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Blast from my past: "What next?" Rolling Stone (2004)

What Next?

ROLLING STONE convenes a panel of experts to discuss what went wrong in Iraq--and where we can go from here



Rolling Stone, 8-22 July 2004.

At the end of 2002, as the Bush administration prepared to invade Iraq, Rolling Stone convened a panel of experts to assess the march to war. Things have since gone far worse than most imagined. There is no evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction -- the rationale used to justify the invasion. The fighting continues to escalate long after Bush declared "mission accomplished," and the White House tried to ignore the abuse and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers. As the U.S. prepares to hand over control to an interim Iraqi government, we reconvened key members of our panel, along with some new experts, to examine the current situation in Iraq. What went wrong -- and what should we do now?

Before we look forward, let's look back. What have been our biggest strategic blunders since we invaded Iraq?

Gen. Anthony Zinni: We've had a year of disasters. The strategy going into Iraq was patently ridiculous -- this idea that we'd generate Jeffersonian democracy and plant the seed of freedom in the Middle East. The rationale was even worse: We grossly overstated the threat and cooked the books on the intelligence. Then we put on the ground a half-baked pickup team that has alienated the people and can't connect to viable leadership.

Gen. Wesley Clark: We went in with far too few troops and seat-of-the-pants planning. We've been there for more than a year, and the borders still aren't being controlled -- jihadis and extremists are coming in from Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Fuel convoys are getting routinely attacked; oil facilities and police stations are regularly targeted.

Rand Beers: The precondition to freedom is security. You can't succeed in beating the insurgents unless you can convince the people that they can be protected.

Thomas P.M. Barnett: It was a major mistake for the Bush administration to say to potential allies, "If you're too big a pussy to show up for the war, we're not going to let you in on the peace or rehab process -- and don't expect any contracts." We had such a macho view of war that we completely miscalculated the dangers of peacekeeping.

Fouad Ajami: Now we're a Johnny-come-lately for a U.N. resolution to internationalize the political process. You might call it deathbed multilateralism.


What about the blunders behind the scenes at the White House?

Sen. Joseph Biden: I've been a senator through seven administrations, and this is by far the most divided one I've ever served with. The internal discord is rampant. It's not just Colin Powell, who has differed with Vice President Cheney at every turn. It isn't just Richard Clarke and the others on the intelligence team who have angrily defected. It's General Eric Shinseki, who was fired for telling the truth. It's Lawrence Lindsay, Bush's economic adviser, who was fired for saying the war was going to cost $200 billion. The price tag is even higher now, and still they submit a budget for 2005 without a single penny for Iraq. What in the hell is going on?

Bob Kerrey: Karl Rove's hair is on fire -- he's worrying about what the polls are saying about America's attitude toward Iraq. Voters want out. The greatest risk is that we'll make decisions for political reasons -- that Rove will say we've got to call it quits or we're not going to win in November.

What would happen if we did pull out in a hurry?

Zinni: To pull out now would be a tremendous defeat. It would accelerate the path to civil war and make us and the region extremely vulnerable. The boys aren't coming home anytime soon.

Youssef Ibrahim: We've got to cut our losses -- the sooner the better. Our presence is only aggravating the chances for civil war. The best-case scenario at this point is for the U.S. to declare victory and get the hell out. Iraqi resistance is rising by the day, and the United Nations, NATO and the Europeans are refusing to come in. There is no fig leaf to put on this.

Biden: It would be strategic suicide if America withdrew anytime soon. I meet regularly with a group of seven four-star generals about Iraq; each one says we don't have enough force protection to even withdraw in an orderly fashion. It could be a bloodbath on the way out, and hasten civil war.


Would civil war spill over the borders to create a regional conflict?

Biden: Very likely. If civil war breaks out in Iraq, the Sunni Triangle will become a snake pit and violence will spiral throughout the region. Within five years you'll see the emergence of another strongman in Iraq. Afghanistan will fall and become a new hotbed of terror. Radical Islamists will seize control in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and the same thing could occur in Iran, which will become the major power in the region.

Beers: It could spill over the borders -- no question about it -- but would it drag the other states in? More likely, the border states would do everything to contain the conflict to Iraq. Let's be cautious about dreaming up extreme scenarios. The situation in Iraq is still salvageable.


So let's assume we're in it for the long haul. How do we even begin to regain control?

Zinni: Security is the most important issue short-term. I'm talking probably at least a year and twice the number of boots. People won't help build a new Iraq unless they can walk to a police station -- much less a voting booth -- without fear of getting killed.

Barnett: The Bush team needs to eat crow and make the tough deals necessary to internationalize this. They need to call a summit meeting of the major powers, including Russia, China and India, and say, "We have a problem in Iraq. Our loss would be as big a loss for you -- economically and otherwise -- as for us. What will it take to get 10,000 Chinese troops, 10,000 Indian troops, 10,000 Russian troops? What do you want in return?" We know what the deals are. India would probably demand, for example, that we don't declare Pakistan a major ally. Russia wants full membership in NATO. China might ask us to stop planning a missile defense in northeast Asia.

Zinni: The international soldiers have to be there. You have to see the bar scene from Star Wars, where there's a lot of different uniforms, not just all American desert cammies.

Biden: We need to rapidly train an Iraqi army and police force. They need to feel they are fighting for themselves. If I'm president of the United States, my orders to our generals and ambassador are, "If I see you once on Iraqi television, you're fired. I want Iraqi faces on Iraqi television." It should take two to three years to get 35,000 Iraqi troops out there.


Should we even be talking about a June 30th hand-over? Are we prepared?

Clark: That date was picked as a political gambit before there was a real plan for what to do. We're not prepared, but we're not going to be able to renege on that commitment.

Ibrahim: June 30th is the biggest joke around. There will still be 135,000 American soldiers in Iraq. We will pick a new governing council -- a whole bunch of new lackeys. A superambassador -- John Negroponte -- will command an embassy of 3,000 Americans. Every controversial thing that the new government does will look like Negroponte's fault.

Sir Jeremy Greenstock: The interim government will be sovereign in the sense that Iraqis will be equal partners in every decision made by America and the international community -- in running the budget, trying Saddam, determining the future of the oil industry. Decisions cannot be executed without their agreement.

Ajami: We have to transfer power. This should have happened long ago. We could have gotten an Iraqi to run the country the way we got Hamid Karzai to run Afghanistan. America would still have had considerable influence behind the scenes, but we should never have had an American out front -- it's why the polls show that eighty-two percent of Iraqis want us to leave immediately.

We keep hearing that the violence will escalate around June 30th and the year-end elections -- that it will only get worse before it gets better.

Chas Freeman: It's not rocket science to figure out that the easiest way for the interim Iraqi authority to establish credibility among its people will be to turn on the U.S. By refusing to give authority, we will create a situation in which they will feel obliged to seize it from us.

Zinni: If you're going to have an election, the first thing you have to do is determine the form of government you're going to have: parliament, a federated system, a confederated system? You need political parties. I don't see that happening. Iraqis don't understand what kind of government they're going to have. They are going to be told how to vote in Friday prayers by some mullah.

Kerrey: Any time you have disorder, any radical who stands on a stump and gives a speech wins the day. So I can get up and say to a religious Shiite in Baghdad, "We didn't have prostitution in the old days, so vote for me, and anyone who is a prostitute will be beaten. If you don't like this disorder, we'll bring order back with a strict interpretation of Islamic law." He'll get a standing ovation.


We went into Iraq thinking it was a secular state, but the political rhetoric among Shiite and Sunni leaders has intensified. Is religion taking the place of politics?

Ajami: I supported the war in part because Iraq had in it the roots of secular culture, which I believed positioned it well to adopt a representative government. What I never imagined was how quickly the Sunni Arabs -- who relied on the secret police to control the country under Saddam -- would fall back on the mosques as their weapon of control. More surprising was that the Shiites -- the oppressed underclass who represent sixty percent of the population -- have also begun to use Islam as a political tool. It connects them, the dispossessed, to the united Muslim world at large.

Greenstock: Iraqis are a proud people, in no small part because hundreds of years ago they ruled the known world from Baghdad. That's embedded in their national psyche.


Is the concern that as the religious tenor among Iraqis intensifies, they will begin to identify their struggle as part of the larger conflict of Islam vs. the West?

Zinni: This is a key point. Everybody I know in this part of the world says you cannot let this become a religious war. You can't let this become Islam vs. the West. I fear that's what it's become. We're viewed as modern crusaders. We have our own mad mullahs in America -- the Jerry Falwells, the Pat Robertsons -- who criticize Islam. They are heard much louder over there than they are here.

Ibrahim: It's worse than that. Bush himself is seen to be a mad mullah. The president has repeatedly asserted that God is on our side in Iraq, that he's consulting with a "higher" father. The zealotry even infects the military. General William Boykin recently said, "My God is much bigger than their Allah" -- this was all over the Arab media. He was never fired or reprimanded for making that statement. Prisoners have given accounts of being forced to thank Jesus and denounce Islam. The perception in the Gulf, where I live, is that this administration is vehemently anti-Muslim. Like it or not, we are in a war with 2.1 billion Muslims.

Beers: Even though the clash between Islam and Christianity during the Crusades took place 1,000 years ago, those terms clearly still have resonance in the Islamic community and Al Qaeda. To invoke religion is to give our opponents ammunition in the larger war on terrorism.


We often hear that the war on terror has supercharged radical Islam and energized the recruitment of terrorists. What evidence do we have to support this?

Freeman: Increasing sophistication in the ambush tactics and improvised explosive devices used to kill American troops indicate growing cooperation between secular Iraqi factions and religious extremists like Al Qaeda. Sunni insurgents in Iraq are being helped by Hamas from the Palestinian occupied territories, and the Shiites are being assisted by Hezbollah from Lebanon. All these forces are cooperating, even though many have historically been mortal enemies. Clearly, the U.S. is a big enough enemy for everyone in the region to put aside their differences.

Beers: We're seeing the development of tactics in Iraq, such as suicide bombing. Insurgents have been driving cars with explosives into hotels and office buildings. The recruitment may be even more prolific outside Iraq. Intelligence shows Al Qaeda recruiting in places as far-flung as Indonesia, Thailand, Pakistan, Kenya, Somalia and Nigeria, as well as in Saudi Arabia and Syria.

Ibrahim: In Saudi Arabia, where Al Qaeda is waging a daily war, at least fifty people have died in the last month alone. They bombed five housing complexes and an American school. In the heart of the industrial sector, four Americans from oil companies were shot and one was dragged by a car for four hours.


Should we view radical Islam as the enemy?

Zinni: Any time we look at an "enemy," we look at it at three levels. At the tactical level, the enemy is the terrorist organizations and the financing they get. The operational level is the enemy's center of gravity -- it's the rationale, which is radical Islam. At the strategic level, it's the continuous flow of young people so desperate and angry that they're willing to believe it. At the tactical level, we could be winning - we could be hurting Al Qaeda and capturing its leadership. But as an ideology, it's strengthening. It is probably stronger now than before September 11th, in terms of recruiting manpower willing to kill themselves.


Surely the Abu Ghraib prison scandal didn't help. Should Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld or other Bush officials resign?

Beers: The Navy has a custom -- if a ship runs aground, the captain is relieved regardless of who is responsible. That's how Abu Ghraib should be handled.

Biden: I was in the Oval Office the other day, and the president asked me what I would do about resignations. I said, "Look, Mr. President, would I keep Rumsfeld? Absolutely not." And I turned to Vice President Cheney, who was there, and I said, "Mr. Vice President, I wouldn't keep you if it weren't constitutionally required." I turned back to the president and said, "Mr. President, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld are bright guys, really patriotic, but they've been dead wrong on every major piece of advice they've given you. That's why I'd get rid of them, Mr. President -- not just Abu Ghraib." They said nothing. Just sat like big old bullfrogs on a log and looked at me.


Speaking of Cheney, how does this instability affect contractors such as Halliburton?

Zinni: Halliburton is spending staggering sums of money building fortified workplaces. It's killing the American taxpayer, who's footing the bill. There are two bodyguards for every worker. For $100,000 a year, you've got a truck driver from West Virginia. If I'm an Iraqi, I say, "For that cost, you could hire ten of us as drivers. And if I'm getting a paycheck, I'll have a vested interest in that truck getting through." Even the way we do contracting makes no sense.


What about our oil concerns? We often hear that a prime reason we went into Iraq was to get access to its oil as our ties to Saudi Arabia falter.

Greenstock: Oil is not the big bogey we should be worried about. Oil will go on flowing come what may, so long as there is reasonable order in the oil-producing countries. Whatever the character of the regime, it always wants to sell its oil. Look at Iran, Saudi Arabia, even Qaddafi in Libya.

Freeman: Yet the oil system is extremely vulnerable to shock. There's a rule in the Middle East that you don't need these fancy seismic studies to locate oil reserves -- if you find the Shiites, there's usually oil. There are more than 1 million Shiites in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, which is where the oil is. They've suffered persecution by the religious majority in Saudi Arabia, and they're vulnerable to spillover from the anti-American struggle in Iraq. The global nightmare is that there would be terrorist action among Saudi Shiites directed at the oil pipelines, ports and refineries. For Americans, that would mean four or more dollars per gallon of gas.

Ibrahim: The sixty-year relationship we've had with Saudi Arabia is on the verge of collapse. How many times have we asked them to please, please open the spigots so we can bring prices down? There's a new 900-pound gorilla coming called China. In ten years, it's going to be the largest consumer of oil in the world, which means that the people who produce oil are no longer kissing America's ass -- they're beginning to kiss China's ass.


Has the war at least produced a new respect for American military power?

Ibrahim: Hardly. We are no longer loved because of Iraq, and we are also no longer feared because of Iraq. The neoconservative dream of regime change throughout the region -- in Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Libya and Somalia -- is dead. Do you really think any of those countries are afraid of us after watching us bleed in the streets of Iraq?

Biden: The perception of us is that if we don't succeed, we're a paper tiger. We can project power, but we don't have staying power. The Bush administration has seriously damaged the legitimate and necessary role of power in our foreign-policy arsenal. What happens if we have another Milosevic? Will there be support for a U.S. president in taking down a genocidal maniac? No.


What does the future of war look like? Will we face World War III?

Zinni: My son is a Marine captain, and he's going to face a changed battlefield -- messier than Haiti, Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq. It's no longer honorable fighting, where you defeat the forces of a nation-state on the battlefield. He's going to face all sorts of violent components -- insurgents, terrorists, warlords -- as well as environmental challenges and humanitarian problems.

Barnett: We're going to end up replicating the struggle again and again. Like spraying the cockroaches in one apartment and scattering them to the next -- we're driving terrorists to the next country over. Sort of like rooting out old Japanese warriors on some isolated Pacific island twenty years after World War II, we're going to be killing off the last of these guys years from now in deepest, darkest Africa.


In the near term, is a change of administrations the best way out of the quagmire?

Ibrahim: I voted for Bush, but I'd sooner die than vote for him again. The neocons are vampires through which we have to drive a wooden stake. Neoconservatism must end as an ideology if you want America to recover its position as leader of the world.

Kerrey: We need a coalition of the pragmatic in the White House, not of the religious or ideological. John Kerry will be much more capable of making the tough deals necessary to bring in the allies and make it work. In an odd way, that's good news for Bush. I predict that in the end, the two of them will celebrate a great bipartisan foreign-policy victory in Iraq, begun by President Bush and finished by President Kerry.

Biden: About six months ago, the president said to me, "Well, at least I make strong decisions, I lead." I said, "Mr. President, look behind you. Leaders have followers. No one's following. Nobody."

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