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Iraq policy advisors stick to guns

Three officials talk of progress, empowerment of Iraqis

As media coverage of the third anniversary of the United States–led invasion of Iraq recedes, three of President Bush’s high-ranking policy advisors told the Boston University community on March 29 that despite negative reports from the American media, vital institutions are being built in Iraq, mainstream Iraqis have started to feel empowered through democratic processes, and Iraqi troops are being trained to defeat terrorists.

At the forum War in Iraq: How’s It Going? held at the School of Management and organized by the Institute for Conflict, Ideology, and Policy and the Center for International Relations, panelists Peter Rodman, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, Ambassador James Jeffrey (SMG’77), senior advisor and coordinator for Iraq to the secretary of state, and Lt. Gen. James Conway, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered an overwhelmingly positive portrayal of the progress of the war in Iraq to an audience of more than 100 students and faculty. Husain Haqqani, an associate professor at the College of Arts and Sciences and director of the Center for International Relations, moderated the forum.

“There was a huge participation from the Iraqi people in the elections back in December,” said Jeffrey, a former ambassador to Albania, who has been advisor to the secretary of state since August 2005. “A majority of the people there are working together and moving Iraq forward.”

Conway’s assessment was similarly optimistic. He reported that American troops are gaining ground and effectively training Iraqi troops to protect themselves against insurgents. Anti-Iraqi forces, he said, “have not succeeded in holding terrain in Iraq and have failed to stop political process.”

“They only work by using intimidation,” he said, “but they have been unable to turn the Iraqis away from democracy.”

The panelists’ defense of U.S. strategy was received by many in audience with skepticism, provoking questions and comments on the legitimacy of U.S. involvement from more than a dozen students and faculty. President Emeritus John Silber said the situation should not be painted as euphoria and questioned Conway’s assertions that there are sufficient troops. 

“How can you say that there were enough troops if the [Iraqi] borders have not been sealed?” Silber asked, adding that the debt America is incurring from the war is an amount “that can lead a bankrupt nation to economic collapse.”

Conway admitted that there are some areas that the American military has not been not handling well, such as the failure to establish a secure government as well as a secure infrastructure. He insisted, however, that America cannot falter.

“Several challenges remain,” he said. “But we cannot afford to not stay with it.”

Rodman, who advises the secretary of defense on international security strategy and policy in East and South Asia, the Middle East and Persian Gulf, Africa, and Latin America, refused to predict when the war was likely to end. “Iraq is a crucial battleground in the war of ideological extremists against us,” he said. “The enemies have grand ambitions to spread their ideology. They want to derail political progress.”

Too much is at stake, he said, to put a timeline to the end of the conflict.

Jeffrey, who is responsible for developing, coordinating, and leading implementation of policy on Iraq, told the crowd that political progress in Iraq centers around three goals: isolating the Musab al-Zarqawi element, engaging the Sunni and Shiite population, and building a feeling that democracy is working.