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Imperial Grunt’s Robert Kaplan on the ISG report.

Friday, December 8, 2006
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HH: Pleased to welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show Robert Kaplan, author most recently of Imperial Grunts. It’s in paperback now, one of the must read books of 2006, and it’s on any serious student of the war’s shelf. Robert Kaplan, now teaching at the United States Naval Academy. Welcome back, Robert. Always good…

RK: It’s my pleasure to be here, Hugh.

HH: Well, you’re trying really hard to find the pony…

RK: (laughing)

HH: …and I read your Atlantic essay today, and I’m going to let you give, because everyone who’s lined up on this program, with the exception of Sam Brownback who was kind of in the middle, but whether it’s Mark Steyn, Victor Davis Hanson, Christopher Hitchens, Ralph Peters, and we’ve got a long line…they hate this thing. They have vomited it back. What is good about the ISG report?

RK: All right. First of all, it was…it says it takes the nuclear issue off the table. It…the Syrians have to negotiate with the Israelis. It says the Syrians can’t have Lebanon, that they have to stand up to investigations on Hariri and Gemayal. It does not call for a cut and run, bring out all the troops now. It is real fuzzy on that. It basically goes along with the President’s goals. It could have been a lot, a lot worse.

HH: (laughing) Okay.

RK: It really could have been. Where I fault it in my report was that they made the mistake of thinking as if they were the Syrian leadership, and they were the Iranian leadership, and how they would think if they were in control in Damascus and Tehran. But of course, they are not. And it may well be that the people in leadership positions there would not mind total collapse in Iraq, at least in the short run. But there are a lot of other things, Hugh, that are good in that report. For instance, the U.S. Army for the last few years has been sending the people nobody wants to these training missions, because the way you get promoted in the Army is to lead Americans into combat, not foreign troops. People have been…the most forward thinking generals have been complaining about that to me. The report nails that. The report also nails that there is not an expeditionary mentality in the State Department, and there needs to be. There’s a lot of good little details in that report when you read it line by line closely. And let me repeat. It could have been a lot worse, Hugh, and the President…what this does is the President can ambiguously, partially embrace this, and buy some breathing space from the Democrats in Congress for the next few months.

HH: Now Robert Kaplan, permit me an extended analogy. If in 1938, a panel of distinguished Brits had gotten together and said the pressure on Austria is unacceptable, the threats to Czechoslovakia must stop, Italy must withdraw from Ethiopia, and negotiate its territorial claims in that part of the world, et cetera, et cetera. But let’s all understand Hitler can be negotiated with. Would such a report have been as bad as it could have been? No. But would it still have been a dangerous and terrible thing? Yes. That’s the analogy. Why am I wrong?

RK: You’re wrong because at that point, you didn’t have 140,000 or more British troops tied down in a place where the conditions on the ground are really bad. I’ve been speaking with people on the ground, both soldiers, journalists, intelligence officials, and there’s no way to dress it up. I know, Hugh, that if you drive from the Turkish border to the Kuwait border, outside of Greater Baghdad, Iraq is little by little, bumbling along upwards. But Greater Baghdad, ten million people, is an absolute disaster. You know, the so-called Iraqi government is a clearing house for Shiite militias at this point. So we are really bogged down. And what the report is doing is, and I also criticize parts of the military aspect in this report. But what the report is doing, it said specifically that a precipitous withdrawal would be so catastrophic, that the U.S. would be forced to come back into Iraq.

HH: I agree with that. But in your article today, again, it’s at www.theatlantic.com, you write, “Recent Iranian history does show a proclivity for dialogue with us after shows of American strength…”

RK: That’s right.

HH: “…such as our victory in the first Gulf War and the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

RK: And I’ll give you a third one. After we accidentally shot down that Iranian airliner in 1988, the Iranian did not think that was an accident. And that’s why they sued for peace in the Iran-Iraq war.

HH: But it’s after shows of strength, Robert Kaplan.

RK: I know that. That’s why I disagreed with the Iraq Study Group on that.

HH: So did they get the central point wrong, that we must be firm, because what you talk about in Baghdad, is it not a result directly of Iranian intermeddling?

RK: It’s a result to a large extent. It’s a result to a large extent. There’s another point, though, that I pointed out in an Atlantic online piece several weeks ago, why we can’t just withdraw, and that is what I’m deeply fearing, Hugh, is we’re looking towards a Rwandan style genocide of the Sunnis, sometime in 2007, if things keep going the way they’re going. The Shiites are dominant, more important, they’re better organized bureaucratically for this kind of stuff. And if that is going to happen, and we don’t at least make a show, to call Iran’s bluff, we’re going to bear all the moral responsibility for that. We’ve got to shift that moral responsibility to Iran. And the way you do that is to call their bluff by saying we’re willing to talk with you on this issue, that issue, and the other issue, but nuclear weapons are off the table.

HH: But Robert Kaplan, if that slaughter actually happened, no matter how many bluffs we had called, we are there. We’ll get the blame.

RK: That doesn’t mean you can’t shift it to a measurable extent, and that you shouldn’t try.

HH: Between the McCain surge, and the fifteen month draw down envisioned by the Iraq Study Group, and they do want our combat troops out of there, except for embeds within fifteen months, one is clearly poised to prevent that slaughter, don’t you think, Robert Kaplan, invites it? Or postpones it only fifteen months?

RK: The study group was open minded to a temporary small scale surge in Greater Baghdad, which is what we’re talking about. And remember, the President can reject that part of the report. Remember my words, partially plagiarize it. That’s what I wrote in The Atlantic Monthly today and last night, partially plagiarize the report to buy some political breathing space.

HH: You also wrote things like, “The group summary of the situation in Iraq is banal.” You wrote that, “It sounds nifty.” And I think the writer in you is recognizing that it was largely porridge, and very cold porridge at that, and that no one can really get guidance out of this, Robert Kaplan.

RK: Right. Well, I said it sounded nifty, until I went into the details. Remember, I supported the invasion. I supported the invasion, but not to spread democracy around the Middle East, which I was skeptical of, and not to aggrandize Israel’s territorial acquisitions. I always thought that the best thing for Israel would be to get out of the Golan Heights, and get out of the other areas, if Israel’s going to survive through the 21st Century. And when you actually read the words of the report, Baker is saying that the Syrians have to sit down with the Israelis, et cetera, et cetera. It’s not a capitulation.

HH: But he’s also talking about the right of return for Palestinians, as pointed out by many observers, the first time ever in even a quasi-official document, such a right as…

RK: Well, actually, I missed that. I have to admit. I missed that.

HH: And so, that’s another strike against it.

RK: All right. I missed that.

HH: Now what about the fact that not one member of the democratically elected government of Lebanon was consulted in all of their travels?

RK: I don’t know about that. I looked at the list. I looked at the list of the people they did consult, and it did raise some of my eyebrows. It’s true, they did consult Frederick Kagan, who I think has been the most articulate and specific in terms of why we need more troops. But it did seem quite slanted. It did seem slanted, and I expected it to be a lot worse than it was.

HH: And given that Syria at this very hour, and Hezbollah this afternoon announced they are going to bring down the Lebanon government, can any report that doesn’t talk about what Syria has done, and the assassinations, not just Hariri, but…

RK: The ISG report said that the Syrians have to fully cooperate with these investigations of the assassinations, and Syria has to give up hegemonic ambitions in Lebanon.

HH: But here’s what I get to, though, Bob Kaplan…

RK: Yeah…

HH: If they say that, a week after Syria’s assassinated Gemayal, doesn’t that make you think that they’re completely clueless, and not reference that assassination?

RK: I believe they did. I think that’s in the report, Hugh.

HH: Well, I missed that. I read the whole thing. I know they mentioned Hariri.

RK: Yeah, you may be right. But it did mention…as a writer, I’ve had experience with being overtaken by events.

HH: Right.

RK: I mean, we all have. But the point is, it did mention, it did mention assassinations, full cooperation with investigation. Remember, this is a commission, I mean, a group of twelve. And anyone who sat in a group of twelve, or anything like that, knows that on the one hand, it’s watered down. On the other hand, every member of that group probably only agrees with about three quarters or four fifths of what’s in it, or at least has his heart in it.

HH: Why not a single general or combat veteran of Iraq, Robert Kaplan?

RK: That was a mistake.

HH: Last question. The Pentagon is working hard on their own report. Do you expect it to be significantly different from this one?

RK: It’ll be significantly different in the combat…in terms of the on the ground, because one thing is clear. You know, I’ve witnessed training of troops, train and equip missions, all over the world. And these are things that you measure in many months and years, not in six or eight months or twelve months, because the training is really cultural more than it is technical. And so the idea that you could have no combat troops, and somehow Iraqi forces are going to fill this gap by early ’08 is unrealistic.

HH: Robert Kaplan, always a pleasure. The article from Robert Kaplan, The Iraq Study Group, is at www.theatlantic.com.

End of interview.

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