A conversation from The Diane Rehm Show archives with world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. In 2007, he talked to Diane about his belief in the power of music to cross borders and bridge backgrounds.
Yesterday, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria released photos allegedly documenting the mass execution of as many as 1,700 Iraqi security forces. The group, ISIS, which was once part of Al Qaeda, has taken control of a large swath of territory in Iraq, including the major cities of Mosul, Tikrit, and now, Tal Afar. The U.S. is considering air strikes as it also seeks new dialogue with Iran. While Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki has been seeking to stiffen his army’s resolve, many say the crisis stems in large part from his failure to create a representative government. Please join us to discuss the turmoil in Iraq and what, if anything, the U.S. can or should do in response.
- Stephen Biddle Professor of political science and international affairs, The George Washington University, adjunct senior fellow for defense policy, Council on Foreign Relations and author, "Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle"
- Peter Baker Reporter for The New York Times.
- 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."
- Ret. Lt. General James Dubik, Senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War; former commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command in Iraq and former adviser to Gen. McChrystal and Gen. Petraeus.
- Amb. Peter Galbraith Author of "The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End," and former U.S. ambassador to Croatia.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The militant group ISIS has taken control of another city in Iraq, Tal Afar. Hundreds of families were forced to flee. The U.S. has ordered some of its Baghdad embassy employees to evacuate and boosted security. Joining me to talk about the crisis in Iraq and its wider implications: Stephen Biddle of George Washington University, Peter Baker of The New York Times, Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies and Lt. Gen. James Dubik of the Institute for the Study of War.
MS. DIANE REHMDo call us, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Thank you all for being here.
PROF. STEPHEN BIDDLEThank you.
MR. PETER BAKERYou're welcome. Thanks for the invitation.
MS. PHYLLIS BENNISGreat to be with you.
REHMGood to have you all here. Peter Baker, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad has now been partially evacuated. How precarious is the situation there?
BAKERWell, it's very precarious. Obviously, you have a number of major cities, most recently, as you said, Tal Afar, falling into the hands of this group, ISIS, which is the latter day version of al-Qaida in Iraq that we confronted in the 2007 range. The hope is that the Shiite militias that are sort coming forward will defend Baghdad and that Baghdad itself will not be at risk, but nobody really knows. And I think that this has confronted the Obama administration with a big test about how it really wants to be involved or not involved as it sees fit in Iraq at this point, 2 1/2 years after President Obama withdrew the last troops.
REHMExplain to us who this group ISIS actually is.
BAKERRight. The Islamic State in Iran and Syria is one of several different iterations of their name, ISIS, and it's basically a Sunni-led group that has taken up where the al-Qaida forces that we were fighting when the American military was there, left off. They're in Syria. They're in Iraq. And what they're trying to do is put together sort of a territorial caliphate over parts of Syria and Iraq. And this is why this is so much more complicated even than what we're dealing with in the past because it's a spillover from the Syria war that's been now going on for about three years, so much more volatile even than we had confronted in the past.
REHMAnd, Phyllis Bennis, that much more angry, that much more militant, that much more brutal.
BENNISThat's absolutely right, Diane. But I think it's important to understand that it's not only ISIS that's now engaged in the fighting on that side. They led this attack, and they are indeed a brutal organization. But we also are seeing ordinary Sunnis that are fighting with them, the so-called awakening councils, which were really created by the United States and paid by the United States for a long time are fighting with them.
BENNISThese are the Sunni tribal leaders in that part of Iraq. So this is now -- I think it would be a mistake to call this simply a move by ISIS or a terrorist action against the Iraqi government. There is widespread antagonism to the government on the part of many, many Sunnis and many Kurds as well who see Maliki's government as a thoroughly sectarian formation, supported by the U.S., yes, but to many Iraqis, the Iraqi military is nothing more than one more Shia militia, albeit a larger one and a stronger one and with better arms, but one more sectarian militia, not something as President Obama likes to describe it, as a national army.
BENNISIt isn't seen that way.
REHMStephen Biddle, we saw horrendous photographs this morning of more than 1,700 Iraqi soldiers having been slain by ISIS. This groups seems to be determined to really spread its ability to take over the country.
BIDDLEWell, ISIS is clearly bad news. It's a very violent group. They have large ambitions, but they're just one part of what's dangerously likely to become a regional conflict between a variety of Sunni militant groups and a variety of Shia militant groups. I think that the problem we face now goes beyond Iraq, and it potentially goes beyond Syria as well. So I think ISIS is bad news and a dangerous violent organization, but I think the challenge is now broader than just ISIS.
REHMGen. Dubik, the geographical area that ISIS now chosen, explain that trajectory to us.
RET. LT. GEN. JAMES DUBIKWell, it starts, thinking in military terms, as the base in much of northeast Syria, and then there are two lines of operations that ISIS have created from that base. The first goes down south along the Euphrates River valley and terminates -- goes through Ramadi and terminates in Fallujah. The second goes from the basin, northeast Syria, through Tal Afar to Mosul down the Tigris River valley toward Baghdad.
RET. LT. GEN. JAMES DUBIKAnd if they can control, like they already control Western Desert in Fallujah, if they can control this area, this is the state that they want to create, and this is the fundamentalist extremist presence that will create a sanctuary much like we have been trying to prevent since 9/11.
REHMSo how much of a risk do you see Baghdad to be right now?
DUBIKWell, I think Baghdad is at risk for continued destabilization. I think the likelihood that it will fall to this is, I would say, less than 50 percent. I think that Baghdad will probably be unstable, lots of violence, but the ISIS and the complexities of other Sunnis who have joined them as well, they will probably not seize Baghdad. But it will be an ugly place.
REHMDo you agree with that, Peter (sic) Biddle?
BIDDLEI think that's right. There's an immediate crisis that I think is likely to pass. Baghdad is unlikely to fall. The southern Shia parts of Iraq are unlikely to fall. But I think what we're likely to get is yet another long grinding ugly sectarian civil war in this region that may very well end up looking a lot like Syria before it's over. And the danger, the greatest of the dangers facing the United States, aside from the humanitarian issues at stake here, is that this kind of long, grinding, sectarian civil war has a substantial tendency to spread. And this is a part of the world that matters unusually for the global economy.
REHMSpread to where?
BIDDLESpread to the Gulf Emirates, to Qatar, to Kuwait, to Saudi Arabia. The Sunni/Shia fault line runs through the entire region.
REHMOne of the ISIS forces was quoted as saying, next, New York, Peter.
BAKERWell, that's, of course, playing on the American fears. The American fear is that if this were to become a relatively stable safe haven for extremist groups that folks could operate out of there with impunity the way al-Qaida did out of Afghanistan prior to 9/11. And that is the definition of what American leaders would see as the American interest in addition to the economic uncertainty and instability that this could create in a region that's so important. That's the reason why President Obama's even thinking about, you know, potentially getting involved again in a place he really, really doesn't want to get involved in.
REHMHow does he think he might be able to get involved?
BAKERWell, for him, the first thing is trying to use this moment to leverage Prime Minister Maliki to be more inclusive, as we were just talking about, to reconcile to the extent he possibly can with the Sunni groups who have been marginalized, to take some of the political momentum out of ISIS as they are marching across Iraq. Then, in terms of military capacity, if he chooses to use it, he's not talking about boots on the ground, he says. He's talking about potentially air power, whether they'd be piloted aircraft or drone strikes, in addition to more intelligence, more equipment, more, you know advising kind of role.
REHMBut here's what I don't understand. If you have targeted air strikes, don't you have to have a fair amount of intelligence on the ground to tell you exactly where ISIS is and not civilians, Phyllis?
BENNISAbsolutely. And the problem is there's nothing like that kind of intelligence. The notion that there is military solution to this, I think, is crazy. And particularly the notion that a U.S. military solution -- it just doesn't fly with what we've seen in the region. What's going on in Iraq right now is very much rooted in the origins of this war.
BENNISThis kind of sectarian divide, yes, there were tensions between various sects in Iraq in the past, but until the U.S. went in with the overthrow of the government, the destruction of the military and the banning of the Ba'ath Party, the destruction of the entire government, you didn't see this kind of explosive violence between the various sects in Iraq. And there's not a military solution to it now.
REHMGen. Dubik, how much of the responsibility for this latest outbreak does al-Maliki bear?
DUBIKWell, first, I'd like to agree. There is no military solution, but the military, Iraq and U.S. and maybe other allies, does have an important part to play in preventing the safe haven and sanctuary type of activity that will occur if we allow ISIS to become more and more stable, if we allow the grinding kind of activities that Steve talked about. Part of the problem is Prime Minister Maliki. There's no doubt about it. His domestic policies have created much of the problems inside of Iraq. His security problems have made the security forces more fragile and less professional so he has a role to play, but so do we.
REHMLt. Gen. James Dubik, he's retired, senior fellow now at the Institute for the Study of War. Short break here. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back as we talk about the emerging and really devastating struggle going on in Iraq, the attacks by ISIS forces. And many of our listeners, Peter Baker, would like to know how many ISIS militants there are estimated to be.
BAKERRight. Well, you've seen estimates in the 3- to 5,000 range, but remember these estimates have always been sort of back of the napkin kind of things. I think the more important thing, as we've been talking about, is this notion that when they come through some of these cities and towns and regions that they've been going through, they've been picking up support from local Sunnis who basically are aggravated and disenchanted from the central government, happy that ISIS is there, not, in fact, unhappy that they're there.
BAKERSo that's the real challenge to the government is not just even the small band of fighters, but the popular support that they can derive in certain parts of the country.
BIDDLEWell, I think that's right. And I think it's also important to recognize that the support they're going to pick up isn't necessarily just random civilians who decided that they'd line up with this movement this morning. The old Sunni insurgency is still out there. These people weren't killed or -- and thrown out of the country or annihilated. They stood down.
BIDDLEAnd what amounted to a series of negotiated ceasefires and the Anbar awakening and the Sons of Iraq movement. And when they did that, they stood down with their weapons, with their old organizations, with their old leadership. Who they align with now is one of the really critical questions going forward as to how widespread and how violent the civil war is going to get.
REHMAll right. Here is another email from Jeff: "Could you have your guests discuss the lack of force by the previous administration as to this possible probable outcome? It was clear to anyone paying attention that Iraq, comprised of three very different groups, Kurd, Shia, Sunni, was being held together by a strong man when the stabilizing force of the U.S. was removed. This outcome was almost a certainty." Phyllis.
BENNISWell, I think that it's absolutely right that the legacy of the U.S. war, and particularly the decisions after the initial bombing, the initial overthrow of the regime, the decision to dismantle the military and to dismantle the government very much set the stage for the kind of chaos we're seeing in Iraq now. But I also think it's important to recognize that this was not a situation where Saddam Hussein was somehow barely holding on to a restive set of very separate institutions and peoples within Iraq.
BENNISIraq does have a history of national identity, unlike a number of other countries, Afghanistan being among them, that don't have that history. People identify as Iraqis. But the creation by the U.S., by the provisional authority to create political parties that were rooted in sectarian identity is exactly what gave rise to the kind of sectarian divide we see now.
REHMAnd joining us now by phone from Singapore is Peter Galbraith. He is author of "The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War without End." He is former U.S. ambassador to Croatia. Amb. Galbraith, I'm glad you could join us.
AMB. PETER GALBRAITHWell, thank you for having me.
REHMI know you were speaking with the governor of Kirkuk. Tell us what's going on there.
GALBRAITHIt's Dr. Najmaldin Karim, whom I think your panel may know because he was, for more than 30 years, a neurosurgeon in Washington, D.C. and single-handedly brought the Kurdish issue to everybody's concern. Well, for the first important thing is Kirkuk is a territory that has been disputed between the Kurds and the Arabs for the entire history of Iraq. And now it's firmly in Kurdish control. The Kurdish military, the Peshmerga, had been there all along, but the Iraqi army has now completely withdrawn.
GALBRAITHAnd so for the first time in history, Kurdistan controls all its territory. And that was one of three preconditions for independence. And the other two have also been met. Dr. Karim reports that Kirkuk, unlike the rest of Kurdistan, has a significant non-Kurdish population, Arabs, Turkmens and Christians. And all of them are now looking to the Kurdistan government for protections for it because they have lost all confidence in the Iraqi army -- in the Iraqi government and the Iraqi army.
GALBRAITHISIS is in part of Kirkuk in Hawija Arab village, but it has also sent a message saying that it has no plans to attack the Kurdish region. So there's a -- there have been some clashes elsewhere, but there's basically a kind of very fragile modus vivendi between what is, for all practical purposes, independent state of Kurdistan and ISIS, which almost completely surrounds it.
REHMStephen Biddle, how do you react?
BIDDLEWell, I hope that this uneasy truce between the Kurdish Peshmerga and ISIS holds. I worry that it may not. Again, I think among the various U.S. stakes here, the most consequential is spread. And I think in conflicts of this kind, the bloodletting gives incentives to a variety of parties to reach outside their limits and outside their borders to either weaken the people who are supporting their enemies or collect allies from elsewhere.
BIDDLEAnd part of the reason that Kirkuk in particular has been as contested as it's been is it's an enormous economic stake in that oil field and in the refinery at Baiji and in the rest of the economic infrastructure of Kurdistan. The Kurds have been able to stand mostly aloof from this conflict in the past, but there's been considerable worry for years that that might not hold. And in a situation in which the rest of the country is radically destabilized, I think that concern has perhaps even more gravity.
REHMAmb. Galbraith, I gather it is your feeling that Iraq should be divided, split into three parts. Talk about that.
GALBRAITHWell, my argument's actually been a little different because I haven't thought that the U.S. should be in the business of either creating or breaking apart countries. But the country has in fact broken apart. First, the Kurds never wanted to be included. They basically fought over the entire history of Iraq against the central government. And today they have an independent state. All of them want independence. And this now gives them the opportunity to go for it.
GALBRAITHIt's hard to see that there would be much opposition at this stage from much of the international community if they went ahead with independence. They have the territory. They have the oil. The Sunnis and Shiites, yes, they speak of themselves as Iraqis, but they have a very different idea of what that means. And the notion that at this stage you could have reconciliation between the two, I think we're far beyond that to think that Maliki can -- first that he can change his spots. But even if he did change his spots that that would be acceptable.
GALBRAITHTo think that the Shiite parties, which incidentally the U.S. didn't create, Iran -- well, they -- Dawa was created before, and Iran created the other main one ISCI. These are sectarian parties, and they -- but they reflect the will of the Shiites in Iraq. And has been pointed out that what's happening in the Sunni areas is not just ISIS. It is a broad-based Sunni rejection of Iraq that is being governed by the Shiites. And so there isn't some small patch here. It is a fundamental divide.
DUBIKYeah, and if the divide would be benign, there might be a different argument. But at least the Sunni part with ISIS coming from outside the state and taking over that part is not benign. It is very much malignant, malignant with respect to the Iraqi population. And I think we may end up seeing extensive violence that the Iraqis revolt against as they did al-Qaida.
DUBIKBut it's certainly malignant relative to the region, as Stephen talked in, and malignant relative to the interest of the United States. So this is not something that, in my opinion, we can stand by and say, well we have made mistakes in the past so we'll let things go as they are. This is not in the interest of the United States to allow a malignant ISIS and others form a state that we know has reasonable probability to come back to get us.
BENNISWell, you know, it's interesting. Just two days ago, there was a headline in The New York Times in Tim Arango's article that said, in Iraq, militants are favored over army. Extremist rule in Mosul feared less by Sunnis than the government's return. So what we're seeing is that -- I mean, you can call it -- I forgot the word you used, but the negative aspects of ISIS is certainly there. It's a violent extremist organization. But as we've all been talking about, this is not simply ISIS against everybody else. There is a sectarian basis to this government. And people have been opposed to this U.S.-backed government since it came to power.
BENNISI think it's important that when President Obama said that as soon as we're not there, suddenly people end up acting in ways that are not conducive to long-term stability. That's really not right. There's nothing sudden about it. This government has been known for its sectarianism and its corruption since it came to power. And the fact that the U.S. has put all of its eggs in that government, when we talk about defending Iraq, what the U.S. tends to talk about is actually defending the Maliki government. Those are not synonymous.
BIDDLEThe Maliki government's behavior has been very problematic. But if we got rid of Nouri al-Maliki, I think we'd get the same behavior. I mean, the problem is broader than just one person, and it's broader than just one collection of ministers. The problem is you have a state that's in the middle and has been for a long time, in the middle of a sectarian -- in effect a sectarian civil war in which whoever holds the government is going to be viewed by the other side as a militia with bigger weapons and better uniforms.
BIDDLEIn that situation, whoever holds government power is probably going to try to monopolize potential violence in his own office out of self-protection of himself and his sect, whether that's Nouri al-Maliki or somebody else absent some kind of outside leverage to try and compel through manipulation of costs and benefits some kind of outreach to the other group.
BIDDLEWe had managed, I think, by 2007, 2008 to enforce a rather uneasy ceasefire in this conflict. We have subsequently not been very effective in using leverage to try and get a government that is inevitably going to favor its own identity group to reach out against its will by manipulation of costs and benefits through leverage. But I think that problem is going to be with us even if Nouri al-Maliki gets hit by an asteroid tomorrow morning. The problem is deeper than just him.
REHMStephen Biddle, he's professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Peter Baker, of course, it's a political problem for President Obama having come just after he made that major foreign military -- foreign policy speech. He talked about setting a very high bar for military intervention, but now with Baghdad threatened, you've got naval ships moving into that region. What are the options that the president has now?
BAKERRight. Well, first of all, I think you're exactly right. I think he wanted so badly to turn the page on these wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he had just announced the withdrawal -- his plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by the time he leaves office. He had given his speech at West Point in which he sort of forecast the idea that the United States should be more restrained about its use of power overseas. And here he is just a couple weeks later contemplating, you know, some form of military return to Iraq, a place that most Americans would just as soon leave in the rearview mirror.
BAKERYou're right. Some ships have been moved into the Persian Gulf. The U.S.S. George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier today and amphibious troop carrier that has these osprey tilt rotor aircraft has been moved into the Gulf. That's in preparation if he chooses to use them. It's -- he hasn't said whether he will or not. Having now forecast over the course of several days the idea that he might is kind of hard to imagine he's not actually planning to.
BAKERBut, on the other hand, it's not an easy thing. Who do you hit? Where do you hit? How do you get the intelligence on the ground? Do you put in -- he says no boots on the ground. Does that include special operators who might be inserted to direct, you know, incoming fire as happened in the past? All of these are complicated questions that he's been working out over these last few days.
REHMAmb. Galbraith, how do you see the possibility or even the prospect of airstrikes?
GALBRAITHWell, so the question for President Obama is what to do about the situation. He doesn't want to send in troops, and there's no support for that in the U.S. We talk about helping the Iraqi army, but that makes no sense. It's dissolved, and if we try to arm them, we'll effectively be arming ISIS. That's -- you know, what they now have are American weapons. And airstrikes don't work unless you have intelligence, operators, or spotters and then troops that can follow up.
GALBRAITHThere are really only two places where you can find the troops. The first would be Iran, which presumably would be unacceptable. There'd be a certain amount of poetic justice to it because we spent $2 trillion to install Iran's allies as the government of Iraq. And perhaps for now they might take some of the burden.
GALBRAITHThe other source of support would be the Kurds. Now the -- ISIS's main base is now in Mosul. And the press reporting says, well, that ISIS is taking over Mosul. Well, actually it's only taken over the western side of Mosul. The eastern side is Kurdish. And the Kurdish Peshmerga are there. If there were airstrikes they would be in position to provide intel and to direct the fire and perhaps even to send in troops. But why would they do that? They have this uneasy ceasefire.
GALBRAITHI think there's only one thing that would lead them to do that. First they would of course want military support and weaponry. But the second thing they would want that probably would make it worthwhile would be U.S. recognition of an independent Kurdistan. (unintelligible) prepared to do that, who knows.
REHMGen. Dubik, how do you see the military possibilities?
DUBIKYeah, I have a little different view. I think that there's no doubt -- I mean, it's obvious that certain portions of the Iraqi army have folded. Why, we are not quite sure yet. But there's still large portions that have not. In the Mosul Tal Afar area second and third division, portions of those have folded, portions have not. In Samara and Salahaddin in Diyala Province 5th division, very little of those have folded. There's still several divisions in Baghdad, and there's certain divisions (unintelligible). So the Iraqi army has suffered a psychological blow. And there's no doubt about it. It is not folded.
REHMBut they turned around and ran, Gen. Dubik.
DUBIKSure, but we don't know why. But we don't know why.
REHMWhat do you mean we don't know why?
DUBIKWe don't know why. It could be the case that they were surprised and leaderless. And soldiers in their culture are not independent operators...
REHMBut what about all the money and effort we spent on training?
DUBIKAbsolutely. We spent -- and I was there to do it. And what I can say though when we come back from a break, is that what has happened in the last 2 1/2 years to lead this fragile state.
REHMAll right. We'll take a short break here. We'll talk more, take your calls when we come back.
REHMAnd welcome back as we talk about what's happening in Iraq and U.S. options, including military, diplomatic. Are there diplomatic options in your mind, Stephen Biddle?
BIDDLEIf anything's going to get better, we're going to have to have policy change out of the government in Baghdad, whoever that is, Nouri al-Maliki or someone else. To get that policy change, we're going to have to condition whatever assistance we give on policy change. Now, you can call that diplomacy or you can call that military, inasmuch as the conditions we're providing are probably going to be in exchange for military assistance. So the military and the diplomatic interact here pretty tightly.
BIDDLEBut if all we do is provide hardware and air strikes and surveillance-drone activity and intelligence support and all that, we're not going to change the fundamental situation on the ground in any meaningful way.
REHMI gather, Phyllis, you're totally opposed to any military action.
BENNISI think that it goes back to the origins of this crisis, which is in the U.S. military intervention in Iraq in 2003. And more of it is not going to do any good. The City of Mosul, where ISIS is -- has achieved their greatest victory so far, is a city of 2 million people. And the notion that there could air strikes against Mosul is a shocking reality that would inevitably kill huge numbers of Sunni, Shia and Kurds, because -- in terms of who lives in Mosul. I'm not sure anybody is calling directly for strikes on Mosul, but that is certainly one of the places where ISIS is the most concentrated.
BENNISWe have to look at diplomacy, and not only diplomacy -- I would disagree with my colleague a little bit -- that's grounded in threats of, we'll give you military support, if. There have to be other ways. It can be conditioning economic support for rebuilding Iraq, rebuilding the infrastructure, rebuilding this shattered country that we owe such a debt to anyway. But we need to be able to say, there's going to have to be a policy change. I absolutely agree with that.
REHMBut what is the risk, Gen. Dubik, of doing nothing militarily?
DUBIKWell, the risk is that the civil war -- the sectarian war drags out, it gets worse. The population of Iraq suffer more than they're suffering already. And a sanctuary or safe haven is created for people whose -- have -- whose interest is inimical to ours.
REHMBut at the same time, Amb. Galbraith, you heard President Obama say, now it's up to the Iraqi people themselves. We've done what we can. Now it's up to you. How do you react to that?
GALBRAITHWell, the problem is that the -- there is really no Iraqi people. There isn't a common identity. They -- there isn't a desire to build a joint state of Sunnis and Shiites, and certainly, not including the Kurds. Gen. Dubik kind of made my point. He referred to the Second Division. Well the Second Division is in fact a Kurdish Division, predominantly Kurdish, and its loyalty is not to Baghdad, it's to Erbil. The moment they call it back to Erbil, to Kurdistan, that's where it's going to go. But, yes, the Kurds have the cohesion not to be defeated by ISIS.
GALBRAITHAnd the broader notion that, with the Sunnis having turned to a group as extreme as ISIS, also to the former Baathists who were responsible for the slaughter of the Shiites, that somehow some political solution, rebuilding infrastructure, trying to have power sharing, or putting more people into government, or hiring people is going to change that situation. I think that's really wishful thinking. These groups are -- and populations, not just the groups, it's the populations -- are diametrically opposed to each other.
REHMAll right. Stephen...
GALBRAITHAnd I don't see how you put them back together.
REHMStephen Biddle, one more comment, then I'm going to go to the phones.
BIDDLEYeah, I don't think any of these options are going to end this war anytime soon. We're looking at a long counterinsurgency fight. And we ought to be able -- we ought to be thinking about it in the longer term, building some kind of government institution that's somewhat more inclusive to increase at the margin over a long time their prospects.
REHMBut does that include long military action?
BIDDLEWell, I don't think the U.S. is going to do anything more than airstrikes, probably in perpetuity, unless this thing spreads dramatically.
REHMBut isn't that...
BENNISAirstrikes in perpetuity?
REHM...in itself going to exacerbate the entire situation, Peter Baker?
BAKERWell, I mean, there's certainly not a desire on the part of a lot of people in Iraq to see the United States participate again, when -- there's a lot of criticism of President Obama for having pulled out at the end of 2011. And he didn't leave a residual force behind. At the same time, it's important to remember that the Iraqis didn't want him to.
BAKERAnd they didn't agree to the immunity provisions that the American military required. So there was a desire at that point to kind of wash their hands of the Americans. Now Maliki, today, is actually calling, you know, for American help, not surprisingly. He's looking for any kind of ally he can get. But we obviously have such a fraught relationship at that point with the country that this -- as Stephen said -- there's no easy -- there's no easy solution.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Freedom in Cincinnati, Ohio. Hi, you're on the air.
FREEDOMYes, I am. Good morning.
FREEDOMHey, I just wanted to find out, like, where are all the arms coming from? Because I think, like, if we can control where all the arms are coming from in that region, we might be able to solve some of it. And everybody's also talking about U.S. interests. Can they list them down? Like, OK, this is interest number one, interest number two, interest number three. I'll check your answer...
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling. Where are the arms coming from? Do we know? Peter Baker?
BAKEROh, it -- that's not my area particularly. I think that -- I think obviously you have -- for one thing you have the Syrian rebels who have been interacting with the same people -- have been getting arms from Qatar, getting arms from Saudi Arabia, and in some cases getting arms from us. You know, I think that this is a country full of arms. And as the army disappears, they're picking up the leftovers there to be had. So I think stopping arms is a nice idea, but it's hard to see how you do that logistically.
DUBIKNo. There's so many sources of arms, and so -- arms are so available, it's -- I mean, it's hard to even to begin to answer the question.
REHMBut where are they coming from?
BIDDLEOh, you can buy whatever you want on the black market. You can get it from any number of countries. Most of these are Kalashnikov's. So we know the source of most of those.
BENNISI think it's also important to recognize that a lot of these weapons are U.S. weapons. I mean the notion, when the Iraqi military collapsed and how ever many thousands fled, they fled without their weapons. Those are U.S. weapons that we have been providing to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars over the last decade.
BENNISAnd those are not in the hands of ISIS and others.
REHMPeter Galbraith, to what extent could this situation bring the U.S. and Iran closer together?
GALBRAITHWell, it has the potential because in fact the U.S. and Iran have a lot of common interests in the region, even though they are so hostile. It's not just in Iraq, where both have supported the Shiite-led government and are strongly opposed to Sunni extremists, but it was also in Afghanistan, where both opposed the Taliban.
GALBRAITHAnd certainly, when the Iranians look at the -- at these -- at ISIS, you know, we hear them say, New York is -- we'll get New York. But they hear much more rhetoric against the Shiites, including that they'll go to notch off a place of filth and polytheism. This is the -- probably the holiest place for Shiite Islam, and their goal is to destroy those shrines. So the U.S. and Iran actually have a lot in common with regard to Iraq at this stage. And to my mind, it makes sense to talk about it.
REHMAll right. To Henry in Dallas, Texas. Hi, you're on the air. Henry, are you there?
HENRYI would like to say that we're talking about the civil war as if it's a new invention. The United States has had its own civil war to become who it is right now. So why can't we just allow it to happen in Iraq?
BIDDLEWell, historically, most European states were formed out of a long period of extremely bloody warfare among small, atomized parties. That is potentially one route to statehood, if outsiders don't intervene to limit the violence. I'm not sure it would be my favorite choice. And whether or not outsiders can remain aloof -- large outsiders with much more power than the inside combatants have in this situation -- is very unclear.
REHMAnd here's an email from Cal in Los Angeles. "What does the U.S. expect of Saudi Arabia, whose Sunnis in this conflict, as a long-time U.S. ally and the mention of the U.S. also working with Iran, the Shia, on this conflict, would seem a very tall order to get all sides into any sort of dialog." Stephen Biddle.
BIDDLEWell I think that's exactly right. One way of framing the larger regional conflict is that it's a Saudi-Iranian proxy war along Sunni-Shia lines that cuts across theaters and is involving a large number of states. One of the problems that this whole conundrum poses for us is there are all sorts of different fault lines and schisms here. And U.S. policy has aligned along different of them at various times.
BIDDLEWe support a Shiite government in Iraq, but we support a Sunni insurgency in Syria. At one time, we used to think that the primary fault line was the West and Israel against Islamist militants. That has been split right down the middle by the Sunni-Shia fault line. So this is a very complicated mish-mash in which our interests crosscut all sorts of local fault lines and divisions. And a big problem for U.S. strategy in the region as a whole, is to try and sort out how we prioritize these things.
REHMSo how have the ISIS operations in Syria sort of differed from what's happening in Iraq? Phyllis.
BENNISWell, I think the specific operations have differed more in scale. The ISIS -- the recent ISIS operations in Iraq were on a much larger scale. Their earlier work was far less visible, was on a far smaller scale. In Syria, it's been a more consistent set of battles with a number of other allies against the regime in Syria, but also against the secular opposition. And as Stephen said, this Sunni-Shia split is one of the six wars, I think, that there are going on right now in Syria, all being fought to the last Syrian, and is now threatening in Iraq.
BENNISI think that the lesson for it is that U.S. interests, which unfortunately get defined almost entirely on the terms of oil interests -- not so much access, but control of where the oil goes and on what terms, et cetera -- and the question of military bases on the ability to function militarily in the region, has failed to provide protection for people in that region or, for that matter, for people here. So that we really need to get out from under the notion that our military control is somehow going to make the situation better.
REHMPhyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Gen. Dubik, is anything that we do in Iraq going to make any difference if what's happening in Syria simply continues? Or is the whole melee simply going to spread?
DUBIKWell, I mean, the fact that it may spread is, I think, real. There are no simple solutions here. There are no solutions with absent downsize, with absent risks. The intertwining of domestic issues, international issues, sectarian issues, are apparent. So the question for the United States, I think, in this particular case, is can we allow a radical fundamentalist presence in a part of northeast Syria and central, north and west Iraq to exist? And is that going to be something that is good for us? I think not. Good for the region? I think not. And so the question is, what set of diplomatic and military actions are necessary to change that situation?
REHMAmb. Galbraith, how do you respond to that?
GALBRAITHWell, I think the general is right, that this is not good for us. But the trouble is that we actually don't have any policy instruments that would enable us to do anything about it, except possibly, as I suggest, by working with the Kurds and paying the price of supporting their independence. But, you know, this -- it is really a mess. Our allies -- Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the Emirates -- are the people who have been supporting the radicals, including at least indirectly, ISIS in Syria, and which has spilled over in Iraq.
GALBRAITHWe've been supporting Maliki in Iraq, who is in turn supporting Assad, who we oppose. And here we see that actually Assad, who everybody assumed would be toppled, has quite a bit of staying power, whereas Maliki has much less. It's really hard to see a path -- a policy path short of sending in hundreds of thousands of American troops, which I do not support and which ultimately would make the situation much worse. It's hard to see how we deal with this problem but it is a big problem.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Eugene, Ore. Steve, you're on the air.
STEVEHowdy. This is a pleasure. My question is, you're all talking, the government is talking as though Iraq is a legitimate state, when in reality it was simply created to divvy up the spoils of World War I, with no -- with no consensus about who was living where and so on. These people have been fighting for hundreds and hundreds of years. Why have we all acted like this is a legitimate state as opposed to a political fiction? And...
BIDDLEEthnic and sectarian population borders misalign with state borders all over the world. This isn't a problem that's unique to the Middle East. It's not a problem that's unique to Iraq. Most of the time, that doesn't produce warfare. When you add some sort of catalytic spark or some sort of military entrepreneurial activity by a local autocrat, then you get situations that normally get dealt with peacefully erupting into war. That's what we've seen in Iraq as a result of the U.S. invasion in 2003. The trouble is that's like toothpaste in the tube -- once it's out, it's very hard to get back in again.
REHMLast word, Phyllis.
BENNISI think it's just important to recognize that, unlike most of the existing states in the Middle East that did emerge in the context of the overthrow of an empire and the replacement by other empires, Iraq and Egypt were the two that did exist historically as something close to nation states -- not the exact borders, but something very close. And Iraqis identify with that. It's not our state, it's theirs.
REHMAll right. We'll leave it at that for this morning. Who knows what's going to happen in the next few days. Thank you all so much for joining us. Phyllis Bennis, Amb. Peter Galbraith, Lt. Gen. James Dubik, Peter Baker, Stephen Biddle, thank you all.
BIDDLEThank you, Diane.
BENNISThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Denise Couture, Susan Casey Nabors, Rebecca Kaufman, Lisa Dunn, Danielle Knight and Allison Brody. The engineer is Toby Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts and podcasts. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington D.C. This is NPR.
Most Recent Shows
Rep. Eric Swalwell on what he learned as an impeachment manager in the Senate trial of Donald Trump, and why he thinks seeking accountability for the January 6th insurrection is key for our democracy.
The Atlantic's Adam Harris on the spread of "divisive concept" bills and why he says the fight over "critical race theory" isn't going away anytime soon.
Child protection advocate Marci Hamilton on the Boy Scouts' sexual abuse settlement and why she says justice has not been served.