ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Some reaction now to President Bush's speech, reaction from two observers. George Packer joins us from Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of "The Assassin's Gate" and has covered the Iraq War for The New Yorker magazine.
Welcome back, George Packer.
Mr. GEORGE PACKER (Author, "The Assassin's Gate"): Thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: And also back on the program is Reuel Marc Gerecht, who is a former Middle East specialist at the CIA and now a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.
Mr. REUEL MARC GERECHT (Contributing Editor, The Weekly Standard): Thank you.
SIEGEL: President Bush called this a strategy for victory in Iraq. George Packer, is it?
Mr. PACKER: I think it's about the best that we can expect from the president at this point. It's more detailed and more nuanced and even has some concessions to the obvious criticisms that there have been terrible mistakes made. It's a speech he should given a year or two years ago and brought the public along with him back then rather than doing it now under tremendous domestic political pressure when he's lost the trust of the majority of the public and may not be able to get it back, even with a speech that is probably his most detailed yet on his plan for how to win the war in Iraq.
SIEGEL: Reuel Marc Gerecht, what do you think?
Mr. GERECHT: Well, I think the most important thing about the speech was to take on those who are arguing for some type of withdrawal timetable, to meet that head on. I mean, those critics are obviously on the Democratic side, there are more than a few Republicans out there, and I think there are individuals inside of his own administration who have been gunning for some type of timetable. He flatly rejected that.
Whether the strategy's going to work? I would say yes. I mean, we are now locked in to a counterinsurgency strategy which is based upon an ever-increasing number of Iraqi troops. I think now they realize that most of those Iraqi troops are going to have to come from the Shiite population, that you're going to have to build, slowly but surely, an Iraqi officer corps that is going to be proportionately much greater Shiite and that eventually, you will beat the insurgency.
SIEGEL: Well, the key variable, it seems, in driving the speed of a US withdrawal from Iraq is the speed of developing those Iraqi forces. Do you think the president was being realistic or perhaps overly optimistic about the quantity and the quality of Iraqi units today? George Packer, you first.
Mr. PACKER: Well, the number--120 battalions--I think the president used the figure 212,000 troops. The problem is that number was given quite a while ago by Secretary Rumsfeld, and back then it was an obviously inflated number of troops who had had real training, troops and police. Now we're back up to that. I don't know whether that is the number or not. The problem is that they have lost credibility in the numbers they've been giving all along. In other words, those earlier numbers were just fantasies. They were numbers thrown out there by both Paul Bremer in Baghdad and Donald Rumsfeld in Washington back in 2003 and 2004 in order to convince the public that Iraqi forces were coming online very quickly.
Here we are two and a half years later, we have now reached those numbers again, or probably for the first time. They may well be credible and accurate. The problem is you can't cry success so many times and have the public believe you after two or three or four.
SIEGEL: Reuel Gerecht.
Mr. GERECHT: Yeah, I would agree with most of that. I mean, I think the secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld, and CENTCOM, the military command structure for Iraq, has been--has done everyone a disservice by just floating numbers that had no basis in reality. I think the issue isn't numbers at all; it's ground that you hold. And that, I think, is the much more realistic determinant, that if we find out that ever more larger sections of the Sunni triangle have been cleaned out of insurgents, then that's the standard of measure, that's the metric you want to look at. I think this citing of how many battalions have been trained is more or less irrelevant, and by this time, I would agree completely, it seems almost dishonest.
SIEGEL: Did either of you come away from today's event of the president's speech, the White House release of the 35-page document, with the sense, `This could move 15 percent of public opinion back away from opposing or doubting the president on Iraq towards supporting him,' or do you think it didn't quite live up to that particular challenge? Reuel.
Mr. GERECHT: No, I think it was a pretty strong speech. Again, I think what's going to make a difference for the American public and for everybody else is success on the ground.
SIEGEL: What happens there on the ground.
Mr. GERECHT: Right. And I--you know, you can give the greatest speech in the world, but I don't think you're going to see a change in opinion until you see that success on the ground.
SIEGEL: George Packer.
Mr. PACKER: I would say that the administration is now paying the price for its own unwillingness to involve the public in a serious way in this war. They have never explained those kinds of details before. Who among Americans had heard of the battle of Tall'Afar, for example? Instead, the administration has essentially said, `Trust us.'
SIEGEL: Just to explain. The president cited the battle of Tall'Afar in contrast to the earlier battle of Fallujah. In the first case, Fallujah, he said Iraqi forces were really just protecting the flanks of the US forces that were the tip of the spear. But at Tall'Afar, actually Iraqi forces were actually engaged in combat and taking losses, which would be seen as a measure of their conviction.
Your point, if I understand it, George Packer, is that stop an American on the street and Tall'Afar does not--it's not Hamburger Hill from Vietnam or the Bulge, something that everybody was quite aware of.
Mr. PACKER: We don't have a president who sits down on a regular basis and treats the American people like grown-ups who might be interested in battles and in conditions in obscure parts of Iraq. Instead, we get sweeping, grand visions of fighting terrorists and promoting democracy. And once the public sees a seemingly intractable and endless war in Iraq grinding on, those words start to ring hollow.
Mr. GERECHT: I mean, I'm not so sure that it's the president's intention to sort of infantilize the American public. I think there is--without a doubt, there's a real problem here. I mean, President Bush is not the most gifted orator. I agree completely that I think a lot of time has been lost, and certainly if they had followed the type of plan, the type of approach that, say, Senator McCain has taken, of leveling with the American people, of telling them how difficult it is, of telling them the stakes involved and why you must win in Iraq, I think we would be, at least at home, in a stronger position.
SIEGEL: Well, thanks to both of you, Reuel Marc Gerecht of The Weekly Standard and George Packer of The New Yorker.
Mr. GERECHT: Thank you.
Mr. PACKER: Thank you.