of terrorism? Do we try to play a role outside of Iraq rather than inside Iraq? I think that's where most Americans probably are. But I suspect the polls that will probably come out in the next week or month will all show that there's very little appetite for direct military intervention, whether it's -- you know, there might be a little bit more appetite for remote drone strikes, but certainly not boots on the ground. I think the administration's absolutely right in that call.
PAGEAnd yet I guess all three of you would argue that we -- that's not really the smart option for the United States, benign neglect.
POLLACKRight. I mean I don't think any of us is calling for boots on the ground. I think that Robin's absolutely correct. And we actually have gotten one poll already that seems to support basically that. But, you know, what we're all saying is that, despite the fact that the American public is fatigued by Iraq -- completely understandably -- we still have interests there. And the problem is, as I said before, our influence doesn't line up with our interests. And I think that Robin is right, that what we're going to wind up doing is probably going to be some form of containment of this civil war.
POLLACKI think, you know, Plan A is exactly as we've been describing it. Try to get a new Iraqi government, one that can bring the moderate Sunnis back in. We all think that's very much a long shot. It's worth trying, but it's going to be a long shot. I think Plan B is going to be to try to contain the violence. And as someone who actually did a scholarly study of this back in 2006, when I thought the Bush administration was going to allow this to happen then, right, before the surge, you know, historically it's very difficult to do. It's extremely difficult to contain the spillover form a civil war.
POLLACKSo we may have to do that, but it's going to be tough. That is also a very hard option.
PAGEWhat would containment look like, James? What would you do if you were following a policy of containment?
KITFIELDWell, you would bolster it. I mean, we have trainers now in Jordan. You would bolster the ability of all the surrounding allies to take the impact of all these refuges, to guard against infiltration by ISIS fighters. It means probably more military presence around the periphery of Iraq to try to contain this spillover. It's, you know, it's very hard to see how that's very much fun either, quite honestly. I mean, there's no good options here. You let something go like this for so long, you end up with this. There are no easy options.
KITFIELDI will say that this is, you know -- one lesson from history of this is, you know, democracies don't do real long wars very well for the very reason -- the American public is war weary. And that hurts the options of the President. You know, the criticism I have is, if you pretend like if you neglect the place that the reaction's going to be benign.
KITFIELDI just, you know, show me where that's happening today in the world. Is it happening in the Ukraine? Is it happening -- I mean, if we're perceived as weak and we are the global power that holds up the international order and we're not willing to defend allies, we're not willing to stay engaged in these regions, it's neglect, but I don't think it ends up benignly.
WRIGHTI think there's a model for what's happened or what's happening in Iraq, and that was Lebanon. Tragically, Lebanon went on. I lived there for 5 of its 15 years. It dragged on over and over and over. And there were repeated attempts by the United States and others to try to mediate. And it took basically the exhaustion of the various parties. But this was also a country the size of Connecticut. There's only four million people. But there were enough militias that -- among 18 different sects -- that fought it out for 15 years and thousands died.
WRIGHTAnd the power-sharing formula, which was what it was all about, changed only marginally. It used to be that for every 11 seats in government, 6 were held by Christians and 5 by Muslims. And they changed the formula to 5 to 5. I mean, that for 15 years. But it took the exhaustion. And so I think the goal for the U.S. right now is to prevent the Lebanonization of Iraq and to try to contain it militarily, contain it politically. But if we fail this time, that doesn't mean that we're not going to be involved down the road.
WRIGHTAnd Lebanon was solved in part because the Saudis got involved in basically buying out some of the factions, creating the fiction of an alternative financially. So this again is -- this may not be the first time we're involved. This may be a very long political process. I mean we've got two months facing us just to get a new government in place. They have lots of different deadlines that may not be met very quickly either.
PAGEJohn Kerry, in Baghdad, has said that Maliki is committed to sticking to July 1 as the date the government representatives will meet, then pick the speaker, then the president, then the prime minister. Ken Pollack?
POLLACKYeah, I just want to go back to Robin's wonderful analogy at Lebanon. I think she's spot-on. I think that's a great example for people to think about. And I think there are three quick things -- there are actually lots, but I'll just mention three. First, Lebanon went on for a very long time. Iraq is likely to go on for a very long time. Second, we saw in Lebanon the constant changing of the sides, right? Lebanon starts as a Christian versus Muslim war. Then the Muslim splits, Sunni versus Shia fighting. The Maronites, the Christians split. Christians fighting each other.
POLLACKThen you see within the Shia, different Shia groups fighting. You'll see this in Iraq as well. Things will change, they will mutate over time, rarely ever to the good. But the last warning from Lebanon is, you know, the United States made a fundamental mistake in 1983, where we intervened militarily, believing that we were going there to help what we thought was the benign neutral government of Lebanon and its armed forces. What everyone in Lebanon and the rest of the world understood was that had become nothing but a bunch of Maronite warlords presiding over a Maronite militia -- Christian militia.
POLLACKAnd they saw the Christian United States coming to help the Christians. And that's why all of the Muslim groups in Lebanon started to attack us. We can't make the same mistake in Iraq.
KITFIELDWhich gets to the point of our agreement from all three of us, which is if this is not preceded -- any U.S. action in Iraq that's not preceded by a political deal is absolutely worthless. And more than worthless, it's dangerous. On the Lebanon analogy, I like it. It's very apt. I'll say two things, one of which is that fragile piece that finally came about is now threatened as the Sunni-Shia divide is cracking right through the middle of Lebanon again. And, you know, Lebanon, one of the sides of that conflict was Hezbollah, and it gained strength from that long civil war. To Israel that's been a real problem.
KITFIELDBut Hezbollah has not been committed to striking out at the United States at home as it did in 9/11 or at our European allies. Al-Qaida has. So if al-Qaida was in the midst of Lebanon, I think we'd have a harder time reaching an accommodation that said, you know, we'll just let it burn itself out. We won't be bothered.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go back to the phones. We'll talk to Bill. He's calling us from Concord, N.H. Bill, thank you for being patient.
BILLOh, thank you. I would like to take issue with one of the statements made about the war with Iraq. It was never a war with Iraq. The army scattered almost immediately after we invaded them. So it was a war against Iraq. And after the invasion, then we had the occupation. In the invasion, we bombed the civilians and destroyed their infrastructure. And the Iraqi people had been subjected to so many harsh realities. You know, there's not a family there that hasn't -- doesn't know of someone that's killed or maimed or murdered.
PAGEBill, thanks so much for your call. James, what do you think about his point?
KITFIELDI don't think that he'll have any disagreement from all of us, that Iraq, in retrospect, was a strategic blunder of historic proportions. So we don't need to recount, you know, re-debate whether Iraq was a good idea. We had bad intelligence and it, you know, was proceeded by a long run of mistakes. But we are where we are with Iraq. And if you're worried about the Iraqi people, you know, to do nothing now will subject them to a civil war that is going to kill hundreds of thousands. We know this practically as a certainty. So I am worried about the Iraqi people. And I do think the Americans -- the United States bears some responsibility for what they're going through.
PAGEBill, thanks so much for your call. Here's an email from Jonathan. He writes, "In the long run, would three states ultimately be better for everyone involved? I wonder what -- what do you think, Robin?
WRIGHTWell, it's the question of the hour, isn't it? The fact is, the Kurds have been going that way for almost a generation now, since 1991 when Saddam Hussein isolated them and sanctioned them for their opposition. And with the deployment of their own Peshmerga militia along the common border with the rest of Iraq, and the taking of Kirkuk, the disputed oil center, the Kurds are better placed to go it their own, whether it's de facto or formally. And if they do, that of course has a huge impact on the psychology of holding together the rest of Iraq.
WRIGHTAnd the fact that the -- that it's not going to be easy to retake any part of this country held now by ISIS and it's Sunni allies will also put in question whether you can reintegrate the rest of Iraq. So I think there are some real questions. And I think that if U.S. policy planning staff were imaginative right now, they'd look at what do you do with a different Middle East. And what impact does the disintegration of Iraq have on the rest of the region?
PAGEWe're almost out of time, but I want to ask you each to respond to the question I posed to Deborah Amos. What do you look for in the next few days, in the short term, that tells you something important about what's going to happen next? Ken, you start.
POLLACKFor me, what I'm looking for on the military side is this question, what happens in Anbar? We've seen ISIS and the other militant groups pushing out into Anbar, pushing westward. A real key question for me is can they push eastward? Because if they can develop a complementary offensive out of Anbar against Baghdad, that will badly stress the Shia defenses. That might create some real military problems.
PAGEJames, what are you watching for?
KITFIELDI'm watching for Maliki. If he stays in power, then I don't think there's any solution that keeps Iraq from breaking up.
PAGERobin, how about you?
WRIGHTWell, it's the timetable. The parliament meets by July 1, but then they have 30 days to name a new president and 15 days after that to name a prime minister. And then they have to come up with a government cabinet. And this is where portfolios like justice, defense, interior are critical. And it's the speed with which they form a government that will determine whether you can hold Iraq together. It's their responsibility. And if they do it quickly, there's a hope. If it drags on forever, that's a very ominous indication.
PAGERobin Wright, James Kitfield, Kenneth Pollack, thanks so much for being with us this hour.
POLLACKThanks for having us.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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