Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

Get policymakers to talk about their thought process on Iraq

ASK THIS | September 28, 2006

Two Iraq experts suggest questions reporters should be asking leaders how they are making decisions about the U.S. commitment in Iraq – and whether they’re being realistic.

By Dan Froomkin

At a recent panel discussion about the way forward in Iraq, former CIA official Paul R. Pillar put it bluntly: “We simply don’t have any good options at this point.”

As a result, Pillar said, it’s far easier for policymakers to poke holes in other people’s proposals than to put forth ideas of their own.

So it’s not surprising that a lot of political figures – including congressional candidates – are avoiding the topic, often mumbling something about “staying the course” or “bringing our troops home” but not really going into much detail.

Nevertheless, Pillar – who coordinated Middle East intelligence for the CIA until last year and is a NiemanWatchdog.org contributor – thinks it’s imperative that journalists get senior policymakers to answer the following question:

Q. What are your criteria in determining your position on troop strengths, and staying in versus getting out?

It’s a great question because, even if they haven’t come to a clear conclusion, every single congressional candidate in the country, for instance, ought to be able to at the very least discuss how they’re thinking about the issue.

Pillar said there are three criteria they should be considering:

1)     What’s best for Iraq.

2)     The effect of the war and the occupation on United States interests worldwide, including the effect on extremism.

3)     The tolerance of the American people for the continued cost in terms of blood and treasure.

Asks Pillar:

Q. How do you factor all three of those criteria into your decision-making process?

Pillar said the Bush administration has made a mistake in approaching the reconstruction of Iraq like an engineer building an edifice. He said the better analogy would be an ecologist dealing with a hostile environment. The U.S. government shouldn’t fight the direction in which things are going, Pillar said – and that might just be toward an authoritarian-style government that can bring some stability.

Fellow panelist Peter Galbraith, author of The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End, said Washington policymakers are completely divorced from reality when it comes to the state of affairs in Iraq.

“There is a civil war. This is beyond discussion,” he said. In fact, the country has already broken up. The central government holds no real power. Kurdistan, for instance, is “in every respect independent.” Theocratic fiefdoms run the Shiite south. And the Sunni center is a battleground, with insurgents fighting U.S. troops and Shiite militias battling Sunnis.

The question is not: What can we do to keep Iraq together? What Galbraith wonders is this:

Q. Are we going to put Iraq back together?

Q. What sorts of resources would that require?

And if we’re not willing to consider expending the resources that would require, then:

Q. What sort of mission can we accomplish with the resources we are willing to commit?

Galbraith thinks reporters have been too willing to accept the Bush administration’s view of the central government as capable, and ought to challenge it a little. So for instance, every time a U.S. government official asserts that the central government will do something, reporters should ask:

Q. How is the Iraqi central government going to accomplish that?

Q. When does the central government ever exercise authority?

Galbraith suggests that the U.S. mission in Iraq be scaled back to simply assuring the Al Qaeda doesn’t set up any bases there. He thinks the U.S. should base some forces in Kurdistan for that purpose, but should otherwise pull out.

Don't Mention the War
Jacob Weisberg writes in Slate about why candidates aren't talking about what to do in Iraq.

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.