NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
The news from Iraq continues to be grim: 12 Americans dead since Friday and many more Iraqis. This week tensions flared between Iraqi police and British forces in the southern city of Basra, allegations of corruption in the transitional government, and just a week ago, 11 suicide bombers killed more than 150 people in a single day. It's important to remember that there's little or no violence in much of the country and that there will be a vote next month on Iraq's constitution, but the insurgency is as stubborn as ever, and there are worrisome signs that tensions among Iraq's ethnic and religious factions could build toward civil war.
This Saturday thousands of people will march here in Washington to protest the war, and opinions show that public support continues to dwindle. The debate, once framed in black and white, for or against, has entered a grayer zone. Today we'll talk with Professor John Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago--he opposed the war, but having started it, he argues the US has no choice but to proceed; with writer Helena Cobban, who argues that it's time to set a date to withdraw; and with William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard and one of the intellectual architects of the war, who says that the intervention still promises to transform Iraq and the Middle East.
Later in the program, we'll check in with the mayor of Corpus Christi, Texas, one of many cities and towns on the Gulf Coast getting ready for Hurricane Rita.
But first, the continuing debate: Where do we go from here in Iraq? If you have questions about the risks or benefits of any of these options, give us a call. Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. And the e-mail address is email@example.com.
And we begin in Baghdad. Our first guest is Bassam Sebti, a correspondent for The Washington Post. He joins us by phone from his home in Baghdad.
And it's very good of you to stay up to speak with us this evening.
Mr. BASSAM SEBTI (The Washington Post): Hello.
CONAN: As I mentioned, there has been difficulty, tensions in the southern city of Basra. What happened today? As I understand it, there was a demonstration.
Mr. SEBTI: Hi, first. Secondly, what is going on in Basra right now is that hundreds of residents and policemen in Basra demonstrated to condemn British forces for raiding a jail and freeing two of their security officials who were arrested two days earlier.
CONAN: Those officials had been arrested--those British officers had been arrested. They were in plain clothes trying to gather intelligence at the time, taken to an Iraqi prison but then moved when it looked like the British were going to intervene, handed over to militia and moved to a private house.
Mr. SEBTI: According to the Iraqi officials and the witnesses in the southern city of Basra, these two British were not delivered to any militia or any other armed group.
CONAN: Yes, but we've also had other officials say this just goes to show how many members of the militias are also members of the Iraqi police force.
Mr. SEBTI: That's true. That's what is being said as well in the southern city. Because of the nature, I think, of the city, you know, it's Shias--the majority are Shias there, and most of these Shias, their loyalty is to their sect.
CONAN: Is there other important news in Iraq today?
Mr. SEBTI: Yeah. Specifically in Baghdad, today the Iraqi security forces raided a house, in the heart of the Iraqi capital, and they freed a hostage in a big assault, killing five alleged armed insurgents who had used the residence as a hideout.
CONAN: I wonder--we're going to be talking for the bulk of this hour about the debate here in America over whether American forces should stay or go in Iraq. What do Iraqis tell you?
Mr. SEBTI: Iraqis in general, they don't want the US troops to leave, because they know the nature of this country. There are many sects, religions in the country, and they're afraid if the US troops leave immediately, there would be a big civil war.
CONAN: At the same time, do they think that Iraqi government forces and American force and, of course, the British in the south, do they think that they are gaining any ground against the insurgency?
Mr. SEBTI: In fact, no. The people in general--I've talked to many of them, and many people said that they feel that they lost their confidence in the--whether the American troops or Iraqi troops or we can say the coalition forces in general.
CONAN: Bassam Sebti, thanks very much for staying up to speak with us. We know it's quite late there.
Mr. SEBTI: Oh, you're welcome. Any time. Thank you.
CONAN: Bassam Sebti, correspondent for The Washington Post, and he joined us by phone from his home in Baghdad.
As I mentioned, for the rest of this hour, we're going to be talking about various ideas about where to proceed from here in Iraq. If you'd like to join us, our phone number (800) 989-8255, and our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
We begin with John Mearsheimer, political science professor at the University of Chicago, the author of "The Tragedy of Great Power Politics." He joins us from the studio there at the university.
And it's nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION, Professor.
Professor JOHN MEARSHEIMER (University of Chicago): It's nice to be here, Neal.
CONAN: You opposed the war from the start, once the United States and British forces went in, and, well, it's been two and a half years since. What do you think the way ahead is?
Prof. MEARSHEIMER: Well, I think that the United States has to get out, and I think it's quite clear that the sooner we get out, the better. But I think it would be foolish, largely for moral reasons, for the United States to leave immediately. I think that a large-scale civil war would break out where hundreds of thousands of Iraqis would probably die. I think what the United States should do is set a date somewhere, say in early 2007, and aim to get out by then and in the meantime do everything possible to ameliorate the problems that are driving the insurgency and to minimize the prospects of a civil war once we leave.
CONAN: Why 2007?
Prof. MEARSHEIMER: Well, I think that's a reasonable date. We're coming up on 2006. It's going to take us about a year to straighten things out as much as we can. And I think, you know, the beginning of 2007--let's say January 1st, 2007--would be an appropriate date. I'm not arguing here that we can fix the problems to the point where we can avoid a civil war, but I think we have a moral responsibility at this point in time to do what we can in that interregnum to minimize the prospects of such a conflict.
CONAN: In between those--between now and 2007, of course, Iraq is scheduled to have a series of elections to first ratify the constitution or reject it and then, if they do accept it, to go on and elect a new parliament.
Prof. MEARSHEIMER: I don't think that matters very much at all. I think that if the Americans leave, two good things happen. One is that the insurgency, I think, will lose some of its fire, because the Americans obviously are a principal source of dissatisfaction--not the only source, but a principal source of dissatisfaction among the insurgents. The second thing is, it will give the Iraqis some incentive to try and put Humpty Dumpty together so that they can avoid a civil war. They're the ones who are going to feel the horror that would be associated with a massive civil war. So there will be incentives, once it's clear we're leaving, to try and make things work. Again, I'm not saying that would happen.
CONAN: And there are those who argue that once you set a date for withdrawal, well, first of all, the forces of opposition, the insurgents, claim an enormous victory and gain political credibility.
Prof. MEARSHEIMER: There is that danger for sure, but the point here, Neal, is that we have no good choices. We're in a world where we're choosing among a lot of really bad alternatives, and I think that setting an exit date in the foreseeable future is the best of a lousy lot of options.
CONAN: Let's bring some listeners into the conversation. Again, the phone number is (800) 989-8255. The e-mail address: email@example.com. Let's talk with Kathy. Kathy's calling from Belpre, Ohio.
KATHY (Caller): Yeah. Hi. Thanks for taking my call. But you know, prior to the invasion, by listening to BBC and NPR every day, and reading as much as I could about the situation about the possible invasion, I heard expert after expert say, `Don't do it, don't do it, don't do it, that we'll end up in a quagmire,' just where we find ourselves. But now I'm a mother of three, and now I'm deeply concerned about the way we withdraw and how many Iraqi people may die, and our media doesn't cover very well--somehow we can't come up with the numbers of how many Iraqis have died. So I'm deeply concerned about that, but I'm also concerned about, will this--if we stay, will this be used as an excuse to invade further? Some in the Bush administration want to go further into Syria and Iran. So it's so complex, and we're all out here trying to understand it.
CONAN: Hmm. John Mearsheimer, the prospects of further invasions of either Syria or Iran seem a very distant prospect at the moment.
Prof. MEARSHEIMER: Yeah, I think it's hardly likely that the United States is going to invade another country in the Arab and Islamic world anytime soon. I think the only possible use of military force that the Bush administration might contemplate in its remaining years in office is a drive-by shooting against Iran, and I think that, too, is highly unlikely.
CONAN: But by that you mean...
Prof. MEARSHEIMER: The fact is...
CONAN: ...some sort of bombing raid to hit their nuclear weapons program?
Prof. MEARSHEIMER: Yes. It would be using air power...
Prof. MEARSHEIMER: ...precision-guided munitions to hit their nuclear weapons program, or their nuclear program.
KATHY: But what of...
Prof. MEARSHEIMER: But we're not going to invade.
KATHY: ...Iraqi lives?
CONAN: I'm sorry Kathy. We couldn't hear you.
KATHY: Iraqi lives. How come we can't ever get a number on how many people have been injured and killed in Iraq?
Prof. MEARSHEIMER: Well, I think there are a number of reasons for that. First of all, it's very difficult for reporters and virtually all Westerners to get out into the countryside and see exactly what's happening. We don't really have good eyes or ears here. The second thing is, even the Iraqis themselves don't have a good sense of what's going on because the place is like the wild West and people are getting killed and we don't even know that they're being killed. So there's really no way to get a good handle on just what the casualty figures look like among Iraqis.
CONAN: Kathy, thanks very much...
CONAN: Oh, I'm sorry?
KATHY: Neal, I'm hoping that NPR--we know that the media prior to the invasion--you know, there were millions of people, middle-class Americans out on the streets prior to the invasion. I hope the media covers it and shows accurately what's going on out on the street. Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call.
KATHY: Thank you.
CONAN: And we're going to take a short break. If you'd like to join our conversation, our number is (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. You can also send e-mail to us, firstname.lastname@example.org. We're talking today--we're hearing today three views on the way ahead in Iraq. Right now our guest is Professor John Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago. Later we'll be hearing from Helena Cobban and from William Kristol.
I'm Neal Conan. Back after the break, 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.
With yet another bloody week in Iraq, the conversation in the United States is turning to how long American troops should stay in that country. Our Gallup Poll published on Monday found that 66 percent of respondents favored the immediate withdrawal of some or all of the US troops in Iraq. That's a 10 percentage point jump in just the past week. We want to hear from you. What responsibilities does the United States have in Iraq now? What are your questions about where we go from here? You're invited to join us at (800) 989-8255 or give us an e-mail: email@example.com.
Right now we're talking with John Mearsheimer, political science professor at the University of Chicago. And let's get another caller on the line, and this is Jim. Jim calling from Kent, Ohio.
JIM (Caller): Yes. I'm one of the 66 percent that believe we should get out immediately, and I don't think that the civil war or the potential for civil war should be any factor in our decision in leaving Iraq. We should not have gone in there in the first place, just like Vietnam, and we're going to have to get out sooner or later, just like in Vietnam, and I think that it's better to get out sooner rather than later. Now as far as the rationale of civil war stopping us from getting out, we need to remember that we had a civil war in our own country as a very defining moment for us, and it made Abraham Lincoln, so to speak. So let them have their civil war. Let them--let al-Zarqawi or whoever emerge as a new leader and take over from there. We have no business being there.
CONAN: John Mearsheimer, you talked about the moral responsibility.
Prof. MEARSHEIMER: Yeah. Two quick points in response to Jim. First of all, I agree completely that the United States should not have gone in there in the first place, and we have definitely created this mess. With regard to your argument that we should get out immediately, I would say to you, what if there are two alternatives? One is where we get out immediately and there's a massive civil war and 250,000 Iraqis die. That's one alternative. And the other is where we stay for another year, let's say till January 1st, 2007, and we leave, and there's only very small--a very small civil war breaks out, and let's say 5,000 died. Would you still argue, if those are the two options, that we should get out immediately?
JIM: Yes, I would, because for one thing, the 250,000 is a small number. That's less than half of what we lost in our Civil War. And the Iraqis weren't over here telling us what to do. They didn't decide when to leave and when to come, so to speak, you know, 100 years ago. So what--we have no business being--it was a war crime to go in there in the first place. George Bush just went in there to plunder the oil.
Prof. MEARSHEIMER: But the poi...
JIM: And Halliburton is making money hand over fist. They profit from war. I mean, this is a war crime from A to Z. So to me, the sooner we end this war crime that we're perpetrating against the Middle East, the better.
CONAN: Well, there's another point to Jim's conversation, John Mearsheimer. He says, `Well, if Mr. Zarqawi emerges triumphant, so be it.' Well, that would be an al-Qaeda state in the Middle East.
Prof. MEARSHEIMER: That's...
JIM: Well, hey, when we emerge our Revolutionary War against Britain--I mean, they thought we were terrorists back then. I mean, George Washington to the Brits back then, King George, he was al-Zarqawi. And he was totally opposed to everything they stood for and a war criminal and a terrorist and all that. Hey, you know, but that's the way the world is.
CONAN: Well, that's an individualistic view of the situation after the American Revolution.
JIM: He's fighting for his country. I've got no problem with the guy. We're over there invading him. If he was over here invading us, yeah, I'd put on a suicide belt. I'd go bomb--I'd kill as many of them as I could off the street. ...(Unintelligible)
CONAN: Well, Mr. Zarqawi is not from Iraq anyway. John Mearsheimer, I just wanted to get your reaction to that.
Prof. MEARSHEIMER: Well, I think your point, Neal, that it is possible that Zarqawi could win, so to speak, and then you'd have an al-Qaeda state, is a real concern. You can also posit a scenario where a radical Shia state emerges in the wake of our exit and causes as much headache as a state that's dominated by radical Sunnis. So there's all sorts of ways this one can play itself out that are certainly not to our advantage.
CONAN: You could see the Kurds try to establish an independent state and then--well, who knows what would happen with Syria, Iran and Turkey concerned about their Kurdishmen armies.
Prof. MEARSHEIMER: Yes. I mean, we focused on the internal consequences up to this point, but now you're bringing in the external consequences, and that's correct. You could posit plausible, not necessarily likely scenarios where you end up with an international war focused on Iraq.
CONAN: With Katrina now convincing many Americans that it is time to spend resources in this country as opposed to Iraq--again, that may change over time, but that's what people are telling opinion pollsters now--how long, if these trends continue, can a democracy support a war without the support of the American people?
Prof. MEARSHEIMER: I don't know. It's very hard to say. And there's also the fact that the American Army, especially the Reserve component and the National Guard component, are suffering greatly from all the commitments overseas, and it's not clear how much longer the Army can take this. I mean, we have large numbers of troops who are either going back or are back for a second tour. There are even troops who are back for a third tour. And if this goes on and on, you're going to be talking about rotating the same people in three, four or five times. Very hard to see how you do that. Very hard to see how you can recruit to maintain the present size and certainly the present quality of the US Army. So the Army itself is a huge question mark. And then when you throw in public opinion, it seems to me it's going to be very difficult to sustain this commitment over more than two or three more years.
CONAN: John Mearsheimer, thanks very much. Appreciate it.
Prof. MEARSHEIMER: My pleasure.
CONAN: John Mearsheimer is a political science professor at the University of Chicago. He joined us from a studio there on campus.
Helena Cobban joins us now. She's a columnist for The Christian Science Monitor, and joins us by phone from London.
Good to have you on the program.
Ms. HELENA COBBAN (The Christian Science Monitor): Hi, Neal.
CONAN: We've just heard from John Mearsheimer, who opposes the war but advocates staying the course at least for another year, setting a date for withdrawal perhaps in early 2007. You are for more immediate withdrawal.
Ms. COBBAN: Yeah. You know, I'm not sure what `staying the course' means apart from, you know, sounding like sort of resolute rhetoric, but we've stayed the course--our government has stayed the course in Iraq for, you know, two and a half years now without any notable success whatsoever, you know, from the day that it toppled Saddam Hussein. Unfortunately, you know, the whole project to help the Iraqis build a democracy on their own account there has failed miserably. The constitution business is, you know, just sort of in a bad shape right now, and they...
CONAN: Excuse me. You say it's failed before Iraqis even vote on the constitution?
Ms. COBBAN: Well, you know, they voted last January and, you know, they hoped to get some sovereignty then. Unfortunately, they didn't get any sovereignty then. The Sunnis stayed out at that point. Now this time the Sunnis are organizing to go into the vote and to vote against it, so we'll see October 15th. You know, three provinces can actually upend the whole project, and it's quite probable that they'll get that.
But more than that, you know, a constitution is just a piece of paper, but unless you have a state apparatus that is actually capable of implementing it, it just remains a piece of paper. You know, it's like having the most wonderful constitution in the world and no state that can, you know, for example, save people trapped in New Orleans. I mean, you actually have to be able to deliver services and to have a basic level of political entente inside the society, and that's what they don't have yet.
CONAN: Could not a democratic process, this election on the constitution, a parliamentary election--could not that create real change?
Ms. COBBAN: It could, but not with the American forces there. You know, it's a very strange thing to think of an invading force actually ending up being the midwife to democracy. It's not, you know, how it's worked apart from in the case of Germany and Japan, when you had two societies that were absolutely shattered by, you know, many years of warfare. And so the Americans went back in and were building them up and really devoted a lot of--you know, both manpower, investment, time, attention to building up the societies in terms of, you know, just delivery of local services, provision of public security, all the stuff that they could have done in Iraq after the invasion back in March 2003, but they didn't have the people there to do it. And, you know, it's evident now, as it was evident then, that you don't have enough people for a stabilization operation.
And so, you know, unfortunately, you've had this development of a terrible dynamic where internal tensions and suspicions inside the country have been magnified. And there are some interesting wrinkles right now in that--the kind of the Shiite-Sunni opposition that we had been seeing developing over recent months now looks as though there might be a new Sunni-Shiite coalition emerging. And to me, that's exciting. You know, that's really the basis, if they can have the Sunnis and the Shiites and hopefully also the Kurds all working together, then they don't need the United States. And, in fact, this Sunni-Shiite coalition that's emerging is opposed to the United States; that's the thing that brings them together.
So, you know, maybe that'll be the way that it goes, and it's the way that it goes--you know, I grew up in England. I'm back here visiting very briefly, but in all sort of anti-colonial wars, that's kind of how it's worked. Finally, people on the ground in the countries concerned got together and either decided that they were altogether going to get rid of the colonizing outside power--you know, like in Kenya or all those countries in Africa or Asia...
Ms. COBBAN: ...or they decided to do so separately, as in Pakistan and India.
And that was a very painful separation between Pakistan and India, but at least both of them succeeded in throwing off the yoke of the foreigner.
CONAN: Let's get some listeners back on the line. This is Tracy, and Tracy's calling us from Cincinnati, Ohio.
TRACY (Caller): Yes.
CONAN: Hi. Go ahead.
TRACY: I believe we should stay until the job's done, no matter how long it takes.
TRACY: Why? There's much too much instability in the Middle East. Until the more radical factions of the Muslim faith are contained by the Muslim people, there's absolutely no way that we should allow this to be brought into the United States or further brought to Great Britain or Canada. And I think George Bush had it right. No matter what it took to get in there, we're there now. We need to go ahead and stabilize the area. We need to go ahead and firm up the borders of Iraq. To the extent that if it causes Iran and Syria some pain, then so be it.
CONAN: Helena Cobban, whether or not there was any relationship between al-Qaeda and Iraq before the war, there certainly is now. And there is every prospect that if...
TRACY: I think it's nonsense to think that in such a small area of land mass, and considering the...
CONAN: Excuse me, Tracy, I was talk--excuse me, Tracy, I was talking to Helena Cobban. And I did mean to ask you that, just following on Tracy's point, there's every prospect that an immediate American withdrawal--and, of course, British withdrawal, as well--would mean that at least a terrorist foothold there in Anbar province.
Ms. COBBAN: Well, I very much doubt it actually. Some of the most recent news out of Iraq is that, you know, Zarqawi a few days ago was calling for an all-out war of the Sunnis in Iraq against the Shias.
Ms. COBBAN: And at that point, the Sunnis actually--many of the Sunni Iraqi insurgent organizations dissociated themselves from Zarqawi and cut him off and said, `It's time you left the country,' because--you know, being Iraqis, they don't want to get into this business of targeting Shia civilians, which is what Zarqawi, who is from outside, as you pointed out, and his foreign jihadis--that's what they've been doing. And it's been--you know, it's been really, really painful and bloody for the Iraqi Shias. They've lost something like a thousand people, civilians, you know, just in the past few months through these big kind of car bombs, which often target religious festivals--I mean, definitely things that are targeted at civilian gatherings. And finally, the Iraqi Sunnis are saying, `No, that is not the way we want to go.' And, I think--to me, that's very hopeful.
CONAN: We're listening to three views on the way ahead in Iraq and, of course, hearing yours.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get another caller on the line. And this is Avery, Avery calling from Boulder, Colorado.
AVERY (Caller): Hi. I agree completely with Ms. Cobban characterizing this invasion as colonial, and I'd like to put it into a slightly different perspective. Back in the late '60s when the USSR sent tanks into Prague to crush the Velvet Revolution, I was a student in Vienna and I remember vividly the Austrian demonstrators likening the Soviet occupation to American troops in Vietnam.
AVERY: Now I see the parallels here. We need to admit the invasion was a possibly well-intentioned mistake and withdraw from Iraq just as we did from Vietnam. We need to finish--we need to refocus our military resources and finish our support of the legal confrontation with terrorists in Afghanistan, where we'd actually been asked to help.
CONAN: I think you're actually talking about the Prague Spring. The Velvet Revolution was 20 years later, and it succeeded.
AVERY: OK. I wrote down Prague Spring, but then the gal who answered the phone didn't know what it was...
AVERY: ...so I thought it...
AVERY: She said I needed to explain to people what I was talking about, and I said, `You guys will know what I'm talking about more than I do.'
CONAN: There you go.
AVERY: Anyway, I...
Ms. COBBAN: No. Such good points, Avery. I think you're quite right. You know, the echoes of Vietnam are definitely, you know, getting more and more every day that you look at what's happening in Iraq. Here in Britain, where I'm just visiting, you know, there are echoes from the anti-colonial war in Aden. So, you know, armies can't solve problems without smart politics, and so all these people who are saying, you know, `Well, we just need to send in a few more troops or have them do it right,' just like, you know, General William Westmoreland in Vietnam, you know, that a little bit more military power can solve the problem. It can't, you know, unless you've got a solid politics, and there is not a solid politics, because the basis of us being there, of the American troop presence there, was flawed and salacious, as we know. There were no WMDs.
Ms. COBBAN: And, you know, from that moment on, the occupation has had problems. You know, I was against the war when it happened, before it happened. Once it had happened, I thought, `Well, OK, you know, today is a new day. We've got to hope for the best, hope it can be like Germany or Japan,' but it wasn't from the get-go. From the get-go, you know, you had all kinds of rip-offs and Halliburton and no serious attention to the well-being of the Iraqi people, such as happened in Germany and Japan, you know, where there was--like, my father was involved in that. Many older Americans were involved in that. And hundreds of thousands of them were providing basic services, providing public security, helping the Germans and Japanese get back on their feet. That didn't happen because Donald Rumsfeld had this theory of a war--you know, that it's sort of small and light, a lean, mean fighting machine, and you go in and you topple a government and then I don't now what happens.
You know, here in Britain--and, you know, I was recently at a gathering of strategic studies people. They call it Phase Four, and Phase Four is what happens after a war, you know. The Phase Four in terms of Iraq was never, you know, adequately thought through or invested in or planned enough. The State Department had some plans, but they were all--you know, the Defense Department just tossed them all in the trash can, unfortunately. So, you know, here we are 30 months later and maybe--who knows how many scores of thousands of Iraqis have died, and, you know, 1,900 US military people and a hundred British military people. The numbers are going to rise, and I am just hoping that there is not, you know, some kind of a cataclysm, as there could well be, you know, a big kind of confrontation in a barracks or on a street or in a, you know, choke point in--a logistic choke point like the Baghdad airport...
Ms. COBBAN: ...where you could see hundreds of people killed, unless...
CONAN: And I'm afraid--I'm...
Ms. COBBAN: ...there is an exit strategy.
CONAN: Thank you very much, Avery, for the phone call. And, Helena Cobban, thank you so much for your time today.
Ms. COBBAN: OK.
CONAN: Helena Cobban is a columnist for The Christian Science Monitor.
When we come back from the break, William Kristol.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
And here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News. Hurricane Rita is headed toward the Gulf Coast. That means New Orleans is once again under evacuation notice. The mayor says 500 buses are ready to carry people away from the city.
And there are fears in Thailand that a militant Islamic insurgency is gaining ground. This could cause problems not only for the country's tourist industry, but for the stability of the entire region. You can hear details on those stories and, of course, much more later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.
Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, an in-studio audience joins us for a special conversation on the issues of race and class brought up by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. What lessons can this country learn from them? If you'll be in the Washington area tomorrow and would like to take part in the broadcast, send us an e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org. Put `audience' in the subject line, and make sure to include a way that we can get in touch with you. That's a special panel on the lessons of Katrina tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.
Today, we are talking about the way ahead in Iraq. We've heard two views already--John Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago, writer Helena Cobban. Joining us now is William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard. He joins us from his office here in Washington, DC.
And The Weekly Standard just marked it 10th anniversary, William Kristol. The survival of any magazine for 10 years is something to celebrate. Congratulations.
Mr. WILLIAM KRISTOL (Editor, The Weekly Standard): Thank you very much. I appreciate it.
CONAN: You were one of those early on who advocated this war and the goals it might achieve. And I wonder, given the disappointments of the past two and a half years in Iraq, if your views have changed.
Mr. KRISTOL: Not really. I mean, I think it was necessary because I think if you think about a Saddam Hussein still in power in Iraq, with presumably sanctions coming off, we couldn't have kept troops there obviously, 125,000 troops in the neighborhood to force inspectors in, so they would have been out. If one thinks about what the Middle East looks like then, I don't think it was tenable.
The irony of Iraq has been that it's been harder than many of us had hoped or expected in Iraq itself. The terrorists have more of a base in the Sunni areas than I would have thought. I mean, I would have thought they would have been happy to have been liberated from this horrible dictator and willing to give sort of pluralistic democracy a chance. I still think they will, but obviously, there--we have a though insurgency to deal with.
I would say in the broader Middle East, on the other hand, the hopes of people like me have been pretty--are pretty close--you know, things are pretty close to where I would have hoped they would have been in terms of liberalizing and democratizing forces in the Middle East, in the Arab world, progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, Syria out of Lebanon, etc. And the fears of the critics--the Arab street would explode, pro-American governments would be toppled, huge radicalization throughout the Islamic world--that really hasn't happened. So I was--the irony is Iraq's been tougher than we thought, but the broader Middle East is better than I would have expected.
CONAN: You say no great radicalization. There seem to be an inexhaustible supplies of jihadists ready to go and blow themselves up, murdering hundreds at a time in Iraq.
Mr. KRISTOL: No, I don't think it's inexhaustible. There was a large supply of jihadists willing to kill Americans and others, obviously, prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. You know, it's an interesting empirical question of whether there were more or less. I still think they recruit more when they think they're winning, and to the degree they've been able to recruit in the last few months is probably because they think they might win in Iraq. And the moment it becomes clear they can't, I suspect that supply won't be inexhaustible. We still need to make progress in a million ways in the Middle East, but I am not--I think, in general, that things are hopeful. If you look at Egypt, if you look at the places that produced so many of the suicide--of the 9/11 attackers, for example, there's possible--finally, it's a possibility of real liberalization and progress there.
CONAN: Let's get listeners involved in the conversation, as they have been all hour. And we'll turn to Jim, and Jim's calling from Millis, Massachusetts.
JIM (Caller): Yes, hi. I served two tours in Iraq. I'm a Reservist. I was over there for 12 months in the Kurdish region and then for another seven months serving with the group that was training up the Iraqi military and police forces. And one of the things that struck me constantly over there is the gratitude that the Iraqi people--and people have to be careful about who we're talking about when we talk about the Iraqi people. This is not the former Baathists who are still trying to win back their positions, and it's not the jihadists. But the Iraqi people, the true people, are very, very grateful to us for what we've done.
Another point is that we, I think, made a big mistake when we disbanded the Iraqi military. By and large, the bulk of the Iraqi military were conscripts willing to basically do what they were asked to do and not particularly loyal to Saddam. And we could have used them to maintain order and security in the country. Instead, we disbanded all of them and we've had to go back and rebuild that whole organization from scratch. And that's one of the things that--that's one of the reasons we have to stay in there, is to complete that job of rebuilding that military so they really can maintain the security for the true Iraqi people.
CONAN: William Kristol, in retrospect, the disbanding of the Iraqi army--many people say it doesn't seem like a very good idea.
Mr. KRISTOL: Could be the defenders will say, `Look, it had already disintegrated in a sense, and that we had to reconstitute it in any case, and we weren't going to reconstitute it with Sunni officers, Baathist officers and, therefore, in a way, why not start over?' But I'm open to that criticism. I think generally speaking, the occupation was mishandled, especially at first, and I would say especially in allowing the looting and disorder to take off right after we toppled Saddam. That's the moment you've got to establish order. You've got to reassure people. You've got to make clear that--to people who want to cause trouble, that it's not going to be tolerated. It's not going to be a winning strategy to be in the opposition, so to speak, that everyone's got to play by the new rules of the democratic game. And the failure to have enough troops, the failure to use those troops to suppress the disorder at the beginning, I'm afraid, allowed the terrorists and the insurgents and the old Baathists and even the jihadists to get some oxygen.
So that's--you know, I've been a critic and I--of much that was done there in terms of execution. But I think the caller's point about the gratitude--I mean, it's quite moving to hear for me and I think for many Americans and nice to hear, and I do think it's true. I mean, let's not forget, it was only January 30th that--What?--eight and half million Iraqis took their lives in their hands to vote. We'll see what happens on October 15th, but it looks like there'll be a big turnout then, too. So these car bombs are terrible, but the truth is, you know, 20 people can go set off car bombs and, you know, hundreds of people can be killed, but that does not mean that millions of Iraqis, including Sunnis, are against working to create a pretty reasonable pluralistic democracy in that country.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Jim, one question a lot of people are asking: Do you feel the strain as a Reservist of two tours in Iraq?
JIM: Well, sure, it's tough, but we all signed up to do a job that needed to be done, not knowing just what form it would take when it did come. And for some guys, it was going to Bosnia and Kosovo and shorter tours granted, but for others, it--longer tours in Iraq. By and large, I'd say the morale of the military, including the Reservists, is very, very good, and guys and women are willing to do what needs to be done. And I think if you did an in-depth poll of the military, you'd find that the answer is `Stay the course. Let's get the job done.'
CONAN: Jim, thanks very much for the call.
JIM: Thank you.
Let's talk now with Garth, and Garth is calling us from Baltimore.
GARTH (Caller): Hi, there. I think Mr. Kristol's point about the linkage between Iraq and what's happened in the bottom Middle East can't go unchallenged, but I mean, it just has to be said that that's just an assertion; there's really no real evidence to back that up.
But the main reason I called was to put forward this idea of incredible opportunity costs of the war in Iraq, and I think that may be partly what's behind the demand to get our troops out now, because the administration has dismissed just outright setting any kind of timetable to give any indication of when this--the expenditures will cease. And I think in light of Katrina, that's brought home all the clearer. And to Mr. Kristol, I'm just asking, so if this is this absolute good, that what--and how high can this cost go? Is a trillion dollars and 20,000 lives lost, American lives, plus countless Iraqis--is that acceptable? And I mean--and I think that's--really will come to this, that it's totally open-ended, nobody has any sense of when it really is going to end and we see the incredible needs that exist--health insurance, Katrina, whatnot--in our own country.
GARTH: So I would like his comments about that. Thanks very much.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Garth.
Mr. KRISTOL: Look, the real world is a world of compensations, as Lincoln said, and tradeoffs. And obviously, at some point, one could decide that the cost in lives, which is a serious cost--I'm not worried about the money. We're an incredibly wealthy country, and if this is worth doing, if the Middle East is worth fundamentally changing, if it's worth liberating people from Saddam, it's worth doing for $200 billion. But at some point, obviously, one could imagine it going badly enough that one would decide it was unwinnable, and one shouldn't send American men and women over there to fight.
I think--I'm not--I don't think that's the case. I think it is winnable and that we're going to win and that we're going to end up believing that it was the right thing to have done and I think it will improve our security and prospects for hundreds of millions of people in the Middle East. But that's obviously a debatable proposition, and as you know, I can make that argument and people can make the counterargument, and that's why we have elections, and we'll see where people are in a year and in three years on this question. It's very much unresolved now.
CONAN: Well, at the moment--and I cited this number earlier, I'm not sure you were on the line yet--but a Gallup Poll issued Monday found that 66 percent of respondents favored an immediate withdrawal of some or all of the US troops in Iraq; that's up 10 percentage points in two weeks. And the president's personal approval rating on Iraq fell from 40 percent to 32 percent in the same period. In a democracy--again, there are congressional elections coming up next year, but in a democracy, how long can you sustain a war without public support?
Mr. KRISTOL: Well, you can sustain it for a lot longer than we've had to sustain this one. I mean, suddenly--look, these polls are totally misleading, especially--if you ask people: `Do they like having American casualties in Iraq? Do they think we should try as best we can to get out? Would you prefer to spend money at home?' everyone says `yes.' I love the way everyone's decided in the liberal world that suddenly these polls have to be given great respect. Every poll on foreign aid--and I'm a liberal on foreign aid, so I'm for it.
Mr. KRISTOL: But every poll on foreign aid: `Do we give too much foreign aid abroad?' `Absolutely'; those are 80-percent majorities. `Should we have intervened in Rwanda?' I bet that was a 75-percent majority against. Does that mean that we shouldn't have done it? Does that mean that if people, when asked--of course, they don't fully--you know, they prefer to spend money at home; they're worried about the cost of this. But you can't be driven by poll questions in something of this magnitude. If it's right to do, it's right to do. Bush ran on it for re-election. He didn't mislead anyone. He said, `We're going to stay and do the job.' He didn't say, `We're going to get out in a month or a year.' He didn't say it was going to be easy. It already was evidently going to be tough. He got re-elected. I think he has an obligation to see the policy through.
CONAN: Bill Kristol, thanks very much. And again, congratulations on the 10th anniversary of The Weekly Standard.
Mr. KRISTOL: Well, thanks. We have a few more decades to go till we catch up to NPR, but we'll do our best and thanks again. Good to talk to you.
CONAN: We'll do our best to stay ahead of you.
Mr. KRISTOL: OK.
CONAN: William Kristol is the editor of The Weekly Standard. He joined us by phone from his office here in Washington, DC.
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