The War Over the War

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Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Associate Editor
Tuesday, March 20, 2007; 12:00 PM

Readers joined Post reporter Karen DeYoung on Tuesday, March 20 at noon ET to discuss the debate in Washington among government, military and intelligence officials over what course to follow in Iraq and beyond.

The transcript follows.

More coverage of The War Over the War

DeYoung, author of "Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell, is senior diplomatic correspondent and an associate editor of The Washington Post.

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Are any reconstruction projects finally getting traction?: Rajiv, is there any good news to report?

Karen DeYoung: Hello, everyone. I'm answering this question first to let you know that we've done a last-minute switch and it's Karen DeYoung today and not Rajiv. Although we try to do a regular rotation, schedules interfere and so today we've taken advantage of the fact that three of us participate in this weekly chat ... don't worry, Rajiv will be back in the next week or two.

To respond, good and bad news always seem to be relative concepts in Iraq. The bad news is fairly typical -- more attacks, bombings, etc., numerous attacks on Iraqi security force installations and no substantive progress on the Iraqi political front. The Bush administration and Gen. Petraeus have announced several things as good news over the past week: some al-Qaeda in Iraq kills and captures, the arrival of the last of three Iraqi brigades scheduled for new Baghdad deployment, and continued expansion of embedding with U.S. forces there.

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Washington: When the President or any spokesperson of the administration says "progress is being made" regarding the war in Iraq, I would like to be presented the details (numbers, analysis, goals, other objective criterion, etc.) that back that statement up! Why aren't reporters asking for details and challenging the administration to prove what the say, or offering their own report details (numbers, analysis, goals, other objective criterion, etc.)?

Karen DeYoung: When the president speaks of progress he tends to define it as macro-accomplishments, many of them from the more distant past: the ouster of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi elections in late 2005, etc. I think the jury is still out on more recent signs of progress: Baghdad deployment of additional U.S. and Iraqi troops, stepped up training for the Iraqi Army, new provisional reconstruction teams, etc. I believe that the media has, in fact, pointed out many objective problems, from levels of oil production, electricity production and reconstruction still far below goals; problems with the Iraqi security forces as witnessed by reporters on the scene, etc.

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West Orange, N.J.: Is Iraq's shortage of gas and fuel real, or do people wait in long lines mainly to full tanks at Iraq's sub-market prices and sell later at market price on the black market? Does every city block have a "speakeasy" where auto or cooking fuel is for sale?

Karen DeYoung: I'm not there, but I think the answers to all of those questions is yes. Oil production remains substantially below capacity and goals, minimal refining means that gas and fuel are imported, imported fuel is expensive so the government subsidizes it to keep people from doing without or protesting, and much of both the crude and the imported refined product ends up in criminal hands for resale.

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Thief River Falls, Minn.: Is there one piece of information about Iraq and its occupation that the MSM is not reporting to the American public that would considerably change the collective minds about this war?

Karen DeYoung: If there is, I don't know what it is.

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St. Johnsbury, Vt.: If everyone agrees that the future of Iraq is up to the Iraqis, then what difference does it make if we withdraw within a year or within five years? How much time is our military presence supposed to buy, and will it make a difference?

Karen DeYoung: The question of course is, which Iraqis would be in charge? The departure of Saddam Hussein and everything that has followed has both unleashed and provoked sectarian, ethnic and religious passions that have turned the situation into numerous levels of "Iraqi us" vs. "Iraqi them." Some of the them have extreme ideas of how they would run the country, some have little or no interest in sharing power with others. Add to that interference by various outside actors who have their own agendas and the question becomes one of U.S. responsibility -- and interest -- for pushing a favored solution. Immediately following that question, however, are whether the U.S. public believes the price is worth it and whether the effort will succeed.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I've listened to members of the military speak on the surge and there was some degree of skepticism. I don't know if many people are surprised that Shiite militias have gone underground and some of the violence has been suppressed, but in the absence of a legitimate Iraqi military/police force how can this be sustained without possibly spending another four years in-country? How do you foster a diplomatic solution when there isn't an Iraqi leadership with the legitimate strength and organization to sustain it?

Karen DeYoung: The administration's goal is to mold an Iraqi government that can convince its own citizens, across that society's various dividing lines, that it represents all of them ably and fairly. As we've seen, it's a big -- and many believe ultimately impossible -- task, especially within the limits of U.S. public and political patience.

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Alexandria, Va.: We keep hearing about how Gen. Petraeus tactics are working one minute, then the next minute brings another report of horrific violence in Iraq. Is it working or not?

Karen DeYoung: The military consensus at the moment, at least for public consumption, seems to be that it will be late summer before any real judgments can be made as to whether it's working.

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Freemont, Calif.: Would you please give an idea to the extent to which Shariah law is being imposed in Iraq? Based on your observations, would you ever opine that Iraq will be a true ally to the U.S. as France was after World War II? Thank you!

Karen DeYoung: Nations tend to consider themselves allies when interests coincide. U.S. interests coincide with nations in the Middle East (and elsewhere) more on some issues than on others and I suspect it will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Re: Shariah law in Iraq, al-Qaeda in Iraq last year declared an "Islamic State" along with several other Sunni insurgent groups. Reports from Anbar province indicate that they have tried to impose some aspects of extreme religious law in some areas.

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Nashville, Tenn.: Ms. DeYoung -- I'm sure you have read Rajiv's book so hopefully can answer this question. Surely other administrations have appointed lower-level administrators based on politics taking more weight than competence. Why has this policy been so particularly devastating for Bush? Today we read about NASA's press officer, George C. Deutsch III, having to resign for falsifying his degree from Texas A&M University; Philip Cooney -- with no science background -- was editing papers on global warming; there was HSD's information officer, in charge of the systems to gather data on terrorists; Laura Callahan, who resigned after it was learned her Ph.D came from a diploma mill. And finally all the people in Iraq Rajiv wrote about.

Karen DeYoung: You forgot the ongoing U.S. Attorneys saga. Of course every administration finds jobs for the like-minded, both for political campaign payback and for ideological reasons. I think it's fair to say, however, that the Bush administration has been more zealous in this respect than others in recent memory. Most governments keep humming with a more or less permanent cadre of professional civil servants, replacing the top people with political appointees -- both the law and political tradition allow for that. Problems, as we've seen, arise when professional experience and knowledge are kicked out far down into the bureaucracy and people are selected more for their fealty to political individuals and ideology than for their expertise.

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Chicago: What is the word on permanent bases in Iraq? I remember an East Room press conference by the President, and he was asked point-blank if he would promise not to have permanent bases in Iraq and he got really annoyed at the question and simply did not answer.

Karen DeYoung: Depends on what your definition of permanent is. Senior administration officials repeatedly have said there is no intention to establish permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq.

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Lyme, Conn.: I have heard discussions on why Saddam Hussein would indicate he had weapons of mass destruction when it turns out he did not have them. This question seems to have perplexed people. My question: Do you think Saddam Hussein did that not because he feared American retaliation if he had such weapons, but because he more feared Iran, and thought Iran would be less likely to attack if they thought he could respond with such weapons?

Karen DeYoung: Lots of different opinions on this one. Some say he faked it because it gave him power over his own people. Others believe it was to intimidate the neighborhood. Still others that it he had grandiose ideas about his global stature. I suspect all are true.

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Lisbon, Portugal: Al-Sadr and his followers openly admit their loyalty to Iran. Isn't it very likely that Iran will help them take over once the U.S. withdraws?

Karen DeYoung: Iran juggles many loyalties in Iraq, particularly among the various Shiite political groups, and plays them off against each other to keep its options open.

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Wheaton, Md.: Do those who advocate setting a date for withdrawal ever comment on what they think will happen after the withdrawal? If so, I haven't heard it.

Karen DeYoung: As I understand that argument, there is little reason to think things will get worse than they already are. And there is some thought that the U.S. military presence in Iraq has become more a cause for violence than a solution.

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Oslo, Norway: How large is al-Qaeda's presence in Iraq? And why hasn't the U.S.-led coalition defeated these terrorists yet?

Karen DeYoung: U.S. intelligence officials currently estimate al-Qaeda in Iraq at several thousand fighters, about 90 percent of them Iraqis. Varying separate Sunni insurgent groups -- numbering in the hundreds and thousands -- have allied themselves with AQI.

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Nashville, Tenn.: It seems to me that part of this War on the War series should address the process of how Congress represents the will of its constituents. In carrying on a conversation with your representative it is helpful to understand the reasoning behind their views, so you can challenge that reasoning, yet their reasoning goes totally unaddressed by the press. This Sunday my U.S. representative appeared on local TV for 10 minutes, and the war wasn't even discussed. The interview was limited to Walter Reed and how those conditions didn't exist in VA hospitals here in Tennessee. What gives?

Karen DeYoung: I can't answer for television interviews, but generally the Sunday talk shows tend to concentrate on what has been on the front pages during the previous week.

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Ann Arbor, Mich.: My understanding is that we did not hire major corporations to rebuild Japan after World War II but native Japanese. Has there ever been much effort to employ Iraqis to rebuild the country after our invasion? It seems that only Halliburton and al-Qaeda have benefited from our presence there.

Karen DeYoung: This is one of the real problems for Iraqis, and for U.S. reconstruction efforts. A major U.S. goal is to increase employment in Iraq to lessen the numbers of Iraqis who join militias and insurgent operations because they have little stake and see few opportunities in the current situation. At the same time, however, the U.S. sees virtually all sectors of Iraqi society as infiltrated by extremists. My colleague Walter Pincus wrote an interesting story last week about U.S. military-run prisons in Iraq and the fact that we import food, water and even cooks for the prisoners because we don't know which Iraqi hires to trust.

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Princeton, N.J.: With the bombs yesterday in Kirkuk, I think it's time to ask some questions about the Kurds.

1. According to the BBC there is ethnic cleansing going on in the region south of Kurdistan. I have seen videos of long lines of refugees heading south. Do we support this, and is this creating more insurgents?

2. In the city of Kirkuk itself, it has been reported that many of the Arab and Turkman leaders have disappeared. Was this done to control the upcoming election to see if the Kurds seize Kirkuk and the oil fields?

3. I have seen maps of a Greater Kurdistan stretching from southern Turkey to western Iran. What does this mean for the Arabs and Turkmen living in the area? In particular, for the one million Arabs in Mosul?

4. How long can we expect Turkey to put up with this?

Karen DeYoung: Good questions all. A resolution of the Kirkuk issue is a major, looming problem for the U.S., Iraq and Turkey. Lots of vested interests there and little progress toward resolving competing claims on this oil-rich city.

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Philadelphia: The Iraq Study Group reports that there, as of Dec. 2006, are only six people at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad who can speak fluent Arabic. Do you know how many people in the field who speak the language -- and might this be a fundamental area that we must correct in order to have any kind of success? (In my imagination, I see soldiers storming houses and screaming in English -- am I that far off?)

Karen DeYoung: The shortage of Arabic-speakers has been a major problem for the U.S. effort in Iraq -- both military and civilian -- since the beginning. Secretary of State Rice has disputed the "six people" assessment, but I don't think anyone at the State Department argues there are many more than that. The military has interpreters that go out with units, but that doesn't mean that there are nearly enough of them. It remains a big, big problem.

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Austin, Texas: If we get stability in Iraq, whom does it help? If the Shiite majority assumes control, doesn't this directly support Iran, promoting them a stronger power base? If the Sunni minority assumes control, doesn't this replicate the structure under Saddam and aid the Syrians? Are we still hoping for a unity Democracy in Iraq? That doesn't seem reasonable anymore. If we withdraw and they fight it out, can we contain it within Iraq by redeploying to our Allies, in Qatar, Oman, and Dubai, or this a pipe dream also? So in summary my question is: What is the best and worst outcome of obtaining our goal of stability in Baghdad?

Karen DeYoung: The worst outcome is an Iraq that becomes a satellite of al-Qaeda or Iran, either of which would be immensely destabilizing for the region and the world. The best outcome, certainly from the West's point of view, is a democratic Iraq with a unified, nonsectarian, secular government that protects the rights of its minority citizens, is friendly with but not subservient to its neighbors and eliminates terrorists within its borders. Right now it's hard to see how or when the latter will be achieved.

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Pittsburgh: Do you think Bush has abandoned a pullout (of any kind) from Iraq and intends to pass the Iraq debacle on to the next president?

Karen DeYoung: I wouldn't venture a guess as to the president's intention in that regard, but right now it's hard to see how this situation is resolved by a year from this fall.

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Anonymous: It appears that the security situation in and around Baghdad has been a bit better after the recent troop surge. Prior to the surge, I know that many reporters were essentially locked into their hotels or, at least, were not providing the type of on-the-ground coverage that could be done if security were better. Have reporters felt safe enough to do more first-hand reporting in the capital area in the past several weeks?

Karen DeYoung: There have been reports of more calm in Baghdad, and some increase in reporter forays. But I believe most outside reporting still is done while embedded with U.S. military units, or by local staff.

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Karen DeYoung: My time is up. Lots of really good questions and not enough answers. We'll be back next week.

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