Stephen Hadley: How Bush Started — and Ended — the Iraq War


July 29, 2014

Stephen Hadley served as President Bush’s national security adviser from 2005 to 2009, and as deputy national security adviser from 2001 to 2005. He is currently chairman of the board of directors at the United States Institute of Peace. Hadley spoke to FRONTLINE about the Bush administration’s relationship with Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and President Obama’s options going forward. This is an edited transcript of that conversation, conducted on July 11, 2014.

In 2006, things in Iraq are not going well. Samarra’s happened in February; violence is increasing. [How does Nouri al-Maliki come across the radar of the U.S.?]

There’s an election. It’s a pretty good election. The Sunnis have actually participated in the election. The government formation process, on the other hand, drags on for months. If my recollection is right, the bombing of the Golden Mosque of Samarra [Al-Askari shrine], in February 2006, occurs during this time of transition, when there really isn’t a government in place. And of course the question is, who leads that government?

My recollection is that the first time I ever heard of Nouri al-Maliki was a phone call from Zal Khalilzad, who was then our ambassador in Baghdad, saying, “The Iraqis have come forward with a new name, and it’s a guy named al-Maliki, and he’s a deputy in one of the parties there.” I said, “What do you know about him?” And he said, “Well, we don’t know much about him.” “What does the intelligence community know about him?” “Well, they don’t know much about him, either.”

… He seemed to be the consensus choice of the Iraqis, and therefore we checked him out as best we could and fell in behind trying to help him form a unity government, a government that would pull in Kurds, Sunnis and Shia. …

… Who was he? What did we know about him? Were there any concerns early on because of his background?

There was not a lot known about him. He was a member of the Dawa Party. That was viewed as a religious-based party. What was interesting about him was that he had spent most of his exile in Syria rather than Iran, and that was in some sense reassuring.

The view of the Sunni states was that the Shia in Iraq would simply be tools of Iran and that a Shia government in Iraq would be a leading element of an Iranian crescent extending all the way to Lebanon.

Our judgment was that actually the Shia of Iraq were Iraqis first and Shia second, and that Iraqi nationalism would triumph Shiism in any draw to Tehran. And the fact that Maliki had been in Syria rather than Iran during the period of Saddam [Hussein], as a lot of the leaders had been in Iran, that gave us, in some sense, some further reassurance on that point.

Talk a little bit about the relationship with Maliki and [President George W.] Bush. A lot has been said about these teleconferences that took place, sometimes weekly. What was the relationship? Why did Bush feel the need to cultivate him? …

So Maliki comes in to be prime minister of this new unity government with almost no government experience. He’s got a huge task before him of dealing with an active insurgency, trying to get the economy back again, trying to make a first-ever really unity government in Baghdad work. And he’s had no government experience.

One of the things President Bush decided is: “I’ve got to be his best friend. I’ve got to be his counselor and aid in helping him succeed as prime minister of Iraq, because if he doesn’t succeed, U.S. policy isn’t going to succeed.” And in some sense, Bush’s view was, “If he doesn’t succeed, I don’t succeed.”

If you think about it, Maliki is under a lot of pressure in Iraq. President Bush at that point is under a lot of domestic pressure here in the United States about making Iraq a success. So his view was: “Maliki and I are in this together. We’ve got to succeed together, and I’ve got to help this new leader think through the challenges he’s going to face.”

“At one point, President Bush looked up from reading the morning intelligence report and said, ‘Hadley, this strategy isn’t working.’ …That started the process that resulted in the surge decision he announced in January 2007.”

And that is why President Bush emphasized personal diplomacy, would try to have a secure videoconference with Maliki every couple of weeks. It was not a substitute for the interactions that we had with Iraqi government and Iraqi society at all levels, but it was an essential element of trying to make this come out right, because at the end of the day, the top leader really does matter, and the more you can influence positively the decisions of that top leader, the better off we were all going to be.

About six months later, you take your first trip to Iraq. Tell us why. …

After the bombing of the Golden Mosque at Samarra, … the sectarian violence increased and came to a frightening level. At one point, President Bush looked up from reading the morning intelligence report and said, “Hadley, this strategy isn’t working.” And I agreed with him. And he said, “We need to develop a new strategy.” That started the process that resulted in the surge decision he announced in January 2007.

Part of that strategy was, who is this guy, Nouri al-Maliki? He had at that point been in office for a number of months, and there were questions raised: Is he a sectarian leader? Does he indeed have a Shia agenda in office? Is that really who he is? Or [is he] a leader that actually wants to be more inclusive but does not have the capacity and the capability to carry out a more inclusive strategy? Or is he a guy who’s just out of touch, who doesn’t really know what’s going on in his own country?

My job was to go, and talking to our military and diplomatic people on the ground, and talking to Iraqis and talking to Maliki, to come back and give the president my best assessment of Maliki.

So you write a memo. What’s included in that memo?

… One element of it is how to see and how to think about Maliki. I tried to frame the issue for the president, knowing that the president would soon have another meeting with Maliki. This was a judgment that the president was going to have to make himself, of Maliki’s potential as a leader.

And the other thing I think it did was, in connection with the surge strategy that the president ultimately adopted, one of the things that he said to Maliki was, “If this strategy is going to succeed” — and he made this statement before he actually adopted the strategy — “it will only succeed if the Americans do their part and you and your government do your part.”

So it required Maliki to make clear that he would support the surge, that he would accept the additional U.S. troop presence, which he initially resisted; that the surge would be executed on a nonsectarian basis; that there would be no safe havens; that we could go into Sadr City and deal with Shia militants in the same way that we were going to have to deal with the Sunni militants and terrorists; and that Maliki would not intervene politically, that he would contribute troops.

It was a way, in some sense, for the president to test Maliki’s commitment to the kind of Iraq we needed to help build if it was going to succeed.

“There was clearly a sectarian agenda that was being pursued. The question was, is this being pursued because of Maliki, in spite of Maliki, or with Maliki basically uninvolved?”

Maliki agreed to all those things and announced them publicly to his own people before the president finally made the decision and announced the surge strategy in January 2007.

But the report, it leaked I guess, and it became a big story. And part of it was that you questioned whether Maliki had the stuff of a national leader, that the Sunnis were not happy to some extent with the way they were being treated. What did you say in it, and why did you counsel the president on that?

The question really was, is he a sectarian? … And my judgment was, at that time, it was more a capacity issue than it was a real Shia agenda.

… He did make these commitments as part of the surge strategy to do that on a nonsectarian basis. And secondly, in 2008, as you remember, he led Iraqi forces south to take on Shia militia in southern Iraq and in Basra, and he almost got himself killed or captured in the process.

But we thought that was a good indication that actually Maliki was turning on those people who had been his supporters, the Shia militia in the south and even the Sadrists in Sadr City.

I think at that point, the judgment the president made was, this is not a committed sectarian. This is a leader who does want to try to build a unified Iraq. He just does not have the means to do it. …

… In that moment in time [when you wrote the memo], you were writing that there was a consolidation of Shia power, that the Sunnis were being attacked. High-level Sunnis were being fired from the military. It was not going in a direction that you thought was healthy. …

Clearly at that time, whether with Maliki’s support or not, there was a sectarian agenda that was being carried out on the ground. Shia were expelling Sunnis from some of their homelands. And if you look at the map of Baghdad in 2003 versus 2008 or ’09, there was a separation of the sectarian groups. Sunni areas were clearly being disadvantaged. They were being denied services. They were being offered services in Shia areas, which they did not feel comfortable going to.

So there was clearly a sectarian agenda that was being pursued. The question was, is this being pursued because of Maliki, in spite of Maliki, or with Maliki basically uninvolved?

And was that the question that would be continually debated until the present day?

It would be continually debated. Again, it was one of the reasons why the president insisted on some commitments from Maliki that the surge would be pursued in a nonsectarian way.

He largely carried out those commitments, and it received some reassurance when he went down with the [operation] Charge of the Knights, I guess it’s called, and took on the Shia militia in southern Iraq.

That question, though, continues to be raised. And I think one of the things, sadly, that occurred in 2010, 2011, Maliki began to take some actions that once again raised real questions about whether he was really committed to the kind of inclusive Iraq that we felt needed to emerge if Iraq was going to be stable over the long term.

… Why was it so important that this government was seen to be very publicly willing to share power? Why was that essential to our mission, essential to the survival of Iraq?

The big change, of course, in the fall of Saddam was the emergence of the Shia majority in Iraq and their ability through the electoral process to claim their share of power. It was a majoritarian share of power. It’s 50 percent or more Shia.

But of course that was a traumatic experience for the Sunnis that had been really dominant politically under Saddam Hussein, both dominant politically but also oppressed by Saddam Hussein, as all Iraqis had been.

But because of the insurgency, because of the role of Al Qaeda — and remember, Al Qaeda’s strategy was to attack the Shia so they would retaliate against the Sunni and thereby cause a civil war in which Al Qaeda could emerge and pick up the pieces and establish a caliphate in which Al Qaeda would be under control.

So the solution is, if that is the strategy of what became our principal adversary in Iraq, we had to make sure that the Sunnis would not buy into the Al Qaeda agenda but would be willing to turn against Al Qaeda and be part of a unified Iraq.

In order to be part of a unified Iraq, they had to have a place in that Iraq in terms of its governmental structure, in terms of its participation among the civil service, participation in the army, and an opportunity in that unified Iraq to find a secure and prosperous future.

If Iraq was going to hold together, not descend into civil war, and if Al Qaeda was going to be resisted and ultimately defeated, then all elements of Iraqi society, Kurd, Shia and Sunnis, had to be part of the government which would then unify its efforts in attacking Al Qaeda. And that is what we did achieve in 2007 and 2008. …

… When [Donald] Rumsfeld is out of the Pentagon, is this a sign that Bush is taking ownership of the war? …

The president always knew that Iraq was his war. He was commander in chief. He’s the one who made the decision to go to war in Iraq and sent the troops and arms away. And that was never lost on him for a moment.

This is a guy who met routinely with family of the fallen, with those men and women who were injured, often grievously, in the war. So he always knew. He had ownership of that war.

What happened was that he supported the strategy that was being pursued until the point he decided that that strategy was not working. And at that point, he initiated a process within the government to give him some alternatives to the current strategy. …

So why does he go with the surge? …

The strategy that was being pursued up to that point was a strategy of giving responsibilities to the Iraqis, the notion that it was their country. In the end of the day, they were the ones that were going to have to bring stability and security and prosperity. That’s the right judgment.

“Bush said, ‘If you ever decide that you think the surge strategy cannot work, you need to come tell me.'”

But the insight that the president has is that while that is the right place where you want to end up, we could not get there from where we were. The level of violence was so high that the various Iraqi groups were withdrawing into their own sectarian foxholes, and the kind of political process you needed to knit Sunni, Shia and Kurds together was not going to happen as long as the violence remained at that level.

So what he determined was we needed a change of strategy, not just more troops, but troops deployed in a way that would intersperse them with Iraqi forces, military and police, among the population to bring security to the population and to bring the level of violence down to the point where the political process that was required would restart, to do it partnering with the Iraqi military so that we would, side by side with them, train them and bring them to the point where they could deal with the residual level of violence in order to get to the point where the Iraqis were able to take responsibility and form their own political future and provide for their own security. And that’s what it did. …

[Gen. David Petraeus is] sort of an unorthodox general, not the most favored general in the Pentagon. Why the choice of Gen. Petraeus to take over after Gen. [George W.] Casey leaves?

Gen. Petraeus was in many ways a natural choice. He had been in Iraq both as a commander up in the north in and around Mosul. He had been responsible for the training of Iraqi forces. But he had also then come back and I think was head of what they called TRADOC [United States Army Training and Doctrine Command]. …

At that time, he undertook to write the manual for counterinsurgency, which was, if you will, the doctrinal basis for the surge. Surge was both additional forces but in some sense a change of mission for those forces.

Based on his experience in Iraq, Gen. Petraeus had presided over developing the doctrine that would be the core of the new surge strategy. It was very logical that he should be the one picked to implement that strategy on the ground.

Interestingly enough, he was the choice both of the departing secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and the incoming secretary of defense, Bob Gates, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, Pete Pace. So he was a consensus choice, and as events proved, he was the right person for the job.

We also partnered him with a new ambassador in Iraq, Ryan Crocker, one of the most experienced and distinguished ambassadors we had. The two of them formed a really unusual partnership which was essential, because the surge was an integrated political and security strategy, and it needed to be implemented in that way. …

… The first months of the surge, it didn’t seem like it was going well. What was the pressure on the president at that point? …

One of the things about the surge is, it’s one thing to say you’re going to send five brigades of combat troops. It takes a while to get them there, get them deployed, get them situated, and get them in action. So we knew it was going to take time for this strategy to unravel.

Secondly, we also knew that because of the additional troops, because of the new strategy, the casualties that Americans would suffer would probably go up before they would go down.

The president knew that was coming, and we all had to recognize that it was going to cause some tense months, that it was going to require three challenges.

One, we were going to have to resist efforts in Congress which were mounted and which were successfully resisted to prevent the surge from ever being implemented on the ground. Secondly, we were going to have to buy the time and patience of the American people, and we were going to have to show some progress. Once we showed some progress, we thought the American people would give us a little bit more time. And the more progress we showed, the more time we could get, because I think the American people, while they were disillusioned with the war, they knew in their gut that how it ended mattered. And what they wanted was a strategy that would prove successful. That’s what they did not think they had before the surge, and our job was to show that with the surge, that was the strategy they had.

And then third, it was to put off pressures on [Capitol] Hill for hearings and callbacks as far as we could to give Gen. Petraeus and Ryan Crocker enough time to begin to produce those results on the ground that would prove to the Congress and the American people that we actually had the right strategy and that it was succeeding.

… So the question is, number one, why was that so successful? … And the second part of it was, did this bring hope to the Sunni population that they were now going to get reintegrated into the political system as well using the Americans as sort of their patron saints here to protect?

… When we presented the options to President Bush and we talked about the surge option, it really had two parts. One was a surge into Baghdad, which was the principal problem. The whole country of Iraq was seeing their capital city, Baghdad, melt down under sectarian violence. …

But there was also an opportunity in Anbar Province, which was the heartland of the Sunni part of Iraq, a part that had been declared lost by many people. There were some stirrings among some of the Sunni tribes that they had lived under Al Qaeda rule and they didn’t much like it, and they wanted to throw off Al Qaeda.

That was the biggest opportunity to send some of the surge forces into Anbar Province, link up with the Sunni tribes, and enable them to overthrow Al Qaeda.

And the question for the president was, do you want to do them both, or do you want to do them in sequence? And the president wisely decided that he would do both at the same time. …

What was critical, though, was that the United States made a commitment to the success of those Sunni tribes. We sent Marine battalions out there, which reassured the Sunni tribes that they were going to win, and that empowered them to rise up against the Al Qaeda.

We also provided them enablers. We also made clear to them, and worked with the central government in Baghdad, that when it was over, they would not be abandoned, but they would have an opportunity to integrate into the Iraqi army, into the Iraq police forces, into security services, and otherwise have jobs coming out of this process as an element of putting together a unified Iraq in which Sunni, Kurds and Shia were full participants.

It was the combination of a change of strategy, of the U.S. force presence, of our working closely with the tribes and giving them a prospect post-conflict of a better order if they were to succeed in throwing off Al Qaeda that made it work.

One of the problems now in trying to approach the tribes to throw off ISIS is that there’s a history of broken promises. There were assurances made to the Anbar Sunnis of their participation in the government and the security services that were not kept. So there is a breach of trust.

Second of all, in 2007 and ’08, American ground troops, Marine battalions, went there to shore them up and give some assurances that they were going to succeed. Regrettably, nobody’s contemplating that kind of deployment now.

So the question is really threefold. One, are they so unsettled by Islamic state rule that they are ready to rise up? Two, can the Baghdad government give some assurances that this time that they will be respected and thereby be credible? And third, can the United States provide enough training and equipment and enablers, intelligence, drone strikes, maybe even air support, so that the tribes will have confidence that if they rise up, they will succeed and have a better life as part of Iraq, a unified and nonsectarian Iraq?

And that’s going to be a big lift, whether we can convince the tribes to once again take the risk of confronting Al Qaeda in Anbar Province.

… Ambassador Crocker tells this great story. … Crocker and Petraeus at one point, … they basically were fed up with Maliki, and they have a conversation with the president where they say: “We can’t do it with this guy. We’ve got to get rid of him. It’s just not going to work if we don’t get rid of him.” And the president said: “Take a breath. Go find a tree to sit under for a while, OK? Because the reality is we have to stick with him, we’re going to stick with him, and we’re going to make it work. And you’ve just got to deal with that reality.” Do you remember that story specifically? But if not, tell me what’s behind that. What was in the president’s thinking in that situation?

Shortly before the president gave the order to send troops to overturn the Saddam Hussein regime, there was a conversation in the Situation Room about what was our obligation to the Iraqi people after Saddam was gone? Was it enough if another strongman emerged that simply would not pursue weapons of mass destruction, wouldn’t support terror, wouldn’t invade his neighbors, wouldn’t be as brutal as Saddam? Was that enough?

The president led a discussion among the principals of where he clearly decided, and I think they all agreed, that we were the United States of America. We stood for freedom, democracy, and that we owed it to the Iraqi people to give them an opportunity to build an inclusive, democratic future for their country — not that we could deliver it, and not that we would stay there until a Jeffersonian democracy had risen up on the shores of the Tigris and the Euphrates, but to give the Iraqi people a chance. Therefore, we needed to pursue this in a democratic way.

Maliki was the result of a democratic election in which Sunni, Kurds and Shia participated. The president thought it would be inconsistent with our principles and inconsistent with our vision for Iraq if we started changing leaders at the whim of the United States.

Secondly, he had an appreciation for the challenges Maliki faced — the fact that he was in a job that he never anticipated and was not prepared for — and thought we owed it to the Iraqi people, owed it to the electoral process that they had carried out in, and owed it to Maliki to really make an effort to bring him along to be the kind of leader he needed.

The president was committed to that effort, and I think on balance in 2008, things were going in a pretty positive direction.

And I assume, to push it a little bit, there were few choices. It was a very tenuous situation, and if one started pushing in some directions, one didn’t know what the results would be with whoever you chose?

… You always have to ask the question, if this leader falls, who follows? There were not obvious candidates. And remember, the Iraqi people had been through Prime Minister [Ibrahim al-] Jaafari, had been through Ayad Allawi. Neither of those had performed particularly well in our judgment.

And remember, for all his faults, Maliki showed enormous courage. He agreed to the surge; he supported the surge. In the end of the day, to bring quiet to the south, he led Iraqi troops to take on the Shia in the south, his own constituency. …

… Can you talk a little bit about when [Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice visits, that period of time where she reads the riot act to Maliki, basically, with what effect?

We have a lot of influence at that point in time. We have over 150,000 troops, enormous economic aid, and Maliki, as a prideful Iraqi, probably resents the dependence, but he understands it.

And at one point, Condi Rice is sent by the president, because Maliki is not doing well, and I think this is before the surge. She goes to Maliki, and she asks everybody else in the room to leave, and she says: “Mr. Prime Minister, I have a message from you from the president. You have our full support. That said, Mr. Prime Minister, you are failing.”

And Maliki’s reaction was very interesting. It’s one of the reasons that gave us some hope. He said: “I know it, and I’m so glad you told me, because I feel it too. What should I do?” And that resulted in a very productive conversation. …

… The surge was a huge success. Violence was brought down. The government seemed to be going in a better direction. … How is the president viewing it?

It’s very interesting, because he’s obviously got a huge amount riding on the surge decision.

His speech in January 2007, there’s a stunned silence across the country, because everybody assumed in the wake of the Baker-Hamilton approach [presented in The Iraq Study Group Report], the president was going to be starting a process of withdrawal. And the president, in fact, doubles down, because he believes it’s the only way we can succeed.

… At one point, he looked up to me and he said, “Hadley, do you think this surge strategy is going to work?” And I said, “Mr. President, I think it will, but I do think, Mr. President, it’s our last chance to get this right.” And he said, “Good.” He said, “If you ever decide that you think the surge strategy cannot work, you need to come tell me, because I can’t keep sending young men and women into harm’s way if we don’t think we have a strategy that’s going to succeed.”

I thought that spoke very well for him as a commander in chief and as a president, because he was soliciting the kind of bad news that a president, as invested as he was in Iraq, would never want to hear and that most people would be reluctant to bring him. And the president was saying, “That’s the news I need to hear.” …

So 2008, it’s looking more and more likely that the next president will be a Democrat, will be President Obama, who has been campaigning on getting out of Iraq. … Explain a little bit that period of time and the obligation that your administration felt under to achieve the best way to set a deal up with Maliki so that things would be handed off in the best way?

One of our dilemmas was that the authorization under which our forces were in Iraq under the United Nations was expiring at the end of 2008. So we needed a legal framework to leave our forces past 2008.

And the president felt strongly that we needed to have a continuing presence in Iraq to build on and make sustainable the progress that we’d achieved through the surge decision 2007, 2008.

On the other hand, Maliki’s got pressures on him. No country likes to have foreign troops in their country, and Maliki’s under pressure to have a schedule by which it’s clear the American troops continue to draw down and at some point are going home. …

We negotiate the SOFA [Status of Forces] Agreement. There are struggles about provisions that we need to protect American troops that in fact impinge on Iraqi sovereignty and are difficult for the Iraqis to swallow, and in the end of the day, we work those out.

And then the bottom-line question is the withdrawal schedule, which the president wants to be based on conditions on the ground. We bring out our troops as the conditions warrant, and Maliki, for his political purposes, wants an explicit schedule, … a date when they are all gone.

We try to push that date out as far as we can, … come to an agreement that brings the troops down gradually and has them all leaving Iraq at the end of 2011. It was the best that we could get. In the end of the day, it was what the president felt he needed to give to Maliki.

There was the hope that that would buy us enough time to implement the second agreement that was negotiated at the same time, which was a strategic framework agreement which outlined a pattern of diplomatic, economic and security cooperation between Iraq and the United States indefinitely into the future.

And the hope was as our troop levels went down, the intensity of our interaction with Iraq, diplomatically, economically, and in terms of security assistance for their military, would be going up, so that the gains achieved in 2007, 2008, would endure on a sustainable basis going forward.

… When the Obama folks came in, is that what happened? Why was that so important? And is that indeed what took place?

When the Obama administration comes in, one of the real questions was whether he would accelerate that schedule. And my recollection is that there were some break points, explicit points as we moved our force levels down, at one point, when we would get out of all of the cities, another point later on where we’d be handing more responsibility to the Iraqis. Interestingly enough, President Obama decided to add another intermediate break point in that step-down of troops, but he did not change the end date.

So ironically enough, and I think to his credit, even though he had campaigned on we’re going to bring the troops home, he respected in the end of the day the disengagement schedule negotiated by the Bush administration.

I think the question that history will ask is whether the administration did enough to build up the relationships between the United States and Iraq under the strategic framework agreement so that as our troops came down, we had alternative ways to ensuring progress in Iraq toward stability, prosperity and an inclusive government. …

It just drives me crazy that Obama and [Vice President Joe] Biden are saying how they ended the war. The truth is, the war was ended by President Bush adopting a strategy that President Obama opposed, and pursuant to a withdrawal, the schedule which President Bush negotiated and President Obama decided to accept.

So I would argue the Bush administration brought you the war and the Bush administration ended the war. …

“Bush said, ‘You know, the only regret I have is that I didn’t catch the second shoe, because I’m sure I could have done it.'”

There was also a tacit sense, I think, on the part of both President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki, that if at the end of the withdrawal schedule in 2011 things were not going well, it was open to both Iraq and the United States to negotiate an extension for our troops to stay longer. And that was also in the background in 2008 when we left office.

That moment when the troops are being brought out in December 2011, what are you thinking? … Are you somewhat worried?

I did not criticize the administration publicly, but my view was that we had made such an investment in Iraq as a nation in terms of blood and treasure, and the success of the Iraqi experiment was so important to the Middle East, which is now consumed in Sunni-Shia violence, is that it was so important that we could show to the Middle East that there could be a country where Sunni, Shia and Kurds could be working together in a democratic framework for a common future, it just made it even more important that the Iraq experiment succeed.

Therefore, given that investment, given the importance to the region for the success, I think if President Bush had been in office, I have no question that he would have found a way to extend the U.S. force presence, and we would have aggressively been trying to expand the other elements of our ties under the strategic framework agreement. …

… Before Obama takes power, one of the last things that President Bush does is he makes another trip to Iraq. What’s the reason for that? …

The reasons for that trip are, of course, closure. How could the president who has started the war in Iraq — it’s an important part of the history of his presidency — how could he leave office without going back to Iraq and Afghanistan, two conflicts that were at the center of his presidency?

Second, he wants to visibly thank the troops for what they have done. And thirdly, he wants to say goodbye to Maliki, who has been a partner of his in this most difficult venture. …

The famous footage of the shoe being thrown at the president, how does that affect him?

He’s completely unflummoxed by it. He said, “You know, the only regret I have is that I didn’t catch the second shoe, because I’m sure I could have done it.” He is not undone by it. Maliki is stricken. You can see it on his face: humiliated, angered.

The president is unflummoxed by it, and he makes a sort of offhand comment, and what he wants to do is downplay it. And, of course, regrettably the first press person that he calls on tries to turn it into a parable about American engagement in Iraq, making it, therefore, hard for the president to calm people down and treat it as a one-off.

But that is the view that the president has, and he’s more concerned about how upset Maliki is than he is by the incident himself.

And indeed, after the president goes upstairs to do some kind of meeting event, and I’m talking through an interpreter to Maliki, who is beside himself with humiliation and rage, and I’m trying to talk him down, talk him off the ledge. The president comes down, and I went over to him. and I said, “Mr. President, before you go into the lunch, you need to pull Maliki aside, because he is really distraught and humiliated, and you need to reassure him.”

The president, of course, didn’t need me to tell him that. The president knows that in his bones. So he goes right over to Maliki and he says: “Look, this doesn’t bother me at all. This is a big nothing. You shouldn’t be upset about it. This doesn’t tarnish your relationship with me in any way. I’m not humiliated; you shouldn’t be humiliated.”

He says exactly what [you would want] the American president to do. It’s Bush at his strength. He’s great at those interpersonal relations.

And Maliki takes a deep breath, and the two of them go into the lunch. And the incident is over from the standpoint of the president of the United States. And we’ve never talked about it since, so far as I recall.

… The presidential connection to [Maliki], this constant communication that was going on, all that disappeared once Obama came in. Obama had a different set of goals. He wanted it ended. Once it ended, they disengaged. Knowing the man, can you suppose that affected the direction that Maliki took? …

President George W. Bush says that one of the things he learned from his father, George H. W. Bush, was the importance of personal relations in the conduct of foreign policy. He believed in developing, as best he could, close ties with foreign leaders in general, and that also particularly applied to Maliki.

President Obama has a different style. Every president does. He, I think, invests much less, so far as I can tell, in developing those personal relations and tends to delegate them to his secretary of state and to Vice President Biden.

Vice President Biden is an extremely able person. But for any foreign leader, they know the difference from a meeting between the president of the United States and the vice president of the United States. …

So I think it’s obvious that Maliki felt he was less important to the United States and to the American president under the Obama administration than the Bush administration.

I’m not saying this to be critical of President Obama. He’s president; he can run it the way he thinks best, and I’m sure has. But I think the consequence as read by others is a downgrade.

And that downgrade led Maliki to do what?

I wouldn’t say it led him to do anything. Maliki takes historical responsibility for the decisions he made.

The question is whether it reduced in some way the leverage the United States had on his behavior, whether it would have made any difference at the end of the day, particularly once all the troops are out. …

[What’s the] state of affairs on the ground in Iraq when the Bush administration hands off to the Obama administration? …

At the end of 2008, the surge is effectively over. The surge forces are back home. They have succeeded in their task. The level of violence is down 90 percent or more. It is a level which is serious but containable by Iraqi security forces and does not threaten the stability of the regime.

We have negotiated a withdrawal schedule, which gradually phases down U.S. forces but conversely keeps them as long as the politics in Iraq would have allowed.

We have in place a strategic framework agreement to which the responsibility for the relationship will shift; that contemplates an intensive engagement between the United States and Iraq to enhance their security capability, their economy, and help introduce them diplomatically back into the world.

I think the assessment that we would have is, we started the war, we ended the war, we ended it successfully, and we had a good framework for achieving our ongoing objectives in Iraq, which in part included making Iraq a success story as a model, or an example at least, in the Middle East; of a place where Sunni, Shia and Kurds were working together for a common future rather than elsewhere in the Middle East, Sunnis either oppressing Shia, Shia oppressing Sunnis, and both of them tending to beat up on the Kurds.

The fear of Iran filling the vacuum, how was that behind decisions made? …

… Iran was very active in Iraq, and it was a problem for us militarily because of their support to a militia during our time of hostilities there.

But we think in 2008 the problem was manageable. One of the frustrations we had was that we could not convince the Sunni states in the region to embrace Iraq and embrace the new post-Saddam Iraqi government. Our concern was the more those states turned their back on Iraq, the more they would naturally depend on Iran.

Everybody, particularly when you have security challenges, you want friends and allies. And in some sense, Maliki’s — and I don’t excuse it — increasingly looking to Tehran was a function because he was basically rejected and ostracized by the rest of the Arab world. …

As far as ISIS, … how big a surprise should it have been? It seems that the administration was surprised by developments in the last month, month and a half. Why do you think that is, and should we have been surprised?

I think everybody was surprised. I’m sure there are people who, in hindsight, will say and argue that it should have been foreseeable. But I don’t fault the administration for being surprised. I think most people were [surprised], even very knowledgeable people about Iraq.

“The Iraqi people will have to decide who their leader is. But if it is Maliki, it’s going to have to be a very different Maliki than we’ve seen up to now.”

I think people understood there was a risk that the chickens would come home to roost, that Maliki’s failure to really continue to reach out to the Sunnis, his failure to insist on the professionalization of the military, would make Iraq vulnerable to the kind of spillover of the civil war from Syria.

But that said, I think the dramatic progress of ISIS down the Euphrates and down the Tigris, and the collapse and withdrawal of large portions of the Iraqi army caught everybody by surprise. I don’t know anybody that would have predicted such a dramatic collapse.

What do you blame for the collapse?

… I think the burden of that is decisions that Iraqis made in Iraq, decisions the United States made in Iraq.

But I think the biggest problem was what happened in Syria and the civil war. Many of us have said for a couple of years now that Syria was a danger, that the longer it went the more people would die, the more it would destabilize its neighbors, the more sectarian it would become, and the more we’d open the door to Al Qaeda.

The failure of the international community and the failure of the United States to take the lead to get a handle on that conflict, I think that is the biggest single factor in describing and in accounting for what has happened in Iraq.

In some sense, many people think Iraq was a sin of commission, a mistake that should never have been made. I think what we learned in Syria is that sins of omission, failure to act, can have consequences as great, if not greater, than mistakes that were made perhaps in good faith, but many people judge as mistakes. …

Options for Obama now? How dangerous a situation are we in?

It’s a very dangerous situation. In some sense, Syria and Iraq now are less about the future of Syria and the future of Iraq and more about the future of the Islamic state and the caliphate that has now been declared in western Iraq and eastern Syria.

The public reports are that there are between 10,000 and 15,000 foreign fighters in that area. That is multiples of the number of foreign fighters that were in Iraq at the height of the war in 2006 and 2007.

In 2006, 2007, my recollection is that most of the foreign fighters were from the Arab world. In Syria and Iraq now, 2014, thousands of them are from European countries, dozens if not hundreds are from the United States, and these are all people who have ready access to return not only to their home country, but if it’s in Europe, to get in without a visa into the United States. And to have to have our border agents looking at no-flies and no-entry lists for 10,000 to 15,000 people is an enormous task, an enormous challenge.

So the risk is that we now have what we sought to avoid in 2006 and 2007: a safe haven, a caliphate for terrorists in the Middle East of very extreme people being trained in the techniques of terror who will then go back to their home countries and ultimately to the United States.

And the problem is we have the leader of IS [Islamic State], this fellow, [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi, who is clearly vying with [Ayman al-] Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda, to take over the whole Al Qaeda movement.

And I can’t think of a better way of showing your credibility to the terrorist community than to be able to pull off a terrorist attack in the United States. And I think that’s why, as [Homeland Security Secretary] Jeh Johnson said here some months ago, Syria is now a national security, homeland security threat to the United States, and it is going to be one that we are not well positioned to deal with. It is not the kind of threat that you can deal with with Predator strikes. You are going to require people on the ground who are willing to take on these terrorists. And regrettably they are not going to be — and maybe blessedly they’re not going to be — American troops. But that means they’re going to have to be Syrians, and they’re going to have to be Iraqis.

That’s why I think the objective of American policy has to be to expand the training program that I’m told is now underway in Syria, to try to develop vetted, democratic-leaning forces in Syria that will, yes, be opposed to Assad, but more importantly, be willing to fight IS in Syria.

And that is why we need to find a way to re-equip, retrain, and with intelligence, with Predator strikes, with air strikes and maybe even with ground controllers on the ground, to enable the Iraqis to be able to make progress against the Islamic state.

And finally, if Iraq is ever going to push the Islamic state out of western Iraq, they’re going to have to have the support of the local Sunnis and of the local Sunni tribes, and that is going to require a radical change in how the governments have been acting in Iraq.

We really are going to have to have a truly inclusive Iraqi government that offers full participation for the Sunnis and the Kurds as well as the Shia. And the administration is right in making that a priority, because at the end of the day, we’re not going to solve the problem of IS in Iraq without that kind of Iraqi government. My worry is that it’s just too late.

And is Maliki able to do that?

The Iraqi people will have to decide who their leader is. But if it is Maliki, it’s going to have to be a very different Maliki than we’ve seen up to now.

Petraeus told us … that soldiers have come up to him recently and said: “I was there during the surge. Was that all a waste of time?” If you had to respond to those soldiers, what would your response be?

We are today where we are in Iraq because of decisions Iraqi political figures made, by decisions American political figures made, and particularly by the decisions that were made by the international community, including the United States, in terms of handling Syria.

It has nothing to do with what our men and women in uniform did. They did their job. They were asked to get rid of Saddam Hussein, a regime that had been pursuing WMD [weapons of mass destruction], had supported terror, had invaded his neighbors, had threatened Israel, threatened the United States and tyrannized his people. They did that.

They were asked then to help the Iraqi people and the Iraqi security forces deal with Al Qaeda, which had decided to make Iraq a front line in the war on terror. And through the surge and through their improvisational implementation of that strategy, they defeated Al Qaeda in Iraq, and violence at the end of 2008 was down to very manageable levels.

They did what they were asked to do. They succeeded in their missions, and they won the wars they were asked to fight.

I don’t know how Iraq and Syria is going to come out. I don’t know what the future holds. But if we get out of this and are able to defeat terror and are able to build first in Iraq and then in Syria the kind of inclusive governments that we hope to build — and I hope the people of those countries still want to build, despite of all the suffering they’ve been through — it will be because of, in large measure, the sacrifice our men and women in uniform made in Iraq during the period of their engagement there.

They have a lot to be proud of. And what has happened recently does not take away, in any way, from their sacrifice and from their success.

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE



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