Pentagon’s New Map author Thomas P.M. Barnett on the surge strategy in Iraq.
HH: Joined now by Dr. Thomas P.M. Barnett, author of The Pentagon’s New Map. You may recall, earlier this year, I did an eight-part, one hour at a time series with Dr. Barnett about his book, The Pentagon’s New Map. Now I’m checking in on him as we get close to the Petraeus report. Dr. Barnett, welcome back, good to talk to you again.
TB: Thanks for having me, Hugh.
HH: Where do you think we are in Iraq? What do you expect Petraeus to say? What do you think we ought to do?
TB: Well, where I think we are in Iraq, I think is well captured by the piece that Christopher Hitchens wrote in Slate recently, that basically disaggregates the conflict there into three separate wars. I mean, I think we’ve got to recognize that we have a success in Kurdistan, and there’s going to be probably a movement of U.S. troops, my prediction is somewhere between ten to fifteen to twenty thousand troops, will be permanently stationed there. We’ll have to make some sort of agreement, vis-a-vis Turkey, in terms of cracking down on the PKK within their territory. But we’re basically moving in the direction, I would argue, along the soft partition lines of recognizing a free Kurdistan. No, it will not be a Kurdistan that encompasses all Kurds, but that’s the same tough choice that David Ben-Gurion made with Israel back in the late 1940’s, and Kemal Ataturk made with Turkey after the first World War. You don’t get everything, often, when you get the birth of a nation. That war is a complete success, I would argue. The second war is the war against al Qaeda in Iraq. And I would argue that the surge strategy, and I would emphasize the word strategy there, is what’s really turned the tables. There, we’ve been successful in turning Sunni sheiks and tribes against al Qaeda in their region, and to the extent we’ve pursued that, which I don’t think is a footprint heavy requirement, I believe we can count that as a second success, and a dramatic one in the sense that we’re really rousting and defeating al Qaeda at its cause Celebes. The third one is the one that I think most people refer to when they talk about the war going badly, or the surge failing, and that is our capacity to stop a Sunni on Shiia and Shiia on Sunni violence. And there, I think, we’re really in a Bosnia done backwards sort of situation where we took the dictator out first before the ethnic cleansing and the separation of peoples could occur like it did in Bosnia. And we’re nowhere near the two sides being fatigued in terms of their fighting. So we face a real problem of basically trying to keep a lid on that while not losing too many bodies. I don’t think the surge is going to be judged effectively in that third light, and I think there’s going to be a lot of push from Congress in terms of pull down, drawdown and pullback, as I would put it. So again, I would see us with troops in Kurdistan and Kuwait, I would see less troops in Southern Iraq, I would see a rise in Shiia-Sunni fighting, and then I think the real key is going to be is Bush going to bite the bullet and create a peace dialogue in the region on Iraq that gets Saudis and Iranians to the table, because the real problem we’ve got with this Sunni-Shiia fight is that it’s really shaping up to be a proxy war between the House of Saud and Tehran. And so as long as they’re both willing to make that fight happen, I think we’re going to suffer the consequences of trying to keep them apart. So I’d rather see the fight sped up a bit and get them both to the peace table, because we’re going to have to find a way to get both of them involved in Iraq’s future.
HH: Thomas Barnett, if we “speed up the battle,” and that battle involves hundreds of thousands of casualties slaughtered in a genocidal kind of conflict, as John Burns has suggested to me on this program could happen, the New York Times correspondent, don’t you think that will bankrupt our credibility in the third world with whom you are such the urgent agent of connecting?
TB: Well, it’s…you know, we’re going to get the same outcome whether it’s slow-motion or whether it’s fast. If we do it slow-motion with attendant U.S. casualties, my biggest concern is you’re going to bankrupt American morale, and you’re going to get a withdrawal from the region out of spite and out of dissatisfaction with how this thing’s gone. And in the same way that FDR had to make certain compromises in the Second World War to make sure we were going to be around to deal with Europe post-war, you know, I think we have to play not just with our eyes on this game clock, but on the longer war game clock, and that’s why…I mean, I’m more willing to run that risk than accept the consequences of that than I think other people are, simply because I think it’s going to happen anyway, just in a slower fashion. The same number of deaths.
HH: Is there any chance that it wouldn’t happen if we stay there along the lines that General Petraeus has outlined, and probably will outline in September? I mean, you’re giving up. Isn’t there at least some prospect?
TB: No, I’m increasingly dissatisfied that we haven’t been able to get any sort of regional peace dialogue on Iraq going. We haven’t gotten the Saudis to step up whatsoever, and we’re still pursuing the WMD charge with Iran, which I believe, based on all our intelligence, is a premature fight to drag into this current issue of Iraq, that we need to compromise with the Iranians now to make the Iraq thing work, and squeeze them later on the Bomb as it ensues. By bundling those two things together, we’re guaranteeing that Iran’s going to fight us in Iraq, and I think that’s going to make our situation on a political basis untenable in the short run, and it’s going to, I’m more concerned about a reaction here in the United States than I am about the number of losses that I think are going to happen anyway in Iraq.
HH: If we run out on Iraq, how long will it be until another Arab people or regime trust us on any pledge we make in the future?
TB: If we run out, meaning if we pull out of Iraq, if we don’t keep the troops that I think we’re going to have there, and I would argue we could get down to about half the number of troops we have now, remain operationally efficient against al Qaeda in Iraq, and protect Kurdistan and have strike capabilities throughout the region by maintaining 20-25,000 troops in Kurdistan, 20-25,000 troops in Kuwait, and maintain a large Naval presence. That force can still do everything we need to do, but it would allow the dynamic of the Shiia-Sunni fighting to either force some sort of regional peace dialogue, or we would suffer a certain amount of credibility loss on that basis, I guarantee it. If we pull out completely, that’s a different subject, but that’s not going to happen.
HH: How many casualties in that Shiia-Sunni fight are you willing to stand by and see happen? What’s the uppermost limit that you think a Western liberal democracy can stand back and watch happen?
TB: Well, this is a terrible scenario to lay out in the sense that…the problem with this scenario line is that Bush has really eschewed the pursuit of the regional peace dialogue, and has eschewed the possibilities of compromising with Iran in the short run, which is definitely not there to help us. I mean, the only way they’re going to help us in Iraq is if we make them feel secure in terms of their own regime’s legitimacy and stability. And that’s something Bush is unwilling to do.
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HH: Dr. Barnett, I’ve got to have you back for a longer conversation, but you did write this very controversial Bosnia in reverse thing, and I got to thinking, how many casualties would he watch us take? And so that’s a hard question, but would you say America should be prepared to accept a quarter million dead Iraqis in order to get that peace process started?
TB: It’s not me, Hugh, who’s going to sit back and take that quarter million, which I think is a good number. It’s Bush that’s doing that by refusing to engage in some serious dialogue with Iran on the subject, and to really twist some arms in Riyadh on the subject. If you want to do it without making the effort diplomatically, there’s the acceptance of what I would guess to be about 250-300,000, 400,000 deaths before you get all the great powers to step in, in disgust, at how badly America’s handled it. I would argue you’re much better off to pursue a diplomatic surge in concert with what we’re doing currently, which is what I’ve been arguing all along, but Bush just has not made that choice. So to put it to the term of how much is America willing to accept, you know, this is a strategic cul-de-sac that Bush has led us down by the choices he’s made vis-a-vis Riyadh and Tehran to this point, and I think he’s going to be forced, because I think we’re going to respond first, to the amount of casualties that’ll come about if we do pull back, as I imagine we’re going to have to, because I think the Democrats are going to force it.
HH: Well then, if the Democrats force it, Dr. Barnett, aren’t they the ones who are saying hey, a quarter million dead Iraqis or more, that’s not our problem?
TB: But again, Hugh, my argument would be if you do this in a slow motion, you’re going to get the same body count. It’s just going to be stretched over time. And I don’t know what the moral argument is on that one. 250,000 dead over a three year period versus over a six month period. You know, I don’t know where you come down morally on that one. They’re all preventable deaths, is my argument. We’re not making the diplomatic surge, which is unfortunate, in concert with the personnel surge, because I think we have been successful in Kurdistan, and continue to be, and I think we have been successful against Al Qaeda-Iraq. What we haven’t been able to do because we’re in the middle of a proxy war between Tehran and Riyadh is to stop those two powers from fighting.
HH: But with one minute left, if we pull back, right, as you suggest, those quarter million or more deaths are inevitable, if we stay there, there is at least some chance, however you want to quantify it, they won’t happen, correct?
TB: Some chance, but I really believe it’s going to just keep going. What you’re going to get is the same number of Iraqi dead, and you’re going to get a stretched out total of American dead, and then you’re going to trigger the big pullback.
HH: All right, Dr. Barnett, always a pleasure. We’ve got to set aside some time to come back and do an hour, two hours on this very important subject. www.thomaspmbarnett.com. You can go read his August 27th post on this subject.
End of interview.