MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: The Iraq Study Group releases its report.
MR. LEE HAMILTON: The situation in Iraq is very grave and deteriorating.
MR. RUSSERT: They receive high praise and strong criticism.
SEN. JACK REED (D-RI): This may be the last best chance we have to get it right in Iraq.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN (R-AZ): This is a recipe that will lead to, sooner or later, our defeat in Iraq.
MR. RUSSERT: With us, the chairmen of the study: former Secretary of State James Baker and former
chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee Lee Hamilton.
And what a difference a midterm election makes.
(Videotape, October 25, 2006):
PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: Absolutely we’re winning.
(Videotape, December 5, 2006):
SEN. CARL LEVIN (D-MI): Do you believe that we are currently winning in Iraq?
MR. ROBERT GATES: No, sir.
MR. RUSSERT: With us: former member of Secretary Rumsfeld’s Defense Policy Board, Ambassador
Ken Adelman; military historian and professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, Dr. Eliot Cohen; the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Dr. Richard Haass; and the author of the best-selling book “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq,” Tom Ricks of The Washington Post.
But first, we are joined by the co-chairmen of the Iraq Study Group, James Baker, Lee Hamilton. Good morning and welcome both.
Mr. Hamilton, let me start with you. You used the words “grave,” “deteriorating”; the report says, “dire.” What’s the factual basis for such a factual assessment of the situation on the ground in Iraq?
MR. HAMILTON: The factual basis, Tim, is almost every metric you can come up with: violence is increasing, fragmentation of the militias, Shia against Shia, Shia against Sunni, and more American casualties, basic services of government not being delivered, and neighborhoods falling apart, casualties going up. Everywhere you look, it’s dire, it’s grave, it is deteriorating, and in a sense, the question may be, “Can we stop the deterioration?” not “Can we improve it?”
MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Baker, on page 94 of your report you write, “There is significant underreporting of the violence in Iraq. ... Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals.” You’re suggesting very strongly that there was a deliberate attempt to underreport the level of violence in Iraq. Why? MR. JAMES BAKER: Well, we don’t say it was a deliberate attempt, Tim. We do say we think that it was, in fact, to some extent, underreported through the mechanism of what constituted an event or an incident—whether someone was wounded or killed, as opposed to whether an attempt was being made.
This is simply something that we—that we learned during the period of four or five days we spent in, in Baghdad.
MR. RUSSERT: But they pick out a particular day in July where they say there were 93 attacks. In fact, there were 1,100. All the while, Mr. Secretary, the American people were being told that we were winning, that we were in the last throes of the insurgency, that we were making progress. Was there not a disconnect between what the American people were being told by the administration and the facts on the ground?
MR. BAKER: Well, Tim, that’s the reason we have that—that’s the reason we mention that, that particular item in the report. The fact of the matter is, though, we don’t have a—if you read the assessment, indeed it is—it is serious, it is grave, it is dire. But we don’t spend any time wringing our hands about what might or might not have happened in the past, other than to say, “For the future, here’s the way we ought to proceed.”
MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Hamilton, you say that—before Congress that we have weeks, perhaps days. Do you believe that the government of Prime Minister Maliki could very well fall?
MR. HAMILTON: Lot of things bad can happen there, and the fall of that government is certainly one of them. We are where we are. That’s a democratically elected government, he is in power. He has not taken the steps we’d like him to take, but the fact of the matter is, he’s there. And so our whole proposal is to deal with the real world—both in Washington and in Baghdad—and to say, “OK, this is where we are.” What we want to try to do is strengthen this government, because we have a shared interest in bringing this war to a conclusion, and to do it in a way that protects the interests of both nations.
MR. RUSSERT: The Washington Post on Thursday said this: “What’s missing from the study group report, unfortunately, is any evaluation of what should be done if the new strategy doesn’t work - if, despite the stepped-up training, diplomacy and pressure for Iraqi political reconciliation, the incipient civil war intensifies or the army and government remain too weak to survive on their own.”
MR. HAMILTON: Well, you can’t make a proposal with alternatives. You’ve got to make a recommendation for public policy. We can’t put out a report and say, “A, this is one way to go. If that doesn’t work, go B. If B doesn’t work, go C.” We have to make a proposal for the existing situation as it is, and give it our best shot, if you would. We can’t issue a proposal in the alternative.
MR. BAKER: The minute we did that, if we issued an alternative approach, Tim, everybody would discount the, the approach we think ought to be taken.
MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Baker, the Iraqi President Talabani today is heard from, from Iraq. He “harshly criticized the bipartisan report recommending changes to U.S. war policy, saying it would contain some ‘very dangerous’ recommendations that would undermine the sovereignty of Iraq.” And it appears he’s talking about, in his comments, about bringing back the Baathists, supporters of Saddam Hussein.
One of the areas in your report that is probably the most controversial to Mr. Talabani, and perhaps many Americans as well, a recommendation, 31, about amnesty, and let me read it for you and our viewers.
“Amnesty proposals must be far-reaching. Any successful effort at national reconciliation must involve those in the government finding ways and means to reconcile with former bitter enemies. ...
“Amnesty proposals from the Iraqi government are an important incentive in reconciliation talks and they need to be generous. ... Despite being politically unpopular - in the United States as well as in Iraq - amnesty is essential if progress is to take place.”
If the Iraqis propose amnesty for insurgents, Mr. Baker, for people who’ve killed American soldiers, how do you think that will go down in this country?
MR. BAKER: Well, it won’t go down at all, and we don’t go—we’re not as—we don’t go that far, Tim, if you’ll look at the language. On the other hand, we do recognize, and all of our military leaders in Iraq and over here recognize that this is—we’re not going to win this war militarily. We’re going to win it politically, and there must be a political reconciliation among the warring factions in Iraq or we’re—or we’re in—we’re going to continue to have major league problems.
Now, part of that is national reconciliation, and amnesty is a big part of national reconciliation, deBaath—the degree to which we went too far in deBaathification is, is a part of national reconciliation. So is the amendment of a constitution. That is the critical area and the critical issue. If the Iraqi government cannot implement national reconciliation, we’re going to have an extraordinarily difficult time coming up with a result that the president likes, which is the same one we embraced: an Iraq that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself.
MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Hamilton, we seem to be getting mixed signals from the White House. Some White House advisers calling, saying, “Well, the president’s open towards this report.’ Today’s New York Times quotes some as saying it’s impractical, unrealistic. Here’s a headline from Friday: “Bush Appears Cool to Key Points Of Report on Iraq.” And another headline: “Bush Backs Away From 2 Key Ideas Of Panel On Iraq. President Doesn’t Endorse Pullback Plan or Talks With Iran and Syria.”
I want to show you exactly what the president said to your suggestion that the president sit down with Iran to try to engage them on what’s happening in Iraq. Let’s watch:
PRES. BUSH: Let me talk about engaging Iran. We have made it clear to the Iranians that there is a possible change in U.S. policy, a policy that’s been in place for 27 years. And that is that if they would like to engage the United States, that they’ve got to verifiably suspend their enrichment program. We’ve made our choice. Iran now has an opportunity to make its choice.
MR. RUSSERT: The president saying emphatically there’s linkage with Iranian development of the enrichment program and sitting down with the U.S. You think that’s wrong.
MR. HAMILTON: We take out the whole nuclear question, the development of nuclear weapons in Iran. We say, we’re going to leave that where it is today, in the United Nations. That’s a very serious matter, and the United States cannot accept nuclear weapons in Iran. We really do not address that except to say it’s in the United Nations.
We do say, however, that we need to talk with Syria and Iran. The reason we say that is both of these countries are countries that have a lot of influence in Iraq, they can be very helpful by stopping some of the things that they’re now doing or doing some things that they’re not doing. And we need to build a consensus in the region with Iraq’s neighbors—many of them, not just Syria and Iran—in order to help re-enforce the action that must take place in Iraq. The road to peace in Iraq leads through Baghdad, not elsewhere. But there are a lot of things that can be done in the region to support that road to peace in Baghdad. Iran and Syria are major players. Now, to try to isolate them, to shove them aside, to say they don’t have any impact here, I don’t think gets you anywhere.
MR. HAMILTON: We’re not saying you make concessions to Iran or to Syria, we’re saying, let’s sit down and talk with them within the framework of the Iraq international support group, test them, explore the differences, explore the incentives and the disincentives. We’re not arguing that we give up anything, or concessions, but they’re big players. Let’s bring them into the action. How do you solve problems with people unless you talk to them?
MR. RUSSERT: But the president wants these conditions met, or he won’t do it.
MR. HAMILTON: Well, the condition with regard to the nuclear weapons, we accept that, and we put that aside over here. But everything else, we think, should be on the table.
MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Baker...
MR. BAKER: Tim, let me—let me just...
MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Baker, let me ask you, because you seemed to suggest the other day that the president authorized you to reach out to the Iranians to help in Iraq, and they rejected you. Is that fair?
MR. BAKER: No. What I said was the president—the—first of all, the president told me he wanted me to do this job, Tim. That’s something I, I think your viewers understand, probably. But secondly, he authorized us to speak to representatives—high-level representatives of the government of Iran and the government of Syria during the course of pulling our report together. But one thing I want to make sure everybody understands, Tim, is the limited nature of what we are proposing with respect to Iran and Syria. With respect to Iran, we’re suggesting doing nothing more than this administration did in connection with Afghanistan. When we—after we went in there, we approached Iran, we said, “Let’s cooperate on doing some reconstruction and restoring of Afghanistan here,” and they said fine, and we did. And they, and they helped. We’re suggesting the same thing be done here, nothing more, nothing less. And we—as Lee has said—we take the nuclear issue and we sit it off here to the side, and we say this cannot be a part of that dialogue. With respect to Syria, there’s a whole long list of things that we lay out in the report that we think Syria needs to do, including cooperating in the investigations of those assassinations, stop screwing around in Lebanon, stop being a transit point for aid to Hezbollah, get Hamas to recognize Israel’s right to exist— things that would very much—that would work very well in terms of progress on the Arab/Israeli conflict.
So these are limited proposals we’re making. We’re not sitting down—we’re not talking about sitting down with Iran and talking to them about everything under the sun.
MR. RUSSERT: But in Iran in 2001 there was a different leader, and it was before the president had described them as a member of the “axis of evil.”
MR. BAKER: That, that’s right. That’s absolutely right. And, and also, people—some people have said, “Hey, when Baker went to Damascus 15 times back in 1991 and got Syria to change 25 years of policy and come to the table and sit down face-to-face with Israel, it was a different Syria.” Well, that’s true.
And it’s a different Iran, that’s true. But what do we lose? We don’t give up anything, and just because it’s hard or people saying you shouldn’t try, I, I don’t buy that.
MR. BAKER: They did. They said, “We would probably not be willing to, to assist you in Iraq the way we did in Afghanistan because we don’t like the attitude of your government,” and we put it in the report, Tim, and we said, “Nevertheless, we ought to ask them and hold them up to global public scrutiny for their rejectionist attitude if they refuse to attend a meeting or meetings of all of the countries that are, that are neighboring countries to Iraq.”
MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Hamilton, let me ask you about something else in the report, and that’s combat troops. You write, “By the first quarter of 2008, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground, all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq.” Jack Keane, a retired Army chief of staff, disagrees with that. He was an adviser to your, your panel. Barry McCaffrey, the former head of Southern Command said this would be a disaster if we’re not careful.
John McCain has said it’s a recipe for disaster and for defeat. How do you respond?
MR. HAMILTON: How, how do you go forward? Well, there are several alternatives. Some say we ought to put thousands and thousand—tens of thousands more troops there. We indicate we just don’t have those troops to put there. If you put them in, the Iraqis are going to let us do—carry all the burden. The solution to the problem, as Jim has said, is not military, it’s, it’s a political solution. The other options would be just to pull out. We think that defeats all kinds of American interests.
We’re looking for the best way forward here. We think the best way forward is to change the primary mission of the U.S. forces from combat to support and training the Iraqi forces. Plenty of problems with that, there’s no doubt about it. But of the options that are available to us, we think it’s the best option.
Is it unrealistic? Well, we haven’t had great success with training. But in the last year or so, we’ve sharply improved that training, and it can be done if we put the priority on it that we’re emphasizing. It’s the best way forward with the options that we have.
MR. HAMILTON: There’s—look, there’s no question you put soldiers at risk. What are you doing today? Looks to me like they’re at considerable risk today.
MR. RUSSERT: Is the problem...
MR. HAMILTON: But if you put Americans in with Iraqi forces, one thing that is sure is you improve the quality of the Iraqi forces. Do you put them at risk? You do. That’s why we recommend considerable military assets being held back in order to go to the rescue of those people, if necessary.
MR. RUSSERT: Is the problem with the Iraqi forces training or motivation? Are they more tribal and more religious, Shia or Sunni, than they are Iraqi?
MR. HAMILTON: I think it’s both. We, we train...
MR. BAKER: I think it’s both.
MR. HAMILTON: Look, we train them. But what we really say when we say training them is we’re putting them through basic training. What we do not do is give them on-the-job skills. So that’s a big part of it. We have to do a better job of training. Is it motivation? Yes, indeed. Not enough of these Iraqi troops are national troops; they’re still sectarian troops.
MR. RUSSERT: James Baker...
MR. BAKER: Tim, Tim, Tim, the, the, the issue, also, remember, is one of whether we stay there and do what we’ve been doing in terms of trying to referee this sectarian violence, or whether we try a new approach. And it’s going to be interesting, I think, to see what the Pentagon comes up with in the—in the review that they’ve undertaken at the president’s request. Because we hear, at least, that there’s some voices over there suggesting we ought to do an enhanced training as the primary mission of our forces.
MR. RUSSERT: James Baker, you have worked for several Republican presidents. You know and understand the Republican Party, the conservative base of that party. Let me show you something from the front page of today’s papers. “The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page described the report as a ‘strategic muddle,’ Richard Perle called it ‘absurd,’ Rush Limbaugh labeled it ‘stupid,’ and The New York Post portrayed the leaders of the group, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton, as ‘surrender monkeys.’” And here’s that now-infamous cartoon on the front page of the New York Post. But in a serious vein, is it possible for the president, take on his conservative base and adopt your report?
MR. BAKER: The president has a significant problem with the situation in, in Iraq. The country has a significant problem with the situation in Iraq. We have, as Lee just indicated to you, come forward in a—with a bipartisan report, a unanimous recommendations, that this might give us the way forward, might produce a way forward that will produce success, which is what we say. And we say...
MR. HAMILTON: Surely...
MR. BAKER: And we say, we say there’s no guarantee, nothing we do can absolutely guarantee success.
And these people who are criticizing, frankly, have not come forward with their proposal, other than Senator McCain, for whom I have the greatest respect, and he has. But in our—in our view and in our study of the problem, Tim, we concluded that additional forces upward—over 50,000 more combat troops, were simply not available to us.
MR. HAMILTON: Surely, we’re not going to make the judgment about what to do in Iraq on the basis of American domestic politics. We have a formidable challenge in that country today. We are not going to solve it if we proceed on what satisfies an American political base. We have to come together as a country if we’re going to solve this problem. The White House and the Congress, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals.
MR. RUSSERT: Are you surprised the president has not embraced your report more wholeheartedly?
MR. HAMILTON: Look, the president has every right to take his time. He’s got every right to look at other recommendations. What he did say was that this report represents a possible way of going forward together, and that’s one of the central messages of our report.
MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Hamilton, what do you do...
MR. BAKER: And that might, and that might provide us—and he also said that might provide some common ground, I think he said. Words to that effect.
MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Hamilton, what happens now? Do you monitor the president? Do you have report cards the way you did with the September 11th Commission, or is your job finished?
MR. HAMILTON: We’re finished. The Iraq Study Group is disbanded. We’re not going to have a public advocacy program that follows through. Jim and I testified the other day, we may do some more testimony in the future. Individual members of the commission—who, incidentally, did a superb job, of the group—may have their own views put forward. But as a group, we’re out of business.
MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Baker, you wrote a book called “Work Hard, Study...and Keep Out of Politics!” advice that your dad gave you. And I want to go to page five of that book. “Dad...had a saying: ‘Prior preparation prevents poor performance.’”
MR. BAKER: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: “He called this the ‘Five Ps.’” A straightforward question: Do you believe the United States listened to that advice, the five Ps, before we went into Iraq?
MR. BAKER: Tim, you know what the number one principle of the Iraq Study Group was that we were going to look forward, and everything in our report is forward-looking. We do not spend any time worrying about or wringing our hands over what might or might not have been done differently in the past.
MR. RUSSERT: You won’t even give it to dad and his five Ps.
MR. BAKER: That was my grandfather, Tim, but it was OK—but it is a pretty good maxim which I’ve tried to follow all my life.
MR. RUSSERT: James Baker, Lee Hamilton, we thank you very much for joining us and sharing your views.
MR. BAKER: Thank you, Tim.
MR. HAMILTON: Thank you. Thank you, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: Coming next, what now for Iraq? We’ll talk to Ambassador Ken Adelman, Dr. Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations and Tom Ricks, author of “Fiasco.” He covers the Pentagon for The Washington Post. They are all coming up on MEET THE PRESS. Do we stay, do we leave Iraq?
MR. RUSSERT: Iraq, are there any good choices? Our roundtable after this.
MR. RUSSERT: And we are back. The Iraq Study Group report is out.
Dr. Richard Haass, the Council on Foreign Relations, what do you think of it?
MR. RICHARD HAASS: I think what’s so striking about it, Tim, is the intellectual honesty. How sober it is, how stark it is. There’s—the bark is off the tree on this report about what is going on in Iraq. I think what it—what it gives us is, is a possible way forward. It’s a long shot that we can succeed in Iraq.
On the other hand, the alternatives are bad. The, the consequences of failure are extraordinary. So what I think this does is basically says we have an approach, which essentially means, let’s try to get the insiders together, national reconciliation; let’s bring in some of the key regional states who have the capacity to make things worse or better; and let’s think about a reorientation of our military mission.
Seems to be sensible, it’s a long shot. I think the advantage of trying is it may work, again. Secondly, though, if it fails, which is quite possible, at least we can say we tried, we went the extra mile. And the onus then is not, not on the United States. The onus is on the Iraqis. At the end of the day, we can’t save Iraq, Iraqis can only save Iraq. And what I think the report does is set up that perception, sets up an alternative for why we didn’t succeed, if in fact we don’t.
MR. RUSSERT: Dr. Cohen, you wrote this in The Wall Street Journal on Thursday: “There is something of a farce in all this, an invocation of wisdom from a cohesive Washington elite that does not exist, a desperate wish to believe in the gravitas and the statecraft of grave men (and women) who can sort out the mess in which the country finds itself.” I won’t put you down as undecided.
MR. ELIOT COHEN: No, I have a dimmer view of the report. I think the report did a—they did do a good job of laying out just how grim the situation is in Iraq, although, to be perfectly frank, if you’re reading the newspapers for the last year or so, you’d have a good sense of that.
I thought that both the process was flawed, and the substance was flawed. The process was flawed because this was a report that was driven at consensus from the very beginning on a subject on which there can’t be consensus. And another word for consensus can be “group think.” You had a bunch of very senior, eminent people, all very worthy, who spent a grand total of four days in Iraq. Only one of them left the green zone, that little bubble of palaces in Baghdad, for more than one day—the only combat veteran, Senator Chuck Robb. And I don’t think the results are very good, either.
What, what—the main suggestion that’s here, if you just read the thing, is it starts with the idea of a new diplomatic offensive, which is somehow supposed to bring Syria and Iran around. There’s, there’s no plausible discussion of what kinds of incentives or disincentives we’ll offer them. Some parts of this verge on fantasy. You know, you’re going to get the Syrians to turn themselves in over the Hariri assassination, to get them to persuade Hamas to recognize Israel? And then on the internal part of the report, a lot of what they’re recommending are things that we say we’re doing. We’re not actually doing them. But part of my argument is our biggest problem has been in implementation, and in energy. The idea that you’re going to have a different course of action, I don’t- I don’t really buy at the end of the day.
MR. RUSSERT: If nothing else, did the report end the debate as to how grave and serious the situation on the ground is?
MR. COHEN: I don’t think so. I, I think—I mean, it, it may have been useful in that regard, I don’t want to be just entirely negative about it. But, but I think most serious people looking at this—including serious people in the military, for sure, and some people at least in the White House—knew that we’re in a pretty difficult situation.
The study group would have done a lot better, I think, if, if they had done something that Secretary Baker rejected, namely laying out different courses of action. Because there are different courses of action.
They’re all bad, and it would be a much greater service to the country if we knew just how bad each of those courses of actions were, and we chose the least bad.
MR. KEN ADELMAN: I think that the gentlemen are absolutely right, that the front end on how grave the situation is was laid out. And I think I agree with you, Tim, that that is a great service. The happy talk from the administration, I think, is over. The “Field of Dreams” approach, “build it and it will come- they will come”—the idea, “liberate it, and it’ll be fine.” I think that the report is excellent on the dire consequences if we fail there.
I think the link between the two are, is very inadequate, and I think that it has a bunch of modest links in there, steps that should be taken soon, and I think we need a dramatic jolt to the system. I think what we have to do is within six-month time, turn around the momentum in Baghdad so that those who are in Baghdad get the feeling, who’s going to win this thing? That’s the big question. Who’s going to win this thing? And it should be—the answer should be the Iraqi government. Now, if they can turn that around within four to six months and do what’s necessary, they win the battle of Baghdad, I think there’s a chance. Otherwise, you know, there’s no chance.
MR. RUSSERT: So you think send...
MR. ADELMAN: And otherwise, it’s irresponsible.
MR. RUSSERT: You think send more American troops to Baghdad?
MR. ADELMAN: Yes. And change the leadership there with the generals there and just get a process so that it is turned around so that the feeling of momentum—I’m not saying the place will be stable in six months. I’m saying the feeling of momentum, those people who say, “Who’s going to win around here eventually?” the answer is it’s most likely that the Iraqi government will win. Otherwise, we’re doing a great disservice to the troops there who are giving their—you know, risked their last full measure of devotion for this thing. And otherwise we’re just playing with diplomacy and a lot of steps with Syria and Iran, which won’t make any difference.
MR. RUSSERT: Prior to the war, you had used the now famous word, “cakewalk.” Do you wish you could take that word back?
MR. ADELMAN: I was talking, Tim, about the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and that government. And that was absolutely true. We did that in 21 days. That was not the problem. The problem was what to do afterwards. A lot of people thought that was going to be the problem, the overthrow of the government, but it wasn’t.
MR. RUSSERT: But there was a perception that this was going to be a lot easier than it turned out to be.
MR. ADELMAN: There was a perception that the overthrow of the Saddam government was going to be a lot harder than it was going to be. Brent Scowcroft wrote his famous piece in The Wall Street Journal saying it could lead to nuclear holocaust, and he wasn’t talking about the aftermaths, he was talking about the overthrow of the Saddam government. My view, and I think Eliot wrote something similar at the time, was that that is not going to be the hard part.
MR. RUSSERT: But in terms of troops levels, being greeted as liberators, there would not be sectarian violence, the costs of the war, there were some misjudgments made.
MR. ADELMAN: There were misjudgments, but I’m not sure that they were so bad misjudgments, to tell you the truth, Tim. I think if the administration had stopped the looting right away, if the administration had not made a series of absolutely mind-bending, mind-bending errors since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, I’m not sure it would’ve been as—it certainly wouldn’t have been as difficult as it is now. Tom Ricks’ book, “Fiasco,” gives a litany, as do other books—Bob Woodward’s book and Michael Gordon’s book and George Packard’s and Bernie Trainor—and the mistakes done makes you slap your forehead and say, “What is going on here?” How come this level of incompetence is just so, so awesome on this, on a very serious thing that has endangered an enormous number of Americans and cost, you know, the prestige of the United States to say nothing of the future of Iraq? It is just shameful.
MR. RUSSERT: Tom Ricks, you wrote this in the paper on Thursday. “The Iraq Study Group report might well be titled ‘The Realist Manifesto.’ ... The bipartisan report is nothing less than a repudiation of the Bush administration’s diplomatic and military approach to Iraq and the whole region. ...
“While many of its recommendations stem from the ‘realist’ school of foreign policy, it is unclear at this point whether a radically different approach would make much difference nearly four years after the invasion of Iraq.” You think it’s too late?
MR. THOMAS RICKS: I think it may be too late, and the report says it may be too late. But says, look, it gives us one last best shot and see if you can do better.
MR. RICKS: As the report says, the, the situation is deteriorating. We have fought the battle of Baghdad now for several months. We tried to put in U.S. forces in the belief that it would change the outcome. And the U.S. military was shocked to find, in October, that it did, did not. As they put more troops in, into Baghdad, violence increased.
Now I think we manned up putting another 20,000 troops into Iraq in a temporary surge, but the U.S. military doesn’t have a lot of confidence that that would do much good, either, in Baghdad.
MR. RICKS: Because they were surprised at how little effect putting, I think it was 8,000 U.S. troops in, had. And really, 20,000 is about the limit you can get out of the U.S. military without doing serious damage to future deployments.
MR. RICKS: Right now it’s an insurgency, it’s a civil war. It’s, I think, the pure Hobbesian state, the war of all against all at this point. It isn’t a—it’s worse than a civil way in many ways. It’s in a state of meltdown. The country is falling apart. What strikes me: Neighborhoods in Baghdad are now essentially little armed fortresses. People have put up barriers, walls, even just burned-out cars so that most neighborhoods only have one entrance and exit. And this is true across the city that sprawls for 30 or 40 miles. It, it essentially is a series of armed camps now.
MR. RUSSERT: Are Iraqis choosing their tribes? Their religious sect over their national government?
MR. HAASS: The short answer is yes. I think when, increasingly when Iraqis get up in the morning, they don’t look in the mirror and define themselves as an Iraqi, that too often now they’re defining themselves as Sunni or Shia or even far smaller units than that. They’re a member of this militia. In some ways, we’re seeing a civil war against the backdrop of a failed state. And that’s what explains what you might call the militarization of this country. It’s a real breakdown of central authority. And the problem with the report might simply be that it’s three years late, that it’s coming into a situation which is so deteriorated that, way beyond any questions of whether this report, Tim, can gain traction inside the beltway, the real question is whether it can gain traction in Baghdad, whether the situation on the ground has simply deteriorated beyond the point that, that the sorts of remedies put forward here can stick, or indeed whether any remedies can stick.
MR. RUSSERT: You write in tomorrow’s Time magazine something that I would describe as extremely pragmatic in approaching this. “Almost as important as what actually happens in Iraq is how it is understood. One possibility is that people around the region and the world would come to judge Iraq’s failure as largely the result of American policy. ... An alternative view is that the lion’s share of responsibility for what has taken place in Iraq over the past few years belongs to the Iraqis themselves. ... This narrative is more likely to take hold if the U.S. publicly sets clear benchmarks for what Iraqis must accomplish regarding political reform and security performance and what they should expect if they come up short.” Your point is: Set these benchmarks and if the Iraqis don’t do it, say “We’ve liberated you; now it’s your problem that you haven’t taken advantage of it.”
MR. HAASS: Pretty much. We set forth these benchmarks. This is what it will take to make Iraq a functioning country in the area of security, in the area of politics and economics. If Iraq can do those things, great. Then we will have a partner and we will have a basis to press on. But if Iraq can’t do those things, then I think it sets the stage for the president of the United States saying, “Look, we have done everything we could’ve done and more. And quite honestly, what’s missing is not another six months or six years of American effort. What’s missing is not another 20,000 or 50,000 troops.”
So I’m all in favor of giving the Iraqis a chance to show that they can make this work. But at some point, Tim, I think the president of the United States has to make a very sober assessment that what’s—what we’re trying is not working. And if we get to that point, he’s got to then look to how do we cut our losses, contain the damage and move on. At the end of the day, American foreign policy has to move beyond Iraq.
MR. RUSSERT: Is that fair to the Iraqis? Colin Powell said, “If we break it, we bought it.” If we went in, topple Saddam Hussein, do we not have a responsibility of at least creating security so that the Iraqis can govern themselves?
MR. HAASS: Well, it’s one of the reasons that people like me had doubts about the war from the get-go. I was not confident that we could make this work even if we had avoided many of the problems that Ken Adelman and Tom Ricks and others have, have documented. But at some point, we’ve got to say, “We have—we have done as much as we can reasonably be expected to do.” And also, at some point, we owe it to our troops and to the American people, where we have to say further investment of lives, further investment of dollars are not going to turn this thing around. We, we owe that, to ourselves, I would say, even more than we owe things to the Iraqis. We cannot, by ourselves, make Iraq a success.
MR. HAASS: I would perhaps do it for a short amount of time, a surge, as part, again, of this narrative, as part of saying, “We’ve gone the extra mile.: I want to take away the arguments, quite honestly, from the critics of the report. I want to take away the argument that if Iraq turns out as badly as I fear it might, I want to take away the argument that it was because of what we didn’t do. If Iraq doesn’t work, I think it’s incredibly important for the future of the Middle East and for the future of American foreign policy around the world that the principle lesson not be that the United States is unreliable or we lacked staying power. “If only we’d done a little bit more for a little bit longer it would’ve succeeded.” To me, it is essentially important for the future of this country that Iraq be seen, if you will, as Iraq’s failure, not as America’s failure.
MR. RUSSERT: Dr. Cohen, your son has served bravely in Iraq. If the president picked up the phone this morning and said, “All right, Dr. Cohen, tell me what to do. As a father, as a military historian, what do I do?”
MR. COHEN: I think the first thing I’d say is, “I’m going to separate out what I say as a father and what I say as a military historian or commentator.” That’s a separate issue.
MR. RUSSERT: Fair enough.
MR. COHEN: What I would say is, “The first thing, Mr. President, you have to decide what you are capable of doing. And that means, among other things, how energetic are you willing to, to be in getting your bureaucracy to do the things that we already say that we’re doing, or that we ought to be doing.”
And I, I find it appalling, for example, our troops are still driving around in humvees now that we’ve slapped some armor on them. These are vehicles that are not designed to withstand the blasts of roadside bombs. There are commercially available vehicles that are. And yet, somehow, three and a half years after going into this kind of war, we still don’t have them. That, that’s symptomatic of a larger problem. That is, getting the bureaucracy to do the things that it needs to do.
Second thing I think I would say, in terms of broad strategy, that we are clearly at a crossroads. And there are two basic courses of action. One is, essentially, just limiting our losses and getting out, and there is a intellectually respectable argument for that. And the other is trying to win. And, and honestly, I’d rather win than control the narrative at the moment.
If we can win, I think what it would require would be something like this: First, it’s going to require a lot more money, and it’s going to require a substantial increase in the size of the American military. I suspect it will require a substantial surge—at least in the short term—in the Baghdad area. I, I disagree a little bit with Tom. I think 8,000 troops is not very much, you couldn’t really expect that to influence the violence in Baghdad.
MR. COHEN: I suspect we’re probably talking about 20,000 or 30,000, something along those lines, a much more substantial kind of—kind of increase. The report is right in emphasizing training. But again, you know, the administration has been saying training is job one. But if you get down and talk to military trainers, as I have—both there and here—what you see is we say we’re going to have a dozen advisers embedded in each Iraqi battalion, we usually have about eight or nine. And what they will tell you is we need 35, 50, maybe even 70. It’s hard to make the bureaucracy do it. The institutions will not want to do that, for perfectly understandable reasons. The part of what we need here is—this is as much an issue of drive and grip and, and vigor in, in trying to do the things that we’re going to say we’re doing. The last point I would make is, in terms of our dealings with the Iraqis, we do need an alternative option. We do have to be able to confront them, saying, “Look, if you are not willing to go along with, for example, us vetting commanders in the Iraqi security forces and exercising considerable influence over promotion, we will leave you to chaos.” And that’s a useful threat to have with the Syrians and the Iranians. It’s the only threat at the moment, honestly, that we have with the Syrians and the Iranians. And you have to be prepared to follow through on that. But, but this idea...
MR. COHEN: For the Syrians and Iranians, I think, real chaos is a little bit more of a mess than, than they really want. The, the problem with the report is it implies that somehow, without any incentives beyond wanting to help us, you can get them to cooperate. And I think that’s absurd. I—frankly, I would prefer much more direct means of pressure on the Syrians and Iranians, but I don’t think at the moment— at the moment that we have them.
MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Adelman, the president talks about a secure country, a safe environment that can govern itself, and an ally in the war on terror. When Prime Minister Maliki was here with his foreign policy advisers, I asked them repeatedly, did they think that Hezbollah was a terrorist group. And they said, “Well, we’re not in a position to say—make a comment like that.” The speaker of the parliament of Iraq said the violence was caused by Israel and Jewish agents. Will Iraq truly be an ally of the United States in the war on terror, or will it be more closely aligned with Iran?
MR. ADELMAN: I would—I would say that we have to walk before it runs, and they don’t need a foreign policy right now, Tim, with all due respect. They need some kind of coherence and some kind of ability to run the country, which they’re not doing.
Now, I differ a little bit with my friend Richard Haass in saying that, you know, we have to structure ourselves to get into the politics of blamesmanship on this, and I do believe that we, we owe it to the troops there—and especially to the Iraqis, and—to go one last try to get Baghdad to turn around. And I believe a surge—not with 6,000, but something like 20,000 to 30,000--some of them coming into the country, some of them in less used places around the country—and a general there on the ground— probably different than the generals we have there, to tell you the truth, who have tried and served and, and very patriotic, but have not got the job done—to turn it around so that the momentum is our way within six months. Now, if that doesn’t work, then, then we should just get out of there, because then we’re endangering a lot of lives.
Let me make one more point, and that is when Eliot Cohen says that the implementation of this has been awful, that’s an understatement. This Iraqi report gives an example, Tim, that just breaks your heart. In the thousand-person U.S. Embassy in Baghdad today, there’s six people, six people who speak fluent Arabic. Now, this is not Chiluba, this is not, you know, an obscure language. This is one of the great languages of the world. And out of 1,000, we don’t have any more than six people who can speak the language where they are? How can you, how can the president hear that, how can anybody in the U.S. government hear that and not be totally ashamed by the unseriousness of this effort? It also makes the point that in the Defense Intelligence Agency, less than 10 analysts have been looking at this insurgency for two years or so. Less than 10. And this is what’s killing 100 Americans a month, and 100 Iraqis a day. I mean, it is just—it just breaks your heart.
MR. RUSSERT: Tom, Tom Ricks, based on your report, your understanding of the situation, where do you see us a year from now?
MR. RICKS: I think we’ll still be in Iraq. I think we’ll be in Iraq probably for 10 to 15 years with American troops, much reduced in their numbers. That’s kind of the best-case scenario. I think if things continue to fall apart, the American people will not tolerate having American troops dying in a civil war, the cross fire of a civil war.
MR. RUSSERT: How do you take large numbers of American troops out of Iraq quickly, if that’s the decision? With the roads to Kuwait and to Jordan and the number of equipment and vehicles and armaments we have, is that possible? And could there not be a great possibility of significant hostage- taking?
MR. RICKS: I think it will be fairly easy to get U.S. forces out. The irony of it is that U.S. military can go wherever it wants in Iraq, it just doesn’t have much of an effect. It’s a hand put in a bucket of water. My great concern would be the allies in Iraq, the Iraqis we’ve surfaced over the last few years, have pulled into our effort and have promised them that, “We’ll take you to a new Iraq.” Those people will be extremely exposed. Now, a lot of them have left. Basically, the middle class has fled into Jordan, Syria, Europe and the U.S.—the doctors, the lawyers, the professors, the glue of democracy. What you have left now are the hard men, the men of the gun. And it’s really a shame that we didn’t focus early on on protecting those Iraqi allies. And I would really worry about them if we left.
MR. HAASS: Again, at best, a messy country with a very weak central government, regular violence, pretty much what we’re seeing today. That would be to me, sadly—sad enough, the optimistic scenario.
I don’t see democracy taking hold. I don’t see a national consensus. This is not a reasonable society right now where reasonable ideas can take hold.
My concern is something far worse, which is, one or the other sides looks like it’s victorious, either the Sunnis or the Shia, to the extent one can generalize at all, and outsiders begin to get more involved. One can imagine, in particular, a lot of people, Tim, as you know, are now talking about a so-called 80- percent solution, where the United States essentially goes with the majority of Iraq, which is...
MR. RUSSERT: The Shiites.
MR. HAASS: ...the Shiites and the Kurds, and lets the Sunnis essentially lose. The problem with that, it seems to me, is their kith and kin around the region will get involved. And suddenly you’ll see so- called “volunteers” streaming in across borders. The Saudis and others will make sure personnel and money and guns get in there.
MR. RUSSERT: To the Sunnis.
MR. HAASS: To the Sunnis.
MR. RUSSERT: So a proxy war between Shiites and Sunnis.
MR. HAASS: That’s the nightmare. As bad as Iraq is now—you know, people always say things have to get worse before they get better. In the Middle East sometimes, things have to get worse before they get even worse. And the danger in Iraq is, as bad as things are now, one can imagine it worse. Which again, I’m all in favor of what I’ve heard around this table. Yes, the United States ought to make a big push to try to get things right. It’s a long shot, though. Let’s be—let’s be honest. It’s a long shot. Odds are, we won’t succeed. Not because of us, but more because of Iraq.
We have to start thinking. It’s not a blame game. What it is is a preparation to try to reduce the cost, to contain it. We may have to, quite honestly, as bad as it sounds, think about letting a civil war rage for a while, but hopefully keeping it from spilling beyond its borders, bringing in the region. We have—we may have to think about how we insulate the rest of American foreign policy.
I don’t like saying these things because what we’re talking about are accepting costs, accepting a degree of failure. But we may find that the only courses available to the United States now are bad options and degrees of failure. You can call that realism, you can call that defeatism. I’m, I’m afraid, to answer your question, that is going to be the future.
MR. COHEN: You know, I think we’re at a real crossroads, so I, I do think that it could either be quite as horrible as Richard Haass has argued or I think it’s conceivable it could be getting—it could be getting somewhat better.
One of the problems, again, to go back to the study group report, is I think once people have the idea that we’re just kind of covering up with a—we’ve got a cover for our gradual disengagement from this thing, if you’re an Iraqi, particularly an Iraqi who’s been working with us in the military or in the other parts of the security forces or simply the government, you’ll immediately begin cutting deals with all the different kinds of cutthroat organizations that are out there, whether it’s the Jaish al-Mahdi or al-Qaeda in Iraq or the Badr Brigades, or, or, or you name it.
So I think we are very much at a crossroads. We may very well end up with the worst solution, in which case, it’ll be time to think about containing damage. But for the moment, at least, I would hope that we would make an effort to try to succeed.
MR. RUSSERT: Will the war in Iraq go down as, what? How will it be described in history?
MR. ADELMAN: I tell you, my view on this is a little different from—probably from everybody’s. I think it was the right thing to do. I think that after September 11, with the “evidence” that we had with weapons of mass destruction and—that turned out not to be true, but no one knew it wasn’t true then, and certainly Saddam didn’t act like it wasn’t true—and with the intelligence during the first Gulf war that the nuclear program of Saddam Hussein was further along than we suspected at the time—with all those factors, I think it was a courageous thing for President Bush to do. I think that part of it was wonderful.
I think that the MBA part, the master of business administration and the competence that Eliot, who was talking about, in just implementing it, I think it was a shameful exercise. So I think it’s a good idea gone terribly bad by terrible implementation on that.
And for a year from now, I think that it’s going to be close to what Richard and Eliot says and Tom, but I want something a little different—and I think we all want that: a feeling that somehow the Iraqi government has bottomed out, that they’re going to be OK, that if you’re putting your smart money on things, you’re going to go with those guys rather than the sectarian groups, rather than the insurgents, because eventually they’re going to win. And I hope to God, for the sake of our troops, as I say, that that is the case.
MR. RUSSERT: We just have 20 seconds. Tom Ricks, the military spent two decades learning about Vietnam. What will the military take from Iraq?
MR. RICKS: It’s too early to tell, but it’s going to be a series of, I think, very bad and worrisome and ugly lessons that derive from this, probably being the most profligate and worst decision in the history of American foreign policy.
RUSSERT: Tom Ricks, Ken Adelman, Eliot Cohen, Richard Haass, thank you very much for a very important discussion.
And we’ll be right back.
MR. RUSSERT: That’s all for today. We’ll be back next week. An exclusive interview with a man who may run for president on the Republican side: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, next Sunday right here. Because if it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.