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what's at stake in iraq?
Whatever the reasons for going to war, and whatever the challenges and dangers of nation-building in the heart of the Middle East, the United States says it has committed itself to transforming Iraq into a thriving democratic country. Critics say the challenges and dangers may prove too great. Proponents maintain that success is not only possible, but absolutely necessary -- that there is no alternative. Meanwhile, many Americans have started to wonder, is this what we signed up for? And what will be the cost?

Here, addressing the prospects for democracy in Iraq and for the success of the U.S. mission -- as well as the costs, risks, and potential benefits -- are excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with former State Department policy planning director Richard Haass, chief U.S. administrator for Iraq L. Paul Bremer, prominent Iraqi exile Laith Kubba, Iraqi National Congress founder and governing council member Ahmad Chalabi, former assistant secretary of state Edward Walker, and Iraqi National Congress advisor Kanan Makiya.

photos of haass
Richard Haass

President, Council on Foreign Relations; director of policy planning at the State Dept., March 2001 - June 2003

This is a war now that some senators are saying we should not have fought, but yet everyone agrees that we can't pull out. What's at stake here?

read the full interview

Stakes are enormous. You have both local stakes, the future Iraq, a country with the world's second largest oil reserves, 25 million people. Baghdad is historically one of the three or four centers of the Arab world. So what happens in Iraq will matter for the Middle East, if terrorists have a home. Obviously it makes a tremendous difference as opposed to Iraq becoming a member of the coalition against terrorism. If Iraq does or does not have weapons or mass destruction, if Iraq does or does not support compromise between Israelis and Palestinians -- there's tremendous local differences.

But also there's a larger issue here. The United States has now made a tremendous investment in Iraq -- investment in every sense. Policy investment, person investment, financial investment. So how this plays out will also have a big impact on how [the] world perceives the United States and it will probably also have a big, big impact on how Americans perceive their own foreign policy.

At the end of the day, this was a choice. Whenever you make choices in foreign policy, it has tremendous consequences; ironically enough, more than when you have to do things. If we had had to fight the war against Iraq, no matter how it turned out, people would have accepted it. Even if it hadn't turned out that well, they simply would have shrugged and said, "Well, it was something we had to do." But in the case of Iraq simply because it wasn't something we had to do -- it was something we chose to do -- the stakes are bigger. ...

If Americans see this as too costly, if that's the ultimate conclusion, that somehow it wasn't worth it, then you'll probably see gradually growing resistance to this sort of activism abroad. On the other hand, if this is seen as something that was successful and the costs were in line, it would then give this administration or future administrations, not a blank check, but much more running room in the conduct of an ambitious foreign policy.

. . .
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l. paul bremer

Chief U.S. civilian administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA)

You're not expected to have American soldiers dying. So the question really becomes, should you get credit for all [the progress] and we ignore these soldiers? ... [And is] the death of these soldiers going to continue to erode public opinion back home as to whether this was--

read the full interview

Well, it may, it may not. I actually happen to think the American people are more resilient than that. I think American history shows that when the American people undertake a great cause, whether it's throwing out the British, freeing the slaves, or freeing Europe, we stick to it until the job is done. We have undertaken a major noble cause here, which is repairing a country that was under the boot of a brutal, brutal dictatorship.

Every day that goes by, we find another mass grave -- today, every day that goes by, it becomes clearer how tyrannical this group was. The American people have every right to be proud of what their soldiers did here in three weeks. Now we have to carry through our promise to the Iraqi people from the president, which is to give them a stable, democratic, representative democracy here, and we'll do that. I think when the American people think about it, they'll say, "That's right, that's what America is about. We're not going to quit."

I don't think there's any question that what we did here was noble, to get rid of Saddam Hussein. But there are other dictators. There are other horrible situations in other countries; throughout Africa; there's North Korea. The question becomes, how far can we go? We're redefining our role in the world. This was, after all, a president who said he was not interested in nation-building.

We are redefining our role, that's right. What we do here is going to have a major impact on the geopolitics of this region for decades to come. It'll be a wonderful impact on the geopolitics of the region when we succeed, as we will. ...

I'm sure there are other places in the world where there are lots of problems. That's not my job. My job is here.

I don't think there's any question -- in all the briefing that I've had -- that this is a grand experiment. ... What chances do you give it?

Oh, I think it's very high. I'm very optimistic. I'm optimistic because, first of all, this is a country which has succeeded in the past. This is a country which, in the 1950s, was at the forefront of the entire Islamic world. They had more women educated, very high educational standards. They [were the] first country with television, first member of the IMF, a country with lots of riches. It's got oil, it's got water, it's got fertile land. ... It has historic sites which are almost without equal anywhere in the world which can be developed for tourism. It has two of the holiest shrines in Islam -- again, a site of considerable tourist interest.

And it has very energetic and educated people. As we talked earlier about the Iraqi people, these are tough-minded, well-educated people ... who have a good sense of nation. There's no reason at all why this country can't again achieve its place of prominence in the Muslim world, and I think it will. ...

In fact, in the State Department, where you spent your career, many people there with experience in the Arab world never got on board this train, and felt that democracy could never take root here.

Yes, I know that, and I consider that a form of cultural arrogance. I don't think democracy is too good for Arabs. I don't see any reason why Arabs can't be as democratic as Indians or Chinese in Hong Kong and Taiwan. People said the Chinese could never be democratic; there's a democratic government in Singapore, there's a democratic government in Taiwan. There's a democratic government, at least within bounds, in Hong Kong. I consider it culturally arrogant. I think it's an advantage to me not to have that kind of a prejudice coming here.

I think they're saying that you can't graft [democracy] as quickly as we're trying to graft it onto this place.

Well, it's going to take time.

How much is it going to cost?

It's going to cost a lot of money. Our economic advisors think that repairing Iraq's infrastructure will cost $100 billion. $100 billion -- big money.

That's just repairing the infrastructure. That's not all the money we pour--

That's just putting the country sort of back together. ... You know, the numbers are -- you can build them up pretty fast. The U.N. says it's going to cost $16 billion to fix the sewage system -- fix it, not make it modern -- fix it. My engineers tell me we're going to have to spend $13 billion on the power system just to get it to a point where it meets the power needs of this country before the economy takes off and it needs more power.

What happens when you run those kinds of numbers by the president?

He understands those numbers. He understands this is going to be a very big project. Now, it's not that we're going to spend all that money; the Americans aren't going spend it all. We'll have to put in more money here. There will be a donors conference in October -- international conference, and many, many countries who will come and hopefully pledge substantial amounts of money. There is the World Bank, there is the IMF. There is eventually, hopefully, the hope of ramping up oil revenues, so that a lot of capital can come from the Iraqis.

. . .
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laith kubba

Senior program officer for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Endowment for Democracy; president, Iraq National Group

America finds itself in a very difficult situation now. What can America do now to extricate itself from the situation?

read the full interview

There are a number of measures that can and should be done, even now. Of course they have become more costly and more difficult, and they'll take more time. But I believe there is no substitute to doing them. Number one, I think America's commitment to Iraq's security is the right one, and if that takes maintaining America's leadership over the security effort and the military effort in Iraq, then let it be. I don't think this is going to be the stumbling block in getting Iraq out of its misery.

The second issue is political transition. I would have thought, both from a legal point of view, enhancing the legitimacy, and from a practical point of view, that the U.N. should be given more of a role on political transition. This would look right in the eyes of the Iraqis, in the eyes of Iraq's neighbors, and in the eyes of the international community, and would win certainly both financial support and maybe military support to what the U.S. is trying to do. So, to me, I would have thought giving the U.N. political role on transition is a good step, not a bad one.

A third one, I would say there is something missing in the political process in Iraq today. Yes, what we have is a structure which is more representative and more inclusive than the structure we had under Saddam Hussein. But what we have is not a sufficient structure. We need to enhance it more by relying on representation from Iraq's provinces.

What we have today in the governing council is self-proclaimed representation of ethnic communities and of political leaders claiming to speak on behalf of Iraq, 25 million people. Well, no one can claim to speak on behalf of all Iraq, but we can enhance that level of representation. One good way to do it is to involve the various structures that emerged in different districts and provinces. Iraq has 18 provinces and about 50 districts. They need to be linked with the political process taking place right now in Baghdad, right now, to ensure that the rest of the country -- for example, the most problematic, Sunni triangle, who are excluded totally from the political process -- they need to be included, not as Sunnis or as tribal leaders, but as people who need to be represented in their own districts. They must have a voice.

One important error needs to be fixed right now. Iraq must not be institutionalized on ethnic and religious lines in terms of percentages, sharing power, or dividing land. If we do this, we're dooming Iraq for years to come. Iraq would then not only ultimately be divided, but we're going to have communal conflicts over power.

The demography changes in Iraq naturally as it does in all countries. We need to integrate Iraq as a modern state, allowing freedom to all, pluralism, but, more importantly, institutions based on citizenship, decentralizing power, powers to the provinces, federalism -- but not based on ethnic or religious lines. ...

. . .
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ahmad chalabi

Founder, Iraqi National Congress; Iraqi governing council member

Now there's lots of people ... that worry that Iraq can't hold, the center can't hold, that only under Saddam could the center hold. Now you've got [the radical Shiite leader] al-Sadr saying he doesn't respect the governing council. ...

read the full interview

Yes. So? He can say that.

Well, he worries [Grand Ayatollah] Sistani [the older and more moderate Shiite leader]. He worries the others -- they don't quite know how to handle a young firebrand like him.

I don't think so. They know very well. He has very little support in Najaf.

He draws quite a crowd in Najaf.

Well, they are bused in.

Well, they're bused in. There's not been large rallies that you've presided over, have there? ...

No. I'm not a prayer leader.

But you are a political leader.

Yes. But we have not made any effort to make rallies. We had a rally in Nasiriya when we went in on very short notice. ...

This issue of participating in rallies or using religious occasions for political statements, which are pursued relentlessly by the press, all of those things are really not reflective of the real situation on the minds of the people. Rallies and demonstrations do not reflect what people really think in Iraq.

It's a free country now. People are free to gather in--

Oh, yes. Indeed, they are free to gather, and they are free to express themselves. But why should the people who support something express their support through a rally or a demonstration?

Well, this is common in democracies.

Well, not really. I mean, do you think all of the supporters who elected President Bush rallied and demonstrated? ...

So you have no concerns about al-Sadr and his rhetoric?

No. ... Not seriously. I don't think that will affect the outcome of the constitution process or elections.

No concern about Sistani's concerns about the process, the constitutional--

I agree with Sistani. Sistani's position is something that is very important. We should get the support of Sistani for the constitutional process.

You met with Sistani.

Yes, I did meet with Sistani.

How did that go?

Very well.

Can you give me some sense of the substance of that meeting?


What were his concerns and what were yours?

He's a real leader. A man with incisive intelligence who cuts right to the heart of the matter at hand. He's aware of the issues. His main concern was the U.S. government was going to write a constitution for Iraq, either directly or through proxies. He said to me that the U.S. government wrote a constitution for Japan. He was afraid that this would come about, and then there would be some kind of anti-Islamic constitution in Iraq.

He wanted to make sure that this did not happen, and he wanted to make sure that all representatives of all communities participate in the process of writing a constitution. He thought that the best way to do this was through elections. He did not specify when, and he did not specify whether the constitutional conference should be made through elections. But he thought there has to be some elections which would approve the constitution. Now this is a position we can work with.

What do you think is your biggest challenge then, if it's not the diversity within the country of opinion and culture, religion? What do you think your biggest challenge is?

My biggest problem, I believe, would arise if there is serious acrimony between the U.S. troops and the Iraqi people. This has been my basic concern from the beginning, before the war. That is something that I would like to move forward to address quickly, and to resolve.

. . .
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edward walker

President, Middle East Institute; assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, 1999-2001

What's at stake in Iraq?

read the full interview

Oh, I think an enormous cost will be at stake if we don't see this through. There are several things to this. First of all, if we walk because we're losing some soldiers to terrorists, we're going to validate terrorism for years to come. The one thing that we have done wrong in this country is when we have reacted to terrorist events by taking a hike. We did it in Lebanon, we did it in Somalia. One could argue that we did it in Iran.

It only encourages people to believe that all you have to do is kill a few Americans and you can get away with anything. That is the worst lesson we can be teaching anybody. ... We need to stick to this. We also need to stick to it for our credibility. We have promised a lot. We have promised democracy. We have promised Iraq to become an Iraqi state, an element of the Arab world, a leader of the Arab world; not an American clone.

Those are important things that people are taking seriously. We have to deliver on them. So I think an enormous amount is at stake in terms of our credibility in the rest of the world and credibility in the area itself, and in terms of our own self-defense of the American people. ...

But we are at a very crucial point right now in Iraq.

Yes, I think so. We are.

If we can't get things to settle down, the political will is going to weaken here.

Yes, and particularly as we move into an election period. I think our biggest vulnerabilities are that our system doesn't have the capability -- or doesn't have the right kinds of forces and organization -- to handle a situation like Iraq.

You talk to the guys on the ground there. I've seen the quotes, "We're not trained for this." Every single general officer I've ever talked to says, "No, they're not trained for this." They say they're not equipped for it. They aren't. They aren't equipped as a police force. They aren't equipped to do civic action.

What we really need to do is start thinking much more seriously, if we're going to be engaged in this kind of thing -- as we obviously are and have been -- let us start thinking about training a different force, not a combat force. Training a different force for peacekeeping jobs, for the kind of operation we're in, in Iraq. For helping other countries standardize or deal with their problems, like when they don't have control over their whole country. A capability that we drastically need in this new environment, but we don't have.

But this was a president who campaigned promising not to get involved in nation-building.

That's correct. That was before 9/11, and before, I think, full recognition of the insidious nature of terrorism and the fact that it is all around. That it's going to take a concerted effort on the part of us to help states avoid the kind of instability, the failure that leads to terrorism and the growth of terrorism, and gives them the opportunity to reform, to recover and to mount new operations.

Can there be a democracy in Iraq?

Sure, there can.

Are you optimistic?

Yes, if we've got the fortitude to stick with the problem. It's not going to happen overnight. It's not going to happen within the first months or days or weeks or maybe even years.

Democracy is something that has to grow from within. I mean, you can't impose it. People have to, first of all, understand what it is. Secondly, they've got to accept that they aren't going to always be in power. They've got to be--

It's not just an election?

It's not just an election, and probably that's the last step. We always put too much emphasis on elections. You have to have a free press so that you get the checks and balances that we have here. You have to have political parties that are free and can compete with one another, and understand that if they are kicked out one day, they have a chance to come back the next. If you don't have that attitude--

So they don't come back with guns?

So they don't come back with guns. Then you have to have a civil society. You have to have community groups. They have to be free to organize. Unions. I mean the whole panoply--

Rule of law?

Rule of law. That's hard to put together, but it's not impossible to put together. ...

Why are some people afraid of the word "democracy?" Because of the simplistic interpretation people have given to it, and the fact that all you have to have is an election. In a lot of these countries, you have an election, it'll be one election. That'll be it, because the wrong guys will win, and they will not have another election. ...

That's why I say this is something that has to be built from the ground up. It takes time, and it's got to have certain protections in the system so that it can't be perverted.

. . .
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kanan makiya

Advisor to the Iraqi National Congress

Paul Wolfowitz has just come out to say that we underestimated the problems we were going to face. He had too rosy of an attitude towards what--

read the full interview

Perhaps we all did. I mean, look, this is a historic change. Nothing like this has ever been tried before -- in the Middle East, at any rate. There are no rules for what is going on here, this is new. Everything is new.

And there are no guarantees?

Right. There are no guarantees. The only thing we know for sure, there's only one certainty in this business: We have got to succeed, because the alternative is worse than anything imaginable. There's no alternative to success, and don't tell me that success is not doable; it is doable. But there's no alternative to it. Success does require toughness and an attitude towards the situation which I'm not yet sure the United States has got. ...

The question Americans have is, "At what cost?" ... I know that there are many Americans who feel that they've been suckered into something that is perhaps too great, too costly.

Well, then it's my duty and the duty of others, Iraqis, Americans, other people, who don't think that, to convince them they were not suckered into anything irresponsible. This is a fundamentally big thing. This is a huge engagement. American prestige is at stake, American credibility is at stake and American commitment to its own values, its own sense of what it's all about, is at stake here. If it abandons this process halfway because a few soldiers being killed here and there every day, because of mistakes being made on the ground, then all of that, that which the United States itself stands for, is rendered less credible throughout the world. ...

This is serious business; we're not playing footsie here. There's an awful lot at stake for us, for this country, for the United States, for the world, in making this damn thing work. ...

What will the cost be [if it doesn't work]?

The cost will be worldwide. It'll begin in the Middle East or begin in Iraq. Iraq will become the very thing it was supposed not to be -- a center for terrorism all over. ...

The benefits [of achieving the goals] will be the spread of the idea that the United States is associated with the liberation of peoples from tyranny -- very important to surrounding regimes in the area. The benefit will be that the United States is genuine about promoting democracy, that this is a real business, it's in the business of it -- that it makes distinctions between countries on the basis of their willingness to move in that direction, and so on. I have to think that's a decent foreign policy objective. The benefit will be that the rest of the Middle East will suddenly have something upon which to cement itself, a hope for the future, which it doesn't have at the moment. ... Those are real benefits, very tangible, very real benefits that can come from the success of this experiment.

You call it an experiment.

Yes, and I'm not ashamed of calling it that. The United States has given the people of Iraq a gift -- in part for its own reasons, which is perfectly natural -- national security reasons, selfish reasons. Whatever you want to call it, I don't care. It is up to us now to make something of that gift, and make it work. We need your help to do it. Unfortunately, we are in very bad shape at the moment. We are like a sick patient that requires a recovery period, and we need help during it. We do not need people to come and tell us to lower our standards and goals. We do not need the United Nations to come and preach -- bring us down to the level of the other Arab countries. We don't want that. We want still to stick to the goals, the higher goals, the higher plateau we think this is all about.


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posted october 9, 2003

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