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Bush’s Final Iraq Visit Prompts Mixed Responses

December 15, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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President Bush ended his farewell trip to Iraq and Afghanistan on Monday, where he met with officials about security matters and visited U.S. troops stationed in both conflict zones. Two Middle East analysts discuss the Bush administration's legacy in Iraq.
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RAY SUAREZ: The president’s surprise visit to Baghdad was meant to highlight the new U.S.-Iraqi security agreement, but also showed the deep divisions remaining over U.S. policy.

Unlike previous visits, Mr. Bush arrived in daylight, the scene broadcast across Iraq, a reminder of the last year’s decline in violence. It was likely his last trip to Iraq as president.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The war is not yet over, but with the conclusion of these agreements and the courage of the Iraqi people, and the Iraqi troops, and American troops, and civilian personnel, it is decisively on its way to being won.

RAY SUAREZ: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the president officially signed the status-of-forces agreement that calls on U.S. forces to withdraw by 2011.

GEORGE W. BUSH: This is a major achievement. Is it the end? Absolutely not. There is more work to be done. And all this basically says is, we’ve made — we’ve made good progress and we’ll continue to work together to achieve peace. That’s what we want: freedom and peace.

RAY SUAREZ: The war enters its sixth year in April. It’s cost more than 4,200 American lives and the lives of thousands more Iraqis.

It was right after the president and prime minister shook hands that an Iraqi journalist hurled shoes at Mr. Bush, shouting in Arabic, “This is a gift from the Iraqis. This is your farewell kiss, you dog.”

The first shoe narrowly missed the president; the second was thrown before security forces tackled the man. He said the second toss was “from the widows, the orphans, and those who were killed in Iraq.”

The president tried to make light of the incident.

GEORGE W. BUSH: If you want the facts, it’s a size 10 shoe that he threw.

RAY SUAREZ: The Iraqi government condemned the act, but reaction on the street was mixed.

RAHIM HASSAN, Iraqi citizen (through translator): He deserves to be hit with more than one or two shoes. Who told him to come?

FADHIL RADHI, Iraqi citizen (through translator): I deem it unnecessary. This thing is unjustifiable. It is incorrect style. We are not in a war state. One can give his opinion in other ways.

RAY SUAREZ: The president’s visit came on the heels of new reports critical of the U.S. war in Iraq. One focused on detainee treatment at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere by U.S. forces.

It was released in part by the Senate Armed Services Committee last Thursday. It conducted a two-year bipartisan investigation.

The findings blame the abuse of prisoners on the Bush administration, including former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. It read, “The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of a few bad apples acting on their own.”

The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees.”

The other study found the reconstruction effort, costing some $50 billion, was largely a failure.

Differing views on Bush's legacy

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the Bush administration's Iraq legacy, we get two views. Michael Rubin worked on Iran and Iraq issues in the Defense Department in President Bush's first term and served as an adviser to the U.S.-led occupation authority in Iraq. He's now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

And Juan Cole is a professor of history at the University of Michigan and the author of the forthcoming book, "Engaging the Muslim World." He follows developments in Iraq closely.

Professor Cole, let me start with you. Over the weekend, President Bush said, "Our plan is working. Today, violence is down dramatically; Al Qaeda is driven from its safe havens. Sunnis, Shia and Kurds are sitting together to peacefully plot the future of the country." Is he right?

JUAN COLE, University of Michigan: Well, I wish he were right. It would be so wonderful for the Iraqis if he were right. But virtually none of that is true.

Baghdad has been ethnically cleansed, the majority of it Sunni Arabs. There are lively fights between Arabs and Kurds in the north. Prime Minister al-Maliki is being accused by the Kurds of developing a militia among Arab tribes people loyal to the prime minister that has come into conflict with the Kurds.

Social peace is very far away. Four hundred attacks a month, still several hundred civilians killed every month. Three bombings in Baghdad, wounding nearly 20 people, on the very day that Bush was in Baghdad.

In comparison to the almost apocalyptic violence of a year-and-a-half ago, sure, there is improvement in some of the statistics. But if this were any other country in the world, it would be considered a very serious crisis.

RAY SUAREZ: How do you assess the president's assessment of America's work in Iraq?

MICHAEL RUBIN, American Enterprise Institute: I think the president deserves credit for around 70 percent of what he said; 30 percent may be overly optimistic.

There's no doubt that there are still many problems in Iraq. But before Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003, Iraqis were very maximal -- they were very maximalist in their viewpoints.

When you would go from Najaf to Karbala or from Baghdad to Baquba or from Baquba to Hebheb, you would have Iraqis that had never talked to each other and would just shout. Every day now there are debates.

Now, Professor Cole talked about some of the Kurdish-Sunni posturing and so forth. Oftentimes what we see with both the Sunni and the Kurds are people posturing into the last minute, but they are debating.

Now, on metric charts, there's a lot that needs to be done. Electricity is not back up to speed. There is a lot that needs to be done on education and security.

But what's not talked about is the day-by-day change in political culture. I was in Iraq before the war and after the war. And when you compare the two, it's just undescribable.

Withdrawal details still uncertain

RAY SUAREZ: What about the president's statement this weekend -- and we saw part of his news conference -- that the war is decisively on its way to being won. Do you agree with that?

MICHAEL RUBIN: No, that I would disagree with. And the reason is twofold.

First of all, if our troops withdraw, as called for by the SOFA agreement -- and I have some doubts about whether that will happen -- then it's going to be a race to fill that vacuum. And other neighboring states -- Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia -- are going to take part in that race.

Also, I'm not sure whether Iraq has really found its sea legs. And this is going to be hampered by the decline in oil prices.

When you go to Baghdad, you don't see a lot, for example, of construction cranes and signs of ongoing projects. What the oil revenue has been used for is largely to pay salaries. When that money is not there, Iraq may be under some serious, serious strain.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Cole, how about what Michael Rubin just said? Will Iraq be ready on the SOFA date in 2011?

JUAN COLE: Well, I don't know whether Iraq will be ready on the SOFA date, but it's very clear that the Iraqi people want the U.S. troops out of their country.

They were initially approached for a status-of-forces agreement by the Bush administration with no deadline for or timetable for U.S. withdrawal. They were offered a SOFA in which the U.S. would continue to control Iraqi air space, the seas around Iraq, would decide when and where to launch unilaterally military operations in the country, would arrest Iraqis at will.

All of those provisions were knocked down by the Iraqi cabinet, by the Iraqi parliament, by Grand Ayatollah Sistani. So they don't want U.S. troops there in these kinds of numbers, in this kind of role. And they've spoken, really, as a matter of national sovereignty in that regard.

Whether the U.S. withdrawal will allow a resurgence of violence is a question we can't know the answer to. But it should be pointed out that, while the United States has been there, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, have died in violence. Entire cities have changed their social complexion through violence. There's been ongoing killing and destruction.

So the U.S. presence has not been a guarantee of social peace in any case.

Iraqis have 'mixed feelings'

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what have the Iraqis, Professor, concluded about the state of Iraq this many years on? No matter whether they agreed with the U.S. or U.S. strategy or intentions for the region, do they find the country a more livable, safer, freer place, as the president said over the weekend?

JUAN COLE: Well, I don't think anybody in Iraq thinks it's safer. Iraq was very dangerous during the Saddam period for anyone who was involved actively in politics. But for people who weren't, there wasn't a danger in sending your child to school or in going shopping.

People report on the ground that the wealthy in Iraq still bring bodyguards when they go to the mall. And so, no, it's not. It's not safer. There's social discontents with regard to security.

And, you know, freedom does not consist in simply elections. The elections that have been held so far were such the people didn't even know the identities of the representatives for whom they were supposedly voting.

So, I mean, I think Iraqis have mixed feelings when you talk to them. Most people were happy to see the back of Saddam Hussein, but they were humiliated by a foreign military occupation.

What being a Muslim Arab has been about in the 20th century was getting rid of European colonialism. Nobody liked to see the analogue of that from America coming into their country.

And I think they feel that the United States made severe errors that exacerbated the situation and caused enormous destruction.

The U.S. has been bombing civilian tenement buildings. It's conducted large-scale military operations in civilian areas. There have been so many deaths, and few Iraqis have been left untouched by this. So...

Iraqis fear 'criminality' most

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, let me give Michael Rubin a chance to respond to all of that. He's just pleaded a brief on behalf of one point of view. How do you see it? And how do you see Iraqis looking at their own country and their experience over the last six years?

MICHAEL RUBIN: Fundamentally it depends on which Iraqis you talk to. First of all, what was very good with regard to the SOFA negotiations -- Professor Cole was absolutely right in outlining it -- how the initial United States' position didn't end up being the agreement which was signed.

But that's also a testament to the fact that the Iraqi government is up and running and, to some degree, trying to represent the people and strike that balance between good governance, responsible policy, and reflecting the will of the people.

Now, when one goes into the south or when one goes into the north, under Saddam, it wasn't just people who were actively engaged in politics. The people in Halabja that had chemical weapons dumped on them weren't necessarily all involved in politics.

And when we look at Iraq's stability, from 1961 to the present, the Kurds were in a state of near constant civil war. What we found out after the war, looking at old documents, talking to people, in the south, for example, the area around Nasiriyah, Alamarrah, Saddam's Republican Guard may have controlled that during the day, but at night it was very insecure. So this myth that Iraq had stability wasn't right.

Now, Baghdad doesn't have as much electricity as it once did, but Basra and Nasiriyah, Shia towns in the south which were discriminated against massively, do.

And when one looks at the issue of security, you know, we talk about security in terms of force protection or freedom from terrorism and so forth. The Iraqis often talk about security in terms of freedom from violence and organized crime, because it's not the terrorist bombings that affect most Iraqis. It's this criminality.

And that's why we get a much different debate about security when we actually talk to people. But basically, from community to community, it's going to be a very different assessment of where they are. And, in fact, it's only going to be in retrospect that the Iraqis are able to vocalize that.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Rubin, Juan Cole, gentlemen, good to talk to you both.

MICHAEL RUBIN: Thank you.

JUAN COLE: Thank you.