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The War Over the War

Karen DeYoung.
Karen DeYoung.

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Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Associate Editor
Tuesday, January 8, 2008; 12:00 PM

Join Washington Post associate editor Karen DeYoung was online on Tuesday, Jan. 8 at noon ET to discuss the debate in Washington among government, military and intelligence officials about what course to follow in Iraq.

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The transcript follows.

More coverage of The War Over the War | War Over the War discussion transcripts

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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Karen DeYoung: Hello. Apologize for my late arrival. Let me read through your questions quickly and we'll get going. I'll stay late if there are more.

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Vienna, Va.: The news from Iraq clearly has taken a more positive turn as the U.S. military surge has proved effective, security has improved, terrorist attacks have dropped significantly, Iran probably has stopped supporting the insurgents, and al-Qaeda in Iraq is in disarray. And yet The Post's reporting continues to emphasize the negative -- however contrived -- though the drumbeat is less pronounced and less frequently on the front page than in 2006. Is there a ban on reporting positive news from Iraq at The Post?

Karen DeYoung: Let me go out on a limb here and say that the reason all of these things -- diminished violence, improved security, Iran -- are in the public domain is because we (among others) have reported on all of them. And other things, not so nice, also are going on currently in Iraq.

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Nanuet, N.Y.: How can we maintain our presence in Iraq when we, not the Iraq Parliament, runs the country. We gave permission for Turkey to enter Northern Iraq over the objections of the Iraqi Parliament; we armed and support the Sunni militias over the objections of the Iraqi Parliament; we let Americans kill Iraqi civilians with impunity (Blackwater incident). Shouldn't a national referendum on our presence in Iraq be placed before the Iraqi people?

Karen DeYoung: I think there's more here than meets the eye. The U.S. certainly has a lot of power in Iraq, but if it were all-powerful, perhaps it could get the Iraqi government to do things like pass oil, election and de-Baathification legislation, could get them to institutionalize the Sunnis who want to join the police, and lots of other things that aren't happening. And a lot of the public disagreements are more political than substantive. While the Iraqi government doesn't want to be in the position of publicly authorizing a Turkish attack on its territory, and has to complain loudly, it fully understands the reasons. Blackwater and other security contractors are a somewhat different story. Here, too, nobody is stopping the Maliki government from pressing its own parliament to rescind immunity laws -- but it hasn't happened yet.

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Montreal: Is there any evidence supporting the idea that the government of Iran is actively arming or aiding the Taliban in Afghanistan? Before the U.S. invasion, Iran and the Taliban were openly hostile to each other. At the time of the invasion, Iran apparently was quite supportive of the coalition toppling the Taliban. Have the longstanding enemies really made friends? If so, how does Iran benefit?

Karen DeYoung: The evidence is more inferential than substantive at this point. Taliban increasingly is using the same weapons/tactics that the Iranians supposedly gave to the Iraqis, ergo, U.S. assumption is that Iran is giving them to the Taliban and other players in Afghanistan. The operating premise is the enemy of my enemy ... etc.

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Lompoc, Calif.: Regarding the Iraqi war: I find it difficult to believe that anyone would believe that this was a war to fight terrorism. True, since we invaded the country, terrorists were attracted to the country. But we invaded to fight terrorism?

Karen DeYoung: It depends on whose version of history you believe.

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Raleigh, N.C.: It seems that suicide bombings are making a bit of a comeback in Iraq, but that the bombs are less effective. Is the latter a result of the surge accomplishing one of its tasks?

washingtonpost.com: Sunni Security Unit Leader, Colleagues Killed in Attack Encouraged by Bin Laden (Post, Jan. 8)

Karen DeYoung: U.S. military commanders have long said they did not expect to completely eradicate such attacks. Their goal was to decrease their frequency and effect. At the same time, the assumption has been that decrease in attacks was only partly the result of U.S. offense; also partly that various insurgents/militias were lying low, waiting to see what was going to happen next vis a vis surge and U.S. policy.

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Black Mountain, N.C.: When the U.S. switched from its "war of liberation" stance to its "war of occupation" one, didn't you think this eventual focus on counterinsurgency inevitable? Why wouldn't it have been, too...

Karen DeYoung: Lots of analysis and literature, before and after the invasion, made this point.

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Colorado Springs, Colo.: We keep looking for a better way to conduct a brutal hostile foreign occupation, finding a kinder and gentler way of subjugating the Iraqi population, so they are more comfortable with us running their country and their lives. No luck so far, but the MSM keeps encouraging the administration to tweak the rapes and murders and expropriations to find just the right approach to win the hearts and minds of those being raped, murdered and ripped off.

There is an alternative that actually leads to U.S. success, U.S. withdrawal, and Iraqi sovereignty: We quit trying to create a national government that will put U.S. interests ahead of Iraqi interests. Ain't gonna happen. Instead, we empower and support the authentic indigenous local leaders of individual Iraqi communities. These guys then stabilize and secure their own towns and neighborhoods. Voila! Why doesn't The Post, in its commendable coverage of the Iraq story, ever talk about solutions ? You've spent acres of space lauding the various wrinkles and twists tried in hostile occupation. Why not at least tell about an approach that is consistent with core American values ?

Karen DeYoung: I think you want to direct this question to the opinion pages.

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Washington: How are we doing on those benchmarks that were the "conditions" for the surge? Also, is it any easier/safer for Western reporters to move around Baghdad these days?

Karen DeYoung: Benchmark legislation, as always, is said to be inching its way to passage in the Iraqi parliament. Some of the measures -- provincial powers, oil, de-Baathification -- actually have made it there. But arrival at Parliament and enactment are not the same thing. Still lots of arguments. It is easier at the moment for reporters to move around some, but not all, parts of Baghdad.

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Kingston, Ontario: Karen: A few months ago there was talk of a new "bottom-up" strategy, whereby pacification proceeded from local agreements and cooperation, as in Anbar province and also perhaps in Basra. Is this still going on, and does it mean that the U.S. has given up hope on the Baghdad government being an effective agent of unity? If so, does that mean that U.S. policy tacitly has accepted partition as inevitable? Thanks.

Karen DeYoung: "Bottom-up" is where it's happening now in terms of U.S. policy in Iraq. One could argue that it's a default policy, as "top-down" still hasn't gotten off the ground. But most smart Americans working on this subject understand that bottom-up only can go so far if the central government doesn't get its act together. I don't think they've given up on the Baghdad government, but their expectations for it are distinctly lower. That doesn't mean partition necessarily, but rather continued semi-chaos and gridlock.

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Freising, Germany: I haven't watched the film, "Lawrence of Arabia," in a long time, but the recent strategy of arming and training former Sunni insurgents reminds me of the scene in the film when Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) asks the general for cannons for his Arab guerrillas for use against the Ottoman soldiers. Afterward, the British diplomat tells the general that the guerrillas eventually could turn the weapons around and use them on his own troops. The general replies "well, I guess that I can't give him those cannons now, can I?" Do you know of any precautions that Gen. Petraeus is taking in this respect when arming the Sunni militias?

Karen DeYoung: Lots of Lawrence moments in Iraq these days. U.S. military insists it's not "arming" the Sunnis -- but it is giving them money, they had a lot of weapons to begin with and they do get to keep everything they seize from the former comrades they have now turned against.

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Peaks Island, Maine: What is your take on the question (posed recently to Dan Froomkin and Dana Priest) as to whether the light at the end of the Iraq tunnel is a beacon of democracy -- or an oncoming train on course to collide post-Bush with harsh realities?

Karen DeYoung: Administration strategy (at least since last January) has been that security gains would provide breathing room for democracy and good governance to take hold. If you reread Bush's speech announcing the surge almost exactly a year ago, you'll see a number of fairly explicit political events that he said would happen in Iraq. Haven't happened, for the most part. Which leaves any new administration in the position of deciding whether that light at the end of the tunnel really exists, and how bright or dim will suffice for U.S. to declare victory.

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Washington: I don't quite understand the benchmark answer. Weren't there eight or so different metrics that the Iraqis were supposed to meet? Have they met any of them?

Karen DeYoung: There were 18 ... about half of them were security-related (size of military/police, training, taking over form U.S.) and the other half political/economic. To the extent success can be claimed for the latter, the Iraqis passed a budget and have made some progress in actually spending their own money and appropriating it to the various provinces. On the political front, none of the legislative benchmarks have yet been met.

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Richmond, Va.: I know that you have nothing to do with the Post's editorials, but the notion that the Democrats can't admit that things are working in Iraq is just plain silly. The surge is working in some places and in others not; in addition, the deal that America has made with the Sunnis against al-Qaeda could be more of a deal with the devil in the long run, but certainly is in the Sunnis' interest, and who knows where it will lead.

One thing that is for sure: While a few more Americans believe that things are better in Iraq, that doesn't seem to have translated to their opposition to the war or their desire to get our troops out. In short, so what if Democrats admit things are better in Iraq? It still doesn't change what a mess it still is, or the way to end this war.

washingtonpost.com: See No Good (Post, Jan. 8)

Karen DeYoung: Adding to the mix of views.

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cdierd1944: This is quite revealing. First, it would appear that the Sunni have no intention of being subordinated by the the Shia even though they constitute a minority of the population. Second, it is U.S. dollars that are being used to equip the Sunni to resist al-Qaeda (yea!) but also Shia militia. Does this sound like civil war? If Virginia is arming to resist Ohio then we have some issues with a unified national government. This situation sounds rather grim to me. I am all for rooting out al-Qaeda, but that is only part of the problem in Iraq. This place is a quagmire and there is no light at the end of the tunnel from what I can see.

Karen DeYoung: Another comment.

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Boston: Would Congressional Democrats (and the Joint Chiefs of Staff worried about the strain on the Army and other challenges in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere) be better served by providing context to the question of Iraq troop levels when Petraeus comes back to Congress in March by having the Joint Chiefs testify at the same time about broader challenges in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere? Of course you would hesitate to reduce U.S. troop levels if you were just in charge and/or focused on Iraq. Did the Democrats play themselves into a corner the last time Petraeus testified by not calling other superior officers, and do they risk the same thing in March?

Karen DeYoung: A lot of people in the military (and elsewhere) would like to see more context of the sort you mean. Admiral Fallon, the Central Command chief who has to worry about the region as well as Iraq; Admiral Mullen, Joint Chiefs Chairman, among others. Petraeus is in charge of Iraq ... it's his job to consider that the center of the universe.

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unblockerxdotcom: Former Green-Zoner (December 2004 to December 2005) and I have to say that this has been by far the best Green Zone article that I have read before or since my tour. Everything was covered, to include the many interesting tidbits one picks up in the hallways, dining facility etc. and endless checkpoints within the Green Zone. And the Republic of Georgia guards -- yeah, not exactly the most professional soldiers in the zone.

washingtonpost.com: A Darker Shade Of Green Zone (Post, Jan. 5)

Karen DeYoung: Thanks. It's an interesting place.

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Washington: Hi Karen. First off, I supported going into Iraq in the first place, and I supported and still support the surge. So I'm very concerned that all of the Democratic candidates seem to be purposefully ignoring the gains produced by the surge and/or making all sorts of rationalizations as to why any successes are not, in fact, because of the surge, or are insignificant (today's Wall Street Journal has a good summary of this). However, at the same time, my understanding is that there simply are no more troops to sustain the surge past 2008, so isn't the whole argument moot?

Karen DeYoung: There aren't enough troops to sustain rotations at the current rate of deployment (160,000 or so). But even if plans proceed to draw down to 130,000 or so this summer, there still will be a lot there to fight about.

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Fairfax, Va.: A small matter maybe, but what is the proper pronunciation of Iraq? I hear many Americans, including many of our military members, say eye-rack. But I hear Iraqis and others say ear-rack or ear-rock. If we Murricans are mispronouncing the name of their country, are we possibly irritating and even offending the Iraqis? Not that we aren't doing lots of other things that might make them mad, but why add this?

Karen DeYoung: Any Arabic speakers out there who can tell us the correct answer?

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New York: How does the coalition forces' war in Afghanistan affect the outcome, for good or bad, in Iraq?

Karen DeYoung: At least part of the answer depends on whether you believe a large extent of the violence in Iraq -- at least that perpetrated by al-Qaeda affiliate there -- is directed by Pakistan-based al-Qaeda central. Most intelligence officials I've talked to consider the ties rather loose and more inspirational than substantive. It certainly has a political effect for those who believe that the U.S. is losing the Afghan war because it diverted attention and resources to Iraq.

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BillKeller: The Green Zone really appears to have changed little since my experience there in March through June of 2004 -- then single mortar and rockets attacks could occur daily for weeks at a time. For those who had a perspective not shielded by ideology, it was very apparent that the streets outside of the Green Zone's walls were not under our control. Only fools protected by the enemy's force limits or low target value wandered Baghdad so easily as described here. Many of us as we went about the Green Zone then felt its dusty color and debris-ridden sterility and experienced a feeling of having arrived at a site envisioned by Hollywood of a city visited post-Apocalypse. The sewage drain fields still oozed right under Bremer's office and generators roared incessantly, throughout.

Karen DeYoung: There is definitely a through-the-looking-glass quality to the Zone.

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swiftsmail: $600 million for an embassy compound built for 1,000, all receiving combat pay. Wow, if that isn't the face of the absurd! What will it cost per year ... $100 million, so they can eat Chinese food and drink Starbucks coffee? The sheer idiocy of it all is stupefying, surreal, etc. ... what else can you say?

Karen DeYoung: First of all, it's only an ersatz Starbucks, not real. Assuming you agree they have to be fed, what would be Spartan enough for them to eat? Leaving aside the new embassy -- which diplomats deployed to Iraq had no say in -- and whatever one thinks about overall Iraq policy, my conclusion after spending a few days and nights there is that life in the Green Zone is far from fun. No family, still significant threat, fairly crummy living conditions, and most work about 16 hours a day, seven days a week. And a lot of people are at home criticizing. Some deeply believe in what they're doing, some are just doing a job; all are fairly frustrated.

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bevjims1: Am I the only one thinking that the drop in Iran interference in Iraq and the NIE report last month are not coincidences? I would not be surprised if the CIA/Pentagon released the NIE publicly in return for Iran's reduction on the support of violence. In other words, members of our government negotiated a reduction in violence outside the top level administration and in return Iran got the NIE and Bush's rhetoric stopped. Bush should be very worried now. He is more than irrelevant, members of the government might be willing to make policy and take action without his consent.

Karen DeYoung: A little too conspiratorial, I think. It is the State Department that wants to see if there is diplomatic gain to be made from the decrease in Iraq attacks; the Pentagon disagrees fairly strongly with the assessment that the Iranians have made a policy decision to pull back.

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Baltimore: Re: The British in Basra: Is the situation as rosy as the British painted it upon pulling out, or was this a "get the hell out of Dodge" moment?

Karen DeYoung: The situation is far from rosy. But the Brits seemed to be having little effect on the Shiite-on-Shiite violence, arguably were making things worse by being a prime target for attacks, and public opinion there wanted them home anyway.

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garydorst: I think this situation has two sides to it. First, Iran doesn't want an unstable or even mildly hostile neighbor. Dialing down the violence helps everyone. The second and more significant message is to the US, namely that Iran has greater reign over the Iraqi Shiites than the US ever will. (A statement of fact, that the Bush Administration never saw coming because they never looked beyond their own psychotic delusions about the likely outcome in Iraq. Streets lined with rose petals ... what a group of wack-jobs!)

The Iranians can dial things down and they can also dial things up, and make Iraq a greater living hell for our troops than it has been. The Iranians are signaling that we should "make nice" with Iran with a carrot. They could employ the stick if they wish.

Karen DeYoung: All interesting points.

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sonnypitchumani: So, the surge is not really working as we are led to believe? The drop in violence and the IED attacks is largely due to the benevolence of the Iranian regime? Think about it: Petraeus nearly was named Time Man of the Year.

Karen DeYoung: Not sure I get the point re: Petraeus. To the extent violence has sharply decreased, the surge appears to be working. The incidence of IEDs has declined for a variety of reasons -- stepped up U.S. presence and operations, Sunni awakening, Shiite militia cease-fire, Iranian recalculation -- some more salient than others.

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Karen DeYoung: Good questions as always. And now, we all turn to New Hampshire...

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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