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Iraq’s Troubled Transition

May 25, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST

TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: Joining me now are the two analysts who provided our commentary through the first phase of the Iraq War. Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security adviser in the Carter administration. He’s now a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His most recent book is “The Choice: Global Domination or Global Leadership.” Walter Russell Mead is a columnist and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He recently wrote “Power, Terror, Peace and War.”

Walter Russell Mead, give us your overall impression of the president’s address, and tell us whether you thought that there were any changes in course, emphasis or direction?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I think it was a strong speech for his intend audience, that is to say the people who had supported the Bush administration’s war policy up until fairly recently, but under the impact of recent events were having doubts. I think he’s probably stopped the rot of his base. He’s given people a sense that there is a clear strategy, whether it’s a workable strategy is another issue. And he has managed to execute a number of important changes in strategy without looking inconsistent or weak. And, in particular, we see that in the last few weeks the American forces have moved to a much more political view of their role in Iraq, that they’re consulting with Iraqis over how to handle problems like Fallujah, problems like the al-Sadr insurrection. This seems to be bringing some better results. Chalabi, who had been a key adviser of the Americans early now seems to be marginalized. These are big changes in policy.

At the same time, the movement toward the U.N. has increased. Brahimi is now sort of named as the person who is naming the new government. There has been much more stress on the sovereignty of the Iraqi authorities after June 30. Interestingly, Bush is leaving the door open for another change in strategy where he said that the elections will be held no later than January. This suggests that they could be held earlier if conditions permit.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Brzezinski, what did you make of the speech, and did you hear some of the same things your colleague, Walter Mead did?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Yes, I heard some of the same things. I’m not sure I interpret them exactly the same way. The speech was a step forward in the direction of a more internationally accepted formulation of U.S. policy — particularly the acknowledgment in effect that American policy needs a U.N. umbrella, something that, incidentally, the administration was quite reluctant to do until quite recently. But it left some fundamentals very unclear in my judgment.

The first involves the repeated statement by the president that the Iraqi government will now have full sovereignty. That’s even in that little excerpt that you ran, but it appears in the speech more than just once — full sovereignty. With an American proconsul in a fortress in the middle of the city and with an American army of 140,000 men in the country subject to American command — that’s not full sovereignty. No one can be fooled by it. The problem is that many Iraqis may interpret the government that is created now as essentially acting on our behalf and being a stooge for us. And that’s a potential problem.

The second issue on which there was no clarity is how long do we stay? What is the definition of success? The president talked vaguely about democracy. Are we going to stay until there is democracy in Iraq, or are we going to leave sooner, and if sooner, when? By leaving this issue open, we are, in fact, encouraging the Iraqi politicians to engage in competition of demands for an earlier American withdrawal. You ran an excerpt earlier about the defense minister already talking about it being months. Actually, he may well be right.

The third issue on which the president was utterly silent is the fact that Iraq is now part of a larger Middle East conundrum that we confront, and we cannot leave Iraq without significant progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process because if we do leave without such progress, the next Iraqi government will be very anti-American, very anti-Israeli and hence will still be stuck with the serious confrontation.

So I think the speech was a step in the right direction. I didn’t like some of its rhetoric. I mean, the fact that he labels Iraq as the central front in the war on terrorism, I don’t know what that means. The fact that he’s going to bequeath to the Iraqis a new prison in the middle of their country, I thought it was a strange definition of our legacy, but it was vague on the fundamental issues.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Mead, can the notion of full sovereignty after June 30 live side by side with 140,000 troops on indefinite assignment in that country?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, it’s going to be tricky. But I do think that the political realities are such that the United States won’t be able to operate a lot of military operations that the Iraqi government doesn’t approve of. Again, we’re already seeing now that the United States confers with the Iraqis and takes their advice about situations like the one in Fallujah or like the one in Najaf, so in some ways the transfer of moral authority and political authority to Iraqis has already begun.

I mean, I absolutely agree with Dr. Brzezinski that this is going to be a very tricky situation. In some ways if a sovereign Iraqi government asks U.S. troops to leave earlier than we might otherwise, many Americans might welcome that as an honorable, graceful exit. Job is done. We’ve been asked to leave. We’re not an imperial power. We go home. And our troops are safe and sound where we like them to be.

RAY SUAREZ: But, given the tensions that rack Iraq today, is it plausible in the scheme laid out last night to train in quick order Iraqi security forces, both police and military-type forces, that can handle the day-to-day operations of a country with that unusual social, cultural and geographical set of realities, Mr. Mead?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: I think it’s a real question. I think one of the reasons the president was vague about timing and numbers of troops is because nobody living can know the answer to those questions. They’re going to depend on events. They’re going to depend on the capability of these new forces.

I think what the United States is now gambling on or betting on is that the new sovereign internationally recognized government of Iraq with a short interim period before elections is going to be legitimate enough to command more loyalty from the new Iraqi armed forces. So they will gradually become more effective and more and more of the routine patrols and other things can be turned over to these troops and that the American presence can gradually begin to disappear from the streets.

And we’re going to have to see how well that goes, but my sense is that the fact that the kind of Shia center of the country has not gotten itself involved in the Sadr insurrection, that we seem to be making at long last at least a little bit of progress towards pacification in Fallujah and the Sunni Triangle and that in the Kurdish regions you already have some kind of self-government is… the possibility exists for real improvement on the ground there. Not the president or anybody else can say, well, it’s definitely going to happen, we have no problems. We have a lot of problems and a lot of risks, but I think it’s not yet time to sort of conclude that doom is at hand and woe, woe to everyone.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Brzezinski, earlier you touched on time frame. In the speech and the excerpts we played earlier, the president talked about giving strength to a friend, talking about a future Iraq, not as a subdued, occupied, beaten country, but as a peer in the international system. Given the evolutionary path he’s laid out for the country in this speech, will there be a country that we can call a friend in 2005, 2006 — eventually?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Eventually is a big word. Walter earlier said there is a possibility, that’s also a big word. First of all, we have to be very precise about our language if we want to be credible. We have already shot our credibility internationally by talking about weapons of mass destruction as the excuse for going to war.

Now we’re talking about Iraq being the central front in the war on terrorism. We have to be careful about that, too, because that’s not very credible. If we talk about the Iraqi government as being sovereign and use the word sovereign, while it’s still being occupied by a foreign army, 140,000 men, subject to our authority, we’re again undermining the credibility of the words we use. The most we can create in the near future is an Iraqi government of limited sovereignty, of rather limited sovereignty, which hopefully expands and is more likely to expand stability if we leave reasonably rapidly, because the longer we stay, the more likely it is that the existing conflicts, which are still relatively manageable, will gradually escalate into essentially national liberation struggle against us. So we have to take that into account.

Then the final point we have to take into account is that Iraq doesn’t exist in isolation. It exists in a region in which there’s a lot of turmoil because of other causes, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And we have to address that if we want the leave Iraq in a somewhat stable condition and without intense hostility towards us.

So we have both a wider agenda than the president indicated, and we have to be much more forthright and precise in the use of words that we employ. The fact of the matter is, it’s not going to be sovereign. I would like to see more authority for the U.N. — our allies are beginning to raise that issue. Look what Blair was saying today about command and control of forces — a significant divergence from our position. And the reason is that we’re using this kind of strange Aesopian language which maybe is designed for those converted in the United States, but not to the international community.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Mead, we have got less than a minute left. We have about five weeks until June 30. What would you like to see there or what needs to be seen going on in Iraq to make some of the projections in the president’s speech last night stay on track?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, the level of violence is down in Iraq since the insurrection peaked. If we continue to make some progress in that direction, then the president can have some hope that Iraq is moving in the direction he’d like to do. If we can continue to come closer to the international community and the U.N., that would also be very beneficial.

RAY SUAREZ: Walter Mead, Zbigniew Brzezinski, gentlemen, thank you both.