What's Next for Iraq? George Packer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, worries that no political leader from either party is thinking about what happens to Iraq if a troop withdrawal begins. He talks about his forthcoming article, "Planning for Defeat."
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What's Next for Iraq?

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What's Next for Iraq?

What's Next for Iraq?

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George Packer believes the debate about U.S. policy after General Petraeus issues his report on the surge of troops will be stuck between war planners who won't say they were ever wrong and war opponents who focus mostly on withdrawing troops. Unless each side can be moved beyond that, says Mr. Packer in a piece to be published in next week's New Yorker magazine, Iraq will be sentenced to more years of suffering and civil war.

George Packer has been to Iraq six times since 2003, and he joins us from our studios in New York.

Thank you very much for being with us.

Mr. GEORGE PACKER (Staff Writer, The New Yorker): It's good to be here.

SIMON: You say that some troop withdrawals are just politically inevitable because the American public will demand as much, whoever gets elected, but that it's even more important to plan for what happens after withdrawal.

Mr. PACKER: I think not just politically inevitable but inevitable because we don't have the troops to sustain the current level beyond next spring, and most people admit that.

But I think the debate is so focused on three-month intervals and has been from the start of the war that our political leaders have never planned beyond that, strategically thinking, what do we want Iraq to look like when we leave and what's the best way to do it.

SIMON: Give us some idea of the kind of planning that needs to be done.

Mr. PACKER: I would begin with how do we withdraw, at what pace, and where, and what would be the mission of the remaining troops. I'd say the issue of refugees, Iraqi refugees is an enormous and neglected one. There is over 2 million in the region, as well as 2 million displaced people inside Iraq.

They could easily become a radicalized homeless population if the United States doesn't lead a major effort to provide education, health care and jobs for these Iraqis who are leading extremely precarious lives in the region. I could go on - regional war, al-Qaida's emergence in Iraq. These are all just vexing issues, and they will be with us for years, whether the next president is a Democrat or a Republican.

SIMON: Well, Mr. Packer, what do you say to those people, and I think there's some on the left and some on the right, who say, you know, look, it's up to them?

Mr. PACKER: I'd say, look at a map. Iraq is in the middle of the most volatile region in the world. It's sitting on top of oil and radicalism that's spreading through that region. I'm not claiming they're going to follow us home if we leave, but I am claiming that Iraq and the surrounding countries will be unstable and violent for years to come if the United States doesn't begin to think now of how it can mitigate the damage done by the war and a withdrawal.

SIMON: You used the word massacres that could follow U.S. troop withdrawals. And I want to follow up on that because you were, in this article, specifically critical of a number of politicians. But you mentioned Senator Obama by name when he essentially observes that he doesn't think U.S. foreign policy can be, in so many words, massacre-driven.

Mr. PACKER: Yeah. He said that the prospect of a possible genocide in Iraq is not a reason to stay there because actual genocides, for example, in Darfur or one could perhaps include Congo, he did, haven't seen the commitment of American troops. To me that just ignores - first of all, our responsibility for what could happen in Iraq, we created this mess in Iraq. It is really largely our responsibility and will remain so whether we're there in numbers or not.

And second, I think it just dismisses too lightly the real human and strategic consequences of those large-scale massacres possibly happening. What will it look like when the eyes of the world remain on Iraq after American troops are gone and the level of bloodshed is much, much higher than it is today? What will it do to America's remaining prestige in the world? What will it do to the way the Muslim and Arab world sees us? I think the politicians who don't think about the strategic as well as the moral consequences of that tableau are shortsighted.

SIMON: You seemed to be skeptical of almost every political proposal that's been floated by a specific candidate.

Mr. PACKER: I am, and also by some of the think tanks. There are other plans for immediate withdrawal, for phase withdrawal. What they all lack is a sense that Iraq has its own vote here, and we cannot impose a 12-point plan or a timetable that suits our political needs and expect the war in Iraq to cooperate with it.

As one officer said to me, hey, what about the enemy, are we going to ask the enemy to conform to our plan? Iraq has defied our concepts, our best intentions all along, and there's no reason to think that that won't continue as we try to figure out how to get out of this mess.

SIMON: George Packer is a staff writer at The New Yorker, and his piece in next week's magazine is "Planning for Defeat."

Thanks very much.

Mr. PACKER: Thank you.

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