Strategizing a Pullback: Challenge in Iraq

Robert Siegel talks with American Enterprise Institute resident fellow Reuel Marc Gerecht and Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow in foreign policy studies at Brookings Institution. Gerecht and O'Hanlon talk about the leak to The New York Times of recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, scheduled to be released next week.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

We're going to hear from two people now who were experts sought out by the Iraq Study Group for their opinions. They are Reuel Marc Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute, who is actually living in Brussels and joins us from there. Welcome back to the program, Reuel Gerecht.

Mr. REUEL GERECHT (American Enterprise Institute): Thank you.

SIEGEL: And Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution here in Washington, D.C. Michael O'Hanlon, good to have you again.

Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Brookings Institution): Thank you.

SIEGEL: I'd like to hear both of your reactions first to what was in the New York Times today, that is, the notion that the Iraq Study Group is going to call for a gradual pullback of American combat brigades, not a firm timetable. Do you infer from that the outlines of a real policy or a compromise between the two parties as represented on the Iraq Study Group? Michael O'Hanlon, what do you think?

Mr. O'HANLON: Well to start with even though, of course, I haven't seen the report, I'm not that wowed by what I'm gathering so far. This strikes me as essentially least common denominator sort of thinking in the sense that we'd all like to get out of Iraq. The Bush administration itself has always had a plan to get out in six or 12 months or at least begin to reduce. That's always been the hope.

There's always been a Pentagon plan that would have that sort of a drawdown beginning six to 18 months from wherever we were at a given moment in time and even though the reasoning behind this group's report is slightly different and a little less of a stay the course sort of mentality than President Bush, the implications for our presence seem equally vague, always hoping that some time in the medium term future we can begin a drawdown.

It doesn't really amount to a whole lot of oomph, as far as I'm concerned, from what I've seen so far. But I want to add that caveat, that I haven't yet seen the report.

SIEGEL: Did you assume that the drawdown will be conditional upon improved Iraqi military and security force performance and therefore exactly the same situation that we're in right now, or is there a change there?

Mr. O'HANLON: Well, that's the sort of thing I'm most distressed by if these initial reports are accurate. I think that our policy should depend on what the Iraqis do. And of course, as you say, historically President Bush has been saying as the Iraqis can stand up we can stand down.

But there's also another twist that could be added at this late date which is if the Iraqis don't make some big political compromises, the idea of an indefinite American presence doesn't make much sense. So if the Iraqis want us to stay, they actually have to do better things and do more effective things in terms of government. It's in a way the flip side of the stand down argument on the military front.

And I think, in other words, we should try to create leverage. We should try to use American policy to create leverage and make the Iraqis make compromises across the Sunni/Shia/Kurdish divides that are going to be necessary if there's any hope of curtailing this civil war. And from what I can tell, the study group report is not trying to create that sort of conditionality and therefore I'm concerned about the overall tenor of its recommendation.

SIEGEL: Reuel Marc Gerecht, your reactions to the reported recommendations soon to come from the Iraq Study Group of a gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces, no deadline. What does it strike you as?

Mr. GERECHT: Well, I think in part I agree with Michael. It's not particularly overwhelming. I mean, we'll have to wait until the 6th to see the full report. But it certainly isn't suggesting anything terribly new, as Michael noted. I mean, the Bush administration, General Abizaid, since the summer of 2003 has certainly been hoping one could, you know, reduce forces. But the reality on the ground has not allowed that.

I mean, what wasn't suggested in the New York Times piece was the group coming together, at least approve of some type of surge in Baghdad, some attempt to get military control on this.

I would disagree with Michael. There is no political solution to this at the time being. There has to be a military solution first, and I thought perhaps there would be some qualified endorsement of a surge or even get that out of the military, but we didn't see that in the Times. We'll have to see if in fact there is some of that in the final report. But what we have now, I think could be qualified as a dud.

SIEGEL: Do you think that it's important to Secretary Baker or for that matter to former Democratic Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton, the leading Democrat in this group, to produce something that keeps them or at least Mr. Baker in the realm of practicality and real life consultation with the administration rather than to write something that's going to be rejected out of hand by the White House?

Mr. GERECHT: Well, sure. I think that was certainly a factor for both of those gentlemen, that they wanted something that could be usable. Of course, that's part of the problem. They're pinned by reality because I think you can't get away from one of two different options. One is that you actually, you know, try to win, and if you don't, that you actually start to begin the process of withdrawing.

They have chosen what appears to be some type of middle ground, which is what you would expect from a group, which is, to say the least, going to advance the status quo, I think.

SIEGEL: I'd like to hear from both of you. Assuming that we haven't seen it all leaked to the New York Times, that something's going to come out next week that we haven't read yet from the Iraq Study Group, what is it that you are most interested in seeing - assuming that what we've read today in the leaked report is correct - what is it that you are most eager to find out how this group has gone, one way or the other. Michael O'Hanlon, what is it?

Mr. O'HANLON: I think one thing I'd like to see is their diagnosis of where we stand today. I think it's pretty sober, and this is partly based on the limited amount of inside consultations I've been part of that I shouldn't be talking about publicly. But I think it's fair to say that everybody here is pretty clear on the fact that we're not doing well in Iraq.

I hope very much that they state that plainly in the report because, of course, every so often, President Bush or most notably Vice President Cheney can't resist saying the opposite. I think we have to begin with a sense of being in a dire situation. I also hope they create a sense that 2007 is a make or break year, and I hope very much that the report can send that message to President Bush as much as to Prime Minister al-Malaki and many Iraqis.

SEIGEL: That's Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, what is it, apart from what's in the leaked story to the New York Times today, that you are most anxious to see next week when the Iraq Study Group formally reports?

Mr. GERECHT: Well, I'd like to see two things. One is a serous critique of America's military strategy in Iraq. I don't think we've seen that yet. We haven't seen it from the Bush administration. I mean, General Abizaid, who's been in control since the summer of 2003, has consistently tried to do more with a, you could call it Rumsfeldian approach.

The other thing that would be interesting to see as these people are talking about withdrawal, are they seriously talking about the consequences of withdrawal? I mean, George Packer, I had some disagreements with him, I thought he had a very thoughtful piece in, recently, The New Republic, where he said listen, if you're going talk about withdrawal, then you need to talk seriously about getting out the tens of thousands of Iraqis who have become dependent upon us, who have helped us and who would surely die if the United States leaves that country.

Are we prepared to do all that is necessary to avoid a catastrophe in that country? And there's been no discussion of that on any quarter, I think. That one thinks that one can leave this country without really a maelstrom developing. It will be interesting to see whether the Iraq Study Group actually touches on these issues, because if, in fact, the thrust of this report is a gradual drawdown, then I think they need to maturely approach this and say all right, these are the possible horrific consequences that could occur.

SIEGEL: That's Reuel Marc Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute talking with us from Brussels. Reuel, and Michael O'Hanlon here in Washington, thanks to both of you.

Mr. O'HANLON: Thank you, Robert.

Mr. GERECHT: Pleasure.

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Details Emerge from Iraq Study Group Discussions

James Baker and Lee Hamilton, co-chairmen of the Iraq Study Group. i

James Baker (left) and Lee Hamilton, co-chairmen of the Iraq Study Group, during a September news conference. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
James Baker and Lee Hamilton, co-chairmen of the Iraq Study Group.

James Baker (left) and Lee Hamilton, co-chairmen of the Iraq Study Group, during a September news conference.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Details of the Iraq Study Group's upcoming report are beginning to show up in the media. They point to a compromise recommendation calling for a gradual drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq — with no specific timetable.

Escalating violence in Iraq and the midterm election results have helped to focus more attention on the group of five Democrats and five Republicans, charged with reviewing U.S. policy in Iraq.

The bipartisan panel was formed last April by four Washington think tanks and funded with $1 million from Congress.

Jackie Northam, NPR's national security correspondent, says the big questions the panel had to address were how and when U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Iraq.

Michael Vickers, a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, tells Northam that reducing combat troops would represent a fundamental shift in strategy.

"It would be a transition to an Iraqi-centric approach to security, with Americans in support rather than an American-centric approach in the primary combat role," Vickers says. "So the overall force may only be reduced by half, but the orientation of the force, more as advisors and trainers accompanying Iraqis on the front lines would be a major shift in orientation."

Northam says the Iraq Study Group will reportedly not specify where the U.S. combat forces would be shifted — whether back home, to a nearby country or elsewhere in Iraq. Pentagon officials have already starting planning to move several thousand more troops into Baghdad. Retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales says this is a smart move militarily.

"The main thing in this war is security inside the city limits of Baghdad," Scales says. "Whoever owns the security situation in Baghdad at the end of the day, is the one who is going to own the political situation there."

Scales says the Iraq Study Group also appears to be suggesting something he and others have recommended for years — moving the mission from a close combat operation to more of a support and training function.

"These types of insurgencies, religious and tribal in nature, tend to burn themselves out. The purpose of the American presence now is to lessen the bloodletting and to put Iraqi boots on the ground so they can pick up this mission," Scales says.

The co-chairmen of the Iraq Study Group are former Secretary of State James Baker III, a Republican, and former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democrat. Hamilton says the panel will release its final report on Dec. 6.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says both men understand the complexity of the situation in Iraq and are trying to tamp down expectations for the report.

"The political dynamics often inside the U.S. are to find some simple solution, some silver bullet," Cordesman says. "Choose that as an alternative to what you're doing now and somehow it's going to solve everything. Well, as Secretary Baker and Congressman Hamilton have said, there are no silver bullets. And this is the only message they've very clearly given to date."

President Bush has said he is willing to listen to any ideas for Iraq. In addition to the Iraq Study Group, he will soon be receiving reports from his own staff, the Pentagon and the National Security Agency.

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