Brookings Institute senior fellow Michael O’Hanlon on his recent trip to Iraq.
HH: Pleased to welcome back to the program Michael O’Hanlon, who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. This morning, Mr. O’Hanlon and his colleague at Brookings, Ken Pollack, published an article in the New York Times on their eight day trip to Iraq, which included the line, “We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms.” Michael O’Hanlon, welcome back, good to have you here.
MO’H: Thank you, nice to be with you.
HH: Can you give us an overview of when you were in Iraq, and which parts of the country you went to?
MO’H: Sure. I was there until about four days ago, so it was a trip from roughly the 15th to the 25th of July. And we spent a couple of days in Baghdad, and then one day with each of the main U.S. divisions in that country. So up north, in the area of Tal Afar in Mosul, that was one day. Another day was in the streets of Baghdad. A third day was south of Baghdad in the various zones of the central command, or central division, and our fourth day was out in the west, where the al Anbar Province is located. And we also spent some additional time talking to commanders in various places.
HH: I have linked to your article, people can go read it at Hughhewitt.com, but let’s get to the bottom line. Is the surge working, Michael O’Hanlon?
MO’H: In military terms, and this is an important qualifier, in military terms, yes there is a substantial amount of progress being made. But of course, the surge strategy was always a broader strategy than just military tactics. It requires political reconciliation within Iraq. And in that broader sense, it is not yet working. I think all we are seeing is potentially an opportunity for Iraqi politicians to build on the military momentum, and try to get things going at a much deeper level. Otherwise, all we will have done in the end will have been to suppress the civil war, and to the point where once we leave, it will probably reignite, and maybe even before we leave. So I think that on balance, I would not say we are succeeding just yet in broader terms. But the military piece of it looks good.
HH: On Friday, I interviewed at length John Burns, the New York Times correspondent. We played it in the first two hours of the program today. He’s come to the same conclusion you have, and he worries that the debate in Congress over a withdrawal deadline may in fact be inducing the paralysis in the political reconciliation, for fear of, you know, Shiites don’t want to welcome Sunnis back in and do de-Baathification if suddenly they’re in a civil war. What do you think?
MO’H: Well, you know, you hear both arguments from, even from American officials in Baghdad who work for the Bush administration. Some people are worried that the Congressional pressure, and the talk of American withdrawal, will make Iraqis feel that there’s no point in even trying to reconcile, because they’re not going to have a chance to build this new country. Others will say you know, a little bit of Democratic pressure is not such a bad thing, because it makes the Iraqis realize that the clock is ticking, and they’d better get their act together. And if they don’t, there’s no way this mission can work anyway. So I don’t think it’s clear that the American debate is hurting the Iraq mission. I think it would hurt the mission, obviously, if we left. Now if you’ve concluded we’ve already lost, we might as well leave. But I think right now, what you’re seeing is the possibility of open revolt from the Congress, but still, people begrudgingly tolerating the ongoing efforts with the surge. And that is about the right balance, I think, for our country to be operating from right now, at least for the next few months.
HH: In your article today, you and Mr. Pollack write, “A local mayor told us his greatest fear was an overly rapid American departure from Iraq.” How broad is that fear?
MO’H: Well, and again, you know, it’s easy for someone to come back from Iraq and say well, I’ve got all this first hand experience when I was there for a grand total of eight days. I didn’t speak to that many mayors. I spoke to a couple of mayors, I spoke to a dozen tribal sheiks, I spoke to a half dozen major politicians on the Iraqi side, spoke to a few Iraqi military personnel. So in all, I probably spent time with only a few dozen Iraqis. And for me to claim that I have a broad feel for the country would be overstating. But I do think that you are seeing from many of the sheiks as well this same worry, that if we left, they’d be at the mercy not only of the al Qaeda in Iraq forces, but the Shiia death squads. And they’re right, and of course, that’s the longer term challenge here. It’s not obvious that even if we make short term progress we’ll have resolved the underlying sectarian dilemma enough to really, in the end, have a chance for stability.
HH: Now Michael O’Hanlon, did you meet with General Petraeus when you were there?
HH: Do you trust him to give a complete, fair and accurate assessment of conditions on the ground when he makes his September report?
MO’H: Oh, yeah, Petraeus is outstanding, and so is Ambassador Crocker, and they will…you know, and General Odierno’s quite capable as well. They will give us good information. However, I will nod my cap, or tip my cap just a little bit to Democrats on this point. They have said well, you know, we don’t necessarily trust them. I think these are people of great integrity and great ability, however their job is to try to find a way to succeed. And that’s good for our country, but it also means that they’re going to be looking for the bright spots. I still think they are about the three best people we could ask to speak on this of everybody I can think of, but I would favor the more independent eyes, and I’d favor, for example, an Iraqi Study Group II that might include Tony Zinni, the retired general, or Sam Nunn, the retired Senator, and have them look at the information as well to complement what Petraeus and Crocker will do.
HH: Michael O’Hanlon from the Brookings Institute, thanks for joining us on the Hugh Hewitt Show.
End of interview.