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Questions Over What Is Realistic for Iraq


Sunday's Washington Post reported on how US officials in Washington and in Baghdad viewed the likely condition of Iraq once the current transition period ends in four months. They are lowering expectations of a secure, model democracy, whose reconstruction is paid by revenues from oil exports. A senior official, quoted but not identified, told The Post, "We are in the process of absorbing the factors of the situation we're in and shedding the unreality that dominated at the beginning." Well, from before the beginning of the war in Iraq, James Fallows of The Atlantic Monthly has been writing about the war's aims and likely outcome.

Jim, welcome back to the program.

Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (The Atlantic Monthly): Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: In fall of 2002 you wrote about Iraq after Saddam. And I want to ask you, a senior official, described as someone who's been involved in administration policy since the 2003 invasion, now tells The Post, `What we expected to achieve was never realistic, given the timetable or what unfolded on the ground.' How big a comedown would that be for Washington's forecast of what constitutes success in Iraq?

Mr. FALLOWS: Well, if this is actually an indication of the administration preparing the ground for a different level of expectation by the public, it's quite a fundamental, seismic change. I think it's worth and important to note that we don't know exactly what this indicates yet. It's possible that this is one more signal in an ongoing struggle, you know, of several years' duration within the administration, where you have, roughly speaking, the CIA and the military on one side and the administration on the other side, the Defense Department in particular, about how realistic are the Iraqi war aims, etc. So it might be that this official will turn out to be somebody just carrying out that struggle.

If this is from the highest levels of the administration, as we say, preparing people to view the situation differently, it's significant, I think, in two ways. One is indicating that the timetable might be sooner than the president, in particular, has been indicating for some time, but also that the level of expectations will be quite different because the president and vice president have been resolute and rock-ribbed in saying, `Things are going well. We're going to see this through to its end.' And that's a very different tone from what the story would indicate.

SIEGEL: In looking back over forecasts of a brief, decisive victory with few American casualties and a reconstruction covered by a revived Iraqi oil industry, there certainly aren't very many presidential statements that are explicit. The most extravagant one I found was Vice President Cheney on "Meet the Press" saying as much. Who else was saying this actually would happen?

Mr. FALLOWS: The two people who really carried the ball for the administration in saying this was going to be easy, not simply the war but what came after the war, were the vice president--was the Sunday before the Tuesday beginning of the war that he was saying on "Meet the Press" that the United States would be greeted with flowers, etc--and Paul Wolfowitz in the same congressional--the former number two in the Defense Department--same congressional testimony where he was ridiculing General Shinseki, the former chief of staff of the Army...

SIEGEL: For saying hundreds of thousands of troops would be needed.

Mr. FALLOWS: Yes. And Paul Wolfowitz was saying that was wildly off the mark. In that same testimony, he was saying that the war--the financial cost of the war would essentially be trivial for the United States after a very brief period because, number one, allied contributions and, number two, Iraqi oil revenues would cover the cost. And so it would not be a financial burden.

SIEGEL: Do you think that the US was so convinced of the reality of things that didn't materialize--unconventional weapons or oil fields that would be set afire by Saddam Hussein or Iraqis who didn't stand up and cheer for the exiles who were returning as would-be leaders--that they were distracted from pursuing goals that were actually achievable if they hadn't been pursuing these other things, or was the calculus just so far off from the beginning that this was not going to happen?

Mr. FALLOWS: The exact etiology or epidemiology of how things went wrong after the conquest of Baghdad, it will take a very, very long time. But it does seem a minor factor was expecting certain things that didn't happen; for example, the use of chemical weapons against US troops or mass refugee flows. But a lot of things were clearly foreseen by some people. You know, many people who are experts in occupations or international, you know, humanitarian groups said that it was going to be very difficult to govern Iraq. There was going to be looting as a problem, all the things we've come to experience now, and especially that the US troops would be welcome for a very short time as liberators and quickly turn into occupiers. For one reason or another that foresight was ignored.

SIEGEL: If the current talks in Baghdad do, in fact, lead to a constitution, to parliamentary elections and a government that's pro-Iranian on some matters, pro-American on some other matters and a government that still needs tens of thousands of American forces to combat insurgents, is that arguably still a better deal for Washington in cold geopolitical terms than was the government of Saddam Hussein?

Mr. FALLOWS: Well, we have a crucial question of pre- and post-war levels of knowledge. And, I guess, you know, prewar levels of knowledge many people, including supporters and opponents to the war, thought there was a greater threat from Saddam Hussein's alleged arsenal than it proves there to have been. And we'll just have to see, in the unfolding mystery of history, what, you know, an Islamic-leaning government in Iraq might look like and portend for us in the long run.

SIEGEL: James Fallows, thanks a lot for talking with us once again.

Mr. FALLOWS: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robert Siegel
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.