IRAQ OF AGES: The United States and the Future of Iraq

Friday, March 26, 2004

On July 1, the Coalition Provisional Authority—the body headed by U.S. ambassador Paul Bremer that has governed Iraq since the end of the Iraq war—will transfer sovereignty to a temporary Iraqi government. The transfer of power raises a number of hard questions. Will our attempts at nation building in this ethnically and religiously divided country succeed? Just what are our responsibilities in ensuring that success? And how long will or should the United States maintain a military presence in Iraq?

Recorded on Friday, March 26, 2004

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge: between Iraq and a hard place.

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today; the United States and the new Iraq. On July 1st, the Coalition Provisional Authority, that's the body headed by American Ambassador, Paul Bremer, that has governed Iraq since the war, will transfer sovereignty to a new, temporary Iraqi government. This transfer of power raises a number of very hard questions. Iraq is a country divided in many ways. To name just one, ethnically. Kurds in the north, Sunni in the middle, Shia in the south. It won't be easy holding the country together. What is our responsibility for insuring success and how long should the United States maintain its military presence?

Joining us, three guests. Donald Emmerson is a senior fellow at Stanford's Institute for International studies. Michael McFaul is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and Joseph Nye is Dean of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Title: Another Fine Mess

Peter Robinson: In all of history, the Arab world has seen only one true democracy, Lebanon, and that only lasted a few decades. Now the United States is committing itself to establishing democracy in Iraq. Are we engaging in a noble venture that will transform the Arab world or putting ourselves into the middle of a world historical pickle? Joe?

Joseph Nye: Both.

Peter Robinson: Don?

Donald Emmerson: Sorry, both.

Peter Robinson: You're not allowed to say both.

Michael McFaul: Could be either/or.

Peter Robinson: All right. On July 1st, the Coalition Provisional Authority which is the body run by Ambassador Bremer that has been governing Iraq since the war will transfer sovereignty to some form of temporary Iraqi government. Here's what the Coalition Provisional Authority has done. Soon after the collapse of the Baathist government, it appointed 25 Iraqis to an Iraqi governing council. Then it helped to draft a basic law or interim constitution, which was approved by the Iraqi governing council in March. And the Coalition Provisional Authority worked with--you can tell me whether it was a tense relationship or a smooth one--the U.N. to determine when elections should be held. The U.N.'s decision, there's no time to hold elections before the transfer of sovereignty but within some months thereafter, it should prove feasible to do so. All right. The new Iraq. Let's look at a few of the problems the country will face. Holding the place together, let me quote from The Economist magazine, "The Kurds want a three-man presidency comprised of a Kurd, a Shia Arab and a Sunni Arab. The Shias want a five-man presidency comprising three Shias, a Sunni Kurd and a Sunni Arab. And the Sunni Arabs have put forward a compromise four-man presidency consisting of two Shias, a Sunni Kurd and a Sunni Arab." Kurds, Sunnis and Shi'ites. Don, explain these three groups of people.

Donald Emmerson: Approximately 60% of the population of Iraq is affiliated with the Shia strand of Islam. And the other two groups, the Kurds in the north and the Sunni Triangle as it's referred to, the Sunnis in the middle represent minorities. And so the problem is balance.

Peter Robinson: And give us the distinction between the Kurds and the Sunnis.

Donald Emmerson: Well, essentially the Kurds are Sunni Muslims. I'm simplifying somewhat and the Sunnis in the middle obviously are Arab in addition to being Sunni.

Peter Robinson: But the Kurds have their own language?

Donald Emmerson: They do.

Peter Robinson: They're ethnically different.

Donald Emmerson: They do indeed.

Peter Robinson: That means culturally different.

Donald Emmerson: That's correct. They're not Arabs. And so the formulation that we see, for example, in the transitional, administrative law is rather ambiguous. It says the Arabs form part of the Arab nation which actually spills way beyond the borders of Iraq. On the other hand, Kurdish is one of the two official languages of the new state, the other being Arabic. So there's some tension there.

Peter Robinson: Let me ask this basic question, Joe. 1919 Paris Peace Conference, Iraq is invented by Europeans who slap together three administrative units of the Ottoman Empire. Now we have seen unbundling of nations in Europe. Czechoslovakia is now the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic. Since this country was just slapped together, since these three different groups are indeed quite different, why should any of them--let's take the Kurds, they have their own--the look of the country is different where they live. It's mountainous. They have their own language, of the three groups, they've already established a working democracy within their own region, workable democracy. Why would they even want to remain in Iraq?

Joseph Nye: Well, if life were fair, the Kurds would have a nation. But going back to those decisions at the end of World War I, they were divided. There are Kurds in Turkey, Kurds in Syria, Kurds in Iran, Kurds in Iraq. And there's been great fear that if at this point, you suddenly open Pandora's Box and allow the Kurds in Iraq to secede, it might give ideas to the Kurds in those other countries and create enormous instability.

Peter Robinson: When you say there's fear, that's fear on the part of the West?

Joseph Nye: That's on the part of the West but also on the part of their neighbors. If you look at Turkey, for example, the Turks basically have conditioned a good deal of their help to us in Iraq on not letting the Kurds become independent because they feel it will stimulate the Kurdish independence movement in Turkey.

Peter Robinson: And the Kurds in Iraq are willing to put up with that?

Joseph Nye: They're not happy with it. And one of the great dangers or worries that the Turks have is that the Kurds will get a degree of autonomy and then when our attention is diverted elsewhere, it'll increase toward demands for independent state.

Peter Robinson: What's your reading of the mind of Kurds at the moment?

Michael McFaul: Well, I think it's very important to realize we're at the very beginning stages of the re-creation of an Iraqi state.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Michael McFaul: And you mentioned Czechoslovakia but you didn't mention Yugoslavia.

Peter Robinson: Right. That's a later question but go ahead.

Michael McFaul: Okay. You know, there are easy cases of divorce but there aren't that many of them.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Michael McFaul: And I think what we have to realize is we're in the early stages of this. The rules of the game are basically have not been through kind of negotiation and compromise. We have done it. There hasn't been a lot of transparency in it. Now we find that lots of folks in the Shia community don't accept the interim transitional, the basic law that you mentioned in your introductory remarks. And, by the way, in your introductory remarks, you didn't mention all the failed plans that we had. We had a plan for caucuses that we--anybody remember that plan? We had lots of plans. In fact, I think we're on the fourth plan now.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Michael McFaul: And what worries me is because it's been such a rocky start and because we don't have buy-in from all the parties involved, that come July 1st, the first time there's some disagreement, somebody says well hey wait a minute, that's not what we signed up for.

Peter Robinson: Let's continue our discussions of the ethnic and religious divisions within Iraq by looking at the largest group of all.

Title: O Say Can You Shia

Peter Robinson: Shi'ites in the south, sixty percent of the population. The history as I understand it, is that virtually everywhere Shi'ites have lived in the Arab world in close proximity with Sunnis, they've been persecuted by the Sunnis. They've tended within the larger Arab framework to be a minority. Here they have a chance to be a majority. Moreover, seventy percent I read on the web, of Iranians next door, view Ayatollah Sistani who is the Shi'ite leader as their Ayatollah as well. You have the makings here just as the Kurds might wish to join up with Kurds in other countries, you have the convenient makings here of a Shi'ite nation unto itself. Why would they want to put up with the new Iraq?

Donald Emmerson: Because a new Iraq whose borders are what they are now represents a larger field within which that sixty percent majority can exercise its majoritarian clout. It seems to me that each of the three units have in a way a stake in a unified Iraq. That is to say the Kurds in the north who have already de facto autonomy see in a unified federal Iraq, a chance to protect what they have already achieved.

Peter Robinson: And that will be the first more or less, autonomous Kurd area in modern history? They will have achieved something that Kurds in Turkey haven't achieved, Iran…

Donald Emmerson: That is correct.

Peter Robinson: Syria…

Joseph Nye: Well, they've had a de facto now for a decade.

Donald Emmerson: It's a question of making it de jure. But if they declare independence, then the chance of preserving the gains that they have made…

Peter Robinson: They could lose it all.

Donald Emmerson: That's right. They could lose it all.

Peter Robinson: Okay. So it's sensible for the Kurds to want in.

Donald Emmerson: That's right. And as for the Sunni minority in the middle--now this is trickier because there may be some in that minority unregenerate followers of the failed and ousted Saddam regime who want nothing but blood revenge. But leaving those aside, it seems to me that potentially if they can achieve a kind of one-third clout within a unified Iraq, that potential is much better for them than a small country. There would be a lot of ethnic and religious cleansing involved if it were to establish itself as an independent state and then they would have hostile states on either side. So in a way, a unified Iraq turns out to be something along the lines of a least worst alternative for a number of the players.

Peter Robinson: You're describing then Kurds, Shi'ites and to some extent, Sunnis--you seem somewhat less certain about the Sunnis--who are being realistic, who are entering into the situation with some notion of compromise. In other words, you haven't got fanatics who are trying to rip the country down. Would you agree? Or is the situation more overheated than Don suggests?

Joseph Nye: Well, it depends on which groups you're looking at, I mean, within the Shi'ites, Ayatollah Sistani has been relatively moderate but there are other Shi'ite leaders who are less so. And within the Sunnis, you have some who are willing to try to reach a modus vivendi along the lines you describe but you have another group that are out there killing people every day.

Michael McFaul: The bad news is if you put this in comparative perspective and you think about other transitions, other post-conflict situations, other revolutionary changes, because after all, we're going through tremendous upheaval in Iraq today. We're at the very beginning--I want to remind our viewers that--the moderates are always out front. You know, this is February 1917…

Peter Robinson: Because we've sought them out.

Michael McFaul: Right but this is the early part, February 1917. The Lenins of the world are just coming in, they're just infiltrating. They're there, they're blowing up people. They're coming in but we don't know a lot about them. But they're there. And people who are worried about it see them and realize we've got to deal with that.

Peter Robinson: Now on to America's role in the future of Iraq.

Title: Iraq of Ages

Peter Robinson: I've taken three models from Joe's work. You've written that you see three possible futures for Iraq. Iraq could be like Japan and Germany in 1945, "in which the United States stays for seven years and leaves behind a friendly democracy." Like Reagan's intervention in Lebanon or Clinton's intervention in Somalia, "in this scenario, terrorists kill U.S. soldiers and the American public reacts by saying let's pull out." Three, like Bosnia or Kosovo, "the United States would entice NATO allies and other countries to help in the policing and reconstruction of Iraq, a U.N. resolution would bless the force and an international administrator would help to legitimize the process." Now you wrote that before the transfer of sovereignty but the notion…

Joseph Nye: I wrote it before the war…

Peter Robinson: Before the war. Okay.

Joseph Nye: But I still believe it.

Peter Robinson: All right. But the notion there is more international, less American, more international. So let me ask you, which of those three models do you think we're going to see unfolding over the next year or two or three, relatively near term?

Joseph Nye: Well, I think we should be aiming for the model of staying in. I think for us to leave Iraq regardless of how you feel about should we have gone in or not…

Peter Robinson: Germany and Japan is illusory. That's just not going to happen.

Joseph Nye: It's not, the conditions just aren't there.

Peter Robinson: Okay. So anybody who thinks it's going to be that easy is dreaming.

Joseph Nye: And if you just have a vote in the Shia rule but it's not accepted by the other groups or the neighbors, that's also illusory, which means the third option is the only one that's realistic. But our ability to stay there for a long time without looking like an imperial occupier does depend on our internationalizing it. And the only chance we have of really being able to produce what I called a stable and pluralistic Iraq means getting more of an international presence. So it's Iraqification.

Peter Robinson: Your argument is not that the United States lacks the will for a prolonged, difficult year-after-year engagement, although you may believe that as well. I don't--but what you're arguing is that to the extent that it appears to be an American project; that makes the project itself more difficult. Is that what you're arguing?

Joseph Nye: That's true but I'd also think the willingness of the American people to stay in for a long time…

Peter Robinson: Both.

Joseph Nye: …is going to depend upon having others share it.

Peter Robinson: Don?

Donald Emmerson: Yeah, I think clearly the internationalization of Iraq is the way to go. But it's not a panacea. I mean, it is possible that we are on the verge of setting up an arrangement, a format that will prove impotent. Let's remember that the Presidency Council that is being proposed by the American blueprint would consist of a president and two deputy presidents and, although this is not said, presumably drawn from each of the three contending communities. Now is this a recipe for consensus? Political scientists call this consociational democracy, you know. It may or may not…

Peter Robinson: Only political scientists can pronounce it.

Donald Emmerson: Right. It may or may not work in Iraq especially if the Presidency Council is deadlocked. And if the Presidency Council is deadlocked, I fear that that may generate precisely the constituency for what Mike and others among us, I think, would not like to see, namely a dictatorship.

Peter Robinson: Give me your best case scenario. Is a kind of repeat of Germany and Japan just out of the question?

Donald Emmerson: Yes, because the conditions are radically different.

Peter Robinson: Simply won't happen.

Donald Emmerson: The best case scenario is that the provisions of this transitional law stick and are taken over by Iraqis and made their own in a constitution that has sovereignty attached to it, that is thoroughly Iraqi in nature, that has authenticity. That's the best solution in my judgment.

Peter Robinson: Mike?

Michael McFaul: Yeah, I would agree with that.

Peter Robinson: You'd agree with all that?

Michael McFaul: I think that's what we would hope for.

Peter Robinson: What about this notion of internationalizing the project?

Michael McFaul: Absolutely. I mean…

Peter Robinson: Really?

Michael McFaul: …we cannot--we cannot…

Peter Robinson: We have to bring the French into this?

Michael McFaul: Of course we have to bring the French in, but we have to bring in a different legitimizer if you will, because right now, we have a very strange situation. We've been talking about this basic law or constitutional law. Let's be honest. It was drafted by us in consultation with the Iraqis that we chose.

Peter Robinson: Well, it worked with Japan. It worked in Japan.

Michael McFaul: After a long, long--I agree--Japan, Germany I think is…

Peter Robinson: They don't count because they're so different…

Michael McFaul: Because there's a guy sitting down in the south of Iraq that said--Ayatollah Sistani that when he can say I don't think this is legitimate. And it wasn't a deliberative process. It wasn't a democratic process that produced this law. Right? So we're in a quandary there.

Peter Robinson: Yes, but return you to Emmerson's argument here at the beginning of the show which is look, all these guys--the major players here are grown-ups. They realize they've just come out of a very bad situation. Sistani has a chance for the first Shi'ite dominated state in all of history and they're going to play along because they realize we're doing the best we can.

Michael McFaul: Let me tell you what can derail that. We don't have an electoral law yet, right. And people probably--I'll bet that even Sistani doesn't even know the nuances between a majoritarian system and a proportional representation system. Right? So an electoral law's going to come from some experts. And then there's going to be losers in the first election. And whoever those losers are, if they had not adhered to the rules of the game beforehand in a deliberative open transparent process, they're going to say hey, this was all rigged by the Americans. So that's why A, we have to change the way that we make these rules and B, we want the United Nations sitting there yes, with the French Peter, ideally so that it's not just oh it's the imperial Americans who cause this. But no, these are laws that you agreed to ahead of time and now that we're losers, we're going to accept them in a democratic process. Without that, we have spoilers and I think the potential for conflict after the first vote.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Joseph Nye: Remember on Japan, Japan was ethnically homogeneous. We kept the emperor who was the symbol of legitimacy and we were victors in a war in which we'd been part of a United Nations structure. And it took seven years anyway.

Peter Robinson: Next, some practical advice on Iraq for this country's leaders.

Title: Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick

Peter Robinson: George W. Bush and John Forbes Kerry, one has operational authority over Iraq, over our engagement in Iraq. The other, the responsibility in our system to offer a creative, constructive opposition. I don't want to know how you intend to vote. I'd be afraid of the answer but I want to ask each of you for a word of advice for each man. First, George W. Bush. What does he need to do in Iraq, not so much to get reelected as to make sure the thing works out right and what does he need to say to the American people? What does he need to do that he hasn't been doing and to say that he hasn't been saying?

Joseph Nye: Well, for either Kerry or Bush, they've got to learn to combine American hard power which is our military occupation with what I call soft power, which is our ability to appeal.

Peter Robinson: And which is the title of your very fine new book.

Joseph Nye: Right. And unless we can appeal to the Iraqi majority and the countries around it by being more effective in the way we present our case by essentially doing better broadcasting but also following policies that are attractive, we're not going to win. You're not going to have an army of occupation solve this. You're going to have to combine it with soft power. And that's been true…

Peter Robinson: He needs a Karl Rove-like political genius to work as hard at appealing to Iraqis as they work at appealing to Americans.

Joseph Nye: Well yes, and I don't think it's going to be different from one administration to the other. They both are going to have to come to that same conclusion.

Peter Robinson: Don?

Donald Emmerson: I think that the Bush Administration needs to cut the American death toll, that this is a sort of, you know, degradation drip by drip. Every time a name and a face appears on a small town newspaper in the United States, there is erosion it seems to me potentially for the bases…

Peter Robinson: We're back to body count days?

Donald Emmerson: Exactly. And I think that is absolutely crucial. Now obviously one way in which this can be done is for the American soldiers to retreat to their barracks and stay there and do nothing which, of course, doesn't help the situation in terms of Iraqi vulnerability.

Peter Robinson: July 1st, sovereignty is transferred. Does the President of the United States and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces keep 130,000 American troops in Iraq?

Donald Emmerson: What he tries to do is negotiate a status of visiting forces agreement with the new Iraqi government.

Peter Robinson: And the new Iraqi government will want those troops there.

Donald Emmerson: Well, I think they will. I mean, maybe I'm exaggerating their realism but I think they understand that the alternative if the United States were to be ousted from Iraq could be chaotic. Chaotic for themselves.

Peter Robinson: Bush--your word for Bush?

Michael McFaul: Well, two things. I hope it's a 130 because it's not 130,000 now. It's 110 and going down. So I think that one of the strategic mistakes we made--is we had just too…

Peter Robinson: Too few troops…

Michael McFaul: Too few troops in Iraq and they're not well equipped and there are shortages. There's some accountability that has to happen for the post-war plan, which in my opinion was atrocious. So two things. One, make sure that that happens and the more…

Peter Robinson: That you keep troops there and add to them.

Michael McFaul: And hopefully not just American troops. But two, I want to go back to Joe's point about soft power. If you look back at this war and you look at how we can project hard power, we're the best in the world and maybe the best in history at doing that. Right?

Peter Robinson: We surprised ourselves.

Michael McFaul: We had a good game plan that was worked over by lots of people. We had billions of dollars of resources, the best and the brightest doing it. Mission accomplished. And then you look at what happened after that. So we collapsed--we destroyed Saddam Hussein's regime and now we want to build a new regime in place of it. And look at the mess. No plan. No resources. The best and the brightest aren't working on it. It's the projection of soft power, that we can have a strategy for doing it.

Peter Robinson: Let me just ask all three of you. This is a question about the Bush administration. I think back to Harry Truman who becomes President on FDR's death, and so far as he knows, so far as FDR has led him to believe, Joe Stalin, who FDR called Uncle Joe, is a great pal of ours. And Harry Truman discovers during his first year, year and a half in office, that Stalin is up to no good and he has to turn his thinking and American policy--it's not exactly on a dime but he has to make a change very fast. Now there were a lot of sloppy mistakes during those first 18 months or so, but he did it. George W. Bush goes into the presidency under one set of assumptions. September 11th changes everything. Isn't it the case that just as a practical matter, you have to say that they responded to the world being turned upside down pretty well?

Michael McFaul: If "pretty well" is your criteria, that's okay, but look let's talk about Iraq.

Peter Robinson: Okay. You are hard.

Michael McFaul: Because there was a lot of time between September 11th and the invasion of Iraq, right? There was a lot of time. The post-war plan. I told you there were four plans. There should have been one. Not caucuses today, garner today, this guy--no, come on. This is a big thing. You're putting American lives…

Peter Robinson: Someone at the State Department should have thought it through better.

Michael McFaul: …and the NSC, the Pentagon…

Joseph Nye: Let's be fair. State did. But Rumsfeld in Defense wouldn't allow the State plans to be taken seriously.

Peter Robinson: Finally, our guests' advice for John Kerry.

Title: Kerry-on Baggage

Peter Robinson: John Forbes Kerry. So he doesn't have responsibility, except the soft responsibility, to exercise, in his campaign, to offer a kind of opposition that's constructive and useful. What does he do? What does he say, Mike?

Michael McFaul: Well, I would hope he would say that we have to stay the course. That we have to explain to the American people--my greatest fear is that when Ambassador Bremer gets on the airplane, or a helicopter on July 1st, there will be a clamor, and now it's time to bring the 110,000 troops with him. That would be a disaster for American national security interests in the region. It would be a disaster for Iraq and we can't let that happen.

Peter Robinson: So win or lose the presidency, John Kerry can perform a signal service to the nation and the world by saying, on this matter I'm with George W. Bush. We're in there to stay.

Joseph Nye: I think that's right. Basically, if we broke it, we own it. If we leave behind a failed state which is a haven for terrorists, we're worse off, not only in the threat to our--the hard power threat through terrorism, we're worse off in terms of American soft power throughout the world. We'll have tremendous egg on our face. And I think Kerry has to be willing to say that. But he can still differ with Bush about how you go about it. And also about whether we've done a proper job in preparing for it. So that's where the difference must be, not whether you stay in or out.

Peter Robinson: Advice for John Forbes Kerry, Don.

Donald Emmerson: I think Kerry should downgrade expectations on Iraq. I don't think Iraq should drive the policy of a Democratic administration the way it is now driving Republican administration policy. I think Kerry should say, first things first. And the first thing is the threat to the United States that was represented by international terrorism of the Al Qaeda variety. That is our main target. And with internationalization and the necessary loss of total control over the future of Iraq, comes the need to lower American expectations. All right, so maybe it will be a relatively illiberal democracy that takes over. In fact, it could conceivably be something that we wouldn't even want to call a full democracy, maybe a quasi-, or semi- or pseudo-democracy. But if we can at least leave the place in relative peace that, it seems to me, will be minimally satisfying to the American public that is sick and tired of seeing those photographs of the dead American soldiers on the front pages.

Peter Robinson: Today, almost 60 years since the end of the Second World War, we still have some 70,000 troops in Germany and 39,000 in Japan. 110,000 troops on the ground in Iraq, ten years from now, how many troops will we have in Iraq? Joe?

Joseph Nye: 50,000.

Donald Emmerson: Zero. I think zero.

Peter Robinson: Because the whole thing will have gone up in flames?

Donald Emmerson: I don't think we can prolong our presence for ten years in the heart of the middle east.

Peter Robinson: We've got to get out. Mike?

Michael McFaul: I have no idea.

Peter Robinson: Oh, take a stab at it, it's television.

Donald Emmerson: I don't either.

Peter Robinson: You coward!

Joseph Nye: Let me say, the U.S. 50 would have to be part of a larger force. If we're alone, I agree with Don, it's zero. But if you say, if we're serious about democracy in Iraq, or at least a pluralistic, stable Iraq, it's going to take an international presence for quite some time.

Peter Robinson: A question more to your liking, you get to close out the show. How many troops will the French have in Iraq?

Michael McFaul: The French will probably have zero. But I do agree that if we are serious about being engaged in this part of the world--this is a part of the world that we didn't really pay attention to. We didn't care who was running it as long as they gave us their oil. We kept the balance of power between that thug and that thug as long as nobody got too powerful. Now we've embarked on something new under President Bush. The only way we can succeed on it is if we're there for 10, 20, 30, 40 years. This is a long haul thing that's going to take a long time.

Peter Robinson: We may have no troops there ten years from now but it will still be very much on our minds.

Michael McFaul: I hope so.

Peter Robinson: Mike McFaul, Don Emmerson, Joe Nye, thank you very much. I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thank you for joining us.