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Troubled Transition in Iraq

May 24, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: As President Bush prepared for his televised speech tonight, U.S. diplomats offered a preview of sorts at the U.N. Their draft resolution, endorsing the handover on June 30, says — The new interim government will have authority for governing a sovereign Iraq — that elections for a transitional national assembly will be held by next Jan. 31. And other nations are urged to contribute to the effort with troops and reconstruction aid.

Three views now on the president’s approach in his speech tonight. Peter Galbraith is a former ambassador who has written widely on Iraq and the Kurds. He’s just back from Iraq . Laith Kubba is a senior program officer for the Middle East at the National Endowment for Democracy. Born in Iraq , he’s now an American citizen. And Reuel Gerecht was in the CIA’s clandestine service focusing on the Middle East from 1985 to 1994. He’s now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Welcome, gentlemen. What does the president, what is the main message, Reuel Gerecht, that the president has to get through to the American people tonight?

REUEL GERECHT: Well, I think first and foremost, that he has a plan. And then I suspect that he will give a rough outline on it and he will suggest probably it’s a two-track plan, there’s one track developing in Baghdad and that there is another developing in New York through the United Nations and that the two are going to harmoniously work together, and we will be able to see where we are going, conceivably, the end of the road.

MARGARET WARNER: Is that how you see it? That’s what the president has to do?

PETER GALBRAITH: I don’t think this speech is going to have any credibility unless he admits that the strategy that he has been following has not worked. I think he has to admit that there were huge mistakes, that he was overly ambitious in trying to establish Iraq as a democracy that would transform the Middle East — that he didn’t put the resources to that task and he sent people who weren’t qualified to do the job. I think he now needs to be realistic and he needs to be focused on civil war, which I think is a much more likely outcome now than democracy.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Laith Kubba, what do you think is the most important message he has to send to the Iraqi people?

LAITH KUBBA: I think the most important message is that America is not going to be an occupying power, that there has been illusions or expectations that it is going to be expansionist adventure in the region — this is not going to happen, that America is sticking to the timeline of handing over power to the Iraqis.

It is going to be a sovereign government with full authority. Iraqis are in charge of their own money and their own future and they’re sticking to a timeline. Most importantly, the U.N. will assume the legal and political responsibility to lead that effort of the transition and the U.S. is no longer in charge of it.

MARGARET WARNER: Now the draft resolution that we saw in the U.N. this afternoon includes many of these elements. Does it strike you, Reuel Gerecht, to use Peter Galbraith’s comments, to move Iraq from its present occupied status to a stable, unified democratic government?

REUEL GERECHT: I don’t think we know yet. One, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who’s the Shiite cleric who leads the Shiite community in Iraq, he has been reviewing the program as it has developed in a rush. But he has not given his approval as far as I know to it. I really don’t think they’ve fully worked this out. And until Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani approves of the program, the program functionally doesn’t really exist.

MARGARET WARNER: But are you saying that the whole idea of an interim government is even questionable in your view? Is it just a concept?

REUEL GERECHT: Well, no, I think there is going to be an interim government, but the details of it, I think, are still far from certain. And I think it’s important to remember that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani wanted the U.N. to participate because he wanted to use it as a leverage against the Americans to accelerate the democratic process. Unless he is certain that in fact that democratic process is moving forward, and there is no doubt about that, it is not unlikely that he will veto it.

MARGARET WARNER: How realistic a plan do you think this is, Laith Kubba for moving from here to there?

LAITH KUBBA: I think if you were to ask, is it going to be perfect, the answer is no. Is it going to please everybody, the answer is no. Is it going to be a continuation of the policy, the answer is no. Is it likely to work? I think it stands a good chance. It is going to be tough, but I cannot see an alternative to it.

PETER GALBRAITH: I think this plan doesn’t address many of the fundamental issues. First, it’s really stunning that here we are five weeks before the handover of power, we do not know who is going to take over. We don’t know what the authority of the new government is going to be. We don’t know what the status of the interim constitution, which was adopted in March after a lot of discussion and a great deal of back slapping by the administration, whether that will even apply. And if it doesn’t, some of those carefully constructed compromises, for example, that would give the Kurds a veto on the permanent constitution, if that’s taken away, then you’re setting the stage for conflict and potentially civil war.

MARGARET WARNER: A lot of the political news, Laith Kubba coming out of Iraq in the last couple of weeks has been one of conflict. I mean, everything from everybody from the different ethnic factions jockeying for the jobs, from killing of the member of the governing council and the raid on the offices of another, Ahmed Chalabi. Will the interim government, what does that tell you about challenges that will face the interim government?

LAITH KUBBA: Tremendous. But I still say it can work if more effort has been put into rebuilding state institutions. The army, security and the bureaucracy, they can be built. By and large, Iraqis are accustomed to a strong state and I think very quickly they will help rebuild it. The politics of it, it’s difficult unless there is an end from Iraq ‘s main communities as I think has mentioned Ayatollah Sistani, then it can succeed.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think Iraqis will regard this appointed interim government as the governing authority and will see that, will come together to get to the next stage, these elections in January, just because it’s Iraqi-led?

REUEL GERECHT: Perhaps. I mean I think they may view it as an improvement on the Iraqi Governing Council but I wouldn’t get my hopes up very high. I think the only thing that is really going to bestow legitimacy certainly in the eyes of the Shiite community are elections. Until we get to elections, I think the possibility for this coming off the rails remains fairly substantial.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think Iraqi people will regard this government as a legitimate government?

PETER GALBRAITH: I think it depends on what you mean by the Iraqi people. It really is no such thing. There are different communities within Iraq which have very different views. I think Shiites will wait until there are elections. The Kurds are not going to agree to anything that changes their status, which is, in fact, functionally an independent state.

They’re not going to accept the restoration there of central government institutions. They’ll never accept the return of an Iraqi army however reformed because they associate that with genocide. So the question is who is going to accept what. And in the Sunni Triangle, there aren’t really leaders in place who have authority or support among the pop lace. So we don’t know what is going to happen there.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s look at the security situation. Will the fact, Laith Kubba, that the government is at least run by Iraqis, will that in and of itself reduce any of the violence? Or might it, as Gen. Abizaid suggested last week, even increase it?

LAITH KUBBA: I think nobody has an illusion that there is no quick fix to security. Things will get worse before they get better. It is a little bit too late in the game to fix it now because there has been a vacuum for a long time.

But I think once there is a sound political process, once there are institutions, when people see light at the end of this tunnel, I think Iraqis by and large will line up behind the process and ultimately we will see dramatic, I think, rapid increase in security.

MARGARET WARNER: You’re saying Reuel Gerecht, or at least you said earlier, that you think we should have had earlier elections in Iraq . Why?

REUEL GERECHT: Because I think there is an enormous and increasingly frustrated desire in the country for elections. There was an interesting group put together by the Iraqi Governing Council which included the very well known Iraqi writer, Kanan Makiya, who traveled all over the country from the Sunni regions and Shia regions and the Kurdish region. What they found, somewhat surprisingly, that they didn’t anticipate was the enormous desire for elections.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you think of that idea?

PETER GALBRAITH: I think actually it is a good idea to hold elections.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean as soon as maybe this fall?

PETER GALBRAITH: As soon as this fall. But then we’re going to have to be prepared to live with the consequences. And I think what elections are going to produce is different outcomes in the different regions.

I think you are going to see strong support for the Shiite religious parties in the South. What you are going to see in Kurdistan is support to continue the more pluralistic western-style democracy that they’ve had.

Unless you can have a system that reconciles those very different visions of the future of Iraq , a system which I think has to be a very loose federation, that unless you can reconcile those different visions, you are going to have conflict, and that issue has to be addressed as a top priority and so far it hasn’t been.

MARGARET WARNER: One other point the president is going to make tonight and is in the U.N. resolution is further internationalizing this effort both with troops and assistance. What do you think the prospects of that are?

PETER GALBRAITH: Well, there is an obvious advantage to the United States for internationalizing because we get other people to help share their share of the burden, pay the price. The problem is that the Germans and the French are not going to want to put up the $10 billion each to support the effort which they didn’t support in the first place and they feel they have been very badly treated by the administration in the process.

MARGARET WARNER: Bottom line question, Reuel Gerecht, does this plan of the president, this approach, strike you as the beginning of a successful exit strategy and one that leads leaves a successful stable Iraq?

REUEL GERECHT: Again I think at this time it’s impossible to say that. If I had to bet on it, I would probably bet in the other direction because I think they are being a little bit too loose on the issue of elections.

I think they need to come quickly because we don’t know what is going to happen. And also it’s good to remember — I mean Colin Powell made a very important statement last week where he said that an interim government might have the authority to ask the Americans to leave –deduced from that means that an interim government might be able to checkmate insurgency operations. We could get ourselves into an enormous mess if that’s true.

MARGARET WARNER: What is your thought on that?

LAITH KUBBA: I can see this process has huge potential. It is multi-phased, there is a lot of flexibility built into it. And I think if we make mistakes we will fine tune it as we go along. I think ultimately it will deliver. Nobody think it is going to be easy but I think ultimately it will deliver.

MARGARET WARNER: So you don’t see the real potential for disaster that perhaps both of he other guests do?

LAITH KUBBA: On the contrary, I’m aware of all the challenges but I do not see an alternative. I think once this process is set in place with the phase envisioned, I think Iraq can have a better future to it.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you, Peter Galbraith see in this the outlines of the beginning of an exit strategy that will persuade the American public that we got a game plan to ultimately get out with success?

PETER GALBRAITH: The president is basically going to be proposing more of what has already failed. So unless there is a radical change of strategy, which requires recognition of the multiple failures to date, I don’t think the American people are going to have any confidence in it, and frankly, I don’t think the people in Iraq are going to have any confidence in it.

MARGARET WARNER: So when you raise the prospect of civil war, are you saying this could just as easily lead to that?

PETER GALBRAITH: The whole strategy has been, in addition to the many mistakes that have been made, has been based on assumptions about Iraq as a homogenous nation, which is it is not. There aren’t any Kurds that I’ve met in 20 years that want to be part of Iraq . We have to deal with that reality.

MARGARET WARNER: Peter Galbraith, Laith Kubba, and Reuel Gerecht, thank you all three.