Following is the transcript of my interview with Michael O'Hanlon. He requested the opportunity, before answering any questions, to respond to some of the criticisms that had been written concerning his Op-Ed. Additionally, due to a technical glitch, there was (where indicated) a roughly 2-minute gap in the tape. I was able to re-create the questions and answers (with O'Hanlon's confirmation of its accuracy) based upon my notes and recollection:
Greenwald: So why don't we start with you making whatever statement you want and then we'll go to my questions.
O'Hanlon: Great. Thanks for the opportunity. Let me say just a couple of broad things:
First, I think that to an extent, at least, it's certainly fair to go over a person's record when that person themself is being held up as playing a certain role in the debate. So while I'm not entirely happy with some of the coverage I've received here and elsewhere, I agree with the basic premise: that if I'm being held up as a "critic of the war", for example by Vice President Cheney, it’s certainly only fair to ask if that is a proper characterization of me. And in fact I would not even use that characterization of myself, as I will elaborate in a moment. And, you know, to the extent that - which is a pretty unusual thing for an Op-Ed writer - that you get such an amount of attention that you yourself almost become a small part of the story, it's understandable that people would look back and say, you know, "how credible has this person been?" "How accurate have they been?" "What's their track record?" So, I don't object in any way to the idea that, you know, there should be scrutiny in this sort of a case.
That's all sort of a warm-up or a wind-up to a couple of things I want to say now about my own track record. And what I would say is over a several year time horizon is that I think I've had a good track record, but certainly not a perfect one, and I think that to the extent that people would be asked to believe me just based on my own credibility, I don't think I've been so infallible that that should be expected of people. In fact, as an academic who always likes to go back to the evidence myself, I don't tend to think that anybody in any walk of life should get a free pass just based on their personal reputation. So, that's one more way of saying that I think it's only fair that there be scrutiny of people's record.
But I say all that because now I'm about to spend a couple of minutes largely defending my record, and again I want this to be seen in proper context. I'm not trying to say that I've been a consistent critic of the war. I think you know well and documented well that I'm not. I also don't want to hold myself up as someone whose record on Iraq has been so perfect that somehow I should be listened to just because of who I am. Again, I sort of object to that on principle regardless of who the so-called authority is.
But I'm going to now begin with- and again, I'll be fairly brief -- obviously, we can spend a lot of time on this if you wish and your questions may come back to it -- but I want to point out that while I was certainly not opposed to this war, I was one of the earliest people to say a couple of key things which I think have been borne out by history. One is that if you're going to do this, you gotta do it right, which means a big force. Starting in late 2001 in an Op-Ed I co-authored in The Washington Post, I was a major proponent of what you might call "The Shinseki Doctrine" – that if you're going to do this sort of a war, you gotta do it with large forces and you've got to be ready for a serious conflict.
In fact, I wrote in that piece and an article I later wrote in Orbis Magazine, that you could suffer up to several thousand American fatalities in this sort of a war, and I was roundly mocked and critiqued for these arguments by some on the Right-Wing -- most notably Ken Edelman in his famous "Cake Walk" Op-Ed -- which was a response to Brent Scowcroft as well as to Phil Gordon and myself in that Post piece. So, in that period of time, while it won't make a lot of people happy who are against the war categorically, nonetheless I feel fairly vindicated and prescient in having argued that if you're going to do this, you gotta do it right. And a lot of the talk of doing it quickly and easily with little Iraqi resistance and a warm reception thereafter is irresponsible.
I also was one of the people who was constantly criticizing the administration for invoking the Al Qaeda/Saddam Hussein link. I went through the intelligence as it was publicly known in some detail to point out that there was no such link, certainly not at an operational level. And my concerns about Saddam's future and therefore the reasonableness of confronting him were of a less acute, longer-term nature. They were real, and therefore -- as you rightly reported -- I was not a critic of this war. In the final analysis, I was a supporter. But there was not an urgency about my advocacy of the use of force that would sound like what most of the administration or its supporters were invoking. I was making a much more nuanced case and I think again that part stands up, even though I acknowledge I was clearly wrong about thinking Saddam had WMD.
Now there are a couple of things I'll say and then I'll wrap up because this part I realize it can go on forever. I just want to highlight the main points that I think I got right and I got wrong. A couple more quick things, and I'll just mention one or two.
I've consistently advocated in the period since the invasion spending a lot more time on economics in Iraq, creating a lot more jobs, putting a lot more Iraqis back to work, trying to reduce the temptation for so many young men to join the insurgency -- which is partly something they do out of economic interest and partly out of anger and embitterment and a feeling of being cut off from their own society. And I think all those problems are worsened when you don't give people jobs, and so that's one aspect where policy is finally begun to come around a little bit to where I've been and so I feel I've made a useful contribution in that regard.
As well as the overall decision to create the Iraq Index, which has tried to present data on this war. I've now had about a dozen New York Times Op-Eds co-authored with my research assistant, whoever that was at the time, summarizing the state in Iraq and I generally tried to a adopt a much -- a very nuanced tone, trying to point out pros and cons of what we saw at a given moment in time and referring people to the Iraq Index for lengthier discussion of the data.
And I think I've been fairly effective, although it's due mostly to the credit of my research assistants who have maintained the Index, fairly effective in trying to convey that information as it was publicly known at the time. Okay, so, those are the things I think I got right. I already have acknowledged that I wasn't right on WMD, that's no huge surprise, but I acknowledge it.
I also...I think in the period after Saddam's overthrow -- there was a period in 2003 when I will concede I was a little too optimistic about how I thought things were going to play out. And that didn't lead me to major policy recommendations like cutting forces quickly - I was not of the Wolfowitz School, then or any other time. But I did have a bit more optimism than has been historically warranted. And to the extent it might have affected some of my policy recommendations at least at the margin, that I was operating from an incorrect premise about where the state of things stood.
And one last point, and this is probably the one I'm toughest on with myself and most wishing I could go back and replay history a bit: while I make no apologies for supporting the war effort -- and I'm happy to say more about that if you wish in a minute when you get into your questions -- I would say that I wish I had sensed that the administration was being so blithe and so Pollyanna-ish about what would happen after Saddam was overthrown. As I mentioned, I was always in favor of a much larger presence than they wanted; I was in favor of a major force, I was squarely in the Shinseki camp in terms of force-sizing.
And by implication that leads you to have a lot of capability that you can use to restore order and keep order and do a lot of things that we failed to do. But I wish in retrospect I had made my support for the war more conditional on being confident that the administration would itself have a strong Phase 4 plan. They did increase the troop numbers in the end, above what they had originally advocated, and I took some consolation in that. But I think I should have - even though it was hard to know from public sources - should have tried to burrow in a bit more and see just what the status of their Phase 4 or post-Saddam planning really was. And that would have been very hard to do -- again, because of classification reasons -- but I still wish in retrospect I had done it.
So, that's my once-over on my track own record, and now I'm happy to go in whatever direction you would like.
Greenwald: Excellent, and I appreciate that. I think that was helpful.
So, I want to ask you about the period prior to the war - there was obviously debate about what the optimal strategy was. But at some point it became clear that Wolfowitz would prevail, or something resembling Wolfowitz' strategy would prevail, and Shinseki's would not, and it became clear what the strategy would be in terms of troop numbers.
Once it became clear what the strategy was, everyone had two choices: Either support the war that Bush was going to wage, or oppose it. Did you support it or oppose it, notwithstanding whatever reservations you might have had about the strategy?
O'Hanlon: Well as I just acknowledged I continued to support it, and that's the part I wish I could re-visit.
But I want to correct one thing in what you said, which is that if you look at what Wolfowitz was on record as advocating, even going back to the late 1990s, he was talking about putting in 35,000 U.S. forces, backing them up with air power, creating a sanctuary in the South, and then gradually hoping that the Iraqi resistance internal to Saddam would grow around that nucleus. And that idea frankly just flat out washed in the internal deliberation.
And I like to hope, although it's no great solace in retrospect, that I had some role from the outside in pushing against that sort of, I think, ridiculous concept of what would be sufficient to overthrow Saddam. As you know, the ultimate force package that we deployed was less blatantly insufficient. It was into - I forget the exact numbers we had at the maximum - but if you look at the numbers in Iraq and Kuwait it was in the general vicinity of a couple hundred thousand Americans that we had at the time of the invasion. It was still fewer than the Shinseki concept would have required, and it was fewer than General Zinni's plan. Two divisions, of course, were offloaded from the deployment plan when Rumsfeld felt like we had enough. And so, in the end it wasn't enough, but it was a lot better than what Wolfowitz had been advocating.
I'm still self-critical because I wish I had kept pushing for, basically, a complete Shinseki victory. And to the extent that that wasn't going to happen, I wish that I had therefore made my support for the war more conditional. But make no mistake about it, if you look along the spectrum from Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld's initial position to Shinseki's initial position, we actually wound up closer to the latter. But it was still not big enough and not with a good enough plan for how to implement it, use those forces. And for that reason, I do regret not having been a bit more conditional in my support for the war.
Greenwald: OK, but once George Bush is primed to invade in March of 2003, the strategy is known, on balance did you believe that with the strategy that Bush was going to use, that the war on balance was a good idea rather than a bad idea? You favored it, right?
O'Hanlon: Yes, yes I did.
Greenwald: OK. And in terms of the reasons that you favored it, you say that you obviously got Weapons of Mass Destruction wrong - you wrote a Washington Times February 2003 column where you said: “the President was still convincing on his central point that the time for war is near.” And then you went on to say that "It is now time for multilateralists to support the President." Weapons of Mass Destruction was a very significant part of the case that you made for invading Iraq. Would you agree with that?
O'Hanlon: Yes, I would.
Greenwald: So, if someone had told you in February or March of 2003 that in fact there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, or could have shown you what the real state of affairs was in Iraq, would you have supported the invasion?
O'Hanlon: No, almost certainly not. I think the only question I would have still had would have been to what extent is he beginning to reconstitute a potential nuclear program even if he doesn't possess nuclear weapons at the time. That would have been the nuance I would have added to your question.
But basically if you're at the point where you say he had no actual nuclear weapons or technologies that are getting him towards a nuclear capability, or stocks of chemical and biological weapons, I think the case for war at least on strategic grounds largely goes away. There's still a case on humanitarian grounds, but as you and I know, the greatest atrocities Saddam committed were well in the past by this point, and so I don't think the humanitarian argument by itself was sufficient once we got into the 2003 period. So, no I cannot imagine supporting the war if there had been no concern at all about WMD.
Greenwald: As far as the Surge is concerned, the policy that President Bush announced in January 2007, you were a supporter of that strategy on balance, right?
O'Hanlon: Correct, yes.
Greenwald: You had mentioned that you were a critic of the strategy throughout, toward the early part of the war, but throughout 2003 at least, and into 2004, you were writing Op-Eds and giving interviews in which you were saying: although there was some criticisms, that in essence this strategy was a sufficient strategy to achieve our objectives. Isn't that a pretty fair characterization of your view of the strategy throughout 2003?
O'Hanlon: Yes, not too far off. As I say, I was - and this is the part in the post-invasion period that I do have some regrets about.
I mean, they had not taken my advice to have as robust of a force as possible. But I was hopeful, and so in that sense in terms of the policy environment in which we where operating, you know I feel like my advice had been partly ignored and that was regrettable. But I still felt that what I saw on the ground looked relatively promising, and so I had some recommendations to maybe increase forces by a few thousand, or maybe to increase emphasis on job creation programs. I was not at that time in the spirit of a major critic of their policy.
I never condoned the firing of the Iraqi army and all the Ba’athists as I recall. I was a bit shocked by that, but I was still hopeful as 2003 went by that we were sort of getting away with it because the overall situation seemed on the ground at that time to be passable. Clearly that was a mistake, and again my feeling of guilt about it is mitigated by the fact that my own policy recommendations were ignored. One of the reasons you go with a lot of extra force is so that if things happen that you don't expect you're still able to deal with them. And that was one of the reasons why I favored a big force in the first place. But I was still hopeful at that time that we were going to be able to essentially get by without having done things right because at the moment in that period things looked relatively good. Obviously, that was not correct.
Greenwald: Right. In April 2003, you wrote a piece in Brookings' Daily War Report and you concluded by saying that "it has indeed been a very good plan", referring to the plan of Rumsfeld and Meyers. That was pretty much the state of your view at the time, right?
O'Hanlon: Yeah, the invasion plan was a good invasion plan. Yes, and that's why I make this point that - obviously you know that was called Phase 3 -- the Phase 4 plan was not good. It was hard for me at the time - and I wish I had probed further - it was hard at the time to believe they had virtually no Phase 4 plan whatsoever. I mean, this gets beyond the issue of numbers: This is not just a question of how many people we have, but of what their game plan is for what to do after Saddam is overthrown.
On that point, they were basically sent into battle with Zinni's pre-existing plan thrown away, discarded as a deliberate act of negligence, in my judgment -- all through classified channels that anybody in the public domain was going to have a hard time getting at. And frankly it's a little bit inconceivable to me, even though it's obviously now reality, that they did that. That they - Tommy Franks and Doug Feith and others -- at Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld's suggestion to a large extent -- deliberately assumed a benign environment after the invasion to the point of not even giving commanders instructions on how to maintain security once Saddam fell.
I didn't have the knowledge that was the case, and it would have been quite hard to have that knowledge on the outside. Having said that, I still regret not having probed more, because it was such a huge part of our subsequent problems, t hat if I could do one thing over in life, in terms of this war, it would be to push harder on that point. Even though, frankly if I had gotten it right, it would have taken a lot of creativity and a lot of good snooping to figure that out. Because this really was a case of professional malpractice by the administration.
Every kind of previous war plan for Iraq to the extent we had publicly debated them and heard about them did include a robust Phase 4, especially Zinni's Desert Crossing plan of 1998-99. And the idea that they would simply discard that and replace them with nothing whatsoever was fairly incomprehensible to me. But I still obviously in retrospect wish that I had believed that they might be so unconscionable and pushed harder on that point.
Greenwald: I have a couple more questions about the pre-war period and then I want to ask you about your trip.
You said that Weapons of Mass Destruction was a significant part of the conclusion that you reached that we ought to invade Iraq. There were people, of course, like Howard Dean and Jim Webb, who were saying that we don't actually know with enough certainty and ought to let the inspectors find out. Then there were other people like Scott Ritter who were saying: no, there's actually no convincing evidence that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, and plenty of evidence that they don't.
Would you agree on that question that that group of individuals expressing those views exercised better judgment than you did?
O'Hanlon: Um . . . . well, it's hard to disagree when somebody got it right and you got it wrong. But I also think that you need to -- and I have a lot of respect for Jim Webb out of that group, and I think Scott Ritter has shown a lot of diligence over the years and has on-ground knowledge of various things. I think Howard Dean's interest in this was of a different nature and his expertise of a different level. But I would certainly make a nod to Webb and to Ritter because they got it right, and after all you have to give some credit to people who got it right.
The case for believing he had at least chem and bio was very, very strong, and I'm sure you followed the debate about not only...and this is not meant as a complete defense of my position. I'll say it again, I was wrong, I'll say it flat out. The U.S. system thought he had them, Hans Blix thought he had them, the French thought he had them. The Germans even thought he was probably six years from having a nuclear weapon.
So, many of the countries who opposed the war, their intelligence agencies were not totally different from our own in what they felt. And the circumstantial case that Saddam, who was one of the great users of chemical weapons in history as you know, would have voluntarily given these things up, when he refused to let inspectors verify the fact and therefore deprived himself and his country of tens of billions of dollars in oil revenue. It was just a very hard concept to believe. Now what that should warn us all, and it certainly warned me for future reference --unfortunately not for this case -- is that whenever you're coming to an intelligence-based conclusion based on inference and based on historical patterns of behavior, you have to be very careful and keep reminding yourself and everyone else that you don't actually know what's going on, that you are making an inference based on a strong body of knowledge, but not any ability to prove it.
And I think that it would have behooved more of us - including myself - to acknowledge that, that we were piecing together a case based on fairly strong circumstantial historical evidence, but there was still an assumption in it that in fact proved to be wrong. So I think on that issue, there is an important lesson for how to understand intelligence and it’s certainly one I've tried to digest myself.
Greenwald: You indicate that there were problems that you identified with the policy and the strategy throughout the war. Was there ever a point where you advocated withdrawing the troops from Iraq and ending the war?
O'Hanlon: Well, Jim Steinberg and I -- who is Sandy Berger's former deputy in the Clinton administration and now the Dean of the L.B.J. School in Austin, Texas -- in the course of 2004, he and I - this is before most people considered the Iraq war to be a civil war - as you recall this was the period when the strongest concern was about the Sunni/Ba’athist insurgency. At that time, Jim and I thought that it would be useful to advocate that we start to schedule a draw-down -- not going down to zero, but going down to the range of 30,000-50,000 U.S. troops to be carried out over roughly an 18-month period.
The reasoning behind that was at that time the main problem we seemed to be facing in Iraq was being perceived as an occupier. And I think when Jim and I wrote our first piece in fact we were legally still an occupier; and then, of course, in the course of 2004 we transferred sovereignty, but we were still seen as an occupier and the Iraqi government was one that we had essentially created. So, there was a sense that we really still were occupying. And at that period of time, it seemed to me that the wiser policy was to say to those who were making this argument about our occupation "No, we are looking to get out of here. And we can't get probably all the way and it's not going to be instantaneous." But that struck me as being the most urgent problem that Iraq faced and the most urgent problem that we faced within Iraq.
Now, what changed in the next couple of years was of course that recommendation was not accepted. And I'm not claiming it would have worked if it had been, by the way. I think in retrospect that diagnosis may have been correct for that period of time but it may not have lasted long enough to work long-term. If we had started to do what Steinberg and I recommended, we would have had to revise our plan somewhere down the drawdown schedule.
But the ultimate problem of course is that Sunni Arab and Ba'athist and Al Qaeda attacks against the Shia ultimately provoked a counter-reaction with most people using February '06 and the Samara bomb incident as the main starting point of the civil conflict. From which point onward the perception of America as occupier was no longer the single most important strategic challenge or problem within Iraq. And so, I think that was part of what led me to think that there was a logic to the Surge. It was not something I was enthusiastic about supporting at first, because instinctively and emotionally it ran against what I would have preferred. But I felt the nature of the problem had changed enough that it was worth trying to give it a shot at classic counter-insurgency doctrine once this thing turned into a more complex conflict by 2006.
Greenwald: But you don't favor any of the withdrawal plans now, like timed withdrawal or defunding, for instance, do you?
O'Hanlon: No. But one thing I want to say in the spirit of good healthy debate is that I have a lot of respect for these other plans. I do not trash my opponents in this debate. I think that there are a lot of people who look at Iraq and come to different conclusions because they see different aspects of our overall challenge there, as to more important or least important. And we're making different gambles about which signals the United States can most usefully send to the Iraqis that would hopefully get them to start making some better political compromise with each other, for example.
And so I don't favor these plans, but I respect them and they frankly may prove right in the end. I tend to think, though, when you have battlefield momentum – as you know, I believe we now do to an extent -- that it's worth seeing if you can carry over that momentum into the political sphere. But I am only giving the Surge sort of another six months reprieve at the moment in terms of hoping to see that political progress be possible. And if it's not, then I would be personally a lot more sympathetic to these schedule drawdown plans.
Greenwald: OK, I just want to ask you some questions about the trip that you just took. Whose idea was that trip? How did that trip arise and who planned it?
O'Hanlon: Well, I have wanted to go back to Iraq for a long time. I feel it’s- I've been there once in September 2003 - it behoves anybody who's working on this issue a lot of the time as I've been for a few years trying to get some on-the-ground experience and observations. And so I've been trying to get back for a couple of years and I started putting in these requests a little bit more assertively...
Greenwald: Who did you put them in with?
O'Hanlon: To the military, starting in about the spring.
Greenwald: And then, at some point they accepted and said that they would organize a trip for you?
O'Hanlon: Yeah. I think the trip was ultimately originally scheduled for other people as well. I think it’s public knowledge that Tony Cordesman also on our trip, and I think he had plans to go before Ken and I managed to get ourselves invited as well, but --
Greenwald: Why did you need the permission of the U.S. military in order to go? Why couldn't you just go yourself?
O'Hanlon: I suppose I could have, but I was hopeful that someone could help take care of my security, for one thing. I'm not going to try to sound more heroic than I am. And also I wanted to talk to a lot of military personnel and get their impressions.
And also I'm not a long-standing enough specialist on Iraqi politics. I'm more of a defense scholar. So I don't have the kinds of contacts in Iraq that some of my friends who are first and foremost Iraq specialists have. And therefore in order to have a useful trip, I need to sort of tag along with somebody. So this was a great benefit to me that not only the U.S. military would help arrange the trip, but also that Ken Pollack and Tony Cordesman -- who were two long-standing Iraq experts, two of our nation's best Iraq experts -- would be on the trip as well. So for all these reasons, that was why I took the chance to go on that trip.
Greenwald: You were there for eight days, right?
Greenwald: Eight full days, or...?
O'Hanlon: Well, if you’re counting hours, I guess seven and a half days, you know . . . .
Greenwald: And you went to how many cities?
O'Hanlon: I went to about -- well cities -- if I count cities and also forward operating bases, and I’m happy to break these down one by one in a minute -- I went to probably two dozen separate sites inside of Iraq, and roughly half of them being towns or cities and the other half being various kinds of combat outposts.
Greenwald: So you went to roughly a dozen different towns or cities?
O'Hanlon: Yeah, or sectors of a given city. In Baghdad, for example, we went to three or four different parts of town, and then also to three or four parts of the belts around Baghdad. So depending on how you break it down. If your point is that seven and a half days is not a long time, I'll be the first to agree.
Greenwald: What was the longest you stayed in any one place?
O'Hanlon: Well, we spent each evening in Baghdad, and we spent a number of days in Baghdad talking to different people, so we always in Baghdad for a good chunk of any given day. For some days we were in Baghdad for longer chunks, anywhere from the overnight hours of the evening always but sometimes also a longer part of the day.
Most of the other places we were anywhere from 2-4 hours.
Greenwald: The first line of your Op-Ed said:"viewed from Iraq where we just spent the last eight days interviewing American and Iraqi military and civilian personnel..."
How did you arrange the meetings with the Iraqi military and civilian personnel?
O'Hanlon: Well, a number of those -- and most of those were arranged by the U.S. military. So I'll be transparent about that as well. These were to some extent contacts of Ken and Tony, but that was a lesser number of people. The predominant majority were people who we came into contact with through the itinerary the D.O.D. developed.
[Break in recording – reconstructed from notes and, regarding parts used in the article,with O’Hanlon’s confirmation]:
Greenwald: Were you concerned that you were getting an unrepresentative view of the situation in Iraq because the Iraqis with whom you spoke were ones hand-picked by the U.S. military?
O'Hanlon: If someone wanted to argue that we were not getting a representative view of Iraqis because the ones we spoke with were provided by the military, I would agree that this would be a genuine concern. Certainly that might have influenced the impressions that we were presented, though by no means did all of the Iraqis agree with the view of progress in Iraq.
Greenwald: Given that some of the claims in your Op-Ed are based upon your conversations with Iraqis, and that the Iraqis with whom you spoke were largely if not exclusively ones provided to you by the U.S. military, shouldn't that fact have been included in your Op-Ed?
O'Hanlon: If the suggestion is that in a 1,400 word Op-Ed, we ought to have mentioned that, I can understand that criticism, and if we should have included that, I apologize for not having done so.
But I want to stress that the focus here was on the perspective of the U.S. military, and I did a lot of probing of what I was told, and remain confident in the conclusions that we reached about the military successes which we highlighted. But if you're suggesting that some of our impressions might have been shaped by the military's selection of Iraqis, and that we might have disclosed that, that is, I think, fair enough.
Greenwald: So were all of the people with whom you spoke in Iraq ones you encountered as a result of planning by the U.S. military?
O'Hanlon: Well, other than the ones we encountered in passing in the Green Zone or whatever. And I’m not going to claim that there was a huge amount of back-and-forth. There was a little bit. But for the most part, the conversations were ones arranged by D.O.D., yes
But I've often not been in agreement with them on how they interpreted things, I’ve often done thing to try to get details on the tactics.
You know, there's always obviously a danger of being a little bit wowed by the group you're with, but I have been involved in this debate long enough and been involved critically long enough that I feel from the D.O.D. point of view, I have a very good interaction with our leadership and our personnel.
We also saw C.I.A personnel, we saw A.I.D personnel, we met with people from senior CENTCOM positions who were not on General Petreus' staff. We had a lot of interaction with civilian officials there – including the ambassador, a number of people in his office. We had ample opportunity to probe at and assess the U.S. take - I am not worried about that.
However I will take your point and I would agree with your point that we were certainly not getting a representative view of Iraqi opinion. And nor would I claim that we got a representative view, or at least got a widespread sampling of, American enlisted military personnel thinking. We had a couple dozen of enlisted personnel we come in contact with, but as you can probably surmise -- unless you are totally out of earshot - which I was sometimes - the ability to get a totally independent take was difficult. I would go out of my way to get that independent take when I could, but I would admit to you that in the space of seven and a half days I only had probably a few independent opinions in private settings from enlisted personnel. So, that's a limited sampling. And that's part of why we said we felt morale was high, but we didn't go and use more superlatives. Frankly, the people we talked to I thought morale was outstanding, but I didn't want to get carried away in a situation where there was a limitation on our ability to do a full sampling.
So in regard to the military we had a lot of access, conversations with a lot of people we had professional relationships with for years, and I feel that I have an accurate sense of how they view the mission. I do not claim to have near as detailed a sense of how Iraqis think about our role there at the moment.
Greenwald: But even in terms of what’s going on in the various cities, and how ready the Iraqi troops are, and whether their divisions really are as ready as the Op-Ed suggested – Isn’t it fair to say that the great bulk of your information about those matters came from statements made to you either by the U.S. military officials or the Iraqi officials selected for you by the U.S. military?
O'Hanlon: Yes. But I would actually challenge what you just said. We do not in the Op-Ed give an overall glowing assessment of the Iraqi security forces. We do say there has been progress with some of them. But we do not --
Greenwald: I understand. But with the ones where you said there was progress -- that was based largely on, if not exclusively on, the claims of the U.S. military and the Iraqi military officials they picked for you, right?
O'Hanlon: No, it's more than that because it's also looking at data on what they've been doing on the battlefield and who they're led by. And in fact Ken Pollack and I are now doing a longer trip report in which you'll see, I think, if you're interested in some of the detail in our thinking about the progress, but also the limitations on Iraqi security forces. And one thing I had decided to tell General Petreus and General Odierno and others in my visit and subsequently is that I don't think we have yet a very compelling transition strategy for how we can ultimately pass off security in some of the most tense, inter-ethnic neighborhoods to Iraqi forces, because I am not yet confident that we are seeing a large enough number of them become non-sectarian and dependable in their nature.
And this is a point I made repeatedly with Petreus and Odierno and a point that we are going to make in our trip report. The Op-Ed said -- listen, there is momentum at one level. There are some Iraqi security forces that are looking better, and on top of that there's a volunteer phenomenon -- where they want to work places like al Anbar Province and some other places to go against our common enemies -- that's also impressive. But it's by no means a resolution of the sectarian conflict. I remain quite concerned that we need an end-game for that.
In fact, if you'll permit me - one last thing I've done in the last two months is to write a paper on the “soft partition” option for Iraq, because I think that in the end it would be much easier to actually figure out a transition strategy out of Iraq for us if Iraqis would agree to essentially create three autonomous regions – with one of them being Kurdistan and the other two being predominantly Sunni and predominately Shia. I think it would be easier to build security forces around protecting those sorts of zones.
So that has been an enduring concern of mine. And it's true that in this Op-Ed we tried to emphasize where we saw momentum; we focused more on some of the good news, and I suppose we could be criticized for that. But, we did acknowledge the sectarian problem is far from addressed, and that's something that's very much on our minds still today.
Greenwald: Your partner in this Op-Ed, Ken Pollack, spoke with George Packer of The New Yorker, who afterwards wrote: Pollack "spoke with very few Iraqis and could independently confirm very little of what he heard from American officials." Is that your experience as well? Do you agree with that characterization?
O'Hanlon: Well, I just told you my fuller view on that, which is that I don't claim any great sense of what the Iraqi public or Iraqi leadership is thinking. We did actually have a number of meetings with some top Iraqi politicians, but a small enough number that I'm not going to make undue claims about it.
You know I've been dealing with military matters for twenty years and I have some experience in trying to critique and assess the kinds of plans and documents and data I see before me, and to probe at them and to get a feel based on the nature of a conversation and who's talking to me for how confident they are in their own conclusions, to try and get some sense -- the same way, essentially, that you, in a very professional way, are grilling me right now, I would try to grill them to get a feel for just how serious - how solid they are in their conclusion on any given issue at any given time.
Now you could say in one sense all this data ultimately, all this information ultimately is coming from the U.S. military. Yes, but there's an opportunity for a lot of probing, a lot of debate, a lot of conversations back and forth and so I think Packer is slightly too strong in his criticism on that point.
Greenwald: Well, I think he's quoting, or purporting to describe, what Pollack told him. But I take your point and it is fair enough to say that just because you're getting your information from military sources doesn't mean you are just gullibly swallowing what they say, because you're a professional and you're making assessments about what their credibility is. That's fair enough and I understand that point. And I guess you've said in the past you felt like you had less faith than what they where telling you this time, and that's all fine.
But what I'm trying to get at is if they told you, for instance, that there were certain army divisions in Mosul where the bad commanders were being weeded out and they were now capable of holding neighborhoods better, you wouldn't actually go to the neighborhoods and inspect whether or not what you were told was true. Your claims in that regard in the Op-Ed were based upon your belief that what the U.S. military commanders were telling you was accurate. Is that true?
O'Hanlon: Yes, that’s true. Based on that example, on that type of example, you're right.
But I’ll give you the kind of probing question I would do. I would then say "OK, first of all what kinds of situations have you seen this person operate in at the point that you really feel that they are not sectarian?" And secondly, maybe even more importantly, "How confident are you that they're going to continue to act in a non-sectarian way if and when we leave?" So to what extent are they trying to get in your good graces since they know the Americans are now the people who have the resources to help them and who are the local powers, but if and when we're gone, as we obviously will be some day, they may not be able to control this neighborhoods -- especially ones that are so ethnically intermixed.
At that point, when I probed in that way, people would acknowledge the limitations of their confidence with where we had come, to the point where I still felt that we had a big challenge on the transition strategy. It's one thing to suppress the civil conflict by being there in large numbers and partnering with these Iraqi forces that do appear to be working pretty well with us when we are right there with them elbow to elbow, but I am much less confident in their "good behavior” if you will once we've left. And so that's the sort of probing question that helped me to understand the limitations of how far we've come.
And also to the extent people would acknowledge those limitations, it made their information about the nature of the leadership a little more believable because they weren't trying to give me a snow job or trying to say things that would make one hope that we could get quickly out. In fact, the last point on this -- a lot of commanders continue to underscore the transition strategy that we tried last time back in '04-05 was too fast; and we learned from that and now we're going slower because we know these guys have some ability, but they do not have as much as they would need to hand this thing off. And there's also a wide recognition that the kind of metrics that we have to evaluate their progress are not totally convincing and we're going to have to work harder at those to be able to assess Iraqi security force improvement.
Greenwald: The last question I have for you is this: there's a memo written by Samantha Power -- the Professor at Harvard and advisor to Barack Obama -- regarding the foreign policy community and its involvement in Iraq. Have you read any of that memo?
O'Hanlon: No, I haven't.
Greenwald: Then I won't ask about it, but I would highly recommend it. It's short and, I think, extremely cogent and insightful. But let me just ask you about one of the points she makes in the memo – and you can address the point I make, rather than hers, since you haven’t read the memo – and it’s this:
There is a foreign policy community, an establishment, in the United States that shares a whole variety of foreign policy orthodoxies. And they really span both parties - they are bi-partisan orthodoxies when it comes to foreign policy issues. And this foreign policy establishment, she argues, almost unanimously supported the invasion of Iraq and that's the reason that she suggests that it's time to re-evaluate the credibility of this foreign policy community and the orthodoxies that it espouses.
Do you have any thoughts about that idea? Do you think that the premise is accurate – that the foreign policy community as it exists, the establishment, almost unanimously supported the war?
O'Hanlon: Well, I think that she’s – you know, at a moment like this, she’s right to throw out some challenging points like that. I don't even recall what her role was in the debate at the time. I've been impressed by her work. I think she reflects a kind of idealism that we – you know, combined with pragmatism - that we need more of in our foreign policy.
I was on a task force on Africa where I had been a Peace Corps volunteer twenty five years ago that she was helpful in informing. I’m in favor, for example, and I have written about the idea of creating a genocide prevention division in the U.S. military were we would have the ability to ask people who don't want to be in the normal military who nonetheless would be willing to handle some of the tasks for example in a place like a Darfur or a Rwanda -- if they're favorably inclined towards that kind of mission. Because I think you want to tap into that kind of idealism.
This is an indirect answer to your question, but in response to your broader point that we do need to be more ambitious and keep mixing it up, keep having new ideas come into the debate. And I certainly don't think that everything about the foreign policy debate in the United States has been correct. In the '90s I was a person who was pushing hard for foreign aid and development assistance to go way up and did a number of task forces and books on that subject at a time when that wasn't all that popular. So I haven't always been seen as part of the establishment myself necessarily.
And on the Rwanda genocide I was certainly in favor of more decisive action as well as in various other situations and I'd like to see a lot more peacekeepers in Congo right now -- my former Peace Corps country. So, some of this is more consistent with Samantha Power and I find her inspirational and a good scholar. I think it's only fair at a time when Americans are dying in Iraq and Iraqis are dying, it's only fair for us all to be a little tough skinned about asking if there weren’t things we could have gotten a little more correct.
You and I haven't talked in this interview, though, about the - we talked a little bit about the WMD issue - but you know Saddam Hussein was in many ways one of the worst mass murderers of the late 20th century. Now he apparently stopped a lot of that mass murder, or at least had reduced it by the time of the invasion. So again, the humanitarian case for war was not overwhelming at the time. And I'm not going to push the point too far. But there were reasons to think that this man was hard to deter, that he probably had weapons of mass destruction, that even if he didn't develop nuclear weapons, his sons might inherit his job and do so themselves. But they still viewed Kuwait as part of their country -- rightly so in their own mind. And that there were very serious reasons to consider overthrowing this person.
And so while I do think we need to be tough skinned about asking if we accepted certain assumptions - and I'll admit that I need to ask if I accepted certain assumptions too quickly - this was not, in my opinion, a fundamentally illegitimate or crazy undertaking. I hope we all learn from the experience because it certainly hasn't worked out well so far. But as I say, I've got a lot of time for Samantha Power and it sounds like her memo is worth reading.
Greenwald: Good. We agree on that and that's a good note to close on. I appreciate your time and the attentiveness you gave to the questions. I intend to publish it over the next few days consistent with our agreement..
O'Hanlon: Thank you. I appreciate that. Thanks for the conversation.
Greenwald: Thank you.