James Jeffrey: Iraq Was a “Historic, Dramatic” Failure for Bush and Obama


July 29, 2014

A longtime diplomat, James Jeffrey was the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012, under the Obama administration. He is currently a visiting fellow at The Washington Institute. He spoke to FRONTLINE about the U.S. surge strategy, and the Obama administration’s military and diplomatic disengagement in Iraq. This is the edited transcript of that interview, conducted on July 9, 2014.

How do we first come across [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki? Who is he? Why does the United States see him as someone who perhaps might get this train back on the track?

It’s very important to try to explain why we wound up with an unknown like Maliki. Our basic feeling was [Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim] Jaafari is failing. Now, I knew Jaafari. I was the chargé when Jaafari put his government together and became prime minister. I like the guy. I think that he’s much less sectarian than certainly Maliki; he’s a more trusting individual. He’s lived in the West. There are pluses to Jaafari, but he was seen, correctly, as not very effective.

And so, therefore, the embassy believed that we needed somebody stronger, somebody who could carry the fight to the enemy, run an efficient government, and that this wasn’t Jaafari.

…So Condoleezza Rice, [British Foreign Secretary] Jack Straw and our joint team flew out.

We had a series of meetings, including with Jaafari, and she and Jack Straw made it very clear that neither the United States or Britain, who were providing hundreds of thousands of troops, could not support him anymore. … And after then, there was a scramble among the Shia parties, because they have the lead in providing the prime minister.

And Maliki, who as a political figure was really second- or third-tier when I was out there in 2004/2005, suddenly emerged as a guy who people respected, as a guy who was tough. He had been a leading Dawa politician. And Dawa is essentially a security organization, or was then; some would say a terrorist organization. And he seemed to be the last man standing. And so, suddenly his name was bandied about, and with a little bit of help from us he was able to muster a majority in the parliament.

It’s been said he was pretty surprised when it was first basically told to him that in fact the United States would back him.

Right. And because, again, he hadn’t had very much contact with us.

And the expectations for him were?

Well, the expectations for him were, anybody but Jaafari. If you have a prime minister who presides over the beginnings of mass ethnic cleansing, which was what was happening in the spring of 2006, then that person has to go because that person has failed.

So that was the main benefit of Maliki. It could have been a broomstick, to some degree.

It just showed that the Iraqi people were unhappy with not just the situation, but with their leader who they had elected a year before, Jaafari, and they wanted somebody new. And they got somebody new.

In the United States, there was also a change in power. What brings the president to the point that he realizes that things have to change?

What really made a difference was the elections in November 2006. President Bush always took the position that if you lose an election – the Republicans seriously lost that election in both houses – that that is a signal from the American people. And President Bush always felt that he worked for the American people. So his boss was telling him he was not doing his job.

That coincided with several other movements, both outside of government in several of the think tanks – Gen. [Jack] Keane was associated with this, several of the Kagans – and inside government, both in a cell in the National Security Council and among a group of colonels who were set up in the Pentagon to try to look at alternatives. All of them were coming up to one or another variant of the surge, which was a combination of more troops; a counterinsurgency mission for them, which in particular was going to focus on putting people out in small penny-packages of platoons and companies throughout contested areas; and thirdly, reaching out to the Sunni tribes.

The Sunni tribes, back in the spring of 2006, had approached our forces, particularly the Marines and some of the intelligence people out in Anbar, and said, “We’re ready.” And then the United States, not focused on a counterinsurgency strategy, basically said, “Fine, you can enlist in the regular army and the national police forces.” They wanted to form their local militias to defend their homes; we wanted them to sign up and perhaps go to Basra or Mosul.

“The Sunnis saw themselves basically as pledging allegiance, if you will, to the United States, more than to a Shia-led government under Mr. Maliki.”

So that failed. But nonetheless it left the idea in the minds of people that there could be a shift in the Sunni population of Anbar. And that all came together after the election, when we had new leadership in Baghdad with Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker and General [David] Petraeus. And we had new leadership in the Pentagon with Rumsfeld gone; we had a number of new characters appear.

Talk about what that created. I guess the hope was a reintegration of the Sunnis into the political system. But did it work out that way? What’s your overview about what the goals were, and how successful or not successful they ended up being?

As a military uprising against Al Qaeda and other insurgent groups, supported by the U.S. military advisers, air power, equipment, the surge was a brilliant success. As an effort to integrate the Sunni population into the larger fabric of post-2003 Iraq — an Iraq dominated by the 80 percent of the population who was either Kurdish or Shia Arab — the surge was only at its best a partial success.

The Sunnis saw themselves basically as pledging allegiance, if you will, to the United States, more than to a Shia-led government under Mr. Maliki. And the government in Baghdad was always a bit suspicious about what is an irregular force that had very close ties to the United States and very ambiguous ties to the Iraqi security forces.

So even then there were problems. Iraqis were, at one point they picked up the payment of these people, and throughout my time in Iraq, through 2012, they were continuing with fits and starts, like everything else in Iraq, to continue paying them.

So it would only work to some extent as long as the United States was still a partner within it all.

Certainly we were the essential element, both in ensuring the military and to some degree the financial success of the Awakening. And we were the guarantor that they would have a government in Baghdad that would not dismiss, would not discourage the Sunnis.

But I have to be careful here, because the implication is that it’s another case of a majority in power oppressing a minority because that’s what majorities do in all but the most advanced liberal countries. To a very considerable degree, that is true. But you also had the problem that the expectations of the Sunnis were extraordinary.

“The Sunnis simply didn’t like the order that was established in 2003. And any slight, any inefficiency, any hiccup it the political scene in Baghdad would produce a feeling that they were being oppressed.”

One anecdote: I went out to Anbar and all I heard was the lousy services that Maliki was giving the people of Anbar, particularly electricity. And I knew a little bit about electricity and I said, Hmm, I’m going to go back and check. And I went back and checked, and what I discovered was, of all the provinces of Iraq, the one that was receiving the most electricity per day. … So it was a perception problem as much as it was a reality problem.

The Sunnis simply didn’t like the order that was established in 2003. And any slight, any inefficiency, any hiccup it the political scene in Baghdad would produce a feeling that they were being oppressed.

Maliki, was he supportive or was he undercutting it?

Maliki was supportive of the surge, because first of all he trusted President Bush. Secondly, he trusted Gen. Petraeus and, as soon as he got there, Ambassador Crocker.

And they went in and made it very clear that if he didn’t support us — and there were certain criteria that we asked him: essentially to operate throughout the country and to be able to go after Shia groups as well as Sunni groups — he had to sign up for that. He did sign up for that. He executed it halfheartedly, but still, he was, quote, “on board.” And that was typical with Maliki. Everything we had done with him, including the 2008 SOFA negotiations, he would be the last person on board. He would be on board, to some degree with ill faith, but it would always be enough for us to continue forward. And that was Maliki in 2006, 2007, 2008.

So Obama comes to power. What’s the lay of the land at that point? What is Iraq like at that point?

Let me start with President Obama. He certainly feels that, I think, that he won the Democratic nomination because he was so adamant in opposing the war against Hillary Clinton who had voted for the war, and therefore he ran on an “I will end America’s wars” platform. And that had a lot of resonance in the Democratic base, and to some degree, let’s be honest, in the American public.

So he came to office. But on the other hand he’s now the president of the United States, the international 911 in a very messy world, and he’s got a situation he doesn’t like in Afghanistan, which he had termed the good war, the war he wanted to do something about, the war that had been neglected, in his mind, by President Bush.

And in Iraq the situation was very good. We had gotten a security agreement in 2008 that would allow troops to stay on for almost two more years when he entered office. Violence was down to historic lows. U.S. troop casualties were at a historic low. Basically, we were dealing evermore with a terrorist group, Al Qaeda remnants, rather than a real insurgency. And the country was holding together pretty well under a constitutional system. And oil exports were basically producing more than a billion dollars of income a week.

So with that cheery scenario, he basically signed up to, in essence, a variant of President Bush’s policy. In his Camp Lejeune speech in February 2009, he talked about an Iraq that his policy would be to be stable, to be secure, and to be self-sustaining, with a government that would be our partner in the fight against terror, and would be responsive to the population.

He also said — and this is classic Obama — that we couldn’t stay there until every street was cleaned up of terrorists, before everybody was doing everything right; that is, we couldn’t try to social engineer the entire country forever.

So he juxtaposed our goals, which were quite broad and very similar to President Bush’s, with our means, which he said we’re going to limit. And so, for the moment he basically left Iraq alone because it was on autopilot, seemingly, towards a good place, all of the things he had laid out. And he had other fish to fry and other problems to deal with.

… Here, a new president comes in that is basically saying, well, we’re moving out, and who cuts off a lot of the direct contact. What is Maliki reading from this? How does it adjust the way he works?

I think we might be reading too much into this based upon the situation as I saw it. And let me defend President Obama a little bit, because I criticize him in other areas. President Bush was totally dedicated to success in Iraq. He believed in this with an almost religious fervor. And so, he needed, because of the importance to him, and because of the dramatic developments that kept flying up, he needed close contact with Prime Minister Maliki, and before him Jaafari and Prime Minister [Ayad] Allawi.

“Obama basically left Iraq alone because it was on autopilot, seemingly, towards a good place… And he had other fish to fry and other problems to deal with.”

But by 2009, when Obama came in, we were in a pretty steady state. President Bush, in negotiating the 2008 security agreement accepted that all U.S. troops would be out by the end of 2011. This wasn’t an Obama administration idea; this was negotiated by the Bush administration. And basically people were more or less OK with that. We thought that we might be able to modify that, to have a small training presence, but we would worry about that later.

The basic thing is, the Iraqis were building a large force, their political system was holding together, oil exports were rising, and so why did we need to either have a large force there indefinitely? Or why did the president have to talk to the guy every week?

And in fact, President Obama also decided that Vice President Biden would have the lead. And Vice President Biden put a great deal of effort into the Iraq portfolio, and he was constantly calling or talking otherwise with Maliki.

Did Maliki read it that way?

I think Maliki had a good relationship with Vice President Biden. I think that he was informed by everybody that Vice President Biden was the right-hand man to the president. From time to time, the president, including three times when I was ambassador for 22 months, President Obama had direct contact with Maliki. By the standards of presidents, that’s pretty good. By the standards that Maliki was used to, it probably wasn’t. But again, I don’t think Maliki felt that the United States was abandoning him at that point.

The 2010 elections, let’s talk about that. The way it’s been reported is Maliki is not as popular in Iraq. There’s some unhappiness with him. He’s alienated the Sunni population. The elections come. He doesn’t win as many seats as Allawi, but there’s a situation where he’s seen as the only one who can lead, can take the prime minister role. He goes to the courts to get the right to reestablish the government, or recreate the government. What’s going on there? What’s your view of the United States’ role there in backing Maliki at that point? Was there a missed opportunity to perhaps put more pressure on him to prevent some of what would come?

Again, Camp Lejeune, February 2009, beginning of the Obama administration, Iraq was looking like a success story. President Obama laid out a policy. He opted to keep a large number of combat troops in Iraq almost until the end. That is, he stopped the withdrawal at 50,000 troops in the middle of 2010 and kept them there almost to the end of 2011. So he was doing everything that he was being asked by his military leaders and by us in the field. And it seemed to be working.

The next time Iraq gained attention was the 2010 elections. … The result was, of a parliament with 325 seats, Allawi won about 28 percent of the vote and 91 seats. Maliki finished as a party, the State of Law alliance, finished just behind with 89 seats. But Maliki also won 600,000 votes, which was far more than anybody else. And so, Maliki felt that he had won, even though Allawi had two more seats.

Maliki was very upset at this, and he instigated various legal actions to try to disenfranchise people from Allawi’s party, and basically called into question that vote, calling for a recount and such, which tied things up for many weeks.

That was one of the first signs that we were going to have a lot of problems with Nouri al-Maliki. Up until that point, while he wasn’t the most enthusiastic supporter of a democratic system and outreach, he basically had gone along. But his behavior after the 2010 election was not very good.

The next chapter in this drama was the appeal that he made to the court system over the question of who would have the right of first choice to form a government. Under the Iraqi system, when a new parliament sits, after the vote is verified and then it’s approved by the constitutional court, the first thing that has to happen is a speaker is elected, supposedly in the first day. Then within 30 days a president is elected. Typically the speaker would be, by tradition, from the Sunni Arab community; the president would be from the Kurdish community.

And only after the president was chosen would the president then turn to the party or coalition that had the most seats or had won the most votes — and this is where you get some question — and task that group to try to form a government. …

So it was not only prestigious, it was also strategically important to be the party that gets the first nod. People assumed that as Allawi had the most votes, even though they were only 28 percent of the seats, far below a majority, he would have the first option. That’s how I read the constitution, how anybody would read the constitution right after the election.

The situation was, Maliki then, with some help from the Iranians, forged an alliance with the other major Shia group. This now gave the Shia alliance, let’s call it, 150 votes. So when they went into the parliament, the first day when Parliament was open in June, they had by far the largest coalition or alliance in Parliament, 150; far more than Ayad Allawi’s 91.

Before that happened, but after the coalition, this alliance, was formed, Maliki then went to the courts and said: “Look, you need to rule on this. Is the determination who has the most seats when the parliament opens, or who wins the most seats in the election?”

I’ve gone back and looked repeatedly at the constitution. It basically says the president will select the party or coalition who has the most seats, or has won the most seats to attempt to form a government. And then it rolls to the next and the next.

And so, based upon that, it’s ambiguous. It could be at the time of the election or it could be at the time when Parliament meets. Logically, and in some other systems, it would be at the time the parliament meets. And there was no doubt it was Maliki’s bloc with 150 votes.

So people say that the constitutional court judge was influenced by Maliki. I can well believe that. But it’s also so that the finding itself, on its legal merits, is perhaps questionable, but it wasn’t an outrageous finding.

What does it show about Maliki?

Well, what it shows about Maliki is what it shows about any career politician I’ve ever seen – unrelenting, totally committed vision of ruling and ruling totally.

There’s different points of view about what happened with the Iranians. Was there a deal? Was part of the deal that all American troops will be out by the end of 2011?

I don’t think so, because the Iranians managed to help put together this coalition. The coalition then fell apart, very quickly after Parliament first met when they couldn’t immediately vote in Maliki.

In terms of whether the Iranians said that they didn’t want American troops in, they certainly didn’t want American troops to remain. And they certainly put the parties under pressure. But again, their means were limited, and in the end, all of the Shia parties, except the Sadrists, agreed that American troops would remain.

[People] think that when we have troops in there, we run the place. We don’t.

The hang-up was whether the American troops would be granted very broad legal immunity, such as in 2008. And while the Iranians might have been seized with that as a way to leverage the Americans to withdraw, frankly, given that less than 20 percent of the Iraqi public wanted American troops to stay, and given the great resentment in the Iraqi population – we have to be honest about that – about killings of Iraqis, about Abu Ghraib and such, there wasn’t much sympathy to grant Americans full legal immunities in the Iraqi parliament. So it was a very heavy lift. We knew it would be a heavy lift, irrespective of what the Iranians wanted or didn’t want.

There was an attempt to make sure there was power sharing after the election, and it failed. Why did it fail?

Okay. Again, when I arrived, I could see that among the Iraqi political figures and also in Washington, all the way to the top – I want to underline all the way to the top – there was a lot of concern about Maliki. People were not happy with how he had behaved after the 2010 elections.

[But] when we went in there, we didn’t have a lot of leverage. We couldn’t say, “We’re going to start giving you weapons.” They were paying for the weapons. And as we’ve seen today, if they didn’t get weapons from us, they could turn around and get weapons from somebody else, such as the Russians.

We couldn’t say, “We’re going to stop our aid programs.” We were giving them almost no aid, other than boutique programs, typically for democracy and rule of law. And they had plenty of money to purchase what they needed to develop their country at that point.

So our leverage, if they didn’t, quote, “behave” was very, very limited. And I was painfully aware of that.

On the other hand, we did have influence. People did trust us. We were seen as the honest broker. And we used every bit of that authority, or that influence, supported all the way up to President Obama, but most particularly by Vice President Biden to try to see if there was an alternative to Maliki.

Here is a problem: Everybody agreed that the Shia religious parties — almost everybody — should provide the prime minister. This was not only an internal deal where the Sunnis would get the speaker, a little bit like Lebanon, the Kurds would get the president, but this was also part of a deal that had lasted years, back before 2003, between the Kurds and the Shia Arabs. They represented 80 percent of the population. So in any democratic system, they are the determinant elements.

The Sunnis are only 20 percent, but because of the association, fair or not, of much of the Sunni Arab population with Saddam, they punched below their weight.

The Kurds also, while they were an important fact, punched below their weight because they were always dangling the possibility of eventual independence. And they had their own mini-state up there with their own army, their own economy, their own control of borders and such. And so, their influence was, again, less than their weight.

This meant that the primary political force in the country were the Shia Arabs.

So the question was, would there be a Shia Islamic candidate, other than Maliki. We looked at a number, and there several efforts that we were participating in behind the scenes, including in particular Vice President Adil [Abdul] Mahdi, who was from the Supreme Council, one of the other major parties. And there, the problem was his party only had nine votes. So it was a very small minority among the Shia. And we couldn’t get Allawi’s Iraqiya [party] to give a clear-cut agreement that it would support Adil Mahdi for the prime ministership.

What Allawi’s party wanted was the presidency going to Allawi. We looked at that, and the problem was the Kurds. Because Allawi’s 91 votes and the nine votes you could get from the Supreme Council still gave you less than a third. You needed at a minimum the Kurds to get even a bare majority of votes in the parliament, and thus succeed in a vote of confidence. The Kurds were not willing to give up the presidency.

The reason I’m going into this in as much detail is because people in a very superficial way say America had a lot of influence, it didn’t really try to use its influence, and so by default Maliki got it and the Iranians because the Iranians pushed it. (A) our influence was limited; (B) we looked at every possible scenario. After we looked at the Adil Mahdi prime minister, we looked at Maliki as prime minister, but as a counterweight, Allawi as president. Again, we went all the way to the president on that. He got engaged directly on this. And we still couldn’t get the Kurds to budge.

So we were in a position where we had no alternative. We were tying this thing up in knots to see if there were alternatives. There were none.

So the troops move out at the end of 2011. Where are you during the celebrations that take place? What is the view in Washington?

Everybody in senior positions in the American government wanted to keep a small residual force on basically as an insurance that we could maintain influence, we could maintain training, we could maintain the ability to act quickly if a terrorist threat developed, as we’ve seen now.

But when the Iraqi parties, after three major meetings, concluded that they could support a training presence of 5,000, but they could not support granting immunities by the parliament – and that was our requirement, and it was a valid requirement – then it was clear that the troops would not be able to remain.

So that decision came from the Iraqis in October. We had effectively four or five weeks to complete the withdrawal of most of 50,000 troops. So much of the focus was on that.

President Obama personally was involved in the decisions and in talking with Maliki twice on the troop presence decision. But once it was clear he wasn’t going to get it, he adopted the position – and we saw this in the debates with Romney – of: “I wanted to get my troops out. I got my troops out. I lived up to my commitment to the American people.”

Not quite what the reality was, but understandable because this was a blow to us, and most of us believed that it was very, very important to keep troops on. Nonetheless, you have to live with what you have, and what we had was an embassy-led effort to provide security support to the Iraqis.

And your worries about the future of Iraq?

Right at that point, my worries were the 16,000 personnel I had that I had to protect, I had to feed, I had to fuel, I had to keep the morale up. And the only person I could turn to was Maliki and his government.

So the day after, al-Hashimi’s compound was surrounded. Soon after that, other Sunni leadership were arrested or bodyguards were arrested. What was going on? How did you view that? What was the message that was being sent by Maliki?

We were terribly disappointed. I spent many months looking into this, and two conclusions. First of all, people who were as unbiased as anybody can be in Iraq, friends neither of Tariq [al-]Hashimi nor of Maliki basically said, you know, there may be some truth to the allegations against the bodyguards. There was a lot of problems with Tariq Hashimi. We had had problems with him. I’d had problems with him back as early as 2005, when I was attacked by an Al Qaeda assault after leaving his compound. And we felt that his movement at a minimum had been infiltrated.

“My own personal view was Maliki is finished as the leader of an inclusive, multiethnic, multireligious Iraq.”

But certainly the actions of the Iraqi government, which seemed to have had Maliki egging them on, or going along with it, were absolutely unprecedented, and frankly wrong.

Now, in point of fact, the president really didn’t enjoy parliamentary immunity, per se. Only members of parliament enjoyed parliamentary immunity. So he was legally a target of investigations. And this was a flaw that we had helped install some years before.

So when Maliki supported these arrests and said that he would carry them out and argued “That’s my constitutional responsibility,” we all felt that there was a real undercurrent of repression that we would see developing further. Therefore, the U.S. government, at very high levels, talked to Maliki, tried to explain to him that he needed to really look into this. Maliki again said: “Hey, this is a one-off thing. We have evidence. The courts processed this. They issued the actions.”

But then there’s the Rafi al-Issawi situation and there are others that it seemed that this was more of a Sunni crackdown.

There is no doubt, and I’d left by the time Rafi al-Issawi [the Sunni former finance minister and deputy prime minister] was charged. There is no doubt that these are bogus charges. Maliki had threatened many times to arrest Rafi based upon all of this kind of intelligence. Maliki had set up these off-budget intelligence services and relationships, and they were constantly reporting outlandish stories about all of his political enemies. And he was believing these rather than the reports of his intelligence services, whom he thought were infiltrated by us and serving our interests, not his.

Once Maliki did that, my own personal view was Maliki is finished as the leader of an inclusive, multiethnic, multireligious Iraq.

Did the Obama administration understand? Did you talk to them about this and say this is a real problem?

Many of them understood that Maliki was becoming a problem. On the other hand, the president and the country had taken the position [that] Iraq was a mistake, we’ve ended our war in Iraq. The country is on its own. It has a democratic system. We’re providing security assistance to it. If we see things we don’t like, we’ll do démarches, we’ll do calls from the vice president. Just like we do with 50 or 100 or 150 other countries that have similar situations.

So the disengagement first of the troops led really to a total disengagement politically.

The United States isn’t disengaged politically from any country in the world. Gradually – and this wasn’t a mistake, this was the whole intent of our efforts ever since 2003 – the ward of the United States status of Iraq was to be ended. They were to be weaned from this idea that every time they did something bad they’d get a call from us and with a somewhat threatening, avuncular tone, “You’ve got to stop doing that,” the implication being our tanks are going to surround your Green Zone tomorrow, or all of the aid programs are going to stop. We’re going to sit back and let the Al Qaeda guys run amok.

We didn’t have those tools, we didn’t have those threats, even if we wanted to make it. And, as I said, we had a world full of people who were acting pretty much like Prime Minister Maliki.

In 2012, as you’re leaving, you warn DC that Maliki needs to be contained. Tell me about that.

This was a constant warning that I had made and that others had made before me, that Maliki was a problem. But that was also an admonition to have a better position with the other political forces.

They were hell-bent on trying to get rid of Maliki. There was an effort for a vote of no confidence. We didn’t see this succeeding, and in fact it didn’t succeed, in part because President Talabani was opposed to it. But it was an all-or-nothing approach. And there were other ways to clip Maliki’s wings. Neither the Kurds nor Allawi’s people would –- nor Muqtada al-Sadr’s people, at least initially — would go along with that. They wanted to just get rid of Maliki. It didn’t work.

So essentially, what we were urging was Washington to use whatever influence it could to narrow Maliki’s options and to put him under as much pressure as possible.

Do we understand the dangers at this point of a furthering of a Shia/Sunni divide after the surge and the work of the politicians and the diplomats had done to stitch that alliance together?

That’s a good question, but it’s a very hard one to answer. It wasn’t unraveling in any particularly obvious way. That is, you had additional elections, including the 2010 elections. The Sunni members of the Awakening were still getting paid. Often the payment would be delayed; there would be a lot of hassles with the payment. We would go in and make démarches and talk to people and jump start things. But we were doing that on everything from electricity to legal issues and rights of minorities and refugees.

You didn’t have any significant rise in terrorism. You didn’t have any turning point in relations between the Kurds, Baghdad and the Sunnis that would make us all sit up and say, gee, something totally different is going on. That didn’t happen until Issawi’s arrest, and then afterwards the fall of Fallujah.

ISIS, the rise of ISIS, the impact of the Syrian civil war, the policy of America towards it. What do you see happening, from all your knowledge of defense and what’s taken place. Was this surprising? Was it expected in some ways?

The situation in Iraq today is basically driven by two major forces. The first is the underlying contradictions in the Iraqi constitutional state system and Maliki’s exacerbating those contradictions. I would term that an almost expected or normal situation in that part of the world in those kind of political systems.

The second element, and the element that is totally unexpected, was that the United States allowed what was clearly an extremely dangerous situation in two dimensions – an Iranian/Russia/Hezbollah/Assad military victory in the middle of a region surrounded by our allies and friends; and the rise of extreme Sunni Islamic elements, al-Nusra, and then the ISIL, without acting in any significant way.

The Middle East, since our 1973 engagement in the Yom Kippur War, has operated on the expectation that when things get really bad, the United States in some way, shape or form steps in to bring things back to the closest thing to normal you can get to in that region. For the first time in my recollection, we did not take any action whatsoever, of any consequence, with Syria. And we got what we have today.

Why did we not take any action?

I think that, first of all, taking action would have been difficult. Secondly, I think President Obama, in looking at all of his speeches, most notably the West Point speech and his quasi-speech in Manila a few weeks before, has a fundamental either belief or an educational point with the American people, that any military actions — whether it’s firing cruise missiles on the Syrian chemical weapons front or aiding local fighters — will lead to almost inexorably 150,000 troops on the ground like Iraq, or 500,000 like Vietnam. Slippery slope. Down the drain. Huge disaster for America.

I think he believes that. I think he’s absolutely wrong. But I think that that drove him, along with the pivot to Asia and a general feeling that no matter what we do in the Middle East, it doesn’t turn out well. Look at Libya. That persuaded him not to act.

Does the NSC at this point … [have] got blinders to what’s happening in Iraq, Syria, because of what we’ve gone through already?

Well, the NSC itself, I mean that at the time was Hillary Clinton. It was Gates. It was Petraeus. They certainly know what’s going on in the Middle East and they were very committed to us engaging, particularly in Syria. … But I think that the feeling they got from the president was, at least as concerns the Middle East, he did not want to get engaged.

And nobody could explain to him how we could give him a guaranteed winning strategy with Syria. But on the 15 or 20 major American commitments I’ve been involved in, from being a soldier to an ambassador in the Middle East over 30-plus years, I’ve never seen one that we’ve gone into — and we’ve been successful in most — where we could answer those questions fully. You basically have to go in and rock and roll, and try to stabilize the situation.

The naysayers now sort of say this all stems back to the fact of pulling out the troops. If we hadn’t pulled out the troops, this wouldn’t have happened. Number one, the Iraqis wouldn’t have been able to allow the Iranians to fly over and send Assad support. They wouldn’t have been able to march through the country as quickly as they did. What’s your take on that?

My view on most of that is unprintable in this forum. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Any troops we kept in Iraq – and I was, as we’ve talked about, a very strong advocate of keeping troops – would have been under the terms of the 2008 agreement, as modified, but whatever agreement we got. That agreement said the United States will take no action without the prior approval of the Iraqi government.

The people who think this have no idea how you deal with a sovereign country. They think that when we have troops in there, we run the place. We don’t. And that was not the intent. You have to adhere to the laws.

What those troops would have done would have, first of all, given us insight into the erosion of Iraqi military capabilities. We had that to some degree, but having more troops there out working with them all of the time, we could have seen this and we could have advised Maliki and others better.

Secondly, the troops would have helped the training, and they would have made the equipping of these forces a higher priority. When you have troops in a country, particularly when they’re facing some danger, you will get a lot more attention out of Washington than when you have an ambassador yelling for help.

But finally, if we’d had troops in Iraq, we would have been much more concerned about the situation next door in Syria, because if that went belly-up, which of course it did, then we would have to worry about either do we reinforce the troops, or do we pull the troops out. That is, having troops in a situation changes dramatically the attention level of Washington, and the compulsion to act. And that’s one argument for doing them.

How could ISIS have taken Fallujah and Mosul so easily?

In the case of Fallujah, it was not unexpected. What happened was, after Maliki’s latest outrage against this Sunni Arab member of Parliament, the Sunni Arab population of Anbar rose up and said, OK, we’re sick and tired of you; you’re oppressing us. Get the troops out of our cities.

Maliki typically put troops in cities, which under the constitution and under the laws he was only supposed to do with the provincial councils’ approval. He was basically acting in violation of these strictures or rules. And when they said pull the troops out, for reasons unbeknownst to me, he pulled his troops out of Fallujah and Ramadi.

As soon as he did that, leaving security in the hands of the local police who are ill-armed, limited in numbers, not very sympathetic to Maliki, and infiltrated to some degree by Al Qaeda, what happened? This ISIS element roared in from across the border in Syria and from the desert, where they had been operating as a kind of terrorist force, in some hundreds, and seized key strategic locations in Fallujah and in Ramadi. They were held onto control and basically defeated in Ramadi with the help of the tribes. And Maliki’s forces re-engaged. But in Fallujah, they basically took the city almost entirely.

So that wasn’t a military defeat of the Iraqi army. That was a political decision by Maliki to pull the forces out.

The lack of support of the Awakening councils, for instance, that had been formed during the surge — what does that say about the divide that had grown since we had left?

Well, first of all, they did fight effectively on the side of the government, or on the side of themselves in Ramadi against Al Qaeda, which is a major reason why Al Qaeda or ISIS is not controlling Ramadi today. They’re still fighting, from what I’ve heard. And you see fighting between tribes and ISIL up in the Haditha Dam area and further north in Saladin Province.

The problem is that they’re getting no support from either us or the Iraqi government, and they’re facing a foe that is far better armed, far better experienced and far larger than they had to face in 2007.

So I think the outcome of this if we don’t hurry up and provide support is going to be the piecemeal defeat of these tribes.

Are we back in a situation that’s similar to 2006?

Not entirely, because as I said, some of the tribes can, are fighting against ISIS. But just as in 2006, 2007 — and they’re quite open about this — they’re not fighting for the Maliki government.

But they weren’t fighting for the Maliki government in 2006, 2007; they were fighting first for their own families and neighborhoods and for their own control of economic resources, from smuggling to power generation, against Al Qaeda. And secondly, they were fighting because they believed in us. Very few were fighting for an inclusive multiethnic, multireligious government in Baghdad, then or now.

But far fewer of them are fighting against ISIS now than we had in 2006/2007, because they’re much angrier at the Maliki government than they were then, and they don’t have any support from us. And ISIS is a much more formidable foe.

How did we get caught with our pants down like this?

Mosul was totally unexpected. But once they went into Fallujah and we had ample experience, because we sent teams out after Fallujah to look at the Iraqi army, to realize that ISIS had developed itself into a quite formidable, conventional, if lightly armed, force capable of moving rapidly with pickup trucks, and engaging aviation with antiaircraft guns, and holding its ground against the Iraqi army, including Iraqi armor and artillery.

That should have been a sign that things could degenerate rapidly. The administration not only was warned by everybody back in January, it actually announced that it was going to intensify its support against ISIS with the Iraqi armed forces. And it did almost nothing.

We worked for months and we finally succeeded in getting Congress to lift the hold on six Apache helicopters, which still haven’t gotten there. And we decided we would provide drone flights, according to the Wall Street Journal. We got those up to about one drone flight a month. Right now, we’re doing – again according to the newspapers – 35 a day. That’s what you need.

But is that enough?

That may not be enough, but that’s a lot. But certainly, one drone flight a month is simply checking the box and saying, See? We have increased our support. It has absolutely no significance on the ground. But you can’t say we’re doing nothing.

You wrote at one point that the idea of remaking Iraq was never realistic, that we never had a sustained enough endeavor. And that the influence that we had was basically frittered away. What’s your take on that?

Iraq, in part because of it being nestled in a very contentious part of the world, with a very ambivalent attitude towards the West, and the particular history of Iraq, sundered between various communities, extraordinary levels of violence over decades, made it about the worst soil in the world to try to plant a democratic system. And when you do this, particularly when you do this on the backs of American tanks, you’re going to have a countervailing effect. People aren’t going to believe you’re coming there to make their lot better. They’re going to believe that just like the British, just like the Mongols, just like the Ottomans, you’re coming there to occupy their country and take their oil.

And secondly, people in the region, from the Iranians, to Assad, to the West, are going to think the Americans are trying to plant a new set of bases to put pressure on us. And we’re next. So therefore better fight them through indirect means now than to have to fight them for real, like Saddam did in 2003. And saw what happened to him.

So therefore, you generate automatically tremendous countervailing forces, as we did when we went into North Korea in 1950; as we did when we went into Vietnam. It wasn’t just the locals rose up against us, it was neighboring countries decided they didn’t want to have an American military presence on their borders.

So you’ve started off on a war of choice, in the case of 2003, that the American people did not fully understand, because they weren’t fully told what the motives and what the goals were. A war of choice. You suddenly are encountering tremendous opposition, and you have U.S. forces fighting without anybody being able to define, in a set of words, in one sentence, what is the goal of the American military? In 1991, in the first Gulf War, it was: Drive the Iraqi military out of Kuwait, inflicting as much damage on their offensive capabilities in the process. That is not only a one-sentence definition of what the mission was and what was accomplished, it also is something that is inherently capable of having the military do.

The idea of working with the Iraqis to build up security forces, inculcate democratic systems, help form an inclusive government, jump start economic development — these are all generational endeavors that more often than not, when we’ve tried them around the world, haven’t succeeded under far better and more peaceful circumstances than Iraq.

So to go in and try to do this is absolute folly. And all of the specific mistakes – and I could list dozens, including many of my own – aren’t really all that relevant. Because whether we had made those mistakes or not, we were going to wind up in the same place.

You’ve been at every level of this since the beginning. Thirteen years ago, could you have imagined that we’re at this point? What’s the lesson learned on where we are today?

As I mentioned, since being placed on alert in 1973 as an Army company commander during the Yom Kippur War, all the way up to the present, American presidents and advisors have known that the most volatile part of the world is the Middle East.

Thus, from administration to administration, the United States has tried to do what we would call economy-of-force operations to manage the crisis. Small, large, we’ve done this scores of times.

After 9/11, through two administrations, we decided to go in different directions, diametrically opposed, but both of them different from what we have been doing for 30 years. The first was, we no longer were going to manage the problems of the Middle East; we were going to fix them. We were going to do transcendental operations using the extraordinary capabilities of the American military to do rapid, decisive warfare – as we saw first in Afghanistan, and then even more dramatically in Iraq in 2003 – to overthrow evil, corrupt, violent, dictatorial regimes and allow democracy to flourish.

This was followed, as a reaction to this, not by a return to these economy-of-force operations — firing a few cruise missiles because the Syrians, for example, are using chemical weapons — but rather a dramatic withdrawal from our role as the 911, the regional policemen that would work with the local forces, that would make limited, purposeful commitments to keep the lid on the situation.

President Obama felt that that would lead inexorably to new Iraqs and new Vietnams. Or he felt – and this is my personal view – that in the end it doesn’t produce anything. And if we leave the region alone, it will kind of manage itself. Maybe we’re not a force for good, maybe we’re not a force for peace and stability. Maybe we’re just either having no effect, or we’re having a deleterious effect.

But it certainly is a radical change, not just from President Bush, but a radical change from Bill Clinton in the Balkans the Middle East, a radical change from George Bush, Sr., a radical change from Reagan, and even Carter.

And the result is the Syrian situation and how it is morphed into two huge dangers: A victory by an ascendant Russia, Iran and Assad; and a kind of Chechnyan-type battle for the populated areas of Syria – watch what’s going to happen in the days ahead in Aleppo – and the rise of a radical Islamic, crazed group that’s trying to pull the whole region into a conflagration of Sunni versus Shia; modernists versus traditionalists.

And both of these developments could have been blocked. Both of these developments create huge dangers for the United States, for our position in the world, and for our allies, and ultimately the homeland.

So is it your contention then that history will look at both administrations and find that they failed?

I don’t think there’s any doubt about it. I think the question is the degree of failure. And I think it is dramatic, and it is historic.

Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani, Deputy Digital Editor, FRONTLINE



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