General Petraeus Stays Put in Iraq

The top U.S. commander in Iraq won't taking over as NATO commander in Europe. A bomb kills 34 and wounds more than 200 in Mosul. Jeffery Goldberg of the Atlantic Monthly reports on the week in Iraq.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ALISON STEWART, host:

Thank you. Oh…

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Alison and Toure - they cut me off.

STEWART: I know I saw your lips moving.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: I can't hear what you're saying.

MARTIN: I was just trying to speak.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Thanks, Rachel.

MARTIN: You're welcome.

STEWART: Hey, so it is Friday. So let's take a look at the headlines that made up the week in Iraq.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: If you get it. For this 253rd week since the start of the conflicts, General Petraeus is staying put. That's the word from Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Department of Defense): The president is pretty clear that he wants General Petraeus to stay right where he is through - at least, through late fall and maybe the end of the year.

STEWART: Now, the announcement ended speculation that the top U.S. commander was exiting the post to become the next NATO commander in Europe.

Iraq has a new flag. Iraqi's lawmakers voted to remove three stars that symbolized the Baathist ideals of unity, freedom and socialism as well as Saddam Hussein's handwritten calligraphy of the phrase, God is great. The phrase remains only in another font.

Now on the ground, a large bomb blast hit Mosul, killing 34 people and wounding at least 224 others. The next day, a suicide bomber killed Mosul's police chief and two others as they toured the devastation, prompting Iraq's government today to announce their launching a major offensive against al-Qaida in that city.

And today, the New York Times is reporting that, quote, "With its international mandate in Iraq set to expire in 11 months, the Bush administration will insist that the government in Baghdad give the United States broad authority to conduct combat operations and guarantee civilian contractors specific legal protections from Iraqi law," according to administration and military officials.

So with an eye towards the future, we turn to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. In this month's Atlantic Monthly, he investigated the unintended effects of the Iraq war and how in the coming decades it could all change the landscape of the entire Middle East. He spoke to more than 25 experts and traveled to Iraq.

Hi, Jeffrey.

Mr. JEFFREY GOLDBERG (Writer, Atlantic Monthly): Hi. How are you?

STEWART: I'm doing well.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Good.

STEWART: So your article is long so I'm going to try to get to some of the main points.

Mr. GOLDBERG: I don't think it's long enough...

STEWART: It really is an article that could keep going. But one of the main unintended consequences of the war is that - you write very early on the article, it is a great history lesson because you said it really exposes how tenuous the map of the Middle East actually is.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Right.

STEWART: Remind people how Iraq's borders came to be in the first place.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, you know, Winston Churchill and a couple of English bureaucrats dreamed it up one day. It's amazing the long-term consequences of people's tea-time chats.

But essentially after World War I, the French and the British were puzzling over who should control the Middle East and the British decided to create countries like Iraq and Jordan; the French got Syria and Lebanon. Lebanon was created at the same moment. It's incredibly are artificial, I mean, all states are artificial, of course. There's nothing natural about the presence of any state on the planet, some man had to make it, and it's amazing how quickly and with how little thought the map of the Middle East was made after World War I.

STEWART: And it could be an indication of what comes to the future. In - from your interviews, you seem to predict that Iraq could be carved again into three pieces and that the Kurds are really going to come out on top in this one. Why?

Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, it would just be a return to the way it was because you have to remember when the - I mean, a really quick history lesson, the British - the Allies defeated, among others in World War I, the Ottoman Empire, which controlled that whole area, the whole Middle East. And what the British did was they took three separate Ottoman provinces, one based in Basra, one based in Baghdad, one based in Mosul - you know, north, central, south - and roped it together and called it Iraq because, why not?

STEWART: Right.

Mr. GOLDBERG: I mean, it was great fun to be an imperialist, obviously, because you get to play Risk but for real. And so it's completely feasible that the parts would come apart. Obviously, one part of it, Kurdistan, the northern third of Iraq, 99 percent of the people, according to polls, want to leave.

STEWART: But it's interesting that in a conversation, was it the conversation you had with Bremmer(ph), where he said no, we call that Northern Iraq.

Mr. GOLDBERG: No, no. That was Wolfowitz.

STEWART: Wolfowitz, I'm sorry.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Right, right. Well, you know, the funny part of that is that everybody says the Bush administration and the neo-cons wanted to rip up the map and cause long-term instability et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. But in fact, they seem to be overly committed to the flawed map as it currently exists. It's sort of a one of the small ironies here.

TOURE, host:

Wasn't the map originally drawn in a way that was intended to maintain controversy between peoples who historically did not like each other?

Mr. GOLDBERG: An excellent point. I mean, because that's the classic British model, a classic British imperial model, and other people too, I shouldn't just blame the French and the British. I mean, the French did it; the Portuguese did it in Africa especially.

What you do is you put tribes together that don't like each other and you empower one tribe, usually a minority tribe, to be the police, to be the bureaucrats and that over time, I mean, that's what you saw in Rwanda, by the way. Over time, that group takes disproportionate control; that's what happened in Iraq. The Sunnis became empowered. They're only 20 percent of the country but they dominated Shiites and Kurds in much the same way that the whites in South Africa dominated blacks for so long. It's - it is the classic model and, of course, we're paying for that model today in all kinds of what is in all different places.

STEWART: Now, you spent some time talking to neo-conservatives about what they thought what originally happened…

Mr. GOLDBERG: Right.

STEWART: …after the invasion and the war. One of whom is about to release a book very soon and said that new borders were never really in the plan for them.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Yeah, you know, I was surprised at that because look, from a moral perspective, why shouldn't the Kurds have independence in the same way that why shouldn't the Palestinians have independence? I mean, nations should be allowed to be independent and free if they want to be. And, you know, everybody said that the neo-cons were motivated by - well, I mean, the critics say misguided moralism or however you want to put it. But I was struck by the fact -Doug Fief is the one that you're talking about, I guess. I was struck by the fact that A), they didn't want to actually break up the country, and B), they didn't think that it was a possibility.

I mean, talk about unintended consequences. You know, that's what I'm always struck by is how scenarios weren't talked through, different scenarios back in 2002 and 2003, what could happen in Iraq. The idea that it would fall apart and break apart was not really contemplated seriously.

STEWART: Yet they still held out hope for a democracy in the area. You confess to being on erstwhile optimist?

Mr. GOLDBERG: Oh yeah.

STEWART: Without that idea?

Mr. GOLDBERG: I'm a big optimist. I'm American, you know. You think everything's going to get better. But I mean, the Middle East is a challenge…

STEWART: So what changed for you?

Mr. GOLDBERG: …to optimism, right?

STEWART: But what changed for you? Was there one point - was there one thing that has happened in the past 253 weeks that you thought to yourself maybe it's not going to work?

Mr. GOLDBERG: You know what? In Middle East history, 253 - I heard your introduction - 253 weeks is a blip.

STEWART: Well, that's an interesting point.

Mr. GOLDBERG: That's like a coffee break, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Yeah. But that's also an interesting point for people to think about when you're talking about the future of Iraq. We really - we can't talk about it in 5 or 10 years.

Mr. GOLDBERG: This has just started. That's the point of my article is that we're just starting down this road and, you know. And to me, the definition of what - of a neo-con as versus a realist is a neo-con has a tolerance or, maybe a vicarious tolerance for instability. In other words, a neo-con - and I hate the term because it's sort of a term of just this insult at this point…

TOURE: Yeah.

Mr. GOLDBERG: …but someone who believes in this war and these ideas, might say, well, you know what? If in 30 years, Iraq is at a better place and we are in a better place because of it, then it might be worth it. A foreign policy realist says one year of instability and chaos is not worth it. We rather have a dictator sitting in charge and just keeping everything tamped down and quiet.

TOURE: Let's make this political for a moment, Jeff. The GOP almost uniformly, except for Ron Paul, thinks we're winning in Iraq; the Democrats almost uniformly think we're losing in Iraq.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Right.

TOURE: And should get out immediately - from your position, who's right?

Mr. GOLDBERG: Neither, how's that for an answer, right?

TOURE: Good answer.

STEWART: Probably the correct answer.

Mr. GOLDBERG: No. Probably the correct answer because the politics does infect us in a kind of way and if the Republicans say one thing, the Democrats automatically have to say the other, and that's the problem of politics.

The - I tend to think that we're neither winning nor losing at the moment. Obviously, Petraeus has done an excellent job of stabilizing things a little bit, bringing to a - I mean, there's still violence, obviously. It's a civil war in many respects. But we won't know if we're winning or losing until we actually get the Iraqis themselves, the Iraqi government, to activate itself and actually try to make some decisions and try to organize the country and try to see if they can keep it together.

But we're still in - let's just say we're still - we're in the post-mission accomplished phase, but we're in the second phase that's gone on for a very long time, 200 weeks, let's say, or more, in which we don't yet know yet which way this is going to go. Obviously, every month that goes by where the Iraqi government doesn't take hold of the situation and make hard decisions is another month wasted.

STEWART: Jeffrey Goldberg wrote all about this in the Atlantic Monthly. It's a really good article. Take some time, check it out. We'll link through to it on our blog.

Hey, Jeffrey, thanks for taking the time today.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Thank you.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.