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Should U.S. wait for political progress in Iraq before making a military intervention?

June 13, 2014 at 6:10 PM EDT
President Obama said that he will not put U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq, but he is weighing other military options. He also pointed to problems within the Iraqi government and security forces. Judy Woodruff gets views on whether the U.S. should act in Iraq from Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor and retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We take a closer look now at the military and the political options on the table.

Zalmay Khalilzad was U.S. ambassador to Iraq during the George W. Bush administration and was an advocate for invading that country in the first place. He now has his own consulting firm. Retired Army Colonel Peter Mansoor was the executive officer to the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus, during the surge in 2007 and 2008. He also commanded an Army brigade in Iraq during early days of the war. He’s now an associate professor of military history at the Ohio State University. And retired Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor led Army forces when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 1991. He’s the author of a number of books about the military. And he has his own consulting company.

And we welcome all three of you to the program.

Ambassador Khalilzad, let me start with you,.

What do you make of President Obama’s comments today that, yes, he is considering military action, but that appears that it’s going to be — if it happens, it’s contingent on Prime Minister Maliki making some serious political reforms?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD, Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq: I think the president’s objectives are exactly right.

This problem will not be resolved in a lasting way unless, besides military support by the United States and military efforts on the ground by others, Iraqis largely, it’s coupled with a political deal involving Iraqi communities.

And the situation has changed drastically after Mosul. Now not only there is a Sunni-Shia issue that has to be dealt with. That’s region-wide, but particularly focused on Iraq. The Kurds are also in a different place than they were before Mosul, so there’s a need for a new political compact among the Iraqis.

And I think the trick is for the president, how do you sequence U.S. military action with the political deal? Do you wait until a political deal is made or do you do some things while you also work on the political deal?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you see — Colonel Mansoor, do you see the president’s approach as one that you support, that makes sense to you?

COL. PETER MANSOOR (RET.), U.S. Army: I think it’s right on the mark, what I heard in that clip. You have got to get the politics and the policy right. And once you have an inclusive Iraqi government that doesn’t marginalize and alienate large segments of the population, then we can support them with military force, which we’re very good at doing.

But until it’s a government worth supporting, I don’t think we should support it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean?

COL. PETER MANSOOR: Well, if were to conduct airstrikes, for instance, and other actions in the current situation, we would simply be backing the Maliki government and taking sides in what’s shaping up to be a very bloody and brutal civil war.

If — the only way that we should get involved is if Iraq has a government that includes all sects and ethnicities and it’s a government that all Iraqis can sign up to support.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Colonel Macgregor, how do you see this? I mean, we’re hearing essentially support for the president’s approach; there has to be a serious shift before the U.S. would consider anything militarily.

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR (RET.), U.S. Army: Well, I think that’s probably a valid idea, but I wouldn’t hold my breath while I waited for anything like that to emerge in Iraq.

Let’s be frank. We just watched as several battalions of this army that we spent billions of dollars building essentially broke and ran away from thugs in pickup trucks, Sunni Islamist fighters, many of whom have come to Syria, but that doesn’t bode well for the use of American military power to rush in and try to rescue this.

I don’t think it would change much on the ground. The second part, which I think Peter has just implied, we’re dealing with a Shiite, Arab, Islamist dictatorship in Baghdad that is anathema to the entire Sunni world in the Middle East, Arabs and Turks.

The Islamist fighters are working with the Sunni tribes to try and destroy the state. They backed by the Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and the Turks, who want to see this Shiite state go away. How do you resolve that kind of conflict?

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re saying — I hear you saying on several grounds that the U.S. has to be very careful and maybe shouldn’t intervene at all?

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR: I don’t think we should have anything to do with this fight. Both sides are dominated by people who are hostile to us, hostile to Christians, hostile to Jews, hostile to the United States, Israel and Europe.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about that point, Ambassador Khalilzad, and his other point that when you have an army that is just basically melting away before these — these militants, what’s there for the U.S. to support?


One, of course, we have a narrow national interest of our own with regard to terrorism. So to the extent to which we see this ISIL gain control of that area and nurture terrorists who will not only fight Maliki, but threaten the rest of the region, our interests, as the president said, we need to judge when and how to act. That’s one point.

Second, I would slightly differ from my colleague, which is, if the fall of Baghdad is imminent, I think our conditionality may come under pressure and we may have to act, because Baghdad falling into hands of the ISIL will have…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think that’s a real possibility?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: If it is — and I don’t know the current intelligence, but you can’t dismiss it altogether.

If it isn’t, then I think we have time for this conditionality on the political track to work. I think Maliki is trying to avoid any conditionality. He wants assistance without conditions.

The other community leaders are saying, Maliki must go, a new government should be formed, and then the U.S. should get involved.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I want to — I want to — I do want to stick with the military point, but I also don’t want to lose the political question, and come back to you, Colonel Mansoor, on that.

Do you think Prime Minister Maliki is prepared to make the kinds of changes to reach out to Sunni interests and leadership in the country that the president was — President Obama was outlining?


Two points here. One, I don’t think Prime Minister Maliki will change the way he’s conducted business over his two terms in office. He’s highly authoritarian, and he’s proven to be highly sectarian and a divisive figure.

And I think we need, diplomatically, to work with all Iraqi parties and let them come to some sort of agreement on who should succeed him, because I really don’t think Iraq can remain a unitary state under his — his leadership.

The other point I would make is, the fall of Baghdad is not imminent. There’s only several thousands of these ISIL fighters. Baghdad swallows up entire brigades of the U.S. Army. It would swallow up any sort of ISIL offensive. And it would be a place where Shiite militias will fight for it, the army would fight for it. And, increasingly, we’re hearing that Iranian Revolutionary Guards are entering the conflict as well.

So Baghdad would swallow up any ISIL offensive. There’s no danger of Baghdad falling quickly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re saying that there’s — there’s some time here that the U.S. has before it has to make a decision?

COL. PETER MANSOOR: That’s precisely it. We should make the right decision, not the expedient, quick decision.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But given all this — I want to come back to you, Colonel Macgregor, on what and how — what — if the U.S. should go in, what and how it should do, given this very complex regional political situation that you just described a few minutes ago.

You’re saying under no circumstances the United States should get engaged, just stand back and watch what happens?

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR: You know, the Israelis have an interesting viewpoint.

Their view is that if your opponents are killing each other, absolutely do not interfere. And in my judgment, that’s what’s happening today on the ground in Iraq. And Iraq doesn’t really exist. You have a Shiite state, which is largely confined to the south, which is one of the reasons the Shiite Arab soldiers in the north ran away. It’s not their turf.

And then you have a Sunni Arab state that doesn’t exist yet, but it is coming into existence. And then you have a Kurdish state in the north. It’s increasingly aligned with Turkey, but is still independent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ambassador Khalilzad, why isn’t that an argument, for the U.S. just to be hands-off?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, if it doesn’t affect anything that was of great importance to us, that’s a great argument.

But, given the nature of particularly the ISIL, which is a terrorist organization tied with al-Qaida, with not only Iraqi ambitions, Syrian ambitions, regional ambitions, and with some foreigners from around Europe, even some Americans involved in them, we have a concern there that is legitimate, and we need to be focused on that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: An interest?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: An interest there.

So, therefore, we could do pure counterterrorism operations, rather than siding between one side or the other. But I have to — want to make one point on diplomacy very quickly, that we may need to talk, to engage the Iranians. If we and the Iranians, where the Iraqis — Maliki is trying to play them against each other, then we could find a solution to get a new leadership for Iraq. And that may be also something that we have to consider.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It sounds like there are a lot of moving parts here.

Very quickly to you, Colonel Mansoor. What do you look for next here?

COL. PETER MANSOOR: Well, I think there will be a lot of diplomatic maneuvering. I think there will be a lot of maneuvering among the Iraqi political parties to see if they can get to the number of votes needed to unseat Maliki and establish a new government.

Meanwhile, I think ISIL will consolidate its gains and that it will press towards Baghdad, and the Kurds will continue to consolidate their control of the broader Kurdish region.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, no question we are all keeping a close eye on what’s going on. And we thank you, all three, for joining us.

Colonel Peter Mansoor, Colonel Douglas Macgregor, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, thank you.



Editor’s note: Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad was introduced in this story as being an advocate for invading Iraq. Khalilzad was an advocate for a combination of U.S. air strikes against Iraq and arming the opposition to Saddam Hussein. He was not an advocate for a U.S. military ground invasion.