TOPICS > Nation

Former U.S. Officials Examine President’s Iraq Stance

September 13, 2007 at 6:05 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: For months, President Bush and his aides created a sense of anticipation for this week’s Iraq update.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I’m going to wait for David to come back.

TONY SNOW, White House Press Secretary: That would be General Petraeus.

GEORGE W. BUSH: General Petraeus…

JOSHUA BOLTEN, White House Chief of Staff: All of those data points will be taken into account by General Petraeus.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The senior field commander in Iraq was called upon to be the principal advocate for a policy and administration that polls show to be increasingly unpopular with the American public. A recent New York Times survey said only 5 percent of the nation trusts the Bush administration to successfully resolve the Iraq war.

As divisions hardened over the war in Congress, General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker arrived on Capitol Hill this week to provide their assessment. Petraeus reported tactical gains on the ground.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, Commander, U.S. Forces in Iraq: The military objectives of the surge are, in large measure, being met.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The general also recommended the gradual return home of the surge force, some 30,000 troops. However, in their testimony, the two officials acknowledged the military success had not led to its stated political goal: giving the Iraqis time and space to achieve reconciliation among warring sects.

RYAN CROCKER, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq: There is an enormous amount of dysfunctionality in Iraq. That is beyond question. The government, in many respects, is dysfunctional, and members of the government know it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Despite the mixed assessment, both men said a heavy price would be paid should the United States exit Iraq too quickly.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: A rapid withdrawal would result in the further release of the strong centrifugal forces in Iraq and produce a number of dangerous results.

RYAN CROCKER: An Iraq that falls into chaos or civil war will mean massive human suffering well beyond what has already occurred within Iraq’s borders. It could well invite the intervention of regional states, all of which see their future connected to Iraq’s in some fundamental way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And rather than proposing changes in current policy, Petraeus and Crocker recommended that the American enterprise in Iraq be given another six months until a further assessment is made. They encountered both hearty encouragement and pointed critiques during their 17 hours of testimony over two days.

REP. IKE SKELTON (D), Missouri: Mr. Ambassador, why should we in Congress expect the next six months to be any different than it has been in the past?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: We’re getting it right because we finally have in place a strategy that can succeed.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: Now we just have the levels of intolerable violence that existed in June of 2006.

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER (R), California: And that’s a candid, independent assessment, given with integrity, in the same tradition of MacArthur and Eisenhower and Schwarzkopf.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The general said he was presenting what he called “honest, candid testimony.”

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: I’m not a pessimist or an optimist at this point. I’m a realist about Iraq, and Iraq is hard.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But on one critical question, Petraeus said he could not provide an answer.

SEN. JOHN WARNER (R), Virginia: If we continue what you have laid before the Congress here as a strategy, do you feel that that is making America safer?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Sir, I believe that this is, indeed, the best course of action to achieve our objectives in Iraq.

SEN. JOHN WARNER: Does that make America safer?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Sir, I don’t know, actually. I have not sat down and sorted out in my own mind. What I have focused on and been riveted on is how to accomplish the mission of the Multinational Force Iraq.

Analysis from former U.S. officials

Zbigniew Brzezinski
Former national security adviser
This is a very sad time for America. We have been involved in a futile war, a war of choice, for four years. There's no end in sight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Petraeus and Crocker return to Iraq and that mission next week.

With me to discuss where the United States is headed in Iraq after the administration has made its case are Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser under President Carter and now a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He recently endorsed the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama.

And Philip Zelikow, a former counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and now a professor of history at the University of Virginia.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.

Philip Zelikow, let me begin with you. Put it all together, what the president is expected to say tonight, what the general and the ambassador said on the Hill this week. What has the administration accomplished for itself this week?

PHILIP ZELIKOW, University of Virginia: Well, the general and the ambassador really just reaffirmed the premises that everyone else had in mind for the last couple of months. They've reaffirmed that the surge has achieved some temporary stability in parts of Iraq and that the American government has an important interest in not withdrawing from Iraq too quickly, so that we can continue to try to shape the future of that vital country.

But everyone pretty much knew those facts and those premises before they came to Washington. What they didn't know and what only the president can reveal is where we're going to go from here. What's the vision for how this story plays out during 2008 and beyond? What's the future of American engagement in Iraq and what's its mission?

I think that's really a question that they couldn't answer and only the president can answer. So in a way, they were just reaffirming the scene-setting for what the president will say tonight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Zbigniew Brzezinski, just reaffirming, is that what we've heard?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI, Former National Security Adviser to President Carter: Well, I think it's worse than that. This is a very sad time for America. We have been involved in a futile war, a war of choice, for four years. There's no end in sight.

The president is not listening to the heartbeat of the country. The country doesn't want this war to continue. I think there's a widening consensus that the war cannot be resolved militarily.

The president is not reaching out at home to the other side, not attempting to shape policy jointly, responding to the overwhelming desire of the American people to end this war. He's not setting in motion a process abroad designed to create some modicum of stability as we disengage.

He's essentially decided to bequeath this war to his successor and to dribble out, essentially, partial withdrawals which at this rate would last five more years, while at the same time stepping up the pressure on Iran, possibly even raising the risk of a larger war.

So this is a tragic and a dangerous time. I hope, at some point, the Republicans would prevail on the president to do what is needed, not to abdicate his responsibility, but to try to fashion a truly responsible, historically relevant policy.

Handing the war to a new president

Philip Zelikow
Former State Department counselor
[T]he president has the burden of laying out a strategic vision that can command ... support and lay the groundwork for the kind of long-term engagement everyone knows we'll need.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Philip Zelikow, do you see it as Zbigniew Brzezinski just described, that the president is dribbling this out? And, in fact, we've been given an advanced copy of some of what the president is saying tonight. He does talk about the war extending beyond his presidency, the role that the U.S. will play in Iraq for years to come.

PHILIP ZELIKOW: Well, I think the United States will play a role in Iraq for years to come. But the president's job is to explain what that role is, and here I think I agree with Zbig. The president needs to lay out a strategic direction that the American people can agree upon and sustain.

You know, everyone says that Iraq isn't going to have its problems settled overnight; that means that American engagement needs to be for the long haul. Well, to make this sustainable for the long haul, you need to have a strategic direction that a lot of Democrats, as well as Republicans, can support, because a lot of people agree the country is vital, and they agree we're going to have stakes there for a while.

And so the president has the burden of laying out a strategic vision that can command that support and lay the groundwork for the kind of long-term engagement everyone knows we'll need.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're saying he has not done that yet?

PHILIP ZELIKOW: He has not done that yet, but he still has a shrinking window in which to do it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Zbigniew Brzezinski, what do you think the strategic vision should be?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, first of all, I don't think the president can define that vision all by himself. Sad to say -- as a citizen -- his record in the last four years isn't very good.

I have here a whole folder of quotations from him in which, in effect, unintentionally, he was misleading the American people, talking about turning points, progress and so forth. And where are we four years later?

Secondly, if he is to provide a vision, he really has to embrace the country and its political leadership, and that means the Republicans and the Democrats.

Thirdly, we have to recognize the fact that the war in Iraq is a colonial war for the people in Iraq. We may not want to face that fact, but it is a colonial war. But we live in the post-colonial age. We cannot tell the Iraqis how they ought to live or what kind of a political system they ought to have. And we have to face that fact.

And in facing it, we have to step forward with a strategic concept, a comprehensive vision of how to deal with the military situation, the political situation, the regional situation, and the humanitarian situation.

I don't want to be making a political case tonight, but this is what Obama did in his speech. If you don't agree with Obama, formulate an alternative approach. But don't do it the way we have done it, which is just to proclaim another turning point, more progress, and then, in effect, stick the next president with a terrible liability.

American interests in Iraq

Zbigniew Brzezinski
Former national security adviser
The problem with the war is that it is a series of horrendous strategic mistakes, and to continue on that course is to compound these mistakes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Picking up on that, Phil Zelikow, how do you define U.S. interests in Iraq and in that region for years to come? Because, after all, that's what the general, the ambassador, and the president are all talking about.

PHILIP ZELIKOW: First, we've got to regain the strategic initiative in the region so, instead of looking defensive and weak, we look stronger.

Second, to do that, we're going to have to transition out of being responsible for Iraqi security and Iraqi politics. And instead of looking like we have weak control, instead get to a posture where we have strong leverage, because we do have the assets to have strong leverage on a vital country undergoing, as Ryan Crocker said, a revolution. And that revolution is going to continue.

Next, we need to be able to reach out and keep al-Qaida from turning Iraq into a base for global terrorism. That could hurt the region and hurt us.

Next, we need to have a policy in which Iraq remains an independent country and not a proxy for regional war or battlefield of regional war. And one of the disturbing things that came out this week is how strongly Ryan Crocker and General Petraeus made it clear that Iran is already moving to make Iraq a regional battlefield to conduct such a proxy war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dr. Brzezinski, are those -- just to pick a few of the things that Phil Zelikow mentioned, al-Qaida, keeping Iraq independent, making sure Iran is not too influential.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: What does that mean to say, "keeping Iraq independent"? Keeping Iraq independent? We have devastated the country, and we're occupying it. What sort of an independence is that? Al-Qaida in Iraq? Was al-Qaida in Iraq before March 2003?

The problem with the war is that it is a series of horrendous strategic mistakes, and to continue on that course is to compound these mistakes. What we really need is a national effort -- hopefully launched by the president, but if not by him, then by the opposition -- to formulate an alternative strategy and to try to resolve this problem, to set in motion the resolution and not simply to dump it on the lap of the next president. And that is what President Bush, sad to say, in effect, is doing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Phil Zelikow, is that how you see what President Bush is doing?

PHILIP ZELIKOW: Well, I didn't really hear that Zbig answered your question. You asked him to say what he thought the strategy should be. He looked backward in anger instead of forward with ideas.

I tried to lay out one construct. There are lots of constructs as to how you would define American interests in Iraq. Zbig says we need a national strategy that can unite us. I agree. Let's talk about what the elements are.

I think you have to take on, one way or another, the kind of issues that I talked about. And to be clear, what I was suggesting was not stay the course, business as usual. We've got to move from a situation in which we have the appearance of weak control to moving to a posture of strong leverage in a vital country undergoing violent revolution.

That's a different kind of posture, but we have to stay engaged in the future of that country and the future of that region and do so in a way that recovers strategic initiative instead of letting it drain away.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Dr. Brzezinski?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, maintain strong control, maintain strong leverage, we have been doing that for four years, and we all see the results: four million Iraqis driven out of their homes; the country devastated; Iran, indeed, having more influence as a consequence of us devastating Iraq.

That's the past. We have to change that. Phil says, is there an alternative strategy? I'm happy to outline one. I've been doing that for the last three or four years.

Basically, we have to make it clear that we're not going to be staying for long, because there's going to be no help from anyone, including the Iraqis, if they think we're saying. And Phil is talking as if we're going to stay there.

Secondly, we have to set a date for leaving together with the Iraqis.

Thirdly, we have to engage the region. No country in the region is going to be cooperative as long as they think we're staying there indefinitely.

And, fourth, we have to have a humanitarian program.

I've just summarized for you, in effect, Obama's recent speech. But this is an alternative, and I think we can only shape a meaningful program if we do it on a bipartisan basis or we'll have to do it through elections.

Dealing with Iran and al-Qaida

Philip Zelikow
Former State Department counselor
I think Iraq will stay engaged with the United States for years to come, and Iraqis are going to decide that, working with the United States. But I think it's going to be on a diminished scale as time passes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how does al-Qaida and how does Iran -- how do Iran and al-Qaida fit into what you just described?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Al-Qaida can be best dealt with by the Iraqis. It wasn't there until we came in; it's the opposition and the resistance to us that legitimates its presence in Iraq and it gives it recruits. If we're going to deal with al-Qaida effectively, we have to have the Iraqis in charge of the country.

The Iranians can still be engaged, because they realize that an Iraq that explodes upon our disengagement poses real dangers to Iran's territorial integrity, national integrity, as well. And the Iranians know that.

The Syrians are in the same position. In fact, the Saudis are in the same position. This is why launching a regional effort makes sense. But it has to be launched rather than simply to stay on course.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So bottom line to both of you, Phil Zelikow, how long does the United States end up staying in Iraq with a significant military force?

PHILIP ZELIKOW: I think Iraq will stay engaged with the United States for years to come, and Iraqis are going to decide that, working with the United States. But I think it's going to be on a diminished scale as time passes. And the American role, I think -- here I agree with Zbig -- does need to change.

Where we disagree is this. He thinks we can remain strong, engaged, and influential if we just guarantee we're leaving and get everybody out. None of the responsible Iraqis think they can beat al-Qaida on their own. None of the responsible Iraqis believe that Iran wants to respect their national integrity.

They want our help precisely so they can be independent. Otherwise, the Shia are thrown upon utter dependence upon Iran. They don't want that, either. They want to play both sides of the street. And it's our interest to exert leverage to help steer Iraq in a direction that doesn't make them a dependent of Iran and doesn't create a situation, a proxy civil war, in which the United States stands on the sidelines, arms folded, shaking its head in disapproval, and reflecting bitterly on the past. We need to have a strategy for the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A final response from you?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, I have here very extensive polls just taken in Iraq regarding their attitude towards the United States staying there, towards the American president, and so forth. And very little of that bears out what Phil was saying.

The point is that, if we are to disengage from Iraq, in effect that mitigates the consequences that might ensue from our departure, we have to engage the entire region. We have to say to the region that we intend to leave. To be credible, we have to set a date. And only then can we mobilize both the regional forces and the Iraqis in the strategy of disengagement, which creates stability upon our departure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We will leave it there. Zbigniew Brzezinski, we thank you. Philip Zelikow, thank you both.