Unintelligent Estimate on Diplomacy

W. Patrick Lang, formerly head of Middle East Intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency, refutes the implicit conclusion of the NIE that sectarian fires must burn themselves out in Iraq.

W. Patrick Lang, formerly head of Middle East Intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency, refutes the implicit conclusion of the NIE that sectarian fires must burn themselves out in Iraq-since those fires could consume the region. In an interview with National Interest online editor, Ximena Ortiz, Lang, who is currently president of Global Resources Group, Inc., maintains that diplomacy is the low-cost tool to contain it.

NIo: The NIE said that a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops would likely, among other things, escalate sectarian violence and tensions. But to what degree does the U.S. presence keep the sectarian strife on a continuing burn of mounting lethality, by giving the Shi‘a-led government a sense of protection, thereby hampering efforts towards sectarian reconciliation?

WPL: Well, I think that, insofar as it goes, the NIE is correct with this because the conflict between the Shi‘a leadership and the Sunni insurgency is not going to disappear. And so, it's built in now in the structure of the struggle for power in post-U.S. intervention Iraq; it's going to continue no matter what, and probably our departure would, in fact, cause things to accelerate in terms of the country breaking up and so on. I think that the NIE has got it right.

NIo: The NIE also concluded that although Iraq's neighbors influence events in Iraq, they are "not likely to be a major driver of violence or the prospects for stability because of the self-sustaining character of Iraq's internal sectarian dynamics."

That conclusion seems to validate the administration's rejection of engagement with some of Iraq's neighbors, particularly Iran, in marshalling regional support for Iraqi reconciliation. Do you agree with that assessment?

WPL: No, I don't, actually. I think that that's a fairly shortsighted view of what's going on here.

In the very short term, in terms of the interests of the surrounding powers in the various kinds of wars going on in Iraq, are determined-that's probably right. But in fact, in the larger sense, if you were to try to settle the war on the basis of some sort of negotiation, the long-term interests of the surrounding powers would be, in fact, a great help in trying to do that. You could enlist them in the process of getting the people who they're related to-in part by policy or religion or something else-inside Iraq to stop. In the longer term, from a negotiating point of view, I think that that part of the argument is not right.

An Artificial Distinction

NIo: Like the president's State of the Union, the NIE singles out Iran and Syria for condemnation. Iran gives "lethal support" to Iraqi Shi‘a militants, which "clearly intensifies the conflict" and Syria gives safe haven to former Iraqi Ba‘athi members and fails to staunch the flow of foreign jihadists into Iraq, the NIE said.

On the other hand, the "key Sunni regimes", (presumably Saudi Arabia and Jordan) are concerned with Shi‘a and Iranian gains in Iraq, leading them to "constrain" their willingness to engage Baghdad and consider giving "unilateral support to Sunni groups."

Do you agree with that dichotomy the NIE describes, with the Iranians lethally intensifying the conflict and key Sunni regimes merely constraining their engagement and considering giving this kind of unilateral support?

WPL: No, I think that this is an artificial distinction. In fact, all the surrounding powers are involved in one way or another in the struggle inside Iraq, whether it be on the part of the Shi‘a country of Iran in supporting the potential long-term, complete suppression of the Sunni Arab population or all the other people in the surrounding area. Everybody, in some way or another, is involved, and to make a distinction between Syria and Iran, on the one hand, who are absolutely condemned as evil, and the Sunni countries, with whom we have to have fairly good relations-I think it's probably artificial and not a good idea.

NIo: Do you have any other thoughts on the document, and what would be your own National Intelligence Estimate?

WPL: Well, having looked at this, I think it tends to assume, first of all, that this is not, in fact, a situation that can be solved within the context of diplomacy, and as people who read the National Interest online know, I have a long-standing belief, in fact, that the only possible way to have a successful outcome in Iraq is to engage all the players, external and internal, in a long-term process of diplomacy to try to resolve their conflicts.

This doesn't seem to believe that that is true; in fact, it seems to believe that the inevitable conclusion is that the war will fight itself out until there is an end in the process of exhaustion; I guess that's a bad way to look at it.

A Very Dangerous Thing to Do

NIo: And that's what your main conclusion of your own Intelligence Estimate would put forward, the need for resolution through diplomacy, instead of just letting the sectarian fire burn itself out?

WPL: That's right. I recently heard a representative from the policy side of the Bush Administration say that the situation is so bad that, in fact, the only thing that could be done is to let this whole thing come to an end in a process of mutual exhaustion. I think that that's a very dangerous thing to do, since the participation of outside powers in the region, in fact, can cause the fire to be so great that it would be impossible to put it out.

Befitting a Great Power 

NIo: And what about the predictable criticisms that the United States can't deign to negotiate with the likes of Iran and Syria, etc.? How would respond to those often-heard criticisms?