By Ben Connable, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Ben Connable is a senior international policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. The views expressed are his own.
Over the past month, al Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has made a concerted effort to seize the Iraqi cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. Images of armed militants roaming the streets have generated widespread concern that Anbar Province – the heart of Sunni Iraq – is once again sliding into chaos. But while the danger in Anbar and Iraq more generally is real, understanding the threat there requires historical context and objective analysis. Indeed, both Iraqi and U.S. policy leaders should see opportunity as well as danger in the reported chaos in Anbar.
The danger, while sensationalized, is nonetheless a reality. An ISIS victory in Anbar against Nuri al-Maliki’s government, and its increasing power in rebel-held Syria, raises the specter of a resurgent al Qaeda in the heart of the Middle East. Some believe that al Qaeda’s actions might fan the flames of a burgeoning regional sectarian war between Sunni and Shia. Under this view, sectarian conflict in Iraq – fueled in Syria – might widen and lead to greater instability in much of the Middle East.
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.
Watch "Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN
By Fareed Zakaria
Here's a startling statistic: more than 8,000 Iraqis were killed in violent attacks in 2013. That makes it the second most violent country in the world, after its neighbor Syria.
As violence has spread and militants have gained ground in several Middle Eastern countries, people have been wondering how much this has to do with the Obama administration and its lack of an active intervention in the region. The Wall Street Journal and a Commentary magazine opinion piece have both argued this past week that the Obama administration's decision to withdraw troops from Iraq is directly responsible for the renewed violence in that country. They and others have also argued that because it has stayed out of Syria, things there have spiraled downward.
Let me suggest that the single greatest burden for the violence and tensions across the Arab world lies with a president – though not President Obama – and it lies with an American foreign policy that was not too passive but rather too active and interventionist in the Middle East. The invasion and occupation of Iraq triggered what has become a regional religious war in the Middle East. Let me explain how, specifically.
By Erin Evers, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Erin Evers is a Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are her own.
I awoke at 7 a.m. on Wednesday to a frantic telephone call. A contact inside of Raba’a al-Adaweya, one of the two six-week-old Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins that took over two Cairo neighborhoods, was on the line. “It’s starting,” he told me. “We’re surrounded. They’re firing on us from three sides.”
I spent the rest of the day alternately seeking out the injured and trying to avoid becoming one of them. Dozens, if not hundreds, have been killed at Raba’a, at the Cairo University sit-in, and at flashpoints throughout Cairo and the rest of the country.
Society here seems to hang by a thread. Fighting continues and it is unclear who’s on what side. I spoke to a man injured at the Cairo University sit-in who said he and 25 others had come to fight the Brotherhood alongside police.
Checkpoints litter the city, some manned by the army or police, others by groups of men in civilian clothes reminiscent of the “neighborhood watches” who took matters into their own hands during Egypt’s January 2011 revolution. The country is polarized in a way I never imagined.
For more What in the World, watch GPS, Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN
By Global Public Square staff
You have all seen or heard or read about the grim situation in Syria – with thousands upon thousands of civilians dead. You might be less aware that the second most violent country in the world these days is Iraq. Yes, the country that we intervened in, with 180,000 troops at the peak, and hundreds of billions of dollars. Ten years later, it has levels of violence that would be described as a civil war anywhere else. More than 700 people died in a spate of bombings last month alone and the death toll, according to the United Nations, is over 3,000 in the last four months.
For many Americans, Iraq is a forgotten country. But recent events there provide an important set of lessons – not only for Iraq, but also for its Arab Spring neighbors, and for Syria in particular.
But let's go back to what sparked the current bout of violence. In April, Iraqi security forces killed more than forty people when they stormed a camp of protestors. The demonstrators were Sunni Muslims. Iraq's government, of course, is led by Shia Muslims. For years now, these Shias have gained power and used their majority to win elections and then brutally sideline the Sunnis. Remember, much of this is retribution: Saddam Hussein was a Sunni leader who brutally mistreated the majority Shias. The wheels of revenge keep turning.
By Afeef Nessouli, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Afeef Nessouli is an intern with Fareed Zakaria GPS. The views expressed are his own.
The debate over whether the Iraq War was really all about oil may never be fully resolved in some minds, but one thing is clear – either way, Iraq has yet to really cash in. The country’s GDP may have risen several fold in the decade since the war began, yet its income per capita lags not only oil rich neighbors such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, but also relative economic minnows including Botswana, Turkmenistan and Albania. This is despite the fact that it sits upon the world’s fourth largest oil reserves and could double its production in the next few years.
The question, then, is will Iraq be able to meet its oil potential?
By Kenneth Roth, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch. You can follow him @KenRoth. The views expressed are his own.
What is there to show for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq 10 years ago? Many are quick to insist that Iraq is better off than it was under Saddam, but that is a low bar, given Saddam’s genocide against the Kurds, mass slaughter of Shia who rose up against him, and unspeakable brutality against anyone perceived to challenge his rule.
Sadly, one cannot say a lot more. Despite the massive military and financial commitment, and the sacrifice of thousands of Iraqi and American lives, the United States left Iraq a weak foundation for democracy.
It is not as if no effort was made. The U.S. government helped to draft legislation and a new Constitution, trained judges and lawyers, and supported civil society and independent media. But that enormous effort could not overcome the negative precedents set during the U.S. military deployment. From the brutality of Abu Ghraib and other detention centers, to the repeated use of excessive force to protect American troops and contractors, to the creation of Iraqi security units that allegedly tortured and abused with impunity, the U.S. military left the impression that achieving its goals took precedence over such niceties as respect for international rights standards.
By Lowell Schwartz, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Lowell Schwartz is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation. He was an advisor to the U.S. Department of Defense on arms control and European security in 2009-2010. The views expressed are his own.
Ten years after the Iraq war started, violence may persist as the shift from Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian regime to one dominated by nationalist Shiites continues – a point underscored by a string of bombings overnight. Yet despite much pessimism, the new order survives, without U.S. assistance. And it is a lot less fragile than it often appears.
Back in 2003, when U.S. forces arrived in Baghdad, they were shocked by the complete disintegration of the Iraqi state – U.S. analysts had failed to comprehend the tremendous impact international sanctions and international isolation had had on Iraq’s economy and society.
The extreme erosion of the Iraq state, meanwhile, had two profound consequences. First, once the regime was unseated, power rapidly filtered down to the regional and tribal level. Second, a new national political order had to be built from scratch.
"Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN
Fareed speaks with Paul Brinkley, for U.S. Deputy Under Secretary former Business Transformation with the Department of Defense, about his efforts to get major American companies to set up in Iraq. Watch the video for the full interview.
Iraq seems like it should be a very rich country. It has, depending on how you count it, the fourth, fifth, sixth largest oil reserves in the world. When you go there, it still seems very poor. Why?
…I was just in Baghdad last week. The day-to-day life experience in Baghdad is one of heavy, heavy – we would be familiar with it as Americans – heavy traffic, streets filled with people, construction underway everywhere.
And so you do see a broad-based economic uplift in most of the country. There are areas of the country that are at risk of being left behind, and I think that does pose a risk in terms of the long-term stability of the country.
Donald Trump says we should’ve taken Iraq’s oil. There are people who said that we went there for the oil. The repugnant thing to many Americans is we went there, not only did we not get any oil, but it turns out that the Chinese are the ones with the big oil companies in there. Why is that?
I think this comes down to economics. And so, again, another challenge for us as Americans is sometimes we don’t see the history of a place and understand how history’s very real in these parts of the world. There’s a very strong memory in Iraq and in the region of how Western oil companies engaged in the ‘50s, in the ‘60s. And they were very restrictive in their first oil contracts in terms of just the financial incentives that they offered. And the amount of profit that an oil company can make on an oil field in Iraq is very low relative to what they make in many other parts of the world.
For state-owned companies in places like China, command economies that aren’t as profit-motivated, they’re not worried about profitability as much as access to the oil resource. So they’re willing to forgo profitability, where a private company, a Western company, has to consider that, has to consider its shareholders.
By Fareed Zakaria
The American public has lost interest in the Iraq war. A topic that was at the center of the national political debate is now barely mentioned in passing. The country has decided to move on, rather than debate whether the war was worth it - though for the vast majority of Americans, the answer to that question would be a decided, “no”.
Yet, it was the most significant military conflict that the United States has been in since the Vietnam War, and so it is worth asking – ten years after it began - what lessons might be learned from the war, aftermath, and occupation. Here is my list:
Bring enough troops. The Bush administration chose to go to war with Iraq in a manner that would make it relatively easy politically. It drew up plans for a small invading army and insisted that the costs would be minimal – silencing those within and without the Pentagon who suggested otherwise. In the first phase of the war, toppling Saddam’s army, the plan worked fine. But as the mission turned from invasion to occupation, the military’s “light footprint” proved to be a deadly problem. Iraq moved quickly towards chaos and civil war, under the eyes of American troops who could do little to prevent it. The lesson of the Balkans’ conflicts in the 1990s had been to have a much larger force, by some calculations four times larger than the United States had in Iraq. But that lesson was not learned in 2003. The next time, if it’s worth going to war, it’s worth staffing it properly.
By Daniel R. DePetris, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Daniel R. DePetris is a researcher and a contributor to GPS. The views expressed are his own.
Sectarian animosities are nothing new for Iraqis. But what is different this time around is that they are now playing out without some of the players that were once instrumental in enforcing the rules.
While most Iraqis eventually grew tired of U.S. troops patrolling their neighborhoods, the United States was the only force strong enough to bridge sectarian divisions before they spiraled into violence. Aside from the United States, there was Jalal Talabani – a Kurd who continues to hold Iraq’s presidency and who reveled in the role as ultimate mediator of Iraq’s political disputes, often dragging the country’s warring politicians to his residence for some civilized discussion.
But with the United States gone, and Talabani’s health having deteriorated following a stroke, charges of political dominance and sectarian discrimination among Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s opponents have left some wondering whether the country is already facing the new year’s first open confrontation.
By Michael Rubin, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School. The views expressed are his own.
Early this morning, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani suffered a stroke. While his spokesman is releasing few details other than to acknowledge Talabani is in stable condition, some around described the president as comatose. Should he not recover, his loss would strike a blow for Iraq.
Unlike his Kurdish rival Massoud Barzani who often strikes diplomats as cold and aloof, Talabani was an affable man with ready humor. A polyglot, he put Americans, Iraqis, and Kurds at ease, maintained relationships with almost everyone, and so became a natural choice for Iraq’s presidency after Iraq held its first free elections in 2005. He would negotiate one day with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Persian, the next day with American diplomats in fluent English, debate Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Arabic, and then instruct his own staff in Kurdish. Few trusted him – his commitments tended only to last until his next meeting, he is said to have leaked American intelligence like a sieve to Iran and vice versa, and he was responsible for a disproportionate amount of pre-war intelligence regarding Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons systems – but all talked to him and most liked him. In short, he was the perfect figurehead for Iraq.