GPS: "The true success or failure of the US mission has been far from revealed."
Michael makes his first appearance on Fareed Zakaria GPS, discussing the current situation in Iraq. Other panelists are Michael O'Hanlon and Ken Pollack (both of the Brookings Institution) and Dexter Filkins (NYT).
This is one of the best discussions of the current situation that I have heard in a long time. It really summarizes where we are now and some of the choices yet ahead.
FAREED ZAKARIA: Joining me again, Kenneth Pollack and Michael O'Hanlon from the Brookings Institution, just back from Iraq.
And we also welcome two prominent journalists, the "New York Times'" foreign correspondent, Dexter Filkins. He covered many of the most dangerous moments in Iraq. And live from Baghdad, CNN's Michael Ware.
Michael, let me start with you.
You're probably aware of the basic analysis that Pollack and O'Hanlon gave, which is that things are going better, the Iraqi army is more competent, also more seen as a national army. Iraq is on the mend.
What do you think?
MICHAEL WARE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, BAGHDAD: Well, on the surface level, there's a paper-thin veneer where that is actually true. There are improvements in the Iraqi security forces.
It is, however, the case -- no matter how much you want to dress it up, and no matter what an American adviser tells you -- these are militia factions in uniform. And if a couple of Anbar brigades performed very well in Basra, that's true and cannot be challenged.
The real question is, though, when you have 30,000 or 40,000 American troops here, unable to leave their bases or project any real combat power, what do you think those two Anbar brigades are going to be doing, with the weapons and training that they've received? Do you think they're still going to be answering to this Iraqi government?
The real truth of the success or failure -- you cannot, even for a moment, question that attacks are down. Deaths among the civilian population and among U.S. and Iraqi security forces are down. Al Qaeda is under pressure like it's never been before.
But what are the second and third tier effects? What are the prices America has to pay for this?
Apart from segregating the Iraqi society, apart from turning this war into a competition of influence with Iran, apart from alienating its Arab allies, apart from building U.S.-backed militia blocs, you have to look at the long-term interests. And we're going to see them come into sharp focus.
So, really, the true success or failure of the U.S. mission has been far from revealed.
MICHAEL O'HANLON: Michael's right, that we don't know where this is going to be in three or five years. We don't know where this will be once the U.S. downsizes. That's one of the reasons I favor a gradual downsizing.
You get to the issue of Obama versus McCain, you might have a situation where Obama, if he wants to get out faster, is going to have to accept more risk. And he's essentially going to be either challenging Michael Ware's analysis, or saying, "I'll live with the consequences, because I'm uncertain enough about the prognosis anyway, that it's not worth trying to babysit this thing for five or 10 years."
DEXTER FILKINS, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, "NEW YORK TIMES": You know, we've had this very discussion before, you know, 2005, 2006. We're going to draw down brigades. There's been pauses before, and they've never held.
I mean, one of the things that concerns me -- for example, we talk about the Iraqi army going into Basra, as they did, they went into Mosul, they went into Sadr City -- they didn't really have to fight their way into those neighborhoods, and they didn't have to fight their way in. They haven't done a lot of fighting.
In Basra, they basically took over after the Iraqi government sent a delegation to Iran, and talked to Muqtada al Sadr, and he basically told his guys to stand down.
The real test is going to be when they have to fight. And they haven't had to fight yet. And I'm concerned about what's going to happen when they do.
ZAKARIA: Michael Ware, you brought up another point about the division of the population, and things like that. I mean, I look at Baghdad, which I haven't been to in a while, but the number of walls has apparently quadrupled or quintupled since I was there, so that you have great security in Baghdad, but it's because it almost looks like one of these medieval cities with lots of walls.
Can you get around? What are the effects of the walls? Does it make commerce very difficult?
What does normal life in Iraq look like?
WARE: Well, that's a great question, Fareed.
I mean, it's true. Sectarian murders within Baghdad alone have plummeted by 90-something percent. But how have we achieved this is the real question. And what will be costs and consequences going forward?
By and large, the drop in violence has been achieved by segregating the Iraqi community. The sectarian cleansing that began during the civil war phase, or the active civil war, was institutionalized by the U.S. forces.
They essentially separated the communities, and with mile after mile after mile of blast barrier, literally gated these communities. And in those communities that did not have Iranian-backed militias protecting their populations, America created American-backed militias and put them on the U.S. government payroll to protect those communities.
So, essentially, neither side can get at each other.
KEN POLLACK: I think that Michael is absolutely right in a couple of the points that he makes in terms of these are baby steps. No one should take away from anything that Michael O'Hanlon and I are saying that somehow the problems of Iraq are solved and we're on a glide path to success.
A second point is that, as Michael Ware is pointing out, what we've done is effectively suppress the sectarian violence.
Now, on the one hand you can say that's very fragile. It is. And Michael's -- Michael Ware's description of the situation is right. The consequences can be catastrophic, if we suddenly walked away and just ripped all this up and allowed the Iraqis to have at it.
You would have these forces go right back at it. You would have that catastrophic civil war with foreign interference in the middle of the Persian Gulf oilfields. That's why this is so important to the United States.
ZAKARIA: Dexter, you listen to all of this, and what does it make you think in terms of the American political debate? Because it does feel to me like there's a sort of weird disconnect, particularly on the Democratic side. I mean, they're fighting a battle -- you know, they're looking at an Iraq of two years ago. And...
FILKINS: That's right.
ZAKARIA: ... what should they be saying?
FILKINS: You know, I think you're absolutely right. I mean, I think -- I think the -- depending on who wins, but even before that -- the Obama campaign you're probably going to see do some pretty fast footwork.
And they're going to have to -- they're going to have to come up with something a little bit different than saying we're going to be out in 18 months, or we're going to go one brigade a month. I mean, because the progress has been real.
And if -- I think a pretty good argument could be made that, if we, the United States, pulls out too quickly, all that progress is going to go away.
And so, I think you're going to see probably -- and what you're -- is a convergence of the two campaigns, as Ken was saying, that the McCain position and the Obama position are increasingly going to look more similar.
ZAKARIA: Michael Ware, you seem the most skeptical about the idea that there's been kind of a transformation.
Would you favor, or do you think that a rapid drawdown of American troops could actually force the Iraqis to make some of the political deals they need to?
WARE: Well, in dreamland perhaps, Fareed, but certainly not in reality here on the ground in Iraq.
I mean, what you need to realize is that the great elephant in this room that no one's talking about is Iran. And, of course, the American Arab allied countries that surround Iraq.
I mean, this war stopped being about al Qaeda a long time ago, if ever it was.
This war is really a contest between Washington and Tehran.
And the fundamental building blocks of this government are all political factions literally founded in Tehran, if not still funded and supported by Tehran, or have long-term, long-established links with Tehran.
Indeed, General David Petraeus himself said that it's a reality of life that the president of Iraq is an agent of influence for Iran.
So, sure. You can pull out. But be aware what you're giving Iran, what knock-on effect that will have with America's Arab allies. And then factor in how you think that will play with reconciliation, Fareed.
ZAKARIA: Why is the Democratic Party not rethinking its Iraq policy?
O'HANLON: I think one thing is to back to the history. You and I know that we have to think in terms of where we are going forward in terms of options. But obviously, for a lot of Democrats, this is the symbol of the Bush administration's failed foreign policy.
They threw away a war plan that had been developed under their predecessors that could have helped stabilize -- it may or may not have succeeded -- but it could have made a more serious effort to stabilize the place after Saddam was overthrown.
Rumsfeld threw it away. We didn't listen to our allies in the negotiation process. This became the symbol of Bush administration arrogance and unilateralism.
And then, for four years it went badly.
So, given that backdrop, it's pretty hard for Democrats to come around to the idea that perhaps, by Bush finally let professionals run this war instead of ideologues, that we have begun to rescue this situation.
I think that's the simplest interpretation.
POLLACK: As far as whether things are going to work out or not for the Iraqi people, they've paid a horrible price for the mistakes that we made -- exactly the mistakes that Michael O'Hanlon was talking about.
I don't know that we as Americans can really say whether or not it was worth it, because at the end of the day, it's the Iraqis who are paying the highest price. I think they're the ones who are going to judge.
And all I can say is that, having inflicted this tragedy upon the Iraqi people, my own feeling is that part of what we owe Iraq is the opportunity to pull themselves out of it. If we can do that, if over the course of the next four or five years we can give the Iraqis a shot at stability and a new life for themselves, then perhaps they will decide that it was worth it.
ZAKARIA: And on that note, thank you all for a wonderful discussion. And Michael Ware, an especial thanks to you, because it is very late in Baghdad. Thank you.