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Iraq Study Group member and chief of staff for President Clinton, Leon Panetta ’60, J.D. ’63 answers questions on the realities confronting the U.S. in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.
By Farid Senzai
Farid Senzai: What are your initial thoughts in regards to General Petraeus’ assessment of the situation in Iraq?
Leon Panetta: If you’re going to understand what’s going on in Iraq, you really have to look at a very big picture—what’s happening in that country in a number of areas. With regards to one piece of that, the issue of the military surge and what Petraeus was testifying about: I don’t think there’s much question that when you add 30,000 more troops, that it is going to have some impact, in terms of level of violence, particularly from Baghdad. I also think what they’re doing in Anbar is probably helping to get some control over violence.
But having said that, when you look at the larger mission of why we’re in Iraq—which is, in President Bush’s terms, to have an Iraq that can govern itself and sustain itself and defend itself—that’s where you get a much more discouraging viewpoint. Some of it was confirmed by Ambassador Crocker. A lot of it is in the context of the reports that were presented to the Congress. When it comes to that larger mission of having an Iraq that ultimately can control its own destiny, the mission there is far from accomplished.
Senzai: Has the surge contributed to success for Iraq, outside of Anbar? Or is this Anbar success directly due to the surge?
Panetta: This isn’t the first surge we’ve done there. And the whole point of these surges is to do what the military calls “clear, hold, and build.” Unfortunately in the past, we’ve cleared, and the Iraqis have been unable to hold or build. In terms of the mission of trying to eliminate the conditions that produce sectarian violence, we have not been successful at that with the past surges.
With regards to this surge, what we decided is, frankly, that we were not only going to clear, but we were going to hold these areas. There’s no question, we’ve been able to—at least on a temporary basis—reduce some of the violence.
On Anbar, the idea of using this tactic of a bottom-up approach, using the insurgents to go after al-Qaida and to reduce violence: It’s a bold effort. I can’t tell you that it’s the kind of thing that can repeat itself in other provinces. But at least with regards to Anbar, it’s certainly proven itself.
Senzai: General Petraeus stated that the political situation has not caught up with the security situation.
Senzai: Is that, in some ways, an attempt to shift blame to the Iraqi government for not moving as quickly, even though the security situation, in his view, is progressing?
Panetta: Again, you have to go back to: What was the mission here? What was the purpose of the surge? The purpose of it was not simply to try to reduce violence but, by reducing violence, to create the breathing room for the Iraqis to implement the political reforms and meet the political benchmarks that they had set for themselves. Unfortunately, that has not happened.
You have to ask the question, even though we’ve reduced violence on a temporary basis: Has it fulfilled the fundamental mission for which it was designed—which is to have the Iraqis implement the reforms that ultimately are the only way to control sectarian violence?
Senzai: The diplomatic offensive that you have spoken about in the Iraq Study Group—do you think that has in fact taken place, or has the Bush administration been too slow in that approach?
Panetta: The best way to say it is that what was missing from the military surge was a diplomatic and political surge to complement it. Where I think the administration failed is in developing that strong diplomatic initiative in the region that the Iraq Study Group recommended: a support group, made up of the nations in the region, to provide both the support and encouragement to the Iraqis to do what they have to do to provide security. There was kind of a hit-and-miss effort to meet with Iran and some other nations. But frankly, they just haven’t put enough into the diplomatic effort.
Senzai: That leads to the question of Iran, which the Iraq Study Group emphasized. It seems that rather than engaging with Iran, in fact, the tension has risen. And some suggest that before they leave office this administration is keen on militarily responding to Iran.
Panetta: I think that’s part of the problem. In the Iraq Study Group, as you know, one of the co-chairs was Jim Baker, former secretary of state, who continually stressed the fact that if you’re going to engage diplomatically there, you’ve got to engage with all the countries, and you have to pursue it in a very aggressive and continuing manner.
He pointed to the fact that when he was working on the Middle East effort, he had to go to Syria eight times in order to eventually get them to support that initiative [in the first Gulf War]. He’s a believer that you have to engage. You don’t have to compromise in your principles, but you have to communicate. And you have to do this on a continuing basis. And I think frankly, this administration has really never learned how to implement strong diplomacy.
Senzai: In the president’s Sept. 13 address to the nation, he suggested there may be long-term military bases in Iraq. Clearly that sends the wrong message to the region.
Panetta: Sure, because it means we’ll have a large presence there for a long time without engaging those other countries. And one of the problems we’ve had is, by virtue of our large military presence in Iraq, these other countries are standing on the sidelines and not doing what they should be doing to try to help.
Senzai: In terms of the troop levels, General Petraeus suggested that we could begin to reduce the number by December to 130,000.
Panetta: In many ways, as has been pointed out, they don’t have a lot of choice. Because in April 2008, they either have to extend tours of duty or they’ve got to bring them home. I think they’ve made the decision that they’re not going to extend people in an election year. So the likelihood is that they are going to have to bring back at least 30,000. If you listened to the comments by Secretary [Robert] Gates you know that he’s planning to probably increase that number. He’s talking about reaching a level of about 100,000 by the end of 2008. I wouldn’t be surprised if they move in that direction.
Senzai: Why do you think the Democrats have had such a difficult time making the case for reducing troops from Iraq?
Panetta: The biggest problem they’ve had is translating public concern about Iraq and the war and where it’s heading into an effective alternative strategy that would gain Republican votes in the Senate. Without those Republican votes in the Senate, unfortunately, they’re not going to get anything done.
Senzai: So do you think that there is much difference among the candidates’ positions on withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq?
Panetta: My viewpoint is that most of these candidates, like the administration, have not really, in a clear manner, developed what the overall strategy is that they would implement as president of the United States if they have to face this issue. What really has been lacking in the Bush administration’s approach—and as I said, I don’t get a lot of comfort from what these candidates are saying on the campaign trail—what’s been lacking is a clear strategy about how we are going to transition from a combat to a support role, and how we are gradually going to transition out of Iraq.
We’ve talked surges, we’ve talked benchmarks. But there has not been that clear strategy about how are we going to—province-by-province in Iraq—gradually transition control to the Iraqi government.
Senzai: Have any of the candidates taken the Iraq Study Group report seriously and suggested that they would in fact try to implement the recommendations?
Panetta: I haven’t gotten that impression. They use, obviously, some of the pieces that we recommended. But I have not heard either a Democratic or Republican candidate, for that matter, embrace the key recommendations that we made.
Senzai: What do you think this means in terms of our relations and our status in Iraq, with the larger Arab and Muslim world?
Panetta: That is the most important challenge that we face. It’s not just Iraq; it is our relationship in the Middle East. And what are we doing to try to prevent the Middle East from imploding into a series of sectarian wars? What’s been missing here, in addition to a clear strategy in Iraq, is a clear strategy for the Middle East that has to begin with Israel and the Palestinians, and resolving that issue; and ultimately has to move to Lebanon, Syria, and Iran. I don’t see any kind of broad effort to try to resolve these issues. For that reason, we are in a very dangerous period, in terms of the Middle East.
Senzai: Do you think that there should be direct dialogue with current government in Iran?
Panetta: There should be continuing dialogue with the government in Iran, with Syria, and obviously with all of the other countries in the region. We are never going to achieve any kind of peaceful resolution without everybody at the table.
Senzai: In November 2002, the president came out very strongly suggesting that our 60-year effort historically in the Middle East has failed, and we need to shift gears and try to promote democracy. Initially there was an effort, including money being spent. But because of the consequences of that—bringing people in that we may not like—the administration seems to have backed off from that effort.Panetta: I have always felt that our primary goal ought to be security and stability. And unless you provide that, you’ll never get to democracy. We thought somehow we could leapfrog to Jeffersonian democracy. Frankly, that’s never going to happen in the Middle East. You’ve got to walk before you run. For most of those countries, you need to establish not only political stability but begin to improve the quality of life for people in the region. That is not just giving them a parliament; it’s giving them food and healthcare, and a good education.
Farid Senzai is director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. He has researched foreign policy and Muslim politics for the Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the World Bank. He teaches U.S. foreign policy and Middle East politics at SCU.