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Iraq’s Transfer of Power

June 28, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: At a NATO summit in Turkey, President Bush looked at his watch the moment power was handed over in Baghdad, then shared a congratulatory handshake with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Later, the two principal allies in the invasion and occupation of Iraq met with reporters. They were asked about the likelihood the new Iraqi government would need to impose martial law to deal with terrorism.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: You know, Prime Minister Allawi has fought tyranny. He’s a guy that stood up to Saddam Hussein. He’s a patriot. And every conversation I’ve had with him has been one that recognizes, you know, human liberty, human rights. I mean, he’s a man who is willing to risk his life for a democratic future for Iraq. And our job is to help the Iraqis stand up to forces that are able to deal with these thugs. I mean, it’s tough. There’s no question about it. They can’t whip our militaries. They can’t whip our militaries. What they can do is get on your TV screens and stand in front of your TV cameras and cut somebody’s head off in order to try to cause us to cringe and retreat. That’s their strongest weapon, and we just… Prime Minister Allawi has said publicly many times, you know, he will not cower in the face of such brutal murder, and neither will we; neither will we.

PRIME MINISTER TONY BLAIR: What we’ve got is a very simple problem to describe and a complicated problem to overcome. We have groups of terrorists and insurgents who will use suicide bombs, who do not care in the least about killing innocent people, who’ll do whatever it takes to stop the country from functioning properly. Now in those circumstances, I don’t blame at all the Iraqi ministers. Any of us would be doing this, as politicians, in the same situation, of wanting to get after those people and hunt them down. But they’re not getting after them, hunting them down in defiance of basic freedoms, but in order to help basic freedoms.

KWAME HOLMAN: A British reporter then suggested the early transition created the impression that Iraq was being handed over while still in shambles.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We have been making a transfer of sovereignty all along. And the… actually, we’ve been contemplating this move for a while, but the final decision was by Prime Minister Allawi, and he thought it would strengthen his hand, and so that’s why the handover took place today as opposed to 48 hours later. And so, not only is there full sovereignty in the hands of the government, all the ministries have been transferred and they’re up and running.

PRIME MINISTER TONY BLAIR: It’s a healthier, better relationship now that there’s this transfer of sovereignty there, and where they really want the responsibility of running their own country but they know the practical fact is, for the moment, until their own security forces are built up properly, they need our support, and they have our support.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Thank you all very much.

KWAME HOLMAN: Both leaders also indicated their NATO allies, while opposed to the invasion of Iraq, had expressed hope the new government would be successful.

JIM LEHRER: Now, to two analysts who have been with us since the Iraq war began: Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security advisor to President Carter, now a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; and Walter Russell Mead, a columnist and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Dr. Brzezinski, how would you characterize the significance of what happened today?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I think it’s a good step in the right direction. But I would avoid using Orwellian language in describing it. This is not a transfer of power, a handover to a sovereign government. We are transferring limited authority to a satellite government, a satellite government that is still to establish its legitimacy and the longer we stay, the more difficult it will be before it to gain legitimacy. That is my basic view.

JIM LEHRER: But this is a good thing, a good step toward that, do you think?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, it’s a good step in the sense that hopefully it’s the beginning of a disengagement but what worries me is that our disengagement right now is still being defined in very indefinite terminology. And that intensifies Iraqi suspicions that we’re there to stay. That strengthens the opposition, the hostility, the insurgency and then that then weakens the satellite government that we hope at some point will take over.

JIM LEHRER: Dr. Mead, how would you summarize this handover or whatever word you would like to use to describe it?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I agree with dr. Brzezinski that we don’t want to be Orwellian about this but I think maybe satellite, which was used to describe the puppet governments of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe may be a little too extreme. This is a transition is the way I describe it. What we have here is an infant regime that we hope will grow. The plan is really for a transition. That is to say this is an interim government. The elections should be held by no later than Jan. 31, and the task is to try to improve stability and security while coming closer to the freest elections in the history of the Arab world, we hope.

JIM LEHRER: What do you– how do you read the prospects for that happening?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, you know, I can’t claim to be Nostradamus and have a crystal ball that’s infallible here. But I think that it’s going to depend on the skills of the Iraqi politicians who have taken over, how canny are they, how in touch are they with the Iraqi culture and the mood of the people? And it also depends on the continued willingness of the Americans and the British and other people in the coalition to support the government.

JIM LEHRER: Would you use the same word that Dr. Brzezinski just used, that he was hopeful? Is that as far as you’ll go as well?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: I’m hopeful. I would also say that there are signs that progress has been made. Again, let’s see where this insurgency goes. It’s interesting, for example, that all five of the hostages discussed earlier on the program are Muslims. Four of them are from Muslim countries: Pakistan and Turkey. There’s a lot of hostility apparently building in Iraq toward the idea that foreign fanatics are trying to use Iraq as a staging ground for their own reasons and that with a government in Baghdad that starts to look more and more like an authentic Iraqi government, it’s possible that nationalist feeling in Iraq will start siding with the government and not with the insurgents. And if that happens, things will go much better.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Dr. Brzezinski, that that is a possibility now?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: It is a possibility, but in my view it’s not a probability. I rather fear that there is a kind of a fusion developing between Iraqi nationalism and fundamentalism and that it is occurring in a context in the region as a whole, which is becoming more and more anti-American.

This is why I’m rather fearful that our policy, alas, has been setting the region on fire. And I don’t think we’ll be able to get hold of this context of this dynamic situation unless we do two basic things in my view: One is define in a clear terms to the Iraqis when we intend to leave, thereby spurring the Iraqi government to be more energetic because otherwise popular opposition to us will intensify and the Iraqi politicians will compete eventually in telling us to get out, which means we lose control over the calendar. And, after all, if we set a date and if the Iraqi government is not delivering, it can then ask us to stay longer, which then makes us stay by invitation rather than by compulsion.

And the other thing we need to do I think is activate and really seriously activate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process because to the Arabs in the region, these two issues are now conflated and they are viewed essentially as an example of western imperialism, of American imperialism. I think that in the long run is very dangerous to our interests.

JIM LEHRER: Walter Mead, do you agree with Dr. Brzezinski’s two points?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I suppose yes and no. I think it may be helpful at some time to give a date for our withdrawal from Iraq but I’m afraid that at the moment it’s not quite time.

JIM LEHRER: What would be the time?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I think you might start or you might find that you were losing control over events there and that people would say the transition government will never be able to solidify. And in any case I certainly think we have an obligation to stay there through elections.

I would put it a little differently that when there’s an elected government in Iraq and it asks us to leave, we leave. We should make a very, very firm commitment that the elected government of Iraq determines the future of that country, not the United States of America. I think if we did that, we’d get a lot of the benefits that dr. Brzezinski would like to see.

At the same time on the Israeli-Palestinian front, so to speak, I agree that we have got to find a way to get this started. Again, the collapse of the peace process in the last weeks of the Clinton administration was a strategic defeat of the first magnitude for the United States. That was a peace process that we had spent a bipartisan process developed over 30 years and when we basically bet the farm on getting a complete solution in the dying weeks of the Clinton administration, we were left with a worst case scenario.

It is not easy to put Humpty-Dumpty together again but Dr. Brzezinski is right, we’ve got to try. My own thought is rather than – you know, we’ve had enough road maps and other things that haven’t gotten us very far. I think the United States needs to take a much closer look at the aspects of a two- state solution that would benefit Palestinians: Compensation, making sure that every Palestinian at the end of the day has a passport and a right to live as a citizen of a state, basically giving people a basis for hope that a compromise peace will lead to a better life for individual Palestinians, and giving people in the Arab world the impression based on facts that the United States does care about the future of Palestinians and is concerned about their human situation. I think that’s very important.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s leave further discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian thing to another — and let’s go back to the specifics of Iraq, Dr. Brzezinski. You heard what Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times said that he picked up on the street today at least, a feeling among Iraqis that the Iraqis may have a better chance of stopping the violence, the threatened and real beheadings and all of those steps because they speak the language. It’s their people that they’re talking about and to. Do you agree with that?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: You know, paradoxically that’s one of the reasons why I think we should set a date for departure sometimes next year, in fact, because the situation is clearly very mixed one. But what we see on television is essentially those elements of violence that can be televised. We don’t see much of the country that is not being beset by violence. And my judgment is that if we were to capitalize on this mixed picture and gave the Iraqi authority the opportunity to assert itself while making it very clear that we’re leaving will increase its probability of succeeding.

But if we remain indefinite and at the same time become engaged and remain engaged in suppressing resistance, that resistance will intensify because the correspondent we heard actually also stressed the fact that resistance is growing, resentment is growing, and look, even the ceremony had to be held in secret, which shows in some respects how insecure we are ourselves.

I may also add that I have recently had the opportunity to talk to some of our top policy makers who deal with Iraq. And what struck me — and this is really not kind of a backhanded criticism of them– how little we know. I was struck how little we know. Our intelligence is very poor. We don’t have a good sense of what the resistance really is, who is in the resistance, and how widespread it is. I don’t think that’s going to improve if we simply keep proclaiming we’re going to stay there until there is security because that really helps that resistance to become a national resistance.

JIM LEHRER: What about that, Dr. Mead, that just staying there for an indefinite period also welcomes the resistance to stay as well?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, again, I think what we say is that our commitment is indefinite, as I think in fact it has to be; but that we are prepared not to control the timing, that when asked by an elected government we will go. I think down the road and perhaps not that many months away if things go at all well, we could even become more definite and more toward Dr. Brzezinski’s position.

But again I think we should not overlook the fact that the kind of fusion of fanaticism and nationalism really to the extent that it’s taking place remains rather limited among the Sunnis, and the most danger… and that’s a minority of the population — that the violence even in the last week or two where it’s been very… been a lot of deaths, a lot of murders, has tended to be limited more or less within the Sunni Triangle, that rather than spreading out into the majority what we’ve been seeing is that the Sadr militias have reached a political accommodation and he’s now talking even about participating in the political process.

So I don’t want us to lose track of the mixed picture that does exist or to suggest that we’re sort of on the verge of an unstoppable national wave of resentment and repudiation. We need to be heading out. More than anything we need to be giving control and ceding control over the future of Iraq to Iraqis. I don’t think the time has come yet to set a date.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read the decision to do it 48 hours earlier? Dr. Mead?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I think it was intended again to sort of deprive the insurrection of an opportunity and a timetable to throw things off. I agree with Dr. Brzezinski that having to have it in this sort of super guarded secret location was not a sign of confidence and really is very much an indictment of our failure to establish security in Iraq. And there’s no way to get around that.

It was also, I think, though a sense to again to try to accelerate a sense of American transfer. It shows that there’s a good working relationship between the government and the Americans. It shows that the Americans are deferring to the political judgments of the Iraqis. That I think is very, very important.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Dr. Brzezinski, that with all your reservations that at least something has been ceded to the Iraqis now? They are in charge of a lot more than they were as of this morning.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Yes, let’s not pump it up and let’s not distort it. We have had too much Orwellian language in our discussion of Iraq altogether. The Orwellian language was invented by communists but it’s being adapted in our political discourse by the neocons. We talk about liberation when it’s an occupation. We talk about peace when it’s war. We talk about sovereignty when it’s limited authority.

Let’s be realistic in our assessments and then I think we’ll be in a better position to conduct a serious national debate over what needs to be done and what is being done. I think that this is a step in the right direction but the pitfalls are enormous. Unless we recognize that we have to change course rather significantly, I am afraid we may dig ourselves in and be stuck in the Middle East the way the Israelis have been stuck in the West Bank. They have been there for 37 years. I don’t want American occupation forces to be stuck in the Middle East for years.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Doctors Brzezinski and Mead, thank you both very much.