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Hugh Hewitt Book Club

Robert Kaplan on Iraq

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HH: We begin this hour with Robert Kaplan. He is the author of Imperial Grunts, the must-read book from last year, now out in paperback, available at, teaching at the United States Naval Academy. Robert Kaplan, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show.

RK: It’s a pleasure to be here, Hugh.

HH: It’s been a tough Ramadan in Iraq, and the violence escalates every day. It’s been the bloodiest month for American troops in three years, and you’ve written a piece for the Atlantic Monthly, reminding people that we just can’t simply walk away from this. What would be the consequence of a sudden exit, Robert Kaplan, from Iraq?

RK: Well, everyone is betting that now that a withdrawal would concentrate the minds of people to seek modalities to work out a solution there, but you can also bet the opposite, that a sudden withdrawal, or even a gradual withdrawal, vaguely announced, anything could tip off mass violence, mass genocide. I’m simply reminding people, Hugh, that what we’ve seen so far could be very little compared to what could come ahead. Remember, Bosnia lost 250,000 people. Rwanda, a million people. Here, you have a country, a population of 26 million people, and we’re losing 50, 75, 100 a day. It could ramp up dramatically above that. We have to…withdrawing can carry just as many dangers as invading did.

HH: Let me ask you, Robert Kaplan, the armament comparison between the Balkans and Rwanda and Iraq. My guess is that Iraq is much more heavily armed than either of those two, even though Bosnia was, in fact, pretty well armed.

RK: Yes, it might be. The one thing that could prevent mass genocide…if we were to get unlucky, and if we were to precipitate something bad, is that in Rwanda and Bosnia, you had well organized central authorities who could organized massive deaths. Iraq, as we all know, has no organized central authority. If it did, we wouldn’t be in this situation we’re in in the first place. And that very chaos may prevent the scenario that I worry about.

HH: Now Robert Kaplan, before Saddam fell, he obviously controlled this country through secret police and an army. An army of 300,000 has now taken shape. How long until it can effectively exert control over the civilian population?

RK: The army under Saddam was ruled by fear, absolute fear, and about…there are some estimates that 75 people a day died, were killed quietly, in regime-induced violence during the Saddam era, to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands who died through malnourishment, through the sanctions regime, and the mishandled Oil For Food program. The problem with the new Iraqi army is not that it isn’t well trained, not that a lot of the soldiers aren’t good fighters, or disciplined ones. The problem is they seem to have no institutions to represent in the first place. And therefore, this new army is always in danger of melting down, according to region and sect.

HH: Now Robert Kaplan, comparing today with under Saddam in, say, 2002, 2001, is it simply that the West does not understand the barbarity of Saddam’s regime? Or is it in fact worse for the people of Iraq today than it was four years ago?

RK: Well, I think you have to say honestly, it’s significantly worse. But the Saddam regime was kind of like the Ukrainian Terror Famine. 13 million people were killed by Stalin in the Ukrainian Terror Famine. But it made no impact on the imagination of the West, because there were no photos of it, no news coverage of it. It was a mass death that happened quietly and silently, almost. And so a lot of what happened in Saddam’s regime simply wasn’t filmed, it wasn’t…it didn’t enter into our memory, kind of like these pseudo sort of concentration camps in North Korea today.

HH: Now Robert Kaplan, I had dinner a week ago Saturday night with a Captain in the United States Marine Corps, he returned from his second tour of duty, who would dispute your argument that it was significantly worse now than it was four years ago, especially outside of Baghad and the Sunni Triangle.

RK: Well, listen. I feel now is the time we have to face…we have to look at things most pessimistically, Hugh. I really think we do. And he may be right. He may be right, but the situation is awful now. But it could get dramatically more so. I think people are living in an illusion, in the sense that it can’t get worse. It can always get worse.

HH: Oh, I agree with that. But his assessment is that if you go to the south, especially…and Kurdistan, obviously, but if you go to the south, that those people are living in relative peace, and free of secret police fear, but that in Baghdad, it is indeed awful.

RK: Yeah. All right.

HH: Go ahead.

RK: I’ll accept that. But where Baghdad goes is a kind of a tipping point for the whole country, because of the way mass media around the world works, if for no other reason.

HH: So if you get ten minutes with the President of the United States and the Secretary of Defense, what do you urge them to do?

RK: Well, first of all, when they say these things like…that the al-Malaki government has to rein in the militias, it has to disband the militias, I can’t trust them anymore on that, Hugh, because the militias are essentially part of the government. They’re built into the government itself. So they’re just not going to be disbanded the way the government is organized right now. So the first thing I’d like to see is more leveling with the American people on this. The second thing is they have a big decision to make. They either have to, I think, ramp up to significantly more troops, or start ramping down, but doing so with a very meticulously planned out strategy that includes aid, emergency relief, meeting with the Iranians and the Syrians, because the worst thing now that can happen is, and I think this takes precedence over Iran’s nuclear program, is that this could kick off, due to some odd event, another Samarah mosque-like bombing, or something like that, into dramatically more violence that the Sunnis would get the worst of, and this would make things much worse for us across the whole Middle East.

HH: Now Robert Kaplan, when you say that it could be worse than the Iranian nuclear program, I have to pause and say now wait a minute. The Iranian nuclear program is an existential threat to Israel, and possibly the West. It is not, the violence, no matter how horrific, even a hundred a day, no matter what we’re used to in this Western part of the globe, is nothing compared to that sort of an event.

RK: That’s true.

HH: I don’t know how you…

RK: But if it went up to 700, 800, or a thousand a day, you could have real repercussions throughout the Middle East. And remember, as I say in the article, the Iranian nuclear program, in the last resort, we will deal with militarily, though I hope, and don’t expect it to come to that.

HH: Isn’t the alternative option on the table here, to get much tougher with the insurgents, via getting much tougher with their sanctuaries in Iran and Syria, Robert Kaplan?

RK: Well, we’ve been doing a lot on the Western border, Hugh, and the Iranian-Iraqi border, the terrain which I’ve been along, is simply impossible. We’re only going to get so far that way. And in terms of really clearing this situation in Baghdad, it’s going to require a lot more troops. And frankly, I don’t see that there’s much political will for that, even within the Republican Party.

HH: Your friends in the military, and you’re probably the single most trusted journalist in America when it comes to the American military, men in uniform, women in uniform. What do they see happening? What do they want done?

RK: I’ve sensed a drift over the last year or two, from being totally we can win this thing, if only the home front would let us, to start having doubts themselves that the home front now has. There’s been a real movement in a bad direction, but it’s a very understandable direction.

HH: Sure it is. I mean, they’ve been pulverized by American politics.

RK: And you have captains and master sergeants who show up with their units, and then the Iraqi unit, the companion unit, just doesn’t show up that day, and they start to wonder.

HH: Robert Kaplan, you’re suggesting, though, if we were to pull out, draw down, and leave, cut and run, we’d have another Vietnam, and it took us 25 years to recover from that. And indeed, the enemy this time wouldn’t stay in the country we’d abandon.

RK: Well, if we draw down, and left suddenly, a lot of things could happen. You might get very lucky, and things could straighten out. But more likely, you would get a dramatic ramping up of violence, you’d have more terrorists throughout the Middle East. We’d be humiliated. Everything would be harder for us.

HH: Robert Kaplan, one minute left. Is the American media overstating the carnage? Even though it’s a hundred people a day, and even though this is the worst month for American troops, I had a Medal of Honor recipient on the program on Friday who was castigating the media, because he pointed out 6,000 Americans died on Iwo Jima in three months.

RK: Yeah, yeah. Well, look. A hundred a day, whatever the media reports in terms of death rates, it’s probably higher. So if you add 20% to that, and you say 120 a day during Ramadan, out of a population of 26 million, and then you look at death rates in Bosnia, Sierra Leone, even Sri Lanka, relative to population, you would say that statistically, they are overstating it.

HH: Robert Kaplan, always a pleasure, from the Atlantic Monthly, his article. You’ve got to read it. It talks about the dire consequences of the wrong decision.

End of interview.


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