You can view the video clip on the MSNBC Hardball web site, or go to the Hardball main page and select "Video: What's next for Iraq?" Here's the full text of the interview, which will undoubtedly be up on MSNBC's web site by next Monday.
Chris Matthews, MSNBC: Where do you think the Democrats are on the issue of Iraq? Have you been able to "read" their leadership yet?General Batiste makes a number of important points, but he undermines his own credibility by steadfastly refusing to answer straightforward questions. If anything, General Batiste shows great promise as a future politician, and I don't mean that as a compliment. He tried to throw 9/11 into a discussion of the Iraq War, which should set off loud alarm bells in anyone's head.
Maj. Gen. John Batiste, U.S. Army (retired): No. I mean, they're all over the map right now, and it would be nice if they would coalesce into a single position.
Matthews: This proposal for beginning a withdrawal within 4 to 6 months, what would that be in terms of policy? Would that make any difference to anything or is that just a political move?
Batiste: I think it's a political move. Chris, I think we're fighting a protracted war against the jihadists, and these people mean business. They have as a stated objective the destruction of our way of life. We got off to a terrible start in Iraq, a strategy that was fundamentally flawed, that opened up Pandora's box, that unleashed hell, and now we've got to get this thing under control quickly.
Matthews: Are we fighting jihadists in Iraq?
Matthews: Are we?
Batiste: This is important, Chris. This group, this movement is after us, big time. (Who?) We need to stop this.
Matthews: We have the Shia militia, we have the Sunni insurgents, and we have al Qaeda terrorists in that country. Which group is associated, or is part of this jihad?
Batiste: Clearly the al Qaeda, that foreign influence in Iraq, that has as their stated objective the destruction of our way of life, and my point is, we need to take this very, very seriously. To simply leave Iraq, to set timelines without conditions, set us up to fail big time in the future.
Matthews: The troops we have over there, 140,000 of them, what percent of our troops, what chunk of them are fighting jihadists, and what percent are fighting militias on the side of the government we're putting in there, and what percent are fighting Sunnis who are upset because they're losing out on the loss of power since Saddam fell?
Batiste:To the troops on the ground, it really doesn't matter; they're all the same. Whether you're talking al Qaeda or a Shia militia group or a criminal gang, it's all the same, they look alike, they carry the same weapons.
Matthews: I'm confused here. Are we fighting a jihad, or are we fighting an Iraqi civil war right now?
Batiste: I'll tell you what: what's going on in Iraq is the first phase of a long-term struggle that this nation needs to come to grips with pretty quickly.
Matthews: Well, help us. What should we do in Iraq? Who should we be shooting at and fighting at, and who should we be defending? What side should we be on in Iraq? Tell us what's going on over there. What should we be doing?
Batiste: Chris, the first thing we have to do, like I said, is recognize that we're fighting a long-term struggle. Iraq is but phase one in this whole effort. This could go on for decades. We need to mobilize this country, in multiple areas. We've been fighting this war on the cheap and we've inconvenienced the American people as little as possible, and that's not how we're going to eventually win this struggle. We need to properly resource the Army and the Marine Corps. These great organizations, we've never fielded better armed forces in our history, are too small for our national strategy. We need to get serious about funding this war. We need to think about some kind of a war tax so we're not funding this war at the expense of our domestic budget. It goes on and on.
Matthews: I think you'd be more successful with that argument, General, if you would tell me who we're fighting in Iraq right now, and why should we be fighting them, and who should we be fighting for in Iraq?
Batiste: Chris, here's the end-state we're after in Iraq, I think: we're looking for the rule of law to take root in Iraq, enforced by a competent Iraqi security force — army, police, border patrol — in support of an Iraqi government, probably not democratic, but representative, taking into account the tribal, ethnic, and religious complexity of that country. The problem is, we're fighting an insurgency that has many faces: al Qaeda, Shia militia, other militia, criminal elements, gangs, thugs. It doesn't matter what it is, the fact is, we've got to get it under control.
And here's what I suggest. One is we've got to get the Iraqi security forces stood up, fighting the enemy on an even playing field. This needs to be America's main effort very quickly. It has not been, for the last three years. General Marty Dempsey is the best we've got — if anybody can figure it out, he can, but he needs the resources. We need our very best officers and non-commissioned officers embedded into the Iraqi battallions, embedded into the Iraqi police departments, with all the resources that they need, which, oh, by the way, may require mobilizing a piece of our economy to support that.
The next thing is, we've got to stop the flow of the insurgency from Iran and Syria. Those borders are porous now, they were porous when I was there, we need to bring to a full stop the flow of that insurgency, and that may involve involving countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, with large numbers of troops, to get control of this. It's in their interests to do so. We count on our government to build coalitions of the willing for something this important.
We need to stop the militias. That includes Sadr and his militia, that is probably tied to the government in Iraq, but these militias need to be incentivized to stop being part of the problem and rather being part of the solution, and if they can't be incentivized, we need to crush 'em; it's that simple. Until the Iraqi security forces can do it by themselves, to establish and enforce the rule of law, it's my belief that we need to reinforce the coalition with more troops. That's not necessarily American troops, but it's allies and friends that need to take this thing very seriously.
I go back to my first statement: we're fighting a war against the jihadists. This effort in Iraq is but the first step in a very long, protracted struggle. But until the Iraqi security forces can stand up and do it for themselves, they need help to secure that country. It may be tens of thousands more required; I don't know, but I do know that we can't just leave Iraq. It's got to be conditions-based. To leave Iraq, I believe, will send that region into unbelievable turmoil, pitting Sunni on Shia, nation on nation, Kurds, ultimately, on any numbers of nations in the region. At the end of the day, our country is affected enormously. We'll be back there later if we don't get it right now, and the cost in blood and dollars will eclipse what we need to spend now to fix what we broke.
Matthews: Well, General, that's not what I'm hearing from other people over there, including other generals. We'll be back, and I'm going to cut through and ask some tough questions about what you just said. We're fighting jihadists, are we, or are we fighting in the midst of a civil war where the Shia want complete power? — they want to erase the power of the Sunni and the Sunni want to fight them for whatever power they can hold onto.
Matthews: General, the problem from my perspective, watching this, and you're the expert, the military man, we're reporting on numbers every day, coming out of Iraq, something like 3,700 Iraqis killed by other Iraqis, the Shia militia going after Sunni, the Sunni insurgents going after Shia — they're killing each other. If that's the case, that Muslim is killing Muslim, how can you describe it as some jihad against the West?
Batiste: That's exactly what it is. Chris, inside Iraq, we're fighting a multi-faceted enemy, but make no mistake about it: we're fighting the jihadists. What do you think the attack on 9/11 was?
Matthews: Wait a minute, let's talk about Iraq. The Iraqis are killing each other, General, every day, over 120 a day on average this month, 3,700 Iraqis being killed each month, by Iraqis; how can you define that as an anti-Western war?
Batiste: It's all part of it, and it's exactly why we need —
Matthews: How so? Just explain how an Iraqi killing another Iraqi is an attack on the West.
Batiste: It's a mix of multi-faceted enemies that are coming at us, and part of it is a civil war — no question about it — but it's why we need a new, dramatic strategy on the ground in Iraq now, to solve this problem.
Matthews: Who are we going to be shooting? Who do we shoot?
Batiste: It's why we need leadership that can explain all this to the American people. We need to stand up —
Matthews: Stand up against whom?
Batiste: It doesn't matter. That's why the intelligence is so important, that's why we're fighting at the same time al Qaeda, Shia militia (other forms of militia, by the way), criminal gangs, and thugs. It's all about the rule of law in Iraq, that we need to regain quickly or this thing is going to go further south. We need leaders to stand up and explain the what, the why, the how long, and what the risks are for failure. We have two generations of Americans who have never served, and I think that's a very unhealthy position to be in, when you consider that we're in a long, protracted war for our very existence.
Matthews: Well, I guess I still have a hard time figuring it out, General, because when I read the papers every day and read all the reports, I see Iraqis killing each other by the hundreds, by the thousands each month, I see us getting in the way, I see us trying to bring order, as you put it, to a society that doesn't really want to get along with each other, and you're saying they're all shooting at us when they're clearly shooting at each other and blowing each other up. How do you draft an American soldier to go fight — to what? play referee in the Iraqi civil war? What kind of a call to duty is that?
Batiste: Let me give you this thought, Chris: we do need to increase the number of troops in Iraq by some number quickly, and that involves Americans, it involves allies, combination of both. What I'm trying to focus on is, down range further in this protracted struggle against the jihadists. Our military right now is too small for the strategy for the future. It's too small to continue to fight this war. We've been incredibly unfair to our great military and their supportive families. We need to get off the ball and start taking a long-term view of this thing.
Matthews: Do you believe former Secretary of Defense — the man who you wanted removed and now is removed — Rumsfeld said we didn't have a way of measuring this, but do you believe there are more jihadists now than there were before we went to Iraq, and do you believe Iraq has encouraged the jihadist movement?
Batiste: I believe that's the case, yes.
Matthews: Well then, why do we want to put more troops into Iraq and encourage more hatred, more killing of Arabs, more revenge on the part of their people back against us?
Batiste: Because if we lose Iraq, and if we lose Afghanistan, we're on the slippery road to a further clash with the jihadists on some other ground, some other time, that'll be far more expensive to the United States in blood and dollars.
Matthews: How will holding Iraq — holding American military control of Iraq, and of Afghanistan, stop us from being hit by a bunch of Islamists in Germany, in Hamburg where they came from last time, or from living in New York City, blowing us up from Newark? How does it stop it? I've never gotten the connection between us fighting in Arab lands and trying to take over Arab lands and hold them, and the fact that we might get hit at home by ex-pats, Islamists living all around the world. I don't get the connection.
Batiste: It's all tied to stability in the Middle East, and that is important to us; it's in our national interest. We've got to fix it, we've got to fix it in Iraq and Afghanistan now. I agree with you: we need to be taking a longer-term view of where these jihadists can impact the American way of life and our allies. Our military is too small, period, to deal with this.
Matthews: The crowd running this country of ours right now has put 10,000 troops — they were left in there, going all the way back to the first Bush Administration — 10,000 American soldiers sitting in the Holy Land of Saudi Arabia. We've never really tried, under this administration, to bring peace to the Middle East. We've never pushed hard for peace on that front. All the things you say about a jihadist movement have come about as a result of those two facts: we've embarrassed the Saudis and the jihadists, because they all came out of Saudi Arabia, by humiliating their religion. We've refused to take sides and try to bring peace in the Middle East because it's not smart politics. And all these things have happened because of that — not because we don't have enough troops in Iraq. I just disagree with you.
I think we've got to go at this politically around the world, change our politics, perhaps, but most importantly, understand a mentality that says it's better to die if you can kill a couple hundred Americans, and also understanding that within the forces of Islam, there's a hell of a lot of division, to the point where the Sunni and the Shia are killing themselves at almost 4,000 people a month in Iraq. I think it's more complicated than "us against them," but thank you, General Batiste.
Batiste insists that we are fighting the jihadists in Iraq, which is a misdirection at best. There are a small number of jihadists in Iraq, fighting alongside the insurgency. Batiste speaks of the need to "stop the flow of the insurgency from Iran and Syria," but the insurgency is — by the very definition of the word — a domestic phenomenon. There is a flow of weapons from Iran and Syria to the insurgency in Iraq, but the insurgency is the Iraqis fighting against the Iraqi government. More to the point, though, lumping all of the violent anti-U.S. factions under the umbrella of "jihadists" obstructs an understanding of the actual nature of the enemy, as well as blinding us to the fact that the insurgency is breeding new jihadists — Iraqis who were not particularly interested in killing Americans until we invaded their country and touched off a civil war. The insurgency will not follow American troops out of Iraq, but the jihadists will; if that's not enough difference to matter to General Batiste, then he needs to re-evaluate his priorities. We also need to be very careful about phrases like "slippery road" that sound disturbingly like "domino theory."
General Batiste said a couple of times, "To the troops on the ground, it really doesn't matter; they're all the same." There is a basic truth there, but also again an element of misdirection. The troops on the ground are most concerned with their immediate surroundings and very specific objectives: take out this enemy target, hold this position, guard this location. It may not really matter to the troops on the ground whether they're up against jihadists or insurgents or criminals and thugs, but it does — it must — matter to the people in charge of the overall strategy, because the strategy needs to be adapted to the characteristics of the adversary. The hawks dismiss talk of "understanding" the enemy as some form of coddling, when in reality it is exactly the opposite. By understanding what makes your enemy tick (or tick-tick-tick), you learn his strengths and weaknesses. If you do not understand the enemy, you may lose the battle, or you may win but at a much higher cost than was necessary.
General Batiste hit the nail on the head, though, when he said that we need to take a longer-term view of the struggle. That longer-term view needs to encompass putting far more resources into training the Iraqis so that they can "stand up" and we can "stand down." It also needs to encompass far more work on understanding the elements that combine to create fertile ground for recruiting jihadists. We need to replace World War II's "Rosie the Riveter" with a 21st-century "Terry the Translator." We need to talk to Iran, Syria, Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds, and everyone else with a stake in Iraq. We need to talk to Muqtada al-Sadr, because it's worth trying a little bargaining so we maybe do a bit less shooting and bombing.
We also desperately need, as General Batiste put it, "leadership that can explain all this to the American people." Unfortunately, Batiste did a poor job on that front in this interview, but we need to have a serious non-soundbite-driven discussion about what our real goals are in Iraq and how we intend to achieve them. Right now, we talk about the Iraqis "standing up," but we grotesquely underfund the effort to train them, and then we put experienced Iraqi military officers under the tutelage of greenhorn Americans who've never seen combat. We talk about stopping the flow of weapons and foreign jihadists from neighboring states, but what are we actually doing about it? Should we perhaps seal Iraq into its own Tupperware® bowl — seal the borders airtight — and let them sort out their blood feud themselves? I doubt we'd like how that plan would pan out, but we need some honest talk about how we're going to extricate ourselves from Iraq with whatever success we can salvage.
Technorati tags: MSNBC, Hardball, Chris Matthews, John Batiste, Iraq War, Insurgency, War on Terror, Afghanistan, Politics, Jihad
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