Yesterday I had the opportunity to listen to Dan Senor, the former chief spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and senior adviser to Paul Bremer, administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority. The topic of his talk was The Iraq War and Its Consequences in the Middle East.
Earlier in the day Dan Senor had been invited to discuss Paul Bremer’s new book, which is being studied in one of the classes at the Wilson School, and also gave this talk in the afternoon.
Senor, who I’d watched on TV numerous times, is a very personable guy who’s younger than I expected. He broke the ice with an anecdote about his mom calling him on the phone after watching him give press briefings from Iraq, asking him if he was eating well and getting enough sleep. He was in Iraq for 15 months and returned in the summer of 2004, having originally signed up for a 3-month stay. He started by saying that life in Baghdad becomes normalcy as one adjusts.
Like many others who have been to Baghdad or who are now in Iraq, Senor still remains a cautious optimist.
Understanding the security and the political challenges is important, as the political challenges loom larger but remain under the screen.
The first few weeks in Iraq made sense of a lot going on now. He arrived in Baghdad via Kuwait and was based at one of Saddam’s former palaces, when one of the mass graves was discovered. The mass grave was from a Shiite uprising in 1991. While many Iraqis knew of the mass graves, they feared to look for them. After Saddam was deposed, people went looking for the skeletal remains. This particular mass grave contained 2,000 to 3,000 people who had been shot in the head on the same day. Senor saw thousands of people digging for the remains of their loved ones; Iraqi families trying to make sense of the bones. In one instance a mother recognized a t-shirt hanging from a spine and she and her relatives had an impromptu memorial service at the site. Another man found an ID card on a skull – that of his brother. This mass grave serves as a metaphor for what’s going on in Iraq.
Fifty mass graves have been discovered. Human Rights Watch estimates 1.3 million people dead or missing during Saddam’s reign. Every family in Iraq lived in fear, a system that worked because no one dared make an effort to remove him. Every Iraqi has a personal loss, missing relatives, mass graves, torture, rape rooms.
Bremmer asked two women what their reaction was when Saddam was captured: One woman called her brother in the Netherlands. Her brother, back when he was in high school, cracked a joke about Saddam, which the teachers reported to the internal security forces. The following day the forces pulled him from class and poured acid on his face. He had been in Europe seeking treatment for his injury. Another woman never told her children about her brother. He had been shot in the head and afterwards the family was forced to pay the government for the bullet in his head, the ultimate humiliation. After the family buried him, the woman had married and had a family but had never told her children about their uncle, out of fear that the children might talk about him in school.
The Iraqis are dealing with those very recent, very widespread incidents; they are learning to trust people – other tribes, other Iraqis, foreigners. The flashpoints in some way represent the way things stand today with what the Iraqis are coping.
While the clerics are telling them to vote, the fact is that people are risking their lives to vote. Zarqawi says “you vote, you die”, and they vote. More and more Iraqis are participating, and the process is becoming more representative. This is very good news.
Arab Muslims are voting and holding their governments accountable; al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya have broadcast this around the regions, with al-Arabiya broadcasting live from six polling stations. This is very powerful and very important.
Iraq has a very progressive constitution for the region, with 25% female parliamentary representation, and possibly in the world. Its central tenets bode well.
Senor has two main concerns:
1. It’s been three months since the polls and there’s still no government. The incumbent PM ran again to run a Shiite megaparty and won by one vote. He needs 2/3 of the parliament to win approval, but has been told that they better come up with another candidate, resulting in a stalemate with no end in sight.
2. On the security front, Zarqawi’s been plotting a civil war against the Shiite holy places. We’ll more of this in the future. While it won’t turn into a civil war, there’s a need to prevent it. Talabani and the Kurds play a pivotal role in calming the situation. Senor calls it “Kurd shuttle diplomacy”.
There is a lack of political leadership. Another issue is that of the militias. Senor’s worried that the security vaccum’s being filled by the militia. The militia were guarding the holy places, and are becoming very professional, very organized, and now sectarian groups have their own militia. There’s a need to get a handle on the militia.
Senor then opened the floor to questions.
1. I asked why aren’t more of the Saddam tapes translated and released.
Senor doesn’t know, but maybe the Administration doesn’t want to re-ignite the pre-war debated. Senor wants them released, and believes they’d make the Administration look wiser.
2.To what audience are the press conferences aimed?
Senor said it’s difficult to figure out what the right balance would be. For the American viewpoint, one needs to explain what’s going on in the theater of operation, while at the same time there’s an obligation to other participants, like the time when the Italian Army suffered 19 dead in Nasaria. With 24-hr news channels, everybody’s watching all the time. Al-Jazeera starts its day by reading what the NYT’s reporting.
3. What is the role of the US in Saddam’s trial?
The Iraqis want to be in charge, and the trial got a slow start but the new judge is running a tighter ship.
Senor talked about the effect of the trial in other Middle East countries. The trial sends a message to almost every ruler who identifies with Saddam. The only thing that never happened is the governments to be held accountable – until now. The trial’s being aired by al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya. Senor spent half a day with one of Saddam’s attorneys and was told that other area rulers are terrified, and particularly mentioned Al-Assad.
One dramatic development in the trial in recent days was Saddam’s admission that he was responsible for the 1981 assassination of a small Sunni town where 150 people killed and the town was razed.
It is important for Iraq to close this 3-decade chapter [in its history].
4. For the past 3 weeks there have been confusing media reports. Who can we trust?
Senor asked, who’s got it right? He gets his news from Iraqi sources, and from a handful of reporters who’ve been in Iraq from the beginning, specifically Elisa Rubin and John Burns, and a couple of reporters from the NY Post. The problem is that many news organizations bring people for 30 days who have no prior knowledge, and then they leave. The effect is that the reporting’s very shallow, there’s no analysis and no serious sources.
When he reads the news, he first asks, who’s reporting and how long they’ve been there.
5. How about Iran, Syria, and Turkey?
Iran has a calculated, long-term strategy to destabilize Iraq. Iran feels very threatened by a democratic Iraq. During Saddam’s rule, the scholarly Shiite center in Najaf was squashed, and during that period the center migrated to Qum, in Iran. Now Najaf’s being rebuilt. These Arab Shiites ask for more restraint from clerics, the antithesis of the Iranian theocracy. They’re collaborating with Sunnis more than people realize, and are happy to transcend ethnic lines.
Syria – Assad’s threatened by the prospect of democracy and doesn’t want the average Syrian on the street to get any ideas. Syria’s harboring terrorists and serves as refuge for former Saddam officials.
Turkey’s worried of a possible Kurdistan. Dan Senor doesn’t think Kurdistan’s likely. The Kurds have only 3-4 million people, are landlocked, and surrounded by enemies. The Kurds are very practical and recognize that being part of Iraq is in their interest.
6. Why did Saddam repudiate the 18 UN resolutions?
Two reasons: Saddam didn’t want to convey to the region that he couldn’t sustain power in a war.
The other reason, if you look at the messages from the Sunnis:
A. The Americans regret starting wars
B. The Americans have no capacity to sustain war
C. The Americans have no capacity to sustain casualties,
you might also find that there’s a survivalist mentality to Saddam, who probably believes that he can survive this and return to power. After all, when he was pulled out of his spider hole, his words were “I’m Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq”
7. What are the lessons learned?
That the law and order aspect should have been played out differently.
Bremer’s book discusses dealing with the looting situation, trying to balance the euphoria over Saddam being gone, and the looting sense of anarchy and lawlessness. The Iraqis went from total control to total anarchy in a 3-week war.
The lack of trust in authority has repercussions.
8. “Tell me how it ends”
Senor can’t tell how it ends, but will tell how it’ll go: He hopes we’re there for a while. “for a long time, in large numbers”. He trusts that this administration will stick it out, but worries about future administrations. The Iraqis need the secure space for them to develop. The Iraqis also need to invest in more political institutions, so they can trust them more than their regional/communal/tribal units. We need to provide the security so that can develop.
It won’t be a Jeffersonian democracy. Iraq needs to carve out its own democracy. It’ll become a source of change in the region, of accountability and stability.
9. Why did Bremer think there weren’t enough troops?
Bremer made it known that the troop capacity was problematic. While Bremer was not in the formal chain of command, some criticized him for not saying so publicly, but that would have been irresponsible.
10. The next question referred to the presence of troops adding validity vs. troops adding to a humiliation factor.
Senor feels that the Iraqis will stomach the troops’ presence if they know they can get security. Rarely anyone complains about the occupation, but frequently people complain about security.
11. Are there risks of breaking the back of the military?
While Senor doesn’t know the answer, he feels there is a big risk, but Senor believes that the President would find support for increasing the size of the military by two divisions.
12. Why al-Qaeda fights? How about Israel as a pretext?
Zarqawi has stated that there’s no greater threat to an Islamic caliphate than the development of an Iraqi democracy, with an Iraqi democracy that chooses its own leaders and holds those leaders accountable.
There’s a lack of resonance for anti-Israel propaganda on the Iraqi street. Where the Iraqis can make their own decisions, have freedom of information, a free society, and don’t need to blame anything external for all their domestic woes, they don’t worry about Isral and don’t blame Israel for any of the post-Saddam environment.
13. What are the prospects for the development of an oil industry?
There’s enormous development potential, for the oil and for the construction industries. Iraq has an educated work force, with serious, hard workers. In 4-5 years the government should see real reforms for privatization. Presently, any large business projects need a very large security premium, over 40% of their budget.
14. How about the training of Iraqi troops?
It’s being done by many countries, for instance, the French are training the Iraqi police. The Iraqi leadership are very reticent of their neighboring countries’ help, and question their loyalties and their agendas.