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Zelikow: Benchmarks Should Be Discarded
Former US Official Talks About Petraeus, Vietnam, Allawi, and the Future of Iraq
By CHRISTINA DAVIDSON 09/10/2007 10:38 AM ET
Then-UC State Department counselor Philip Zelikow stands with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
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Then-UC State Department counselor Philip Zelikow stands with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Though trained as a historian, Philip Zelikow has spent much of his career observing historic events as they unfold, watching from a privileged vantage point in the US government.

Zelikow served with the State Department in the second Reagan Administration, and on the National Security Council staff with Condoleezza Rice during George H.W. Bush's reign. He spent the Clinton years teaching history and public policy before being called back to serve the second Bush presidency.

Until he left the position in late 2006, Zelikow served as a Counselor of the U.S. Department of State, where he acted as a senior policy advisor on a wide range of issues to Secretary Rice. Before his appointment as Counselor, he served as Executive Director of the 9/11 Commission, and was previously a member of President Bush's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB).

Zelikow has returned to academia at the University of Virginia, where he recently answered a host of questions for IraqSlogger.

We're coming up on the all-important September report to Congress. What do you expect the overall assessment to conclude, and what would your recommendations be regarding the next step in Iraq?

General Petraeus' assessment of conditions should hold few surprises. Indeed, it would be worrisome if it did!

The best public assessments over the last two months, such as the recent NIE, the Jones Commission report, Tony Cordesman's useful report in August, and the exceptionally fine, concise summary the seven noncoms (mainly from the 82d, it seemed) offered in the NYT a little while ago, already provide a credible portrait. And there is some very good reporting adding color and detail flowing in from reporters in the field.

I do not support a significant adjustment of strategy during the next six months. The current strategy was at least two years overdue. The current leadership is the best we've had. Although the force requirements to implement the current strategy are now much higher, perhaps exceeding US capacity to sustain, it is worth keeping it in place for several more months to facilitate the transition to a longer-haul strategy.

The key issue is not what General Petraeus will say. It is what the President will say about our strategy for the long-haul. We know that American troops can help provide temporary stability where they are deployed. So what is the story beyond that? The key question is: Will the President offer a vision for America's role in Iraq in 2008 and beyond?

I hope the President will address this question soon. The political base for American engagement is still eroding. The erosion has slowed, but it continues. And force planning to implement a longer-term vision for 2008 will need to be clarified soon.

The President, not field commanders or ambassadors, should provide a vision for national policy. It needs to be a vision that can sustain American engagement in a vital country undergoing violent, revolutionary change. It needs to be a vision that can obtain at least some significant bipartisan support. The world needs to see that the American debate is creating a new synthesis. And Iraqis, expecting the worst, are understandably engaged in the self-help hedging strategies that will impair any constructive strategy.

I've offered some more detailed policy suggestions informally over the last couple of months to folks involved in these matters on both sides of the partisan divide.

The GAO report on Iraqi progress on benchmarks assesses that Baghdad has achieved significant success on only three of the expected 18 measures. Do you consider the benchmark requirements to represent measures of important elements Iraq's progress, or Washington's political football?

The formal benchmarks should be discarded. Not only are they actually counterproductive in some ways -- setting up apparent failures, getting Iraqis to bristle with nationalist resentment. The benchmarks are too rigid and formal to capture the reality of what's going on in Iraq.

And they are not analytically powerful. Progress can occur anyway -- Anbar had nothing to do with these benchmarks. And, even if you get the benchmarks, situations in local communities could get much worse.

So the benchmarks are not decisive, either way. And when you turn a spotlight on one feature of a scene, the danger is that everything around it falls even more deeply into shadow.

Instead we should replace the veneer of formal benchmarks with really tough conditionality on the ground, cutting or varying assistance unit by unit, agency by agency. Benchmarks that cut assistance off to everyone, good or bad, will not and should not be enforced. So you must address the vital paradox: The constant emphasis on how to improve categorical assistance actually undermines the policy drive, and field authority, to employ real, differentiated conditionality.

You said in a PBS interview earlier this year: "I always taught my students as a historian, don't look to the past to find instructions for how to solve present problems. You can look to the past to suggest questions, but not to find the answers to the questions. You really have to be attentive to the current conditions."

In light of President Bush's recent analogy connecting post-Vietnam pullout consequences to what could happen if the US were to withdraw from Iraq, how do you think the current conditions differ from or resemble the final days of the US presence in Vietnam? Is this an appropriate or helpful comparison?

Vietnam is a fertile source of questions and possibilities for consideration. While in government, I drew on some language and ideas of Creighton Abrams via Lewis Sorley's book in suggesting "clear, hold, and build" as a possible strategic formulation for Secretary Rice's consideration. And I circulated Bob Komer's 1973 RAND report, "Bureaucracy Does Its Thing," with annotations -- parts of it were so, so resonant. But Vietnam was also so different from Iraq. For instance, especially by 1969, the civil war aspects of the Vietnam conflict had faded. It had essentially become an international war in which we supported one country that was being pressed by its neighbor while the political base for our support was eroding fast.

When Ernie May, Dick Neustadt, and I taught at Harvard about "reasoning from history," we always called analogies the tempting seducers. For serious people, policy problems can be puzzling and time-consuming. It's extremely tempting to find an analogy that seems to offer a shortcut. This is often wrong for all the obvious reasons. Less obvious is the opportunity cost--looking at the shortcut shortchanges attention to the situation at hand and its own, unique facts.

Some have suggested that Bush administration policy is gradually moving towards a confrontation with Iran. Is this your interpretation? In your view, is the US making the best decisions with regards to its Iran policy or if not, what should change?

Tragically, Iran is already in a serious confrontation with the international community. The leadership's international behavior and its recent domestic crackdown are two dimensions of one story. And the story is not going in a good direction either for most Iranians or Iran's neighbors.

During at least the last two years the U.S. has actually tried to steer away from a confrontation with Iran, to the extent it can. This is evident, for example, in the deliberate -- even hesitant -- reactions to years of Iranian involvement in killing American soldiers in Iraq. I thought that Iranian behavior marked a significant risk-taking decision in Tehran, embarking on signficant lethal action against Americans for the first time since the Khobar Towers attack in 1996. Washington responded to these moves with great reluctance.

Unfortunately, as matters get worse, the room for diplomatic maneuver is slowly narrowing. But I don't think Washington is looking for a fight.

There has been recent discussion in Washington about Prime Minister Maliki's effectiveness as leader. How well do you think Maliki has performed in his role as prime minister, and do you believe a change in leadership could be helpful to Iraq's progress? If so, who do you see as the prime candidates?

Two caveats:

(1) I haven't been to Iraq or met with Maliki this year. So my direct knowledge of Green Zone politics is getting stale.

(2) We should be wary of the temptation to scapegoat Iraqi politicians. Their world is usually more complex (and scary) than we can easily imagine.

And three observations:

(1) Well-informed Iraqis tell me that Maliki has lost the confidence of almost all of the Iraqi governing class, such as it is. I believe them.

(2) The center of gravity for the five or six different wars going on in Iraq today is not in the Green Zone. So there are no miracle elixirs to be found there.

Yet (3) much of our strategy and assistance effort is still premised on a neutral/national central leadership of the Army and security forces. That premise, or model, runs throughout the Jones Commission report, for example. Yet when you read sections like the one on "command and control" (in the text, not the executive summary), it looks like that premise is doubtful.

As IraqSlogger recently uncovered, former prime minister Ayad Allawi has hired Washington lobbyists Barbour, Griffith, and Rogers, for whom you are a paid consultant, to represent him to the US government and media. Were you consulted on this decision, and will you be working with Allawi through your association with BGR? Also, what do you think Allawi hopes to achieve with this US campaign?

IraqSlogger also posted the BGR contract with Allawi, which specifies who is doing the work. I'm not involved in it and wasn't consulted about it. BGR actually sent a letter to an inquiring news organization stating: "Dr. Zelikow was not and is not working directly or indirectly on behalf of Dr. Allawi. While it is public knowledge that Dr. Zelikow is a consultant to BGR, it is important to note that he is not a regular employee of the firm. He consults with the firm on specific matters but, as a consultant, is not aware of the totality of the firm's business or clients. To be clear, he was unaware of the work that BGR is doing on behalf of Dr. Allawi."

And, though I respect much of what Ayad Allawi did and tried to do while he was interim prime minister in 2004-2005, I'm still staying clear of this. I haven't talked to him in about two years and do not know what he is currently trying to achieve.

Robert Kagan recently wrote that despite widespread assumptions that American global prestige took a heavy hit with it invasion of Iraq, the US-led unipolar power structure does and will remain intact for some time to come. What is your view regarding the long-term impact the Iraq war will have on America's position in the world, particularly regarding accruing national debt, our relations with other countries and international institutions, and our transnational security concerns?

"Unipolar power structure" is an unfortunate, misleading phrase (not of your invention) that doesn't come close to describing America's position or appropriate role in world politics or the international political economy.

In addition to the arguments about whether this was the right time or way to resolve the long-festering Iraqi crisis, the dominant international perception is that the war was mismanaged. This perception contributes to various doubts about American strength and judgment, doubts which come at a bad time.

Yet, despite all the usual ambivalence about America, the world mostly wants to be reassured about both our strength and our judgment. We've made some headway in the last couple of years, especially on the latter. But more reassurance must come from the decisions we make about how to adjust our strategy and engagement for the long-haul and about whether we can recover the strategic initiative in the region and beyond.

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