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Interview with William R. Polk: Out of Iraq Now

Mr. Polk taught at Harvard from 1955 to 1961 when he was appointed a member of the Policy Planning Council of the US State Department. He is the author most recently (with George McGovern) of Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2006), which advocates the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq by the end of June 2007. This interview was conducted by email.

First, how did you come to write this book with George McGovern?

I have long admired Senator McGovern as one of those “old fashion” Americans who, without any pretence, sticks to fundamental principles.  He has paid a considerable price for this, as you know, losing the 1972 presidential election to Richard Nixon with tragic results for our country.  I did not know him then, but we met last year and began to discuss what was happening in Iraq.  Both of us had been much affected by the Vietnam war, he in the Senate and as the candidate who was attacked rather viciously over his stand against the war, and I in the Policy Planning Council where I argued (from 1962) that we would lose the war.  I gave a lecture to this effect to the “best and brightest” of our colonels at the National War College in 1963.  They were more polite than the press was to McGovern, but they were, to put it mildly, not pleased by my prediction. 

Anyway, the years passed and in 2004, he read my book  Understanding Iraq where I argued, as I had on Vietnam, that we were engaged in a process we did not understand and of whose history we were ignorant.  He fully agreed.  We both had seen that an increasing number of observers were coming around to what we had been saying all along on the Iraq war.  What was missing, obviously, was  what to do about it.  No one was addressing that issue.  So we decided to tackle it.  The result was our book Out of Iraq which spells out a complete program, costed out, with a timetable and an evaluation of the effects of each aspect.

Dick Cheney and others say that if we were to withdraw from Iraq we'd be giving the terrorists the victory they want.  Do you agree?

Certainly not.  Nor, I think, does any competent observer.  But, as you know, Americans have been so traumatized by the issue of terrorism and politicians have been so scared of being thought to be “soft on terrorism” that it isn’t enough or even persuasive to try to take a detached look at the issue.  So where possible, we cite others who cannot be dismissed as liberals  to show how misled we have been by Cheney, Bush and company.  For example, a man no one could accuse of being a liberal Democrat, Lt. General William Odom, the former head of the super-secret National Security Agency, said flatly, that in our policy in Iraq “We’re achieving Ben Laden’s ends.”  The conservative or libertarian Cato Institute made that case too.  And the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute determined that the resistance in Iraq is expanding and becoming more deadly as a consequence of our presence there.  As one of the younger officers out in the field in Iraq told a Washington Post reporter last August, “No body wants us here…if we leave all the attacks would stop, because we’d be gone.”

Now it is important to understand “terrorism.”  It is not a “thing.”  The idea of making war on terrorism may be good PR but it is meaningless.  It is like saying “making war on war.”  Terrorism is simply a tactic.  I have labeled it “the weapon of the weak.”  When combatants don’t have aircraft, tanks or vast numbers of soldiers, they use it.  We did in the American Revolution before George Washington created a British-type army at Valley Forge.  The Irish used it.  So did the Algerians, the Zionists in Palestine, the Vietnamese before Dine Been Phi, and so on.  The Iraqis who oppose us do not have large numbers of fighters – the best guess is about 15-20 thousand – nor do they have the massive equipment our 130-150,000 soldiers and 25,000 or so mercenaries have so they fight as guerrillas.  And when they cannot do even that, they fight as terrorists.  We can anticipate that if we attack Iran, as many fear we will, the Iranians will use guerrilla warfare when they can and terrorism when they have no other means to fight.   It follows that the longer we stay in Iraq and the more wars we fight, the more danger there will be of terrorist attacks wherever those who oppose us can carry them out.  Including, of course, right here in America. 

One more point: no one has ever been successful in stopping guerrilla warfare or terrorism with force.  All the hoopla about “counterinsurgency” is just that, hoopla.  If you really dig into the history of each of the struggles, you find that the gimmicks didn’t work. 

You recommend in your book temporarily replacing the American troops with a lightly armed police force of 15,000 for two years.  Don't you worry they could get caught in a civil war between Shia and Sunnis?

It is a danger.  Our relatively massive military force is now caught in the same mess.  If we cannot stop it with about 150 thousand men, 15 thousand, logically one would have to admit, could not.  However, what I anticipate is that with us, whom about four in five Iraqis regard as the enemy targets, out of Iraq, what will happen is what happened in every guerrilla war I have studied: fighting will die down.  This is a crucial point so permit me to enlarge on it. 

Most guerrilla wars have been about driving out the foreigners.  Our Revolution in 1775 was too.  It was the presence of British troops in Boston that triggered the Revolutionary War.  When the British finally got out in 1783, the war died down.  It didn’t completely stop, at least not immediately, and there was a period of chaos just like what many people who don’t want us out of Iraq now emphasize.  But when the foreign intruder is gone, the people who have been helping the actual fighters become less willing to supply them, feed them, give them intelligence or put up with their demands.  That happened at the end of every guerrilla war.  To put it in the famous phrase coined by Mao Zedong, the “water” – the people – dries up; so the “fish” – the actual fighters – are no longer supported.  Then, assuredly, there will be a period in which terrible things happen while the various factions struggle with one another to readjust their relationships.  We cannot prevent this.  We have not been able to prevent it will all our troops in Iraq now.  But with us gone, the fighting will die down.  So what is needed, I believe, is some help to ameliorate the transition period.  That would be the role of the “stability force.”  It would not be able to, and should not try, to fight the guerrillas.  Its role would be directed against the people all the factions would agree are true criminals, robbers, black marketers, etc.  They would assist in policing the roads, guarding the government offices, banks etc. until such time, hopefully about two years, until an effective national police force, aided by neighborhood watch and ward patrols, can create an acceptable (but still not perfect) degree of security. 

We are not naïve.  We recognize that this will be a difficult period.  But we stress that Americans cannot accomplish it – our record proves this.  So our judgment is that the best hope is an acceptable, patently neutral force which works for and is paid by the Iraq government.

What does history suggest happens when an occupying power withdraws?

I have partly covered this: the key things are two.  The people stop  supporting the fighters and if the government can rise to the occasion it will disarm the fighters.  That is what happened in Ireland.  De Valera suppressed the IRA;  in Yugoslavia, Tito became a nearly conservative nationalist and reined in the men he had led against the Germans; in Algeria, Ben Bella suppressed the “internal” army, the guerrillas who had fought the French; in Kenya, Kenyatta “reconciled” those Kikuyu who had supported the Mau Mau; in Israel, Ben Gurion (at least temporarily) preempted the Irgun and Stern.  When the outside irritant is removed, people try to redress the political process.  If the interruption was of short duration, so is the period of readjustment; if it is long, that becomes much harder.  Ultimately, it can become so disruptive as to virtually destroy a society.  That is why one should not go in and if one does go in, he should get out quickly.

Isn't it likely that if we withdraw civil war will break out and the country will dissolve? (And if that happened, how would that affect America's strategic interests in the region?)

We are already in civil war in Iraq despite Bush’s frequent denials.  It is a very bad situation and will get worse the longer we stay.  We cannot end it.  The idea of “victory” is worse than wrong; it is stupid.  So let me consider the other two parts of your question: will the country dissolve – or should it?  And what will be the effect on American interests if it does.

Much is said about Iraq being an “artificial” country.  What country isn’t?  Well, examples of small island states might be, but look, as I have suggested, at our own history.  The United States was certainly “artificial” and we fought our Civil War to try to overcome nearly crippling regional differences.  Britain?  Tell the Scots or the Welsh that they are English.  France spent centuries convincing the Bretons, the various peoples of Provence (who did not even speak French in the nineteenth century) and the still-unconvinced Corsicans that they are French.  Few nations and states are coordinate or coterminous.  

Having said that, Iraq is weak as a state because it has not existed very long and because the linguistic, religious and cultural differences are both evident and deep-seated. And the Sunni Arabic-speaking Iraqis certainly made life very hard for the Kurds and Shia Arabic-speaking Iraqis.  Hatred is deep.   But, there are important unifying factors: some are internal -- the Iraqis as a whole share experiences that are different from those of their neighbors.  While we think of Iraq in terms of an overview with the Kurds in one area, the Sunnis in another and the Shia in a third, the populations are mingled.  They share infrastructure and institutions and if they were thrown apart the human tragedy, the flood of refugees, would be enormous.   Even more important are external factors.  Let me briefly explain.

If as various Americans including Senator Biden, Peter Galbraith and Leslie Gelb believe it is inevitable, perhaps even desirable, that Iraq flies apart into three pieces, each piece will be vulnerable.  It wasn’t only Saddam Husain who was hard on the Kurds.  Both Turkey and Iran regard Iraqi Kurdistan as a threat to their national interests.  Both have sporadically intervened.  The Turks have sent frequent military missions into Iraqi Kurdistan and almost certainly would do so in the future.  If they are wise, the Kurds will not push autonomy so far that the Turks will take action against them.  Iraqi Shia have a complex relationship with Iran.  Many of the leaders of the “mainline” Shia organization have spent years in exile in Iran, speak Farsi and, of course, share the faith of the Iranian leadership.  The Iraqi Shia, however, are split.  There is a “nationalist” faction which does not want to be drawn into an Iranian orbit.  And the Iraqi Shia leadership in general is unlikely to want to become subordinate to the Iranian leaders.  There is no clear outcome of these issues, but my hunch is that Iran will not push its advantages in Iraq especially if Iraq holds together.  If it does not, then the issue becomes far less clear.  For the third group, the Iraqi Sunnis, I do not see any serious likelihood of intervention by Syria or Jordan or Saudi Arabia if Iraq holds together but more if Iraq disintegrates.

You oppose the creation of a strong national Iraqi army.  Why?

Looking at Iraqi history from the 1930s to the Baath period, it is evident that the army has always been a source of destabilization and moves against the evolution of a healthy civic society.  There is no reason to believe that it would be different in the future.  Moreover, it has no useful role to play.  And, finally, to the degree that it becomes effective its very existence will promote the arms race in the Middle East.

In the book you are argue that we should turn the Green Zone over to Iraqis and settle for a "normal" size embassy.  Why in the world do you think we are building the largest embassy in the world in Iraq?

The simple answer is that our “embassy” is not an embassy but an occupational government.  And that, of course, is how the Iraqis see it.  If we really decide to disengage, we will need to transform it.

Is the foreign policy establishment, such as it is, willing to back your plan?   (Isn't that support essential for the plan to win the backing of the American people?)

I really do not know what the “foreign policy establishment” is any more.  I think there was one that could be identified back in the Cold War period.  Now, none of the former senior officers I have known in the State Department, Defense Department or CIA feel that they are part of the group now running our foreign and security affairs.

One of your most controversial suggestions is that the United States pay reparations to Iraq.  Do you really think the American people would get behind this proposal?

I think this is probably hard.  However, as we point out, the overall effect of the withdrawal plan we suggest is to save America about 97% of the cost of doing what we are now doing as well as saving the lives of hundreds or perhaps thousands of young Americans.  What we suggest is very cheap at the price.  What we need is for our political leadership to help educate us in our own best interests.  We have a good example of how that worked in the Vietnam War when Senator William Fulbright held headings that clarified the great issues and the options.  Sadly, nobody from either party is rising to that level of statesmanship now.

What happens if we remain in Iraq for a couple more years?

More casualties and more wasted money.  We are now spending about $100 billion a year and that cost is rising about 30% a year.  That is just the “out of pocket” expenditure.  The real cost to our society will be far higher.  Probably Iraq has already cost us, if we figure the costs as an insurance company would, about $1 trillion.  So two more years will eat up more money.  That is on the order of $6,000 to $8,000 for every man, woman and child in America.  This drain on our economy has a ripple effect.  To shield the public from the real cost of the war, the Bush administration has sweetened the deal by cutting taxes.  In order to do that it has had to borrow vast amounts abroad.  I don’t know the latest figure but in 2004, we borrowed $540 billion, mainly from the Chinese.  We put our economy in more jeopardy than Usama bin Ladin could possibly have done.

Then look at casualties.  October has been a horrifying month.  Are November, December and so on likely to be better?  Our military commanders certainly do not think so.  And consider what they do not like to talk about in public: the “quiet” casualties – the wounded.  The war has damaged the lives of over 20,000 young men and women, about half of whom will never recover.  But that is only the start.  At least 50,000 have suffered brain concussions that will partially disable them already and at least another 40,000 have suffered severe psychological damage.  The monetary costs, to be crass about their disabilities, will be with our society for at least a generation to come.  How many more will two more years of senseless war add to these numbers?  No one can tell, but we can be sure that they will be significant.

What's the chief lesson of Iraq?

There are several.  Do not get into such senseless and unwinnable conflicts.  Use multilateral diplomacy instead of unilateral force.  Be more patient.  Be more honest and better informed.  Educate ourselves.