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In Face of Coordinated Attacks in Iraq, Should U.S. Have Stayed Put?

December 22, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The capital of Iraq was plunged back into chaos Thursday when at least 16 bombings shook Baghdad. Jeffrey Brown discusses the attacks' connection to a long debate about what the U.S. gained from its nearly nine years in Iraq, with Meghan O'Sullivan of Harvard's Kennedy School and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago.

JEFFREY BROWN: The latest violence and political infighting adds new sparks to a long debate about what the U.S. gained from its nearly nine years in Iraq.

For that, we go to Meghan O’Sullivan, who served on the National Security Council staff in the Bush administration. She’s now a professor at the Kennedy School at Harvard University. And John Mearsheimer, a professor at the University of Chicago, a West Point graduate and former Air Force officer, he’s written extensively on strategic issues.

John Mearsheimer, I’ll start with you.

What does the new violence and political tension say about where Iraq is just days after the U.S. pulled out?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER, University of Chicago: Well, I think it’s quite clear evidence that we are in serious trouble in Iraq and that we are, in effect, going to lose the war.

We were hoping that when we finally left Iraq that we would leave behind a unified and stable and democratic Iraq that was essentially pro-American. At this point, it’s hard to see how Iraq over the next few years is going to be a stable country, much less a meaningful democracy.

And I even doubt whether it will be pro-American. So I think that this is all just evidence of what critics said in the run-up to the war, that going into that country was a colossal blunder.

JEFFREY BROWN: Margaret O’Sullivan, how do you see the current situation, tying it into the longer scope of the war?

MEGHAN O’SULLIVAN, former National Security Council staff member: Sure.

I agree with John that this is a critical moment in Iraq. Those of us who have worked on Iraq a long time have a habit of saying that. But this, in fact, really does seem to be a turning point in some fashion.

I would, however, caution people against writing the end of this political moment, because I think we don’t know how it’s going to end. Iraqis have a history of resolving political issues once they have come to the head. I’m not assured that they will be able to do it this time, but the potential is there.

And, really, what we can say is that how Iraq manages this particular political moment will really be a harbinger for what its politics are going to look like a few years down the road. If they manage to overcome this and to resolve things in a way that reinforces their post-Saddam institutions, then we could feel a little bit more confident that they can gradually consolidate gains.

If this political conflict, however, ends with the prime minister consolidating power at the perception of most Iraqis that he’s done it outside constitutional measures, then I think, you know, we can expect more political crises to come.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think, Meghan — and I’m sorry — I called you Margaret in our introduction here — but do you think that what’s happening now suggests that we should have stayed longer? Is that still an issue?


Margaret’s actually my real name, so it is fine.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, OK. So, I got it — I got it right, OK.



I think it does really point out that the American military presence had a vital role, not only in terms of helping Iraqis with security, but in terms of psychology, that, basically, the American military presence was a psychological ballast to the post-Saddam institutions.

And so these institutions are stronger than they were in 2003, but still quite weak. And Iraqis, you know, they were always in constant tension, these institutions, in Iraq’s traditional political culture, which is more authoritarian, more centralized. And whenever these two tensions come into play, the fact that America was there was an indication that the United States had an interest in seeing these institutions sustained.

And it kept certain Iraqi political players from resolving issues or conflicts through sort of more traditional methods, coups, power grabs, those types of things. And so what we’re seeing in remarkably short order is the removal of that psychological ballast and the consequence of actually still very, very weak institutions.

So, yes, I do think it suggests that we perhaps removed ourselves before these institutions had sufficiently consolidated.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, John Mearsheimer, your point is that it’s not about how we ended it here, but just the going in, in the first place.

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Yes. I think going in, in the first place was foolish, because it was inevitable, in my opinion, that we would end up in this situation.

I think with regard to Meghan’s point, that there’s no question that if the United States were to stay in Iraq that we wouldn’t be having these troubles, and, as long as the United States is in Iraq, it would serve a pacifying function.

But the fact is, we can’t stay in Iraq forever. We faced this same situation in Vietnam. We were in Vietnam for roughly eight years with large-scale American forces. And when we finally left, the place came undone. And that was because the political system that we left behind was basically dysfunctional. It wasn’t capable of running the government and dealing with the North Vietnamese.

In this case, we have a similar situation. We’re leaving behind a dysfunctional government. And you want to remember here, the Obama administration was not anxious to get out. It is the Iraqis who basically forced us to get out, because they wouldn’t negotiate with us on this whole question of whether or not American servicemen could be put on trial by the Iraqi government.

That’s what forced us out. We would have liked to have stayed. And the reason that we wanted to stay is that we were well aware that this place was likely to blow apart when we left. And what’s amazing is, is how quickly that’s happening. JEFFREY BROWN: Meghan O’Sullivan, what about the — picking up on this larger question of whether it was worth it when you talk about the U.S. standing in the region, the U.S. standing in the world today, nine years after going into Iraq?

MEGHAN O’SULLIVAN: Well, it would be disingenuous for me, particularly on a day like today, to make an argument that the hopes that America or Iraqis have held for Iraq have been fully materialized. That’s evidently not the case.

And Iraq, I would say, continues to fall short of its potential. But, that said, the evaluation on American involvement in Iraq is going to continue. It doesn’t end today, and it goes beyond an American military presence.

Where I would disagree with John on the point about the U.S. troop presence and how long we were expected to stay, I didn’t see the choice as either leaving completely or staying forever. I think there’s quite clearly a very long timeline we see for new institutions taking root in post-conflict societies, which is what Iraq was and is, still is.

And I think that we can really point to places where their institutions had maturity. Take their military forces, for instance. They were very, very poor a few years ago, and now they’re much better than they were. And we can expect that, with the right kind of support, they would be even better in a few years’ time.

And I think that can be true for many other kinds of institutions. So I would discourage people from thinking about our choices as having been either stay at high numbers or leave immediately. There certainly were some medium-term options.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. John Mearsheimer, what’s your response on this question about the impact on the U.S.’ standing in the region and the world?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Well, I think that it’s been very damaging.

First of all, it’s very important to remember that when we went into Iraq, we left the job in Afghanistan unfinished. And we’re reaping what that decision meant, today. We should have stayed in Afghanistan and finished the job and not gone into Iraq.

Furthermore, we have improved Iran’s situation in the region. Almost everybody agrees on this point, that if there is any country that was a winner as a result of this war, it was Iran. It certainly wasn’t Iraq.

And with regard to our standing around the world, the United States looks like it’s the gang that can’t shoot straight, given what’s now happening in Iraq and given what’s happening in Afghanistan. It’s never good for a country to go into wars and to lose those wars. You want to win the wars that you fight.

And that’s why you want to pick your wars smartly. And we made a huge mistake here in deciding to opt into this foolish war. And now we’re paying the price. And, of course, as I said initially, we’re also paying the price in Afghanistan as well, because we took our eye off the ball.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Meghan O’Sullivan, just in our last minute here, when you say, you argue that this is all still in play, that we still have to look at a long arc of things here, how long? How — what do you look for to happen to know where this is going to end up?

MEGHAN O’SULLIVAN: Well, let me just point out that one of the things we’re seeing is that Iraqis, they’re having a major political crisis. And so far they’re looking to resolve their crisis through politics.

That is a pattern that was not true even a few years ago. So, we see progress in that direction. And, to me, that’s actually what I’d be looking for. I’m not expecting the Iraqis to resolve every outstanding political issue they have before anyone can declare success. I’m expecting them to make progress on a host of very intractable issues over time through a political system.

Now, again, this is a moment of serious political crisis in Iraq. And what happens and how things are resolved will really have major bearing on its overall trajectory. But what I’m saying is simply that there are a lot of things that could still unfold, for good and for bad, that I think would be part of any ultimate evaluation.


MEGHAN O’SULLIVAN: And I will just finish by asking the question of — we haven’t talked about the Arab spring, but what would the Arab spring look like? How would have it unfolded had Saddam been in power?

I think that is an interesting question and sort of in some ways points to that there have been regional gains that we haven’t accounted for fully.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alright. That is one we have talked about and I promise we will talk about more.

Meghan O’Sullivan, John Mearsheimer, thanks so much.


JOHN MEARSHEIMER: You’re welcome.