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Iraq Election Leaves Questions about U.S. Exit Strategy

February 2, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Last Sunday’s election in Iraq was the latest hoped-for turning point in a nearly two-year occupation, and it renewed debate over how long the 150,000 U.S. troops there should remain.

Late last week, Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy said the elections should provide “the opportunity for a fresh approach” and concrete steps toward withdrawal.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: President Bush should immediately announce his intention to negotiate a timetable for a drawdown of American combat forces with the Iraqi government.

At least 12,000 American troops, probably more, should leave at once to send a strong signal about our intentions and to ease the pervasive sense of occupation.

Setting a firm strategy for withdrawal may not guarantee success, but not doing so will almost certainly guarantee failure.

MARGARET WARNER: But the president has consistently said withdrawal will be dictated not by an arbitrary timetable, but by the readiness of Iraqi forces to take over. He reiterated that at a news conference last week.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: In terms of troop levels, obviously we’re going to have the troop levels necessary to complete the mission.

And that mission is to enable Iraq to defend herself from terrorists, homegrown or terrorists that come in from outside of the country.

And so our mission is focused on not only an increase in the number of Iraqis in uniform, whether it be army or national guard or border patrol or police, but to make sure the quality of their ability to fight is enhanced.

MARGARET WARNER: The interim Iraqi president, Ghazi al-Yawer, weighed in yesterday with something of a mixed message. First, he said, he did not think the election should trigger an immediate U.S. pullout.

GHAZI AL-YAWER: The foreign forces are part of the problem and right now we are trying to have them as part of the solution.

MARGARET WARNER: But later, in Arabic, he suggested he did have a time frame in mind for beginning a withdrawal.

GHAZI AL-YAWER (Translated): I believe that at the end of the year we will witness the beginning of decreasing numbers of foreign forces. But I am not talking about the departure of all of them.

MARGARET WARNER: Recent public opinion polls, meanwhile, suggest a slim majority of Americans now want the U.S. to either pull out or set a timetable to do so later this year.

MARGARET WARNER: And to explore the relationship between Sunday’s election and the withdrawal of U.S. forces we turn to retired Army Lt. Gen. William Odom, former director of the National Security Agency — he’s now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and adjunct professor at Yale University.

Eliot Cohen, a professor and director of the Strategic Studies Program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; he’s also a member of the Defense Policy Board, which advises the secretary of defense.

And Bobby Muller, founder and chairman of the board of Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, which seeks to address the causes and consequences of war. Welcome to you all.

Gen. Odom, why don’t you start off? Do you think this election that Iraq just had Sunday, should be treated as the opportunity to begin a quick withdrawal?

LT. GEN. WILLIAM ODOM (Ret.): Absolutely. And I would make that argument based on three major reasons, lines of argument.

First, it was not in the U.S. interest to invade Iraq. That tended to destabilize the region where stability should have been our goal. It turns out to have been very much in the interest of the Iranians, who, having been invaded by Saddam, were anxious for revenge.

It is very much in the interest of the al-Qaida, not only because it’s made Iraq safe for al-Qaida to operate, but because it’s diverted U.S. resources from campaigns against him.

It has exacerbated our relations with Europe, and it is slowly attriting and breaking our ground forces in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: So let me interrupt you there for a minute. So how quickly, if you were in charge, how quickly would you —

LT. GEN. WILLIAM ODOM (Ret.): I would leave — I would leave as soon as I could. If its three months, six months, five months, a year, whatever is necessary to deal with the political niceties of the withdrawal is important.

But let me go ahead and make another very persuasive reason. The longer we stay, the worse it gets. We will not — my second point is, any regime that consolidates power and can rule Iraq and keep it stable, will be anti-American and it will probably be some new form of tyranny.

You heard that implicit in Allawi’s comments at the beginning of this program. He is hedging his bets. He knows any leader has to be anti-American in the final event after we leave.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me get the, Let me interrupt you and just get the opposite view, what I expect to be the opposite view from Eliot Cohen then we’ll come right back to you.

ELIOT COHEN: Well, I think it would be a terrible idea to announce a timetable for withdrawal. And I think we should be very clear with the world and with the Iraqis, we are there as long as the Iraqis want us to be there.

It is quite clear they do want us to be there. It would be a good thing if we could get out, but I think at the moment whether or not one thought the war was a good idea and reasonable people disagreed on that, we are there now.

And it seems to me the consequence of a precipitant withdrawal, just merely cutting and running, would be disastrous. I think it would be disastrous in Iraq and I think disastrous in the Arab world.

We are there. We are going to have to try to make it work the best we can. And the truth is that there has been some very major progress.

I don’t think you can look at the elections that just occurred and not — no matter how much you are opposed to the war — feel to some extent a little bit more confident than you did before.

MARGARET WARNER: But when you say “give it time to make it work,” do you mean what the president is saying, until the Iraqi forces are really able to handle the security situation?

ELIOT COHEN: I think there are really two critical things that have to happen. One is the development of Iraqi forces, and that’s a slow and painful process, but it is happening. You know, it was Iraqi forces that were guarding those polling places.

And then I think there is also an internal Iraqi political process, which is maturing, which will continue particularly throughout this next year.

I think after that, it may be a very different matter. And again, we are there as guests of the Iraqi government. That should be very clear.

MARGARET WARNER: Bobby Muller, where do you come down on this?

BOBBY MULLER: You’ve done something which is very unusual. You’ve put me sort of like in the middle of something. That’s not usually where I am.

You know, I agree with what the General said in that we were wrong to open up this can of worms and get in there.

But at the same time, that’s the reality that we’ve got. I don’t think we give an open-ended commitment to this particular elected government, that as long as they want us here because I think they are facing a real tough road and we may not be willing to pay that price.

I think we have to be clear that we are not going to hold on to Iraq. And we have a real credibility problem there throughout the region and here in this town in Washington with all the people in the diplomatic and the military and intelligence community that I talk to.

So being clear, it’s not about controlling their oil, it’s not about, you know, hegemony over the region. We’re going to get out and make that clear.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you make that clear, though, without setting a timetable, which you say you don’t want to do?

BOBBY MULLER: I think you have to look at this in a somewhat different way than we have so far, which is this is a regional problem. You’ve got a fundamentally a struggle taking place within Islam between the Shia and the Sunni.

And when you look at the make-up of the surrounding countries, there are real concerns by some of these countries that you now have a Shia majority in Iraq, which is coming to power; it’s very threatening.

You know, King Abdullah in Jordan said, hey, we have a crescent rising here. I think you open it up, recognizing just in Christianity, we went through centuries of struggle to shake it out.

So is that happening within Islam. And I think you have got to open it up on a regional basis.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, but just so I understand your position. If you were the president, you would – or you were advising him, you would advise him what, to make an announcement that we are not there indefinitely?

BOBBY MULLER: Absolutely.


BOBBY MULLER: I think we have an obligation to give it a good shot. I think you have got to open it up and look at this conflict and its more basic cause including the Israeli-Palestinian problem and understand that there’s a struggle within Islam, get the necessary players and negotiate a respectful withdrawal.

MARGARET WARNER: I know you are dying to jump in here, but let me did go to Gen. Odom, who is not here at the table.

Gen. Odom, what about that middle ground that Bobby Muller is suggesting, which is you don’t pull out right away but neither are you hostage to the training of Iraqi troops, is there some middle ground here?

LT. GEN. WILLIAM ODOM (Ret.): I think he is seeking a ground that sounds prudent, but I don’t think there is any ground there. And I think he made the best argument against this

We are not going to be able to stabilize that government very effectively. We have a — we need a regional strategy not just a strategy to Iraq. The problem with staying in Iraq is the longer we stay, the worse we make the regional problem.

My point about an early withdrawal, it is a precondition for establishing — reestablishing good cooperative relations with Europe, also bringing in China and Japan to back an overall regional strategy from the eastern Mediterranean to Afghanistan.

As long as we stay in, what Eliot Cohen doesn’t want to have – a disaster – we’re aiding and abetting – are possibilities for stabilizing the region, and limiting the disaster we have already caused, requires getting out and getting the resources and the political commitment of our allies back with us.


LT. GEN. WILLIAM ODOM (Ret.): Until then, we will continue to bleed, make it worse, and be ineffective.

Final point: I’d like to know an example of where the military was consolidated without a political consolidation that did not either lead to a military takeover or never really succeeded, no matter how much trouble we put into it.

And that was exactly the problem in Vietnam. We thought we could get the military ahead of the political. And as Clausewitz told us that’s to get the cart before the horse.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now, Eliot Cohen has a lot to answer.

ELIOT COHEN: I point out to other places where something like this happened was El Salvador, which is a much smaller country to be sure.

But the United States was in there. There was a political process tremendously important. You couldn’t have done it without President Duarte. There was also a very important military component.

I think the main thing to realize is this: I think the quote from President Yawar indicated, Iraqi leaders themselves don’t want us to stay any longer than they absolutely need us.

The cultural dynamics of the Arab world are such that nobody is really going to want to have a large permanent American presence.

We don’t want it and they don’t want it.

MARGARET WARNER: And do you — I want to just interject this question. Do you also acknowledge or do you agree that, in fact, the mere presence of U.S. troops is to some degree fueling the insurgency?

ELIOT COHEN: I think, I think it’s mixed, actually. And it’s, you know, when I was there in Iraq, including some of the nastier places there, you could tell that it was very mixed.

That American forces, yes, there is a certain way in which American forces just by being visible and being rather lethal and dangerous are scary, but there are other ways in which American forces are reassuring.

And I don’t think you would have had this election if you hadn’t American forces in the background. One other point by the way I think is important to note. We probably will be drawing down American forces within the next few months.

You know, there was a surge to build up, to be able to allow these elections to happen. You couldn’t watch those elections without saying there is something very important and very positive happening.

And that was largely because of American military power.

BOBBY MULLER: I think that’s delusional to think that the occupation by the U.S. forces there is not a magnet for terrorism.

We’ve seen a tremendous increase in al-Qaida’s forces. We’ve seen what’s happened in the region and our occupation, as the General said, is very much a problem. The problem, I think that I have between —

ELIOT COHEN: But you don’t think it has anything to do with the election?

BOBBY MULLER: — is that there is theoretically a way that I think we could work out of this thing. Given the incompetence of this administration and their track record, I don’t think they can do it so I think we’re going to wind end up where the General was going.

ELIOT COHEN: Can I ask you something? Could there have been an election without American military forces there?

BOBBY MULLER: Of course not. We had a complete lock down in that country to be able to conduct that election –


BOBBY MULLER: — but it was an election that had a lot of limitations to it.

LT. GEN. WILLIAM ODOM (Ret.): Could I comment?

MARGARET WARNER: General, yes.

LT. GEN. WILLIAM ODOM (Ret.): Eliot, I would just like to remind you that if you go back and read the New York Times in September 1967 about the report from the elections in Vietnam, we said almost exactly the same thing.

Eighty-three percent participated out of five some odd million. It proved the Vietcong could not break the electoral machinery and view was that we were very much on a positive road to creating a stable government.

ELIOT COHEN: I think it was a very different set of elections.

LT. GEN. WILLIAM ODOM (Ret.): Just a minute. It’s very easy to have elections. It is very difficult to consolidate political order.

ELIOT COHEN: I’m sorry. At first it is a very different kind of war. And I think, as much as I respect Vietnam veterans, I think the idea that there is kind of a one-to-one analogy between Vietnam and Iraq, just historically.

It was not easy to have elections and I think anybody who watched the pictures of those Iraqis who were defying threats, who were in fact defying tremendous violence to including people bombing electoral sites.

Well, let’s not say that that was easy; they did something that was very difficult and was very brave and we should honor them for it.

BOBBY MULLER: That’s where I’m going to come down with the General, I’m sorry.

MARGARET WARNER: You keep switching sides on us.

BOBBY MULLER: But, you know, Iraq is a whole lot more like Vietnam – but Iraq is a whole lot more like Vietnam than it is El Salvador.

And I worked as a Marine infantry officer, you know for the last several months of my tour in ’69 as an adviser to the army of the Republic of Vietnam. And we put a lot of money into Vietnamization program.

And I will tell you with an army that had whole lots of more years of training and support, it was a dismal failure every single time. And I operate on battalion level.

We got into contact with the hard-core, determined communist forces, the South Vietnamese troops broke and ran. So we’re going to the same kind of reliance on a force that has shown no ability.

It’s not the size of the dog in the fight. It’s the size of the fight in the dog. We’re not seeing that on the part of the Iraqis that we’re trying to build up into a military capabilities.

ELIOT COHEN: Bobby, you’re seeing that in some units; you’re not seeing that in others. I have got Marine friends who will swear by their armored Marine comrades with whom they fought in 1972 —

BOBBY MULLER: What was the outcome of the war?

MARGARET WARNER: Gentlemen, I’m sorry, we have to leave it there. And we’ll return to this. General, we are out of time.

But thank you all three very much. We’ll come back to it — I promise.