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Interview with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

By Tom Bevan

(Editor's note: the following interview with Secretary of State Rice took place in her office at the State Department last Thursday, April 19. It's been slightly edited for length and clarity.)

SECRETARY RICE: What can I do for you?

RCP: Well, I'm here to talk about Iraq.

SECRETARY RICE: Okay.

RCP: So I want to start by just talking about the last -- obviously, yesterday was another tough day. Last week, there was a very tough day.

SECRETARY RICE: Right.

RCP: And I know on some of the calls that I've been on with military commanders in Baghdad, they say that these sorts of spectacular attacks are going to be the hardest to stop. And so the question to start is, if we're not able to stop these attacks with any sort of regularity, how are we going to get to a political solution, which everyone says is the key to --

SECRETARY RICE: Well, obviously, you want to see a reduction in violence, period. But one of the most concerning things about the period after the Golden -- the bombing of the Golden Mosque in February '06 was that the sectarian nature of the violence, particularly --

(Interruption.)

RCP: Please go on.

SECRETARY RICE: Yes, which is the sectarian nature of the violence with these death squads that would go into communities and where the population wasn't really certain that the government would protect them - would or could. And I think one of the really important elements of the Baghdad security plan is that you have to get a sense in which the government is using its security forces to at least try and protect the population so that you protect equally Shia and Sunnis. The death squads of the Sunnis or death squads of the Shia, you go equally after it. That's one kind of violence and I think they are beginning to get something of a handle on that because they're beginning to show that they will go after, equally, Shia and Sunnis.

The kind of attack that you saw yesterday, the kind of big suicide bombings -- I think some of us suspect have more of a hallmark of the kind of al-Qaida -- maybe in conjunction with insurgents that are indeed going to be difficult. But at some level, Iraqis may be more inclined to unite against those people than to see that as a source of tension between them. For instance, in a place like Anbar where the sheikhs are fighting back now because of what the al-Qaida has done or when the parliament was bombed and al-Qaida took responsibility for it, you saw Iraqis saying, you know, this attacked all Iraqis.

Now it does not make it any less tragic for the people who die, it doesn't make it any less difficult in terms of a sense of insecurity, but its political character is somewhat different. And perhaps still then, if you're in a situation in which it's clear that the government is really trying to be evenhanded, you still have a basis for political reconciliation even if you continue to have these kinds of spectacular attacks by terrorists who largely are not associated with the political process in any way and largely -- possibly associated with al-Qaida. Although I want to be very clear, we don't know for certain that they're al-Qaida attacks, but they have the hallmark of that.

The other point that I would make is that we're still early in the security plan. All of the American forces are not in place. More of the Iraqi forces are still coming into being. And I think there are some hopes that you'll continue to have improvements in security, though from time to time you're going to have bad days.

RCP: Speaking of the political situation how big of a setback is it - or is it a setback - that Sadr has pulled his ministers out of the government?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, it depends a little bit on what everybody else does and thus far, the government is continuing to function and -- it's an important part of the bloc, but it's not the only part of the bloc. And Maliki still has enough of a majority that supported him for prime minister to run the government. So I think the real issue is what does it mean in terms of their desire to go back into the streets rather than to defect from the political process. And I just don't think we know the answer to that yet.

It's not also clear that the Sadr's movement is all that unified. This is a movement that has been splintering; there are some who may choose to remain in the process, but some who may choose to leave. So I think we'll have to let it sort out. But I didn't jump to the conclusion that this necessarily was a -- it certainly isn't necessarily a devastating blow to the government. I'm not even sure it's a blow to the government. And by the way, they've done this before and come back.

RCP: And so what in your mind right now -- I know there are a number of things that have to be accomplished to reach a political solution - but what's the single most important thing that the Iraqi Government has to get done to show progress in the next number of weeks?

SECRETARY RICE: I think of it as this de jure reconciliation, which then allows de facto reconciliation to take place over time, because in some ways the important thing is that it's going to take time for people to truly reconcile after all they've been through. But passing the oil law is very, very important because it says we're going to share the wealth of this country in an evenhanded way. Nobody's going to take advantage of others in this society because you don't happen to have oil resources in your part of the country; you're going to somehow be disadvantaged. That's what this is really about and that's why it's so critical to Iraq as a unified entity.

Secondly, I think some movement forward on de-Baathification is important, although some of the steps that they've taken have been underreported. They have restored pensions for military officers at a certain level. They have begun at the local level to reinstate people who might have been members of the Baath Party for reasons having to do with it being instrumental rather than a matter of ideological commitment, but de-Baathification is important.

I think it will be very hard because it's very emotional for people who lost family members, for instance, to the Baath Party, but it's very important because it will be a signal to the Sunnis about inclusion. And then at some point, and I don't think this is in the near-term -- immediate -- they need to structure provincial elections because the Sunnis were, of course, left out.

Now that's the legal framework. In some ways, one of the most important things they could do is to make sure that money and reconstruction is getting out to provinces that are Sunni provinces. And we're beginning to hear that some of that is happening. We're trying to help them with their budget execution and management. And so I'm sitting out at Anbar and Baghdad won't pay attention. I can have two explanations for that. One is they won't pay attention because of discrimination. The other is that they can't because they're not capable.

I think that in the current environment the assumption will be they won't. So we have to help them to get out to parts of the country that may be feeling discriminated against.

RCP: That leads me to a question about the PRTs which are a new part of the clear, hold and build strategy. They left [for Iraq], I think, the end of March.

SECRETARY RICE: Yes.

RCP: They've been on the ground for a few weeks now. Do you have any news to report on how progress is going?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, we have PRTs that have been operating for some time. And we -- the difference here is we're going to be embedded even more fully in the brigade and command teams because these are kind of high-risk areas where we're trying to support the military reinforcement. I have not yet gotten reporting about it. But they left here and then they were on the ground for three weeks training in the Baghdad area, so they will just begin deploying. We're going to put a lot of effort into those PRTs. These are the kinds of the -- this is an instrument that I think the biggest impact will really be in trying to help local governments grow up.

Baghdad is extremely important -- what happens in Baghdad. But if you can also get more effective local governance, you can get reconstruction projects closer to the people. If your city council is where you go if you need a well dug, not having to wait for something to come down through Baghdad. That's going to be making it more effective for the people. And so that's why the PRTs are structured the way they are. The ones that are already there, except in a case or two of where we've just had tremendous security problems, I think they're working pretty well.

RCP: In stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, with the struggles that we've had over the last four years, in hindsight, do you think that we might have pushed too far, too fast in moving a country that had spent four decades under a strict tyranny straight into democracy without any sort of transition?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, this is actually the discussion we've had before we went in was a number of people thought -- not only our government, but people on the outside and, frankly, some people in the region -- you should overthrow Saddam Hussein and put in a strong man because they're not ready for a democracy. I actually think that would have been a mistake because I think if you put in another strong man, then you're another 20 years until there's a chance for democratic institutions to develop.

It's very difficult, and I'd be the first to say it's more difficult than I thought it would be because I don't think we really understood how broken the fabric of Iraq was under the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. But that said, even as difficult as it is, I think putting in place or helping them to put in place democratic institutions that have the potential to be the institutions in which they can start to overcome their differences, is preferable to betting that a strong man will somehow overtime give up power.

The Iraqis believe -- I think they really believe in these institutions. It's very, very interesting. They use them. They try to make them work. What we have to try to do is to help them make them more capable. It's why I emphasize the local governance as well because we tend to think of it as always a Baghdad problem; and the more you have the local governance that works, they can deliver for the people more quickly. I think that's another way to think about democratic institutions working. But no, I don't think I would do it differently if we had the chance over.

If anything, we might have done this much earlier. We had, I think, an extended period of time in which there was a kind of -- the local, in particular, leadership didn't grow up and we were centralized in Baghdad.

RCP: You're talking immediately post-invasion?

SECRETARY RICE: I mean not too long after the -- right, exactly. We were pretty centralized in Baghdad. And I know now, I remember now stories of kind of little local councils trying to grow up. In retrospect, I think that maybe we should have spent more time trying to nurture those.

RCP: Do you think at this point -- the debate in Washington has always been, well, there is no plan B or Democrats aren't offering alternatives. But Joe Biden wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post not too long ago. He's been pushing the idea of federalism for the last year, and that's an idea that has gained a little bit of traction. Sam Brownback now is proposing a three-state, one nation type idea. Does that not seem like a practical solution if, in fact, we're not able to hold the country together?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, it is federal, to begin with. It's federal now. There's strong regions, there's strong provinces in the constitution, and there should be strong localities. The question is: Do you try to somehow divide up power between equal power centers or do you continue to have the center hold those key powers? I have not seen Iraqis advocate the -- this "confederal" structure, I'll call it.

A few Shia have talked about having some kind of unification of several provinces into a regional structure of some kind. But I don't think it's practical, particularly along ethno-sectarian lines, to divide Iraq up and give authority based on your sectarian identification, to say there's a Shia part of the country, a Sunni part of the country, a Kurdish part of the country. Baghdad is a completely mixed city. What becomes of Baghdad? You start separating people into different cantonments? What becomes of Mosul, which is a mixed city? What becomes of Kirkuk? If you try to do this, I think you're going to have an explosion.

So I don't see it as practical, really. I do think it's going to be -- I do think its success may depend in part on decentralizing some of the power and authority to provincial and local levels, based not on sectarian identification, but based on geographic location. If you take a place like Mosul, it shouldn't have to do everything through Baghdad. Under current Iraqi law it will get a percentage of the federal budget that becomes its to spend. This is a big country, it shouldn't be run just from the center. But trying to somehow engineer three parts -- a Shia part, a Sunni part, a Kurdish part -- I don't think that's practical.

RCP: I was reading [former Secretary of State George] Marshall's speech out in the Marshall Room, and the beginning of it especially struck me as very relevant to our times. And I was wondering, though, is there any historical analogy to what we're doing? A lot of people talk about Vietnam. Some people talk about 1938, some people talk about Yugoslavia as an example, talking about a country that was held together and then it broke up afterwards and has become, I think, relatively stable. Is there a historical analogy that fits what we're doing?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, Iraq -- I think the point that you have to remember is that there is a state of Iraq. People have an Iraqi identification. They also have a very strong identification as Sunni, Shia, Kurd, but there is an Iraq. I was a student of Eastern Europe. There really wasn't a Yugoslavia. This was something that was very different. And I think it's why it broke up because it really was only held together by Tito. There was no Yugoslav identity. There's an Iraqi identity and I think you can reinforce Iraqi identity through institutions like the army, the national oil law, et cetera.

But even though I don't have a ready historical analogy for a state with kind of deep internal fissures, I think there are plenty of examples historically of countries where either war or tyranny, the end of tyranny, produces a rather difficult and turbulent near-term history, becoming stable over time, I think there are plenty of those.

It's very interesting. If you look at South Korea, for instance, we now think all think of South Korea as a democracy, the 11th largest economy in the world, a strong political ally of the United States. This is a 20-year phenomenon. It's not something that happened immediately after the Korean War.

I was discussing the issue of Colombia with some of the Colombians. They reminded me that in 1998, 1999, 2000, the FARC would kidnap people right out of the center of Bogotá. The Ambassador was describing to me how people felt they had to travel in convoys to prevent being kidnapped. Nobody thinks about Colombia in those terms in 2007.

So there are plenty of examples of places that had -- El Salvador, another place, where at the time of the elections bombs were still going off in the middle of San Salvador. So there are plenty of examples of places that were very violent, where it was very turbulent, where people asked: Could the politics ever overcome the violence? When you talked about Colombia, people talked about a failed state. No American President had been able to go to Bogotá until President Bush went a few months ago. We met the Foreign Minister, who had been held by FARC for six years. He was kidnapped in 2000.

Nobody talks about Colombia in those terms now. And there were people who said that politics will never be able to overcome.

So the Iraqis have a very, very tough road ahead and they have to start making some key decisions as Iraqi national leaders; that they have to do. I think Prime Minister Maliki sees himself as a national leader and he needs help from other factions to overcome sectarianism and make national decisions.

But they've got a couple of vehicles to demonstrate to the Iraqi people that that can be done. The national oil law is one. Conducting the Baghdad security plan in a way that is not favorable to one group or another so any family feels they'll be protected is another. I think if they can demonstrate that they will act in the nation's behalf, you will see that there is still a very strong fabric of society for a united Iraq. Iraqis will tell you, my tribe is part Sunni and part Shia. They will tell you, I'm a Sunni, I'm married to a Shia. It's not as if these people haven't lived together before. And so, I think there are historical analogies of places that looked as if the politics would never overcome where they did. And I think Iraq has quite a lot going for it in terms of unity.

RCP: The other component to this obviously is public opinion at home, which has been on the wane. President Bush has, I think, laid out what he feels are the stakes in Iraq over and over and over again. But it hasn't seemed to affect the slide that's been going on - the weariness if you will - of public opinion. Do you think there's enough will left in the country to give Iraq the time that you say it needs to make these decisions, to make the progress, to do the things it has to do?

SECRETARY RICE: I do think the American people are more patient than we think. I think they want to know that we can make progress, that we can succeed. I understand the skepticism. If you look at the television screen every day, what you're seeing, nobody can deny that it looks very, very hard. And so if you ask, you know, do we want to continue to be involved in this very hard thing, many people will probably say no, I would rather not be involved in that very hard thing. But if you say, if I refuse to be involved in this very hard thing now things are going to be harder, you may get a different view. And I'm quite certain that if we precipitously leave this admittedly very hard set of circumstances in Iraq, where America's sacrifices -- nobody can ever bring back an American soldier for the family or for the community. But if we leave prematurely, we're going to have harder circumstances ahead. And the idea that Iraq would be unable to secure its unity and truly break up then into warring sects would have such a devastating impact on the rest of the region, which after all has some of the same fault lines that exist in Iraq. And we cannot afford a Middle East that looks like that.

Now, I also understand that people say, well, we invaded Iraq, we overthrew Saddam Hussein, and now you tell me that leaving will cause these problems. But we have to remember what was happening in the Middle East before we overthrew Saddam Hussein. And when you're looking through the rearview mirror in kind of hindsight, there can be a tendency to whitewash and put through rose-colored glasses what the past looked like and to forget that we were dealing with not just a brutal dictator but an aggressive brutal dictator who had drawn us into a war in 1991, so that we were still engaged in trying to keep his aircraft from flying on a practically daily basis with him shooting at our aircraft, with him gassing his own people and his neighbors, with him continuing to keep our forces in Saudi Arabia because we had to tie him down, and a Middle East that was so -- had such a sense of false stability that underneath was growing this extremism that exploded one day on September 11th and when we learned what was really going on in the Middle East, where al-Qaida had really come from.

I'm not talking about this debate al-Qaida and Iraq; that's not what I'm talking about.

RCP: Right.

SECRETARY RICE: I'm talking about the circumstances in the Middle East that produced al-Qaida. And if anyone can tell me how you would have had a different Middle East with Saddam Hussein in the middle of it, I'd like them to sketch that out for me.

RCP: But do you think we have a different Middle East now, five or six years later?

SECRETARY RICE: I think we're on our way to a different Middle East. In a sense, we were in a Middle East that was, I think, only going to get worse. And yes, now that Middle East is no more and the transition to a different Middle East which has a chance for true stability is a hard transition. Big historical transformations always are. But the opportunity for a Middle East that has reformist forces and democratizing forces that, frankly, have brought extremism out into the open rather than letting it run the street with its face covered as Hamas used to do, that's at least a Middle East that has a chance of emerging as a truly stable Middle East.

It's a little bit like saying you have a very bad disease and if you just don't know it and you just don't try to treat it, well, at least you don't know. Maybe it won't ultimately do you in. We're going through the period in which we're having to deal with grievances and the absence of freedom and circumstances of hopelessness that have been growing up for decades. And of course it's going to be difficult to rectify that. But it's not normal that people will put a suicide vest on a child and send that child to blow up another child. Something's really wrong with those circumstances.

So I know it's difficult, but I would rather be in a circumstance in which we're trying to deal with it and trying to lay a different kind of foundation than to have ignored it.

MR. MCCORMACK: I think we have time for one more question.

RCP: One more question? Okay.

SECRETARY RICE: Sure.

RCP: Okay. I had a couple more. Now I have to think about what I was going to ask. I'll just go with --

SECRETARY RICE: You can have two

MR. MCCORMACK: We can be a little more -- you can have a little more time.

SECRETARY RICE: You can have two. Because I've read RealClear Politics for a long time, you can have two.

RCP: I was just going to follow up on that and say one of the things -- I think the American public frustration is driven by two things: One is, of course, they want to see results and now it looks like the President has worked to come up with a new security plan and we've got a new strategy in place, and the question is: Well, why did it take so long to get there?

And the other question I think is: Where are all of our allies? Where are all of Iraq's neighbors? I mean, you had the neighbor's conference.

SECRETARY RICE: Yes.

RCP: And so the question is: What are Iraq's neighbors doing specifically to help at this moment in moving ahead?

SECRETARY RICE: Yes. Well, let me take on both because they're both important questions.

In terms of Iraq's neighbors, we're about to have another neighbors conference and I'll go on May the 3rd or 4th. Well, the 3rd is the compact meeting, the 4th is the neighbors conference. And Iraq's neighbors need to do more. They have been actually very supportive of the Sunni outreach strategy, bringing Sunnis into the political process. They've worked with the tribes. They've worked with Sunni leaders to bring them into the process, and that's much appreciated. Neighbors like Jordan have been very active in helping the Iraqis train their forces and all kinds of activities there. I'm hopeful we'll get some more financial support. The Iraqis' debt relief would be a major breakthrough.

But most of all, they need to reinforce Iraq's role in the Arab world because the answer to undue Iranian influence is that Iraq remains centrally anchored in the Arab world. So the holding of this conference in Egypt is a very good thing. The Egyptians have been great. So that identity of Iraq as Iraqi Shia, as not Iranian but Arab, which is how they see themselves, Iraqi not Iranian, is very important psychologically, I think, for Iraq.

In terms of the American people, look, I fully understand. And if you had asked me at the end of 2005, I thought we were moving toward Iraqi self-sufficiency on a whole range of indicators, particularly in terms of their security forces. Yes, you know, there was the problem of unreconciled insurgents and the problem of al-Qaida, but it was, I thought, not tearing at the fabric of the society.

I think what happened in February '06 with the bombing of the Golden Mosque was that you got a different kind of violence and a different kind of violence that had a political dimension that was not there in '05. And that was that that bombing, we know planned by Zarqawi, set off violent sectarianism. It's one thing to have political sectarianism. Violent sectarianism is quite another. And not with Sunnis running down the streets shooting Shia and vice versa just because they were Sunni and Shia, but organized death squads that deliberately, for sectarian purposes, went into a neighborhood, killed the men, exiled the women and took over the neighborhood.

And that was, to be very frank, unexpected and I think put us into a different set of circumstances where the Iraqi Government and Iraqi security forces had to very quickly respond to that before the fabric of the society tore altogether, where Iraqis lost confidence that their government would be evenhanded.

When Maliki came to see the President in Jordan, he said, "I've got to get control of Baghdad." And he had essentially the explanation I've just given. But we knew -- and he wanted to do it with his own forces. He had his own plan. He was going to do it with his own forces. George Casey, General Casey, told us it would be the end of the summer before he could do that. This couldn't wait till the end of the summer, and so it became necessary to reinforce with American forces.

But the question of why this different strategy is really twofold: a different set of circumstances after the Samarra bombing, and much more need to have a population security focus in Baghdad, to support the Iraqis in that; secondly, frankly, learning. You notice that the generals that are back there -- Dave Petraeus, Ray Odierno who worked here for me as liaison -- are probably the finest counterinsurgency generals in the American armed forces. They were in Iraq. They went through a certain phase. They learned the place. They came back here, they thought about it, they wrote the doctrine, and now they're back out.

Now, everybody knows it takes a long time to defeat an insurgency. But the first thing you have to do is to establish that the government is willing and capable of defending its population and that the government is not going to be brought down by the insurgency. That's why I mentioned the Colombia example, from a potentially failed state to a state that has an insurgency but where nobody believes it's going to destroy the government.

So the explanation is, different circumstances and new circumstances after '06, and learning. And I think we learned through a couple of security plans that unless the Iraqi Government was willing to be evenhanded, to deny political interference, unless we could clear and hold a place and really hold it, or they could hold it and we could hold it, you couldn't do the building.

So those are the elements of this new plan that are different, and I just hope that it's given a chance and fully given a chance because I also understand the desire to want to say, all right, well, how long is it going to take and let's tell the American people how long it's going to take and so forth. But the message that that sends to people who have to make very difficult political calculations on national reconciliation is, well, perhaps I'd better make these calculations, you know, based on my interests if the Americans aren't going to be there.

Right now, I think we are in a situation in which all of the forces, with the exception of Muqtada al-Sadr, understand the importance of American forces as a glue to allow them breathing space to get their politics together. The region certainly understands that. There was no more popular decision by this President in the region than the decision to reinforce in Iraq.

Again, we are pressing the Iraqi Government and telling them that we do not have endless patience; they should not take the American people or the American government for granted. But we have to do that in a way that also doesn't leave them in a situation in which they think they're going to be abandoned and therefore start making calculations that are short-term calculations that in the long run will hurt us.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com

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