Mother Jones: Can Iraq's Maliki government or any successor government really survive with the absence of a U.S. occupying force?
Judith Yaphe: It's very doubtful. Central government is irrelevant for most Iraqis. They don't see it and they suffer from its absence. But the problem isn't changing the government. Yeah, Maliki is not tough and decisive, but the system does not allow for a tough and decisive power center in Baghdad. So it is going to have to be more then just, "Oh well, let's get rid of Maliki and put somebody new in." Regardless of who is in, the impact is going to depend on how the U.S. withdraws, under what terms, how quickly, and how much. There are no real clear-cut answers except for one answer, and it is not a popular answer. The impact is that it will create more chaos. It is not going to improve things.
MJ: Especially among the Democratic candidates for president, you hear these variations on a withdrawal plan: Withdraw x number of troops now and maybe some later, leave no residual force. Do you think the nuances of these plans actually have any bearing on the situation in Iraq, or is this mostly posturing for the domestic political scene?
JY: They will have an effect on the security situation. We have made gains with the surges, apparently. But when you start to bring forces out from the area, it's Whack-a-Mole time again. Because it's going to be easy for these insurgencies to come back unless there is something that is sufficiently powerful to prevent that.
You've seen a taste of it. I think what could happen is what's happening in Basra as the British withdraw. It is falling victim to inter-Shiite warfare. Militias are fighting militias. And they are fighting not because of sectarian reasons or anything. It's for power. It's for control. There is a lot of wealth there. Who is going to control the oil? Who is going to control the smuggling traffic? And that is going to be what happens as there is less and less security in all of Iraq. I am not saying we can prevent all of that, but any security presence is going to put a certain hold on some of it, maybe a lot of it.
The other thing is the violence is going to spread. So the question becomes, You want to draw down? Fine. What are your troops going to do when they sit there in their bunkers and innocent people are dying? There are no easy answers. Whatever happens there, whether we are there or not, we are going to be blamed. You have to get used it. I meet a lot with people from the region and I start, "It's all my fault. Blame me."
MJ: Assuming that at some point the United States is not going to have 160,000 troops in Iraq, just because it is not sustainable, can you envision any kind of situation that might constrain our losses or the Iraqi losses?
JY: I would like to keep a little bit of hope. And it is hard, I know. I don't think Iraq is totally failed yet. They are not in a total civil war yet. And I don't think Iraq's politicians are suicidal. Are they self-centered? Yup. Are they enjoying control of fiefdoms? Yes. Do they give support to their chosen government? No. But on the other hand, we have expected an awful lot of them, probably more than they are able to deliver or want to at this point. Now that's not to say that they can't start seeing their way through that. We have seen them achieve some compromises. Just when things look their bleakest, they come up with some sort of compromise solution. And you think, wow. Maybe there is hope here and maybe they can do that again.
The other thing is, if we are too U.S.-centered and we do things that make the situation much worse and we don't support whatever elected government there is...What I am thinking is change the electoral system so that you really have one person, one vote and the direct election of representatives in geographically-defined districts. And then you have perhaps a parliament that is more reflective of what Iraq looks like and guarantees people in the region that they have representation, which is certainly better than the system we have now.
The point is if you created a system where there is more accountability, I don't think Iraqis are stupid and want to continue this kind of system or this kind of chaos and disintegration. I think the majority of Iraqis, given a choice, would opt for a secular government. They always have. But it is a minority that is in control of the politics and the reality in Iraq.
The cheap answer is that it's still the Iraqis who have to find a solution. I think we would settle for almost any solution that would guarantee some sort of authority or control, something with some strength standing there.