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12/15/2006 Television Panel Discussion
voa.jpg (1492 bytes)Voice of America - Inter American Forum
The Baker Plan or Troop Surge in Iraq:
The Iraq Debacle and New Bush Strategies

Adriana Amat, VOA: The highest ranking US military commander recommended privately to president George W. Bush that he change the principal military mission in Iraq from combating insurgents to training Iraqis to stop terrorists. Never the less, President Bush affirmed that he would not make a hasty decision under pressure about a change in course over Iraq. additionally, it was announced that Bush would deliver an important speech about Iraq strategy before Christmas, but decided to postpone it until the beginning of 2007. Meanwhile, Senator John McCain said on Thursday that the US should send 30,000 additional troops to Iraq to control sectarian violence, and give Iraqi politicians the stability to put the country on the right track. John McCain gave these remarks in a press conference in Baghdad accompanied by five other members of Congress who later met with functionaries of the US government and Iraq.

To analyze this theme we've invited Grant Smith, of the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy. Grant, as always, it is a pleasure to have you with us on Inter American Forum.

Grant Smith, IRmep: Thank you very much.

Adriana Amat, VOA: What is the best that can happen in this moment, or the least worst, in Iraq. Send more troops, or start to withdraw them.

Grant Smith, IRmep: Well, that's the big question. I think we ought to mention that there was a study group on Iraq, led by James Baker, that recommended a reduction in troops between now and 2008. They were very conscious that in the elections of 2006, the American public doesn't support much more activity in Iraq, and the general sentiment is for a withdrawal. The Baker plan went off like a bomb in Washington, with its suggestions that are basically, in terms of ideology, confronting the Bush policy up until now, with recommendations for more relations with Iran and Syria, paying attention to the Israeli/Palestinian peace process, and basically abandoning the direction they've been following until now.

Adriana Amat, VOA: But, I repeat the question. I don't think you've given a response, what is the right thing, put in more troops as Senator McCain is calling for right now?

Grant Smith, IRmep: Fine, that's a plan that's been mentioned. That they should send up to 40,000 to Bagdhad to secure it, and give more support to the political representation, but the fundamental problem is that there is a center of power, made of people like Ali al Sistani, Muqtada al Sadr, and the armed groups who are supporting them, as well as the Kurds, and the Sunni, and the government, which is not the center of power. What the Baker plan was looking to accomplish, and what they've not mentioned in any of the plans to "surge" troops, is how to synthesize power centers and the government through US troops. The other plans, including the "80% plan", which we haven't talked about, anticipate that kind of synthesis. That Iraq really has to have a government that is a center of power, not just a puppet of American troops.

Adriana Amat, VOA: The argument for sending more troops, according to McCain, is that they want to "win Baghdad". Is that naive? Win control of Baghdad, and that way recover gradual control over the rest of the country?

Grant Smith, VOA: Theoretically, to control 20% of the population in one city, is to control the capital, but what matters in Iraq, as we all know, are the petroleum resources, resources in far flung regions, not just the capitol. My response is no, some of the analysts of the Baker Group and others who want to really confront the political problems of power centers and the government, this is more important than simply controlling a bigger "green zone" in Baghdad.

Adriana Amat, VOA: Fine, we needed three questions to get the answer.

Grant Smith, IRmep: Well, it is complicated, isn't it?

Natalia Orozco, RCN Television, Colombia: There is a rhetorical question about whether there is a civil war in Iraq. The retiring Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan, said that the situation is worse than a civil war. From your point of view, is Iraq worse off today, than before?

Grant Smith, IRmep: Yes. It is worse than before. If we consult the studies from groups that have done survey research that are representative of the population and are statistically sound, such as the Lancet Study, they state that up to 600,000 have died in the violence. If we compare that figure with other civil wars, the US, Spain, whatever, as a percentage of the population, it is a horrific figure, and indicates that there is a civil war going on.

Ruben Barrera, Notimex, Mexico: Grant, one of the most cited recommendations in the Baker study, one of the 79 recommendations, is looking for political solutions, not just military solutions, to normalize the situation. In this case, they talk about approaching Iran and Syria, from the standpoint that they have better input and relations with the antagonist groups. The White House said "no". It seems as though they are more interested in following what their ideology dictates, rather than what reality could give them. In this case, if President Bush maintains his doctrine of not talking to Iran or Syria, do you think the situation would worsen rather than get better?

Grant Smith, IRmep: I think so. We've arrived at this point where the administration is being told they must negotiate with Syria after years of a failed policy of not talking. James Baker has a reputation as a diplomat, he was Secretary of State, he and everybody is giving the US the recommendation to talk to Syria and Iran, that the administration can talk to regimes it doesn't like, people with different ideologies. But it is a matter of faith and doctrine, a closed ideology that the US can't talk to Iran or Syria, because of the other matters on the table. The nuclear program in Iran, the involvement of Syria in Lebanon and the front between Israel and the Palestinians. I think we've arrived at a moment in which the power of the study, and its analytical support, gave the Bush administration had a chance to change their policy.  However, through all possible media channels, the same people who supported the invasion, neoconservatives, Robert Kagan, Richard Perle, have reiterated that the US should not change the policy.

Ruben Barrera, Notimex, Mexico: How much does the present situation change with this threat from Saudi Arabia, to help and support the Sunnis, if the US withdraws and the violence against the Sunnis begins to increase against this minority?

Grant Smith, IRmep: Well, before saying anything, it warrants mention that this kind of public confrontation is almost unknown in the relation between the Saudi Kingdom and the US. Neither ever talk that way in public. But this breech, which possibly caused the resignation of the Saudi Ambassador to the US this week, is a crisis, it represents a real crisis, that they really don't want to see a Shiite cap over the Arab world. But it is another reason, I think, for having a conference and more help from real partners, not just junior partners of the coalition, but a real conference among the groups in the region.

Adriana Amat, VOA: But Grant, I don't know if it is too "out there" to think this, but doesn't the Saudi statement serve US interests, the position of Saudi Arabia, saying "if you leave, we'll financially support the Sunnis?" The US doesn't really want to withdraw troops...

Grant Smith, IRmep: The Sunnis are seen right now as a minority, some of whom are fighting to regain what they lost under Saddam Hussein. Philip Zelikow, who is a counselor in the US State Department to Condoleezza Rice, said, we should put to one side the Sunnis and support the Kurds, Shiite, and the 80% solution will allow the solidification of a power base, and goodbye Sunnis. That type of thinking is what is causing the Saudi panic.

Ruben Barrera, Notimex, Mexico: And this plan you mention, this 80/20 could also bring about what they've talked about, which is to break up the country into regions, the northern zone dominated by the Kurds, a zone of Shiite influence, and another zone of Sunni influence?

Grant Smith, IRmep: Yes, that would be the logical conclusion, but nobody wants a plan to divide the country. The lines that the British drew over the map are said to be more viable in terms of economics and balance of power in the region. I don't think there are any influential policymakers that want to do that at the moment. As we know, however, the Kurds are already signing contracts to develop their petroleum resources, they are raising their own flag, so in reality, there is already a very independent region there in the north.

Adriana Amat, VOA: What do you think will be the announcement in the presidential address in January from President Bush about the new Iraq strategy.

Grant Smith, VOA: I think they are going to return to their ideology, which is basically not talking to Iran or Syria, they are going to raise troop levels against public opinion, they are going to follow the guidance of their advisors such as Henry Kissinger, made famous again this week for his role in the coup in Chile, and not give "salted peanuts" to the US population. "Peanuts" means taking out troops, or giving Americans something that will make them want more. That's what is going to happen. They want to "win". They are going to underscore winning, and raise troop levels.

Natalia Orozco, RCN Television, Colombia: One feels however, that President Bush as tried, through some timid steps, to gain a little solidarity of American public opinion. It has started to make a difference to him. Don't you think there is some possibility that could leave this conflict recovering some small measure of presidential prestige?

Grant Smith, IRmep: Well, I think Bush is already thinking that history will be written in the future, and he has readied himself for bad news, and bad public opinion polls, until he leaves, and that doesn't really matter to him. He still thinks that launching a democratic state in the center of the region is going to happen, that he'll be remembered as the author of that, the force behind the creation of democracy in the region. I don't see him looking for general political support, there are many who say we must unite both sides to finish and win. But Americans are very divided. Only 12% of the public want more troops in Iraq, 75% want them reduced. I don't think he'll arrive at a "popular" decision when he wants to increase troops. He won't be able to change minds of those who voted out Republicans in the November elections.

Ruben Barrera, Notimex, Mexico: What should we look for in the New Congress when it initiates its legislative schedule on January 4?  As we know the Democrats have not hidden their rejection and repugnancy over the war, although many of them voted for it, and some of them have announced the initiation of hearings to find out what went wrong, others have threatened to withhold funding for military operations, with control of the lower house totally in control of Democrats, and control of the Senate somewhat up in the air, what can we expect from the new Congress.

Grant Smith, IRmep: Well, it was a gift to Democrats that they could just say "we want a change of course in Iraq" and win. Implicit in that promise was reducing troops. It is perfectly possible that they are going to now support a troop increase, as you've said, the majority supported the invasion in the first place. If they have a good sales plan, they can sell the idea that we have to win through troop increases, and then vote against the very forces that put them in office. At the moment, the potential change in balance of power in the Senate, the possible entry of a Republican, is something the whole world is watching conscious of how it will affect Iraq. If the Senate changes hands, it will be a lot easier to send in more troops.

Natalia Orozco, RCN Television, Colombia: You talk a lot about the public opinion and what Americans want or don't want. What do Iraqis feel? What does Iraqi public opinion say?

Grant Smith, IRmep: That's a great question. Zogby International has just come out with an analysis, they do a lot of public opinion research in the region. 60% of Iraqis are perfectly comfortable with the idea that killing US troops, for simply occupying their country, is justified. The general feeling in Iraq is that they don't want foreign troops on their territory. That is something that is very logical, that one can understand. However, this simple analysis, that the US occupation is generating the majority of the conflict, is not taken seriously by the administration. No one takes public opinion polls of Iraqis seriously.

Adriana Amat, VOA: Should the function of US troops be exclusively for training?

Grant Smith, IRmep: Training. The US can train the troops forever. But we are not, for example, establishing an Iraqi airforce. Iraq is a country you can't control without an airforce. Neither can it be controlled without tank battalions, which they also don't have. Iraqi armed forces cannot maintain their independence if they are totally reliant on the US for arms, bullets and supplies. The Iraqi army is a force that for all the training you give it, are pulled more strongly by factional centers like Shiite militias, than the force of nationalism. Nationalism does not exist in sufficient quantities to really have a professional armed service.

Adriana Amat, VOA: So they form a kind of cycle, with the US saying we are not going to withdraw, until the Iraqi forces are ready and sufficiently trained.

Grant Smith, IRmep: Right, and that pushes the US more toward those in the "80%" plan who say, "if only we could have the support of Ali al Sistani, and Muqtader al Sadr, if we go with the Shiites, the training plan works."

Adriana Amat, VOA: Do you believe that theory that if the US withdraws, Baghdad will become some kind of heaven or paradise for Al Qaeda to launch attacks against the US?

Grant Smith, IRmep: Al Quaeda is a franchise. They show up wherever there is demand. If there is a withdrawal, as have said the same Iraqis who don't want foreign troops in Iraq, any who have entered from Syria or other places or formations of Al Qaeda won't be welcome in Iraq, again, according to the rejection of foreign forces in Iraqi public opinion.

Ruben Barrera, Notimex, Mexico: Does all of this shine light on a long US presence in Iraq?

Grant Smith, IRmep: Of course. Let's speak like adults. The authors of this war had three real objectives. Control the petroleum, project force over the region from a new central military base, and third secure Israeli interests in the region. All of this appears in the plan of the "Project for a New American Century" called "Rebuilding America's Defenses". The groups working to bury the Baker plan, the majority, were also the authors of this plan.

I don't see the withdrawal of US military forces from Iraq at any time in the next thirty years.

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