What's Next In Iraq?

Following the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, and the recent completion of the Iraqi government, President Bush says America and its allies must stay the course in Iraq. But opinion polls say the American public is increasingly frustrated with the war and the mounting death toll.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Despite another bomb in Baghdad today, despite the apparent capture of two American soldiers, despite 2,500 American dead now and more than 18,000 injured, there appears to be a breathing space for U.S. policymakers. The death of al-Qaida's leader in Iraq, the completion of the Iraqi government, and President Bush's visit last week provide, at least, momentary respite, and maybe longer-term promise. Though by this point, there can be few illusions about corners being turned.

Last week, Congress took up critical debates on the way ahead in Iraq, which boiled down to three broad alternatives: stay the course, pull U.S. and allied forces out as soon as possible, or rethink strategy in Iraq. All these options present difficult choices. None is risk free. So, what's the best way ahead?

Our number, if you'd like to join the conversation, is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org. Later in the program, fathers and family courts on the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page this week. But first, the war - what's ahead in Iraq. We'll talk later in the program with military analyst William Arkin, and with Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations, who argues that the best bad choice is to abandon the idea of a centralized government and construct a federated Iraq.

We'll begin, though, with Judith Yaphe. She's a senior research fellow at the National Defense University. She's with us here in Studio 3A.

Nice to have you on the program again.

Dr. JUDITH YAPHE (Senior Research Fellow, National Defense University): Nice to be here again.

CONAN: SO, is this a moment where we can pause for a moment and see if this new Iraqi government can establish some credibility?

Dr. YAPHE: Well, pause from what? I think pause, you - probably the better word is just keep on going. Certainly, the Iraqis have shown a willingness, or even, I would say, a tenacity to stay the course in their terms. Each time they have been pushed, or been right up to the brink and about to be pushed over - the Samara bombings, for example, last winter.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Dr. YAPHE: When just when it looked as if everything was at it's worst, they have come together. Yeah, they had trouble making - putting a cabinet together. But they did it. They've had trouble doing several different political - there are a lot of tough choices and things to be done, but they are muddling through. And that's not a necessarily a bad thing.

What will be - what will tell is what happens in the next several weeks to several months, in terms of how effective are they. Do they establish some kinds of law and order? Can they curtail, not all - but let's be realistic - much of the violence in Baghdad and move out from there? There's a lot of, I think, work ahead for them to - things for them to accomplish.

CONAN: Staying the course, though, muddling through - these are hardly, you know, gripping goals with which to inspire people.

Dr. YAPHE: Well, that's true, but this - Iraq didn't get to be in the position it is overnight. Well, maybe it did if you want to look at the liberation. But it didn't. It's going to take a long time to resolve and work these things through.

Let me just give you a counter example. In a country - let's say the United States, where there's a very close election and each side is arguing. What would happen if there were to be - and we know there was -such an election? The parties fight for the upper hand. Nobody wants to give up control or power, or make concessions. You know, if we have difficulty resolving that in our open society, how difficult is this going to be in Iraq, where this is the first time they have had, really, the opportunity to self-rule, self-governance?

What's the model they would follow? The first model they're going to follow is how things were done before, in terms of how can I benefit, or how can my party, my group, my family? And that's what we're seeing now. Hopefully, we're going to get beyond that now that we have our first permanent government.

CONAN: Mm hmm. Yet there is, as people have noticed in election in this country coming up as well that plays a role in all this.

Dr. YAPHE: Yeah.

CONAN: The Bush administration, for a lot of reasons, would like to draw down U.S. forces. Thus far, has been reluctant to do so unless the security situation improves.

Dr. YAPHE: I - yes, they do want that. I personally don't find that to be a terribly realistic. Where we have withdrawn our presence in Iraq, we found that the so-called bad guys come back. It's having an effective presence on the streets, in the towns, throughout Iraq that makes this regime and makes our ability to try to control the violence effective. If we withdraw to what, to quarters?

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Dr. YAPHE: If we leave...

CONAN: You mean to bases, well-defended bases within Iraq.

Dr. YAPHE: That's part of it. You know, let's get the Americans out of...

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Dr. YAPHE: ...harm's way. It doesn't really make things safer in the long-term. And it will make Iraq a much more dangerous place than it is now.

CONAN: All right. Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join us, 800-989-TALK. Our email address is talk@npr.org.

And why don't we begin with Mike? And Mike's calling us from San Antonio in Texas.

MIKE (Caller): Am I on?

CONAN: Yes, you're on the air, Mike. Go ahead, please.

MIKE: Okay. Cutting and splitting is - would be an unhealthy option, but we need to re-bop the strategy. We blew it going in and blew it bad. And I think the big boys up in D.C. know that. They just don't - they're just like the FBI and the CIA. They playing too many ego games and turf Battles.

CONAN: Well, even the president has said in recent weeks, admitted that mistakes, serious mistakes were made. But, Mike, the way ahead.

MIKE: Got that right. Well, hey, what - and as far as taking those guys on. When you're going dealing with those as murderous S.O.B.'s as those people are, can be - it's a tough call, man, you know, when you've got citizens. We've got - we've - I don't know, man. We've done it - the United States has been guilty of getting - of doing citizens in the process in the past. So, it's a hard call. It's a nasty business.

CONAN: I think hard call and nasty business are two sentiments of Mike's that a lot of policymakers would agree with, Judith Yaphe.

Dr. YAPHE: Yeah, I think it's quite true. There are no easy answers here. And I know that it's not a popular thought, but if we don't contain what's in Iraq, in Iraq, then the spillover is already happening in other places. So that how much of this do you want to see, a perfect training ground? We got the Americans out of Iraq, now we're going to get them out of every place else.

It was the image that was left after the Marines' barracks bombing in Lebanon in 1983, where because 241 Marines were killed in that attack, President Reagan withdrew all the forces from Lebanon. That image still exists today. We got them, they're on the run.

CONAN: Mm hmm. All right.

MIKE: Let me...

CONAN: Mike appears to be having another conversation, so...

MIKE: Yeah - no. No. But another point. Another point. How long have we been in Korea? And there in the news, again, those - they're like they won't go away.

CONAN: Hmm. All right, Mike. Thanks very much for the call.

And obviously, we have been in Korea a very long time...

Dr. YAPHE: Yeah.

CONAN: ...since the war ended. But a policy where you're not taking casualties every day is a lot easier sustained.

Dr. YAPHE: Well, I think one of the things we have to consider is what's the long-term interest? Short-term, there's a very high cost that we're - a price that we're paying in Iraq. But for the long-term and what's in our strategic interest, I think what we have to come to realize is that it doesn't really matter which party is in power here.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Dr. YAPHE: That the - thinking about what's in the best interest nationwide, for our interest, to protect us is something which goes above, you know, the party call.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Dr. YAPHE: And I think that...

CONAN: Well, both sides seem to be trying to make partisan traction out of this.

Dr. YAPHE: Yeah, but a lot of the partisan traction has to do with you made mistakes in the past, therefore, we have to do the following. But you can't fight the future just based on the past mistakes.

CONAN: Well, some would argue if the same people made the same mistakes that maybe the same people - well, anyway.

Dr. YAPHE: Well...

CONAN: You could go back and forth.

Dr. YAPHE: Always good for a change.

CONAN: Yeah.

Dr. YAPHE: All I'm saying is that you've got to look - sometimes what's in the national interest is not always what fits the moment.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. Leo, Leo with us from Grand Rapids.

LEO (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

LEO: My question is that, you know, the Republicans say, you know, we'll stand down as the Iraqis stand up. And, you know, that's the big message for how long do we stay. But my problem is, you know, you know, casualties, injuries, deaths - all of that sort of thing - that continues to increase. Or, you know, at least generally, maybe not, you know, continuously through the month.

But, you know, how can the Iraqis stand up when we can't even stand up? It seems like, you know, there is no mission accomplished in Iraq. And it just doesn't seem fathomable to me that the Iraqis can defeat both, you know, the external terrorists and the internal insurgency.

CONAN: A lot of people saying this is just a quagmire on the way to getting U.S. forces caught in the middle of a sectarian war.

Dr. YAPHE: Well...

LEO: Yeah.

CONAN: Let's hear from Judith Yaphe.

Dr. YAPHE: That may be. I have another worry that I'll add to the pile you've already put on the table, and that is what happens as the Iraqis do take over? They've taken over the civilian government, but what happens as we draw down and we lose interest? What I worry about is that there will be a lot of things that come into play that we would not support.

For example, women are very afraid about what their future will be once the Americans are gone. They'll no longer be in government. They'll have a lot of the new - of the gains that they've made, and that they had under Saddam Hussein's regime, gone. Other groups are very worried, whether they're minorities. Ethnic cleansing is going on in areas. That could expand exponentially. And we won't be engaged. I worry about those things, too.

CONAN: Mm hmm. Leo, thanks very much for the call. And Judith Yaphe, thank you for coming in today. We appreciate you for your time. Judith Yaphe is a senior research fellow at the National Defense University. She was kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A.

We'll talk with a couple of other people who are experts on policy as they look ahead to the future, when we come back from a short break. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. You can also send us e-mail, talk@npr.org.

And later in the program, we're going to be turning to the TALK OF THE NATION opinion page, as we do every week. This week, we'll be talking with Stephen Perrine, who wrote a piece yesterday in the New York Times' News of the Week in Review section. He's the editor-in-chief of Best Life magazine who wrote about the difficulties that fathers can face as they go into adversarial positions in courts. Adversarial positions, he says, aren't good for mothers, either, or for the children involved in the disputes.

So later in the program, if you'd like to get involved in that conversation, our number, again, is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail, talk@npr.org. We'll be back after the break. I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking about Iraq and different ideas about the way ahead: pull out as soon as possible, stay the course, rethink the strategy completely - all choices that present risks.

Later in the program, we'll hear from William Arkin, senior military advisor to Human Rights Watch. And, of course, you're invited to join us: 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

And let's turn now to Leslie Gelb, president emeritus on the Council of Foreign Relations, who joins us from a studio at CFR in New York City. Nice to have you on the program again.

Dr. LESLIE GELB (President Emeritus, Council of Foreign Relations): Good to be here.

CONAN: And the Iraqis just succeeded many months after the election in finally cobbling together a complete administration. You've argued that that illustrates the difficulties involved in uniting three enormous groups in Iraq, and that maybe we should stop trying to unite them so much.

Dr. GELB: Well, I wouldn't stop trying to unite them.

CONAN: I put that forth. I regret that.

Dr. GELB: I would stop trying to unite them in a strong central government in Baghdad because I don't think that they share sufficient common interests to be ruled from just one place. And really what I'm suggesting is a federal system with a limited but effective government in Baghdad, but basically, three regions that would do most of their own legislating and administering. Now, you know, Neal, if I felt for a second that the present strategy, so-called staying the course...

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Dr. GELB: ...has been working, or that it would work, I would say let's go to it. But the situation under this stay the course strategy hasn't gotten better. It's gotten worse, including by Judith Yaphe's own testimony in the paper over the weekend.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Dr. GELB: She said the situation has deteriorated. We're on the brink, by the estimate of our own people in our own embassy in Baghdad. At the very time George Bush was there giving a positive assessment, the embassy was sending back a cable, which was printed in Sunday's Washington Post Outlook, which gave exactly the opposite view.

The situation is deteriorating there. This strategy isn't working. And it's a strategy built around trying to make a strong central government in Baghdad. We've had three governments of national unity. This is the third. None of them has really worked because there're just too many historical, political, and religious differences to overcome.

CONAN: Yet some people would say that there are - that the place is much to mixed to survive a rupture that, as Judith Yaphe said, and I'm sure you would agree, too, there is ethnic cleansing going on. People are separating themselves even now into Kurdish neighborhoods, Sunni neighborhoods, Shiite neighborhoods. But a place like Baghdad is just a very, very mixed place. Who would get Baghdad?

Dr. GELB: Well, Baghdad would have to be a federal city. And maybe the same for some other cities, we'd have to see. It's a mess. Look, it's a mess under the present stay the course policy. It would be a real mess if we just withdrew. What I'm suggesting is if we can strike a deal that the parties really find legitimate, and I think a decentralization plan might be found acceptable to all the parties. That's our best chance of seeing that ethnic cleansing doesn't continue and get worse in the cities. You know, you've had guests on there, particularly the Middle East experts...

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Dr. GELB: ...who, for the first two years of the war, were denying the ethnic cleansing. And they were denying that the country was breaking up. I don't know how well served we've been by our Middle East experts, staying the course and denying the realities of what's been happening there. I think we have to find a third way to try. Some are - as you put it very well at the beginning of the show - in-between staying the course, which means losing slowly and just getting out quickly, which I think would lead to terrible civil war and maybe regional conflict as well.

CONAN: But let me ask you, reversing on a major policy like the structure of the government in Baghdad at this point is certainly not going to be easy. And certainly, everybody's going to want to, as I think you probably would, too, to give the current government a chance.

Dr. GELB: There's no choice in that sense. Of course, we're going to give it a chance. And we want it to work. I want it to work very badly. But it's not as if we would be reversing everything. We'd just be reversing Bush's continuous efforts to try to do the impossible with a strong central government in Baghdad.

If you look at Iraq's existing constitution, they have provisions in that constitution for creating regional governments. They say in the constitution that a province may join with other provinces to form a regional government. The procedure is in there right now. And I think there is growing support within that country for that kind of solution, as we did in Bosnia.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Dr. GELB: I heard all the same arguments against what I'm proposing here in Iraq - decentralization federation - with regard to Bosnia. People said it's going to break up the country, there'll be terrible ethnic cleansing, the armies will kill each other even more.

In truth, we let the place evolve into three, in effect, three federations - each of which was allowed by the Dayton Accords to keep its own army. You have three armies in the Dayton Accords allowed. And now we've had 10 years of peace there. And last year, for the first time, those three armies became one again. It's a sign that they were able to trust each other once again. That isn't the situation in Iraq, and they're not going to disband their own militias because they think the other parties will kill them. That's the reality of it.

CONAN: Mm hmm. Let's get a caller on the line. This is Chuck, Chuck calling from San Francisco.

CHUCK (Caller): Thanks very much.

CONAN: Sure.

CHUCK: I'm wondering if we do as your guest suggests, divide - or if what your guest suggests is done, and Iraq is divided up into three largely independent entities in some sort of a federal system. Wouldn't that just leave the Sunnis with the same grievance they seem to have now, which is they don't have the oil, so they don't have any of the money? And that would just kind of perpetuate the source of the conflict that is causing so much of the problems now.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

CHUCK: I think the real answer lies in the political development to really - I mean, you say we've had three governments there, none of them worked. I don't think there has yet been a truly representative government and a truly functioning democratic system that would give the people there an alternative way of resolving their differences peacefully, as opposed to violently.

Dr. GELB: Well, you've got a very smart caller here. First of all, I wish I could agree that just giving it another try's going to make it work. The central government is non-functional. It really is. Most of those ministers don't even go to their ministries to work, because those ministries are outside the Green Zone. They don't go there. People in the ministries are all Saddamists, Baathist Party people, and they're afraid to make any kind of decision. And the level of corruption in the central government is absolutely overpowering and towering.

But the other point that your caller made is right on, that is there's got to be real economic incentive for the Sunnis in their central region. And in my proposal, what I suggest is amending the constitution to guarantee the Sunnis 20 percent of all revenues, present and future. Right now, they're not guaranteed anything, so their central region, life for the Sunnis in the center, totally un-viable economically. So by changing the constitution, we give them a future. They don't have that in the present constitution.

CHUCK: But isn't that kind of, in a way, just the - we had so much trouble establishing the constitution that we put off the hard - that very, very troublesome issue and that has led to a large - largely to the problems that we have now. So it seems that you're kind of trying to have it both ways. You're saying, well, we want to develop a system that will be acceptable to everybody politically, but I mean, that's what we've been trying to do. It just seems that we've done a really lousy job of it.

CONAN: I think he's saying and let's take another shot.

Dr. GELB: Yeah well, we're going to take another shot. And let's see what your caller feels like in another six months after the unworkable proves unworkable. But what I'm suggesting is yes, the United States use some of the muscle and influence that we used in preventing Jaffrey from becoming prime minister again, to amend the constitution to make an economically viable Sunni state to give them some incentive to do it.

Now, of course, the Shiites and Kurds don't want to share it. But if they don't share in the way I'm suggesting in a revised constitutional provision, then they're going to face endless war, and they're not going to get any economic advantage from all that oil, either. In fact, the oil prediction is still below pre-war levels.

CONAN: Chuck, I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there.

Chuck: Thanks a lot.

CONAN: We could - much more to say, but we're going to have to leave it.

Dr. GELB: Good point, good point.

CONAN: Les Gelb, thanks very much for being with us.

Dr. GELB: My pleasure.

CONAN: Les Gelb is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations joining us today from his studio at the CFR in New York City.

Military analyst William Arkin writes a national security blog for the Washington Post online. He's the author more recently of Code Names: Deciphering U.S. Military Plans, Programs and Operations in the 9/11 World. He's with us today from Sweet Spot Digital Studios in Vermont. And nice to have you back on the program, Bill.

Mr. WILLIAM ARKIN (Online blog writer, Washington Post): Thank you Neal.

CONAN: And let me ask you, do you see - there's a moment of respite now. Is there a possibility for this government in Baghdad to establish control, for the U.S. to keep the little bit of initiative that it's gathered?

Mr. ARKIN: Well, I don't know if we have initiative other than the fact that we were successful in finding and killing Zarqawi. I look at the U.S. forces right now and the U.S. military strategy at least and say that we're treading water while we're waiting for a sign. I'm not quite sure what that sign is, Neal. But you know, we're there, we're holding the line. We're praying and hoping that the Iraqi security forces and military are going to be more and more competent. The news out of Iraq today, for instance, was that the Iraqi central government is ready to take control of the Maysan province, one of 18 governorates in the south. And you know, literally, we are, we're holding our breath.

We're waiting for something to happen, because I think that beyond that, there isn't an American military strategy. And beyond that, the president of the United States has already announced in his own victory strategy document that was issued last September that as soon as the Iraqis are able to stand up, we are going to withdraw. And that is an implicit announcement that the United States intends to leave Iraq before it has completed destruction of the insurgency and the terrorists that we are supposedly fighting to the death.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. ARKIN: So we've already said we're willing to leave before we have defeated the insurgency and the terrorists, and I think because we've already made that statement, then that is U.S. national policy. We are literally just waiting for that hallowed event to come.

CONAN: Well, in the meantime, waiting and training Iraqi forces. Beginning to train more on the national security side as well as the military side - the police forces, if you will, of Iraq. The U.S. policy sort of assumes that time is on our side. Do you agree?

Mr. ARKIN: Well, I don't think it's on our side if you mean our meaning America's side. When I hear people talk about what American strategic interests in Iraq are, Neal, it makes me confused. I know what Iraqi interests are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARKIN: Peace, stability, some kind of government that works whether it's a central government or a regional government. But I'm not sure that American strategic interests are so much tied to those same things. To me, American strategic interests are, we hope that the situation doesn't get worse in Iraq by virtue of our presence and by virtue of fighting the war on terrorism, which is to say we hope that more people in the Arab and Islamic world don't hate us and take up arms against us. And second, our strategic interest is getting beyond the Iraq war so that we can build a consensus in the United States as to what the war on terrorism is all about.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. ARKIN: We've made it about Iraq, but in fact, the main protests against going to war in the first place was that it was a diversion from the war on terrorism. And now, five years after 9/11, we have to start asking ourselves again, what are our strategic interests in this region so that we can fight a war on terrorism with a national consensus. And we are so far from that now, Neal, that our strategic interests in Iraq is to put Iraq behind us and find a new national consensus.

CONAN: We're talking about the way ahead in Iraq. You've listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Brian(ph) on the line. Brian calling us from Winner in South Dakota.

BRIAN (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the line, Brian. Go ahead, please.

BRIAN: Okay, I'm sorry. But both of my comments were for previous guests. The first guest mentioned trying to contain what's in Iraq in Iraq before it spills over. You know, I just wanted to point out that a lot of what's in Iraq now came in to Iraq, you know, as a direct result of our, I guess, long stay. And then the second point, the one that I wanted to bring up most importantly, was that I feel that there's going to be a civil war no matter what. Because whatever we try to force on them - whether it's federate or regional or strong central government -that's for the Iraqi people to choose, and they're probably going to have to, you know, sort that out in their own way.

But maybe your current guest can comment on that, too, or you could. But thank you.

CONAN: My qualifications are somewhat limited, but let's ask Bill Arkin.

Mr. ARKIN: Well, I think that this question about how much influence we actually do have over what's going on in Iraq now is an interesting one. The president of the United States was just in Iraq. He was there, obviously, to go and visit a sovereign nation, to greet a new government, to convey to them our confidence in their new ministers of defense and the interior. And yet at the same time, the president of the United States visited a sovereign nation and just neglected to tell them that we were coming.

And so, it's not really a sovereign nation as long as the United States military is in charge. And I think that the one way in which we can light a fire underneath the Iraqi people to really determine what their own future is is by making it very clear to them that this is no longer our controlled country, and that in fact we intend to get out and that we intend to get out relatively soon.

CONAN: And what do you make, Bill Arkin, then of the Republican and conservative argument in a lot of cases saying, well, what happens then if al-Qaida in Iraq re-establishes a safe area in the Sunni triangle somewhere, and begins training camps again like there were in Afghanistan?

Mr. ARKIN: Well, I think that my proposal would be similar to John Murtha's proposal, the congressman from Pennsylvania. And that is that the United States has to obviously maintain a quick reaction, anti-terrorist force in country and in the region, and I don't see any reason why the Iraqis wouldn't want that themselves. They are fighting an external force, after all, and the United States has the experience and the ability to fight it as well. But we have 140,000 troops in Iraq right now, Neal, and those troops are mostly doing nothing but supporting the 140,000 troops that are in Iraq. They are feeding them, they are fueling them, they are fixing them, they are entertaining them. For every 10 soldiers that we have in Iraq, probably six of them are in supporting roles. So by paring down that force to the bare minimum in which they would be actual combat forces engaged in quick reaction missions against terrorists and there to help the national government in an emergency is very different than the kind of occupation force we have there today.

And so, there is a middle ground here. It's not 140,000 or zero. It's something in the middle, and I think it's at the lower end in which you could actually say then, therefore, that the Americans no longer occupy this foreign country and that is what is going to make a difference.

CONAN: Bill Arkin, thanks very much for your time.

Mr. ARKIN: Thank you.

CONAN: William Arkin writes a national security blog for the Washington Post online, and he's the author of Code Names: Deciphering U.S. Military Plans, Programs, and Operations in the 9/11 World.

When we come back from a short break, the Opinion Page: Fathers and Family Courts. This is NPR News.

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