Nine months ago "World News" brought three top foreign relations experts together to talk about the future of Iraq -- Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, former Army Vice Chief of Staff and retired Gen. Jack Keane, and the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass.
At the time they agreed that the U.S. faced an uphill battle to establish the kind of security that would allow the new government to succeed (Click here for the original round table discussion).
Charles Gibson met with them again today for a spirited debate on how a potential reduction in U.S. forces would affect Iraq and its future. The following is a partial transcript of their discussion.
Click on the video player on the right side of this page for an extended video clip of the discussion.
Charles Gibson:So, let's frame this around two central questions: How do we leave, and when do we start? First of all, is the president right that leaving would be a disaster?
Gen. Jack Keane: Well, I think leaving precipitously, before we have the kind of security that we have to have in place will clearly be a disaster. Particularly now, when we've made some significant progress. Precipitous withdrawal makes no sense in my judgement, and what we should do is, is begin to leave, and then go back to the presurge level forces. I think we can do that in '08 for sure.
Gibson: The general is talking about a very gradual withdrawal. Is that where the American political will is?
Fareed Zakaria: I think Americans will be more than happy to have a gradual withdrawal as long as it's a withdrawal. Because I think Americans believe fundamentally that this isn't a military solution to this, and I think they're right. If you look at what the commanding general of the third infantry division said, he said, we're holding territory, but if we leave, the enemy will come back and take it. …
So, the question becomes, what are the conditions under which security will cement itself so that we can leave? And the only condition that makes sense is some kind of political deal, a power-sharing deal among these various communities. There isn't any real progress on that front, and until you get progress on the politics, we're just engaging in a holding operation. It's a very successful holding operation.
Gibson: But don't you get a sense that the American political will is that that time is now, or very soon?
Zakaria: I think there's a deal to be made here, a grand bargain. If President Bush were to commit himself to the idea of beginning a drawdown, a serious drawdown, and engaging with the neighbors to make sure they don't take advantage of it, figuring out what the modalities of such a drawdown would be, he should ask for in return a commitment that we would be engaged in Iraq for the long haul, a substantially reduced troop presence, but staying in Iraq to make sure that things don't get really bad, securing Kurdistan, hiding al Qaeda, maintaining the training of the Iraqi army.
We can do all that with 50,000 troops. And so that would be a bargain I think the American people could live with. What they don't want is American boys and girls trying to secure neighborhoods in Baghdad from Shia militia one day, Sunni insurgents the other day, not really knowing who the bad guy is, except when they fire at you. That's a no win scenario.
Gibson: Gradual withdrawal.
Richard Haass: There's no way we can physically, militarily sustain where we are. Where I think you're going to see a consensus is around a reduction strategy. So yes, we will be leaving, but not withdrawing. And I think we'll debate the rate of decline. We will debate the final numbers and role, but I actually think that a year from now things will be substantially different, to the point, I would even go so far as to say, that it's quite possible that Iraq will not be a dominant issue come the American election.
Potential for Increased Ethnic Cleansing ?
Gibson: If we go through some sort of a reduction strategy, are we opening things up for some kind of genocide, ethnic cleansing that will go on, and we'll simply have 50,000, 60,000, 70,000 troops standing by and watching this?
Zakaria: No, because one of the dirty little secrets about Iraq is that Iraq has increasingly been ethnically cleansed. It's sad to say, but the American Army has presided over the largest ethnic cleansing in the world since the Balkans.
If you look at Baghdad, it is essentially a very cleansed city. It is, the Shia and Sunni communities have been separated by the river. You look increasingly around the areas that were once intermixed. They're no longer mixed. That explains, by the way, one of the reasons why violence has been reduced … So, it seems unlikely, when people say bad things are going to happen if we leave, bad things have already happened, where were you for the last four years.
It doesn't seem that likely that we're going to end up seeing some kind of massive genocide. The ethnic cleansing has happened.
Haass: But we should be realistic, Iraq is likely to be a messy and slightly dysfunctional country for the foreseeable future … and it's quite possible for years or even longer to come, Iraq could be the scene of continuing strife between Sunnis and Shia over the future fabric and political character of the country, and that's just reality.
Keane: Now, both of you are really not describing what's happening in Iraq. I mean … to be quite frank about it. The, the Sunni insurgency has gone through a conversion. They have thrown the towel in … they have now saddled up along side of us, and they want to protect their communities, but they don't want separate militia to do it, they're going to do it as members of the Iraqi security forces, which is very, very encouraging.
The national argument and discussion here in the United States is like an old vinyl record stuck on national benchmarks. We can't get past that. And the fact of the matter is, there's a social and political phenomenon that's crossing Iraq that is now touching almost 40 percent of the population, because it's involving the sheiks on the Shia side as well, and this phenomenon is along tribal lines that are fed up with war, fed up with violence, and they're seeking reconciliation, and they want, they're using the United States to achieve that for them with the Iraqi government.
Haass: Let me put it a different way. I can't believe we're making progress toward the emergence of an Iraq as a national entity … I don't believe at the end of the day that Sunnis have crossed the Rubicon, that they see themselves more in Iraq terms than Sunni terms, the general may disagree with me, so be it. U.S. policy now is an enormous roll of the dice.
Gibson: General, take your argument as it stands, conceding your point, vis-a-vis the two gentlemen here on your left, on your right. Why do we need to keep presurge levels of troops? Why not go down to the levels of troops they're talking about? If the Sunnis have thrown in the towel, if we're on this road to progress, why not go down to 40,000, 50,000, 60,000 troops and be done with it?
Keane: Because we want to cement those gains that we're, that we have achieved … To pull away from it now because of early success, and some unexpected success I may say, would be premature.
Long Term Troop Strategy
Gibson: So you've all agreed that there is a reduction strategy, not a withdrawal strategy that must take place. Give me your estimate of the optimal number of troops that need to remain in Iraq long term.
Zakaria: I think initially I would draw down to about 50,000 somewhere in that region … This is a very fluid situation, you've got to watch how it's working out. But I think we will have to be engaged in Iraq.
We did invade this country. Frankly, we messed it up, and we have a political, strategic and moral obligation to make sure that this can be stabilized, but it is a long challenge, it's largely a political, economic challenge … I don't know, but I think the bargain should be that we seriously get out of the business of policing Baghdad neighborhoods, and draw down to a modest force, but in return the Democrats should recognize we cannot just switch this off like a television set.
Haass: I would think two things are important, one is that it start sooner rather than later. I believe the president has an opportunity, but probably it's also politically smart to start the process, to preempt the process a little bit, to indicate as beginning before Christmas.
Second, that it's done with the Iraqis. It's important that this not be a unilateral American decision, that this is something done to the Iraqis … so much is going to depend upon the casualties, so much is going to depend upon the images that people see. I don't think Americans are going to protest over 70,000 vs. 50,000 vs. 95,000 -- that's never been the issue. The real issue is the cost to us, and the effectiveness.
Gibson: So, if it does deteriorate, do the American kids get sucked back in, or do we then withdraw more?
Zakaria: Look, I think the most likely bad scenario, if we were to drawn down in Iraq, is not chaos, genocide, it is a pretty ugly Iraq.
But we have a pretty ugly Iraq already. We have militias, we have warlords, a lot of local control, a lot of on the ground ethnic cleansing. The question is, will it be much, much worse? We don't know, but we'll have to test that, because there isn't much we can do to improve the quality of politics at the local level in Iraq, which is where this is going.
We have to get back to the issue of American interests. Iraq is, among other things, a huge cost on the time, energy and attention that the United States can be devoting elsewhere. We have, at some very fundamental level, got to get out of the 13th century, which is where Iraq is, and into the 21st century, which is where China and India are moving the world.
Gibson: Gentlemen, thank you, I appreciate it.