The War Over the War

Karen DeYoung.
Karen DeYoung.

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Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Associate Editor
Tuesday, June 3, 2008; 12:00 PM

Readers joined Washington Post associate editor Karen DeYoung on Tuesday, June 3 at noon ET to discuss the latest developments and 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.

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Raleigh, N.C.: What is the state of play regarding Iraqi political reaction to a long-term presence for the U.S.? What do you make of al-Sistani's recent comments, or are Iraqi internal politics just too doggone complicated and secretive for you to offer an opinion?

washingtonpost.com: Shiites Across Iraq Protest U.S. Presence (Post, May 31)

Karen DeYoung: I think Iraqi politics (leaving out the violent part) are pretty much the same as they are here and everywhere else -- a struggle for control of the levers of policy, and a desire to please one's constituents in order to retain that control. The state of play in Iraq is that some of Maliki's doubters and opponents -- but far from all -- have been encouraged by what's been going on in Basra and Sadr City. But Sunnis still don't trust him, and various Shiite parties and groups are jockeying among themselves to increase their power. The upcoming agreements with Washington are all a part of that, as are the upcoming Iraqi provincial elections. While Sistani is a religious figure, he has his own constituents to please. It is not politically popular in Iraq to say that the Americans should stay (although I believe that's what many people want, for the moment at least, in one form or another).

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Washington: Karen, There's been some talk in this forum about Tom Ricks taking The Washington Post's buyout. Did you take the buyout, or are you planning to continue working for The Post?

Karen DeYoung: I'm staying, although the buyout offer was tempting. This is a challenging, fascinating and somewhat anxiety-producing time in journalism (as well as in the world). The Post, like everybody else, is trying to figure out how to make the transition. I'm happy to be part of it. Besides, I really like my job and I love The Post, warts and all. I may take some time at some point to do another book.

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Anonymous: Violence is down in Iraq, at least vs. U.S. troops. If this trend continues, can you see Bush declaring victory this October and withdrawing thousands of troops before Christmas? If propaganda was used to get us in, why not propaganda to get us out?

Karen DeYoung: I doubt there will be mass withdrawal, no matter what the violence situation is. The main puzzle now for U.S. commanders is what will happen as they decrease numbers, and they'll be far from figuring that out by this fall. But it wouldn't surprise me at all if they said they had decided to withdraw another combat brigade or two just in time for the elections.

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Los Angeles: According to an Internet source, lawsuits have been filed in Argentina (2005), Spain (2006) and Sweden (2007) against Donald Rumsfeld, presumably for violations of the Convention Against Torture. Have you any further information?

Karen DeYoung: Nope, don't know anything about it. These kinds of things are filed all the time and usually come to nothing. But I'll check.

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Fairfax, Va.: Would Obama just have to be out of his mind to visit an Iraq "protected" by the Bush administration and with Blackwater types swarming all around? Or would he have to be completely out of his mind?

Karen DeYoung: There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of congressional visitors to Iraq over the past several years -- during times far worse than now. The embassy and military people who handle them there have the drill down pat ... they take them to places that are secure, with lots of extra security. In that sense, Obama wouldn't be treated any differently than anyone else.

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Freising, Germany: Kurds see Kirkuk as their ancient capital, and of course oil wealth is a major issue in the current debate. How important is Kirkuk in Iraqi politics at the moment?

Karen DeYoung: Kirkuk is crucially important, for the reasons you state. The issue, which was front- burner last year, seems to have calmed down lately -- although the referendum that was supposed to have happened by the end of last year didn't.

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Helena, Mont.: Michael Abramowitz in his chat today made the comment that even administration critics concede that the surge is working. So what happens when we have to draw down troops? And how is that status of forces agreement coming?

Karen DeYoung: I think it depends on what "working" means. Violence is certainly much abated, but nobody -- including the military -- says they know what will happen if and when the troops aren't there. There are still a whole lot of angry people with guns, even if they're not using them at the moment. And if you go back to Bush's original January 2007 speech on the goals for the surge -- political reconciliation, etc. -- it's still a long way from happening. Donald Kerr, the deputy director of national intelligence, gave an interesting speech last week (which you can find on the Office of the Director of National Intelligence Web site) in which he said that political progress in Iraq remains slow and incremental.

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washingtonpost.com: Speech by Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Donald Kerr

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Annandale, Va.: Thanks for chat. What has happened to homes/property of refugees? If they want to return to Iraq, is it practical for them to do so? Is it safe for most to return?

Karen DeYoung: The Red Cross, the U.N. and other organizations are trying to get the Iraqi government organized to start bring refugees home, but there is not too much progress yet. Much of their property -- particularly in Baghdad -- is long gone, either destroyed or taken over by somebody else (often from a different sectarian group). Many Baghdad neighborhoods that are now relatively peaceful are still surrounded by barrier walls and U.S. troops keeping the lid on. Again, nobody knows what happens when that lid is lifted. To the extent refugees have returned, it's largely because they ran out of money in Syria or Jordan.

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Washington: I feel like there's no new news coming out of Iraq. Of what you've heard in the past month, what has most informed your thinking and assessment of where the country is right now, and where it might be down the road?

Karen DeYoung: I agree that Iraq news has slowed, but it's still coming out, even if not necessarily on the front page. I spend a lot of my time talking to folks here and there about it, even if you don't see stories every day.

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Kurds see Kirkuk as their ancient capital: But the Turkmen had it before the Kurds took it, and before the Sunnis took it from the Kurds.

Karen DeYoung: True enough. Everybody involved has a claim.

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Seattle: Sistani and Sadr are both backing a referendum on the U.S.-Iraq "not-a-treaty" accords. Who is backing al-Maliki on the accords as they stand now -- just the Kurds and Maliki's inner circle, or are the Sunnis and Sistani's/Sadr's groups the exceptions?

Karen DeYoung: Even the administration says it's "not a treaty." But I think Washington has realized that it's not as easy as just giving the Iraqis a draft and getting them to sign it. See my answer above re: Iraqi politics. I think negotiators on both sides are trying to figure out wording that makes it sound as benign as possible.

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Hopewell, N.J.: Could you comment on the following excerpt from Lt. Gen. Sanchez's book about a news story in The Washington Post on what Sanchez describes as a "confused" pep talk given by President Bush to his national security team after the killing of four military contractors in Fallujah in 2004? Among the president's exhortations:

"If somebody tries to stop the march to democracy, we will seek them out and kill them! We must be tougher than hell! This Vietnam stuff, this is not even close. It is a mind-set. We can't send that message. It's an excuse to prepare us for withdrawal. ... There is a series of moments and this is one of them. Our will is being tested, but we are resolute. We have a better way. Stay strong! Stay the course! Kill them! Be confident! Prevail! We are going to wipe them out! We are not blinking!"

Karen DeYoung: You mean do I think the president sometimes talks that way? Sure.

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Denver: Mrs. DeYoung, what chance do you see of the passage of the oil law in Iraq, as well as provincial elections, before the U.S. presidential election? Secondly, if Sen. Obama visits Iraq, do you recommend that he attempt to meet Sistani? Thanks for your great reporting.

Karen DeYoung: Because Sistani has consistently refused to meet with pretty much every American, I don't see why he should change for Obama. The betting now on provincial elections is that they won't happen in October, maybe in November ... but there's a lot of work to be done between now and then. On the oil law (actually, there are at least four separate laws) ... if we all had a nickel for every time it was predicted to be on verge of passage, we might be able to buy a gallon of gas.

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Madison, Wis.: Ms. DeYoung: Most discussion of Iraq in the media and even by the presidential candidates here is about what is happening there -- "success" is defined by whether the government stabilizes, reconciliation occurs, violence goes down and so forth. This begs the question of whether "success" is worth the price we are paying for it. Leaving casualties aside for the moment, is there a commonly accepted measure of the financial cost of this war -- per month, per year -- and is projection of that cost into the indefinite future taken for granted among the people you talk to?

Karen DeYoung: We all have seen the estimates, ranging from hundreds of billions to three trillion. It's easy to juggle the numbers, depending on what you count. The most commonly accepted figure, I think, is around a half-trillion so far.

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Saratoga Springs, N.Y.: Hate to be such a cynic, but anyone looking at the size of the "embassy" in Baghdad and the other bases knew well -- years ago, in the face of the phony propaganda and outright lies to the contrary -- that these guys have no intention of ever leaving. They want our troops on top of those oil reserves, and a compliant Iraqi government that won't give them any grief. Is that what McCain meant about 100 years -- another South Korea commitment for as long as we can get away with it?

Karen DeYoung: No reason to apologize for cynicism. The Baghdad embassy is truly a behemoth ... an entire walled compound, over many acres inside the actual Green Zone, with many buildings -- including apartments to house about 1,000 people, recreation space, and space for the military, diplomats and lots of other people to work. A whole city, indicating a desire to maintain a major diplomatic presence in Iraq. The military is a somewhat different story. Other than a headquarters presence (Petraeus has asked for office space for about 250 people inside the embassy itself) the military has its own installations outside. Sen. McCain has indicated that he sees future the U.S. military presence as along the lines of South Korea, where there are about 40,000 U.S. troops.

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Washington: Really, what is the point of members of Congress going to Iraq. All you get out of it are Rep. Mike Pence's comments about farmers markets in Indiana. If members are using their experience to base decisions on Iraq, god help us. They may be fine for boosting troop moral and flying the flag back home before the next election, but as fact-finding missions, they are kind of like using only the odd-numbered volumes of the encyclopedia to do research.

Karen DeYoung: Lawmakers of every stripe have gone to Iraq. Granted, the visits are sort of canned, but different visitors have gotten different things out of it. Look at some of the reports Sen. Jack Reed has put out. I believe he has been there about a dozen times.

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San Clemente, Calif.: I've found it interesting to read about the growing push-back in Iraq against the Status of Forces Agreement that Prime Minister Maliki is negotiating with the U.S. Opposition from established hard-line nationalists like the Sadr movement is to be expected, as well as that of some Sunni groups, but a lot seems to coming from Iraqis who have benefited from the U.S. invasion and occupation.

Some representatives from the Iraqi parliament are said to be traveling to Japan, Germany and Turkey to examine their SOFA agreements with the U.S., but what the U.S. is probable proposing and would accept is nothing like those agreements. Won't a SOFA with Iraq that we could live with look much more like the one Queen Victoria had with India?

Karen DeYoung: Unlike any other SOFA, the U.S. has proposed unilateral U.S. decision-making for its own military operations in Iraq, the ability to arrest and detail Iraqi citizens itself, immunity from Iraqi law for non-military contractors and several other things Iraqis consider violations of sovereignty. As I mentioned above, what's going on now is that both sides are trying to massage the wording to make it more acceptable.

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Sun Prairie, Wis.: Good morning, Ms. DeYoung. Could you go over the situation in Mosul, where a number of suicide attacks have been reported lately?

washingtonpost.com: Suicide car bomber kills 9 in northern Iraqi city (AP, June 3)

Karen DeYoung: The U.S. military describes Mosul as the last stand for al-Qaeda in Iraq, where much of the leadership and fighters fled as they were driven out of Baghdad and environs. The Iraqis have sent more troops up there, who supposedly are working with U.S. forces to put the squeeze on al-Qaeda remnants. One of my Baghdad colleagues did a story recently that indicated these joint operations weren't going that well, although given the sheer numbers they have the advantage over al-Qaeda.

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San Francisco: When he announced the surge in January 2007, President Bush said that "the Iraqi government plans to take responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces by November." That didn't happen by November 2007. Is there any chance it will happen by November 2008?

Karen DeYoung: Yes he did. No there isn't.

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Richmond, Va.: Are the powers in Iraq paying attention to our presidential campaign? If they do, would they wait to make strategic decisions based on the outcome? Because it would make a huge difference to their country (Democrats withdrawing troops, Republicans staying in, at least in the near term), are they just hanging around now, like America is, to see the results?

Karen DeYoung: I did an interesting interview with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari about a month ago in Bahrain...among other things, he said he didn't believe the Democrats, if they took the White House, would begin major withdrawals. Rather, he said he thought it was all campaign politics and even a Democratic president would see the reality on the ground in terms of Iraq still needing a major U.S. military presence. I think Iraqis have a far better understanding of Iraqi politics than they do of U.S. politics.

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Yonkers, N.Y.: In the McClellan book, he says that the president is a true believer who sincerely wanted to extend the blessings of democracy to the Middle East by force of arms. Do you believe that this was indeed his intent, or is Scotty being naive?

Karen DeYoung: I think it is human nature for individuals to attribute their own actions to positive motives, even if evidence indicates otherwise.

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Anonymous: We know our past enemies were functioning nations with whom we could negotiate a truce or surrender. Who will McCain, Lieberman and others who support this war negotiate with, as al-Qaeda is not a nation but a globally dispersed gang of religious zealots?

Karen DeYoung: I haven't noticed McCain, Lieberman, etc. offering to negotiate with anyone.

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Fairfax, Va.: Are we there yet? Or more to the point, how long before the mainstream media will start the drumbeat that we have "won" in Iraq, as The Post's editors kicked off Sunday? Only 17 of our troops killed last month? What a smashing victory, whatever victory entails now.

washingtonpost.com: Deaths in Iraq plunge, but will it last? (Post, June 1)

Karen DeYoung: I don't write editorials. Editorial writers don't write news stories.

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Anonymous: Is the Webb/Warner G.I. Bill going to pass? How out-of-touch is it for both Bush and McCain to oppose it on the grounds our soldiers will use it to better their lives?

Karen DeYoung: I'm just a reader on this issue. What struck me was the projection that the same number of soldiers expected to quit to get the enhanced benefits was about the same as the number expected to sign up in the first place to get them--i.e., a wash in recruitment/retention terms.

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Karen DeYoung: A slow start, but you guys came through with questions--so many that I didn't have a chance to respond to some really good ones. Come back next week, when I think Tom is up.

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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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