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Debating the Petraeus-Crocker Hearings

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Philip Klein and Nir Rosen
Reporter and Blogger, The American Spectator; Freelance Writer, Author of "In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq"
Thursday, April 10, 2008; 12:00 PM

Freelance writer and author Nir Rosen and American Spectator reporter and blogger Philip Klein were online Wednesday, April 10 at noon ET to examine the Petraeus-Crocker hearings before the House and Senate and debate future U.S. strategy and tactics in Iraq.

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The transcript follows.

Prior to writing and blogging for American Spectator, Klein covered financial news for Reuters. His writing has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, the Dallas Morning News, the Politico and the Atlanta-Journal Constitution.

Rosen is a freelance writer, photographer and film-maker who has worked in Iraq (most recently in February), Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia and comes to us today from Lebanon. He is a fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Society and the author of " In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq."

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Seaford, Del.: Gentlemen, is this not the question we want ask Gen. David Petraeus: What material and man-power do you need for a complete victory? Did he not assume command to win the war? Does anyone know what his orders read when appointed? Thank you for taking my questions.

Nir Rosen: I don't think that is the question we should ask Petraeus, because victory has not been defined and cannot be. There is no U.S. victory here except an American withdrawal. The only question you should be asking Petraeus is "when will you be leaving Iraq and ending the American occupation."

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Philip Klein: This is Philip joining in from Washington.

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Naples, Fla.: General Petraeus claims to be a historian of past wars. Do the Korean conflict and Vietnam war mean any thing to Gen. Petraeus? If not, he should be reminded that both wars destroyed reputation of major generals. Gen. MacArthur was forced to resign for his failure in Korean conflict by advocating for the use of atomic bomb. In Vietnam war it was Gen. Westmoreland who was humiliated for misleading the American public about the progress in the war.

Nir Rosen: And perhaps we should also remember how costly those wars were to the civilians of Korea and Vietnam, and how completely unrelated they were to genuine American national security, given that neither Korea nor Vietnam had attacked the United States. I think Gen. Tommy Franks will be the American general whose reputation will be tarnished most by the war in Iraq, actually.

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Bonn, Germany: Too much is made of military successes in Iraq when really it's beside the point. The only things that matter now are: "What has the Iraqi government done to reconcile the fractured country, what is the probability that they can ever achieve it, and does our military presence in Iraq help or hinder the reconciliation process?" Those questions have not been asked sufficiently clearly.

Nir Rosen: There is little the Iraqi government can do to reconcile the fractured country because there is no Iraqi government, there is no Iraqi state. The Americans destroyed or allowed looters to destroy the Iraqi state institutions, and then the Americans fired the state bureaucracy. They then imposed a series of dictators -- Garner, Bremer, Allawi -- before succumbing to Sistani's pressure to hold elections that the Iraqis were demanding and the Americans were opposing (because they did not want people they could not control to have power). But the Americans also deliberately engineered the office of the Iraqi prime minister to be weak and lacking in real power. The Americans replaced prime minister Jafari when they didn't like him. You have to think of Iraq not as a nation or state anymore, but as in Somalia, a series of fiefdoms controlled by various warlords and militias, with the Americans merely being the most powerful militia in Iraq.

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Vienna, Va.: What are the tangible goals we expect to achieve in Iraq?

Philip Klein: Our goal is to leave Iraq in relatively stable shape with manageable enough levels of violence so that Iraqis can take of their own security and in which al-Qaeda is denied a safe haven. Though we still have a long way to go, as a result of the progress made under the surge strategy, this is more achievable than anybody would have imagined a year or even six months ago.

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Rochester, N.Y.: I can imagine that the "Sons of Iraq" comprise a variety of motivations and loyalties, including some who may have former affinity to al-Qaeda in Iraq. Please characterize as thoroughly as you can who comprises al-Qaeda in Iraq, with particular regard to the likelihood of the outcome typically imagined by supporters of U.S. occupation: that al-Qaeda would "take over" Iraq in the event of withdrawal and find common cause with Iranians.

Nir Rosen: "Sons of Iraq" is the latest euphemism, though Iraqis don't use it. Most of them were members or supporters of the Iraqi resistance, so they fought the American occupation though as the resistance became more sectarian in nature these Sunni militias also fought Shiites. Eventually, the "al-Qaeda" fighters that came in to defend Sunnis from the Americans and the Shiites established a reign of terror in Sunni areas and the Sunni militias turned against them too.

But this is not bin Laden's al-Qaeda. It is a mostly Iraqi group and does not take orders from bin Laden or any external authority. Zarqawi changed the name of his group to al-Qaeda because that's a better brand name, and it was great for people like bin Laden, because the main front in the jihad was Iraq, and they were not involved. Now at least they could be associated with it. Al-Qaeda was not sectarian like Zarqawi however, and the war against Shiites made them uncomfortable and made the jihad look bad.

Anyway, these days and for the last year or so, "al-Qaeda" in Iraq is often teenage gangbangers, local toughs who take the name al-Qaeda to sound scary or cool. There is no serious al-Qaeda presence in Iraq, and al-Qaeda is not a threat. They cannot control any territory in Iraq and were only there as a useful ally to the embattled Sunnis. The notion of al-Qaeda finding common cause with the Iranians is so ridiculous only somebody like McCain could make that error. They have nothing in common and Iran supports the sectarian Shiite Islamist militias that control the Iraqi state and dominate Iraq and which al-Qaeda hates. Forget about al-Qaeda in Iraq.

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New York: This is probably a question for Mr. Klein: Can you name any precedent in the history of American policy in which a theater commander has been anointed, over the heads of his military superiors, to be the articulator of that policy? Do you not find it extremely troubling that everyone from the president on down is deferring to this figure, however impressive a soldier he may be?

Philip Klein: Well, I don't think as a general rule military leaders should be anointed to messianic status, but I do think that Gen. Petraeus has earned a lot of the trust by virtue of the fact that he is the only commander who has achieved measurable progress in Iraq. So, he may hold a lot of sway, but there's a reason he has the influence he does.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: When Sen. Joe Biden asked Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus "on a scale of 0-10 how would you rate, etc...." and he asked Ryan Crocker "if God came down from the mountain and offered you a choice of where you should focus on hunting down/fighting al-Qaeda -- in Iraq or Pakistan/Afghanistan?" Crocker answered Pakistan/Afghanistan?" Biden said "smart choice." Sitting in Lebanon, did these Senate hearings seem real to you? Biden was in Afghanistan last month, and the helicopter he was in had to make an emergency landing. Do you think that personal experience influenced his question?

Nir Rosen: These hearings seemed divorced from reality. As a journalist specializing in Iraq and spending most of the last five years there, I would not have even watched them were it not for the fact that I knew I would be asked to comment on them. The American general and ambassador performed their role, which was to lie about Iraq but also justify what eventually will become a permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq. and also to justify a possible war with Iran by blaming Iran for all their problems in Iraq, while Democrats could score points by condemning a war they helped start and the presidential candidates could pretend to possess expertise by reading the lines written for them by their script writers. I think the whole concern for al-Qaeda, whether in Iraq, or even in Afghanistan or elsewhere, is exaggerated. Al-Qaeda is now a movement without leadership that has developed as a reaction to American imperialism in the region. The only way to prevent this reaction is to prevent the cause, U.S. policies, from being implemented. But certainly if I wanted to hunt the original al-Qaeda guys I would be looking towards Pakistan.

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Atlanta: Mr. Rosen, recently Sadr indicated that he would accept the decision of the leading Shiite clerics on whether to disband his militia. If Grand Ayatollah Sistani gives him the okay to keep Jaish al-Mahdi intact, how does this affect Maliki's edict of not allowing participation in provincial elections for those candidates associated with militias?

Nir Rosen: Actually Moqtada al-Sadr never said that, one of his deputies did, and then his spokesmen rejected that. But more importantly, Moqtada has made that offer in the past, knowing it's an empty gesture because Sistani never would get involved in that sort of thing. And even if Moqtada were to order the Mahdi Army to disband, his followers would reject such an order and the Mahdi Army would continue to exist, because its the most popular movement among Shiites, and already since August we have seen many Mahdi Army guys upset about the freeze Moqtada imposed (often mistranslated as a "cease-fire") and some of them ignoring his call to stand down.

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Princeton, N.J.: Mr. Klein -- define "relatively stable shape" and tell me how I can tell when it is achieved? What do I look for? By the way, the regime of Saddam perfectly fits your description of victory in Iraq.

Philip Klein: By "relatively stable shape" I mean that violence is reduced enough so that the Iraqis could manage it themselves. You may have had "stability" under Saddam, but at the cost of a brutal dictatorship that repressed freedoms, rather than the representative government that is forming in Iraq. Furthermore, Iraq under Saddam was a leading sponsor of terrorism. And while I would never say that Iraq had a hand in Sept. 11, it's pretty clear, if you read the 9/11 Commission Report among other sources, that Saddam's government did have contact with al-Qaeda, and even was in talks with Bin Laden in the late 1990s about the possibility of establishing a base there.

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Peaks Island, Maine: For Nir Rosen: What is your overall opinion of congressional understanding of the Iraq venture, as expressed in members' statements and questions? What are some examples of questions particularly on or off point?

Nir Rosen: I was frustrated by the level of disconnect, as I always am. Perhaps they think that when they go one a guided tour with their American military babysitters they are able to understand the reality on the ground, or if they rely on so called experts such as Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, or Michael O'Hanlon, or Kenneth Pollack of Brookings or other white men who cannot actually travel around Iraq or interact with Iraqis, who do not speak Arabic and have consistently been wrong about Iraq but somehow manage to maintain their credibility.

Anyway, to get back to your question, the obsession with al-Qaeda was frustrating, because it's such a diversion from what is happening in Iraq, but a necessary way of pretending Iraq is somehow related to the "war on terror." Also the obsession with Iran was frustrating, because I think they are much less involved in Iraq than the Americans or some Sunnis insist, and I think in many ways they are positive actors, certainly more positive than the Americans, who can hardly criticize anybody else for intervening in Iraq. Sen. Lieberman described the Basra operation as a decision of Maliki to not tolerate Iranian backed militias. That was laughable because the main Iranian backed militia, the Badr Organization, is Maliki's closest and last remaining ally. Moqtada and the Mahdi Army are actually fairly hostile to Iran as far as Iraqi Shiites go. I reject the notion that Maliki or the Shiite militias that back him and collaborate with the American occupation were fighting Iranian backed militias. They were fighting rival militias, and more popular ones that threaten their control in the upcoming elections. Iran backs all Shiite factions in one way or another, but it is much closer with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim's Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council which is the main rival of Moqtada's Mahdi Army.

I also was annoyed by the assumption people had that employment was the cure for the militia problem. Iraqis have not been joining militias for the money -- the Mahdi Army does not even pay a salary. So giving a job to its members, many of whom already have jobs, including in the Ministry of Interior, would not matter. Likewise Iraqis did not join Sunni militias, the resistance to the occupation or the Awakening groups for the money, but out of ideology. The Americans never grasped the ideological motivations for joining militias and they still don't. It is not about the money.

Another false assumption that frustrated me was the notion that we (the U.S.) need to persuade Iraq's neighbors to be "engaged." They are all very engaged, and they are much more affected by this catastrophe than the U.S. is -- because the Americans will leave one day, but they are stuck there around Iraq, a failed state, and they have much more to lose.

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Princeton, N.J.: War supporters constantly are shouting, "al-Qaeda! al-Qaeda!" but by the Army's own reports no more than 10 percent of the incidents or deaths are because of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which is 95 percent native. Practically all of the conflict in Iraq is religious, ethnic, tribal or simply power struggles between various groups. Surely the "surge" has exacerbated these divisions by forming Sunni militias to fight Shia ones and by partitioning Baghdad into walled, armed enclaves of antagonistic groups. Petraeus and Crocker never spoke to the basic geopolitical problems of Iraq, but hid behind the bogeyman of al-Qaeda. Why don't they give us the "straight talk"?

Philip Klein: Al-Qaeda was responsible for many of the large-scale attacks in Iraq, including the February 2006 Samarra bombing that ignited the major cycle of sectarian violence that many were calling a civil war. Those attacks have decreased substantially. The surge has dealt a major blow to al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda's leadership has identified Iraq as a major front, and has poured resources into fighting American there. Not only has the group suffered militarily, but psychologically. Local Sunni populations who had to live under al-Qaeda's harsh rules, who witnessed its use of women, children, and the handicapped in suicide bombings, actually decided that they would prefer to ally themselves with the U.S. It is a staggering rejection of al-Qaeda's brand of militant Islam -- something so bad that Sunnis would prefer to deal with the dreaded American infidel "occupiers." The surge also reversed a damaging historical narrative of the U.S. that we would flee at the first sign of casualties, and that terrorists could always defeat us in a war of attrition. Osama bin Laden cited the America's hasty withdrawals from Beirut and Somalia in statements leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks. There's been a lot of talk lately about the America's "finite resources," but al-Qaeda has finite resources as well, and it has squandered plenty of blood and treasure on what -- as a result of the surge -- has proven to be a losing (though not yet lost) war for them in Iraq.

Nir Rosen: Yes, you are correct that al-Qaeda is not very significant in Iraq. Though it has unleashed terrible suicide bombings of course, it is not a strategic threat and cannot control territory because its numbers are so small and it does not have the support of the Sunni population, and has no "sea" it can "swim" in. They don't give you the straight talk because they are politicians giving the line their masters in the White House want them to give. Why would we expect truth from the U.S. government about Iraq? When have we ever gotten that?

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San Ramon, Calif.: This question is for Philip. The goal of the surge was to give the Iraqi government the breathing space and time to achieve some critical goals, such as passing oil revenue sharing etc. ... but more than a year later, very little -- if not zero -- has been achieved. How can you say the goals of the surge are more achievable than they were a year ago? What proofs do you have to support your assertion?

Philip Klein: It's true that a lot remains to be done, but it is neither fair nor accurate to say that nothing has been achieved. The Iraqi government passed a pension law, de-Baathification reform, provincial powers law, and an amnesty law, among other legislation. If all goes according to plan, provincial elections will take place this fall. That may be everything, but it ain't nothing, either.

Nir Rosen: There is no political reconciliation taking place. Recently the Iraqi state released two notorious Ministry of Health death squad leaders who had slaughtered Sunnis; it was one more middle finger they gave to Iraq's Sunnis. The de-Baathification law is more draconian than what had previously existed, so hardly a statement of reconciliation, and the amnesty law is also more restrictive, with less exceptions -- and why would innocent people who have not been charged or found guilty of anything need an amnesty in the first place? Amnesties are for those found guilty.

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Bellingham, Wash.: It seems the arc of these Petraeus-Crocker Hearings hinges on the media line to the effect that "both sides agree the 'surge' is working." I would appreciate you all taking a moment to describe how is it the "surge" is working when violence is on the rise in the most economically important regions of Iraq, there has been no political progress nor improvement in services, children are dying of cholera (for crying out loud) and the President of Iran gets a heroes' welcome and a downtown Baghdad parade while Bush/Cheney have to fly in unannounced under cover of darkness and can't leave the Green Zone. I think the American people who are footing the bill (or is it our grandkids?) deserve to know how this can be defined as "working." Thanks much!

Nir Rosen: The "surge" -- and lets call it what it is, an escalation of forces -- has not worked, nor can it. The problem in Iraq always has been the American military occupation, so increasing it can not be the solution. But to the limited extent that violence was down, it's for other reasons. First, the violence in Iraq was not senseless, it was logical, to remove Sunnis from Shiite areas and to remove Shiites from Sunni areas and to remove other minorities from everywhere. And this was very successful. There are almost no mixed areas left in Iraq. Sunnis and Shiites have been divided. The Shiites won the civil war. Sectarian militias have consolidated their control over their territories, with the help of American-bought concrete walls to surround these new fiefdoms. So in a way violence is down because there are less people to kill, the goal of the killing has largely been accomplished and one side largely won.

Then there are the two cease-fires. Moqtada al Sadr knew his Mahdi Army would be targeted by the Americans, so he stood them down, or "froze" them, so that he could "reform" them. He also wanted to get rid of unruly members of his militia and clean up its reputation as a sectarian death squad. So he temporarily froze it, but as we saw, its very tenuous, and his men are getting frustrated with the Americans and Iraqi army still going after them and with the increased power Sunni militias have.

And then you had the Sunni "cease-fire." Sunni militias lost the civil war and realized it. They were fighting the Americans, the Shiites and al-Qaeda and were not succeeding on any front. So they cut a deal -- go after al-Qaeda to get the Americans off their backs, and then control some territory so they can use it as a safe haven from which to consolidate their forces and seek political power and fight the Shiites in the next round.

Philip Klein: Before the surge started in the early part of last year, depending on whom you talked to, Iraq was either on the verge of a civil war or in the midst of an all out civil war, and the government was near collapse. If Democrats had their way, we would have set a timetable for withdrawal under these conditions. Instead, as a result of the surge policy, we have seen substantial decreases in sectarian violence, civilian deaths, and large scale attacks; al-Qaeda, which views Iraq as a central front, was severely weakened; the Iraqi Security Forces grew in both size and capability; and the improved security situation has led to political progress. Maintaining our troop presence in Iraq will help to consolidate these gains, and hopefully allow us to leave Iraq in a state where violence is manageable enough so that the young government can take care of its own security. To leave would heighten the risks of reigniting a civil war that could be even worse than last time, and that could have spillover effects across the whole region.

Mr. Rosen even acknowledges that violence is down in Iraq, and even if you say that the "freeze" ordered by Sadr is a "wait it out" strategy it still means that the U.S. strategy made him back off, providing a reprieve in violence that allowed Iraqis to make progress, and they have. Even though it isn't as much as we'd like, the Iraqi Security Forces have grown in size and capability, and there have been legislative accomplishments, as I mentioned above.

And to say that there aren't any mixed areas in Iraq is a gross exaggeration.

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New York: Mr. Klein, having associated Saddam with Sept. 11 while claiming not to, please be more specific about your "evidence." Or is it "classified"?

Philip Klein: I had this section from the 9/11 Commission Report (under heading 2.5) in mind when I wrote that post. I never said Iraq was behind 9Sept. 11, but this does make clear that the two were willing to do business with each other under certain conditions, even if those conditions were not met prior to Sept. 11:

"In mid-1998, the situation reversed; it was Iraq that reportedly took the initiative. In March 1998, after bin Laden's public fatwa against the United States, two al-Qaeda members reportedly went to Iraq to meet with Iraqi intelligence. In July, an Iraqi delegation traveled to Afghanistan to meet first with the Taliban and then with bin Laden. Sources reported that one, or perhaps both, of these meetings was apparently arranged through bin Laden's Egyptian deputy, Zawahiri, who had ties of his own to the Iraqis. In 1998, Iraq was under intensifying U.S. pressure, which culminated in a series of large air attacks in December. Seventy-five similar meetings between Iraqi officials and bin Laden or his aides may have occurred in 1999 during a period of some reported strains with the Taliban. According to the reporting, Iraqi officials offered bin Laden a safe haven in Iraq. Bin Laden declined, apparently judging that his circumstances in Afghanistan remained more favorable than the Iraqi alternative. The reports describe friendly contacts and indicate some common themes in both sides' hatred of the United States. But to date we have seen no evidence that these or the earlier contacts ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship. Nor have we seen evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with al-Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States."

More here.

Nir Rosen: Nobody serious believes that al-Qaeda had anything to do with Iraq. I have met with CIA officials and other intelligence and counterterrorism officials and they all laughed at the notion, but I was told that the vice president believed it and was "impervious to reason." There was no link between the two. Saddam was killing Wahhabis in the 1990s and bin Laden despised his Baathist regime. Zarqawi, who was not even part of al-Qaeda, was never in Iraq itself, but in the autonomous Kurdish zone, we should remember. People throughout the world hate the United States. There is no shortage of good reasons to, but that does not make them allies -- they can also hate each other. Marxists, leftists, nationalists, Shiites, Sunnis and many others can hate the U.S. without liking each other or collaborating.

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Philip Klein: It's time for me to go. Thank you for all of the questions, and have a nice afternoon.

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Military Wife: I have a simple question for each of you. What does it says about the moral underpinnings of a country that it is content to send soldiers to war in Iraq for three, four or five deployments while asking nothing in the way of sacrifice from 99 percent of our citizens? If the war in Iraq is the great ideological struggle of our generation, why hasn't the whole country been mobilized to get the job done?

Nir Rosen: Well, I sort of agree with you. If the war in Iraq was the great ideological struggle of our generation then perhaps you would have a point -- but there is no ideological struggle here, just deceit and plunder. The supporters of the war would like to think of themselves as battling the equivalent of Nazis and Communists, of fighting World War II or the Cold War, but al-Qaeda is relatively harmless. Tragic as Sept. 11 was, it was but a pinprick, and al-Qaeda is not a real threat to the U.S.. It cannot destroy the U.S. or do it any real damage. There is no real enemy here. No state, no large population, only a few thousand Sunni radicals around the world. So we need some sense of proportion here. The real tragedy is that the soldiers sent to Iraq are sacrificing themselves for absolutely nothing, dying for nothing.

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