Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

"The Dilemma of Iraq: What Should the United States Do?" A Talk by Leon Panetta

Listen to an audio of Leon Panetta's remarks.

By Suruchi Bhutani

Leon Panetta, former White House Chief of Staff and member of the Iraq Study Group, looked at how to resolve the crisis in Iraq at a recent presentation for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. He discussed the implications of the situation not only for Iraq but also for the very fabric of our country and Constitution.

Panetta said that to improve the situation, the White House would need to recognize the realities of the war, exercise leadership, and be committed to the goals set out in the preamble to the Constitution—ensuring “the blessings of liberty” to ourselves and our children. The founding fathers, he said, recognized that there would be differences of opinion within the government and in the society at large about how to ensure those blessings. To come to consensus, they recommended the forum of debate.

That was the goal, Panetta said, behind the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, chartered by Congress in 2006. After months of data collection and analysis, the study group recommended a phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

The decision to withdraw troops was a hard one, but it is the only practical solution, Panetta argued. To show the logic behind the recommendation, Panetta talked in detail about the Iraq’s problems. Sectarian violence between Shias and Sunnis, an inexperienced government, a poorly trained and resourced military, a nonexistent police force, and corruption make the situation extremely volatile and hard to control.

Panetta then discussed practical ways to stabilize Iraq. First, the militias must be disbanded. To bring more experience into the government, Panetta recommended allowing ex-Baath party officials to join, as they are the only ones who have any experience running the country. Another important step would be to share the oil revenues and focus on providing at least the basic services to the common person.

Panetta also stressed the importance of diplomacy in resolving the Iraqi situation. The United States should engage all of the Middle East states, he said, whether they are friends or foes, to have a meaningful dialogue and bring stability to the region.

According to Panetta, the biggest obstacle to controlling the Iraq situation today is the lack of initiative on the part of the Iraqi government and army. By sending more troops, the U.S. government is only making the problem worse. U.S. soldiers are fighting the battle at the front lines to bring order to Iraq, while the Iraqi army and government are doing little to help, and in some cases are even hindering the efforts. Unless the Iraqi government, army, and people decide to take the initiative, the problem can’t be solved, no matter how many troops Washington sends, Panetta said.

The United States, he argued, should publish a timetable for troop withdrawal while committing to help the Iraqi government, army, and police meet the challenge and control their country. He said if the Iraqi government doesn’t make a concerted effort to improve the situation and misses the progress milestones, the United States should withdraw troops and resources even faster, thereby penalizing the Iraqis.

Panetta went on to articulate the U.S. president’s role in bringing the war to a satisfactory conclusion. A president, he said, always lives in the twilight zone between the world as it really is and the world as he wants it to be. Successful presidents are able to bridge that gap by accepting the reality and using tools such as debate and diplomacy to achieve their objectives. Panetta cautioned that making policy decisions without support from the public or the Congress harms the entire society by dividing the country. In that context, he argued that President Bush’s decision to send more troops to Iraq was a mistake, as it is unlikely to resolve the situation in Iraq, and it is divisive at home.

Panetta also criticized the administration’s programs to rebuild Iraq. While $34 billion have been spent on the effort, the money has not translated into actual benefit because of poor planning and execution.

Panetta believes that the Iraq War will land in the lap of the next president. In his closing remarks, he expressed hope that the new president would adopt policies in line with the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations and recommit to the principles on which the United States was founded. Panetta concluded by saying, “Whether this or any president is willing to recognize the realities of war, to be committed to the goals of our preamble, to exercise some common sense for the common good, and to exercise some leadership—that will determine the ethical and historical legacy of that president and in many ways and more importantly it will determine how this country faces the challenge of Iraq.”

Suruchi Bhutani is media intern at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

February 2007

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