The War Over the War

Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Associate Editor
Tuesday, April 15, 2008; 12:00 PM

Readers joined Washington Post associate editor Karen DeYoung on Tuesday, April 8 at noon ET to discuss the latest developments in Southern Iraq, and the debate in Washington among government, military and intelligence officials about what course to follow in Iraq -- including Tuesday's hearings on Capitol Hill.

The Enigmatic Second Battle of Basra (March 26)

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: Hello everyone. Let's get started. only a small number of questions so far, but I know all you Iraq-o-philes are itching to ask.


Fairfax, Va.: Nir Rosen says we should think of Iraq not as a sovereign democracy, but as Somalia -- that is, a collection of warring militias (with us as the biggest militia). Is Rosen correct? If he is, why don't reporters point out the contradiction every time they report Bush's description of Iraq? If not, what do the words "free press" actually mean in 21st century America?

Karen DeYoung: Hi Fairfax. These kinds of questions befuddle me -- we write a whole lot of stories about Iraq. Some of them recount what the administration is doing/saying -- with context -- some of them analyze whether administration decisions/actions reflect actual truth, some talk about how what's happening on the ground is not what the administration says, others reflect the view from Iraq. One thing we've written a whole lot about is the activities of militias -- not only our bureau in Iraq, but I'd modestly point out a front-page story Tom Ricks and I did early last year saying that Basra was falling apart, militias were warring for power and resources, and looking ahead to what actually happened there. As to your initial question, I don't think it's either/or. Different factions in Iraq want different things. Some want strong central government, but only if they're the strongest faction. Others want a collection of strong regions and a weak central government. Others want to make sure competitive power bases/factions are kept in check.


Lincoln, Neb.: We keep hearing from the administration and it's supporters that the surge is "working." However, it isn't mentioned very often that there is a great humanitarian crisis in Iraq. Are the Iraqi people better off now than they were five years ago?

Karen DeYoung: Maybe I'm just feeling crotchety today, but as with previous answer, I beg to differ. We (and others) have written many stories about humanitarian crises in Iraq, from decrepit to non-existent services to corruption, to unemployment, health care, education, housing, etc., etc. Are Iraqis better off? Statistically, no, or very little. Anecdotally, we've had a lot of Iraqi voices in stories saying they don't think so.


Chicago: Thanks for your work and for this discussion. Can you tell me if there is any truth to the notion that the U.S. intends on building/keeping/establishing "permanent" bases in Iraq? When this phrase gets brought up in various forums -- talk radio, congressional testimony, blogs -- I am never quite sure what to make of it.

Karen DeYoung: There was a fascinating exchange in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week between Sen. Webb and representatives of the State and Defense departments that elucidated this question. We printed a little verbatim box on it that ran in the paper, I think on Thursday (perhaps we could get it posted here). The short answer is there is no real definition of "permanent."

_______________________ What Basis for 'Permanent' Bases? (Post, April 11)


Alexandria, Va.: In relationship to Bush's proposed troop levels he wants to keep in Iraq this coming summer and limiting their tours to one year (I think this goes into effect in August), how will it affect deployment levels to Afghanistan?

Karen DeYoung: Bush and Gates said during the recent NATO summit that the United States would be sending more troops to Afghanistan next year, But they didn't say how many. Military types have said there's no direct correlation between taking a unit out of Iraq and sending one to Afghanistan, but there's no question that the overall strain Iraq is placing on the armed forces limits options for deployments to Afghanistan.


Freising, Germany: Judging by a story in the Financial Times, soaring ambitions of the Shia community in Iraq can be glimpsed in a room in the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf, where a mock-up of what the revered shrine and the surrounding old city will look like after a rebuild that is forecast to cost more than $10 billion. If Iraqi Shiites do succeed in creating a Shiite Mecca in Najaf, would this stabilize Iraq or further exacerbate sectarian tensions? Soaring Shia ambitions in Iraq threatened (Financial Times, April 12)

Karen DeYoung: Najaf and Karbala are important cities for Shia Islam. Never as important as Mecca to Islam overall, but certainly one the rung just beneath. Shiites were prevented from developing them under (Sunni) Saddam Hussein. I was interested to hear last week from someone in the Petraeus/Crocker entourage that they saw Iranian Shiite access to these shrines as an Iraqi bargaining card with Tehran.


Minneapolis: What I simply fail to understand is how the Bush-McCain approach to Iraq imagines we really are going to bring our Iraq problem to a satisfactory conclusion. I understand that they want to max out on troops for as long as it takes, but I utterly fail to understand what the mechanism is supposed to be that will make the requisite political settlements happen. Neither Bush nor McCain seem to have one, beyond the bare hope that at some point the Iraqis make the hard political bargains they need to -- but hope is not a plan, and the Iraqi government, among others, have shown that as long as they can count on an open-ended commitment on our part, they simply don't have enough incentive to make those bargains. Or have I missed something about Bush and/or McCain's strategy in Iraq?

Karen DeYoung: I wouldn't say either McCain or Bush is calling for maxing-out troops, since barring further catastrophe the question is whether troop levels stay the same or slowly come down over how long a period. But the question of whether the United States is using the troop leverage it has to press harder for political reconciliation was a major one during last week's Petraeus/Crocker hearings. Crocker's response was that he's pushing, but that you only can push so hard. A lot of lawmakers -- even those who advocate continuing high troop presence -- were very negative about how far the Iraqis have come politically and critical of the administration for not figuring out a way to push them harder. As usual, however, the bottom line is that Congress has no real power to affect the situation other than to vote against the upcoming supplemental appropriation (probably the last vote they'll have on Iraq) -- which they won't do in veto-proof form -- or pass new legislation deauthorizing the war -- which they also won't do.


New York: Karen, I'm posting early as I'm listening to an interview with Doug Feith, former Bush defense undersecretary and so-called architect of the Iraq war. What do you make of this Rumsfeld memo he cites in his book, in which the Defense secretary seems prescient about all of the things that could go wrong once we invaded? Thanks. Wrestling With History (Post, Nov. 13, 2005)

Karen DeYoung: Feith makes much of this memo of "terribles" in his book. I believe the thing was initially reported some years ago. The question is why Rumsfeld thought it was enough to put on paper all the things that could go wrong, clearly not feeling like they should influence policy or that he should do something about them.


Suburbs: To stay in Iraq, the country is spending money that could be used better here in the U.S.. Our soldiers are killed almost every day. And how many Iraqi civilians have been killed since the beginning of the war? We are just throwing money and lives away.

Karen DeYoung: A voice from the suburbs.


Cabin John, Md.: The October provincial elections seem to be pretty important -- at least Maliki seems to think they're important enough to launch an invasion to get ready for them. How about national elections -- is the next election for parliament and Maliki's position scheduled? If so, when?

Karen DeYoung: I think there's still a real question whether the provincial elections will actually happen in October. There are several laws that need to be passed, and regulations implemented, before they can take place and very little movement in that direction. Theoretically, they will be followed by nationwide elections next year.


St. Paul, Minn.: Ms. DeYoung, thank you for your excellent reporting through the years. On Friday April 11, 2008 President Bush admitted to ABC News he approved of the "harsh interrogation technique" known as waterboarding of U.S. prisoners of war ("enemy combatants," if you will). Waterboarding has been defined in U.S. court as torture since World War II and prior in other jurisdictions. In your opinion, should or will anyone in this administration, Bush included, be charged with a crime either prior to or following the end of the Bush term? The "moral authority" of the U.S. has been compromised globally, and it seems the voice of the "people" is not being heard on this issue. I'd appreciate your take on this most serious situation.

Karen DeYoung: The short answer is no, I don't believe anyone will be prosecuted.


Richmond, Va.: This from the New York Times this morning: "As many as 53 people died in a bombing in Baquba ... a city the Americans believed they had largely taken back from Sunni militants." Over and over and over we hear that violence overtakes areas that the Americans seemed to have won and then lost, the surge notwithstanding, Gen. Petraeus's request for a troop withdrawal hiatus notwithstanding, McCain's "victory is within our grasp" notwithstanding, the country wants out and the country wants to win (though what we win is unclear) notwithstanding. I don't even know what my question is -- the horror of this war and how to get out is beyond me (and appears to be beyond anyone else). Any thoughts? Four Bombs Kill Dozens in Iraq (New York Times, April 16)

Karen DeYoung: It does sort of remind one of Vietnam, and the classic stories of Hamburger Hill, which U.S. forces took, lost, took again at great sacrifice, and then abandoned to the North Vietnamese. What Baquba illustrates, I think, is that insurgents/terrorists -- whatever you want to call them -- retain the ability to blow things up spectacularly.


Rockville, Md.: Improved or not, the Iraqi army in Basra has a success to point to. Will it help them? What about a series of stories like the rescue of the reporter? What would that do to their morale?

Karen DeYoung: Don't know much about the rescue yet, but the Iraqi Security Forces seemed to have done a good job there. Your point is one that a number of military people made last week during all the Iraq examination -- the only way to really train the Iraqi military is to let them get out and fight and stop doing it for them. And expect them to make a lot of mistakes along the way.


Anonymous: Iraq is a big problem caused by the Bush admin. but does and will effect the entire free world. Why hasn't this administration reached out more to the entire planet for assistance of any kind in Iraq? Arrogance, disdain stubbornness? Did Bush's position that if you're not part of the invasion you won't get a part of the reconstruction dollars turn those opposed to the Iraq war away from assisting? Plenty of money in Iraq's oil to go around for any nation that wants to help.

Karen DeYoung: In the early years, the administration really didn't want much help -- especially if it came with opinions on how/what to do in Iraq -- and most of those we might have expected to help opposed the invasion. Now, when we want more help, many are holding back. There are lots of different reasons for this, from residual opposition to the invasion itself, to lack of desire to tie themselves to a widely unpopular policy with no guarantee of winning, to dissatisfaction (among the Arabs especially) with supporting an Iraqi government they don't like.


Anonymous: Karen, why won't the media only report my view of the war, using only facts that confirm the viewpoint I've had for years and also denigrate, humiliate and name-call anyone who deviates from my line of thought?

Karen DeYoung: Posting this for everyone's due consideration.


New Boston, N.H.: If many in Congress truly believe that Bush/Cheney et al illegally lied to start and defend a war, illegally tortured, illegally spied (electronically, telephonically, etc.) and illegally turned the federal government into one giant political machine, why is impeachment off the table?

Karen DeYoung: Several words here are up for dispute ... "illegally," "lied," "tortured" ... in our body politic. It's all hard to focus on when U.S. troops still are fighting and dying, and elections are coming.


Anonymous: I've read more than 30 books on the Soviet invasion, occupation and attempt at nation transformation in Afghanistan in the '70s and '80s. One of the reasons I find this so fascinating is the similarities with current Iraq. The war in Afghanistan occurred in stages, with enemies fighting different enemies with different allies for different reasons at different times. Is this close to current Iraq -- that we are between stages of who is fighting whom with what allies and for what common goals to define the next stage of war?

Karen DeYoung: I think there are some cosmic similarities, but lots of specific differences. Iraq is a far more sophisticated, rich country, with no real history of sectarian warfare (except for Saddam's mistreatment of Sunnis). Afghanistan was arguably never really a country, but rather a conglomeration of tribal and ethnic groups stuck inside European-drawn borders. (I know you could make that latter statement about Iraq, but again, I think the difference is the comparative wealth and sophistication of Iraq).


St. John's, Canada: Re: Lack of questions recently -- you know, I know and the whole world knows that nothing the people say, think or do is going to make any difference in Iraq for the medium term until after summer. This is surely one reason that your questions have fallen off. Permit me to turn the tables: You're the expert -- what is the single most important question about Iraq to which I right now need to know the answer? And then, could you please answer it! Thanks.

Karen DeYoung: I think you've asked the question: Is anything much going to change in Iraq between now and the end of the year? And answered it: very unlikely.


Princeton, N.J.: What has happened to the 2 million Christians and 500,000 Yazidis in Iraq? I have read several reports that they have vanished. They did not shown up at their shrines and churches for holidays, even Christmas? Why aren't fundamentalists in the U.S. up in arms?

Karen DeYoung: Good questions, to which I don't know the answers. I will pass this on to the Baghdad bureau.


New York: Karen, what is the status of the controversial security agreement the U.S. is negotiating with Iraq? Do you think it will be in place by Inauguration Day? Can Congress intercede at all? By the way, if people feel somehow uninformed about the Iraq war, it's not by way of this paper or Web site. Just my two cents. Thanks.

Karen DeYoung: Hello New York. I was just there yesterday -- beautiful day. There are two agreements being negotiated. The first is a status of forces agreement -- SOFA -- of the kind that we have around the world in countries where there is a U.S. troop presence. Of course, this one is a bit different in that it reportedly will give U.S. permission for unilateral combat actions, unilateral detention of Iraqi citizens, and provide immunity from Iraqi prosecution for civilian contractors. For that one, a draft is written and teams from both countries are discussing. The second one is a so-called "security framework" which is a lot more mushy...supposedly it will outline the "political, cultural, military" etc. relationship between Iraq and the United States.

Although U.S. has provided the Iraqis with a draft, negotiations haven't really begun yet. This is the one that Congress is most up in arms about -- the administration says the president can negotiate and sign it without Senate ratification. Many in Congress -- Democrats and Republicans -- say it is tantamount to a treaty and they get a say. Those balance-of-power battle lines are drawn and we'll hear more about it in coming months. Under a "declaration of principles" signed by Bush and Maliki last December, both agreements are to be completed and signed by July 31 this year, and go into effect when the current U.N. mandate authorizing the multinational troop presence expires (without renewal) on Dec. 31.


Iraq is a far more sophisticated, rich country...: Since when? Iraq didn't even exist until the Europeans created it at the Paris Peace talks in 1919. Where are you learning your history?

Karen DeYoung: I think you're talking apples and oranges. As I said, the boundary lines were drawn elsewhere for Iraq. But it has a lot of money -- oil -- far more infrastructure, a far, far larger educated class and other trappings of "sophistication" than Afghanistan.


San Clemente, Ca: Karen, you and Thomas Ricks must have the fastest typewriters at The Washington Post. You always answer the most questions and give the most detailed answers of any of the staffers or guests doing these live chats.

Karen DeYoung: In my case, it's all those college summers I spent as a secretary.


Anonymous: Whose idea was total de-Baathification? Feith puts it on Bremer; Bremer told Garner he was just following orders. Who fired Garner, Bush or Rumsfeld?

Karen DeYoung: Lots written on these subjects and, as you point out, some dispute among the players as to who deserves responsibility (or punishment). As I recall, Bremer says he went to Iraq with Bush's orders that he should get the Baathists out of government. Feith and others say Bremer went too far and he should have known only to cut the top levels. Bremer says the Iraqi Shiites insisted. I don't think Garner was "fired" per se. He had signed an initial four-month contract. Bremer, on arrival, made it clear there wasn't much left for Garner to do.


Severn, Md.: Is there any particular reason why your paper (and others) cheerfully and repeatedly report on Bush's "return on success," when it was known that the "surge" could only be sustained for one year from the get-go?

Karen DeYoung: As we and many others wrote at the time the surge first was ordered, and many times afterwards. Glad you think we're "cheerful" in reporting the words of the president or anybody else.


Washington: Hi Karen. Is it fair to say America's foreign policy is stuck between Iraq and a hard place -- the hard place being Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, the horn of Africa, etc.? How will America prevent the growing problems of radicalism in these areas?

Karen DeYoung: Eminently fair.


Anonymous: In a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week, the State Department's David Satterfield faced a buzz saw of bipartisan opposition to the administrations plan to negotiate a security framework with Iraq based solely on the president's powers as commander in chief. Both Satterfield and Ambassador Crocker said the security framework, as well as a status of force agreement, would go forward because the Iraqis demand it.

This was interesting giving that on the same day as the hearings, the State Department made clear that -- in spite of the Iraqi government "demands" -- Blackwater will not be leaving Iraq anytime soon. Blackwater's contract will be renewed, and as explained in "diplomat speak" the Iraqis can pound sand. It seems that Iraqi demands can be acted on or not when it suits us. Why can't a security framework agreement be put off till we have a new administration next year? State Department to Renew Deal With Blackwater for Iraq Security (Post, April 5)

Karen DeYoung: The U.N. mandate expires at the end of December. The Iraqi government says it doesn't want it renewed again (it's a year to year Security Council resolution). There's no indication that others on the Security Council want to renew it either. Several senators suggested the U.S. and Iraq should go to the Security Council and ask for an extension of several months to allow the new U.S. president to negotiate his own agreements. Satterfield didn't seem very interested.

On Blackwater -- it and three other security companies there operate under a five-year contract that was signed in 2006. It has automatic rollover provisions on a year-to-year basis. The most recent rollover for Blackwater was in May. The State Department said that, until a Justice Department investigation of the events of Sept. 16 in Iraq is completed -- they have no substantive reason for breaking the contract. If there is indeed a Justice finding or prosecution of Blackwater guards involve, State says it can cancel the contract at any time. But don't hold your breath for a prosecution -- Justice still hasn't figured out what law they could be charged under.


Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Haven't seen much, if any, coverage in your paper or others on the "metrics" of the war. For instance, I've never seen a map of Iraq with colored goodies identifying hours a day of electricity: residential, commercial, industrial; who's drinking fresh, clean water and who isn't; who's having their sewage pumped away and treated and who's swimming in it; garbage; food supply. You know, the routinely overlooked aspects of civilization that people here take for granted ... until they stop.

Why is that? Reporters don't like to dig out the technical details? Or would they rather stay in the Green Zone and take dictation? Or are reporters just not the kinds of professionals anymore that care about big-picture reporting? I'd like your take. Since I left journalism school in 1971 (I got drafted), I've never been able to figure out the new breed of reporter. Me? I'd jump on the opportunity to write about the most important topic over there: infrastructure. No lights, no country. Thanks much.

Karen DeYoung: I think you've missed a lot of stories, charts and graphics that we've done. I did many "metrics" stories last year, and my colleague in Baghdad Amit Paley and I did a long story on services (or lack thereof) in December. The bureau has done others since then.


Shrewsbury, Mass.: What's the expected date for tearing down the Green Zone blast walls and turning things over to the Iraqis? Surely the Iraqi government doesn't intend to hide from its people forever. Does it? Good session today.

Karen DeYoung: I don't think there is any date. As you know, the Green Zone (or International Zone, it's official name) is about 7 square miles of walled-off downtown Baghdad. Inside it are a number of different internally walled-off "compounds," including the U.S. embassy, some U.S. and Iraqi military installations, USAID, the Iraqi parliament and much of the Iraqi government -- not to mention the huge new, still-unopened U.S. embassy, which is in a separate place inside than the current embassy housed in an old Saddam palace. I suspect the walls will be there for a long, long time.


Chicago: Not from a cynic's perspective, but if we, the U.S., can "support" Iranian dissidents with money, intelligence or other means, how can we not understand why Iran (or Iranians) support opposition groups in Iraq. Good for the goose, goose for the gander? I'm asking from a worldwide perspective.

Karen DeYoung: There's a recognition in (most) of the U.S. government that Iran is Iraq's neighbors, has deep and legitimate interests there and isn't going away. However, that doesn't mean that they should be arming and training extra-governmental militias.


I don't think Garner was "fired" per se.: No, he was cut off at the knees by the naming of a replacement -- see Gen. Shinseki. I could be wrong, but I don't think Garner signed just a four-month contract. Garner states he was surprised at the timing of Bremer. Garner and Chalabi's mutual dislike and distrust seemed to doom Garner.

Karen DeYoung: We both can check it out. My recollection is that Garner's initial contract was due to expire in July. Garner was surprised that Bremer arrived to take over long before that -- in May. Bremer said he could stay on until July, but Garner -- whose ideas weren't being listened to in Washington -- said forget it. Certainly, he was cut off at the knees.


Baltimore: I recently have begun hearing about the surplus millions being gained by Iraq as a result of high oil prices, and the fact that Iraq does not have the "infrastructure" to disburse it properly. How much of this is true or a smokescreen?

Karen DeYoung: It's true that Iraqi ministries are fledgling and have a steep learning curve. And that much of the infrastructure is nonexistent, nonworking, or destroyed. It's also true there is an enormous amount of corruption.


This is the one that Congress is most up in arms about--the administration says the president can negotiate and sign it without Senate ratification.: If so, isn't the life of that document approximately nine months, when the Bush administration ends?

Karen DeYoung: As I understand it, it remains in force until the government of one or both parties calls it off. That certainly would be within the purview of a new president. Many in Congress don't trust the Bush administration to negotiate an agreement that would be that easy to get out of. Other lawmakers say the United States shouldn't go around negotiating agreement with other countries on the premise that "if the next president doesn't like it, he'll just get rid of it."


Karen DeYoung: I spoke too soon. Lots of very good questions here and I'm sorry that even with my lightning typing I didn't get to all of them. Hope you all come back next time.


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