January 17th, 2014
10:13 AM ET

Zakaria: U.S. can't quite acknowledge magnitude of Iraq war error

CNN speaks with Fareed about Iraq and his interview with former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, which will air on GPS this Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN. This is an edited version of the transcript.

What did you think of the defense secretary? 

Well, he's a very impressive man. I thought it was an excellent interview. I thought what came through more than anything was the seriousness with which he took these decisions. You know, he was very honest about the ones where he was wrong.

But what you sense when you listen to a man like Robert Gates is how many decisions in foreign policy are not 90/10 decisions. They are 51/49 decisions. You know, you have other evidence suggesting one course of action, you have other evidence suggesting another course. It's a judgment call, and then we look back on it and we assume it was so obvious because we now know how it worked out, whether it's the Libyan intervention, when it's the bin Laden raid, whether it is the Iraq war.

At the time, all of these seemed much more even-handed and then you get history and it, in a sense, tells you what the answer was.

Why are so many of these officials – and he was not back in 2003 in the government so he did not have a direct role, he was outside the government at the time. But so many will say to you and to me and to all of these other reports, off the record, privately, if we knew then back in March of 2003 what we know now, the U.S. would never have deployed a few hundred thousand troops to go into Iraq and get involved in that messy situation. Why are they so reluctant to acknowledge that it was a blunder?

I think it's a very important question. I think the reason is this: They cannot face up to the reality. Then you have to tell those troops, those men and women whom Robert Gates so rightly admires, that they were sent there in vain, that this was a mistake.

You know, who wants to be the last man or the first man to have died from a mistake? But you hit the nail on the head when you were talking about the issue of fundamentally we went in there, and failed to create a democracy. We got involved in a very complicated sectarian struggle. We overturned a Sunni regime, installed hardline religious parties there, and then watched as a sectarian civil war brewed, and then kept trying to say to each of them, hey, can't you guys get on better?

And you know, we're still doing it. Robert Gates was still saying, if only al-Maliki would reach out to the Sunnis more? Al-Maliki is a hard-lined Shia religious thug who was sheltered by Iran and Syria for 15 years. Ever since he's come in power, he's had 10 years to reach out to the Sunnis. Why do we think he's going to do it now? We're in the midst of something so deep that we can't quite acknowledge the magnitude of the error.

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Topics: Iraq

soundoff (31 Responses)
  1. JAL

    I see Sec. Gates as a product of an old era pessimism that isn't necessarily illogical. H.W.Bush was a genuine WW2 vet and was no stranger to the difficult issues of the early part of the 20th century. Gates is a continuation of that mindset. I am not faulting anyone, just pointing out that it has been a long hard road and the mind adapts to realities of the day. I will stop short of calling him bear-ish, because he is reasonable.

    January 17, 2014 at 10:22 am | Reply
    • JAL

      I am not an expert in security. When we start talking about war and keeping regions safe, I don't have much to contribute, other than the fact that I acknowledge the need for security.

      January 17, 2014 at 10:44 am | Reply
      • alan s

        JAL: My heavens! A commenter who does not believe he is infallible, and who admits to his own limitations. If only there were more cautious thinkers and fewer shouters.

        January 17, 2014 at 4:57 pm |
      • JAL

        I used the past tense with H.W. Bushonly because he is not in the political spotlight.

        January 18, 2014 at 8:16 pm |
      • j. von hettlingen

        It's a pity that Bob Gates wasn't around in 2003. He would have knocked some sense into GW Bush and the neo-cons.

        January 20, 2014 at 10:57 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        Gates was right that a military action has to be the last resort, or it could end up as a nonstarter.

        January 20, 2014 at 10:58 am |
    • Tom

      I continue thinking the REAL REASONS (not the farcical ones put out by Cheney/Bush) for Gulf War 2 were:

      1. Israel considered Iraq a threat and wanted their military destroyed. That was accomplished.

      2. Big Oil who Cheney is connected with, saw the opportunity to see oil prices rise for a long time due to Iraq's oil being taken off the market due to war and chaos. Oil is a commodity and if Iraq suddenly stops producing, oil pumped from Texas is suddenly worth a lot more per barrel on the world market. Mission accomplished. You don't see cheap gas like we had before the war.

      3. The military contractors wanted the war because they make a lot of money off increased weapon sales.

      4. Bush Sr. wanted his revenge because Saddam supposedly tried to have him killed in revenge for Gulf War I.
      Bush Jr. took revenge for his father, Bush Sr.

      What do you think?

      January 22, 2014 at 7:46 pm | Reply
      • Toto

        Sums it up. Excellent.

        January 28, 2014 at 2:02 pm |
  2. matslats

    You are rewriting history, Fareed.
    Iraq was not an 'error' it was totally illegal and immoral, justified by falsified intelligence and the CIA and the president and the army all knew exactly what they were doing, and the outcome is pretty much what they wanted.

    January 17, 2014 at 10:50 am | Reply
    • Doc

      Exactly right! How can anyone really believe that things are better in Iraq or any other part of the Middle East because of our interventions.

      January 17, 2014 at 11:33 am | Reply
    • mike

      It looks that Iraq and Syria governments are under control of Shia Iran regime to expand the supreme leader empire of Iran – Khamenehie.

      January 19, 2014 at 10:59 am | Reply
  3. Elena Chera

    Robert Gates said that President Obama would weaken our prestige in front of our allies, as well as our opponents in the world, "he estimated. But the minister who presided over the policy to send massive reinforcements to Iraq in 2007 and then to Afghanistan in 2009, did not hide his reluctance to a new U.S. military intervention. "Let's blow stuff for a few days or validate emphasize a point or principle, it is not strategy ', denounced Robert Gates warned against the risk of being perceived" as being evil instead of Assad' for kicks . According to him, the U.S. strikes in Syria would be 'to pour gas on the fire very complex in the Middle East'. During his last months at the helm of the Pentagon in 2011, Robert Gates has not hidden reluctance to military operations in Libya.

    January 17, 2014 at 11:36 am | Reply
  4. chrissy

    SPOT ON @ matslats! And they need to be prosecuted for war crimes!

    January 17, 2014 at 11:37 am | Reply
  5. joe anon 1

    replace error with crimes.

    January 17, 2014 at 2:43 pm | Reply
  6. chrissy

    Lol @ joe anon1, we might be able to correct it that way if, in fact, it WAS an error! But since GWB, Cheney and company will not even acknowledge that they were wrong, you have to know it was intentional!

    January 17, 2014 at 4:06 pm | Reply
  7. chrissy

    Oops sorry @ joe, i totally read that wrong! I thought you were talking about my post about "war crimes"! I apologise!

    January 17, 2014 at 4:10 pm | Reply
  8. herbertlLAUB

    we need more people like Gates in our government making important decisions-in foreign affairs

    January 17, 2014 at 9:31 pm | Reply
  9. chrissy

    Or @ herbert, maybe we could all just chew on a cyanide capsul and make it quicker?

    January 18, 2014 at 1:11 pm | Reply
  10. Dr. Raid Amin

    While I agree with Mr. Zakaria's analysis of the situation in Iraq, I would like to remind him that the Sunni's in Iraq make far more than 20% of the total Iraqi population. As a statistician who worked in Iraq, I remind you Mr. Zakaria that about 95%^ of all Iraqi Kurds are Sunni Muslim. It was a tricky approach by the media to isolate the Iraqi Kurds from the Iraqi population count, to claim that the Iraqi Sunni's form only 20% of the Iraqi population. Sunnis form about 45% of the Iraqi population, While Iraqi Kurds now focus on nationalism, in the end, they will not team up with Shia Iraqis against Sunni Iraqis. This was clear from the start.

    Dr. Amin

    January 18, 2014 at 2:56 pm | Reply
  11. Dr. Raid Amin

    Many Persians inflitrated into Iraq as Iraqi citizens, which led to an inlation of Shia count. If these Iranians are returned to Iran, the Sunni Iraqi people ould be around 50%.

    To put things in perspective, in the 1920's, the Brits in Iraq reportedly informed their Home Office that the Shia in Iraq have reached 25% ... etc. The Sunni people were historically the majority, and accordingly, modern Iraq was mostly built by the Sunni Iraqis, which may have been due to the fact that professionals and scientists and educators were proportionally more Sunni than Shia because there were more Sunni people there.

    January 18, 2014 at 11:27 pm | Reply
  12. mike

    Shia al-Maliki from hard-lined religious party Aldaveh linked to the Iran regime send troops and plans to kill opposition Iraqi people that tired of scandal and dictatorship and The World is cheering him!
    They did the same in Syria but not in the Libiya?!

    January 19, 2014 at 10:53 am | Reply
  13. CZ Henderson

    The first question to ask when considering a war is: Why are we doing this? Justified wars are fought in defense of real threats. Less noble conflicts, but still reasonable, are fought for economic goals. Until the 18th century with the Age of Reason, social contracts, Rights of Man, etc., wars were waged for these two reasons. Nations feared enslavement and other nations wanted to enslave them (take their resources, lands, taxes, make markets for finished goods). Often they killed each other in defense or honor to their gods. But going to war over differences in political, social and economic thought is relatively new. And still questionable since you can kill men, but can't eradicate thought and ideas. Like the inhabitants of Pandora's Box, they're out.

    January 19, 2014 at 1:26 pm | Reply
  14. Roberto Sylianteng

    Leadership. Stable nations result from dynamics that involve across- the- board assimilation and cross-embracing of differences based upon the common desire for "something" held higher- above- all.

    When it comes to Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan it appears that current leadership is unable to master such a dynamic. A foreign government is in no position to coop or replace such a leadership because its government can never truly reflect its citizens.

    January 19, 2014 at 1:50 pm | Reply
  15. chrissy

    That was an awesome post @ CZ Henderson! And yours as well @ Roberto Sylianteng!

    January 19, 2014 at 5:58 pm | Reply
  16. chrissy

    Yea i agree @ j von! I totally misinterpreted his stance on war in a prior thread! Maybe it was how it was written ill have to re~read it.

    January 20, 2014 at 2:38 pm | Reply
  17. Steve

    Fareed you must be talking about War Crimes, not errors...

    January 23, 2014 at 1:13 am | Reply
  18. John Glenn

    Why does the United States still urges the Egyptian government to install democracy.?Though in the the Middle East we all know that democracy =sectarian violence/war, as in Iraq , Libya, Lebanon and probably Syria if Assad should quit...! Believe me these people don't believe in democratic values.. Leave them in peace and they will wage war..!

    January 24, 2014 at 6:41 pm | Reply
  19. Toto

    Iraq was a mistake from day 1. One person responsible. I feel very proud and conflicted for our service people. They deserve the best!

    January 28, 2014 at 1:57 pm | Reply

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