But on July 30, O'Hanlon and a Brookings colleague, Kenneth Pollack, published an article in "The New York Times" calling for Congress and the American people to give Bush's current "surge" strategy a little more time to work -- until the spring of 2008. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully spoke with O'Hanlon about the results of the U.S. initiative in Iraq ahead of today’s testimony before Congress by the commander of coalition forces, General David Petraeus, and Washington's ambassador to Baghdad, Ryan Crocker.
RFE/RL: We don't yet know what General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker will say, but several recent reports point to some military success but little political progress by the Iraqi government. Politically, what kind of impact can this much-awaited report have?
"I think President Bush has to settle for a situation in which Iraq is a relatively stable country in the overall region...even if there are some alliances, some loyalties, that are not as pro-American as we would like."
Michael O'Hanlon: I think that, on balance, the report will show what we're hearing in general anyway, the sum total of which is: significant military progress, although a long way to go on even that front, and a long way -- a very long way -- to go on the political front, where the Iraqis are not making much progress toward reconciliation or even partial accommodation. I think that's going to be the gist, and there'll be stories within that broad story about improvements in the Iraqi security forces, about local-level political compromise among Iraqis, about which provinces are doing the best in terms of security. And I think, in the end, you will get a very mixed report and it will be, in all likelihood, enough to convince Congress to essentially limit its objections to the rhetorical side and ultimately approve the money Mr. Bush needs to keep waging the war.
RFE/RL: On September 3, Bush met with U.S. military commanders and Sunni leaders in Iraq's Al-Anbar Governorate. As you know, Al-Anbar once was the deadliest place for Americans, and now Bush welcomes the collaboration between U.S. forces and Sunni leaders there against the Al-Qaeda in Iraq militant group. Is this a relationship that can develop into something meaningful and lasting, or is it an alliance of convenience that will end when conditions change?
O'Hanlon: Well, I don't know, and that is a very important question, clearly. I think that we are going to have to improve Sunni-Shi'a collaboration, or this alliance will have some real difficulty. Either it will remain durable but cause the Shi'a a lot of issues, or it will weaken as the Sunni question whether we [the United States] are prepared to challenge the Shi'a for them and essentially stand up for Sunni rights in dealing with the [Shi'ite-led] Iraqi government. So there are going to be huge challenges. I think the most important thing to say is that [U.S.-Sunni cooperation] will not continue indefinitely in the current form. You'll have to have a different alignment of interests -- of somewhat different interests -- for it to be sustainable. And I think, again, we come back to the crucial, central question: Can you get Sunnis and Shi'a in Iraq to begin to at least make partial accommodation with each other? If you can, then I believe this alliance with the Sunni tribes can become durable. If not, we're probably going to lose somebody [as an ally] -- either the Sunnis or the Shi'a -- over the coming months.
Overcoming The Sectarian Divide
RFE/RL: Can the United States use its good relations with Sunni leaders in Al-Anbar to persuade Sunnis and Shi'as to work together?
O'Hanlon: Right. The United States is dealing with a tough situation here because we need to get along with both groups and they need to get along with each other or there is going to be a resumed and accelerating civil war in Iraq, and our overall mission cannot be successful. And at the moment, the Shi'a and their paranoia toward the Sunni is perhaps our principal problem. For much of the period that we've been in Iraq, the main problem was not the Shi'a, it was, in fact, the Sunni, their hatred of the United States, their collaboration with Salafist groups like Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and things have changed. But we need both groups to be working with us simultaneously and working with each other. And until you get to that point, you can't really talk about success with the strategy or even a partial success and a viable exit strategy.
RFE/RL: So far, all the early reports from Iraq speak of recent military successes in the "surge," and they contrast this with the lagging political progress made by the Iraqi government. In terms of the success of the surge, can military advances alone lead to success, or must it eventually be accompanied by political advances?
O'Hanlon: No. There's no way that military progress by itself can ever be sufficient, if for no other reason than that you [wouldn't be able to] get the United States out of Iraq. I suppose, in theory, if you imagine 500,000 GIs descending upon that country and staying there for 10 years, if we can somehow convince the Iraqis to tolerate us, you could say that the Iraqis could continue to hate each other but that we would provide local security for all of them, allow their economies to grow at the provincial level, and it could be a tolerable situation. But of course we're not in that position, and that's just a theoretical construct anyway. We're in a world where the United States has to start getting out because we don't have enough forces to sustain this, and also we aren't really universally appreciated inside Iraq, and it causes us a lot of problems to be there. So in that situation you need the Iraqi population to be able to trust the Iraqi security forces, and you need the security forces to be dependable, even when they're made up of a mix of different sectarian groups.
RFE/RL: And how do you get Iraqis to trust one another and learn to rely on an indigenous political leadership and an indigenous security force?
O'Hanlon: The only way that that's possible is if the national political leadership starts to send a message to its followers that it's important to get along, and that an example is being set in Baghdad that helps people get along, that keeps the extremists out of the key positions, that gives a fair shake to everyone of every sectarian group. If you don't have that, sectarian animosity, mistrust, and anger will prevail and the security forces in Iraq will not trustworthy, and the United States will never be able to leave, and when we do try to leave, as we must, the place will fall apart.
RFE/RL: You speak of "success" in Iraq, but for some time, few in Washington have spoken of the possibility of victory there. Are you defining success as simply being able to withdraw while maintaining honor or another value?
O'Hanlon: I don't know that thinking about it in terms of American honor is even the right way to frame the question. For me [success is] some level of sustainable stability. And if Iraq can at some level hold together and not become a state that hosts Al-Qaeda, or builds nuclear weapons, or attacks its neighbors, or massacres its minorities, then I think we can tolerate almost anything else. We can tolerate benign dictatorship, we can tolerate an Iraq that leans toward Iran, we can tolerate an Iraq that leans toward Syria. As long as we don't have an active promoter of terrorism, or an active pursuer of nuclear weapons, or a country that either attacks its neighbors or massacres its minorities, I think we can tolerate virtually any other outcome. And that's pretty much where we have to set the bar, at this point, because setting it any higher would be quite imprudent.
RFE/RL: You say you believe "we" can tolerate an Iraq that leans toward Iran. Does "we" include Bush?
O'Hanlon: I think at this point President Bush would have to settle for a situation in which Iraq is a relatively stable country in the context of the overall region. And even if there are some alliances, some loyalties, that are not as pro-American as we would like, that's OK, as long as it's not doing the things I listed before.