James F. Dobbins
Director, International Security and Defense Policy Center, RAND Corporation; Former assistant secretary of state and special envoy to Afghanistan
President and CEO, Stimson Center; former vice-chair, National Intelligence Council
Publisher, JustWorldNews.org; author, Re-engage! America and the World After Bush
Lawrence J. Korb
Senior fellow, Center for American Progress; former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration
Thomas R. Mattair
Consultant; book review editor, MEPC; author, Global Security Watch - Iran: A Reference Handbook
Capitol Visitor Center
Thursday, July 16, 2009
ANNE JOYCE: Good morning. Our moderator is not here yet, but I'm going to start anyway. One of our principal speakers has to leave soon. We are the Middle East Policy Council. We do three things. We do these quarterly meetings, discussions of salient topics on the Middle East; we publish the quarterly journal, Middle East Policy, of which I am the editor, and have been for 25 years. Please get a copy on your way out if you don't have one already.
We also do workshops for high school teachers. And go to our Web site for more information on those if you are interested. The film of today's panel will be on our - the video will be on our Web site very soon. We will be putting up the text of this discussion and an edited version will appear in our journal.
We would like to start with James Dobbins, who is an authority on the subject, and who has to leave early. So he will be the first speaker. You have the bios of everybody on your program. So I won't reiterate what is there and we will hope for Tom Mattair's participation soon because he planned and organized this. So let me cede the podium to Jim Dobbins for about 12 minutes or so. If you come up here it will be really good. He is very tall.
JAMES DOBBINS: Okay. Thank you very much. I'm going to go through fairly briefly the risks associated with leaving Iraq, and then some strategies to reduce those risks. And I think this will be a good introduction to several of my colleagues here who will be going into more detail on some of these specific risk factors.
In terms of the risks, the categories that I will talk about are, first of all, logistical risks; secondly, risks associated with al-Qaida and terrorist groups; and thirdly, risks associated with the major Iraqi groups; and fourthly, risks associated with the neighboring countries. I think the logistical risks are probably the most manageable.
In fact, in some ways, leaving Iraq is easier than staying logistically. If you think about it - the American practice is to rotate our troops every year. So if you have 130,000 troops and you are not withdrawing, it means you have 260,000 men moving; you have 130,000 men leaving and 130,000 men arriving over the course of the year.
If you are leaving you will have only half that number of transits because you're taking out 130,000; you're not putting any in. So there are of course complications associated with some of the heavier equipment that stays and is used by one unit after another. So I'm not suggesting there is no logistical challenge to withdrawing, and there are the challenges associated with closing bases and that sort of thing. But basically under the withdrawal plans as the administration has articulated them, this doesn't seem to be a particularly difficult risk.
The second risk is the risk associated with al-Qaida and other non-Iraqi terrorist groups that might seek to complicate the withdrawal, embarrass the United States in the course of the withdrawal, and of course plunge Iraq back into civil war. This risk too seems manageable as long as the major Iraqi groups themselves don't for one reason or another go back into conflict.
The terrorist groups, al-Qaida in Iraq, seem to have been largely marginalized; they are much less active and the Iraqi security forces are probably capable of dealing with them as long as they don't find support within the Sunni community. So the major threats are threats that in the context of the American withdrawal, the major Iraqi groups themselves will for one reason or another resume the civil war, which largely, not entirely ended in 2007.
And the major groups concerned are the Sunnis and in particular those associated with the Sons of Iraq, the former insurgents who were put on the U.S. payroll and whom we are now trying to transfer to the Iraqi government payroll; the Kurds; and then among the Shia there are several major groupings. There is what used to be called SCIRI, which is part of the largest of the political parties, the one - one of the ones with its own militia, the Badr Corps, and the one that historically was most closely associated with Iran.
Their militia has largely been incorporated into the Iraqi security forces, and they have lost some prominence politically. The second of the major groups is the Da'wa Party headed by the current prime minister, which has gained somewhat largely due to his record and embrace of nationalism as opposed to more sectarian themes. There is the force associated with Muqtada al-Sadr, the Jaish al-Mahdi or JAM, which has been largely quiescent, and thus less prominent and is not likely to make a strong comeback.
And finally there are the special groups which were originally part of al-Sadr's Jaish al-Mahdi, but which have achieved a certain degree of autonomy and were supported by and some people speculated directed by Iran, and which were among the most destructive of the forces back in 2006, 2007. They were largely defeated and have drawn back and the Iranians are providing less support and encouragement for these groups.
Among those, probably the greatest danger, actually, I mean there are dangers that the government dominated by the Shia will not adequately integrate the Sunni minority politically and also to some degree militarily, that is, accept the Sons of Iraq and put them into a certain proportion of military security positions and ensure the others have some form of livelihood. There is the danger that the Shia groups could potentially begin fighting among themselves.
But probably the greatest danger is the danger inherent in the Arab/ Kurdish disputes over disputed territories along the border between the Kurdish region and the Arab majority provinces, Kirkuk and other disputed areas are still flashpoints. And so if you are looking at where civil war in Iraq might resume in a civil way, and seriously that could be the most dangerous and the most difficult to manage.
In terms of external actors, all of Iraq's neighbors are going to interfere in one way or another. They would be foolish not to - after all, they are the ones who are going to get the refugees, the commercial disruption and the terrorism, endemic disease, the criminality that flows from having a failed state on their doorsteps. So they are going to interfere.
Now, left to their own devices, this kind of interference often has exactly the opposite effect of what the neighboring states would ideally like because they tend to interfere by each of them backing their own favorite champion as the factions within the country maneuver for power and influence, and thus they feed potential conflicts. So successful management of external actors requires that to the degree they interfere, you try to get them to interfere in ways that are convergent and helpful rather than divergent and unhelpful.
As I said, all of them are going to interfere in one way or the other. Saudi Arabia is going to provide some support to Sunni groups and as long as the Sunni groups are being adequately integrated into the polity in Iraq, this essentially probably means support for political activities which - while it might not meet American standards is probably inevitable and not all that unhelpful.
Syria has been a traditional pathway for the entry of suicide bombers and aspirant (sic) terrorists; that traffic has reduced significantly. Not clear whether that is because Syria is cracking down or because there is a reduction either in the supply of such people or in the demand of such people in Iraq, but that has dropped off significantly.
Turkey is the only one of the neighbors that is likely - not likely, but it is the only one of the neighbors in which a conventional military intervention is feasible, is even conceivable. None of the other neighbors are going to interfere conventionally, and to the extent they interfere, they will interfere surreptitiously, politically, economically, covertly.
In Turkey's case, they have repeatedly intervened with conventional military forces and they could do so again provoked either by Kurdish terrorism , by a Kurdish Arab dispute over Kirkuk, or by Kurdish abuses of Turkish or Turkmen minorities in those disputed areas. So an intervention by Turkey is a serious possibility, not a likelihood, but a serious possibility.
Iran is the country that probably has the greatest capacity to destabilize Iraq as the U.S. withdraws to embarrass the U.S. withdrawal and to deny America what should be its objective, which is to leave behind an Iraq that is at peace with itself and its neighbors. Whether Iran does so or not will probably depend more on the state of U.S.-Iranian relations than on the state of U.S.-Iraqi relations. That is to say, Iran's interest in Iraq per se is not very inconsistent with the American interest. It doesn't want the country to break apart, but it wants the country to be governed by the majority, who happen to be Shia, and so it doesn't have an inherent interest in destabilizing Iraq. But it might see an interest, a derivative of the state of its relationship with the United States. And so that is a significant risk factor.
Now, in terms of strategies to reduce the risk, there are a number - most of which I think the administration is cognizant of and is following. First I think it is important that American combat forces leave the most volatile areas last, and the most volatile area is the area between the Kurdish and Arab parts of the country and the disputed territories in that region. And the U.S. is currently playing an important role in maintaining dialogue between the Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi security forces in putting out or containing disputes that could rise to the level of conflict if there wasn't a mediator who had people embedded on both sides and had the capability of speaking to both sides.
So they are playing an important role in keeping that area quiet and so leaving last from those kinds of regions is one way to reduce the risk. Second is, following the withdrawal of combat forces, which is scheduled to be completed by next August, make sure that there are enough American forces remaining in the country to continue to train and partner with Iraqi security forces, and also of course enough to provide adequate force protection for the American troops that remain.
As we train and equip the Iraqi security forces, we also need to be cautious. We ought to be conscious that they are another risk factor. I mean, another risk is that the Iraqi security forces become so powerful and so autonomous that they begin to abuse that power, usurp constitutional functions or allow somebody, the prime minister for instance, to usurp constitutional functions.
And so the Iraqi security forces themselves are at the moment a force for stability and one of the main objectives of American policy is to improve those forces, but that has to be done in the context of continued support for constitutional rule for a balance among all of the ethnic and sectarian groups in the country, and for the development of the professional military that understands its limits and restraints. And so the Iraqi security forces themselves are both a part of the solution, but they are also potentially a part of the problem and one has to be conscious of that.
Other strategies for reducing the risk: first of all adhere to the SOFA, make clear to the Iraqi public that we are leaving, and that we are leaving in accordance with preagreed arrangements, and that we are following those arrangements; respect, in that regard, Iraqi sovereignty. Continue to dampen conflict in the most volatile areas, particularly those between the Arabs and the Kurds. Engage all of the neighbors as constructively as one can, and particularly engage the neighbors that are in a position to make the most trouble. So Syria and Iran are the most dangerous ones who could make the most trouble, and therefore they are the most important ones to engage.
And, finally, begin to give some consideration to what kind of relationship the United States wants with Iraq, and also with Iraq's neighbors in the region after the withdrawal of all American forces in 2011; what kind of residual relationship do we want with Iraq? There will be some elements of the Iraqi security force that won't be self-sustaining at that point. But they won't have a combat air force; they won't be able to actually control their airspace. The logistic capabilities of some of their forces, sustaining capabilities, will be somewhat limited.
There will be areas in which they simply haven't become fully self-sustaining, and the risks of conflict particularly between Arabs and Kurds, but also between others, but particularly there you have conventional military forces on both sides. And while the Iraqi security forces will probably be adequate to handle threats from Jaish al-Mahdi and the special groups, al-Qaida and those kinds of groups, they are still going to be pretty evenly matched with the Kurdish security forces.
So the possibility of a conflict is there and so the United States will have to think about how to continue to remain engaged, perhaps by having observers or other engagement with both sides along that divide so that even after the U.S. forces leave, there is still somebody who is mediating disputes and ensuring that misunderstandings don't give rise to something more serious in that area. So those are some of the considerations as we consider how to structure a relationship, including a security-assistance relationship.
I mean, we have security-assistance relationships with lots of countries in the Middle East, in which we don't have any troops stationed. And so we need to look at some of those other models and decide what kind of relationship we want with Iraq, and that also gives us an opportunity to look at security relationships in the region as a whole, and to use the withdrawal from Iraq as a basis to engage in a broader dialogue with the countries of the region about what the region is going to look like in the aftermath of an American withdrawal from Iraq.
Now, there is some thought that we will withdraw from Iraq but go somewhere else in the region. As a practical matter, there is nobody else in the region who is going to accept a large number of American troops. So we're not going to put 100,000 troops anywhere else in the region or anything close to that. We will continue to maintain a major offshore presence, and perhaps some headquarters and refueling and other capabilities in the region.
But this is a withdrawal not just from Iraq; it is a withdrawal from the Middle East in terms of large-scale ground combat forces, and so we do need to think about what that means for the geopolitics of the region as a whole, and this is an opportunity to engage those countries in a dialogue, perhaps a multilateral dialogue in which they talk to each other more candidly then they have to date about what things can look like.
You know, I think it is worthwhile to remember that for 30 or 40 years there were no Western forces in the Middle East and the area was more or less in equilibrium. The British left in the '50s. The Americans didn't come into Iraq until the First Gulf War. They didn't come into the Middle East until the First Gulf War in terms of ground forces in the Middle East. So you've got a prolonged period during which there were no Western forces, no American forces in the region. It was still a region largely at peace during that period and it wasn't Iran that drew us into the region; it was Iraq.
I mean, the Iranian revolution occurred in '79; that didn't become a basis for stationing American forces in the region. It was Saddam Hussein and his invasion of Kuwait that drew America into the region. So if you fix the Iraqi situation, there isn't necessarily an inherent long- term requirement for a major American presence, and we ought to think about how one could return to that earlier situation. And we ought to at least aspire to establishing some kind of internal equilibrium in the region that doesn't require a significant American or Western troop presence. Thanks.
THOMAS MATTAIR: I am Thomas Mattair and I want to apologize for being late, but I had an unexpected problem getting here from Northern Virginia. I know that Anne started this conference off and introduced Jim. I don't know if Anne mentioned this but I do want to say that Jim's recent book is called "After the Taliban, Nation-Building in Afghanistan." It won the Douglas Dillon Award for best diplomatic writing from the American Academy of Diplomacy in 2008. So I want to congratulate Jim for that.
I also, before I introduce Ellen, who will speak next, who I don't think has been introduced yet, I also want to take this chance to say that as of Monday, the Middle East Policy Council has a new president, Mr. Frank Anderson, who has worked in the region and on the Middle East - yes, please stand - for 40 years, and who spent from 1968 until 1975 working for the United States government until he retired as Near East and South Asia division chief for the CIA. And since then he has been offering private consulting services to clients concerning Middle Eastern issues.
Now, I believe that - so, welcome, we're very glad to have you. Now, I believe that Jim intended to talk about factors that had a bearing on how smoothly the United States could withdraw and how stable Iraq would be after the withdrawal. And I know that Ellen intends to speak about the impact of our withdrawal on neighbors. So I would like to introduce Ellen Laipson, who is the president of the Henry L. Stimson Center here in Washington, D.C.
She has had a distinguished career in the United States government for many years, in the CIA, the National Security Council and as special assistant to the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Madeleine Albright, and also retired as vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council. And she frequently writes about Middle Eastern affairs, and if you visit the Stimson Center Web site, you can find a whole host of articles, very recent articles by Ellen on Iraq and refugees and Kurds and other issues like that. So, Ellen, would you please take the podium.
ELLEN LAIPSON: Thanks, Tom. And let me just say mabrook to Frank and it is a wonderful new development for the Middle East Policy Council. I thought I would address the question of the region, which I think Helena and I will actually share this terrain a bit. I thought I would give you basically four different vectors. One is some broad principles of how we should think as people observing the region; it may be affecting the region.
The second is to look more practically at what is the level of the kind of security and military cooperation between Iraq and its neighbors. The third is to look at the special case of Kuwait and the anomalies of the past; and lastly to think a little bit about the future, where I very much agree with what Jim said about this is an opportunity for rebalancing of America's security relationships in the region.
But, on the broad principles, let us just bear in mind a couple of things: One is, the withdrawal happens over a period of time, so it is a little bit like the frog in the water; you get adjusted to a slight change in temperature over time; it is not happening overnight. We just passed a very important milestone of the withdrawal from the major cities - at least most of them - but it is something that is happening incrementally and there is time. It is happening in stages. It is transparent and the neighbors are being briefed on it. So this is not a surprise or something that will be happening very abruptly for them.
Now, the first instinct I think on the part of the neighbors is to have some concern and some anxiety that once again instability in Iraq could spill over to them. So if they make the judgment that Iraqi forces are not up to the task of maintaining law and order and keeping Iraqi troublemakers inside Iraq's borders, they will view this development more negatively than positively, but I do think that both at the popular level and among some of the governments of the region there is some positive reaction, which is the end of American occupation of a major Arab country.
This is a positive political development in terms of Arab pride and Arab experience, and also perhaps even some expectation that they will get a little more attention from Washington, that there will be a redistribution of time, energy and resources to other problems in the region. So certainly some of the states in the region think that the end of this period of exceptionalism of American engagement in Iraq could be a net positive for our ability to attend to other issues of concern in the region.
We should, however, recall that the larger context of this or the more recent historical context is that most of Iraq's immediate neighbors - with the exception of Iran, did not feel that the United States decision to go in and topple Saddam was good for them. So they are still dealing with a largely negative perception that this decision, whatever motivated the United States, whatever our priorities were, was not done in full consultation of what would really enhance stability in the region or be in each of their national interest.
Certainly for the very traditional Sunni Arab countries the rise of Shia majority rule in Iraq is very unsettling. It makes them feel that Iran is even closer or that the potential of Iranian influence has spread in territorial terms. Based on the deep tradition of very personalized politics in the Middle East, they simply don't know who the new actors are. Some of these were folks who had been, you know, rather unknown, even though Prime Minister Maliki had been to Damascus my understanding is he was a rather minor figure who the Syrian regime did not think was a likely future leader of Iraq and did not spend a lot of time cultivating.
So there is this problem of getting to know the new leaders: developing trust, developing some mutual understanding that does take time. We know for example in the Saudi case that the Saudi leadership relationship with Iraq is among the most brittle whereas I think in many of the other cases it is starting to normalize in some ways.
And let us be honest: Some of the regimes in the Middle East were perfectly happy with Saddam's iron grip on the country. They might have preferred an authoritarian strong state in Iraq to either the chaos of the immediate post - Saddam period or the rise of a very feisty democracy with an either both unpredictability and the example of a more democratic state. So that even Iraq's success breeds some level of uneasiness in some of the other Arab countries.
But I would say that the change in how the neighbors engage with Iraq and think about an Iraq without American troops will happen on their timetable not ours. We cannot insist that the regional states adapt their policies towards Iraq quite as fast as we had hoped. But again I think it is happening over time.
Let me focus a little bit on some of the practical dimensions of the neighbors' engagement with Iraq particularly with a security dimension to it. For at least two or three years now, we have seen a fairly steady improvement in Iraqi neighbor relations, exchanges of interior ministers to look at border issues, to track bad guys, to try to stop the transfer of weapons and third-party actors across the border.
We know there are intelligence exchanges and slowly but surely ministers other than the intrepid Hoshyar Zebari are now showing up in Arab capitals. Just this month, Egypt and Iraq signed a memorandum of understanding that addresses security cooperation as well as trade and commercial activity. Last month Turkey and Iraq signed a memorandum of understanding that talks about military training, science and technology cooperation and calls on Turkey to maintain the American equipment that is left behind. So Turkey will have that special role to play.
In May, the United Arab Emirates hosted an Iraqi delegation where they talked about military security cooperation and so these - and Jordan for a number of years now has been in partnership with the United States helping train the Iraqi police and some of the other security forces. So there is a practical level at which normal professional counterpart interaction is starting to occur.
But there is the interesting case of Kuwait and that is the fact that since the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Iraq has been under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, which puts it in a penalty box and says that it is not treated as a normal member, as a member in good standing of the United Nations until it addresses all of the outstanding claims from the Iraq-Kuwait war of 1991, reparations totaling $50 billion, the fate of the missing prisoners of war, returning stolen property and demarcating the land and maritime borders - or the outstanding business that has to happen between Iraq and Kuwait.
The Iraqis feel very strongly - when they informed the U.N. last year that they really wanted to get out of Chapter VII and they wanted to no longer be under the U.N. resolution that essentially authorized American occupation of Iraq, there was still this unfinished business of had they met Kuwaiti demands and expectations.
So there is an interesting negotiation going on now between the Iraqis and the Kuwaitis. My perception is that at the state level the Kuwaitis are somewhat sympathetic to the desire to close this, resolve this issue and get back to a normal relationship. But in the Kuwaiti parliament and in certainly the families of the missing and the prisoners of war, there is still a lot of emotion and this is unresolved business at the society level in Kuwait. So I do think the Kuwaiti government is somewhat constrained in moving very quickly to a resolution of Chapter VII.
The United States, including our ambassador in Kuwait, is very much trying to facilitate this process knowing that it is - so that we support Iraq's goal and we are also trying to help facilitate the outstanding issues. Let me just finish with a couple of thoughts about the future.
I think that one of the things that will impact the neighbors quite a lot is something that Jim alluded to which is whether Iraq reemerges as a strong state. There is every possibility that given the quality of the training that they are getting from the United States, the infusion of new methods, more modern training and leadership, et cetera, that Iraq will make up for lost time and a little bit be ahead of its neighbors in creating a military that performs to higher standards.
Now, obviously, using your military in active contingencies depends on what kind of threats you face, but I do think that there is still a question to address of whether the rest of the Arab system wants Iraq to return to a role it once played as a kind of praetorian state and as a state that was respected for the quality of its military and the perception that Iraq was a strong state.
The neighbors for sure over the next few years will be very sensitive both to perceptions that Iraq is too weak and also to the prospect that Iraq could become again strong. And the United States, I'm sure, will play a role in trying to manage these relationships. But over time again there is an opportunity as the United States withdraws not necessarily to find another friendly venue for a large American troop presence, but to rethink its security relationships in the region to think freshly about how does one facilitate and enhance the capacity of the states themselves to address their own security with less reliance on American presence. Thanks.
MR. MATTAIR: Thank you, Ellen. And the attitude the Arab neighbors take towards Iraq and the relationship they establish with Iraq is important because they are concerned about the influence that Iran may have in Iraq, and so despite whatever reluctance they have about supporting that government, whatever they can do to support that government influences, I think, Iran's influence and the concerns that they need to have about that.
Our next speaker is Helena Cobban and Helena is a well-known, well-respected journalist and author, who has reported from the Middle East for the Christian Science Monitor, also contributed a regular column to the Christian Science Monitor, and is the author of a blog called "Just World News," which is very interesting collection of material on contemporary Middle Eastern events. And of course Helena has also written numerous books, including one recent book called "Re-Engage!: America and the World Since Bush." And she has a copy of it right here. This is what it looks like, and you can find it on her blog, "Just World News." So, Helena, would you take the podium?
HELENA COBBAN: Thank you, Tom and Anne and everybody at the Middle East Policy Council for inviting me and for organizing this great event. I have already learned a lot from my colleagues. The Middle East Policy Council is a really important institution here in the nation's capital because it has always been a beacon of light promoting sound, empirically based scholarship on matters of vital interest to the United States in the Middle East.
And in 2001, 2002 it notably stood aside from the echo chamber of anti-intellectual know-nothingism that resulted in our country getting drawn into the invasion and occupation of Iraq. So I think this kind of really broad-ranging discussion is always important to have, and I think that MEPC has played an important role in that.
Our country's military has now been in Iraq for more than six years. Our country has lost more than 4300 people there and hundreds of billions - perhaps more than a trillion dollars - of our taxpayer revenues. Iraq has lost hundreds of thousands of its people, perhaps as many as a million as a result of our intervention there to conflict-derived causes, mainly, but also the ongoing destruction of the national infrastructure. And more than 10 percent of their population has been displaced from their home communities to locations either inside or outside the country.
If you imagine what that would be like in our country, you can imagine the trauma that Iraq's people have gone through. So before I proceed with my analytical presentation, if there are any Iraqi friends here in the audience, I just want to say I'm sorry that my country and government did that to your country. I know me saying sorry doesn't make any difference, but it is my sincere desire that our government should find ways to work to try to heal the wounds it has inflicted on Iraq's people, just as it tries to heal the wounds that President George Bush's invasion decision inflicted on our people here in the U.S. as well.
We are now at the stage where the drawdown of U.S. forces from Iraq has begun. The withdrawal from the cities was carried out by the agreed deadline of June 30th, and more or less in compliance with the terms of the November 2008 withdrawal agreement, which is also known as the Status of Forces Agreement, the SOFA. That was an agreement between our government and the government of Iraq.
The next big deadlines we see in Iraq are the elections in the Kurdish areas next month, the nationwide elections next January 30th and then the deadline for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country 23 months after that on December 31, 2011, that is under the terms of the SOFA. Of course President Obama also has his interim deadline for the withdrawal of combat forces, but the terms of the SOFA state that all U.S. forces will be out by the end of December 2011.
Obviously both these processes - the insertion of a significant U.S. force into Iraq and now its much slower evacuation from the country - have had and are continuing to have huge consequences for the country's six neighbors, and for the other countries of the region or rather the overlapping regions in which Iraq lies. I do wish we had a map here because unless you have internalized the map in some way it all seems rather abstract.
So the six neighbors, I'm sure all of you here can name who they are. Regarding the neighbors, all six of them are being strongly affected by the current drawdown. Perhaps the most attention in this country has been given to Iran and Saudi Arabia, two large regional powers that are frequently painted in this country as being engaged in a momentous zero-sum contest of will against each other as representatives on the one hand a regional power that is both Persian and Shiite and on the other a power that is both Arab and Sunni.
In this view, Iraq is seen as threatened to become mainly a battleground between those two powers. In reality, the situation inside Iraq is much more complex, the situation inside Iraq and in the region. Firstly, both Saudi Arabia and Iran have many reciprocal concerns and fears about each other. They have also for many years now had a basic modus vivendi with each other in the Gulf region.
They are involved in a serious but limited contest over the nature of the state in Iraq, but they are not involved in a relentless "take no prisoners" struggle for regional power at this point. Secondly, Iraq's Arab population, we can speak about the country's small Kurdish minority later, the country's Arab population are not simply passive objects of the external power struggles of outsiders. They have their own views, their own interests and their own very complicated history as Iraqis of dealing with these issues of Sunnite-Shiite relations, relations between rich and poor, relations between the cities and the countryside, amongst themselves as a united citizenry.
Americans who neatly divide Iraq's very complex population structures into the three watertight boxes of Shiite, Sunni and Kurd, and who think that the policies that Saudi Arabia and Iran pursue inside Iraq play neatly into that miss the point of the way that Iraqis deal with each other. They miss it very badly and when they are in policy positions here in Washington their error in this respect has a potentially very serious and destabilizing consequence for Iraqis and for the region.
I would just like to recall the immense and widespread public exultation we saw in all of Iraq last weekend after the country's national soccer team played an international match for the first time since 2003 on its home turf in Baghdad's al-Shaab stadium. The players came from all three population groups, probably there were some Christians among them as well.
Certainly the crowds, they were all apparently male, which of course I see as a problem, came from every section of the Iraqi society, and the exultation that they experienced seeing their team play on its home turf was deeply heartfelt. There is a resource of Iraqi national unity and national pride that we Americans should all hope that our government can hold up and strengthen over the complex 30 months ahead.
The chaos and sufferings that Iraq has suffered over the past six years have deeply affected all their neighbors both through the normal human empathy that people have for each other and that neighbors have for each other as well as the empathy that fellow Arabs have for each other or that fellow Muslims have for each other.
Nearly all of the neighbors watched aghast as Iraq descended into its particular style of hellish violence in 2005, 2006. And the outpouring of support for Iraq's people from all the neighbors, except perhaps from some Kuwaitis, was widespread and genuine. In addition, that violence in 2005, 2006 had a demographic spillover effect of sending waves of Iraqi refugees into most of the neighboring countries but especially Jordan and Syria - Syria received them with particular hospitality, Jordan with what we could describe as a limited degree of hospitality.
In Jordan we had in addition the spillover of violence in the form of the ghastly hotel bombings of November 2005 perpetrated by very angry and very desperate Iraqi refugees. I want to use the rest of my time here this morning to look at the effects the American withdrawal from Iraq might be expected to have on the country's - that is, Iraq's relations - with two northern neighbors, Syria and Turkey. This is why I wish we had the map because you can see the Turkish border is fairly short, but very strategically significant. The Syrian border is very long and very strategically significant. If you don't have the map in mind, just take it from me.
But the relationships that Syria and Turkey had with the Baghdad government and other forces inside Iraq are textured and important ones. These are relationships that, as our government withdraws its forces from Iraq, can be very valuable ones in helping to ensure that the handover to full and effective Iraqi sovereignty works out as well as possible for everyone concerned, and of course to ensure that the U.S. troops can manage to exit Iraq with a minimum number of additional casualties between now and December 2011.
I was recently in both Turkey and Syria, and I was able to have good conversations about the situation in Iraq with foreign policy specialists in both countries. Indeed, I suggest that for a future program here with the Middle East Policy Council getting some of these specialists from the region to speak up here on Capitol Hill would be an excellent idea because these are people who know the region very well indeed.
In addition, when I was in Syria I conducted a formal interview with Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and one of the most notable things I took away from the interview was to note that when he listed the issues of common concern between his country and the U.S., he put the common concerns we have in Iraq at the top of his list, above the common concern of Israeli-Arab peacemaking or anything else.
In conversations with Foreign Minister Muallem and with other Syrians in and out of government, it became very clear that they have a real fear that any re-eruption of the kind of deep social chaos that happened in Iraq in 2005-2006 - the Arabic word for that is fitnah - could all too easily spill over the borders and come back into a Syria that has a lot in common with Iraq.
One thing we should all remember is that the new political forces that have taken over in Iraq since 2003 are all from movements and parties whose leaders had prior to 2003 spent a lot of time in Syria, more time there indeed for most of them than they spent in Iran and certainly a lot more time in Syria than they ever spent in Washington or other Western capitals.
So whether we are talking about the present Kurdish leaders in Iraq or the present leaders of the various ethnic Arab parties and movements, they nearly all have relationships with Syria that go back a long way. That is a resource if we are thinking in terms of trying to help Iraqis build a robust and stable political order over the next 30 months, a resource that we Americans should certainly try to work with and to draw on.
And as Foreign Minister Muallem and many other Syrians told me, that is something that those see as being in their interest; it is not something we need to persuade them to do, if you like, but it is certainly something we should encourage them to do and something that our governments, diplomacy should also seek to synergize with. We can note that for the past couple of years actually Damascus has already hosted the security cooperation and coordination committee or contact group that brings together representatives of Iraq, the U.S. and all of Iraq's neighbors - that is, including Iran.
Though these meetings have been low key and held at a relatively low level, they have been a valuable forum for starting to sketch out the possibilities and requisites of security coordination among these eight countries, and they should in my view be significantly upgraded. Of course, it is very important for this reason and other reasons that the Obama administration get an ambassador back to Damascus as soon as possible.
Syria is not a trivial player in Iraq and it is not a trivial player in Arab-Israeli peacemaking. The Bush administration pursued towards it a policy that teetered on the brink of being one of outright regime change. As part of Obama's reordering of our diplomacy in the region, that needs to change and it needs to change rapidly. Having Senator Mitchell visit Damascus as he did last month was one good step as was announcing that an ambassador would be sent back to Damascus sometime soon. But as I just noted we need to see that ambassador nominated, confirmed and deployed as soon as possible and the administration should work a lot harder at including Syria in the political and diplomatic as well as security-related aspects of its planning for the continuing transition to full independence in Iraq.
I can note too - though I don't want to make too big a deal of this - that many Syrians went to pains to underline to me in private conversations that they have a noticeably different view from their longtime Iranian allies of what a desirable political order in Iraq should look like. They want to see an Iraq that is secular, nationalist and Arab, whereas the Iranians want to see an Iraq that looks more like Iran, certainly one in which sectarian affiliation is a big factor in the staffing and possibly also the constitution of the country's political institutions.
They suspect that the Iranians are happy with the present American-implemented system of fairly strict sectarian apportionment of leading political positions, a system that the Iraqis themselves call mahasasah (ph) and that the Iranians possibly want to see this written even more deeply into the Iraqi constitution. The Syrians by contrast want to see an end to mahasasah altogether, fearing that it sets Iraq up for many further decades of sectarian strife as in Lebanon.
Moving north or rather relative to Syria north, moving north to Turkey, I want to say that this is also a country that has a lot to contribute to the process of internal and external political reconciliation that Iraq's people so desperately need. Many people in this country tend to look at Turkey's relations with Iraq only through the lens of its often problematic relationship to the whole question of Kurdish claims and aspirations, claims and aspirations that as we know straddle over Iraqi-Turkish border as they do with Iraqi-Syrian and Iraqi-Iranian borders, though in each of these separate countries, the Kurdish question manifests itself in a significantly different way.
However, it would be quite untrue to say that the government in power in Ankara looks at all matters Iraqi only through the lens of the Kurdish question as we heard from Ellen just now or that its own policies are irredeemably anti-Kurdish, indeed. It is worth noting that inside Turkey, the ruling AK Party got strong support, perhaps even majority support from the country's ethnic Kurdish population during the last election in 2007. The AK Party is really a new development in Turkish politics, a party that is determinately Islamist, determinately moderate in the way it operates and determinately pro-Western.
The present foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who was previously foreign-policy adviser to Prime Minister Erdogan, is a notable foreign policy intellectual whose watchword for the country's foreign policy stance has been zero problems with the neighbors. That stance in fact that the AKP has deliberately eschewed the ethno-nationalist political affiliation of all the earlier governments of modern Turkey dating right back to Ataturk means that the AK government has had a considerably new? way to pursue diplomatic and peacemaking openings to all the regions of which Turkey is a part; the Middle East is certainly one of these, as we saw when Davutoglu was the key player in the proximity talks that Turkey facilitated and hosted between Israel and Syria throughout most of last year.
Turkey's AK government has also done remarkably well in reaching reconciliation with the government of Armenia, including by agreeing with Armenia to the formation of a joint historical commission to examine what happened to the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915.
In Iraq, Turkey fairly evidently shares the desire of nearly all other regional powers that the central government in Baghdad be as strong and empowered as possible and that the powers of the Kurdish regional government be as circumscribed as possible. But that has not made Turkey implacably hostile to the KRG.
Turkey has long had commercial ties with the KRG and this past March Turkish President Abdullah Gul made his first visit to Erbil giving the KRG a welcome degree of recognition from their large neighbor to the north. Turkey has two significant levers of power over all Iraq's parties; one is water which flows south from Turkey into Iraq and the other is natural gas, given the recent fascinating news that Turkey and four of its neighbors to the west have now agreed to go ahead with the construction of the Nabucco pipeline, which is named of course, for the important Iraqi forefather, Nebuchadnezzar.
Nabucco will run from eastern Turkey to Austria and will provide a way for several Central Asian gas producers to get their gas to European markets without going through Russia. Iraq said just this week that it also expects to feed gas from its significantly sized gas fields into the Nabucco system when it opens in 2013 or so. And the Turks have said that they will be happy to consider pumping Iranian gas through Nabucco as well once they can sort out the details of that with the EU customers to the west.
But beyond these very mundane though important levers of raw physical power I think Turkey has a considerable amount of soft power it can deploy to good effect both within Iraq and with all of Iraq's neighbors. Regarding the situation inside Iraq, for example, we could look at a potential Turkish role in helping to monitor and mediate and resolve the simmering conflict over Kirkuk regarding the outside actors. We can note that the base of Arab resentment of the Ottoman past are now largely over.
The members of the political elites in most Arab countries recognize that the current Turkish government is not an heir to the bullying and repressive Ottoman Empire and nor either is it the same kind of ethno-nationalist government that Turkey has known since Ataturk came to power. Among Arab Muslims as among many other Muslims elsewhere, there is a degree of fascination where the ruling party had proposed? the values of Islamic piety and social conservatism at the same time that it modernizes successfully, governs effectively and maintains very good relations with the West.
This demonstration effect of Ankara today allied with very smart AK foreign policy of zero problems with the neighbors gives Ankara considerable ability to deploy soft power with regard to the Iraq question. Turkey, remember, has good relations with Iran and with Saudi Arabia. It has good relations with the United States being a valued member of NATO at the same time that it earned considerable brownie points with Iraqi nationalists by resisting the Bush administration urgings in 2002-2003 that it allow the U.S. forces to transit Turkey as they invaded the country.
I just like to note in conclusion that in December 2006 the Iraq Study Group, the Baker-Hamilton commission, urged the establishment of a contact group that would bring together all of Iraq's neighbors along with the Iraqi government and the government of the U.S. precisely to provide a forum where all these issues of regional stability and sensitivities could be discussed probably away from the limelight. The Bush administration responded to that by sort of in a very quiet way establishing that group; that is the security coordination commission that Damascus has been hosting.
If the Obama administration wants to optimize, maximize the chances of the transition in Iraq going ahead satisfactorily, that is, with minimal casualties among the U.S. forces and with a maximum chance of having a stable and robust government in Iraq as we leave, then drawing on the resources of this kind of a contact group is absolutely necessary. Syria and Turkey will both be valuable participants in it as I have tried to outline here, but of course the big issues are also Iran and Saudi Arabia. Thank you.
MR. MATTAIR: Thank you, Helena. And now we turn to Larry Korb, who is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and like Ellen has a distinguished career in government as assistant secretary of Defense and then in the private sector as a senior fellow in Brookings Institution, vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations and who is also a prolific author. And I think that Larry may have something to say about Iran's attitude toward Iraq and the American military posture after our withdrawal. (Applause.)
LAWRENCE KORB: Thank you very much. It's great to be here. You know, there is a saying particularly in sports that you got to be lucky and good, but I think in terms of what's happening in Iraq and what will happen, we are very lucky because what happened was the Iraqis demanded that we sign the SOFA that set a date for us, A, to get out of the cities and B, to get out of the country.
Had that not happened, had the Bush administration left office without having signed that and then the Obama administration came in - then whenever they left if things did not go well and you've heard a lot of reasons for that here that may or may not happen, you would have had the same debate we are still having about Vietnam: Who lost Vietnam? Who was the one? I mean, Democrats are being blamed for, you know, putting restrictions on foreign assistance; others if you go to look at some of the Nixon tapes, it was clear that he was responsible for what happened. A lot of military people, particularly my generation who served in that war, still think we won and if the country had just stayed there, we would have been able to achieve our objectives, but we don't have that. So we are very lucky in Iraq.
I think that because of that agreement, that agreement was good for the American people, good for the U.S. military, good for the Iraqis and good for the region, and let me spend a few minutes talking about that. Now, why is it good for the country? Because of the reasons we are leaving and we are leaving because we've been asked by another sovereign country. I don't have to talk to all of the costs of that war financially, for example, our reputation in the world as well as the fact that it has diverted us from other problems in the world.
If you read any of the books that have come out about the Bush administration, you'll see it was Iraq, Iraq all of the time. I just finished reading Bradley Graham's new book on Donald Rumsfeld, and Rumsfeld by his own rules, you need to take your whole summer vacation to read it. It is like 700 pages but the fact of the matter is you see Rumsfeld just consumed with that, not paying attention to Afghanistan or the problems happening in the Department of Defense because he was so consumed with Iraq. And there are other problems and other challenges in the world.
So I think it is good for us, they set the date, we agree to it. So it is not going to be, you know, who lost Iraq if it turns out that it doesn't end up the way that - the way that we would like it. I think it is also very good for the U.S. military. This is the first extended conflict we've ever fought where we not only didn't raise taxes - actually, we cut them, but we didn't have a draft. Remember that our volunteer military was not set up to fight long wars. In fact, we have a comparatively small active duty army. The guard and reserve are supposed to be a bridge to conscription if you get into a long war, which is why we made men register when they turn 18.
We didn't do that and I think as a country and our political leaders, our military leaders, we all let down those brave men and women. But what do we do? We had to violate our own policies. The policies we established back when I was in government were for every day you spend in the combat zone, you should spend two days at home. So if you're there for a year you should have two years before you go back.
That didn't happen. I mean, people were lucky to get a year and after Gates extended the tours to 15 months, you had people going back after 12 months. The same with guard and reserve: Guard and reserve were supposed to not be called up more than one year out of every six; a lot of them were called two, three, four times.
What have the consequences been for this? Well, the RAND study says some 350,000 people who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have mental problems. The Defense Business Board just put out a study - basically, they said if you served more than 25 months in the combat zone over the last six years, you are overstressed, that is the term that they used.
It also forced particularly the ground forces to lower their standards to take in people that they normally would not have to take. And again, it is not their fault. The country turned against the war and they were then asked to get American people to send their sons and daughters you know, to come and serve in a war which the people have decided not to fight. So I think it's good.
The other thing is it will allow the military to send forces to Afghanistan. Afghanistan is the forgotten front. All of a sudden, we are now paying attention to Afghanistan. You know, it has been there all of this time and it got worse and worse and worse as we focused everything on Iraq. I would argue had we not had the surge in Iraq and instead surged in Afghanistan, we would be better overall as a country if we had sent those troops there because I think when history is written, you'll find that the deals we made with the so-called "Sons of Iraq" - and al-Sadr laying down his arms - were as important as sending more troops, but the fact of the matter is we can now focus on Afghanistan.
So I think it is good for the country; I think it is good for the military. I don't expect us to get to the number that we are supposed to in Afghanistan or as many as we got in Iraq, but I would not be surprised if we end up with about 100,000 Americans in Afghanistan. It is 68,000 right now according to the Obama plan, but I would say given what, you know, General McChrystal seems to be indicating, we might end up with close to 100,000.
Now, a lot of people say well can we get out of Iraq in this particular period of time, yes we can because one of the things about the U.S. military that they do exceptionally well is logistics. So you can get out - remember that in the campaign, Obama said one to two brigades a month, and if you look at when he came into office and you count the combat brigades and the rest of the forces, you've got about 52 brigades. If you got over 36 months, you will be able to do it.
Now, as Jim Dobbins talked about before, you're not replacing as many people as you are taking out. Now, that doesn't mean you take out every port-a-potty when you leave or anything like that, but you can? take out your vital equipment. It is also very good for the U.S. military and for the country that we had to leave the cities on the end of June because what I saw and I worried most about was Maliki trying to use U.S. forces to deal with his challenges rather than people who destabilize the country.
We've already seen indications of him using the Iraqi security forces to go after his political opponents. So that's the last thing you wanted U.S. forces to do, was to be caught in that type of conflict rather than dealing with the real threats of the country. And now we're out of the cities, I think the likelihood of that is much less.
I'd say it is also good for the Iraqis. Why is it good for the Iraqis? Because as long as we were there whatever government was in power was going to be seen as a creature of the United States, and whatever your feelings about the war, the fact of the matter is the Iraqis did not welcome us. They did not want us to be there. The polls have been very, very consistent that we were seen as outsiders, and it also gave an excuse to countries in the region to interfere.
Again, I think when the history is written, al-Qaida said now Iraq is the central front on the war on terror because you got the Americans there. So they were able to get a lot of foreign fighters to come in and partner with the Sunnis, who felt that they were being denied their fair share of the resources.
It is also important because it gives the Iraqis the incentive to undertake the political reconciliation that is necessary to create stability. It doesn't matter how long you stay if in fact the Iraqis do not undertake this political reconciliation - they are going to have problems at least internally. It is going to be up to them to do it, and now they can't have any more excuses or incentives and they also have - the clock is ticking.
They know we are leaving and to the extent that they don't deal with their internal problems and political reconciliation, they can't count on us to deal with the situation. Can the Iraqis maintain internal security? General Odierno thinks so and it seems to me 600,000 people in the Iraqi security forces should be more than enough to maintain internal security. Having looked at that over the years, my view is it is never really going to be a question of capabilities; it's motivation. Do they want to? And I think they won't want to unless you have the political reconciliation that's necessary to create a unified Iraq.
And then why is it good for the region? I think it is also good for the region because now there is no - and I'll focus my remarks mainly on Iran - it no longer gives them an excuse to intervene in Iraq nor a justification. Now, if you take a look at the situation with Iran - and I am sorry Ambassador Dobbins has left, because he was the one who told me this - that at the Bonn Conference of December 2001 that set up the Karzai government, basically, if the Iranians had not worked with us, that conference would not have succeeded.
Now, what was their reward for helping us in Afghanistan, particularly at the Bonn Conference? They got put on the axis of evil the next month. And so therefore, one can see why they assume that we are in Afghanistan, we are in Iraq, that they in fact would be surrounded. When we are out of there, they no longer have that excuse to get involved.
And I'd like to say I have a personal experience myself. In September 2001, when the attacks occurred, I was working in New York at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Iranian Ambassador called and asked me and a couple of my other colleagues to come over for dinner about two weeks after the attacks. And at that dinner - because remember the Iranians don't have an ambassador here, but they are at the U.N. - he asked us to convey to the U.S. government that they were willing to help in Afghanistan.
And you may remember, they had candlelight vigils after the attacks, they were one of the few Muslim countries that came out and condemned it outright. And then of course, he called me after the axis of evil speech and did not invite me for dinner this time, you know, basically just said like what is going on? So I think with us out of there, they will no longer have the excuse.
And I would also argue, given what has happened in Iran, that is their election and its aftermath, they are no longer going to be seen by many people in Iraq as a model to follow. Whatever what we call soft power influence they may have had in Iraq or in the region, I think has been diminished by the events that have occurred in Iran. All right, so I think basically, when we say, well, what happens worst case - let me conclude with this - the United States is not leaving the region.
Jim Dobbins said we're not going to have 150,000 ground troops in Iraq, but we are still going to have forces and bases in Kuwait. I mean, one of the things we did in the Cold War because we knew - we were sensitive to put American forces in the Middle East with the Saudis - they built the bases to conform to our specifications.
So in the First Gulf War, we went in, it was just like going to an American base in terms of being able to operate there. We had forces in Kuwait; we also will remain in the Persian Gulf with the carrier battle group, with the Marine Corps expeditionary force there. And if - whatever happens in Iraq, if they should be invaded by a foreign country, we would be able to apply power; if things should get - it should spillover into the region, we will be there to play a role.
Let me conclude with this: I think, that whenever things settle down in Iran, we do start thinking about talking to them, and I think we have to at some point, one of the things I would like to see us do with the Iranians, is get a Law of the Sea agreement like we had with the Soviets in the Cold War, because I think it is very important for our naval forces in that crowded straits of Hormuz to have rules of engagement so we don't have an accidental incident at sea that could lead to an excuse for one side or the other to take action.
And remember, there have been a number of incidents there and if other countries that have forces there want to join with us, I think that that is the way to go. And by staying in the region, doing things like that, talking to Iran, I am confident that we can prevent whatever happens in Iraq from destabilizing that region. Thank you.
MR. MATTAIR: I think we have quite a lot of time for questions and answers and I am sure everybody would rather sit to take questions and answers. So that's the way we will do it. Let me start by asking one or two questions and then turn it over to the audience. We have more than an hour.
Picking up on what you said, Larry, even after Iran was put on the axis of evil list, they still offered a grand bargain to the United States. They actually proposed to negotiate over the entire range of issues outstanding between us and to make some compromises. At the time, Khamenei was the supreme leader so he must have endorsed that.
Do you think - and by the way, even after Ahmadinejad became president, the United States and Iran did talk. The ambassadors talked, and recently, Ahmadinejad met with Karzai from Afghanistan and Zardari from Pakistan and agreed to cooperate on regional security issues. So Larry, do you think that even after this election in Iran, there is a good prospect to negotiate with Iran and to reach some mutually advantageous agreements?
It seems that everyone has an interest in a united and stable Iraq. But if we were talking to them about that and not making any progress on the nuclear file, and not making any progress on Arab-Israeli issues, what would you think would be the prospects for our discussions with Iran and their future behavior in Iraq?
MR. KORB: Well, you know, I'd just mention that - yeah, there is no doubt about the fact that we missed an opportunity in 2003 to sit down with them and have the grand bargain that they talked about. And my understanding is the Bush administration felt that we were riding high then, they didn't need to do - that they could control the situation without worrying about Iran.
I think at some point, you have got to sit down and talk to them. I often think that, given the events that have happened there, the Obama administration is not going to be able to do that as quickly as they might have liked. I think that it will be very difficult given some of the things that Iran has done internally to sit down, but I do think, at some point, you will be - you will have to sit down with them and talk about a whole host of issues and this would be one of them.
I mean what the Iranians want in Iraq is a government that is not a threat to them, and as long as that government is not a threat to them, there are no U.S. forces there, it seems to me that they don't have an interest in creating instability because if nothing else, they would have refuges coming in. And the other thing is, let's assume that they muddy the waters and it leads to a Sunni takeover, okay - that is the last thing that they want. So I mean you're going to have a Shia-dominated government.
So I think the prospects - you know, at some point, we can sit down and talk about what is happening. I mean, if you follow the events, it's amazing to me - you can just read it in the paper that we took the Iranian hostages in Iraq even though they weren't doing anything just as a bargaining chip. You know, they had diplomatic immunity - I mean, I don't know who was responsible for that, but that certainly doesn't help.
MR. MATTAIR: Okay. Let me ask you, Ellen, what - can you be more specific about Saudi Arabia? Saudi Arabia is concerned about Iranian influence in Iraq and it must view the situation of Sunni Arabs in Iraq as unsatisfactory. (They) Iraq's Sunni Arabs haven't really been really brought into the central government the way they expected to be.
And I don't know if you read the violence the same way I do, but as I look at the violence in Iraq over the past three or four months, the Shias seem to be the primary victims. So maybe there is a lot of Sunni Arab discontent there. What would you - what do you think Saudi Arabia could do to help us stabilize Iraq -- by talking to Sunni Arabs, by helping them get some satisfaction, and consequently limiting Iranian influence in Iraq?
MS. LAIPSON: I agree that the Saudis are - part of their anxiety about Iraq is related to Iran, but I don't think that is it exclusively.
MR. MATTAIR: No.
MS. LAIPSON: I think that Saudi Arabia - at the leadership level, there is this real absence of trust and it has gotten worse, not better. So there is an antipathy at the top and that matters hugely in a system where the signals from the top shape how the lower levels behave. So I think we've got a structural problem that is not just about Sunni-Shia; it is about the lack of trust between the leaders more generally.
I have perceived that King Abdullah was trying very hard to not have just a Sunni policy towards Iraq. I think that on the rare occasions when he has articulated evolved, developed views on Iraq, he has really tried to put it in a category of state-to-state interest, and not sectarian interest.
So I think - but within Saudi Arabia, you have other forces that do see this as Unitarian, in a way, that do believe that the Sunnis need special help. My understanding is that the Saudis turned down a number of overtures by the Sunni tribes to fund militias, to fund various activities; they just didn't want to get drawn in at that level. They wanted to treat this as a more correct state-to-state interaction.
It's also worth saying that the Saudis were the least generous of any of Iraq's neighbors during the refugee crisis. They have clothed people; they have taken in virtually none; they have a very sealed border. Now, they can certainly say, we have a sealed border for our own safety and our own security, but there is a lack of an easy human interaction, I would say, between Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
So I think one should have - I'm not sure the United States could dictate to Saudi Arabia what it should do vis-à-vis Iraq. I think this is a deeply inter-Arab story. I don't think there is much that the United States can or should do to try to influence it or shape it. So I think I will stop there.
MR. MATTAIR: Helena, there are two questions I would like to ask you. The first is about Syria. You said that Syria views stability in Iraq as its number one issue. So are they going to be willing to cooperate with us in stabilizing Iraq, irrespective of what is happening in Arab-Israeli peacemaking? And if that is - let us say that Arab-Israeli peacemaking is going nowhere; would that influence their willingness to cooperate? I know they did receive a U.S. military delegation recently to talk about cooperation along the long Syrian-Iraqi border.
MS. COBBAN: I would just clarify that what I actually said was that the Foreign Minister Muallem said that Iraq was the number one issue on the agenda with the United States, not their number one issue globally, but it possibly could be. I don't think it is.
But regarding whether they would be prepared to cooperate regarding Iraq even if there is no progress in their track of the Arab-Israeli peace process, I think it is possible. But what they really want to see is an improvement in U.S.-Syrian relations at the political level. And there was, as you noted - back at the beginning of June, a military delegation from this country went to Syria and talked about security issues - issues of common security concern regarding Iraq.
But that was only made possible by the fact that, prior to that, there was a very cordial phone conversation between Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Muallem. I interviewed him shortly after that phone conversation; he was very encouraged by it, and full of praise for Secretary Clinton's talents as a diplomatic leader. So it is only in the context of the Syrians feeling that they're being taken seriously at the political level that all this, if you like, technical stuff becomes possible. What the Bush administration had been trying to do was have their cake and eat it.
You know, Condi Rice would periodically go on the news and wag her finger at the Syrians and say, you know, the Syrians know what they have to do. And they resolutely refused to return an ambassador to Syria, even after Syria had withdrawn wholly from Lebanon and had recognized Lebanon's independence, sent their own ambassador to Lebanon, and all these other things that were on the agenda.
And there were essentially some - many things that came close to, as I said, teetered on the brink of being regime change policies. So - and at the same time, the Bush administration wanted to have security cooperation on Iraq. Well, you know, you can't have your cake and eat it in the give and take of diplomatic relations.
So I think now we're at a stage - Secretary Clinton called Prime Minister Muallem; that was good. The Obama speech in Cairo was pretty good, although it didn't mention - he didn't say the words Syria wanted to hear, which was a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and all its Arab neighbors. But then Senator Mitchell did go to Syria and now Fred Hof has been in Syria.
So you know, I think they feel they are being taken a lot more seriously, and that the regime change is no longer on the agenda from Washington, which is what they lived through, through most of the Bush years. But they need to see that political strengthening continuing primarily by having an ambassador sent, but in other ways as well.
So how that relates to progress in the Israeli-Arab peace making, I think from the point of view of Damascus, their agenda with Washington on bilaterals is the most important thing. And of course, they are also hoping for progress in peacemaking with Israel.
MR. MATTAIR: My second question was - (chuckles) - that was good - my second question is about Turkey because you said Turkey could play a role in resolving the issue over Kirkuk, which seems to be getting hotter, because the Kurds have written a constitution which claims Kirkuk, and of course, that's opposed by the central government in Baghdad. I think it is also opposed by everyone in Turkey, that the Kurdish regional government would have complete control over Kirkuk, which would make them, I think, a little too strong for Turkey's appetite. Am I correct about that, and if I am, how would they mediate?
MS. COBBAN: Well, Kirkuk, as everybody probably knows is a very complicated issue, and there was an article in the constitution of Iraq that specified that a referendum should be held in Kirkuk, I think it was last December, and that has already passed a long time. So the Kirkuk issue is definitely on the front burner, particularly as American troops withdraw from the country.
And so yes, it is true that most people in Turkey probably wouldn't like to see the Kurdish regional government have control of Kirkuk, because Kirkuk has a lot of oil resources. And it is connected also with the oil legislation in Iraq, that is are the oil revenues to be funneled to the populous through the central government or through the regional governments, or through the provincial governments?
So there is kind of a whole complex of issues that come together around this that I don't think have been finally resolved by the Iraqi constitution. In fact, when the Iraqi constitution was written, some of these issues were deliberately fudged and left for subsequent discussion. Turkey, I think can play a role - maybe not the lead role, but a good facilitating role - in helping to bring together the parties necessary for some kind of Kirkuk arrangement.
And a lot of people have done a lot of thinking outside the box how this could be done. You know it has to do also with the status of the KRG in general, and whether the KRG gets to run its own foreign policy and then, does it need the revenues to do that. I think it is potentially a real problem for U.S. power that we have opened this can of worms, because if that does explode, then we're going to be right in the middle and we're going to be blamed for it.
So I don't think we are home free yet in terms of what Larry was saying like, "phew, we just like dodged one by getting the withdrawal of the SOFA agreement." Kirkuk is one where we haven't yet dodged it. As to what the Turks could do, I mean I just mentioned this visit that Abdullah Gul made to Erbil - very statesmanlike person - actually, a bit more statesmanlike than his prime minister, who has a bit of a tendency to mouth off - sort of like the relationship between our president and the vice president, but I'm not going there.
MR. MATTAIR: You just did. (Laughter.) Okay, thank you very much. Let me open it to the audience. We do have a microphone there; you could come to the microphone and ask a question of any panelist.
Q: Hi. Thank you very much, Tom.
MR. MATTAIR: And if you would please introduce yourself that would be nice.
MR. MATTAIR: Yes.
Q: Hi. Will Kuntz (ph), intern for Larry Korb at Center for American Progress - great to be here. The question is actually for - well it is two, but I will save the second for later so as not to hog time up here. First question is for Helena and it was about Turkey. I was still a little bit uncertain on exactly how they would have the clout necessary to influence the resolution of Kirkuk but you were just speaking to that.
So the question is - I am uncertain because Turkey is the aspect of Iraq that I know the least about, actually - I'm uncertain whether Turkey would feel any incentive to intervene possibly militarily in the North of Iraq if things were to destabilize further between the Arabs and the Kurds, just as we saw a little less than two years ago?
And as a follow-up to that, whether they could use that option of theirs to give them leverage in possibly resolving the Kirkuk issue, threatening that if things did destabilize or if things did not get resolved, then they would have to take certain actions in their national interest that wouldn't be in the interest of any Iraqi?
MS. COBBAN: Yeah, good question. I think they have obviously intervened militarily against alleged or possibly actual PKK safe havens in the KRG. So that is one of the particular reasons that it is important that Gul made the visit to Erbil because it looks as though that cooperation is pretty steady on anti-PKK or PKK containment policies.
As to whether they would use the threat of military intervention if there were some kind of destabilization or eruption around Kirkuk or other Arab-Kurdish conflicts, my sense for the AK government is that they would be very reluctant to do that, because of its policy of zero problems with the neighbors.
I mean, when they were bombing Northern Iraq - the Kurdish areas - to deal with the PKK, they did so in a very limited way; they didn't send in ground forces and seek to occupy land. They did so in a - it was very restrained. Of course, this has also to do with the relationship between the AK party and the military in Turkey, which is an important and evolving relationship.
But definitely, this government in Turkey, which looks as though it is going to be around for quite a while, is not a militaristic government that seeks to use military power. I think the fact that they have the relationship now with Erbil, that they have this relationship - a strong and ongoing relationship with Baghdad - means that they will be very reluctant to come in with military power.
Q: I have a follow-up.
MR. MATTAIR: Yes.
Q: Gordon Brown. Who did Gul speak to in Erbil, because, as we know, Kurdistan is not a uniform political entity?
MS. COBBAN: I think he spoke with Barzani as, you know, his counterpart - sort of counterpart.
Q: My name's Kara Bartlett and I'm also from the Center for American Progress. We're clearly an inquisitive bunch.
MR. MATTAIR: Right.
Q: I was just curious - it is clear from public opinion polls that we are not looked upon favorably in the Arab world and in the region and I was wondering if you could address the challenges and opportunities for public diplomacy in the coming years, especially with Iraq and Iraq's neighbors? And it is just kind of for anybody.
MR. MATTAIR: Who would like to take that? Larry?
MR. KORB: Yes, we did pack the audience today, so - (laughter).
MR. MATTAIR: Well, that's good.
MR. KORB: I think the fact that the United States agreed to the SOFA and has agreed to its terms is going to help our image in the Arab world, because the idea was that we were going to be occupiers - that we were going to stay. One of the problems we had after the first Persian Gulf War was we stayed in Saudi Arabia and bin Laden used that as a rallying cry.
So I think it'll help. Obviously, when you're not there and you're not in the midst of some of these internecine squabbles, you can't be blamed by either side. And so I think it certainly is going to help our image. And I think you know people will say, "You know, they are the first great power that came, said they were going to leave, and they did." Okay, you know, I think that that is certainly going to help because there was a sense of mistrust.
MS. LAIPSON: Can I follow-up here?
MR. MATTAIR: Yes, of course.
MS. LAIPSON: I think there is new University of Maryland polling data that shows a shift - the Obama effect is starting to show up in the numbers - but they caution that there is still kind of a trial period for the president, that he's personally very popular, but there is still misgiving about whether U.S. policies will change.
And so they are really still waiting to see whether he will follow through, particularly on questions related to Palestine, and certainly the end of occupation would be a significant step in the right direction. But - so we have got - sometimes, the polling data is reacting to the mood of the moment, but I think the trends are likely to be changing in a more favorable direction.
MS. COBBAN: I think they could scarcely go lower than what they were. (Laughter.)
Q: Thank you.
MR. MATTAIR: I also think Palestine is an important issue. I mean the polls generally show that it is one of the most important reasons for Arab public opinion having a negative view of the United States and Obama has spoken more eloquently about that than, I think, anyone since Jimmy Carter in my opinion. So perhaps that is something that will help.
Q: Thank you.
Q: John Duke Anthony. To Ellen and Larry, or either or both. The SOFA and sovereign control over Iraq's airspace - if you could address that. Most large numbers of U.S. concentrated forces on the ground prefer that their own Air Force control the air above them, and if the U.S. has retained that power in Iraq, to what extent can one truly refer to Iraq having obtained its national sovereignty and full political independence, just a response to that?
And then secondly, as the drawdown occurs, and various security, maintenance, logistics, operational functions are transferred to civilian contractors, to what extent is a country perceived as less occupied, if it is still occupied by tens of thousands of civilians from another country, performing some other functions that the armed personal performed previously? Just enlightenment from either or both of the two of you.
MR. KORB: My understanding of the airspace is we have it for our planes but not for other countries. In other words, the Iraqis insisted that they - that nobody could transit that country other than us, and my guess would be they did not want to see the Israeli planes flying over there on their way to Iran. So I think - in fact, they were adamant about that in the negotiations.
MS. LAIPSON: On the question of contractors, I think the Iraqis have already asserted themselves saying that they will be the employers of any of these private sector security vendors, providers, et cetera. So that gets very tricky because then the supply of those folks may diminish as American companies decide that there is not enough legal protection should there be - you know, should bad things happen, what about the legal process these folks would be subjected to?
So the Iraqis are going to have to make some choices. They're going to have to decide, do we want to lighten up a little bit on the control in order to get these services provided or might they go to non-U.S. vendors. I could easily imagine them, over time, bidding out some of these service contracts and finding that there are other firms internationally that may want to compete for that business.
But I don't personally think that's a big marker of sovereignty. I think the Iraqis have already sort of transitioned to saying we will get to decide what private firms provide these services. Now, the U.S. military may say, look, for as long as we are physically in-country, we will hire the cooks, we will hire the various support services that belong on a base, but I don't consider that to be at a high threshold of sovereignty sensitivity.
Q: May I ask a follow-up to Larry? Just a question - if the U.S. did not control the totality of airspace over the United States, that would indeed impugn the sovereignty aspects of the United States in terms of sovereignty. I'm aware of the reality but politically, and realistically, are they sovereign?
MR. KORB: Well, I don't think they have recovered their complete sovereignty until we're out of there completely, okay, and that is why they insisted on the deadline. In fact, the brigades that are going to - remember, all the combat brigades were to be out by August 2010 - they're going to stay there until the election. But the brigades replacing them are going to be, what they call AAB - advisory and assistant brigades - not combat brigades. So I think you're right, but I mean until we leave completely, there are obviously going to be those limitations on Iraqi sovereignty.
MR. LAIPSON: But Larry - but is that different than any country that has permitted an American base on its presence where the base has certain rights to conduct operations, but that the host government has agreed to those terms? The host government is still functioning as a sovereign state but has agreed to the terms of security cooperation. So I'm wondering whether what you are describing is any different than our bases in Japan - our bases in any alliance relationship or military base in another country?
MR. KORB: No, you're right. I mean that is why you have all those agreements. The interesting thing with the Japanese - remember during the war in Vietnam, we could not use Japanese territory to attack Vietnam. So the planes would have to take off from Okinawa, land in the Philippines, which allowed us to do it, and then go and attack. So yes, there are these agreements - same way in Germany.
MR. MATTAIR: And this particular agreement actually gives the United States - it is Iraq that gives the United States permission to use its airspace, but only for the purpose of implementing the agreement. And then it goes on even more specifically and says land, sea and air may not be used to launch attacks against any other country. So we have accepted that legal constraint imposed by them. I mean it doesn't fully address the issue of sovereignty but it is a negotiated agreement whereby we received permission for operations according to certain constraints. Yes?
Q: Hello, my name is Rami Salim (ph) - Center for American Progress. My question was regarding our objectives. So the reason - one of the main reasons for our intervention in the Middle East was to dismantle or eliminate al-Qaida. But since we have seen that it is able to operate in relatively small independent enclaves and even that offshoots have sprung up all over the world, do you think that even with the establishment of democracy in Iran or Afghanistan, could this objective ever be accomplished?
MS. COBBAN: Yeah. First of all, I think we should all be very careful about using the word intervention. Intervention can mean a wide range of things, including genuinely sending humanitarian aid to people, and I'm always concerned when people use the term intervention as a shorthand for a military intervention. We should be very clear what we're talking about. In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, there was a military invasion. And just to call it an intervention, clouds the issue and clouds the very salient international humanitarian law considerations in which military power can be used.
Ever since 9/11, I have argued that the way to combat al-Qaida-type of violence is to look at the social context in which people who commit these outrageous anti-humane acts, in which these people become accepted and even glorified on occasion. I mean every society has sociopaths in it. Here, we had this guy, Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, we had various sociopaths. But if I am sitting in a cafe or bar and I hear some guys sounding off, "well, I am going to strap on a suicide vest and go to the federal building in Oklahoma," you know, I wouldn't hesitate to go to the police. And the civil powers could take care of that, you would hope.
And you know, so Kaczynski, the Unabomber, had to live this very bizarre life in a cabin in the woods someplace not talking to anyone, and which is why it took a long time to find him. So in the case of Islamist fundamentalist violence, you have large communities in which, you know, somebody might say, "I'm going to strap on a suicide bomb," or "I've got this crazy idea - I am going to fly some planes full of fuel into the Twin Towers."
And you have people who say, "Ah, sounds like an interesting idea," or you have people who say, "Gee, that is a wonderful idea, how can I sign up?" But what you don't have is people in those communities, and I'm not saying this is the whole of the Muslim world, but in sections of the Muslim world, what you don't have is people who say "that is a really terrible, scary idea and I'm going to turn you in to the civil powers."
So it is in essence, the problem is not the heinously crazy individuals and the networks they create, it is that condoning community and how you can turn a community of condoners into a community that has - feels it has a stake in international stability and the well-being of Americans in our homeland. That means addressing a lot of long-held grievances at the same time as you're launching police operations to hunt down these heinous planners and killers.
I mean, I think we have seen that using a blunt military instrument has not been effective and now we are trying to diplomat our way out of the problems that that caused in Iraq and I hope that very soon we will find a way to diplomat our way out of the problems that we continue to have in Afghanistan.
MR. MATTAIR: Anyone else? Well, yeah, I will just say quickly that I think that is a great question. And the answer is a comprehensive policy towards the Middle East, so that we're not inflaming passions all the time. We understand now that air strikes in Afghanistan that kill a lot of civilians isn't very good for drumming up popular support in Afghanistan, so we're trying to find a new strategy there to root out Taliban without killing civilians.
Withdrawing from Iraq, again, undoes some of the damage of all the civilian deaths there. We are never really going to persuade the leadership of al-Qaida and other movements to embrace us. The best we can probably do is make it much harder for them to recruit people to follow them - also, I think, trying our best to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, trying to promote political reform in the region, so that people feel they have a little more political space under these regimes. Everything altogether is necessary, I don't like the phrase, to drain the swamp - to reduce the pool of recruits that leaders can attract. Yes?
Q: My name is Andy Goodhard (sp). First of all, thanks for taking the time to spend the morning here with us. I had two questions, one relating to the Arab-Kurdish tensions in the North. While the American force strength is still fairly high, I'm wondering what we can do to shape that environment in a way that when American forces have largely pulled out of Iraq, that you have a situation that is more likely to be a peaceful one, in which there is reconciliation, there is settlement of Kirkuk, you don't have massive Turkish involvement over the border? What should we do now while our strength is still high to shape that?
And the second question, since so many of these issues relate to the regional balance of power, what do you see as the ideal American - the ideal balance of power in the region for American interests and how do we get there, if you would focus on a few opportunities there, if you would?
MS. LAIPSON: Well, I will offer some thoughts. On the Arab-Kurdish problem, I would not want to link our leverage to just our troop strength. The United States has a very deep and abiding relationship with Turkey so I think that U.S. diplomacy and U.S. political relationships are of value in trying to engage Iraqis and Turks together in useful conversation. I don't worry - I think there is an Arab-Kurdish problem that will be an enduring part of the new Iraqi identity.
As you know, the Kurds argued in the early framing of the constitution to not call Iraq an Arab country but to call Iraq one of the founders of the Arab League, it is essentially a bi-national state now, and this dates back decades. I mean, even Saddam Hussein was willing - in theory accepted the concept of quite a bit of autonomy of the Kurdish region. He didn't do a very good job of implementing it, but it was on the books.
And so Iraq's identity - the sort of multiculturalism of Iraq is still in play and it is not going to be resolved - I see this as part of the story of the new Iraq is how those issues get managed and sometimes the Kurds overreach and the Kurds were very comfortable for a while and now they are nervous that we are not going to be completely on their side, that we're going to see things from a broader lens.
But I do think that there is a formal way in which the United States can use its political leverage and prestige. I would not want it to be a coercive thing where the troop presence is somehow the intimidating factor. I'm not sure that I would make that connection the way you have.
Balance of power - I mean, I think that there is a big debate about whether we should just put aside some of these old - these concepts. Iran, there is an imbalance in the region that has to do with rising Iranian ambition or that Iran's natural attributes are just larger than any one of the Arab states. And so this is a region that I'm not sure what the natural equilibrium would be.
I could imagine you know a long-term understanding that is not unlike what we have in Northeast Asia where the United States presence, under carefully negotiated agreements with individual states, is a balancer - that our presence somehow somewhat mitigates or evens out some of the regional rivalries, that we are not a party to any of those rivalries directly, but that our presence a little bit - just contributes a little bit to countries not taking big risks to try to kind of prevail over their local competitors and rivals.
And so I do think that is, at least for the medium-term, one way to bring some stability. But I think we still haven't conceptually grappled with how to find a regional solution - and I don't like to call it architecture - but a regional arrangement in which Iran would be more integrated and there would be defused tension with respect to Iran's ambitions. Some of that is part of the geography and the history of the region and the United States presence can't completely mitigate for that but it can certainly contribute I think.
MR. KORB: Let me say something about balance of power. I think it is important to keep in mind why we're there. It's oil! And I think sometimes we forget that, you have got to - it is very interesting, I guess this is the 30th anniversary of Carter's malaise speech, so we've been getting a lot of - and there's a new book out about it. But basically you had the Carter Doctrine, which was formalized and said, look, the United States has to have access to oil from this region, and we will do what is necessary to ensure that that happens. And that is still our position.
Basically, we will have a carrier battle group in that area with the Marine expeditionary forces, we will have facilities in places like Kuwait. So we won't let anybody dominate the region. Now obviously, you would like to have stability in the region and that, of course, gets to the whole question of Iran's nuclear power and, as Tom mentioned earlier, dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli situations, I think you have to be involved in those. But I think it is important to keep in mind why we are that concerned about it and we don't like to say it, but that is a fact.
MR. MATTAIR: Yes, please.
MS. COBBAN: I just want to weigh in a little bit on the question of Arab-Kurdish relations. I think we need to be aware that, since 1991, amongst Iraq's population, the Kurds have been systematically privileged by U.S. policy. I know they suffered a horrible trauma in 1991, when they were - so many of them were expelled to Turkey and then they went back, but they had a safe haven from 1991 onwards that received a lot of support from the U.S.
They were able to establish their own schooling system, so there is now a whole generation of Kurds growing up who don't even speak Arabic. They had problems amongst themselves; they were resolved - you know, the inter-party problems in 1996 - to a certain degree, and they have been able to build all kinds of institutions - that at a time when the entire Arab population was under extremely strict and debilitating sanctions that killed hundreds of thousands of young, Arab Iraqis.
And then when the war happened in 2003, the effects were disproportionately again on the Arab Iraqis and the fact that they're all downstream in the river systems meant that the collapse of the water management systems affected the public health and the degradation of the Arab population's living conditions and their security conditions much worse than it affected the Kurds because the Kurds had already had a resiliency and they were not so much affected by the fighting of 2003.
So at this point in 2009, you have a Kurdish minority that is in many respects, in ways in a better situation in terms of living conditions, in terms of functioning institutions, although they still have a lot of problems in their governance, they have a lot of problems of human rights abuse by their Kurdish regional government forces and the Peshmerga, and then they have the Peshmerga, which has been systematically supported by the U.S. for a long time and were used as a major instrument of U.S. power in governing the rest of Iraq over these past few years and received a lot of financial and technical support to do that.
So you have to recognize that when U.S. power recedes, this has huge consequences for the Kurds, who would be left as a small, land-locked minority reliant on their relations with all the surrounding powers. And so that has to be sensitive - a sensitive set of challenges for them. They're going to have to deal with Turkey; they're going to have to deal with Iran; they're going to have to deal with Syria, although their fellow Kurds are being oppressed in all of these countries.
So I mean, there is a kind of an interesting dynamic there that independence - national independence, national sovereignty - is something that is strongly valued by most Arab Iraqis, just about every single Arab Iraqi. It is not - the national independence of Iraq is not necessarily welcomed by the Kurds. And I'm not sure whether U.S. strategic thinkers are now thinking that well, maybe that gives us the opportunity to have some kind of a special relationship with the Kurds or to have some form of continuing basing arrangements in Kurdistan.
I don't think that is going to actually run at all. I don't think a special basing arrangement in Kurdistan would work at all. But there may be something that happens in terms of special relations between the KRG and Washington that we need to be aware of and we need to be aware of its potential implications in terms of our relationship with Baghdad, which is going to have to be the central relationship, the relationship with Baghdad.
MR. MATTAIR: May I say one thing, Allen, before you speak? It is about this balance of power question and American military forces. What Carter had in mind was a rapid-deployment capability - the ability to get into the Gulf quickly, if necessary, but over time, because of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and concern of the GCC states, and because of Iran's modernization of its armed forces, we have accumulated a very large physical presence there, which, tying it into another question, is one of the major grievances that Osama bin Laden talks about, the physical presence of American forces in the Arabian Peninsula.
So in negotiating with Iran, I think we're going to have to try to find a solution that satisfies the security concerns of the GCC so they don't feel they're being abandoned, and yet, alleviates a concern that Iran has about this large military presence in its neighborhood, which could be used against it. It might even be one of the reasons why Iran might feel that it needs nuclear weapons - in order to deter the proximity of large physical American military forces.
So all those considerations should be taken into account when we negotiate with Iran and keep the GCC states informed of what we are doing - to try to find a way to reduce our forces to the point where the GCC is satisfied and Iran is alleviated and we still have something over the horizon that allows us to get into the Gulf quickly as necessary, but you are never going to satisfy Osama bin Laden with any formula.
MR. KORB: That is why I had mentioned the idea of concluding a - I mean the same type of arrangement we have had with the Soviet Union about the naval forces -
MR. MATTAIR: Regulate incidents and accidents at sea, yeah - especially where the Strait of Hormuz is so narrow. Allen, I think had a question.
Q: Allen Keiswetter from the Middle East Institute and the CNO Resources - a couple of comments, first of all, the constraints on the role of Turkey and Kirkuk, because I think they're pretty severe. One is that the Iraqis are very sensitive about any foreign intervention, and the recent U.N. report was received but really hasn't made much progress.
The second one is, of course, that the Turks are regarded as partisans of the Turkoman and the Turkoman will tell you that they are the ones who should control Kirkuk, so they are thought to be partisans. And thirdly, of course, the KRG's relations with Turkey are not so bad but they're not so good either. There is a lot of distrust. So I think there is really a very small, small role there.
Secondly, it goes back to John Duke Anthony's question earlier - and I think you really have to be careful what you nomenclature - because the agreement negotiated between Iraq and the United States was a withdrawal agreement and not a Status of Forces Agreement and people talk about and even call it a Status of Forces Agreement, but it isn't.
It comes to an end at the end of 2011; it has provisions that deal with the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the circumstances that appertain until then; and it says at the end of 2011, there will not be any U.S. troops in Iraq. Now that is just, I think, not a plausible condition to apply for some of the reasons that Larry mentioned.
First of all, there will be, at best, an incipient Iraqi air force and navy and there's a whole question of follow-on. There is whatever we will leave behind as trainers for which we will really need a SOFA and set out the arrangements. So I think you have to keep that in mind as to what you're dealing with. This, then, directly relates to the future of Gulf security with the ending of the withdrawal period and as we think about what comes next.
We're going to have to face issues of are we going to rearm Iraq with a major air force, with a major naval capability? What does this mean to the Saudis? Are they going to accept that? What does it mean to the Kuwaitis? And probably most importantly, what does it mean to the Iranians? So these whole issues are not really abstract, they are something we should be thinking about, because we are going to face real decisions in a year or two.
MR. KORB: I think you're right; it wasn't a Status of Forces Agreement. The reason they called it that - they wanted to send it up to the Senate to be ratified - (chuckles) - and so they did play games with the thing, you are right. Those questions have to be dealt with and hopefully if we do, we will have a debate in this country by getting it ratified.
MS. LAIPSON: Well, I would just say that we agreed to call it that and it is the status of our forces at least through 2011, but there is built in a requirement, in a way, that we will have to have another agreement to supersede it, right.
MR. KORB: Yes.
Q: The title did say "Status of Forces."
MR. MATTAIR: No, it is not in the title, but there are provisions, there are many provisions in the agreement dealing with the status of forces, but it is essentially an agreement about the withdrawal, kind of how it will be managed, and in what phases it will take place.
Q: Yes. To stick on this point for a minute, we have four defense cooperation agreements - Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE - and those are more neutral-sounding and mutually beneficial, with reciprocally rewarding content to them, so that might be a satisfactory set of examples.
And then, of course the earlier one with Oman - the access to facilities agreement there, so you have got five, that have stood the winds of anti-Americanism and demonstrations and the polling that shows the anger towards U.S. policies. Defense cooperation agreements - you can't get much more bland and innocuous than that with possible pre-positioning, possible training, possible joint maneuvers and ongoing consultation. That is in everybody's interest.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, thank you. Young man, thank you.
Q: Hi. My name is Mohammed Salih and I'm a reporter with Inter Press Service news agency - IPS. We have talked a lot about how Iraq's problems might get its neighbors involved in the internal affairs of Iraq. But I have a question about how the problems of some of these neighbors might actually get Iraq involved.
And by that, I mean the nuclear program in Iran - if the talks over an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program will fail, and we have heard that Israel has been talking a lot about attacking Iran, and, if Israel decided to unilaterally attack Iran, how would that affect the stability and security of Iraq?
MR. KORB: Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Let me, I think, go back - you remember when Israel and Hezbollah had their conflict, Maliki spoke out condemning Israel. My feeling is that were that Israeli attack to occur, the Iraqis would basically be outraged - their population would be outraged at Israel, and by association, if you will, because people will assume even if we tell the Israelis not to do it, that we are responsible for it, I think it would lead to one awful lot of anti-Americanism in Iraq. It can go back to the question that was raised before making it very difficult for us to conclude any type of security arrangement with them after 2011.
MS. COBBAN: Yes, I have thought about this and talked to people and written about it quite a lot over the last few years, and it seems clear to me that there is a portion of Iranians that are strategic planners there that are quite happy to have U.S. forces strung out along very vulnerable supply lines in the Gulf as well as in Afghanistan, because they are, in essence, sitting ducks for an Iranian retaliation against an act of war, against itself, and we saw very well in this country, people talk about a military strike this or a military strike that - a military strike against another country is an act of war.
And under international law, that gives justification for retaliation. This goes back to John Duke Anthony's question about control of the airspace. For the Israelis, if they're planning to launch any kind of a sizable military attack against Iranian facilities, it involves going through American-controlled airspace one way or another, which is why then the American troop concentrations and their supply lines could become vulnerable, would immediately become vulnerable to Iranian retaliation.
And you can argue the international law questions as to whether that retaliation is justified or not. But by the time you get that to go to a court of law, an awful lot of American soldiers may well have died and the whole region might be on fire because it is not just the Iranians that don't like the idea of Israeli bombers going wherever they want and bombing.
From that point of view, my friend Hussain Agha, who is a strategic analyst in London who is of joint Iraqi and Iranian heritage, has written that actually the Iranians want to see American troops kept in Iraq to be that kind of a tripwire or sitting-duck force, and I have had long discussions and on occasions arguments with Hussain about this.
But assuming that the Iranians do want to see the U.S. troops kept in Iraq as a sitting-duck force, the idea that they would be in cantonments or barracks outside of Iraqi population centers makes that a much more viable target, if you like, from the Iranian point of view than if they are dispersed throughout Sadr City and all the different parts of Baghdad.
So I am not sure whether the Iranians may have an incentive to keep the American forces kind of where they are in the bases outside of Iraqi cities for longer than the withdrawal agreement allows for. That would be in the absence of the diplomacy that can resolve a U.S. Iranian standoff over nuclear issues and other issues.
It is an interesting question but I do think that we have seen real leadership from the Bush administration and primarily Secretary Gates and from the Obama administration in reining in any talks by the Israelis that they might be able to well, "see if the Americans don't want to go in and take out the Iranian facilities, then we could do it," because Secretary Gates in particular has always been very cognizant of the fact that it is our troops who are on the frontline with Iran. It is not Israel's troops, it is not Israel's population that is on the frontline with Iran. It is our troops.
MR. MATTAIR: And the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff seconds that and has told the Israelis that. And there is the question of the timetable, too, because even under the best of circumstances, it is two-and-a-half years between now and the withdrawal of forces from Iraq, and I wonder who is willing to wait that long for resolution of the Iranian nuclear file.
So if our troops are vulnerable for two-and-a-half years, that is how much time we theoretically have to resolve the nuclear issue with Iran, but they might be on track to have capability for a weapon prior to that. So can we sustain the negotiations for two-and-a-half years to try to resolve it before our forces are gone?
And al-Maliki is not the only one who is incensed about the Israeli-Hezbollah war in 2006; Muqtada al-Sadr was too, and he said he would attack American forces if Israel did something like that to Iran. That is why the agreement between the United States and Iraq specifically excludes airspace from being used as a launching point or as a transit route for an attack on another country. Yes?
Q: I question the timeline a little bit when you say that two-and-a-half years for resolving the nuclear issue with Iran because we will continue to have forces in Kuwait, not to mention American allies that would be potential targets of retaliation from the Iranians. I am not sure that the timeline makes a lot of sense.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, that is only about the withdrawal from Iraq, yes. Even if we were to withdraw from Iraq in two-and-a-half years, we have other forces in the region that would be vulnerable to the covert, asymmetrical retaliatory capabilities of Iran. Yes, maybe one more question and then I think we should wrap it.
Q: Yes, my follow-up question was a clarification question, but may be hard to answer? Has there been any detectable urgency on any states in the region to directly influence the situation in Iraq or Iraq's progress, with the possible exception of Iran, for example - I mean, either for specific national interest in the short run or for the sake of regional prestige?
I mean for example, since '79, the Saudis - one of the key pillars of the U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia to my understanding - I may be mistaken - is that they would also help us contain Iran. And we feel that they have a similarly strong incentive today as we scale back our presence and our direct role in Iraq to, if not take over for us, then to help influence policy there to serve our interests. So I'm curious as to whether any state in the region has tried to assert this kind of role or show their hand in terms of their ability to influence Iraqi politics?
MS. COBBAN: I think you can detect attempts by both Saudi Arabia and Syria to do so. Saudi Arabia is a country that is not great at implementing - neither of them are great at implementing diplomacy. I mean, they have a sort of a passive-aggressive attitude toward what is obviously a very threatening development for them - that is, the one-person, one-vote democratic system in Iraq, which gave the Shiites the kind of a blanket majority and more particularly since the Americans had structured the whole thing in very ethno-sectarian terms.
So you had a combination of the Shiite parties themselves at that stage being united and the United States administrators looking at the Shiites as a block. And that was very, very disturbing for the Saudis who saw the marginalization of their longtime Sunni allies and you have to recognize that there are large numbers of tribes that straddle that border - you know people who are big players in the Iraqi political system, who also have brothers who are big players in the Saudi tribal policy, just on the other side of the border.
So it was a visceral issue for many Saudis. As was mentioned earlier, the King has tried to kind of channel that and to use a constructive approach to protect the interests of the Sunnis in Iraq. But Saudi Arabia is going through a very prolonged succession crisis of its own right now and that is overlaid on many other disfunctionalities in its ability to pursue an effective diplomacy.
So they haven't succeeded very well, and the situation of the Iraqi Sunnis is rather bad, although they have a lot of cross-sectarian alliances now with people in the Shiite community, including Muqtada al-Sadr, which from my point of view is very interesting and potentially constructive.
In Syria, as I mentioned, they have tried to steer Iraqi politics away from kind of Shiite institutional sectarianism and the role of ayatollahs and all that stuff, at the margins. And I think when I spoke about Syria's many links with Iraq earlier on, I didn't really focus on the fact that they have links with Iraqi Baathists as well. Most of them are not the pro-Saddam Iraqi Baathist, because you will recall there was a split in the Baath movement internationally.
But that gives them yet another level of potential power - people who are, if you like, in the current political opposition in Iraq, and who want to see the constitution changed in a secular nationalist direction - as well as levels of covert people who are in power in Iraq. So yeah they've tried and they could do a lot more.
Other powers have tried as well, like Qatar, and Qatar hosts, as it happens, just about the entire leadership of Saddam's Baath party and all their families, and has very good links with many, many Iraqis. Qatar recently, over the past few years, expelled nearly all the Egyptian professionals, who were running all their professional services in Doha and replaced them with Iraqis, so it is a real center for Iraqi political organizing. I'm sorry, we have to wrap up here.
MR. MATTAIR: Thank you very much to the panel; thank you very much to the audience. If you want to read the transcript of this conference or see the audio or the video, it will be our Web site next week - www.mepc.org. Thank you again.