More than two years after the US invaded Iraq, there is a debate in this country that is increasingly dominating the public discussion on the occupation: the issue of withdrawing US troops. We speak one of the most respected independent Iraq analysts, Juan Cole, who released a 10-point plan, outlining what he calls a responsible stance toward Iraq. [includes rush transcript]
More than two years after the US invaded Iraq, there is a debate in this country that is increasingly dominating the public discussion on the occupation: the issue of withdrawing US troops. Last month there were some indications coming from senior U.S. commanders that the Pentagon could begin some initial troop withdrawals sometime late next year but those statements have since been clarified and in some cases outright contradicted by senior administration officials, most importantly, the President himself. But it is a discussion that is rapidly making its way into the mainstream and one that both Democrats and Republicans realize they cannot ignore. That is due in no small part to the ongoing vigil in Crawford of military families initiated by Cindy Sheehan.
There is an increasingly heated debate brewing on Capitol Hill. In the Senate, Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold has been focusing a lot of attention on his proposal calling on the president to announce a clear timetable for beginning the withdrawal. His effort is being bolstered by Republicans like Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, who last weekend compared Iraq to Vietnam drawing criticism from his fellow Republicans. In the House, an unusual coalition is developing, led in part by the man who proposed changing the name of French fries to "Freedom Fries" in the Congressional cafeteria — North Carolina Republican Walt Jones. They too are asking for a timetable.
This is also an issue very much on the minds of many in the peace movement in the United States. Some are calling for "US out now," while others are proposing a phased pullout.
This week, one of the most respected independent Iraq analysts, Juan Cole, released a 10 point plan, outlining what he calls a responsible stance toward Iraq.
- Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan and runs a blog called "Informed Comment," which can be found at JuanCole.com.
AMY GOODMAN: This week, one of the most respected independent Iraq analysts, Juan Cole, released a ten-point plan outlining what he calls a responsible stance toward Iraq. Juan Cole is Professor of History at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He runs a blog called "Informed Comment," which can be found at JuanCole.com. We reached him yesterday afternoon at a TV studio on the University of Michigan campus. And I asked him to simply lay out his plan.
JUAN COLE: Right, well, I believe that the issues so far has been put in too simplistic a manner. People are saying, well, troops out now or U.S. out now, or we have to stay the course. And it seems to me that we have lots of options besides those two things, both of which, I think, are very dangerous. So, first of all, we learned from Kosovo and Afghanistan that you can accomplish a very great deal by giving close air support to an ally on the ground. So, I agree that U.S. troops should come out of Iraq. First, I think they should come out of the cities, and then ultimately I’d like to see ground forces withdrawn in the main.
And the danger in doing that, of course, is — and all of my Iraqi friends unanimously insist that if were U.S. troops to withdraw precipitately, there would be a civil war amongst the Sunni Arabs, the Shiites and the Kurds. But it seems to me that could be prevented by giving close air support to the new Iraqi army and to other allied forces on the ground. And I was in Lebanon during the civil war. I have seen what a civil war really is. What’s going on in Iraq right now is not really a civil war. It’s a kind of low intensity conflict, but in a civil war, you have militias mounting set-piece battles, 2,000 guys on each side, and firing mortars and shooting at one another. And the U.S. could use its air power to prevent that kind of a large scale civil war in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal.
The reason I think that U.S. troops, ground troops, should come out is that U.S. military tactics are unsuited to Iraqi society. In the last couple years, we have seen things get worse and worse and worse in the Sunni Arab heartland. Initially, Mosul, for instance, was relatively quiet. General Petraeus had done a good job up there, but then when the U.S. military attacked Fallujah, there were sympathy demonstrations in Mosul. The police force collapsed en masse, 4,000 resigned. And the city went into instability. There were bombings all over the place. So a city of over a million now is relatively unstable compared to what it was even a year ago.
And it is partially because the U.S. uses massive force. If it gets mortar fire from a particular city quarter, it will call in a 500-pound bomb on the city quarter. Well, you are going to kill innocent civilians that way. And Iraq is a clan society. People care about their brothers, sisters, cousins, so much that they’re willing to fight for them, to die for them, to fight feuds for them. I think it’s hard for Americans to realize the ethos there. I’m not sure we could get a big car loan from most of our first cousins, but in Iraq, family really matters. And so, the U.S. military, by its tactics, has been incurring a series of feuds with all of the major clans in Iraq. Dulame Jubur, all of the big clans are furious at us, and they have increasingly joined the guerrilla movement. And so, the presence of U.S. ground forces in Iraq in the Sunni Arab areas, it seems to me, you know, is helpful to the extent that it stops a full-scale guerrilla war from breaking out, but it’s unhelpful in the sense that it actually also is spreading around the guerrilla war.
How would you get them out without then risking the scenario I mentioned before that we saw in Lebanon of militias fighting one another? And I’m suggesting that that could be stopped by getting the ground troops out and then using the air power to give close air support to break up any militias that form formations and start to march between cities, for instance. So, I think, you know, this plan can’t be charged with being irresponsible as a simple troops-out-now kind of a plan might be open to that charge.
Then there are other things. You know, as the U.S. withdraws its ground troops from Iraq, nevertheless it’s going to have to keep some special forces there to — in case the plane is shot down, somebody has got to go in and rescue those guys. The major political and religious figures have to continue to be protected. And the pipelines need better protection. Now today — or yesterday, the pipeline was knocked out by sabotage of electricity, and there’s no petroleum coming out of Iraq at the moment. So, the pipelines need better security, and a smaller concentrated U.S. force could give that kind of support to the Iraqi government.
If the pipelines were working, the new Iraqi government would have enormous petroleum resources with which to rebuild, to strengthen itself, to build up its army. Then, they need an armored corps. They need a tank corps. They have a few mechanized small units, but it’s my impression that the old Iraqi tank army, which was quite formidable, was destroyed by the United States and was kept destroyed, that they were afraid of its resurrection because it might turn on the U.S. troops, and if we get the ground troops out, then there would be no bar, I think, then to just allowing the Iraqis to import tanks, train men in them, and when you have an army with a tank corps, it’s much more likely to succeed against the kind of guerrilla actions that we have seen in Iraq. And so, there are these military things, I think, that could be done to get the U.S. out of Iraq.
I think there are political steps that need to be taken. The Iraqi — present Iraqi government, dominated by Shiite religious parties and Kurds, has been extremely harsh towards the Sunni Arabs. They have adopted punitive policies towards ex-Baathists. Almost anybody who was anybody in the old Iraq was a member of the Baath Party, and most of those people hadn’t committed any crimes personally. And yet, they have been fired from their jobs. Even like high school teachers who used to be Baath Party members have been fired. I think some 17,000 have lost jobs. It’s been made clear to them that they don’t have a position in civil society. They can’t hold high government posts. And yet, they haven’t been convicted of any crime as persons. So, I think you need an amnesty for Baath Party membership. If somebody was a war criminal, then they should be tried, but if there’s no charge against the person, then the mere fact of past membership in the Baath Party should not be held against them.
AMY GOODMAN: Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan. We’ll come back to him in just a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We continue with Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan, who runs a blog called "Informed Comment," which can be found at JuanCole.com, talking about ten things Congress can demand from George Bush.
JUAN COLE: The Sunni Arabs need to be reassured that they are not going to be the low people on the totem pole in the new Iraq. They’re very capable people. They were the officer corps. They know where the hidden munitions are. They can make a lot of trouble. They were the managerial class. If they are not mollified, this guerrilla war will go on. So the U.S. needs to exercise its good offices and to combat this commitment to de-Ba’athification that the current government has, if the Sunni Arabs are going to be drawn into the new government.
Likewise, it must be the case that the next elections are held on a district basis so that people are electing members of parliament from their localities so as to ensure that the Sunni Arabs can send members of parliament to parliament. In the last elections it was proportional. The Sunni Arabs were largely excluded from parliament: Only 17 got seats in a 275-member parliament. That must be avoided, if the Sunni Arabs are ever going to be drawn in.
And so these are the kinds of things that I think that could be done to move the situation forward. I don’t believe that merely having a constitution on paper is a solution. I think there are things happening on the ground militarily and politically that the Bush administration is not addressing. And I believe Congress really has the responsibility to step in now, because it’s been two years of really Keystone Cops kinds of policies in Iraq. The U.S. — the Bush administration — has been responsible for throwing that country into very substantial chaos and to endangering not only Iraq, but the entire Gulf region. That part of the Middle East is volatile, and all of us, including the poor and workers, depend heavily on the petroleum that comes out of that region. If it falls into massive war, that petroleum supply would be in doubt, and the world could be thrown another Great Depression.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Professor Juan Cole, who teaches at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, laying out ten things Congress could demand from Bush on Iraq. What about laws in this country around U.S. reconstruction aid to Iraq?
JUAN COLE: Right. Well, the American public is generally ill-informed about U.S. foreign aid policies. First of all, they think we give a lot of money to foreign countries. We don’t. We give a very small amount. Opinion polls show that Americans think we give a quarter of our federal budget to foreign aid, and it’s less than 1 percent. And the way that the foreign aid is typically set up is that Congress puts riders into the foreign aid that requires, where possible, that the other country use American companies and American material. There have been instances in which concrete has been imported from the United States because of these kinds of laws.
Well, that kind of language should be excised from the reconstruction aid for Iraq. The money should not be going to American companies, which do things in an expensive way, in a way that Iraqis frankly find difficult to keep up with afterwards. Different kinds of techniques are used in the electricity and so forth. And the money should be spent directly on Iraqi firms. And this would help to jumpstart the Iraqi economy. The best estimates are that unemployment is above 50 percent in that country. In our Great Depression, unemployment was 25 percent. So this is a horrible situation that people are living through in Iraq.
And the U.S. aid is not getting to the people. It’s not having the effect that everyone had hoped, because a large amount of it is being spent on very pricey security firms, sort of private commandos getting $120,000 a year; and then much of the reconstruction money is going to U.S. companies that skim off a very large amount of it and then subcontract to Iraqi companies anyway, so that the Iraqi companies get paid much less than the U.S. ones. So I think that direct aid to Iraqi concerns is the way to go here, and again, this ties into my earlier point, which is that some of the more capable firms in Iraq probably have Baath ties. But they should not be excluded unless their owners can be shown to have done something criminal.
AMY GOODMAN: And Juan Cole, you talk about U.S. joining regular meetings of foreign ministers of the Arab world and Iran.
JUAN COLE: Well, the specific thing that I was referring to is that there have been regular meetings of Iraq plus its six neighbors, Kuwait, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The foreign ministers have met regularly to discuss matters of concern. I believe the United States and Russia should join those meetings so that they would be six-plus-two meetings of the neighbors, with Iraq, and should use — Russia and the United States should use their influence — the United States with Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Russia with Iran and Syria — to work towards a greater stability in Iraq. All of the neighbors have a stake in a unified and stable Iraq. Trouble there could easily spill over onto them. They also are tempted by the opportunities that the new situation represents.
The United States’ refusal to deal with Syria or Iran on these issues in a diplomatic way, the launching of threats at Damascus and Tehran that we’re simply going to bomb them or overthrow them has alienated them, has made it less likely that they will be cooperative. We need a 180-degree turn in this regard. The United States needs to return to diplomacy. And I think the foreign ministers’ meeting of the Iraqi neighbors would be a very good place to exercise that diplomacy. And I think Russia needs to be brought in. It is a traditional power in the Middle East. It has traditional relations with Iraq and a number of other Middle Eastern countries, including Iran. And just the United States by itself can’t get the job done.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Cole, you’ve laid out your ten things Congress could demand of Bush on Iraq. Now the question is, do you think President Bush is near any of your points? He has said in Salt Lake City, addressing the Veterans of Foreign Wars, policy of retreat and isolation will not bring us safety. He has rejected a timetable.
JUAN COLE: Well, I don’t insist on a timetable. A timetable is, in my view, in and of itself, not very useful. For one thing, there’s no guarantee that you could adhere to it. So if you announce that you’re going to be down to 75,000 men in Iraq by March of 2006, and a major figure is assassinated and a city goes into turmoil and you can’t possibly withdraw the troops, then you won’t have met that deadline, and people will hold it against you, and so forth. So, I don’t see the point of announcing a deadline, but a determination behind the scenes to draw down the troops is — would be all to the good.
I can’t read the Bush administration on these matters. They’re not transparent. They never have been. We have no idea why they went to Iraq or what they’re doing there or what their ultimate goals are. So, I can’t predict how President Bush will behave in the future. I suspect that the Bush administration is much more eager to draw down the troops than it lets on in public. I think it’s certainly the case that they need this level of troops and maybe more through December, if there are to be further parliamentary elections, as they’re scheduled in December of this year.
The last time those elections were only made possible, and it’s now often forgotten, because the U.S. military forbade vehicular traffic for three days. They locked down the country. They made everybody walk wherever they wanted to go. And so they stopped the car bombing — otherwise the elections couldn’t have been held. So that’s going to be necessary again. If the elections can be held and they are relatively successful this time, then I look to see a beginning of drawdown of ground forces from the Bush administration.
My fear is that either they will do it too slowly, and they will continue to follow tactics on the ground that will encourage the guerrilla war to spread, or they will do it too fast, and the country will fall into civil war. They won’t give proper thought to what structures could be put in place to maintain stability as they leave. I’m afraid that as we move into the 2006 election process here, domestic politics may begin dictating Iraq policy in ways that might be very bad both for the Iraqis and the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve got Republicans joining with Democrats in calling on President Bush to change policy. Some of the most ardent supporters of the war, like Walter Jones, who renamed French fries "freedom fries," so that’s putting pressure. Also, you have got Cindy Sheehan and the growing movement of military mothers and family members. How significant do you think that is in Crawford right now in terms of determining policy?
JUAN COLE: It’s certainly very significant, and as I said, although the rhetoric coming from the Bush camp has stayed the course, and this week President Bush is making a push to justify the war, the fact is that his polling numbers on the Iraq situation are very low. His general approval ratings are extremely low for a president at this stage of the second term. Karl Rove and other White House strategists are extremely sensitive to these kinds of numbers, and so, the — certainly the White House and the Republican Party are thinking very hard about the political fallout of a continued unpopular war in Iraq.
But I think that the problem is that they have gotten themselves stuck. They’re thinking in terms of the necessity of keeping ground troops on the ground in order to prevent a civil war, to curb the guerrillas, and then the terrorist groups, and they are just not thinking imaginatively enough about how U.S. military forces might be used to maintain stability while doing a rapid withdrawal.
I suspect — and I cannot prove it, but I suspect also that business interests around Bush and Cheney are still hoping that a long-term U.S. military presence will segue then into major U.S. corporate opportunities for investment in the new Iraq and that a withdrawal of ground troops, U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, might then throw the country open to free competition. China would come in, Western Europe, and so forth, and so business opportunities will be lost. And I’m a little bit afraid that that kind of consideration may in part be causing Bush and Cheney to drag their heels on keeping so many ground forces in Iraq for so long. And I really think it’s beginning to backfire.
AMY GOODMAN: Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan, runs a blog called "Informed Comment." It can be found at JuanCole.com, speaking to us from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, TV studios. This is Democracy now!, DemocracyNow.org. Later in the week we’ll play part two of this interview, where we also talk about what’s happening in Gaza, the West Bank and, in Saudi Arabia, the meeting that Vice President Dick Cheney had with the new king.