GWEN IFILL: Now, America and Iraq on the third anniversary of the war. We begin with some background.
Three years after an air assault on Baghdad combined with a simultaneous ground invasion launched the Iraq war, the conflict is far from over. More than 2,300 Americans have been killed; over 17,000 wounded. The number of Iraqi casualties varies greatly, from 33,000 to one report that pegged the number at more than 100,000.
As public opinion surveys show growing disenchantment with the war, leading U.S. officials used the anniversary to defend the continuing engagement. President Bush spoke today in Cleveland, Ohio. The fight for democracy in Iraq, he said, is part and parcel of a larger war.
GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: The last three years have tested our resolve. The fighting has been tough; the enemy we face has proved to be brutal and relentless.
We're adapting our approach to reflect the hard realities on the ground, and the sacrifice being made by our young men and women who wear our uniform has been heartening and inspiring.
In the war on terror, we face a global enemy. And if we were not fighting this enemy in Iraq, they would not be idle; they would be plotting and trying to kill Americans across the world and within our own borders.
Against this enemy there can be no compromise, so we will fight them in Iraq, we will fight them across the world, and we will stay in the fight until the fight is won.
GWEN IFILL: The president, as well as other administration officials, like Vice President Dick Cheney, are arguing the situation in Iraq is better than it seems.
RICHARD CHENEY, Vice President of the United States: There is a constant sort of perception, if you will, that's created because what's newsworthy is the car bomb in Baghdad. It's not all the work that went on that day in 15 other provinces, in terms of making progress towards rebuilding Iraq.
GWEN IFILL: And in an opinion piece in yesterday's Washington Post, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wrote: "Turning our backs on postwar Iraq today would be the modern equivalent of handing postwar Germany back to the Nazis."
But a recent surge in sectarian violence has caused critics of the war, and even some Iraqis who supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, to say a civil war is now under way. Former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
IYAD ALLAWI, Former Prime Minister, Iraq: We are losing a day as an average 50 to 60 people throughout the country, if not more. If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is. I think Iraq is facing -- is in a middle of a crisis; maybe we have not reached the point of no return yet, but we are moving towards this point.
GWEN IFILL: Still, current Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari appealed to coalition members in a Washington Post column published today. He wrote: "The world should not falter at such a crucial stage in history."
There have been notable successes in Iraq: Saddam Hussein was toppled and is now being tried for crimes against humanity; Iraqis have voted in free and fair elections and approved a new constitution; and coalition troops have trained thousands of Iraqi security forces to play a larger role in fighting against insurgents.
But all of that, even the president acknowledged, have been overshadowed by continued violence. At home, the drumbeat of criticism about the U.S. role has been gaining momentum.
SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN, D-Del.: Hopefully, this anniversary allows us and the administration time to reconsider what has been done and what we should do from here. The outcome, as to what we're trading for, looks increasingly dismal, in my view, based on what I would characterize as the dangerous incompetence of this administration.
SEN. CHUCK HAGEL, R-Neb.: We're beyond the American people buying into public relations offensives. This is about policy now. This is about hard, cold realities and facts on the ground.
GWEN IFILL: The anniversary also provided an opportunity for protesters, although smaller in number than in years past, to gather in cities around the world, demanding an immediate end to the war.
When the war began three years ago, we turned to two analysts for context during the first critical weeks. We do that again tonight, with Zbigniew Brzezinski -- he was national security adviser to President Carter, and he's now a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies -- and Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Gentlemen, welcome back.
We just heard the president say there will be no compromise, there must be victory. Before we get to his definitions, what's your assessment, Mr. Brzezinski, first, on where we stand three years in?
ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI, Former National Security Adviser to President Carter: Well, the fact that it's three years speaks for itself. Obviously, we haven't been very successful.
We're facing a war of attrition. And in a war of attrition, if the insurgency that's domestic, that's indigenous is not losing, it is basically winning, because it is fighting against an occupation army.
Eighty-seven percent of the Iraqi people want us to leave; that says something. We just heard Mr. Allawi on the air.
The fact of the matter is neither the sectarian conflict between the Shiites and the Sunnis, nor the struggle against us, is abating. It is either continuing at an intense level or getting worse. There are lessons to be drawn from that.
GWEN IFILL: Walter Russell Mead, what's your assessment?
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, I would agree that it's not a good thing that we're still here three years later. I don't think either Dr. Brzezinski or I wanted to be back for another context evaluation.
I think it's important to understand that things are changing in Iraq, not everything for the better, but some things have changed. To me, probably the most significant development is that the -- in the beginning, U.S. forces -- I think Iraq's been in a civil war since the day Saddam fell, in the sense there's been a violent struggle for power.
For the first couple of years, the Sunni-based insurgencies, whether you speak of the pro-Saddam, or the neo-Baathists, or whatever they are, or the jihadis with foreign support, hoped for a Sunni restoration of some kind in Iraq.
And I think what's happened, partly because the U.S. has helped the new government build up an army, that objective is increasingly out of reach. And the Sunni insurgency can't realistically aspire to control the whole country.
What that means is now you have one group of the Sunnis are looking to get back into the political process and to join the Iraqi state with appropriate guarantees. Others, I think, hope to turn this into a wide or a regional conflict. And among the Shia, you also have divisions.
So things are changing. It's not exactly the same thing that we faced; in some ways, it's more dangerous, but in some others I think it's a little bit better.
GWEN IFILL: If it were possible to do a cost-benefit analysis on whether it's been worth it to be in Iraq, as increasingly so many Americans say, "No," what would you say were the costs and what were the benefits?
ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I think the benefits have been, in fact, very few, beyond the obvious one: the removal of Saddam Hussein. But we have undermined our international legitimacy. That's a very high cost to a superpower.
We have destroyed our credibility; no one believes anything the president says anymore. We have tarnished our morality with Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. These are phenomenal costs. And there's, of course, blood and money and tens of thousands of Iraqi killed.
So, in my view, the time has come to face all of this, to realize that staying for a prolonged period of time until some ephemeral victory is not the solution. It is time to leave.
And I think a four-point program could be implemented that would permit us to leave in a fashion that would not be a debacle: Ask the Iraqi government to ask us to leave, first of all. And some would ask us. Some have already asked us, in fact.
Secondly, concert with the Iraqi government on the date of our departure, so it's a joint decision, I would think in about a year.
Third, the Iraqi government then convenes a conference of neighbors, Muslim neighbors, who are interested in continued stability in Iraq and in helping to prevent a civil war from exploding.
And fourth, arrange a donors conference for the recovery of Iraq. We could do that. I think we'd be better off if we did it; otherwise we're stuck, and this is getting worse and worse. The region is becoming more destabilized and hostile to us.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Mead, as you think about the cost-benefit question, does anything that Mr. Brzezinski just suggested sound doable to you?
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I would say my disagreements might be a little bit over time, a little bit over ordering that I do think partly because, in fact, the Shia and the Americans have more or less prevented the Sunni-based insurgencies from being in a position to take over the country, I think that does start to give us some more options.
I think it also begins to change the American role in Iraq. And one of the things we've seen is that U.S. combat deaths in Iraq have been falling now on a trend that's about six months old. And while, you know, nothing is permanent in war, a six-month trend in a three-month war is a good sign, not a bad one.
And I think that it's absolutely true that, as the Iraqi forces continue to get stronger, the importance of the U.S. presence in Iraq becomes more political and less military. And as that happens, the door begins to open for some kind of a withdrawal or drawdown of troops.
Now, I think it would be a mistake myself to sort of lay out too many conditions and timetables in advance, but I think we do need to -- I am hoping that, at some point in particular, the first of the steps that you talked about, the Iraqi government saying to the Americans, "It's time to talk about withdrawal," I hope that will come this year.
GWEN IFILL: Isn't that a fig leaf?
ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Not really. You know, after all, if we leave, the Shiites and the Kurds, as Walter said, particularly regarding the Shiites, but the Kurds have to be taken into account. They will dominate the scene. They'll together be 75 percent of the people.
And the Shiites are pretty well-armed. The Kurds are extremely well-armed and organized. And the Sunnis will then have to face the choice of either accommodating or fighting.
My guess is they'll split. Some will choose to accommodate; some will continue to fight. And this will then be an Iraqi responsibility.
We have to get rid of this colonialist mindset that we are there to teach them how to be a country, how to be a democracy, how to avoid a civil war. This is their country. They're quite capable of running it once we're out.
GWEN IFILL: It sounds like withdrawal then becomes or the troop drawdown withdrawal becomes victory, in your definition, that as long as the United States gets out of it, we've won.
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, it's interesting. If you listen to how the president was defining victory in his speech earlier today, yes, in a sense it boils down to an Iraqi government that is at least somewhat democratic, at least rests on some sort of approval by the majority, which is capable of managing its own security problems. If you have an Iraqi government like that, absolutely, the U.S. can leave.
And I would also say that I think the U.S. lost a lot of time because it did go into Iraq, I think, with something of a colonial "we know best" mentality. I think we have begun to shift policy rather hard, partly because the administration, I think, learned some very painful lessons.
GWEN IFILL: But if administration's goal was democracy, Western-style democracy that would then spread and flower throughout the Middle East, would this kind of withdrawal, whether with Iraq's permission or urging or not, would it end up achieving the goal that we heard the president talk about today?
ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, you know, goals have to be realistic, unless they're just slogans. The notion of us occupying Iraq, creating democracy through an occupation, and then that democracy spreading throughout the Middle East was an illusion from day one.
GWEN IFILL: Not even a worthy goal?
ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: It may be a worthy goal, but a worthy goal that's unrelated to reality is not a serious goal. This is not a serious goal.
Someday the region will be democratic, but it will be democratic because democracy has been nurtured from within. It is a potential in most societies. I don't believe that Islamic societies are not capable of being democracies, because we know some Muslim societies that are democracies.
But it has to come from within. It is not going to be imposed by an occupation army that's brutalizing the country while at the same time, quote, unquote, "democratizing it."
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Mead?
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I would agree with at least the part where he says that it needs to come from within. And I think, again, the deal we're both talking about in Iraq, where the Shia and the Kurds form a sort of a new core of a new state and then make a deal with the Sunnis in order to have as many Sunnis as possible join in rather than resist, that may not be Swedish-style social democracy, but it's pluralism and, to some degree, a pluralism that's operating through institutions.
So I think if, you know, if the goal of turning Iraq into Sweden is out of reach, I think nevertheless Iraq is edging in its own way -- not the way we would have chosen or on our timetable -- towards something better.
Now, things could still go wrong. It's clear that the minority of the Sunnis, the minority of the minority that wants a broader war, is doing everything they can, the bombing in Samarra, attempting to provoke a civil war, and people get angry. But the sort of clear move of the center in Iraq is to a kind of a dirty pluralism, if not a pure democracy.
GWEN IFILL: How important is it at this stage that Iran be part of the solution, part of this grateful exit, I guess?
ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I think Iran has to be engaged, and I am very pleased that Ambassador Khalilzad has been authorized to talk to the Iranians. You know, we forget that the Iranians played a very significantly stabilizing role regarding Afghanistan just several years ago, and they have a stake in a stable Iraq.
But we also have to engage the other neighbors of Iraq in the process. And I should really correct myself: I shouldn't say we should engage them; the Iraqi government should engage them.
And in my view, the sooner we leave, the more legitimacy that government will have, based on the formula that Walter was talking about, and the sooner it will be able to talk credibly to the neighbors.
The longer we stay, the worse the war of attrition becomes, the deeper we'll be drawn in, the more unstable the regime will be, and the higher the cost to us.
GWEN IFILL: Iran, a useful conduit for this?
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Look, I think trying to repair U.S.-Iranian relations or, in a sense, build U.S.-Iranian relations is one of the most important foreign policy tasks that we have. It's really a tragedy that the U.S. and Iran are seeing each other in this deeply inimical way.
We, in fact, do have a number of interests in common, and they would include -- I think we would both like to see a stable Iraq.
It's going to be very difficult. The president of Iran is not the easiest negotiating partner. And I'm not sure that the Iranian government is all operating with the same policy.
I think there are a lot of factions in Iran, as well as in Iraq, and you have different factions pursuing different policies, but I would agree it is a tremendous step forward for us to be talking with the Iranians. And I hope those talks can continue.
GWEN IFILL: Finally, if we're sitting here at this table a year from now having this conversation after another anniversary, where does the United States have to be, in order to be able to declare victory, as president is defining it?
ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I think the word victory is misleading, but I think we can accomplish what we set out to do, which is to have an Iraq that's not controlled by Saddam and that's not violently hostile to us, by doing more or less what I outlined a year from now, precisely a year from now.
But if we don't, then I'm afraid we're going to be deeper and deeper involved in a region that's becoming more and more volatile, potentially more explosive, and increasingly driven by anti-American antagonism that's becoming pervasive.
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: I think the important thing is, over the next year, what I hope we see, what we need to try to accomplish is that Iraqi forces are fighting more and more of the insurgency; American troops, as understand it, are now more or less out of Baghdad, out of Mosul, where the Iraqis are now bearing the day-to-day burden.
It's interesting, by the way, that as American casualties have dropped, Iraqi military casualties have not, which suggests that the battle is as intense as ever, but we're not fighting as much of it. The more that happens, the sooner the day comes when the Iraqi government will ask us to leave, and we will leave, and also the more legitimacy it will have among its own people and in the region.
I think we have to continue to support the Iraqi army, help it get better. I'd like to see us do a little bit more with the police, who are not going particularly well, but it remains a difficult situation, and I hope we're not back here in another year.
GWEN IFILL: Walter Russell Mead, Zbigniew Brzezinski, thank you both very much.
ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Thank you.
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Thank you.