Panel debates progress in Iraq

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Panelists debated the possibility for progress and peace in Iraq at a discussion sponsored by the Elliott School’s Security Policy Forum earlier this month.

The panel included Lawrence Korb, a panelist and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress; Nora Bensahel, a senior political analyst at the RAND Corporation; and Stephen Biddle, a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Korb compared the Iraq War to Vietnam, remarking that Iraq, like Vietnam, was “never winnable.” He questioned what we were trying to accomplish in Iraq and said the costs are not worth the gains.

Korb said the Iraq War has “ruined the U.S. Army,” as it is now taking people who previously would have been unqualified for military service. To deal with this problem, Korb suggested the US pressure the Iraqi government to act by announcing plans to cut its losses and withdraw; leaving only enough troops behind to protect US interests.

Bensahel spoke extensively about the Iraqi Security Forces and took a stance similar to Korb’s. She said Iraq may not become a full democracy, and that it should first seek a “minimum ability to provide security to its citizens.”

She added that it is impossible to know how many troops are part of the Iraqi Army, and more importantly how many are ready to operate independent of US forces.

Biddle’s opinion of the situation in Iraq differed from Korb’s and Bensahel’s as he believes we could see progress in the next few months. He feels that an end to the immediate conflict could occur through a negotiated power-sharing deal and ceasefire, followed by third party force of peacekeepers.

“We may now be on the verge of hitting the lottery and (actually seeing some progress)” Biddle said, adding that it would be a mistake for politicians to withdraw the troops immediately. He said he sees a one in two chance for the US to succeed, adding that it will remain costly to continue.

Responding to a question about how to secure U.S. supply lines against a possible Iranian threat, Biddle replied that Iran is not as much of a threat as the tensions between sectarian groups in Southern Iraq. Biddle said he is more worried about the British withdrawal from Iraq than Iran.

One question from a sophomore in the Elliott School asked if the window for reconciliation is closing in Iraq. Bensahel said time is running out and that U.S. threats to leave Iraq will not improve the situation. Korb disagreed with Biddle, saying that a top-down approach will be necessary to bring resolution, not by dealing with the localities.

Another undergraduate at the Elliott School wanted to know what lessons from Vietnam American commanders are using in Iraq. Biddle felt that comparing the two conflicts is not appropriate, because according to him, Vietnam was a war of ideas while Iraq is based on identity lines. “If I were king, I would call for a moratorium on Vietnam analogies to Iraq,” Biddle said.

During his reply to the question, Korb referenced an idea from author Francis Fukuyama. “If people knew what would have happened to get Iraq to have an election, you would have been laughed out of the ballpark.”

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