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Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon on Iraq and al Qaeda

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HH: Joined now by Michael O’Hanlon. Michael is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is often on television talking about the war. He had a piece in the Washington Times yesterday, A Ruthless Foe. Michael O’Hanlon, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show. Good to have you on.

MO’H: Thank you, nice to be with you.

HH: I was struck yesterday by your piece, which made an observation that we often overlook, that although the al Qaeda in Iraq are a relatively small number, they are among the most ruthless enemies the country has ever faced. Hyperbole or accuracy when it comes to the characterization relative to our other enemies, Michael O’Hanlon?

MO’H: Well, yeah, it’s al Qaeda, and it’s also many of Saddam’s former cronies who I think really have no compelling vision they’re offering any Iraqis. They are in favor, really, of tearing down the state we’re all trying to build, and hoping maybe, you know, former Saddam henchmen can then fill in the gap. I contrast this in my piece with some enemies that we’ve fought in the past that most Americans won’t have a lot of affection for, let’s say the Viet Cong in Vietnam, but nonetheless, groups that sometimes had at least some kind of a charisma among their own people, some kind of a claim to legitimacy. They were either opposing a colonial power, or they promised a Communist utopia. Even if these dreams were often unrealistic, they tried to have some positive vision to rally their people around. In Iraq, there is no such positive vision. The people that have really been behind this war, especially in the first three years, have really just wanted to tear down what’s being built, and that makes them, I think, among the most despicable foes we’ve ever faced on the battlefield.

HH: Now the numbers you cite in your Washington Times piece, and I’ve linked it at, are roughly between fifteen and twenty thousand fighters total, of which between one thousand to two thousand are al Qaeda in Iraq, and these individuals represent less than .1 percent of Iraq’s population. So in many respects, it’s really not a civil war, though it’s a ruthless enemy.

MO’H: Yeah, although the point I was trying to make here, and I realize that in the piece, I was probably a little confusing, I was trying to acknowledge that in the last year, unfortunately, the war has broadened a bit, and you do now see, for example, the Shia militias that are more willing to fight, and the numbers there are probably getting up into the higher tens of thousands. But my point was, the Shia militias didn’t start fighting until we had had three years of violence in these terroristic attacks by al Qaeda, and by the former Baathists who were close to Saddam Hussein. And so it was really those people who created the conditions for this emerging civil conflict. I do think it’s become at least a low to medium grade civil war that now involves a higher percentage of the population, but in terms of the groups that really initiated it, and drove it, and you know, caused Iraq to go down such a terrible trajectory, it was a very, very small percent of the population.

HH: Now I had Fred Kagan on the program earlier today, Michael O’Hanlon, and Lawrence Wright on for the entire program yesterday to talk about the enemy. And Kagan’s just back from Iraq. He’s not proclaiming peace around the corner, or light at the end of the tunnel, but he does point out that the militia violence has dropped considerably in the hundred days following the beginning of the surge. Do you sense that is at least one metric about which coalition forces can be somewhat satisfied?

MO’H: Well, satisfied’s probably a little strong, but encouraged, or at least you know, trying to build upon a hopeful sign, I would go along with that. Fred Kagan and I have done some writing together, by the way, not so much on Iraq, but on the need for a larger army and Marine Corps to sustain this mission. And I have a lot of respect for him. Of course, as you know, he’s one of the architects of the surge strategy.

HH: Right, right.

MO’H: And I do think that there are reasons to at least see glimmers of hope. I do also, however, feel that Senator McCain and President Bush, and Vice President Cheney, have sometimes tried to give too optimistic of an interpretation of where we are right now, and that’s dangerous, because you know, it’s only a week ago that 200 people were killed in one day by car bombings, it was just this Monday that 9 Americans were killed in a raid in Diyala Province. You’re aware of all this stuff. But I think if we’re not careful, and we start making it sound as if we’ve politically prejudged the outcome of this, whether it’s Republicans saying it’s already working, or Democrats saying it’s already failed, we’re not going to have any basis to really evaluate things down the road this summer, when I believe the evidence will be a lot more clear.

HH: And I think that’s what Kagan and Gerecht and Max Boot have all said about their visit, is that it’s way too early to assess anything other than the fact that there is a decrease in militia violence. Michael O’Hanlon, when the argument is made by Harry Reid that we’ve lost the war, do you reject that?

MO’H: Well, I don’t agree with that, but you know, I can’t totally prove Senator Reid wrong. There is, as you know, not enough of a body of knowledge, there’s not enough of a science of counterinsurgency for us to be able to say when a war is lost, or when it’s won. But I would also put the onus of proof back on Senator Reid, and I would argue to him you know, it’s only been a couple of months that we’ve been trying this surge, and the good news is Petraeus and Gates and Rice have all said if there’s going to be any hope for it, it should probably become clear within a few months.

– – – –

HH: Michael O’Hanlon, I want to go back to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, and the politicization of this. What do you think would happen if in fact we were obliged to withdraw American troops over the next six months to a year? What would befall Iraq?

MO’H: Yeah, that’s a good way for me to answer your previous question as well, all tied together, because even if Senator Reid is right, I don’t think he is, but even if he is right, and I can’t prove him wrong, to say that the current mission is failing, or maybe even beyond the point of recovery, there are other things that we could contemplate doing that would be, essentially, back-up plans with less ambitious goals, but would still hopefully stand a chance of preventing a complete deterioration of this situation into all out civil war, instability, al Qaeda finding a sanctuary in Iraq, much larger than it has now. For example, a soft partitioning of Iraq, and here, I think Senator Biden has been pretty constructive as one of the Senator Democrats whose, I think, come up with some good ideas. The Iraqis themselves don’t want to do a soft partition, you know, three autonomous regions, share the oil, but otherwise have the three regions govern themselves. But things could change, and things are changing. And pretty soon, we may not have much choice but to consider something like that. So I would be much more comfortable if Senator Reid would say listen, I don’t think the current strategy is working, pretty soon, I think we should recognize that it’s failed, and let’s have a serious debate about back-up plans. To me, that would be much more constructive than simply saying we failed, therefore let’s get out, it doesn’t even matter what we do next, which is almost what I hear him implying.

HH: And that is, however, a broadly representative characterization of the left side of the Democratic Party, which is very activist, and very urgent in their demand that we withdraw. And so, just to inform them, from someone from Brookings, what do you think the consequences…I asked Lawrence Wright this as well, but what do you think the consequences would be of a precipitous withdrawal?

MO’H: Well, I think they would probably be…the civil war getting anywhere from two to ten times worse in terms of the rate of killing. I think ultimately, the Sunni Arabs would be mostly defeated, and they would essentially be ghettoized in the western part of their country without much oil, very angry at the world, and therefore even more likely to collaborate with al Qaeda. As you know, one of the hopeful things right now is that the Sunni Arabs are not collaborating as much with al Qaeda, and in some cases, fighting them out in al Anbar Province. But I think that dynamic would probably change for the worse, and you would see that region become to some extent a sanctuary for terrorism, and of course, there’d be a risk of regional war. I don’t know how to score the probabilities on that, but some risk of a greater regional war. And Iraq itself would be in mayhem probably for many years to come, looking sort of like Somalia or maybe the way Afghanistan did in the 80’s and 90’s. I think that’s the most likely outcome. You know, I’m not saying that it would destabilize the entire Persian Gulf, but there would be some chance of a regional war, and a very high chance of genocide inside Iraq.

HH: Robert Kaplan of the Atlantic, and also the Naval Academy, shares that opinion, as this audience knows. Let me ask you a little bit about al Qaeda, and whether or not our continued presence in Iraq is manufacturing terrorists. Certainly, it is attracting them, as Lawrence Wright argued on this program yesterday. They are coming to fight the jihad against the Americans in al Anbar, and they’re coming in from a number of different ways. But do you think it’s actually creating them, so much as drawing them in?

MO’H: Well, it might be doing a little bit of the creation. I take your point. I think most of it is that it’s becoming a rallying point, and a focal point for their global efforts. But you know, I think we have to recognize this war is not helping us in a strategic sense right now, and it is, you know, it is adding fuel to the fire for many global terrorist movements, and gives them a motivation, and it gives them a rallying cry. Having said all that, if we were to leave and allow them to claim victory, I think that would be even worse. So I’m not going to take the Bush administration position that we are somehow just finding it a more convenient battlefield to contest people who would be trying to get at us anyway. I think it’s worse than that. I think Iraq has increased the overall severity of the global threat from terrorism, but even with that opinion in mind, I don’t think we have a choice to leave, at least not unless it becomes the only option that’s left, because I think they would use that as even more of a justification for their global efforts, and try to take heart in the fact that they can defeat us in many different ways around the world, and step up their efforts thereafter. So that’s my take on al Qaeda.

HH: Today, Senator McCain made a declaration, as did Rudy Giuliani on Sean Hannity’s program, that this is such a long war, and Americans are not ready, and are ill-prepared, and do not understand how vigorous this Salafist fringe is, and how deadly their intention. That’s what your Washington Times piece was underscoring. Do you agree with them? And is political leadership on a bipartisan basis doing what it needs to do to educate the public about the nature of this conflict, Michael O’Hanlon?

MO’H: It’s a good question. No, they’re not doing enough, but McCain, of course, is always good for his candor, and I respect him a lot for that. I do think, though, that he, as well as some of the other candidates, need to come up with some new ideas for the long war, a term that General, I’m sorry, that Admiral Fallon is not using anymore, but that we still sometimes employ here in the continental U.S. And I think that it may be necessary to imagine not only using the military instruments of foreign policy more vigorously, and the intelligence tools as we’ve been doing, but to think about how we help some of these Islamic countries become more stable, more moderate, more prosperous, and I’m not sure we’ve seen enough debate on that. President Bush had an idea in his second inaugural, to use democracy promotion as the core element of our long term strategy, but that hasn’t worked so well. We probably approved elections too soon in the Palestinian region, elections have not pacified Iraq, they have not pacified Lebanon. So I think we need a broader strategy, and I hope McCain and others will start proposing that, on top of the military piece.

– – – –

HH: Michael O’Hanlon, thanks for joining me, I hope we can have you back often. I want to get two questions in. Lawrence Wright yesterday told stories about just the utter incompetence of our intelligence agencies and political leadership to know basic things. Do you agree with that assessment?

MO’H: That may be a little stronger than I would like. I mean, it’s a big topic, obviously. Our intelligence…and obviously, they have had some setbacks, and some major failings in a couple of very prominent cases, but I guess I’d be a little bit more complimentary about the professionalism and expertise of many of our people there, not to say that they’re getting enough support or have enough skills, and there are many areas where I think reforms are needed. But no, I wouldn’t go quite that far.

HH: All right, second question. I usually talk North Korea with my friend and old college roommate, Dan Poneman, whom I’m sure you know from Korea circles. Is this engagement working? It’s so shadowy, the bank stuff, and the inspectors. Are the North Koreans screwing us again?

MO’H: I doubt we’re going to let them, because I think we will make sure we only give any benefits to them when we get a quid pro quo that’s fairly clear. So I’m not so worried about being screwed, but I am worried about an ongoing crisis that makes the North Korean nuclear arsenal more and more of a fete accompli, something that can’t be reversed. And I do worry about that. I think what we’re doing now is the right basic approach, but it’s a very narrow tactical approach. We need a broader strategy, which I wrote a book about a few years ago, on how I thought we should proceed in a broader sense, but not guaranteeing that would work, either. This is an okay short term tactic, but that’s the best we can say for what’s being undertaken right now.

HH: From what you can read in the tea leaves, does it look like the North Koreans are living up to whatever their part of the deal was?

MO’H: No, that would be too strong.

HH: Yeah.

MO’H: I think they are still debating internally whether they really even want to, you know, codify the deal. I mean, it’s at a somewhat uncertain stage where, as you point out, this dealing of the bank, and the issue of returning funds to them, has been a contentious point, and they have dragged it out long enough to I think allow them to have some internal second thoughts about whether they like the deal at all. So I think it’s too soon to talk about compliance.

HH: Michael O’Hanlon, a great pleasure making your acquaintance. I look forward to having you back often. Thanks for a great piece in the Washington Times.

MO’H: Thank you very much.

End of interview.


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