Upcoming Talks to Focus on a Stable Iraq

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The Bush administration is preparing for more internal consultations — and talks with Iraqi government officials — on how to achieve stablility in Iraq. Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution and Ellen Laipson of the Henry L. Stimson Center discuss those prospects with Liane Hansen.


President Bush and other top administration officials took obvious pleasure in the death in an American bombing raid this past Thursday of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. They tempered their comments, though, with cautious observations that killing the head of al-Qaida in Iraq would not end the insurgency that has mired the country in violence.

Mr. Bush expressed more optimism in response to news, also on Thursday, that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki finally filled the last three jobs in his cabinet by naming ministers to handle the defense, interior and national security portfolios.

Tomorrow at Camp David, President Bush begins a series of meetings to discuss what the United States can do to help Maliki and his cabinet ministers gain control of their country. In a morning session, Mr. Bush meets with his top foreign advisors. In the afternoon the group will expand to include more cabinet members and some outside experts. And on Tuesday, Mr. Bush and his advisors are expected to hold a teleconference with Maliki and some of his key cabinet members.

Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a regular guest on our program. Welcome back, Mike.

Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution): Thanks, Liane.

HANSEN: And we'd like to welcome Ellen Laipson. She's President and CEO of the Henry L. Stimson Center. She served as director of Near-East and South Asian Affairs for the National Security Council under President Clinton and as a national intelligence officer for Near and South Asia under the first President Bush.

Ellen Laipson, it's a pleasure to meet you.

Ms. ELLEN LAIPSON (President and CEO, Henry L. Stimson Center): Glad to be here.

HANSEN: Ellen, I'd like to start with you, and by considering the question, what exactly can the United States do to help the new Iraq government gain control of the country?

Ms. LAIPSON: We're clearly very interested in empowering the Prime Minister to be seen as the one who is delivering now to the Iraqis on the security front. So this new Iraqi government has to now connect with delivering services and goods to the Iraqi people. So I think that part of what we're trying to do is give them the confidence and the expectation that this is now completely their sovereign decision, how they're going to manage the many, many decisions that have to be made on a daily basis about intervening in the security situation.

HANSEN: Mike, what would your priorities be for how the United States can help?

Mr. O'HANLON: Well, thank goodness, Liane, we finally had a good week, because it's been a bad year. And in that context we have to realize that the cards are increasingly stacked against mission success, despite this impressive accomplishment, or set of accomplishments of the last few days.

I think the good news, if there is good news, is that the Bush administration seems to realize now it's time to help the Iraqis with some big new policy initiatives. And Prime Minister al-Maliki feels the same way. In the last week he's talked about reining in these militias, and he's also talked about rehabilitating ex-Bathists, those who do not have blood on their hands, those that Iraq needs in order to have more professionals who are capable of running the ministries, running the courts, running the hospitals. A lot of these people were Bathists under Saddam, but they were not necessarily complicit in violent actions.

The constitution last fall that was passed by referendum said they should be allowed to rejoin public life and regain their jobs, but there hasn't been a process yet to expedite that. That's the kind of practical big question we have get focused on, because all this backroom negotiation about who's going to take this spot, however necessary, is really an, at the end of the day, not getting to the core problems of Iraq.

Ms. LAIPSON: And then, I think one of the things it's going to call, ask the United States to do is just stay silent when the Iraqis make some of these choices. Because in fact, some of the choices that Prime Minister Maliki may be in direct contradiction to advice we had given the Iraqis two years ago, three years ago, and now they have to sort this out themselves.

HANSEN: Mike, what do you think this is going to mean for American personnel in Iraq? The President, the administration, has said they want to bring more military personnel home, but can the war against the insurgency actually be waged with fewer Americans?

Mr. O'HANLON: Maybe with somewhat fewer, Liane, but I think we're going to have to recognize, we're going to being Iraq for quite some time. I think President Bush had it right when he said any decision about withdrawal is not going to be mine, it's going to be my successor's.

I think we're going to have a lot of withdrawal in the next two, three years, in terms of reductions, withdrawals of individuals, but not of the overall U.S. military presence. The main reason I would make this argument is that as unpopular as our presence is among all three major ethnic groups, and as much as we are not very well liked anymore, they dislike each other even more, in many cases, and we've seen a rapid increase in sectarian violence. We all remember the February 22nd Samarra mosque bombing.

But the recent DoD and broader government quarterly report on Iraq shows an average of about ten sectarian attacks a day in Iraq in the last three months. Ten a day, which comes on top of about 70 to 80 insurgent attacks per day. The insurgent attacks have been steady, more or less, at that number, plus or minus, for three years. But the sectarian attacks have never been of this magnitude. So we have an insipient civil war.

I don't think it is a civil war right now, because the political leadership is still trying to prevent that, and the scale of the sectarian strife, however much it's increased, is still somewhat under control, but there's the potential for all-out ethnic cleansing Bosnia style. And if we imagine ourselves pulling out, the Iraqi forces may be more proficient than they used to be, we're doing a pretty good job training and equipping them, but we're also getting them better trained and equipped for potential civil war if we're not careful. I think we have to therefore be essentially a controlling rod in this whole process. And it's going to mean five more years, seven more years of some level of international military presence.

Ms. LAIPSON: But Mike, I think it's important to make a few distinctions between the communities in terms of their attitudes towards us. I'm not sure it's quite as even as Mike has depicted. I think the Kurds are probably still consistently the most pro-American of the Iraqi communities, and I think the Kurds in particular and the Kurdish president understand the political desirability of us eventually leaving, but certainly don't want that to happen very soon.

The Shia are more ambivalent towards us, but as long as you have Shia majority rule, I think the Shia ministers also have the sense that the departure of America has to be managed carefully, because they're not quite ready to be flying solo. It's in the Sunni community that I think is the - certainly starts out the most negative. Now with the government in which Sunnis have several very important positions, where Sunnis did turn out to vote in December, we're hoping to see a slight shift in the political preferences of the Sunni population.

HANSEN: Is there a point, you think, where perhaps the solution is to actually get the Americans out as soon as possible, and leave Iraq to the Iraqis?

Ms. LEAPSON: I think that most people in the national security system, whether they're members of this administration or not, don't want us to leave precipitously and then see Iraq degrade into a situation of terrible, terrible insecurity, which would directly affect other American interests in the region beyond Iraq.

There is the choice of pulling back our forces to sort of large bases where we can go out and do strategic strikes or sorties against al-Qaida, not unlike the model we have in Afghanistan; we're in part of the train, we're just fighting al-Qaida and we've sort of separated ourselves from having a security role for day-to-day affairs in Afghanistan. That is an option. It is an option that a lot of professional military find troublesome because they know that the only way to really get the Iraqis to be fully responsible for their security is to actually be in very close contact with them, building relationships, doing a lot of training, and that sort of believing that we can medically seal ourselves into American garrisons on Iraqi soil is a way to perhaps reduce American casualties, but it's probably not the smartest way to transfer those security skills to the new Iraqi forces.

Mr. O'HANLON: I agree very much with Ellen, but I would just had a couple of points and maybe even blunter words. If we start talking about complete American withdraw, it's because we are near mission failure, or at least we're at such a desperate point that we're prepared to play Russian roulette and just gamble. The chances are that if we leave completely, the Iraqis will wind up in civil war, because most of their police and army units are all of one ethnic group or another, 90-plus percent composition.

They're loyalties are more to their individual ethnic groups at this point than to the state. At least there's a very high probability that what I just said is the case. We can't really know, but I think it would be a foolish gamble to try to find out. Because what we could see is Bosnia times five. Iraq is about five times Bosnia's size. Baghdad is about five times, plus or minus, Sarajevo's size, and 200,000 people were killed in Bosnia before the country was separated enough into more or less homogeneous ethnic groups that we could divide the country, essentially, through a peace accord, and defend the military ceasefire lines between these groups.

That would be the logical outcome in Iraq if you got civil war, because Baghdad is so heavily interspersed, one ethnic group or another, because oil is so valuable and people aren't going to want to concede the territory under which the oil is found.

HANSEN: Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Ellen Laipson is President and CEO of the Henry L. Stimson Center. Thank you both for coming in.

Mr. O'HANLEN: My pleasure.

Ms. LEAPSON: Glad to be here.

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