Op-Ed: U.S. Military Must Stay On In Iraq

Read Meghan O'Sullivan's Washington Post op-ed, "Why U.S. Troops Should Stay in Iraq"

The U.S. military faces a December 31 deadline to withdraw from Iraq. Many Americans argue that it is time for Iraq to stand on its own. But Meghan O'Sullivan, former deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush, says the U.S. must maintain a strong force in Iraq.

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NEAL CONAN, host: The current agreement between the United States and Iraq calls for all U.S. troops to be out of that country by December 31st, unless Iraq asks that some remain. Recent reports suggest the Obama administration would be willing to keep 3,000 troops in Iraq. Well, that, of course, is controversial in Iraq where many want the U.S. out now. And in this country, where many Americans argue it's long passed time to bring the war to an end. In a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, Meghan O'Sullivan argued that the United States could still reap strategic benefits from Iraq, but only if a force more like 10,000 U.S. troops stays on to assist a fragile government there.

So what's to be gained from the blood and treasure already lost in Iraq? Should U.S. troops stay on? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Meghan O'Sullivan served as deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan under President George W. Bush. She's now a professor of international affairs at Harvard and joins us on the phone from her office there. And nice to have you with us today.

MEGHAN O'SULLIVAN: Thanks, Neal. Happy to be with you.

CONAN: And as you acknowledged in your piece, many people regard Iraq as a fiasco, and many believe it could, well, still dissolve into civil war.

O'SULLIVAN: I think in this particular situation, as you mentioned, the focus is on the way ahead. I know it's very hard for Americans to separate out a very legitimate debate about what happened in the past and the wisdom and utility of what happened in the past, but it's different from the conversation about what we should do going forward. In my argument, as you alluded, is simply that we as a country have made a huge investment in Iraq over the last eight years, I think that's indisputable.

Whether or not you think that's an intelligent investment is a different argument. But given that we've made that investment, what is required to reap the benefits of that investment going forward? And as you mentioned, we have at this moment in time, the expiration of what is called the status of forces agreement - that's the legal framework for the stationing of American troops in Iraq - will come to an end at the end of December of this year. And the question is should American troops stay?

As you alluded to, this is a question not just for Americans but also for Iraqis, but certainly, it's a legitimate debate with compelling arguments on both sides.

CONAN: And what would we benefit that more troops, you say, would be important to help the government there assist a fragile government. What benefits would flow from that?

O'SULLIVAN: Sure. And first, let me say that I think the conversation really needs to be more than just about exactly what number of troops are required. The question is, really, does America still have a strategic interest in how things unfold in Iraq? And are things there still uncertain enough that a continued American investment in Iraq could make the difference between a more positive trajectory and one that points in the wrong direction. To answer your question, very briefly, I think there are a wide number of reasons why America may want to keep troops in Iraq if the Iraqis are amenable to that, and why Iraqis may want to keep American troops in Iraq.

First of all, there's all the security needs that come from an Iraqi force that hasn't quite, you know, it's not a fully functioning force. It's made enormous progress, but it's still a nascent security force. And so there are many gaps in intelligence, in commanding airspace, in training, that could be filled. But there are also compelling political reasons, why having a U.S. force presence - a very, very small one. We're talking, you know, a fraction, a small fraction of the large number of American troops that have been in Iraq over the last eight years. Why that actually would give some political actors confidence in the continuation of the political institutions in Iraq as they remain today.

CONAN: And another reason you give is that because Iraq has the potential to stabilize the oil market.

O'SULLIVAN: Sure. And this is also a very sensitive issue, because people understandably get very nervous when we talk about oil in Iraq in the same sentence - for all kinds of reasons. But the argument here is not really a commercial one. It's not about American companies. It's a global strategic argument that the world is looking, over the next 10 or so years, looking at oil markets that are going to be increasingly tight. You look at international energy agencies and they predict that in 20 years' time the world will be consuming more than 100-barrel - 100 million barrels of oil a day. The question is where is that oil going to come from? And there aren't that many places in the world that have the resources to bring that kind of oil, that volume of oil online. So if global markets are going to be stabilized at a reasonable price and all the economic benefits that come with that, probably Iraq is going to be a part of that equation and that will require some political stability in Iraq.

CONAN: And political stability would be bolstered by the presence - the longer term presence of U.S. forces.

O'SULLIVAN: That's certainly my argument. And my experience with working on Iraq and with Iraqis over the last eight years is that there is - obviously, there are some downsides to having an American force presence there. It does create an antibodies in the society from the Iraqi perspective. And from the American perspective, there are costs associated with it, and we have other priorities.

But certainly, I think there is a strong argument to be made when you look at events over the last eight years, that even a small force, a small American force provides a little bit of, if you want to call it a security blanket, no pun intended, but it basically is an indication of continued American interest in Iraq and that helps Iraqis chart a more independent political course, which is very, very hard to do in that part of the world, and very, very much in American strategic interests.

CONAN: You also argue that in a Middle East that's being reshaped by revolution in places like Tunisia and Egypt and Libya and Syria, as well as Iraq's next-door neighbor, Iraq could, in some ways, provide a model for those places as they look to re-establish new kinds of governance.

O'SULLIVAN: I think saying a model is, in some ways, maybe a euphemism. I think that Arabs from all over the world can take both positive end lessons from Iraq. On the one hand, Iraq has really come quite a distance in establishing representative institutions. They're still fragile. It's still a democracy that could be changed or challenged in some very fundamental ways, but they have moved a great distance from the authoritarian days of Saddam. On the other hand, they made a lot of mistakes in the process of doing so, and the United States was part - bears part of the responsibility for some of those mistakes, but you can learn both from successes and from failures in equally poignant ways.

And already, we see Arabs from other parts of the world looking at what happened in Iraq and thinking about what they should take away from Iraq's experience when they're thinking about their own. Maybe the best example of this has to do with this whole notion of reconciliation and how to accommodate people who were close to, maybe the Mubarak regime or the Gadhafi regime. What role do those people have in Egyptian and Libyan societies today? That's a very, very tough question. It's a very emotional question for lots of Egyptians and Libyans, and it was very emotional for Iraqis.

But if you look at the Iraqi experience, a policy called de-Baathification, you have many Arabs saying, well, that went too far and that undermined the ability of Iraq to really develop itself, get back on its feet in the timeframe that was required. And so maybe that lesson from Iraq will lead to different approaches and more moderate approaches from Egyptians and Libyans, and maybe, ultimately, Syrians.

CONAN: We're talking with Meghan O'Sullivan, now the Jeane Kirkpatrick professor of the practice of international affairs at Harvard. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Peter is on the line, calling from Berkeley.

PETER: Thank you very much for the topic, Neal, and for the guest. I'm just wondering, where would it - what you're saying is that if I were an educator and nonprofit leader, and I wanted to travel to Iraq to contribute to a better civil society and a better educated public there, would I be more protected then if American troops stayed and could, therefore, do my work better and more safely? Or would I - is that what you're saying?

O'SULLIVAN: I think that would be a too strict an interpretation of what I'm saying, at least in the short term because the number of American troops that we're talking about that, maybe, the Iraqis would be interested and certainly, perhaps, President Obama would be willing to leave behind the very, very small number - we're talking, you know, the current conversation is around 3,000 - these troops, you know, this is such a small number for a large country. These troops are not going to be providing security on the streets of Baghdad or any other town or city in Iraq, and, in fact, they haven't been doing that for years now. So you would not have the protection of American soldiers. The question is, does that manifestation of a U.S. commitment to Iraq, does that help create political stability, which obviously has a very close relationship with security.

And so my argument to you would be, well, that this continued American presence, this continued American commitment is helpful at stabilizing Iraq over the long term, or over the medium and long term, and that means that, you know, you could expect a better environment. It doesn't mean I would recommend you go there tomorrow independently, although there are parts of Iraq - if you're an educator, there's an American university in Iraq, in Sulaymaniyah, in the northern part of Iraq, and you can quite easily go there. And I'm sure they would welcome the opportunity to benefit from whatever skills that you want to bring. So there are nuances throughout the country.

PETER: And what is your comment, if I might follow up, as to whether the presence of American troops might be more of a political irritant?

O'SULLIVAN: Yeah.

CONAN: That's the antibody she mentioned earlier, but yeah, yeah.

PETER: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

O'SULLIVAN: Yeah. Yeah. No, I, you know, I acknowledge that there's certainly an element of that. There's a group of Iraq that you may have heard of called the Sadrists, and they're a group and they've actually been responsible for a lot of attacks on American soldiers, on Iraqis. They have a militia which gets support from Iran. They're very, very against the American presence. This has always been a very difficult thing for the Iraqi government to maneuver. This was true when the current agreement was negotiated in 2008, and it's true today.

And so, like any sort of multi-polar political system, there are going to be a variety of opinions. And so the question is, can this party be managed? Can their opposition be overcome? And that probably requires some element of solidarity by other Iraqi figures, and that, you know, not an easy thing.

CONAN: And they're members of the ruling coalition, which also complicates things, so

O'SULLIVAN: They're in the government, that's true.

CONAN: Yeah. Peter, thanks very much for the call. We're discussing the way ahead in Iraq. We're talking with Meghan O'Sullivan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go next to William, William calling from Cincinnati.

WILLIAM: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

WILLIAM: I think one of the biggest challenges around this entire subject of Iraq and our troops over there began when your guest commented at the very beginning on how this entire conversation is premised on the money spent over there as being an investment. I kind of have a difficulty accepting that as an investment. I think it's more of carefully chosen words to frame this - frame something that's not quite so pleasant into something a little more pleasant as this language - it's a lot more neutral and not as polarizing, which I can appreciate the results of that. But I do believe that it's more money spent as opposed to money invested. I'd like to hear her comments on that.

O'SULLIVAN: Well, I mean, I take your point that the word investment has certain connotations, but that - it's actually intentional on my part, saying that we have the option of potentially reaping some of the benefits from our engagement in Iraq - our very, very expensive both in terms of money and lives engagement in Iraq over the 10 years or eight years - or we have the option of saying, we spent every penny and every, you know, every person that we are going to dedicate to this mission. We're done with that and, therefore, even if it just requires kind of sticking with the problem a little bit longer, we're not interested in capturing the benefits that may flow.

This is the - the difficulty of this is just the timeframe, that these things - it's very hard to say, OK, we're not going to gain anything no matter if we dedicate more resources to this or we are, where we have an inherent interests in the outcome on this part of the world or we have an inherent responsibility. So I agree with you the word investment, perhaps, is a little bit too clinical. But in a simple a way, it sort of captures this idea of a payoff that comes after you make a commitment.

CONAN: But you also understand how many times we've been told, oh, there's light right around the next corner if we just stay with it a little bit longer.

O'SULLIVAN: Right. And that, I think, you know, this is a reasonable question for someone to ask a person like me. You know, at what point do you say we've, you know, made every effort we're going to make and now, you know, we should walk away? Now I would argue to you, and I do argue win my piece, that actually there are more tangible reasons to believe that this payoff isn't kind of this notational thing, and it isn't somewhere way down the line.

You mentioned energy and this whole idea that Iraq may be in a position to help global markets, not American companies but global markets, and, you know, is that just an idea or is that rooted in some fact? And if we look at what's going on in Iraq's oil industry, it's quite interesting that they had a very long debate over the course of the first six years about whether or not to welcome companies that could help them with the technology to develop their own resources. They decided they would do that. They signed contracts, and now they're actually, you know, they're moving up the production curve. They're bringing more oil to market for the benefit of global markets.

So again, there are, I think, there are some reasons where you could say - or what you can point to and say that these strategic benefits, you know, there's some evidence that they're going to materialize in the timeframe that's meaningful to us, but again

CONAN: And I don't mean to cut...

O'SULLIVAN: ...(unintelligible) strategic calculation.

CONAN: I just wanted to get one more caller in. We're just running out of time here.

O'SULLIVAN: Sure. OK.

CONAN: Karismah(ph), I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly, in Raleigh.

KARISMAH: Yes. Hello. I think Ms. O'Sullivan is quite articulate in making a pig's - a silk purse out of a pig's ear. In my opinion and in the opinion of many Americans, this was an illegal war from the very beginning. And when I hear things like oil and, you know, possible revenues, weren't we told that at the very beginning that the oil was going to pay for the war? I think the investment in dollars and, certainly, in lives and in reputation has been just immeasurably bad for the United States. And I think if I were the person with the opportunity, I would pull the plug, and every single dollar and every single American would come home. Thank you.

CONAN: And thank you. We just have a few seconds left, Meghan O'Sullivan. I know you addressed the - we were told that oil would pay.

O'SULLIVAN: Sure. And I did acknowledge that Americans have heard arguments that sound like this before, and that's why I kind of point to, well, do we have any greater evidence that there's some substance behind these arguments, or are these wishful thoughts and thinking?

I appreciate how many Americans are interested in putting this very, very painful, very divisive and very expensive war behind them. There's no question about that, and that's why I felt moved to write and to come on the show today to try to make the case that one doesn't have to have agreed with everything that's happened in the eight months to realized that there may still be some value in maintaining a long-term relationship with this country.

CONAN: And you misspoke, of course, eight years, not eight months but

O'SULLIVAN: Oh, I did. I'm sorry. Eight years, yes.

CONAN: That's quite all right. But thank you so much for your time today, and, Karismah, thank you very much for your call. Meghan O'Sullivan, we appreciate it.

O'SULLIVAN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Former deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan in the administration of George W. Bush. Monday, we'll be talking about drone wars. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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