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U.S. Policy in the Middle East Revisited Following Iraq Study Report

December 11, 2006 at 6:20 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: The Iraq Study Group report has provoked reactions around the world and across the American political spectrum. The report is starting to raise new questions about the American role in the Middle East, whatever the Iraq outcome.

We get some of that reaction from analysts who’ve written opinion pieces in the past few days. Eliot Cohen is a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He was among those meeting today with President Bush. His critique in the Wall Street Journal is called, “No Way to Win a War.”

David Rothkopf is a Clinton administration official, author, and scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His article in the Sunday Washington Post is called, “We’ll Be Back: Anticipating a Third Gulf War.”

Eliot Cohen, no way to win a war. You were scathing about the process that arrived at the report. What was the problem that you saw?

ELIOT COHEN, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies: Well, the problem with the process was — first and foremost, it was driven by consensus. And intrinsically this is an extraordinarily difficult problem, which serious people are going to disagree.

I think the commission would have done a much better job if they had laid out several different options and explained to the American people the strengths and the weaknesses of each. They decided not to do that. Consensus, which is another word for group-think, instead took hold.

The other thing was I think simply that the procedures that they used to try to dig into the problem were terribly flawed. They spent all of four days in Iraq, all of those inside the Green Zone, this little bubble of palaces and offices in Baghdad. Only one member of the study group, Chuck Robb, Marine combat veteran, went for one day to Fallujah.

I don’t see how you can really come to grips with the war unless you’re willing to go out there and see it. And even in terms of their consultations, talking with some members of the military, their senior military advisers, well, they had one two-hour session with them and never talked to them after that.

So, as a way of really getting to the heart of what’s going on in the war, I thought it was a deeply flawed way of going about it.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Mr. Rothkopf, you’re less critical of the Iraq Study Group than Mr. Cohen, but concluding “we’ll be back,” even if we get out, based on…

DAVID ROTHKOPF, Former Clinton Administration Official: Well, I mean, based on history, based on the fact that this has been a region in tumult for decades, based on the fact that we’ve already been there in another gulf war once before with another president named Bush, and that we’ve been involved, in one way or another, in the conflicts of the region for decades.

I think, regardless of the flaws within the process of the ISG, one of the flaws within the debate in the United States right now is that we’re very short-term focused. We’re very focused on action by the United States, and we’re not looking at the longer term.

If Iraq was a mistake to enter or it was not, it’s certainly not the whole picture. And to focus on pulling out and not focus on all the other issues, whether it’s terrorism, or succession struggles in other countries, or Iranian nukes, or the Arab-Israeli issue, is to make a mistake, and to lead to deterioration in those over things, some of which, by the way, is caused by what we’ve done in Iraq.

We’ve inflamed a number of these situations in Iraq, and that inflammation and the problems caused by that inflammation is not going to evaporate simply through the redeployment of American troops.

Prescriptions for effecting change

RAY SUAREZ: Do you agree with that, that this process, the very process of going there and being engaged there, has made the situation worse?

ELIOT COHEN: Probably in some ways, yes. I mean, look, there's room for a long and searching debate about whether or not it was a good idea, terribly executed, whether it was simply a bad idea, also terribly executed. The point, of course, is we are where we are now, and what do we do from here?

I very much agree with David Rothkopf that we need a much bigger picture as we think about that part of the world than just Iraq. But Iraq is where our soldiers are engaged, where we're taking casualties, and it really is the focal point for a lot that's going on.

And the stakes there are very, very high, which is why we need a much more searching kind of debate than one that the ISG provided for us.

RAY SUAREZ: What about Professor Cohen's point that any process that mandates consensus is going to get you watered-down results rather than a menu of really plausible steps that can constitute a way forward?

DAVID ROTHKOPF: Well, I'm afraid you may have consensus here, because I think the reality is that what a president needs is choices. He shouldn't have, you know, all the different political points of view mushed together into kind of a homogeneous, lowest-common-denominator-based solution.

It may make it easier for the members of the ISG to present themselves to the public or to have political legitimacy, in terms of the discussions that they participate in, but it doesn't give the president the options that he needs to have.

And I think that what we need to do is we need to break it down into our near-term goals: How do we achieve as much as we can prior to a significant redeployment? Our medium-term goals: What do we do, in terms of that redeployment with an eye to the future? And then get back to our long-term goals: What do we do in terms of Arab-Israeli relations? What do we do in terms of Afghanistan? What do we do in terms of terrorism? What do we do in terms of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, recognizing that all of those pieces are connected together?

RAY SUAREZ: So they may not be organized the way that you just stated would have been your preference, but don't the 79 action points that conclude the report constitute some of that, that you were looking for?

DAVID ROTHKOPF: I think they do constitute some of them. I think that there are a number of suggestions within the ISG recommendations that are good suggestions. I also think the fact that we're having this debate about, how do we change our processes, how do we move forward, how do we acknowledge what was wrong, and then identify a path that may be more successful, is extremely healthy.

It's just, to take it purely in terms of the Washington politics of it, which is what so many of the reports that I've seen about the report have been about, the Republican-versus-Democrat elements of this thing or the America-only elements of this thing, misses the bigger point, which is: Here is a region of the world upon which we depend and in which we have a whole host of problems, and this is just one of those problems.

ELIOT COHEN: If I could just add, I think finally we do get a little bit of disagreement. I think most of the recommendations are not helpful; some of them are simply silly, you know, saying we should repair worn-out equipment. Well, you know, I don't think we needed an expensive study group to tell you, you needed to repair worn-out equipment or re-train troops.

But there are other parts which are, I think, you know, profoundly implausible, to say the least. For example, the study group recommends this new diplomatic offensive in which we'll somehow persuade Syria and Iran to bail us out.

And if you look at it, it's -- implausible is a kind word. It's absurd. I mean, there's a proposal there that we cut a deal with Syria, in which the Syrians not only help us out of Iraq, but they also agree to stop supplying weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, they stop interfering with Lebanese politics, they turn themselves in over the Hariri assassination, and they persuade Hamas to recognize the legitimacy of the state of Israel.

And this is fantasy. And it's dangerous fantasy, because we have real and serious problems. And I think, by holding out the hope that, by some master stroke of diplomacy that hasn't already occurred to people in the government that we can fix this thing, we're simply going to be deluding ourselves.

We're in a very difficult situation. The choices before us are all bad -- I think we have to be very clear about that -- and all costly. And I think the -- if the study group would have done much better to say, "You know, here is a bunch of bad options."

There's one other, I think, quite severe problem. The study group holds out the hope of -- it's more than hope, I think, in its view -- of a very, very substantial withdrawal of American forces by the first quarter of 2008. And I think, even if you see a very substantial shift to the training mission, which is in some ways already under way, there's no way that you can hope to have success in Iraq, even as defined by the study group, with a very minimal level of combat forces.

I think that's also profoundly unrealistic. It's holding out hopes which we just really can't achieve.

'We need a new plan'

RAY SUAREZ: David Rothkopf, is Professor Cohen setting the bar too high by saying that these action points should be something that hasn't occurred to people in the government already? Doesn't the document exist on other planes as well, to give context to the public, to tell them things, in fact, that they haven't heard from other sources?

DAVID ROTHKOPF: Well, I don't know whether he's setting the bar too high or not; I think the reality is that this has been an issue that's been discussed to death, has been debated by lots and lots of people.

You know, the best minds who think about these things have been thinking about this, and I don't think there are a lot of ideas that are available that haven't been out there in the open and discussed in this particular case. So looking for something brand new in this report may be setting the bar too high.

Having said that, we know that what we've done in the past has not worked and that we do need to come up with a new formulation. And whatever you may say about, you know, each of the recommendations of this group, if it is catalytic in moving us forward to a new approach, one that recognizes that we're going to be unable to achieve the originally articulated goals of the Bush administration, one that recognizes that there is not unlimited political will in the United States to stay in this particular conflict in Iraq, and one that recognizes that there are a whole host of other issues that we need to address, and so therefore we cannot leave this region, we can't just put this behind us, tie a bow on it and say, "It's over."

It's not Vietnam. It's a very, very different situation where United States is going to remain actively politically, economically, diplomatically and, in certain situations, militarily involved in the Middle East for decades to come, in all likelihood. And we need to think of it in that context.

It's not to say we should be invading countries, breaking international law, wreaking havoc on the region, and undercutting our moral authority, as I think we've done in Iraq. What it is to say is: We need a new plan.

And this whole debate is very healthy and long overdue, because I think it may lead to some changes that may improve the situation somewhat on the ground and lead the United States in a position to begin to undo the damage that's been done by ill-conceived and remarkably badly executed policies on the part of this administration.

A Third Gulf War?

RAY SUAREZ: Do you agree with David Rothkopf that the United States is going back into that part of the world, even if it extricates itself from this particular encounter, for Gulf War III?

ELIOT COHEN: Well, I think -- I don't know whether Gulf War III, but I very much agree with him that we're going to be there for a long time one way or another. This is a profoundly, profoundly troubled part of the world.

I think we what we learned on 9/11 is, you know, in a way, if we don't go to visit it, it's going to come and visit us. And there's no way that we can pull back and build a wall around it and hope to insulate ourselves. We're going to be engaged there.

And, you know, I think we would be having this debate about what to do about Iraq even if there had been no Iraq Study Group. You know, you just had to read the newspapers.

And David and I agree: The execution of the war has been, in many ways, quite dreadful. But I think a lot of people realized that well before the Iraq Study Group produced its report.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Cohen, David Rothkopf, thank you both.