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Interview with Juan Cole

The man who starts my every on-line day is standing at the door. He's small-framed with short, wavy hair and fragile-looking specs. Nattily dressed in a dark suit and tie, he apologizes, as he enters, for being so formally togged out on a Sunday morning. As it happens, I'm but a pit stop on the way to an afternoon TV interview at the PBS program Great Decisions on one of his specialties, Iran.

This is, of course, Juan Cole. His website, Informed Comment, first came on line in April 2002, almost a year before the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq. As he recalls his life back then, "I was just a Midwestern college professor. I taught my courses and wrote my articles about the Middle East. My interests were in religious institutions, religious movements, especially Shiite Islam and Sunni modernism. I knew where these movements came from. I knew the history of the Shiite clergy in Najaf back to the eighteenth century. And I had lived in the Middle East off and on for a significant period of time. When my blog began, it was little more than gardening for me, a small hobby on the side to put up a few thoughts every once in a while, initially read by fifty to a hundred people a day." Now, it is counted among the top hundred blogs at Technorati.com, a site which follows such things, and may be one of the more linked to blogs on Earth. American reporters trapped in hotels in Baghdad read it regularly for the latest news from Iraq. The secret of his success? "I type fast," he says with a sly smile. "Seventy words a minute."

An "Army brat," with Arabic, Persian, and Urdu under his belt, a scholar who "can make something out of an Ottoman text," he teaches modern Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan. He is exceedingly mild looking, mild-mannered, and quiet-spoken. Even his humor is hushed. He's ironic. The very name of his blog, he tells me, was meant as a quiet commentary on the "grandiose" blog titles people were then choosing back in 2002. And yet, as anyone who reads his blog knows, his mind is anything but mild. As a reasonable man increasingly appalled by the Bush administration and American policy in the Middle East, he can be, and often is, an impressively fierce essayist.

As he settles into an easy chair in my living room to await breakfast on a day when nature has once again dealt a horrific blow to humanity -- the Pakistani earthquake had just occurred -- he proceeds to tell me much I didn't know about the history and plate tectonics of the region. When asked a question, he pauses to formulate his response. It's rare in our world, but you can actually see him think. If you were a student with a penny of sense in your head, this is the man you would want for your professor. In fact, an hour and a half after our interview begins, as I click off my tape recorders, I feel I've only scratched the surface.

Tomdispatch: Do you sleep? This is a question your readers wonder about. Take October fourth. You put up four posts, time-stamped between six and six-thirty AM. By the time I'm up at seven you're always there.

Juan Cole: I'm a night owl. The way it works is this: The Arabic and Persian newspapers in the Middle East go up around ten or eleven PM our time, but they're the next day's newspapers. So basically it's like time travel. I get to see tomorrow's newspapers tonight.

TD: About the President's most recent global terror speech you wrote, "Mr. Bush, I don't recognize the world you paint." Could you start by laying out for us what's missing from our picture of Iraq -- not just Bush's picture, but the mainstream media's?

JC: It's not just from Iraq. It's our picture of the world. The United States is a peculiarly insular society. Most people here haven't traveled very much and our mass media, all television news of any significance, is controlled by about five corporations. We have a tradition in the State Department and our press corps of preferring generalists and being suspicious of deep expertise as a form of bias. So a journalist covering Iraq, who knows the Middle East well and knows Arabic, might well be seen as someone too entangled with the region to be objective. The American way of ensuring objectivity is to parachute generalists into a situation and have them depend on local informants. The whole theory of it is wrong. The BBC, for example, wouldn't dream of having most of its Middle Eastern coverage done by people who don't know Arabic.

Basically, the public is informed about things like the Middle East by generalist journalists who were in Southeast Asia or Russia last year, and by politicians and bureaucrats who were dealing with some other region last week. And then there's official Washington spin, and the punditocracy, the professional commentators, mainly in New York and Washington, who comment about the Middle East without necessarily knowing anything serious about it. Anybody who's lived in parts of the world under the microscope in Washington is usually astonished at how we represent them. You end up with an extremely persistent set of images that almost no actual information is able to make a dent in.

TD: Can you apply this to Iraq?

JC: The famous instance is the interview Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz gave to National Public Radio in February before the Iraq War. He said words to the effect that Iraq will be a better friend to the United States than Saudi Arabia had been. It shows you he was intending to replace Saudi Arabia with Iraq as a pillar of the U.S. security establishment in the Middle East. Saudis are Wahabis and they have sensitivities about their holy cities, Mecca and Medina. Iraq, he said, is a Shia society. It's secular. He juxtaposed Shia and secular. And then he added, it doesn't have the problem of having holy cities. The Washington power elite that planned out the invasion appears to have thought that Iraq was a secular society, including the Shiites amongst them, and they seem to have been unaware of Najaf and Kabala as among the holiest shrine cities in the world of Islam.

It's not a matter of stupidity on Wolfowitz's part. It's a matter of being uninformed. Willfully uninformed. He just believed whatever people like [long-time Iraqi expatriate politician and corrupt banker, now vice-premier] Ahmed Chalabi told him about Iraq. He probably hadn't read as much as a whole book on Iraq's modern history. Well, Iraq wasn't a secular society.

TD: You wrote in April 2002, considering American dreams of a post-Saddam Iraq, "A democratically elected government and a friendly government are not necessarily going to be the same thing, at least in the long run." This is where we are now and it was obviously very knowable a year before the invasion.

JC: The International Institute at the University of Michigan asked me to write a pro-and-con piece about an Iraq war in January of 2003. Among the reasons I gave for not going to war were: a) if you overthrow the Baath regime and discredit secular Arab nationalism in Iraq, the Sunni Arab community may well gravitate toward more al-Qaeda types of identity; and b) if you invade Iraq and let loose popular politics, the Shiite Iraqis may well hook up with the Ayatollahs in Iran. These things were perfectly foreseeable. I think if you went back to the early 1990s and took a look at Dick Cheney's speeches, he voiced similar analyses.

TD: So what happened between then and March 2003, for Dick Cheney at least?

JC: I think Dick must have found motives for an Iraq war that overrode his earlier concerns. We don't have transparent governance and therefore we're not in a position to know exactly what our Vice President's motives were, but clearly he became convinced that, whatever the validity of his earlier concerns, they were outweighed by other considerations.

TD: And your guess on those considerations?

JC: My guess with regard to Cheney is that his experience in the energy sector and with Halliburton as CEO must have been influential in his thinking. For the corporate energy sector in the United States, Iraq must have been maddening. It was under those United Nations sanctions. It's a country that, with significant investment, might be able to rival Saudi Arabia as a producer of petroleum. Saudi Arabia can produce around 11 million barrels a day, if it really tries. Iraq before the war was producing almost 3 million barrels a day and, if its fields were explored and opened and exploited, it might be up to the Saudi level in twenty years. This could bring a lot of petroleum on the market. There would be opportunities for making money from refining. There might even be an opportunity, if you had a free-market regime in Iraq, for Western petroleum companies to go back to owning oil fields -- something they haven't been able to do since the 1970s in the Middle East when most of these fields were nationalized. All that potential in Iraq was locked up.

The petroleum industry, structurally, is a horrible industry because it depends on constantly making good finds and being able to get favorable contracts for developing them, so that one is constantly scrambling for the next field. To have an obvious source of petroleum and energy in Iraq locked up under sanctions, and this Arab socialist regime with the government controlling everything, it must have just driven people crazy.

And you never knew when the sanctions might slip and Iraq might crank back up its production. If you're in the petroleum industry, what you'd like is have a ten-year timeline for what the future's going to look like. What if Iraq was able to produce 5 million barrels a day? That would have an impact on prices. It would have an impact on the plans you might like to make. But you couldn't predict that. It was completely unknowable.

So Iraq was like a treasure in a strongbox. You knew exactly where it was; you knew what the treasure was; but you couldn't get at it. The obvious thing to do was to take a crowbar and strike off the strongbox lock. My suspicion is that, for someone like Cheney, such considerations had a lot to do with his support for an Iraq war -- and he was willing to take a chance on the rest of it, including the Shiites.

TD: The rest which he, unlike many of the others in the administration, already knew?

JC: Oh, he knew it very well. Among all those people who planned out this war, Cheney and [Secretary of State Colin] Powell were knowledgeable about the situation on the ground in Iraq.

TD: What do you make then of the rest of them, their motivations?

JC: When we as historians get access to all the documents and can figure out how this thing was planned and who supported it, I think we'll find that the Bush administration was a coalition of various forces and each part of the coalition had its own reasons for wanting to fight this war. The group most explored has been the neoconservatives, but I suspect they will bulk less large in our final estimation of the promotion of the war. They weren't in command positions for the most part. They were in positions to make an argument. They may also have been fall guys. When things started going bad, more stuff got leaked about what they had been saying than about others.

I suspect it will come out that George W. Bush had wanted an Iraq War since he was governor of Texas -- "to take out Saddam," as he said. The various reasons he might have wanted this are undoubtedly complex. He had connections to the energy sector and so would be influenced by Cheney's kind of thinking, but there was a personal family vendetta too. You know, George Bush senior expected Saddam to fall after the Gulf War. By his own admission, he was very surprised when Saddam survived. I think he expected the Iraqi officer corps to -- quote unquote -- do the right thing, which tells you something about the American WASP elite, what their expectations are about politics. When someone fails miserably, they expect the rest of the elite to step in and remove the person. It didn't happen in Iraq and I think that was a blow to Bush family prestige. It may have been important for W to vindicate the family in that regard.

There were probably many motivations for the war, but the degree to which Bush himself has been a central, policy-making player somehow gets elided in American discourse. It's not as if he's a leaf blown by the wind. When the Bush presidency is finally examined from the primary documents, a lot of the things that are attributed to the number three man at the Pentagon may actually turn out to have been Bush's idea from the beginning, and something he pushed hard for.

His personal style is to play it by ear. He doesn't have patience for a lot of details. In Texas, he was used to calling together the Republican and Democratic state representatives to work out deals about this or that as they came up. That's his background as a policymaker, but the world is not like the Texas legislature. It's not a chummy club in which you can find compromises and go forward. The world is a much more complex and vicious place, and there are often incommensurate issues for which there is no acceptable compromise. Trying to run the world the way you run Texas is a big mistake.

As a set of organizations, the U.S. government has actually had a lot of experience in post-conflict situations. Bosnia. Kosovo. This is what a lot of people in the State Department and the Pentagon have been doing for the last twenty years. There are functional experts who may not know Bosnian or Arabic, but know about the need for policing after a war or about the need for sanitation and garbage collection. These people were giving advice about Iraq. I know for a fact that they were. But they were simply ignored in the actual event. Somehow, the civilians in the Department of Defense sidelined all those experts and so the U.S. military was given no instructions about how to put Iraq back on its feet after the war.

TD: Just to return to your strongbox image, the lock was busted in March of 2003. Now, two and half years later, I'd like you to take us on a little tour of Iraq as best you understand the situation there.

JC: Okay, let's start from north to south. Three of Iraq's 18 provinces were heavily Kurdish and formed a confederacy called Kurdistan under the [post-Gulf War I Anglo-American] no-fly zone. They were a kind of mini-state with a regional parliament and prime minister. The U.S. military never had much of a presence in the far north. The city of Kirkuk was actually taken during the war by Kurdish fighters with close U.S. air support -- rather as [in 2001] many cities in Northern Afghanistan had been taken by the Northern Alliance. So the northern part of Iraq looked much more like the Afghanistan War.

TD: Air support, the CIA, and tribal peoples, this had been a basic style of American warfare since Laos in the 1960s.

JC: Yes, that's how Kosovo was fought. That's how Afghanistan was fought too, but it was especially significant here because the Kurdish militia, the Peshmerga, which took Kirkuk, then formed the police force for that contested city whose population includes Turkmen, Arabs, and Kurds. The Kurds are probably close to half now. A lot of them had been expelled by Saddam, but they're coming back in large numbers. From all accounts I've been able to get from people on the ground, the three provinces that are heavily Kurdish are doing very well.

TD: And are unoccupied?

JC: There aren't many American troops there. Behind the scenes there have been some battles between the Kurdish forces and the Americans from time to time, some bombing of Kurdish positions when the Americans feel they're going too far, getting out of hand. But those have not been reported publicly. I've heard about them from people in Iraq. By and large, though, Kurdistan has not been occupied by the United States and economically seems to be doing very well. There's low unemployment and a lot of construction work.

On the other hand, the province of Kirkuk is potentially a powder keg. It could explode in a way that might have unfortunate consequences for all of Iraq and the region. Oil fields are around Kirkuk and the Kurds want those fields and the city for their Kurdistan federation. The Turkmen, traditionally dominant in the area but recently overwhelmed by the Kurds, resist this idea, and the Arabs Saddam settled up there are not happy about it either. The Kurds would get their way under ordinary circumstances, but the Turkmen are supported by Turkey; and northern Iraq is a mirror image of Turkey itself where the Kurds are a minority and the Turks a majority. If a kind of communal war broke out -- and there is a lot of terrorism, people are assassinated almost every day -- it would inflame passions of a regional sort. So one worries about Kirkuk.

And then you come to the Sunni Arab center. It's not true by the way that the problems in Iraq are only in four provinces. I figure, including Baghdad, about half of Iraqis live in the troubled parts of the country. The seven or eight provinces especially affected are in a condition of unconventional, low-intensity war. People who haven't lived in such a situation find it difficult to imagine what it's like, because the tendency in any reporting is to focus on the specific violent events that occur. But you're talking about an area in which maybe 12 million people live and most of them get up every day, go about their business, and don't encounter any violence. If you were living in Mosul, most days you might not see any violence with your own eyes. On the other hand, quite often there would be machine-gun fire in the distance. From time to time, there would be the sound of a bomb going off. This is how it is in Baghdad. This is why it's so wrong for Western reporters to parachute into Iraq, often embedded in U.S. military forces, and say, well, I saw the markets bustling and things seemed to be going on just fine. It's the constant drumbeat of violence over time that produces insecurity and fear, that affects investment, the circulation of money, the ability to employ people, people's willingness to send their children to school. This is something that's not visible to the naked eye.

So, in the center of the country, there's no guarantee of security. Basically, the Sunni Arab guerrilla movement wants to destabilize Iraq, force the U.S. military to withdraw, and, once it's gotten rid of them, hopes it can kill the politicians of the new government and make a coup. It's a classic guerrilla strategy used in Algeria and elsewhere.

TD: And what of the ongoing destruction of the country's infrastructure?

JC: The guerrilla movement destroys infrastructure deliberately. Electricity facilities, petroleum pipelines, rail transport. And it deliberately baits the U.S. military in the cities, basing its fighters in civilian neighborhoods in hopes that a riposte will cause damage, because Iraqis, even urban ones, are organized by clan. Clan vendettas are still an important part of people's sense of honor. So when the American military kills an Iraqi, I figure they've made enemies of five siblings and twenty-five first cousins who feel honor-bound to get revenge. The Sunni Arab guerrilla movement has taken advantage of that sense of clan honor gradually to turn the population against the United States. Many more Sunni Arabs are die-hard opposed to the U.S. presence in Iraq now than was the case a year ago, and there were more a year ago than the year before that.

The U.S. has used bombing of civilian neighborhoods on a massive scale because the alternative is to send its forces in to fight close, hand-to-hand combat in alleyways in Iraq's cities and that would be extremely costly of U.S. soldiers' lives. It certainly would have turned the American public against the war really quickly.

TD: When the Bush administration was getting ready to launch its invasion, this was the great professed fear, the subject of a hundred predictive articles -- being trapped in house-to-house urban warfare in the back streets of Baghdad, which is more or less where we are now.

JC: It didn't happen in the course of the actual war because Saddam always mistrusted the military. He wasn't a military man himself; he was a failed law student and he would not allow the military into the capital. He made them stay outside, essentially to be massacred by the U.S. But the people who went underground from the Baath party and are mainly running the guerrilla movement have decided to use this tactic of basing themselves in cities. And it has succeeded. Even a city like Fallujah -- the United States destroyed two-thirds of its buildings, emptied the city for a long time, and has been very careful about allowing people back in -- is not secure. Every day there are mortar and bomb attacks against U.S. forces in that area. So it's certainly not the case that the U.S. has made any friends in Fallujah.

TD: In a recent post, you wrote of Baghdad: "Bush has turned one of the world's greatest cities into a cesspool with no order, little authority, and few services."

JC: That's the image I get from people who are there and also visiting Arab journalists.

TD: If you go back to the neocons and their prewar vision, the world out there on the peripheries was a jungle world of failed states to which we were going to bring order. Isn't that what Iraq has become today?

JC: Iraq is a failed state at the moment.

TD: Now just to continue the tour south…

JC: The south is largely Shiite. Most of the areas have gradually been taken over, as far as I can tell, by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The Supreme Council was a coalition of fundamentalist Shiite religious parties who fled Saddam's repression in 1980, based themselves in Teheran, received the patronage of Ayatollah Khomeini, and conducted essentially terrorist raids on Baath targets in Iraq from Iranian soil. They would come into Iraq through Basra, through the marshes, through Baquba in the east, and so gained supporters in those areas.

After the fall of Saddam, the Supreme Council came back from Iran. Its leadership settled into Najaf and Basra. Their people would go out from the cities to small towns and villages and open political offices. They were very good grass-roots campaigners. It's not exactly clear to me how they pulled it off, but they won nine provinces in the January 30th elections.

The problem with the Shiite south was: After the war, the U.S. asked its coalition partners to garrison the south. These were small forces -- Spanish, Italian, Ukrainian, Dutch, Polish -- and often not very well integrated. So the south was this patchwork of multinational forces, and there were only eight or nine thousand British troops for Basra, which was a city of over a million, and Maysan, another half million. Local security was provided, if at all, by neighborhood militias, and who was going to run those militias? The local Shiite religious political parties. Not surprisingly, when the elections came, they won. So now it's the Sadr movement and the Supreme Council that run Basra. It's Khomeini and Khomeini's stepson. Of course, liquor and video stores have been closed, and girls are being forced to veil, and the militias patrol the streets. Since their parties took over the civil government, they're now being admitted to the police force.

So that's how Basra's being run -- by religious political parties the U.S. essentially helped put into power by having these elections that everybody in America was so excited about last January 30th. The elections were taken by most Americans as a political victory for Bush, but they didn't seem to pay any attention to who was actually winning them on the ground in places like Basra. Now the British have a big problem. Their 8,000 troops have to deal with security forces and police heavily infiltrated by the paramilitaries of these groups. Of course, there have been increasing conflicts. And I'll tell you, in the long run, I don't think the British are going to win this one.

TD: Now I want to turn to the issue of withdrawal. I've been particularly impressed that, at your site, you post your own intellectual development, so to speak -- and that includes putting up letters and essays by people who take you on. This is unbelievably rare. The reader can actually see a brain at work, regularly reassessing a changing situation. It's been especially true on the question of the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. Having gone back recently to read your site's earliest months, it's obvious that you've become fiercer and angrier as time has gone on in relation to the Bush administration. You recently wrote a piece saying that U.S. ground troops must come out now, "for the good of Iraq, for the good of America." Would you discuss the development of your thoughts on this? Where are you now on the issue of withdrawal and how it might happen?

JC: The first thing I should say is I'm not under any illusion that it matters a great deal what I think on the subject.

TD: [Laughs.] Neither of us is exactly capable of withdrawing American troops from Iraq. I'm endlessly aware of this when people call for one plan or another. I think, wait a minute…

JC: [Laughs.] When you're talking about the debates I hold with my readers and the way I put up critiques of my position, what academic life has to offer is open debate and being honest about your sources, about how you come to a conclusion. The whole point of my blog is to attempt to represent the life of the mind in a public forum. I view what I do as different from politics where you want to stay on message, stay on point. You want to put out an image, a position and stick to it. You make fun of your opponent for waffling or being indecisive. But what serious thinker hasn't gone back and forth? You'd have to be crazy if you didn't consider other options than the one you initially started out with or if, over time, experience didn't sometimes cause you to take a different position.

You know, Whitman said: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes." That's the American spirit, so I'm happy to debate these things, reveal my thinking, and let the world see how one intellectual concerned with the Middle East deals with the array of information that's coming at us over time.

Well, I'm now really worried about what the outcome in Iraq might mean for the Middle East, for the United States, and for the world. I'm really, really worried and I can think up some nightmare scenarios…

TD: Give me one…

JC: Say the U.S. and its allies draw down their troops -- and it's very clear, the allies are pfffft! Everybody's announced that, after the December 15th election, they're going to draw down. But if a withdrawal is done in the wrong way, or unwisely, here's what could happen:

You've already got this low-intensity sectarian war going on in a province like Babel. Twenty-two guys'll show up dead in the morning, bullets behind their ears, mafia-style. They'll be Shiites or they'll be Sunnis. So you know the two sides -- at night, when the U.S. can't see them so well -- are already fighting it out with each other. And it's over land. Babel province was traditionally heavily Shiite. Saddam expelled Shiites and brought in Sunnis. It was part of his planting of Sunnis.

TD: As in Kirkuk…

JC: That was Arabization, this was Sunnitization. So let's say the U.S. is not around much anymore, what's going to happen if you have a whole brigade of Sunni fighters come down from Mahmudiyah and attack Hila? That sort of thing happened in Lebanon during the civil war. These neighborhood militias can become armies and leave their areas to wage war against other neighborhood militias that become armies. Now, if that started happening, and if the Sunni Arabs started to win, it's inevitable that the Revolutionary Guards will come across the border from Iran to help the Shiites. Iran's not going to sit by and allow Iraq's Shiites to be massacred. If that happened, the Saudis, the Jordanians, and the Syrian Sunnis are not going to stand by either and let Iranian Revolutionary Guards massacre Sunni Arabs in reprisal. They're going to come in. You could simultaneously be having Kurdish massacres of Turkmen which would bring Turkey in. So you could end up with a regional low-intensity war. Think of the Spanish Civil War.

Back in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein and Khomeini fought a war with one another for eight years, but on the whole they avoided hitting each other's oil facilities. Both understood that doing that would reduce their countries to fourth-world states. So there was a kind of mutually-assured-destruction doctrine between them, which is possible between states. But in the guerrilla war in Iraq, the Sunni guerrillas have already pioneered using pipeline sabotage and oil sabotage…

TD: I'm actually surprised that such sabotage has yet to make it to the Caspian pipelines or elsewhere.

JC: Well, it could still spread. In August of 2004, when the Marines were fighting the Muqtada al-Sadr people in Najaf, the Sadrists in Basra did make threats to start pipeline sabotage in the south, which really would have crippled Iraq. In a regional guerrilla war, there would be a lot of impetus for Sunni guerrillas to hit the Iranian pipelines, and there are some Sunni tribes in the oil-producing areas of Iran who might be enlisted for this purpose. If the Saudis got involved, then the radical Shiites have an impetus to hit the Saudi pipelines, and the Saudi petroleum facilities are in a heavily Shiite area. Basically, what we've learned from Iraq is that petroleum is produced in a human-security environment in which powerful local forces want it to be produced. If some significant proportion of the local forces doesn't want it to be produced, they can spoil it.

TD: As in Nigeria…

JC: We have seen this all over the world. We focus on states, but states can't provide security for hundreds of miles of pipeline. It's literally impossible. So think what you're talking about here. Something on the order of 80-84 million barrels of petroleum are produced every day in the world. Saudi Arabia produces 9 of that reliably, sometimes more. Iran produces 4. On a good day, Iraq used to produce almost 3. Now it's down to somewhere around 1.8 million. If you took all of that off the market, that's about a fifth of world petroleum production. Do you know what that's going to do to prices!

If you don't like three-dollar-a-gallon gasoline, you're going to really hate this kind of world I'm painting. I think the price shock would reduce economic growth globally, plunging some countries into recession or even depression. This would be a world-class catastrophe. And it's also not clear, once it starts, how you stop it.

TD: In this context, you still called recently for U.S. ground troops to be brought out now.

JC: Because I'm not convinced that U.S. ground troops are preventing this kind of scenario from happening.

TD: So talk a little about your thinking on withdrawal.

JC: Well, my concern is that U.S. ground troops are being used at the moment for things like the Fallujah operation, the Tal Afar operation, or now the Haditha operation. This essentially means using the troops to attack cities which are Sunni Arab (or in the case of Tal Afar, Sunni Turkmen). These are seen as bastions of the guerrilla movement and facilitators of the infiltration of foreign fighters into the country. To empty them of their populations, to flatten entire neighborhoods, to do extensive infrastructural and building damage to them, to reduce their inhabitants to tent dwellers and refugees, and maybe gradually let them back in to live in tents on the rubble of their former homes -- this way of proceeding has no chance of success as an anti-insurgency tactic. People in other cities see this happening and they sympathize with their fellow Sunnis.

The hope for counterinsurgency would involve three things. Of course, you'd have to hit people who are blowing up innocent civilians. You'd have to try to stop that, but you'd also have to open backchannels to their political leadership and try to find ways to bring them into the system. And you have to convince the general population not to support them. Operations like Fallujah, Tal Afar, and Haditha might have some limited effect -- I think not very much -- in fighting the guerrilla movement. But they do not cause the political leadership to come in from the cold or the general Sunni population to think well enough about the U.S. and its Iraqi allies to start informing on that movement.

So things are only getting worse in the Sunni areas. People forget that a year ago, before the second Fallujah campaign, Mosul was being held up as a model. It had been governed by General [David H.] Petraeus. It seemed like it might be possible to woo the Sunni Arabs there. But during the Fallujah campaign Mosul exploded. Four thousand police resigned. Guerrillas en masse took over checkpoints throughout the city. There were bombings and it never really has settled down again. As al-Zaman [the Times of Baghdad] reported recently, Northern Mosul is now essentially guerrilla-held territory.

TD: And after fifteen months on the job, Petraeus, who was also responsible for "standing up" the Iraqi Army, has just been reassigned to the United States.

JC: He's been replaced, which indicates to me that the whole thing is not going very well. It may be that he was given an impossible job.

So, if the U.S. ground troops are going to be used in this way, then they're just creating more guerrillas over time. I don't see evidence of progress here but of deterioration. It's looking more and more like Algeria in the early 1960s rather than the mid-50s when the French were having some success against the guerrilla movement in Algiers. Therefore, it seems to me, we ought to get the ground troops out and stop using them this way to empty cities, destroy neighborhoods, and pursue what is frankly a punitive and scorched-earth policy towards the Sunni Arab population.

TD: I've been calling it the Carthaginian solution.

JC: Yes, and in the context of modern guerrilla war it's possibly the worst way to proceed. But unlike some of my friends to the left of me -- and I'm not sure it's even a left-right issue since the libertarians feel the same way -- I think it's really dangerous just to up and leave altogether and allow Iraq to fall into civil war. People say the most amazing things. Like, "Well, Iraq is already in civil war, so why would it matter if we left?" No! No! No! This is the stage before proper civil war. The difference is a matter of scale. You have hundreds of people a week being killed by guerrilla violence in Iraq. That's different from thousands of people, or tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands. I mean we've seen it in other countries -- Cambodia, Afghanistan, Congo -- you can lose a fifth of the population in this kind of struggle. I think it's outrageous that people would say, "Let's just up and leave and let what happens happen." I know the Bush administration has mismanaged this thing so badly that one's tempted to say, let's get them away from this before they do any more damage, but do we want a genocide on our conscience?

I know one person who said, "Well, once we're out, whatever happens is not our responsibility." Is it really true? You can invade a country, overthrow its government, dissolve its military, and then walk away, and a million people die, and that's not your problem? I don't understand this way of thinking.

TD: Let me change the location of this to Washington for a minute. You noted recently that the Arab press referred to the antiwar demonstrators in Washington as "the American street," which I found amusing, and you also pointed out the virtual absence of Democratic legislators, except for some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, even marching in the demonstration, no less addressing it. When we're thinking about Iraq and the future, other than a rising popular opposition to the war (which comes from many places, including simple unhappiness that we're not winning), it seems as if the political opposition doesn't exist. To exaggerate only slightly, half the Democrats in Congress are still calling for sending more troops -- which don't even exist -- into Iraq. I was wondering what you made of this, given your recent call for getting American ground troops out?

JC: Well, the first thing to say is that the Democratic Party is about as influential on Iraq policy as you and I are. Whatever position Democratic legislators took wouldn't necessarily be a policy position in the sense of having any hope of being implemented as long as Bush is in the White House. And I think they're fearful of looking weak on foreign policy…

TD: …The result of which is that they become unbelievably weak...

JC: The strategy may be talk tough and let Bush fail.

TD: You recently called that "a dangerous strategy."

JC: There's tremendous dissatisfaction in the country over the Iraq war and Bush foreign policy which could turn into grass-roots victories for Democratic candidates in 2006, if they could figure out how to address it and provide leadership on these issues. This is why I did one of my columns suggesting we turn to using Special Forces and air power to support Iraqi forces. Treat them like the Northern Alliance was treated during the Afghan War, even though I'm seeing this as an exit strategy rather than an entry strategy. I did this mainly to suggest that there are other stances the Democrats could take. You could say we need an exit strategy for Iraq that would be smart militarily and politically, and doesn't just involve 1975-style withdrawal from Vietnam with people hanging from helicopters but also doesn't involve being quiet and letting Bush dig his own grave. I think, first of all, that that's cowardly. Second, it's not good for the country not to have a debate and not to have leadership on the other side of an issue.

TD: Do you think Bush has dug his own grave?

JC: I mean, this is one of the great foreign policy debacles of American history. There's an enormous amount at stake in the oil Gulf and Bush is throwing grenades around in the cockpit of the world economy. So I think he has dug his own grave with regard to Iraq policy. Most politics in the United States, though, focuses on domestic issues.

TD: Despite the usual centrality of domestic issues, I happen to think that, above all else, the war has driven the Bush people ever since the post-invasion period. When, for instance, you look at the latest AP/Ipsos poll, what's bothering the evangelicals now above all else? It's the war.

JC: Yes, they are upset about what happened in Iraq because Bush made an alliance with the religious Shiites which meant an alliance with Islamic fundamentalists who have now put a Koran veto on legislation in Iraq. You know, the evangelicals were dreaming big. They thought Iraq was going to be a missionary success, that they would make the Iraqis into Protestants. But any missionary who showed up in Iraq now, we'd soon be seeing him on video pleading for his life. None of their objectives with regard to Iraq have been achieved.

This is something, by the way, that the evangelicals have been dreaming of since the 1850s. It's how the American University in Beirut got there. The Presbyterian missions were the ones that originally tried to missionize the Middle East and they failed all along the line -- and they continue to fail. The Bush moment was a moment in which those nineteenth century dreams of evangelical missionizing and imperial might being melded together were briefly revived. Now it's become clear to them that this is just not going to happen, so they're angry, they're disappointed. You can understand that.

This article first appeared on www.tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, a long time editor in publishing, the author of The End of Victory Culture, and a fellow of the Nation Institute.