What about Iraq?by Curtis Gilbert, Minnesota Public Radio
The question of what the U.S. should do in Iraq has been in the news a lot this week. The bipartisan Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton, is announcing its answer to that question. On Tuesday the Senate Armed Services Committee spent hours discussing the question as well, before voting to recommend the confirmation of Robert Gates as the next Secretary of Defense. On Tuesday night at Minnesota Public Radio, a group that included academics, military personnel, veterans and concerned citizens also discussed America's policy options in Iraq. The event was held in the UBS Forum.
St. Paul, Minn. — Bob Moffitt, a military veteran, summed up one of the few points of consensus among the 90 or so participants in last night's discussion.
"It seems to me that there is one thing that everyone in this room does agree with," Moffitt said, "and we want this war to end."
Everyone also seemed to agree that it won't be easy to end the bloodshed in Iraq, but there was no consensus on how to do so.
Some participants advocated pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq altogether. Others wanted to add troops to help stem raging sectarian violence. Still others said the solution won't just be military, but diplomatic, requiring regional powers like Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia to help stabilize Iraq.
Participants in the forum also spent a lot of time debating whether to allow Iraq to splinter, instead of trying to make the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds live together under a strong central government.
Robert Delahunty, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas and a former Bush administration official, says he hasn't heard any better ideas for bringing an end to the conflict in Iraq.
"The country as I understand it is divided along ethnic and sectarian lines,and one way apparently to ease some of that is to divide it up, or if the people of Iraq so wish, to let them divide themselves," he said.
But others strongly disagreed. Mishaun Ahmad, who's originally from Iraq, says dividing up the country would be a disaster. He says that if that happens, the fighting won't stop, and Iraq's neighbors, including Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, will take sides.
"We will have a regional war," Ahmad warned, "not just in Iraq, all over the region."
"That is a doomsday scenario, and it's important to put it on the table," said Michael Barnett, who holds the Harold Stassen chair in International Peace at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute. He shares some of Ahmad's concerns. But Barnett worries the Iraqis might carve up their country through civil war, whether the United States wants them to or not.
"When I think of this debate over partition, I ask myself: 'Is partition going to happen peacefully? Or, is there a way that we're going to let this happen through a very violent process that includes ethnic cleansing,'" Barnett said.
Col. Neal Loidolt, who served in Iraq and is now chief of staff for the National Guard Infantry Division based in Rosemount, says it's naive to think that Iraqis could agree on a way to divvy up their country, given the turmoil there now.
"I think it's nice to suggest that we might be able to talk our way into a partition, but perhaps if you believe that, we should have been able to talk our way into a better solution in Iraq and a better way forward," said Loidolt.
Loidolt says before the U.S. can decide what to do in Iraq, the president and Congress first need to agree on ultimate goal.
"We've said 'we should leave.' We've said 'we should stay, increase the troops, decrease the troops.' None of those are visions of Iraq for the future. And until the policy makers can determine what that is, it's very difficult for us to craft some strategy to try to get to that result," he said.
Brian Atwood, who headed up the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Clinton administration and now serves as dean of the Humphrey Institute, says he thinks Congress will take action soon. Atwood suspects Congress will establish a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops.
"And I know the White House is going to oppose it," Atwood said. "You're probably going to see a couple of vetoes on vital bills, probably the defense appropriations bill or whatever. But it's going to be real tension and my guess is that it's going to be bipartisan and that people are really at the point of reflecting what people in this room are reflecting and they want to see an end to this."
But with the Democrats now in control of Congress, and no obvious solutions in sight, the national debate over how to end the war in Iraq may produce no more consensus than the participants found in Tuesday night's forum.