The War Over the War

Karen DeYoung.
Karen DeYoung.
Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Associate Editor
Tuesday, March 18, 2008; 12:00 PM

Readers joined Washington Post associate editor Karen DeYoung on Tuesday, March 18 at noon ET to discuss the debate in Washington among government, military and intelligence officials about what course to follow in Iraq.

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.


Karen DeYoung: We recently reported on a Pew poll indicating that Americans were disinterested in the Iraq war, so I'm glad to see that's not the case for our chat followers. On to your questions...


Richmond, Va.: There's been a lot of talk about Sen. McCain raising the possibility of a 100-year "presence" in Iraq. Supporters of such a plan liken it to the U.S. military presence in Germany or Japan, but are these really fair analogies? Both countries offered little in the way of post-surrender resistance, and we quickly moved from occupying a defeated country to defending a valued ally against the Soviets. Do you think proposing such a long stay is really code-talk that we need to guard against an Iranian military effort?

Karen DeYoung: Not only are Germany and Japan different from Iraq, they were somewhat different from each other. Germany was a "Western" country, part of Europe with an industrial identity and people. The idea was to get them up and going and, as you point out, they quickly became part of the Cold War. Japan's emperor-ruled country had a different mindset and new institutions and economic structures had to be created. In neither country was there much of an internal threat. I took McCain's 100 years as both internal and external threat-related, and as a reflection of the slow pace of Iraqi development.


Washington: The Post reported Monday that Colin Powell did not support disbanding the Iraqi army, although it earlier had been said that it wasn't discussed. So, was it not discussed, or was it discussed and Powell lost? I'm confused.

Karen DeYoung: A decision had been made to use the Iraqi Army, minus the Republican Guards and other Saddam henchmen, to protect Iraq from external threats. What Powell didn't support, and wasn't consulted about, was the sudden reversal of that decision by Bremer/Slocombe.


Richmond, Va.: Gen. Petraeus said the other day that Iraqi leaders were not not making sufficient progress. So, what does that mean for our presence in Iraq? I cannot figure it out. We have put all kinds of pressure on the Iraqi government to "make progress," and they have not, so what more can we do? Stay there for "a hundred years," as John McCain suggested? Can you see where we go from here? Petraeus: Iraqi Leaders Not Making 'Sufficient Progress' (Post, March 14)

Karen DeYoung: Political progress in Iraq -- and whether it's happening quickly enough -- is definitely in the eye of the beholder. Ambassador Crocker, an old Mideast hand, always has maintained that it would be slooooow and that we shouldn't get our hopes up. Thus, he and others in the administration view the modest movement so far as significant and in the right direction. Others say it's far too little, too late, and that it doesn't reflect any real change in the situation -- that the fundamental inability of Iraqis to compromise remains the same. This all will be debated when Crocker and Petraeus testify before Congress next month. But in the absence of real, substantive progress that everybody can agree on, I don't see the debate going very far. And in the current climate of fixed views and marking time until the next administration, I wonder if it really matters.


Peaks Island, Maine: From "The Shorja market that John McCain visited in spring of 2007 to prove that Iraq is safe was not very safe then, since he had to have a lot of protection. But it is even less safe today, being policed by the Mahdi Army militia, according to CNN." Will someone please ask Sen. McCain whether the amount of security he would require to visit the Shorja market would be less than, equal to, or greater than that which was in effect when he visited the place last spring? McCain's Marketplace Too Insecure For CNN To Visit (YouTube)

Karen DeYoung: I will pass this question along to one of my colleagues in a position to answer it or get the answer.


Arlington, Va.: Reporters have told us that the Iraq war has gone on longer than our involvement in World War II, so my question is related to it on this fifth anniversary of invading Iraq. Have you reported on how the military and the State Department are working together on helping the Iraqi politicians create a "representative government"? If so, would setting up a Marshall-style Plan for Iraq be quicker than the two years to took after the end of World War II to create and fund the original Marshall Plan?

Karen DeYoung: A Marshall Plan is the opposite of what the administration's current policy aims for. We're out of the "bricks and mortar" business in Iraq -- not only because the aid money is gone (with little to show for our $18 billion) but because the administration has decided that Iraq has plenty of money on its own (high oil prices have been a huge windfall) and says it's concentrating on "capacity building" that will make them spend it effectively and transparently on things the Iraqis need. State and Defense seem to be working together more effectively these days -- at least they're not often arguing where we can see it.


Freising, Germany: What is the current state of negotiations regarding Iraq between the U.S. and Iran and Syria? The article " Waiting Games in the Middle East" states that both Iran and Syria are running out the clock on the Bush years and waiting for the chance to make what they hope will be a better deal with the next president. Also, what is the status of the "Strategic Framework Agreement" between the U.S. and Iraq?

Karen DeYoung: After much delay (most of it by Tehran), the U.S. and Iran are scheduled to hold a new round of bilateral talks in Baghdad later this month. Previous rounds -- limited to discussions about Iraq -- haven't accomplished much. Nothing much is going on with Syria. Both will attend, along with the U.S., a third "neighbors" ministerial conference on Iraq to be held in late April. Hard to tell if they're running out the clock on Bush, as nothing much was happening even when the face-to-face gatherings started some time back.

On the Strategic Framework, U.S. representatives brought a draft document to Baghdad last week and are negotiating with the Iraqi government. It's supposed to be finished by July 31, to go into effect on Jan. 1, when the current U.N. mandate expires. Lots of congressional angst on what it will say; there already have been several hearings here.


Peaks Island, Maine: What is the prognosis for Southern Iraq, which appears to be controlled by competing Shiite militias? How does this prognosis comport with the end state that the president, vice president and Sen. McCain would have us believe is the state at which we will arrive if we stay the course?

Karen DeYoung: Not a lot of good news from Southern Iraq, where Shiite groups still are vying for political power and resources. There are reports from Basra of Islamic fundamentalists imposing conservative rules on women, universities and various activities. U.S. commanders in Iraq mostly have adopted a hands-off attitude, noting that the Maliki government has sent more troops and replaced some military commanders in an effort to get the place under control. I think it all comes down to our lowered expectations for Iraq -- a stable place more or less attuned to U.S. interests rather than a thriving, representative, constitutional democracy in which we would see our own image.


Raleigh, N.C.: The recent uptick in violence -- coincidence, the usual increase in activity after winter, a PR move related to the fifth anniversary of the war, or something else entirely?

Karen DeYoung: Good question; it's hard to tell. Some of it is increased al-Qaeda in Iraq activity in and around Mosul, some is an increase in suicide bombings in and around Baghdad and other cities. After dropping fairly steadily since last fall, attack and death figures have stayed pretty static through the last three months, according to Pentagon figures. It seems to have reached a plateau.


Mount Rainier, Md.: Karen, so the vice president goes to Baghdad and declares the war a success again -- what exactly does that do? What is his metric -- I don't exactly see a safe, secure, democratic Iraq around the corner just yet. For that matter, can we get The Post to do a graphic on how many times the war has been declared a success or "Mission Accomplished" in the past five years, and how the definition has changed? Thanks for keeping us in the loop!

Karen DeYoung: Not very likely that the veep would go to Baghdad and proclaim it a failure. Mostly, he's just following the company line: sharply decreased attacks and casualties, a little political movement that the administration says is the beginning of substantive reconciliation. The definition of the mission, and its accomplishments have varied greatly over time. See my previous answer about lowered expectations...


Anonymous: I'm sometimes amazed that people like Douglas Feith and Paul Bremer have the nerve to show their faces in public, let alone write embarrassing, self-serving books trying to spin history. It must pain you who have made a great study of the Iraq War to have to read such drivel. Do you have faith that history will treat those two and the others behind this foreign policy disaster with the contempt they so richly deserve?

Karen DeYoung: I think it's all grist for the mill of history. Feith and Bremer books give their perspectives on what happened, which we all can balance against those of many others and the emerging documentary history.


Bethesda, Md.: What needs to be achieved in Iraq before we can begin withdrawing troops? What are the benchmarks? It seems like we couldn't leave when things are going bad and now we can't leave cause things are going well. When can we leave?

Karen DeYoung: Benchmark legislation that went into effect last May required the administration to report in July and again in September 2007 on achievement of those benchmarkes. It didn't say anything about what was to follow -- next month's Petraeus/Crocker testimony was offered up by the administration last fall in the expectation that there would be more good news to report right around the time the war effort would need more money.


Prescott, Ariz.: So I learned on a Washington Post blog today that John McCain believes that Iran is importing al-Qaeda operatives and training them to send them to Iraq? Iran is Shia and al-Qaeda is Sunni, aren't they? In-depth foreign policy knowledge and experience is supposed to be McCain's strong suit, right? The Trail: A McCain Gaffe in Jordan (, March 18)

Karen DeYoung: Oops. Hadn't read that one yet. Right ... Iran is Shiite majority and the U.S. accuses it of aiding Shiite militia groups. Al-Qaeda is Sunni. They don't like each other. Reminds me of a survey a colleague at National Journal did a while back, calling up various lawmakers involved in Iraq policy and asking them the difference between Sunni and Shia. Nobody passed.


San Clemente, Calif.: CNN cancelled it's weekly recap "This Week At War." Has the public interest in Iraq really sunk to the point that it can't sustain one hour a week of programming on a 24-hour news network? I think the major news media have determined that it is still too expensive and dangerous to get news from Iraq, and have decided to just pass along wire service reports. Also, I grow tired of the media's habit of dropping a "news bomb," then refusing to follow-up on the story. What's happening to all the mentally ill, homeless, etc., that the Iraqi authorities planned to sweep up? Has the behavior of American security contractors gotten better, or is it just old news, not worth mentioning again?

Karen DeYoung: First, a self-serving disclaimer: The Washington Post Baghdad bureau has only grown larger. We have three full-time Post correspondents, a number of very good Iraqi reporters and a cast of dozens supporting our effort there. A few other U.S. newspapers, and the wire services, do the same. We devote a lot of space in the newspaper to the subject.

But it's fair to say that Iraq coverage has sharply decreased in most news outlets in this country, along with public interest, according to polls. Hard to tell which is the chicken and which is the egg. Fleeting public interest seems to have flown to the economy and elections, although I suspect it will be drawn back if and when those things become boring and/or there are major events in Iraq.


Scarsdale, N.Y.: You said, "Iraq has plenty of money on its own (high oil prices have been a huge windfall)." That is exactly the problem -- it's not their money, it's our money. Those our our oil fields, or at least they would be if our troops would get out there and finish the job. I can't stand seeing the market yo-yo while the Iraqis sit around and let the insurgents muck things up. You reporters got so close to the soldiers with the "embedding" that you can't take off the blinders and see how they've let all of us down.

Karen DeYoung: Huh? Not sure I understand your point. U.S. troops should seize Iraqi oil fields?


Austin, Texas: Your colleague Thomas Ricks has become somewhat despondent over the lack of interest in the War as evidenced by a declining level of questions to your biweekly chats. I still follow the war closely, but after five years I've come to some conclusions that don't leave much to question. Still, I read your transcripts as one of the best insights into the War and greatly appreciate your time and contribution to our understanding of the War.

Five years into this War I see the following status: We have created a government along ethnic lines (Shiite, Kurd and Sunni); there exists a partitioned country, and enclaves within the country partitioned and segregated along those lines; some millions of refugees are displaced internally and externally; the country is not controlled by a central government but by regional militias who are ethnically aligned and subaligned within those ethnicities; the Shiite majority, which we promoted initially, increasingly is aligned with our enemy Iran; the Sunni militia, which we support in Anbar and elsewhere are not supported by the central Shiite majority government, but by Saudi Arabia; the country itself is lurching towards an Islamic state where sharia law is the norm.

To get to this point we have sacrificed 4,000 American lives and tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of Iraqi lives and spent more than $650 billion dollars with a long-term estimate now between $2 trillion and $3 trillion dollars when the health and welfare of our wounded troops are included in the cost. Given this understanding of Iraq and our status within this country and its cost, when we leave, do you think two years or 20 years will change Iraq's alignment with Iran? Will its stability within the region be to our benefit or Iran's? I don't typically ask these questions on your biweekly chats, but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate the effort you make to keep us informed. Thank you so much for that effort and please do not let up!

Karen DeYoung: Thanks for your sober analysis, much of which I can't argue with. Along with Tom, I do see a decline in what used to be more questions than we possibly could answer in an hour-long chat. Looking at it with perhaps excessive optimism, those few remaining hardy chatters tend to have more thoughtful questions -- much of the drop-off has been in those with very strong views who want to attack what they see as the other side. In terms of your question, most regional experts I know tend to think that Iraq's alliance with Iran only will go so far ... that the divide between Persians and Arabs and the long history of competition and conflict between the two ultimately will limit their cooperation. That's assuming Iraq becomes more or less a stable country with a developed foreign policy and regional presence.


Seattle: Whether the surge is working is a matter of perspective. Keeping in mind your point about lowered expectations, how do you factor in our paying off the militias to tamp down the violence? Surely that can't go on forever.

Karen DeYoung: The Anbar Awakening, the Concerned Local Citizens -- now, I gather, called the Sons of Iraq -- was viewed by the U.S. military as a short-term solution to a long-term problem. The military would pay them about $300 a month, and the Iraqi government eventually would incorporate them into its security forces. The fact that they are mostly Sunni, however, means that the Shiite-majority government is suspicious of them. It doesn't want them -- or certainly not all 90,000 of them -- having guns and wearing uniforms. The U.S. fears that if they are cut off, they'll go back to being insurgents or newly become insurgents. Assuming that the vast majority won't go into the security forces, it is starting jobs programs for them and is pushing the Iraqi government to take over that enterprise. There has been little progress so far.


Washington: Thanks for taking my question. Proposals circulating among presidential candidates and the media for any "redeployment" of U.S. troops out of Iraq seem to be lacking. For example, a commonly mentioned idea is to have the bulk of U.S. troops leave while having some troops protect the borders and key installations, and while special forces would continue to hunt al-Qaeda in Iraq and similar groups. At the same time troops also would respond to quell any inflammation in sectarian violence that might lead to a greater conflict.

Yet in my estimation, even with this proposal, there are problems. Say there is violence and troops are moved into the center to lessen any outbreak of violence; how long do they stay? Are we right back were we started? Also, no one seems to realize that it would take months if not years to move troops out of Iraq. Your thoughts please.

Karen DeYoung: Good questions all. Holes can be blown, and many questions asked, about all proposals currently circulating.


San Francisco: How can people claim the surge is working, or has worked, when it hasn't accomplished what President Bush said it would? In his January 2007 speech announcing the surge the president said Iraq would take responsibility for security in every province by November 2007; that didn't happen. The purpose of the surge was to give Iraqis time for political reconciliation, and as The Post reported Friday, Gen. Petraeus says that they've failed to make progress. Reducing violence was a means to and end, and it's moving the goalpost to claim the surge is successful because violence is down.

Karen DeYoung: You're right -- of 18 provinces, only half have moved to Iraqi security control. Progress toward political reconciliation, judged by the benchmarks or any other standards, has been halting at best. I think Tom and I used the "moved goalposts" analogy early last summer.


Karen DeYoung: We had enough questions to fill up the hour, but just barely. Maybe it's those of us who are bringing you the information and answering. I hope not. As you contemplate the sad possibility that Americans are losing interest in Iraq across the board, remember that this outlet and many others are available.


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