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New concerns over Iran and Syria after American troop withdrawal from Iraq. Options for the U.S. and E.U. to contain their influence and enhance security in the region.
- Michael Rubin Resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and senior editor at Middle East Quarterly
- Phyllis Bennis Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies; co-author of "Ending the U.S. War in Afghanistan: A Primer"
- Ambassador Nicholas Burns Professor in the practice of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School and former undersecretary for political affairs at the U.S. Department of State.
- Fareed Zakaria Editor-at-large, TIME magazine; host of the CNN program "Fareed Zakaria GPS"; Washington Post columnist; author of several books, including "The Post American World 2.0"
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Iran on Sunday not to underestimate U.S. resolve as American troops prepare to leave Iraq. At the same time, the European Union warned Syria it would face tougher sanctions if it continued to crack down on its own people. Joining me in the studio to talk about concerns over Iran and Syria ahead of the U.S. departure from Iraq: Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute and, joining us from a studio at Harvard University, Nicholas Burns.
MS. DIANE REHMHe is former undersecretary for political affairs at the U.S. Department of State. Of course, we welcome your calls, questions, comments, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Join us on Facebook, or send us a tweet. Nicholas Burns, if I could start with you, tell us about the terms of the agreement President Obama made with Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for withdrawal of U.S. forces.
PROF. NICHOLAS BURNSThank you, Diane, and good morning.
BURNSAs you know, President Obama campaigned in 2008 that we should take our troops out of Iraq. That's been his goal for the last three years. That was also the Bush administration's decision back in 2008, before it left office, that we should come out of Iraq in 2011. But it was always foreseen that the United States would have a residual military force, several thousand troops, perhaps more, left in Iraq because we still need to train the Iraqi army. We still need to help them with counterterrorism. We needed to (word?) Iran.
BURNSAt the end of the day, neither the Bush administration three years ago nor the Obama administration this year could convince the Iranians (sic) that our troops should receive immunity from prosecution. That's the standard for us in all the places that we have troops.
REHMYou mean -- Nick, I think you mean Iraq and not the Iranians.
BURNSI sure do mean Iraq, Diane. Thank you for that very important correction.
REHMOkay. All right.
BURNSYes, that we would have immunity from prosecution inside Iraq for the remaining American forces. We did not convince the Iraqis that we should get that, and I think the president made the right decision that we, therefore, had to withdraw all the combat troops. And I think that's the best decision for us going forward.
REHMAll right. Let me ask you about what that kind of immunity would have meant and why it made such a huge difference because I gather that there are contractors who will remain in Iraq without that immunity.
BURNSImmunity for prosecution for American forces stationed overseas is absolutely critical. In places like Germany, where we still have forces, or in Japan or South Korea, our forces, of course, are accountable to the military justice system, but they are not tried for civil crimes in the local court system. In a place like Iraq, highly political, highly divisive, it would just not be possible for us or responsible to put our troops into a situation where all sorts of trumped-up charges could be made -- I would say would be made against them by our political opponents who happen to have power in parts of Iraq.
BURNSSo I think the president made the only decision he could make. I know he's being criticized, but it was a long and bitter war, eight years. It had become a quagmire. The occupation was not possible. It's time for us to get on with the real challenge, and the real challenge for me would be looking east and preparing to deal with the Chinese as they increase their own military power in East Asia. That's the much more strategically important goal for us.
REHMNicholas Burns, he is professor of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Michael Rubin, what is your belief about the impact of U.S. withdrawal of forces from Iraq?
MR. MICHAEL RUBINYou know, last year, I went to Najaf in Iraq, and I met with three of the four grand ayatollahs. And when you meet with the grand ayatollah, it -- it's like listening to a puzzle, listening to a riddle. They don't speak directly, but each of them, as I was leaving, brought up 1991. And oftentimes, their oldest sons will act as their political agents and try to emphasize a point they wanted the guest to take away from the meeting with the grand ayatollah.
MR. MICHAEL RUBINAnd in each case, they brought up this issue of 1991, meaning, a blame that Iraqis had for the elder President Bush encouraging the Iraqis to rise up and then withdrawing prematurely in a way that led to tens of thousands of deaths. There seems to be a great deal of wary among Iraqis that a vacuum could be created which non-Iraqi forces could fill, specifically the Iranians. Now, for the Iraqis, the grass is always greener on the other side.
MR. MICHAEL RUBINMany of them will complain about the Americans. They will complain about the occupation. When the Americans are gone, many of them are going to complain about what comes next. What I worry about is that the -- while the Americans have always misunderstood the psychological importance of occupation and the resentment that that created inside Iraq, the Iranians constantly misunderstand the importance of Iraqi nationalism.
MR. MICHAEL RUBINThe Iraqis have always maintained an independent space by playing the Americans and the Iranians off each other. Now, that may no longer be possible, and it will lead to the Iranians trying to become a little bit too involved in Iraqi affairs, even for Iraqi comfort. Just one final point, from an Iranian point of view, they've had two major revolutions inside Iran in the 20th century: one in 1906, the Constitutional Revolution, and one in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic Revolution.
MR. MICHAEL RUBINBoth of those revolutions had an element of command and control from inside Iraq, and that's why the Iranians aren't going to, for their own self-preservation, be willing to simply sit back and allow Iraq to be independent.
REHMMichael Rubin, he's resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He's senior editor at Middle East Quarterly. Tell us, Bennis, what's your reaction to the president's announcement of the departure of U.S. troops?
MS. PHYLLIS BENNISThanks, Diane. I think that the most important thing to recognize is that this is a huge victory for people in Iraq for anti-war forces across the United States, who are now a huge majority in this country and across the world where people, since before this war began, have said this war is wrong. It's illegal. There's no basis for the U.S. to be invading Iraq and occupying Iraq, that this is unacceptable. And I think, in that sense, it's a huge victory. Now, it's not an absolute withdrawal.
MS. PHYLLIS BENNISThe agreement that was signed by President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki was very clear, as Nick Burns said earlier, about withdrawing all troops and all Pentagon-paid contractors. It left a huge loophole, big enough for tanks to drive through, about contractors who would be paid by another agency, for example, the State Department.
MS. PHYLLIS BENNISAnd that's why we're seeing now this race by the State Department to sign off on contracts with, what we're hearing, up to 16,000 new contractors who will do the same things as the contractors have been doing throughout these eight years, which is very worrying. Because there have been so many crimes committed with no accountability, they are not legally provided with immunity by a U.S.-Iraqi agreement, but they have not been held accountable in the Iraqi system. And there have been these terrible incidents of killing civilians at checkpoints, et cetera.
MS. PHYLLIS BENNISThere's no particular indication to think that's going to end, nor is there any likelihood that the flood of money that has so corrupted the government -- so many government officials inside Iraq is going to end anytime soon. So I'm not persuaded that it's going to turn into Switzerland. I don't think anybody thinks that the case. But I think that this is a moment where, for the first time in more than 20 years, Iraq will have the chance to figure out how it wants to run its country, whether or not that includes the current government remaining in power.
REHMPhyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, co-author of "Ending the U.S. war in Afghanistan: A Primer." Do join us, 800-433-8850. Michael Rubin, you warned in a recent op-ed of a potential Saigon moment. What do you mean?
RUBINWhat I worry about in the region is that we will not -- we have the largest embassy -- our largest embassy in the world is in Iraq. But if we don't have enough forces to protect it, we could be in a situation where the contractors, that the State Department is talking about hiring, and others who live behind those compound walls will be put in danger. If we have 160 troops, Marine security guards and so forth defending the embassy, that might not be enough.
RUBINIt's quite possible, for example, that militia such as Muqtada al-Sadr, Jaish al-Mahdi, or perhaps even the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq's (word?) could start launching mortars inside the embassy compound and force an evacuation, which would be an optic which would signal not only to the Iraqis but to everyone in the Persian Gulf region an American defeat. And that could have lasting repercussions.
REHMNick Burns, what's your reaction?
BURNSI don't believe we're anywhere close to an American defeat. There's every reason to believe that the future Iraqi governments will want to be friendly with the United States. They don't want to be beholden to Iran. They need our political friendship. They need our help to revive their oil industry. And the idea that somehow the United States is withdrawing from the Middle East -- my goodness, we have substantial firepower through our Navy in the Gulf, through our Air Forces, both in the Mediterranean, Europe and the Middle East, through ground forces, several hundred thousand personnel.
BURNSWe have more than enough military firepower to deter and contain the Iranians. I just don't think that President Obama had a choice here because there was no way to keep American troops there. A few thousand troops, anyway, wouldn't have deterred Iran. We have to rely on our wits. We have to rely on our diplomatic and political dexterity now to convince to Iraqis to stay close to us and to begin to contain the Iranians because that's the larger threat to U.S. interest.
REHMNick Burns, he joins us from Harvard University. We'll take a short break here. When we come back, we'll talk with Fareed Zakaria who recently interviewed Ahmadinejad. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. Joining us now from New York, Fareed Zakaria. He is editor-at-large of Time magazine. He's host of CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS." Good morning to you, Fareed.
MR. FAREED ZAKARIAHi, Diane. How are you?
REHMI'm fine, thanks. Good to have you with us. I know you interviewed Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over the weekend. What did you glean from what he said about Iran's plans for involvement in Iraq once U.S. troops leave?
ZAKARIAI think they view it as a kind of a tactical victory. I wouldn't overdo it. I wouldn't suggest that it's some kind of grand accomplishment. But there seem to be quiet sense of satisfaction. And they view their relationship with Iran right now as being in a very good place. Remember, the -- Iran's leading politicians have all -- all have very deep ties with Iran, so the Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq, spent years in Iran.
ZAKARIAWhen these guys, who are now running the Iraqi government, were in exile, were in opposition, they were mostly in Iran. They were being funded in Iran -- that's true of Talabani, the president, that's true of Maliki, the prime minister -- so the Iranians feel that they have deep ties with the current ruling elite in Iraq, and they're right, and that the Unites States had this one big trump card, which was that they had boots on the ground, firepower, which is now going away. So I think that the Iranians cannot but view this as a small victory.
REHMDo you believe that once U.S. troops leave Iraq that Iran will begin to play a larger and larger role in determining what Iraq does?
ZAKARIAI think there will be several dynamics at play there. There is the reality that the Iranians will try to get more involved. There is the reality that Iraq is an independent country, that their politicians don't want to be lackeys of Iran, the U.S. will play a role. But, look, I think one would have to say that the fact the U.S. has less to offer the Iranian politicians with the withdrawal of American troops will be a weakness for us.
ZAKARIALook, we had, you know, at the end of the day, the prime minister of Iraq, Mr. Maliki, wanted to take care of some problem he had in the south in, say, Basra of, you know, gangs and militias and things like that. He could call on the U.S. military to help him if he felt that there were Sunni militias that were acting up in the middle of the country and he'd need to go and pacify some area. He could call up the U.S. military, and it would go in, in partnership with Iraqi army, and go and beat up the bad guys from Maliki's point of view.
ZAKARIAWe don't have that to offer anymore, and we won't have it to offer anymore. And so we have, you know, one less arrow and a quiver. As Nick said, we will have to rely upon our wits, but, unfortunately, we haven't played that game in the Middle East very well. We've relied a lot on our firepower. We've relied a lot on bigness rather than brains, if you will. And now, we're going to have to play a much more subtle political game of influencing them. And, you know, I think we have our strengths, but at the end of the day, not having the troops does make a difference.
REHMWhat kind of a difference?
ZAKARIAWell, as I said, we used to offer these -- the Iraqi politicians in government the enormous additional firepower and skill and logistical support that came from having the American army on their side when they wanted to restore order in some place or beat up militias. We don't have that to offer anymore. And the danger is...
REHMSo how -- excuse me -- but then how will Iraq respond if it finds itself in a situation like that without U.S. troops?
ZAKARIAIt's a very good question. So the two options: one, they'll just try and stumble through themselves, and that would be my guess as what they will try to do. If that doesn't work, if the Iraqi army is not up to the challenge of dealing with some of these issues, one does wonder whether it will mean some kind of very informal and very behind-the-scenes involvement from Iran. There would be Iran's Revolutionary Guard. The foreign expeditionary force, which is called the Quds Force, is active in Iraq. We know that.
ZAKARIAAnd if the Iraqis find that they can't handle things on their own, will they reach out to the Iranians? I hope not, but it's certainly a possibility. And I'll tell you this, we needed all these legal protections, properly so, by the way. We need it to get a status of forces agreement and legal protections that the Iraqi parliament have to guarantee American troops. Well, I can assure you the Iran's Revolutionary Guard will need no such guarantees, will need no such legal niceties. They'll just go in and help the Iraqi army.
REHMFareed, I know that you sat there with Ahmadinejad. What was your personal take? What was your reaction to the man sitting there with you?
ZAKARIAHe's a very odd character because, I think, at one level -- firstly, there was less of the kind of bravado and braggadocio that I've seen of in the past. I'd met with him several times. This was the first time I interviewed him, but I met him several times. And he's usually -- he's a bit of a show-off. He's -- he loves some limelight. He loves the attention. He loves pontificating on all kinds of subjects. He was more serious, more studied. You got the sense that he was under some pressure at home.
ZAKARIAFor the first time ever, he didn't deny that he had opposition and opponents within Iran. He just said, you know, look, that happens in every political system. And I also thought that he was trying to find some path to a dialogue with the West. I say that tentatively because I realize that, you know, he was making the usual ritual denunciations, but he was also saying things that seemed to be leaving the door open for some kind of agreement. So I got the feeling of a man a little bit more subdued, a little more confused and wondering if there was some way to have a dialogue with the West.
REHMYou know, it's interesting because I watched the entire interview, and I felt that Ahmadinejad seemed more subdued, more quiet in his responses to your questions. And I found myself wondering, as many people have, who is in charge in Iran? Is it Ahmadinejad, or is it the Supreme Leader?
ZAKARIAOh, it's a very -- I mean, my reaction was very similar to yours, and I think that the simple answer to your question is unquestionably the Supreme Leader. The Supreme Leader is, by definition, supreme. But, you know, the Supreme Leader has now been power for, gosh, I think almost four decades, three decades maybe? And so he's the longest serving leader in the Middle East, other than the sultan of Oman. He is -- he has a lot of religious credibility on, you know, among the Iranian masses.
ZAKARIABut Ahmadinejad has a lot of street credibility. He is a popular figure. He's a populist figure, not in the -- among the, you know, middle classes of Tehran, but in the country at large. And I think that Ahmadinejad has a base and has some power. He's just not sure how much maneuvering room he has because, at end of the day, he knows that he can't challenge the Supreme Leader. But he has done things which have -- he has tried to clip the wings of the clergy in ways that no Iranian president has.
ZAKARIAHe tried to fire ministers who were appointed by the Supreme Leader only to have them reinstated. He's tried to change policy on issues that the Supreme Leader had expressed preferences. There's a kind of fascinating power struggle taking place in what, you know, to -- from the outside, it looks like a black box (word?).
REHMInteresting. All right. I think Phyllis Bennis has a question for you, Fareed.
BENNISWell, I'm curious, Fareed, if you could just describe what was the response of Ahmadinejad to the changes in the region. Because I think that what we're looking at here -- it's a mistake to see the exit of U.S. troops as if this was taking place eight years ago. We have not only the devastation of Iraq through those eight years, but we also have a very different Middle East, where the Arab Spring has created a set of governments where U.S.-backed dictators are no longer in power.
BENNISThe alliances that are possible for Iraq, as well as for Iran, for Turkey, for all of these countries, is a very different scenario now. So I'm wondering if you have a sense of Ahmadinejad's view of where Iran -- where his view of Iran would be within that shifting alliance set.
ZAKARIAIt's a very good question. If you look at the polls two years ago when you'd ask people in the Middle East what they thought of Iran, about 70 percent would have a favorable view. The last poll done has Iran -- the number of people who felt that Iran -- who had a favorable view of Iran, was down to, I think, below 20 percent. Now, why is that? Because of the Arab Spring, in which two things have happened, one, as you say, the pro-American dictatorships have been toppled in many countries, and you have a more -- you have real democracy.
ZAKARIAAnd Iran's phony democracy looks much worse than it did two years ago, where they could at least claim there was some kind of openness and pluralism in Iran, which was lacking in Egypt. And the second is that the Iranian reaction to the Arab Spring has been essentially botched because while they were caught unawares -- they didn't know how to handle it -- they then found themselves on the wrong side in Libya and are now emphatically on the wrong side in Syria, where they are allied with the Assad regime as it butchers its people.
ZAKARIASo the Iranians, I think, are much more unsure of themselves. And I got that sense when I talked to Ahmadinejad. He reverted to a very kind of formulaic clichés when I asked him questions around this and said, well, you know, if any Western leader were to come with me around the Arab world, I would still get many more cheers and much more street support. But you could tell when I asked him about Turkey that there was an element of competition and almost resentfulness about Turkey's rise.
ZAKARIASo I think that the last two or three years in the region have not been kind to Iran, and Iran has figured out what a new pose would be. It had worked out a very simple old formula, which was it was the great defender of the Palestinian cause while the pro-American dictatorships, you know, were cozying up to Israel. It was the more open, pluralistic place than these, you know, closed dictatorships like Egypt. But now, in the new Middle East, what is Iran's calling card? What does its model have to offer? Much more complex.
REHMFareed Zakaria, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Fareed, I think Nick Burns has a question for you.
BURNSI agree with Fareed.
BURNSI think the Iranians are on the defensive. They're much less influential in the region than they were three or four years ago. And they're now drawing the attention of two groups. The Arab countries, particularly in the Gulf, see Iran as a major threat because of progress in Iran's nuclear program. And I believe the Obama administration would see Iran now as the greatest threat to our interest in the Middle East. I think you'll see new sanctions, perhaps, by the administration against the Iranian central bank. You'll see people talk about crippling sanctions against the oil and gas industry of Iran.
BURNSI believe the president has made the right calculation. We should not choose to go to war and should not choose to have Israel go to war. We should seek to contain and deter through these sanctions. That's where the administration policy is going. And I think we're dealing now with an Iranian government that is fractured inside. There's a power play between the Supreme Leader and Ahmadinejad. I think Ahmadinejad is losing it.
REHMWhat about these sanctions, Fareed? How are they affecting the people in Iran?
ZAKARIAVery good -- it's a very good question, and, of course, as always, what Nick says, highly intelligent comment. But here's what I would wonder about, which is we have a very good punitive strategy outlined for Iran, as Nick points out.
ZAKARIAAnd the sanctions are taking a bite, but they're creating a kind of weird world in Iran, where this -- the Revolutionary Guard, the most hard line elements of the Iranian regime, are becoming more and more powerful economically because, as Western businesses and as real businesses in Iran that would want to do business with Western companies and international companies are all being displaced by the sanctions, the Revolutionary Guard has taken over.
ZAKARIABy some estimates, the Revolutionary Guard now controls 40 percent of Iran's economy. So the average person -- it has meant that Iran is more cut off, more isolated. It hasn't been crippling quite yet because, remember, Iran is one of the world's largest petroleum exporters, and so there is money in the country. You know, one of the surprises of going to Tehran is just realizing how big and bustling it is and how much business is going on.
ZAKARIAIt didn't feel like -- you know, it doesn't feel like a kind of closed autarchic dictatorship at all. But the people do feel that sense of being isolated from the world, and they blame the West for it. They don't blame the government for it 'cause they feel that they're -- they, many people of Iran, are being punished for the actions of their government.
ZAKARIABut the broader question I have -- and, I guess, I would say this is my question to make to the Obama administration, is -- so we have a good punitive strategy, by which I mean an effective one that is having effects, though it's causing kind of weird distortions on the ground where the regime, in some ways, is getting more powerful and civil society less powerful. What is our long-term strategy? What is the strategy to bring Iran in from the cold? What is the strategy to have some kind of dialogue that resolves the nuclear issue or at least manages it?
REHMNick Burns, is...
ZAKARIAWe can't go down this path forever, you know? And we know what happens to societies that go through decades of sanctions. They become like Iraq.
REHMNick Burns, is that really possible?
BURNSIt's an awfully good question. I think that war right now would not make sense. It wouldn't resolve the problem -- the war between the United States and Iran -- that we're trying to resolve. What we need to do is take a sanctions policy that has not been strong enough and make these sanctions crippling. And, I think, to Fareed's question, the strategic end point here would be to contain Iran, contain their power, hope for changes from within, hope, even, that they might choose to negotiate with us -- they've been refusing for five years -- but not to use the war option right now.
REHMAll right. Michael Rubin, you have a comment on that.
RUBINWell, there's other off-the-box strategies which we could take. In 2005, for the first time, Iran's bus drivers formed an independent trade union. They were soon joined by the sugarcane workers down in Khuzestan. If you truly want to make the Iranian regime accountable to the people -- and I think everyone can agree that the Iranian people tend to be much more cosmopolitan and moderate than the regime is -- then, ultimately, finding a way to support the independent trade unions will provide a mechanism for the Iranian people to make changes themselves.
REHMPhyllis, quick point.
BENNISI don't think that we can talk about regime change in Iran, which is, ultimately, what Michael Rubin is referencing when he talks about supporting the trade unions or others to presumably overthrow the regime. Our goal should be a regional policy that is not one that engages on the basis solely of punitive measures like sanctions, crippling sanctions. It's horrifying to think that we're talking about that.
REHMAnd short break here. Phyllis Bennis, Michael Rubin, Nick Burns and Fareed Zakaria, thank you so much for joining us. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. It's time to go to the phones, 800-433-8850. Let's go first to Luca (sp?) in Atlanta, Ga. Good morning to you.
LUCAGood morning, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.
LUCAI just -- actually, just a comment and a question. I mean, I don't know why, I mean, I came to the United States 20 years ago, and I was so surprised by how cheap everything was including gas, energy. I was surprised that people left their lights on, you know, at night, coming from Europe where everything is more expensive.
LUCAAnd one of the things that I'm kind of surprised is the fact that how Americans react to the fact that we need to basically sell assets like houses to foreigners in order to basically pay for our overindulgence in consuming, you know, free, cheaper, basically, assets like homes and so forth. So I think that (unintelligible) by basically allowing foreigners to buy houses. It's just the price that we have to pay for, you know, for everything...
REHMAll right, sir. All right, sir. Phyllis Bennis.
BENNISWell, I think this goes back to the question of sanctions. Who are we talking about sanctioning? When we talk about sanctioning Iran and crippling sanctions in Iran, it means that we can look at the example of what crippling sanctions did in Iraq.
BENNISWe had sanctions imposed in Iraq from 1990, and the result of 12 years of sanctions, over 500,000 children under the age of five with all of what we had done in Iraq -- I think that the words of then-U.N. ambassador and soon-to-be Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in response to that, when she was asked about the death of those 500,000 children, and her answer, without missing a beat, was we think the price is worth it. To me, that was the worst part of the U.S. approach to the war in Iraq.
RUBINWell, of course, with that figure, the origin of that figure was Saddam Hussein's own ministry of health.
BENNISNo. With the United Nations.
RUBINNo. The World Health Organization, in the introduction to its report, said that they were not allowed to do independent surveying, and they took the figures from the ministry of health. The World Food Program the next year found the opposite, Phyllis.
BENNISFunny that Madeleine Albright didn't feel the need to -- sorry -- to deny the number. She just said it was worth it.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Kalamazoo, Mich. Good morning, Martin.
MARTINWell, good morning, Diane. Thank you very much for taking my call.
MARTINI just wanted to comment that the -- I think the entire situation is being looked at very myopically. I don't think it's a question of staying in Iraq, getting out of Iraq. There's a world situation that, for better or worse, America has brought all of us to. It's been an -- a relentless pressure to engage in consumerism. Nobody ever has enough. And now we've got China and India that they want what we've got. There is a tremendous demand for natural resources.
MARTINThe world is breaking up because of it. I mean, there's conversation -- of course, we try to only talk about one thing at a time, but the reality is everything is connected. Environmentally -- I'm very active environmentally -- the world is in a dreadful state. China has already got Africa, pretty much the same way Europe and America took Brazil over for its resources.
MARTINNow, the whole Middle East is completely destabilized. You know, we're seeing one brutal dictator after another going. The result is the area falls into a complete mess. If America pulls out, China's going to go in there because they need more oil.
REHMAll right. Nick Burns, comment.
BURNSWell, I think that our national leaders have -- at a time of declining resources and economic problems, have to decide where our priorities are. And if you talk to the Obama administration, they will say, many of the officials, you know, we have been over-invested in the land wars in the Middle East in Afghanistan and Iraq. The greater challenge will be to return ourselves to economic prosperity and to compete with China and East Asia and the Pacific. That's why I think the president was right to take us out of Iraq.
BURNSI think he's right to effectively try to end the Afghan war through negotiations and focus our economy and focus our political and strategic attention eastward. I'm just taking -- as a very general comment made by the listener, by Martin, I think that's how I'd respond in terms of our national priorities.
REHMAll right. To Philip in Arlington, Texas. Good morning to you, sir.
PHILIPHi. Good morning, Diane and the team. My question is I'd like to know, the Republican presidential candidates, all of them are on the crusade to cut, cut, cut, but none of them is offering a tangible evidence or a way how they're going to pay for this war. And now they're criticizing the president for pulling the troops out of Iraq. And they have not offered any plans how they're going to sustain this prolonged war.
RUBINWell, I would just say I think a lot of people share the frustration that the Republican candidates haven't fully enunciated this, but I do note that on Nov. 15, there will be the first Republican candidate foreign policy debate. So I would suspect that every serious candidate will be able to enunciate a plan by then and really start a foreign policy debate which has been lacking.
BENNISI think what's clear is that the American people have gone way out ahead of all the candidates. I think that's what this Occupy Everywhere movement is all about. It's saying that there's reasons why we don't have jobs, we don't have healthcare and we don't have money for infrastructure, and the reasons are, one, we're not taxing the rich and the corporations. And, two, we're paying for illegal wars that are not keeping us safe.
REHMNick Burns, we haven't talked about Syria and whether sanctions will have any effect on the Assad regime.
BURNSWell, Diane, the European Union actually has a large trading and investment relationship with the Syrians. If the Europeans decide, as well as some of the other Arab countries nearby, that they'll fully sanction the Syrian government, that is probably the right leverage. We don't have any of the conditions that enabled NATO's intervention in Libya present in Syria.
BURNSThere isn't a rebel army that's been formed. There isn't a Arab League invitation to intervene. There isn't a U.N. Security Council resolution to bless it. So, right now, we're looking at political and economic instruments. The Europeans have more influence than we do.
BENNISThe people of Syria have more influence than any of us from outside. They are trying to change this regime. Some want to overthrow it. Some want to just change it.
REHMAnd what is the difference, many argue, between Syria and Libya?
BENNISThe differences are enormous, but I think it also blurs the question to assume that we were right to go in the way we did into Libya. The fact that NATO was involved and the level of attacks by the NATO air force, which became the air force of the anti-Qaddafi opposition, meant that when this civil war -- because it became a civil war in Libya -- when this civil war ended this week, if it indeed is over, there have been tens of thousands of casualties, far more than anywhere else.
BENNISNow, will there be success in Syria without engaging in military actions either by the people of Syria or by outsiders? I hope so. But, certainly, the escalation, militarily, the people of Libya have paid an enormous price.
RUBINWell, my main fear with Syria is that Assad will find a way to stay on. There's no question that Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, has lost his legitimacy. But Syria is an authoritarian dictatorship, and it's not certain that the people would come up on top. The danger there is that you could have a situation like Saddam Hussein in Iraq after 1991 where you have this -- I mean, basically, an untenable situation that creates instability that can lead to far worse things.
RUBINNow, just to square the circle -- because we are pulling our troops out of Iraq, and the Iranian influence might increase -- I disagree with Nick Burns. I agree the Iraqis might be friendly with the Americans, but it's not friendship that matters. It's the neighbors that matter. It's the boots on the ground. It's the fact that Iranians have been saying, you might like the Americans better than us, but you have to make accommodation with us because we're your neighbors.
RUBINNow, the Iranians, in effect, will have a mechanism if they are able to gain control over Iraq to really exert greater influence in Syria and perhaps even into Hezbollah areas of Lebanon. And that certainly creates a axis of instability that is just as much a change in the regime as the changing alliances, which the Arab Spring has brought.
BURNSIt's an exaggeration to say that somehow Iran will take control of Iraq. It won't happen. The Iraqis are too strong to let that happen. The Iranians are weaker because Assad is on the ropes. If Assad falls, the Iranians don't have a connection to Hezbollah and to Hamas through the Syrian regime. The government in the Middle East that should be worried about the Arab revolutions and the decline of Assad is the Iranian government.
RUBINUnless, of course, they manage to preserve him, in which case, we have snatched the feet from the jaws of victory.
BENNISI don't think we should be claiming it as our victory. These victories are won and lost by the people of these countries. And the notion that it's somehow up to us to decide what is a victory, what is better for the people of Iran, the people of Iraq, the people of Syria, is one classic example of this NeoCon notion that we can democratize the whole world on the back of a U.S. tank.
REHMAll right. To San Antonio, Texas. Good morning, Michael.
MICHAELGood morning. I wanted to know, I'd heard that the United States was building great big bases in Iraq. Are we going to continue to have soldiers there, or are we going to evacuate those bases?
BENNISCrucial question, Michael. I'm glad you asked it. The issue of the bases was included in the SOFA agreement, the Status of Forces Agreement, that was signed between President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki, and it said that all the bases need to be turned over to the Iraqi government. Now, of the 500-plus bases, some of which were enormous, some were tiny, but 500 separate bases, as I understand, that there are now about 18 left in U.S. hands. The others have either been dismantled or turned over to Iraqis.
BENNISThey're buying a huge amount of U.S. military supplies at discounted prices to avoid the cost of shipping stuff home, I understand, which I think raises a number of questions, including the fact that the U.N. has proved that when countries spend more money on their military, they do worse in terms of people's lives. But the bases are being turned over to Iraq in most cases. There's a few left.
REHMHmm. Nick Burns.
BURNSWe're seeing a major transition in U.S. strategy after eight years. We are transitioning to a normal relationship with Iraq, where the United States embassy will be, in effect, the largest base of American influence in Iraq.
BURNSThe military will go away. I think that is the right, mature, evolution of our policy after eight long years of a very bitter war.
RUBINWell, any comprehensive strategy has to have diplomatic informational military and economic components, the so-called paradigm. Before Amb. Burns had talked about how we should -- as we pull out, we can get into a situation of containing Iran. The problem is that containment isn't a rhetorical strategy. It's not just a diplomatic strategy. When push come shove, it's a military strategy. We simply will not be in a position where we are able to contain Iran.
RUBINAnd the danger is, if we keep talking about the rhetoric of containment, the Iranians will believe that it's just one more redline. Wars in the Middle East aren't caused by oil. They're not caused by water. They're fundamentally caused by overconfidence. And the danger in the region is that the Iranians might believe their own rhetoric that the Americans are just paper tigers and pushed too far.
BENNISAnd this is not about being a paper tiger. The notion that we would be containing Iran -- Iran is not a mad dog that has to be contained in a cage. Iran is a powerful country that happens to live in that region. We don't. And I think that this notion that somehow Iran is our responsibility to contain simply doesn't fly with the reality of a new Middle East, where dictators are being overthrown by their own people.
REHMPhyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Nick Burns.
BURNSDiane, I'm just going to disagree with both of my colleagues and say that Iran must be contained because the only other way to stop it is through war, and that would be very unwise. And it can be contained. You're seeing the build-up of American and Saudi and Emirati military force in the Gulf. America has significant strike power that can contain the Iranians.
REHMNick Burns, I want to read you this email from Don here in Washington, who says, "Why does there seem to be a double standard for Syria and Libya? Qaddafi threatened violence against his people while Syria is actually committing it."
BURNSYou know, I think, there are 22 revolutions underway that are very different, each of the 22 Arabs states. The United States cannot intervene in each of them. In Libya, as I said before, you have the invitation of the Arab League. You had a rebel army to assist. You had a tyrant to dislodge. You had the Security Council of the United Nations, including China and Russia blessing it. None of those conditions are present in Syria.
BURNSWe wouldn't have Arab support. We wouldn't have international support. There's no army on the ground which we could support. We would be intervening into a quagmire that we did not understand. The better policy is to stand ready to enact political pressure, economic pressure on the regime, and to hope that the people of Syria can overcome a brutal government.
BENNISI think that what's key is what the people in those countries need. The people of Syria have not taken up arms, with the exception of a few small examples, the -- against the regime. The people are keeping to a nonviolent approach. They are being attacked with brutality by the regime, no doubt, but they are not calling for military invention. Ironically, people -- most people in Libya did not either. There was a call at one point.
BENNISWe want -- people said, we want a no-fly zone, but we don't want intervention, where even our own general said, you can't have one without the other. They got one without the other, and they got a civil war out of it.
RUBINWell, just pulling back a little bit. I would say that when it comes to the existing regimes in the Middle East, we got to dispense with this notion that they're all are popular democracies and the people can just express their opinions openly and freely. What I would say should be the rule of thumb for the U.S. government is, first, they should do no harm. For example, if Bashar al-Assad is gunning down people on the street, and a senior American cabinet official turns around and describes him as a reformer, that can certainly strike at the moral of all the Syrians that are moving forward.
RUBINBut we need to keep an eye on this problem because, certainly, the Turks are working to form a transitional authority or an opposition council in Syria. And given what Amb. Burns has said, that could change the situation in the ground and provide an alternative government, and then we would be in a situation where we would have to decide which one are we going to recognize.
REHMLast word, Phyllis.
BENNISI think the incredible strength of the Arab Spring is precisely because it has not been dependent on outside intervention. The exception in Libya is now seen by others in Egypt, in Tunisia, in other countries in the region as questionable, whether it is indeed part of the Arab Spring because it has come to power through U.S. and NATO air strikes rather than through people fighting back against their own dictatorships.
BENNISWhether that's going to succeed in every country, I don't know. But we can't be going in there forgetting about Bahrain and going into Libya. This isn't a strategy that's going to work.
REHMI think that the one happiness about U.S. withdrawal is that the families will see these young men and women coming home in December. Phyllis Bennis, Michael Rubin, Nick Burns, thank you all so much.
BENNISThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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