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Exiting Iraq: Shibley Telhami's View

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Exiting Iraq: Shibley Telhami's View

Exiting Iraq: Shibley Telhami's View

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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SIMON: And this is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, one of the most difficult mathematical problems in the world is solved, or is it? But first...

Mr. NOURI AL-MALIKI (Prime Minister, Iraq): (Through Translator) Only when Iraq's forces are fully capable will the job of the multi-national forces be complete. Our Iraqi forces have accomplished much.

SIMON: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki speaking to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Wednesday, obviously the voice of an interpreter there. Sectarian violence has apparently surpassed the insurgency as the most urgent threat to Iraq. More U.S. troops will be diverted from elsewhere in that country to protect Baghdad and as of this week, the Pentagon has extended the tours of thousands of soldiers and marines who expected to come home in the near future. There are currently about 130,000 U.S. troops there. That number could likely grow before the year's end.

In our series of conversations about how U.S. forces can ultimately leave that country, we turn to Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor of Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. He joins us from there. Thanks very much for being with us again.

Professor SHIBLEY TELHAMI (University of Maryland): My pleasure.

SIMON: How do you feel, firstly, about that assertion that it's now sectarian violence more than the insurgency that's become the security concern in Iraq, and are the two unrelated?

Prof. TELHAMI: Well, the two are very much related, that's the problem. I think it didn't start as sectarian violence, it's become that. I think, you know, when you know, when you look at it, I took a position that opposed the war in part because I really believed that the U.S. is going to find itself in a position where there are only bad choices. And right now, frankly, there are only bad choices.

SIMON: Is there anything the U.S. military should be doing by way - differently, by way of tactics or deployment?

Prof. TELHAMI: No, I don't think it's really a failure of tactics. I think it's a failure of strategy, it's a failure of policy, and I don't think a military shift is going to address the problem. If you look at actually what are the two things that could bring Iraqis together, Shia and Sunnis, because one thing they're united about is that they want to see American forces out of Iraq. The difference is that the Sunnis want to see them out immediately. The Shia may want to see a different timetable, maybe two years. But both of them believe that the U.S. is not intending to pull out. The majority of Shiites believe the U.S. will stay in Iraq even if the leaders ask the U.S. to leave, and I think that therefore, you know, in some ways the enhancement of American forces will be seen as enhancing the perception that the U.S. is going to stay there for a longer period of time.

The second issue that seems to unite Sunnis and Shiites is the position on the Arab/Israeli conflict and even al-Qaida jumped on the bandwagon, the same organization that's been fighting Shiites and actually, they had a war of words with Hezbollah just before this episode started, suddenly saying forget about the divisions. It's a big dilemma for the United States, in fact, and I think that suggests to me that the ultimate answer for reducing the damage lays outside of Iraq, not inside Iraq.

SIMON: Explain that to me. For example, Iran and Syria are neighboring powers, do they have an interest? We know that Iran has some economic influence and perhaps more.

Prof. TELHAMI: Look, this is an issue that is so central to Iran, this is an issue that is so central to Syria, so central to Turkey. All these countries have a vital interest, it's not just a passing - it's a vital interest in what happens in Iraq. They're going to meddle, and they're going to do so even more if you have a policy toward them that is confrontational. Any policy that is going to be successful in Iraq will have to first register that we're not there to stay, we're going to pull out. Second, find a way to get at every single neighbor of Iraq to have a real incentive in maximizing the chance of Iraq being a stable central government. And third, to revive Arab/Israeli peacemaking in a way to create incentives for an non-state actors in the region that have legitimate aspirations, not groups like al-Qaida.

SIMON: What incentive could be offered to Iran and Syria that they would find an inducement to tamp down rivalry and violence and consternation in Iraq?

Prof. TELHAMI: Well, there are two things, first of all. I mean, they have been of the belief that ultimately our policy is still based on regime change.

SIMON: Changing their regime?

Prof. TELHAMI: Changing their regimes. And so, you know, no matter what we say now, it's very difficult for them to believe otherwise unless we send strong signals. And what kind of signals? Well, in the case of Syria, one thing that's so central to them is reviving negotiations with Israel over the Golan Heights. On the nuclear issue, I happen to think that the Iranians are intent on the pursuit of nuclear power. I think that there is no military solution to it even it could be delayed. So in a way we have a contradictory policy because a confrontational policy inevitably is going to exacerbate the Iraq problem.

SIMON: If the United States were to set, say, an arbitrary date for withdrawal of troops, let's say August 31, 2007, what would the effect be in the region?

Prof. TELHAMI: Well, it depends on what else you put on the table, and I think that this can only be constructive if you do it as part of a major American policy toward the region in which you put a peace package that has incentive to all the major parties, including Iraq's neighbors. If you don't do that, I think you're going to have certainly a scrambling of people trying to intervene even more to assure that the outcome is going to favor them, whether it's Iran or Turkey or Syria or the Arab states.

SIMON: And it should be pointed out that that's exactly what opponents of setting a deadline say would happen in that first part.

Prof. TELHAMI: Yeah, it cannot be done separately. It has to be done by going to every single country and have a new kind of relationship than the one we now have. I mean, that - you know, it requires really kind of a change of paradigm, which I don't see happening. But you also have to ask the question, even aside from having a new foreign policy in a way, you have to ask the question, all right, so, yeah, there are costs and there's a chance it's going to deteriorate for awhile if we pull out. It's going to deteriorate anyway if we stay. And in fact, I think the ability of the United States to play a constructive roll in the region will diminish if you stay.

SIMON: Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, University of Maryland. Thanks very much.

Prof. TELHAMI: My pleasure.

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