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President’s Baghdad Trip Sparks U.S. Iraq Policy Debate

June 14, 2006 at 6:35 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And now reaction to what the president said about Iraq from two analysts who have been with us since the war began: former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, he’s now a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; and Walter Russell Mead, the Henry Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, author of “Special Providence: American Policy and How it Changed the World.”

I talked to them earlier today.

Gentlemen, welcome.

Dr. Brzezinski, the president ended his news conference saying, “Going to war in Iraq was worth it. It was necessary, and it will succeed.” Do you agree?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI, Former National Security Adviser to President Carter: No, I do not. I don’t think it was worth it. I don’t think it is succeeding, and I think we ought to think very seriously as to how we can extract still some degree of success from what, obviously, has been a major misadventure.

JIM LEHRER: You did not hear the president say anything today that gave you confidence that success was still possible under his way of doing it?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, the president opened his press conference by make a statement, which I suspect most Americans didn’t quite fully interpret correctly. This is what he said: “I have just returned from Baghdad. I was inspired to be able to visit the capital of a free and democratic Iraq.”

Now, this is what the president actually visited. This is an aerial map of Baghdad and, within it, the viewers can see a small spot. That is the so-called Green Zone, a fortified American fortress housing the American embassy, the American high command, and all the major institutions of the Iraqi, as he said, free and democratic government, in an American fortress.

This is worse than in the bad days of Vietnam, when the South Vietnamese regime was still operating from its own palaces, had its own army and so forth. We do not have in Iraq a free and democratic government that is functioning.

Are there positive changes in Iraq?

Walter Russell Mead
Council on Foreign Relations
I think it's very clear that the large majority of Iraqis wants this government to work. Now, whether they'll be able to succeed, that's another question.

JIM LEHRER: Walter Mead, what do you think of that?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, I think that's -- you know, there is, obviously, some truth to it, but I wouldn't be quite so grim about it, because, particularly making the comparison with South Vietnam, the big difference in South Vietnam is we had a government but we could never quite find enough of a people who wanted to support that government.

In Iraq, I think it's very clear that the large majority of Iraqis wants this government to work. Now, whether they'll be able to succeed, that's another question.

I don't think the president made anybody think it was a sure thing that we were going to win in Iraq, but I look at some slow changes, and I do see some encouraging signs.

I mean, yes, it's true, the government is meeting in the Green Zone, but the government is meeting. You know, just a few weeks ago, there were a lot of people saying that the government would never be able -- they would never be able to assemble a national unity government. Then, when the key security ministries were left unfilled, they said, "Well, you see, they could do the easy part, but not the hard part." Now they've done that.

The strategy that they were discussing for using 75,000 troops to begin to pacify Baghdad is a strategy that a lot of critics have been pressing on them for some time. And interestingly, in that strategy, they're calling for the effort to be led by Iraqis, with only about 10 percent of the forces being coalition.

None of this would have been even remotely possible a year ago. That's not to say that Iraq is paradise or that somehow the end is just around the corner, but there -- if you look at it over time, I think you do see some very positive changes in the balance of forces.

Possibilities of civil war

Zbigniew Brzezinski
Former National Security Advisor
The Iraqis are a historical people. They're quite capable of handling things on their own, provided their leaders are real leaders of the country and not essentially proteges of an occupying power hiding in an American fortress.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see those same positive changes, Dr. Brzezinski?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I would have to have an enormous magnifying glass to be able to see them that way. The fact of the matter is: The government is meeting in an American fortress.

If it is meeting in an American fortress, it is because it is not able to operate outside of an American fortress. That tells you a lot. The notions that a new plan is being put in to enhance security in Baghdad makes me think of a person in the midst of a huge fire in a house who all of a sudden announces that he has a new plan for the installation of air conditioning.

I mean, the fact of the matter is that, three years after the occupation of Baghdad, the authority we have installed is besieged and relatively helpless, and a civil war is beginning to mushroom, under the occupation, which is unable to crush the insurgency, because it is a foreign occupation.

And, last but not least, we have to get rid of the mindset, which is really by now totally ahistorical -- we no longer live in the age of colonialism. We no longer have to assume "the white man's burden" in order to civilize others, and I'm using these phrases in quotation marks.

The Iraqis are a historical people. They're quite capable of handling things on their own, provided their leaders are real leaders of the country and not essentially proteges of an occupying power hiding in an American fortress.

JIM LEHRER: Walter Mead, what about this, the new regime of Prime Minister Maliki? Are they more of the same or do they fit the definition that Dr. Brzezinski just laid out, essentially installed by the United States, protected by the United States, given power by the United States?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, certainly, the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein, but the Iraqi leadership emerged, first of all, from a constitutional process, then from elections, and then from a political process, which the United States did not control.

So it seems to me that, you know, again, if the U.S. were trying to be one of these colonial powers in Iraq, in order to kind of overall the majority. And also, because the minority is dependant on the outside power, the outside can protect its position.

But actually what the U.S. has been doing in Iraq is quite different. I mean, whether we'll succeed or not it's very difficult, but we have been putting the majority of Iraqis in charge, and I think that this will not be a puppet government. And I think already you can see, in some ways, that it really is an Iraqi government acting out of Iraqi politics.

I would also say that the situation in Baghdad, at one level, you look and you see, well, people are getting killed all the time. That's true. But you have to look a little further to really follow the currents that are going on there, which is you go back some months and almost all the killings were Sunnis killing Shia, basically, people defending the old regime or wanting a jihadi regime, trying to prevent the new Iraq from taking root.

Now, what you're seeing, unfortunately, but -- is roughly the same number of people being killed, but it's more Shia killing Sunni. And the problem now, the government has got to rein in militias, death squads, and so on. This is not going to be easy. But it also suggests that the new order in Iraq, while far from perfect, but one based in the aspirations of the majority of Iraqis, is actually gaining ground on the ground.

"Gaining ground on the ground"

Walter Russell Mead
Council on Foreign Relations
The fact that they [the Iraqi government] are planning the largest security effort ever mounted in Baghdad and that Iraqi troops are leading it is very significant.

JIM LEHRER: "Gaining ground on the ground," Dr. Brzezinski, in terms of the Iraqis themselves taking control, as you say they should?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: You know, I don't understand the definition of "progress," if progress is movement from just Sunnis killing Shias to Shias now killing Sunnis, in addition to Sunnis killing Shias. What sort of progress is that?

I'll give another example: Until recently, Basra, which is in southern Iraq, occupied by the British, was relatively quiet. Now it is becoming violent. I am afraid that the sense of resentment against a foreign occupation is spreading, and to the extent that we can gage, by public opinion polls -- and one, of course, has to wonder how reliable they are -- a large majority of the Iraqi people now resents the foreign occupation.

And then, last but not least...

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: That's true, but they don't want...

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: ... is the fact that the so-called Iraqi government, three years after the beginning of the occupation, still sits in an American fortress. It cannot venture outside of it. To call it a government is to misuse the word "government."

It is not governing; it is sitting there. It's receiving American visitors, but it is not operating.

Now, the courts are running the north. There's no doubt that there's a Kurdish authority that's established. But in the Sunni and Shiite regions, I'm afraid we do not have a viable political entity operating independently of us.

JIM LEHRER: All right, Walter Mead?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, what I would say there is, first of all, that the government is not three years -- the government hasn't been trying to establish itself as an operating entity for three years. The government is just a couple of weeks old, as an actual unified government, operating constitutionally with an agreed-on program.

So, you know, if three years from now or even a shorter time than that, what we still have is a group of politicians sitting inside protection, I would say -- I would start moving over to Dr. Brzezinski's position, but I want to see what they do first.

The fact that they are planning the largest security effort ever mounted in Baghdad and that Iraqi troops are leading it is very significant. I mean, here's a government that says the first thing we've got to do is secure the capital.

Now, we will have to watch and see how well they do or how badly they do -- and I'm not going to sit here and tell you I know, because I don't -- but to say that it's over, that it's failed, that this government, you know, will never work because it's been trying for three years not to work, is just not right. Let's wait and see how it goes and see where we are.

Again, the one way to compare the situation is that, after the U.S. Civil War, the minority in states like -- the state I was born in, South Carolina, was white, and the blacks tried to set up an independent government, a democratic government after the war, and the Ku Klux Klan organized a terror movement which ultimately suppressed the black government in South Carolina and drove blacks from the polls.

What has been happening, first of all, is we've been working to keep the Klan from take over again and from re-imposing minority rule. That's worked. Now comes the much more difficult and ultimately decisive question: Can the newly empowered, formerly oppressed majority form a government?

They don't know how to do it; they haven't been doing it. They've been oppressed; they've been excluded from political power. It's very hard. There are extremely high hurdles for them, but it is worth the try, it seems to me. It really is worth giving these people a chance for the first time to genuinely govern themselves.

Should we pull out of Iraq?

Zbigniew Brzezinski
Former National Security Advisor
We are not working against the Iraqi nation. We are working for and with an Iraqi nation that is trying to achieve, for the first time, real political representation.

JIM LEHRER: Worth a try, Dr. Brzezinski? You're saying no?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, it's worth a try. The question is: How long do you continue trying?

Now, Walter says, if I understood him correctly, that he's willing to wait three more years to see if the present government leaves the Green Zone, the American fortress. Well, how many thousands of Iraqis will die in the meantime? How many hundreds, how many thousands of Americans will die in the meantime?

How much will our prestige internationally decline? How many billions of dollars will we spend on this?

You know, analogies are not always very helpful, but farfetched analogies are really misleading. I think the analogy to the American Civil War is really farfetched.

If you want some analogy, I would say a closer analogy is that of Algeria, in the waning days of the war that the Algerians were waging against the French. Until de Gaulle came to power, the government was getting all the time the same kind of advice we now are hearing about the situation in Iraq. It may get better. Yes, three years have been wasted, but maybe we can go on for another three years. And we're going to do better; we're going to control Algiers.

There's a wonderful movie called "The Battle of Algiers," which shows what happened when the effort was made finally just to control Algiers. I'm afraid the battle for Baghdad is, in many ways, reminiscent of the battle for Algiers.

And then a man came along, de Gaulle, who instead of listening to the same degree of timid consensus -- "Gee, we are stuck, but we don't know what to do, so let's continue being stuck and maybe we'll win" -- he realized that this is a wrong war.

This is an unhistorical war. This is a war which France cannot win because the age has passed. And we have to realize that we cannot do now in Iraq what the British did in the 1920s. This is a new age and a colonial imperial war, in the name of tutelage, is just not going to prevail.

JIM LEHRER: So pull out, Dr. Brzezinski, now?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Pull out in an intelligent fashion. I have been advocating a four-point program which, in a nutshell, is the following.

Talk at length with the Iraq leadership as to when we have to leave. Those who say, "We don't want you to leave," are the ones who leave when we leave. The real leaders, probably not living in the Green Zone, will say, "Yes, leave." I suspect Sistani is among them.

Secondly, then announce jointly a date, but a date set jointly.

Then, thirdly, let the Iraqi government convene a conference of all of Iraq's Muslim neighbors about stabilizing Iraq and helping it to stabilize. Most of them will want to be helpful, maybe even Iranians.

And, fourth, we then announce as we're leaving a donors conference of interested countries in Europe and the Far East who benefit from Iraqi oil on helping to rehabilitate Iraq. I think this would enable us to leave and still say we achieved basically what we wanted -- the removal of Saddam -- though not a secular, stable, united Iraq under a perfect democracy because that, frankly, is a fantasy.

JIM LEHRER: Walter Mead, I take it you would not endorse the Brzezinski plan?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I think the point where Dr. Brzezinski and I probably differ the most is this: He seems to think that the jihadis and Baathists represent a genuine national movement in Iraq that reflects the will of the Iraqi people.

And, again, this is where, while all analogies are imprecise, I think my South Carolina analogy is better than his Algeria analogy, because in Algeria it was the French settlers and just a tiny fringe of Algerians that supported the French in that war. The overwhelming majority of people born -- you know, of Algerians wanted independence.

What you have in the situation, in a sense, in Iraq is the overwhelming majority of Iraqis, both the Shia and the Kurds, want the new state. We are not actually fighting a war against the forces of national liberation in Iraq, and I agree with Dr. Brzezinski that those wars are, you know, should never have been fought, and the time for them is passed now, and they're futile.

But, in Iraq, we are actually -- the forces on our side, the elected government and the Kurds, are the voice of the majority. They are an Iraqi nation that has never had a chance to be free before.

And will it work? It's a hard thing to do. At one point, the Bush administration said, "Well, we don't do nation-building." And they've discovered, I think somewhat to their chagrin, that that's what they're doing, and it isn't easy.

But we are not working against the Iraqi nation. We are working for and with an Iraqi nation that is trying to achieve, for the first time, real political representation.

JIM LEHRER: All right, gentlemen, on that note of profound disagreement, we will leave it. Thank you both very much.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Nice to be with you.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Good to see you.