President Bush Seeks Patience as Iraq War Enters Fifth Year
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GWEN IFILL: The war in Iraq, four years later. And to Margaret Warner.
MARGARET WARNER: President Bush stressed today that the war achieved two key missions: the removal of Saddam Hussein, and the beginning of a democratic government in Iraq.
But the cost has been high: more than 3,200 Americans killed; another 23,000 wounded; and between 50,000 and half a million Iraqis dead. The financial toll stands at $360 billion, and rising.
In the face of declining U.S. public support and growing opposition from the new democratic Congress, the president urged patience, especially for the latest military operation to secure Baghdad.
GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I want to stress that this operation is still in the early stages. It’s still in the beginning stages. Fewer than half of the troop reinforcements we are sending have arrived in Baghdad.
The new strategy will need more time to take effect. And there will be good days, and there will be bad days ahead as the security plan unfolds.
As Iraqis work to keep their commitments, we have important commitments of our own. Members of Congress are now considering an emergency war spending bill. They have a responsibility to ensure that this bill provides the funds and the flexibility that our troops need to accomplish their mission.
They have a responsibility to pass a clean bill that does not use funding for our troops as leverage to get special interest spending for their districts. And they have a responsibility to get this bill to my desk without strings and without delay.
It can be tempting to look at the challenges in Iraq and conclude our best option is to pack up and go home. That may be satisfying in the short run, but I believe the consequences for American security would be devastating.
If American forces were to step back from Baghdad before it is more secure, a contagion of violence could spill out across the entire country. In time, this violence could engulf the region. The terrorists could emerge from the chaos with a safe haven in Iraq to replace the one they had in Afghanistan, which they used to plan the attacks of September the 11th, 2001.
For the safety of the American people, we cannot allow this to happen.
Prevailing in Iraq is not going to be easy. General Petraeus says that the environment in Iraq is the most challenging that he has seen in his more than 32 years of service. Four years after this war began, the fight is difficult, but it can be won. It will be won if we have the courage and resolve to see it through.
Winning the war
MARGARET WARNER: Now some analysis of the president's comments and where things stand four years after the Iraq invasion. For that, we're joined by Walter Russell Mead, senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He's the author of "Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World."
And Jessica Mathews, a State Department and National Security Council official in the Carter and Clinton administrations, she's now president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Welcome to you both.
Well, you heard the president saying the fight is difficult, but it can be won. Jessica Mathews, going into the fifth year, can it be won?
JESSICA MATHEWS, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Well, it's not the same war; that's the key thing to say. He linked the beginning of the war and where we are now, and we're now fighting a totally different war.
Who's our enemy? Is it the Sunnis? Is it the Shiites, who we're opposing in Iran, but supporting in Iraq? In my view, it can't be won as a war. It's a political battle now in Iraq.
And I'd say the chances that there will be a stable outcome in the next three to five years are somewhere around 10 percent.
MARGARET WARNER: It can't be won as a war?
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, I agree. A political solution is really needed. Unfortunately, I think you've got to have a military presence; the political situation would be even worse, I think, without U.S. troops.
And, you know, the president is in a tough position, because four years after a war, when you say that our goal is to safeguard the capital, your allies, this doesn't -- if Abraham Lincoln had to had to say in 1864, "Our goal is to prevent Washington from falling to the Confederate forces," it wouldn't look good for him.
So we have a problem where the situation on the ground is mixed, confused, a bit alarming, where the president has clearly lost a lot of the confidence of people. People are tired of the war. And yet, at this point, it's hard to see an alternative, at least in the short term, to continuing with trying at least to stabilize Baghdad.
The surge's impact
MARGARET WARNER: He was essentially saying today that securing Baghdad is the last best shot. It comes down to that, that it's absolutely crucial. Do you think that this is the last shot for American, intense American engagement? Or is it just the latest in a series of -- we've had all these benchmark sort of every four to five months?
JESSICA MATHEWS: I think it's the latter. And several years from now, we'll just look back at this as one more spike and one more thing to remember in this long...
MARGARET WARNER: This surge?
JESSICA MATHEWS: Yes. I think the surge can work. That is, I think extra troops by both, from the U.S. and from Iraq, can reduce the violence in Baghdad. But where does that get us? It gets us back to where we were exactly one year ago when the violence started badly in Baghdad, which was also when the political situation started to really accelerate downhill. So victory, as now defined by the president, stabilizing Baghdad, turns the clock back one year.
MARGARET WARNER: But his argument is, is it not, that, if that happens, that creates the political or the space for the political process to go forward. Do you see any sign that, even in the interim, that political process, which you both agree is absolutely key, is going forward?
JESSICA MATHEWS: No. Look at what the choices are now. We're currently backing a Shiite government -- well, back up a step. What does history tell you about civil wars, that they usually take something like a decade in this last 50 years to fight themselves out, to reach some sort of stable power-sharing arrangement on both sides, where one side recognizes that violence can't achieve its ends.
If the Sunnis win, we're back to the status quo ante, with a minority government that can only keep itself in power through repression and oppression. If the Shiites win, especially a sector of Shiite government that's closely tied to Iran, then we have both benefited Iran and probably al-Qaida, because that way -- that's then the ally that the Sunnis, who won't give up, will turn to for help.
So where we've got ourselves now is into a situation where there is no good outcome for us in choosing a winner.
MARGARET WARNER: How do you see this surge? Do you agree with Jessica Mathews that it can succeed, but that, even if it does, it doesn't -- it only turns the clock back?
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I think you can get a little bit ahead, in the sense that the Sunni insurgents really did try to launch a full-scale civil war by the attack on the Golden Mosque and some other, you know, very extreme things, and did cause a deterioration in the security situation in the last year.
But, you know, that card, in a sense, has been played. It may be that the descent into a much wider civil war than what we have now can be stopped. It's hard to say.
But, again, I think it's more and more we have to focus on -- and here I agree with Jessica -- on what we want to prevent in Iraq rather than, you know, thinking about the beautiful, fabulous government, we rub our magic lantern and democracy appears.
We don't want Iraq to become a kind of an extra province of Iran. We don't want particularly the Sunni areas to become a kind of a haven for terrorism or chaos. And we don't want the country itself to become this kind of cockpit that all the surrounding countries get sucked into trying to pick winners and fuel the civil war, and this ends up destabilizing the whole region.
Congress' role in Iraq
MARGARET WARNER: So do you agree with what the president said, when he gave this sort of stern warning to Congress, he said, now, it's tempting to just think we can pack our bags and go home, but that the consequences would be devastating for American security? And he talked about widening violence.
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: I think, you know, there is something in what he says. Again, I think the specific thing that some people in Congress have talked about that I think is a mistake is to give a certain date, 15 months in the future, like right before the election 2008, because, truthfully, if you're going to give a firm date, you should just leave tomorrow, because once you've given that firm date, you lose your political leverage.
And this is a political situation, where in a sense we need to be able to say, "Well, you know, our forces could be here a long time. We're going to be a player here for a while," hoping that that will make it easier for us to get out. But the minute you say, "We're leaving on October 1, 2008," or whatever it is, you lose all that leverage, and at that point you start saying, "Why are these troops getting killed and for what? There's no goal."
So I think the idea of trying to set a firm date in the future is not the right way. In a sense, we've gotten a good balance now, that it's clear from the election results, from the polls, from what Congress is saying, that Bush does not have a complete carte blanche, that the American commitment to Iraq is not open-ended and unconditional.
And the administration, to give them credit, has used that fairly well to get -- to actually go to Maliki, to the government, and say, look, you've got to meet some benchmarks. You've got to get that oil law going. You've got to let us get into Sadr City. Our commitment is not unconditional.
But it's a very, very tricky game, and I don't think there are any guarantees.
MARGARET WARNER: How do you see Congress's role? One, what's the appropriate role right now? And, two, as we know, the House last week did pass a measure that calls for a kind of gradual withdrawal, but set this September '08 timetable. What is your sense, your view of that?
JESSICA MATHEWS: I think Congress has a horrible task. First of all, they certainly have a role in representing American public opinion and in being part of the decision-making now. But the only tool they have is cutting off the funds. And so when you hear...
MARGARET WARNER: Because he can veto anything else.
JESSICA MATHEWS: ... self-righteous -- Republican calls the Democrats, if they think this war is a mistake, should vote their convictions and cut off the funds for the troops. What they're saying is, "My dear friend, please commit political suicide."
So people who oppose the war, and think this is a dead-end, and believe that further American deaths will not further our interests, are left with really nothing. The only justice, maybe, in this awful situation is just that Bush has absolutely no good choices; neither does the Congress. And it is really a terrible situation.
MARGARET WARNER: So then, if you take the other extreme, and you take what the president said, which is, if we withdrew immediately, it would have devastating consequences for American security.
JESSICA MATHEWS: Well, you know, the history -- first of all, of course, you can't withdraw immediately for logistic reasons. It probably takes almost as long as the dead line that the House put in.
MARGARET WARNER: It's the same thing?
JESSICA MATHEWS: Exactly. So saying that you're setting a deadline is almost exactly the same thing as saying you're going to start the withdrawal now.
But the history does not support the notion that somehow civil war in Iraq spreads across the region. It's the opposite. It supports the notion that it will, indeed, as Walter said, suck in other involvement, almost certainly not troops, but arms and money, although Iraq has enough arms in it for 50 years of fighting.
So it's probably going to be more like the Lebanese civil war, lots of people meddling and other countries meddling in it, but there really isn't history to support the notion that it will spread.
A safer world today?
MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask a broader question, because the president also today made the case, you know, that we got rid of Saddam Hussein. He was a threat to the region and to the world. And Condoleezza Rice said today it was still worth the sacrifice.
Walter, is America safer and more secure today, do you think, than it was four years ago because of the war?
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Let me put that another way. I wonder, if George Bush had the opportunity to do it all over, would he do exactly what he's done? I don't think he would have. So I think there you see the answer to that.
I think you can look at it another way, too, that really, in the second term, and even more, I think, since the November election, the Bush administration foreign policy has been looking a lot less like the first-term foreign policy.
We have an agreement with North Korea. We had face-to-face talks -- however short -- with Iran and Syria. We've had a much closer relationship with some of the Europeans. We have his trip to South America, a lot of things that people had been saying in the first term, why don't you do some of these things? Why are you ignoring this?
We're hearing they're doing a strategic rethink of their approach to Russia. So it looks to me like there's a quiet but really rather sweeping revolution in the Bush administration's own foreign policy, which suggests to me that, even inside the White House, while they might not put it that way, they think it's time for a change.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree?
JESSICA MATHEWS: I think it's important to actually answer your question directly. And I think this is one easy question to answer: It's clear we're a lot worse off.
MARGARET WARNER: In terms of our basic security?
JESSICA MATHEWS: Yes. We have enormously empowered Iran, both by eliminating both of its two major enemies, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein. And we're removing two million barrels of oil a day from world production, which has helped jack up oil prices.
We have gotten into, I think, a degenerating situation in Afghanistan. At the very least, we took our eye off the ball there and didn't finish that job.
We have, because of the occupation, I think brought a lot of people to the jihadist cause, whether it's al-Qaida or any of the other groups who have come to Iraq and been trained there and have become fighters in it.
We have fueled a terrible swath of anti-Americanism across the region and across the world, so that you have this travesty now, for example, in the discussions sometime at the U.N. over Iran where it sounds as though we're the danger, rather than the Iranians, people, governments scared to vote for sanctions in the fear that the U.S. will use that as a trigger for an invasion.
If you're going to be a leader, you need followers. And when you've got anti-Americanism at the level that it now is, those are anti-followers. So for all those reasons, we are vastly worse off today than we were four years ago.
MARGARET WARNER: Brief final reply. Do you agree that the anti-Americanism has actually meant that U.S. influence is weaker?
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: You know, the connection between public opinion and influence is tricky in international relations, so that's one of the reasons I kind of try to avoid a direct answer. Are we safer? There are so many hypotheticals, and so on, in that.
I am very worried about the situation in Afghanistan. I am very concerned about the rise of jihadi sentiments.
On the other hand, you know, I look at the last few years, and I think the U.S. relations with India, with China, with Japan, they're all better than they were five years ago. So I'd say the Bush administration in Europe has not done well; in the Middle East, we're in big trouble, not the end of the world, but trouble.
Asia, things are considerably better. Fifty years from now, who is going to say which of those was the more historic development? I don't know.
MARGARET WARNER: And we won't be here to say it, but thank you so much, Walter Mead, Jessica Mathews, thanks.