(Flynt Leverett on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer)
Margaret Warner, Senior Correspondent on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer, had a great segment last night on President Bush and whether the character and degree of Iraq’s sectarian convulsions, or “civil war” in the view of most.
Leverett affirms that a civil war is underway. Margaret Warner draws on that great Brent Scowcroft line about “incipient civil war”.
James Woolsey says that we aren’t in civil war yet — but that what we have is something akin to pre-abolition “Bleeding Kansas”.
An exchange between Margaret Warner, R. James Woolsey, and Flynt Leverett:
Margaret Warner: James Woolsey was director of central intelligence under President Clinton, and he has served on the Defense Policy Board, a group that advises Defense Secretary Rumsfeld.
Flynt Leverett is a former CIA Middle East analyst and served on the National Security Council staff during this President Bush’s first term. He was then an adviser to the John Kerry presidential campaign and is now a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
Welcome to you, both.
Gentlemen, as we all know, the president and the administration have been criticized for not being realistic about the situation on the ground in Iraq in the past. How realistic do you think he was?
What did you hear, Jim Woolsey? And did you hear a shift in tone at all on this question of being realistic about what’s happening?
JAMES WOOLSEY, Former Director of Central Intelligence: There has been something of a shift over months toward a somewhat more cautious statement. And I think his optimism was reasonably moderated, and the realism was not far off.
I bet they wish they had been more concerned with some of their earlier statements.
I think that there is a reasonable chance that the U.S. military’s adaptability and abilities will pull this out in Iraq, but it certainly is going to be still difficult. And you also have to worry, of course, about Iranian domination in southern Iraq.
MARGARET WARNER: One, did you hear a more realistic tone? And do you agree with former Director Woolsey that it is possible now in Iraq to be, as the president said he is, both realistic and optimistic?
FLYNT LEVERETT, Former CIA Middle East Analyst: I think that there may be some shifts in rhetorical nuance from the president these days, but unfortunately I think he’s still operating from a deeply flawed assessment of what the problem is in Iraq.
He seems to believe that the problem is some combination of an insurgency rooted in one of Iraq’s sectarian communities, the Sunnis, combined with an essentially failed state at the national level. And he has a strategy that’s meant to address those problems.
I think that it’s a very different problem that we’re facing. We are, in fact, in civil war in Iraq, in a communal civil war, albeit one that’s still being fought at this point with relatively low-intensity means.
But the strategy that the president is pursuing to deal with essentially a counterinsurgency problem, if it’s applied in a communal civil war, it’s not just not going to work, it’s going to make the security situation worse.
MARGARET WARNER: So you think that when he said flatly he disagreed with the former prime minister about a civil war that there he just, quote, “doesn’t get it”?
FLYNT LEVERETT: I’m afraid that’s the case, yes.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think he assesses the civil war situation correctly?
JAMES WOOLSEY: We don’t have Antietam and Fredericksburg and large armies clashing. What’s here going on, I think, in Iraq is probably more analogous to what was called Bleeding Kansas, the killings between the abolitionists and the slavery advocates in Kansas in the years leading up to the Civil War.
It’s kind of a semantic dispute, but civil war really does connote for most Americans something with far larger clashes, and armies clashing, and so forth, and we don’t have that yet. It’s a serious situation, but I don’t think I would call it yet civil war.
MARGARET WARNER: But to pick up on Flynt Leverett’s point, do you think they have the right strategy to avert a civil war?
JAMES WOOLSEY: I think that the U.S. military has moved from so-called search-and-destroy toward protecting areas that they deal with. And they’re also doing a better job now training Iraqi forces, and Iraqi forces are coming more and more into being able to operate with some American assistance, not completely on their own.
I think the real problem is SCIRI, the organization of Hakim, that is so tied to Iran..
MARGARET WARNER: The party that was very close to Iran, the Shiite party.
JAMES WOOLSEY: Yes, in the south. Because if, when we talk about withdrawing and being able to turn things over to the Iraqis, if one of those groups is Hakim and his pro-Iranian organization, or Adel Abdul Mahdi, his candidate for prime minister, there’s more than one way to lose a potential civil war. And one is to let Iran control southern Iraq.
MARGARET WARNER: Explain more of what you meant, Flynt Leverett, about the fact that you don’t think their strategy is designed to handle what you called, I think, an incipient civil war.
FLYNT LEVERETT: A civil war that’s being fought for the moment with relatively low-intensity means.
Mr. Woolsey is right; we’re not seeing Antietam-scale battles at this point. But make no mistake: This is a communal civil war that’s going on. We are having 50 or 60 killings a day, taking place almost entirely along ethnic and sectarian lines.
The reason I think the current strategy is misplaced, as Mr. Woolsey just described it, it places a very heavy emphasis on beefing up so-called Iraqi security forces to deal with this counterinsurgency problem. The real flaw in this strategy is that what we describe as Iraqi security forces are not seen as Iraqi security forces, certainly not by most Sunnis in Iraq.
MARGARET WARNER: Meaning they’re seen as mostly Shiite forces?
FLYNT LEVERETT: The Iraqi army is seen as essentially a Shia and Kurdish militia with nicer uniforms and better weapons, thanks to the United States. It is not seen as a genuinely national army.
We continue to train units almost entirely on a single-sect basis, either Kurdish or Shia units, very, very few Sunni units. And if you really are dealing with a civil war, to put that kind of force in a privileged position and give it responsibility, supposedly for national security, it is only going to inflame communal tensions and make the situation worse.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you disagree with that assessment about the Iraqi military? And if not, what does that say about the realism behind the president’s assertion, which also Secretary Rumsfeld has made, that, if there’s a real civil war, an Antietam-style or something close to it, that it’s the Iraqi military that would take care of it?
JAMES WOOLSEY: I think the U.S. Military has done a better job than that of training up the Iraqi military. It’s true many of the units are still focused on being largely Shiite or Kurdish and some Sunnis.
But one really has to get the Sunni sheikhs to split off from any association with the insurgency and with Zarqawi. And I think that the remaining Baathists who are part of the insurgency are doing a lot of the killing of both Shiites and Sunnis.
They’re trying — Zarqawi, too — are trying to provoke a civil war. I think they’re not quite there yet, but they’re working very hard at doing it.
— Steve Clemons