President Bush Airs His Ideas About Iraq and Iran
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Meanwhile at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Gates acknowledged that the public is looking for signs that the situation in Iraq is getting better and he counseled patience.
Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Department of Defense): We think there are some positive things going on. I think we're being very careful not to indulge in happy talk or to be optimistic when there are grounds not to be. I think we're trying to be honest and realistic about how things are going.
And it's just going to take some more time, and that's why I think General Petraeus basically decided that September would be a good time, early September, thereabouts, a good time for him to do his report for the president.
SIEGEL: Well, that report in September is about the only timetable that seems certain in Iraq right now, though there's plenty of talk about others. Many war policy critics say the troops should start moving out sometime early next year. Military commanders seemed to want troop levels to remain high through the end of next year. Iraqis tell us that Iraqi time operates differently from Washington time.
Joining us to talk about this now are Peter Rodman, who is senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. Welcome once again, Peter Rodman.
Mr. PETER RODMAN (Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, Brookings Institution): Good evening.
SIEGEL: And Marina Ottaway, director of Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Good to see you.
And I'd like to hear from both of you starting with Marina Ottaway, a little reality check here, from what you see happening in the war in Iraq. Come September, what progress, conceivably, might General Petraeus or Ambassador Crocker plausibly report?
Ms. MARINA OTTAWAY (Director, Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): I don't think very much because there is agreement that there cannot be a military solution or a purely military solution to the situation in Iraq. And what the current plan does not contain is a political strategy other than the one that has been tried for over a year and has failed repeatedly.
So that it's very unlikely whatever happens on the military front that we are going to see any change on the political front, and that is any agreement among the various factions of the Iraqi government and of the Iraqi population.
SIEGEL: Peter Rodman, are you equally pessimistic about what can be accomplished come September?
Mr. RODMAN: Well, Marina has a good point. There's no reason to build up September as some kind of magical, you know, a climactic moment in the war. It's an artificial date. And my guess is that it will be a mixed picture. I think there will be some positive things to report and some things that aren't positive. And we shouldn't expect some binary moment, a pass-fail grade where, you know, the whole war, yes or no, is decided. It certainly will not relieve our political leaders of the need to make their own decisions.
SIEGEL: President Bush, in his news conference today, spoke rather favorably of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group recommendations, which we haven't heard much of for a while. Marina Ottaway, do you get some sense that in some way there's a revised policy that there's something more than a new strategy in increasing numbers of troops or deploying them differently? Is there some interests here in regional diplomacy as you say?
Ms. OTTAWAY: Well, there is definitely an interest in regional diplomacy. I think not because the Bush administration really, freely chose to do so but because it was force to accept it by the fact that there was a lot of regional diplomacy going on, of which the United States was not part. In other words, the U.S. failed to isolate Iran from diplomatic activity in the area.
The Saudis are talking to the Iranians. They don't like the Iranians but they are talking to them. The Iraqis are talking to all their neighbors so that the U.S. had to make a choice whether to isolate itself from all this activity or to become part of it.
SIEGEL: It seemed the U.S. has been led into discussions...
Ms. OTTAWAY: Yes.
SIEGEL: ...with the Iranians by America's allies in the region?
Ms. OTTAWAY: Yes.
SIEGEL: Peter Rodman, do you hold out much hope for those contacts with the Iranians?
Mr. RODMAN: No. I don't think we should have very high expectations. Our problem with Iran is not a communications problem. I think we understand each other very well. I think the problem is that their objectives and ours are a hundred percent opposed. I don't object to ambassadorial-level talks. There's some precedent for that. I don't object to the multilateral contacts or the contacts with Iran in a multilateral form, and there's precedent for that as well.
But I think the hype about the dialogue with Iran is misplaced and I think the president was right to be skeptical about that recommendation of the Baker-Hamilton report.
SIEGEL: I want to ask you both, as observers of foreign policy, and, Peter Rodman, you've spent time inside the government helping to make it, there's yet another poll out today that shows public dissatisfaction with the war as it's going now and with the original decision to get into the war in Iraq -dissatisfaction is rising still.
How can a policy continue with such a lack of public support? And neither of you has described anything that might happen in the near future that would give people cause to support it more. Peter Rodman, what - at some point, as the rubber hit the road, and you say the public is not with us?
Mr. RODMAN: No, I think there's an objective reality out there, namely, the vital American interest in the Middle East and the catastrophic consequences of an American collapse in Iraq. And I think it's a responsibility of our political leaders to respond to the real challenge and the real requirements for American policy and not to decide things by public opinion polls.
SIEGEL: Or by elections, for that matter? Since this was an issue in the November election, Marina Ottaway?
Ms. OTTAWAY: Yes. To me, the real crucial test is whether or not the Republican Party continues to support Bush on this policy because I suspected that if there is no real sign of improvement, and public opinion continues deteriorating, at some point, the Republican Party, sooner rather than later, will have to decide whether to take it - distance from the policy of the Bush administration.
SIEGEL: Last point, Iran, from what the president said today about sanctions, talking with our friends and allies about this, how would you now describe the president's stance toward Iran? Or do you regard it as especially strong or conciliatory, Marina Ottaway?
Ms. OTTAWAY: No, certainly not a conciliatory stand. It's the same stand that he has taken all along. And that sort of highlights that paradox of the situation where we are - he is talking of talking to Iran. But at the same time, we have a very hard-line position. So that it's not clear to me what is it that we are going to talk about? We have been forced by our allies to talk to Iran. But we don't have an agenda it seems to me.
SIEGEL: And, Peter Rodman, your sense of the president on Iran right now?
Mr. RODMAN: I think it's a moment to go to our friends in the U.N. Security Council and try to get stronger sanctions, given that Iran is clearly defying the international community.
SIEGEL: And does a finding like that of the International Atomic Energy Agency make that anymore possible or would the Russians and the Chinese still look askance at such things?
Mr. RODMAN: It's worth a try.
SIEGEL: Well, on that note, I'd like to thank you, Peter Rodman of the Brookings Institution, and Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Thanks a lot for talking with us.
Mr. RODMAN: Yeah.
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