Dear Family and friends, I am told that this website will be seen
directly and will be copied by others so that this piece should be seen
by several hundred thousand people! I thought you might want to see it.
Here it is (questions in bold):
*1. Describe the relevant parts of your background, e.g. connection to
Iraq, experience with insurgencies and your study of insurgencies.
*I visited the Middle East first in 1946 because my older brother George
Polk was then the chief CBS correspondent there. On my way back to
America, I stopped for some weeks in Baghdad. I was to return there many
times over the years. In 1951, as a Fellow of the Rockefeller
Foundation, I lived in and began a serious study of Iraq. That resulted
in a short book for the American Foreign Policy Association called “What
the Arabs Think.” I then went on to Oxford where I studied Arabic and
Turkish. After Oxford, I taught and did my doctorate at Harvard where I
was assistant to the director of the Middle East Studies Center, Sir
Hamilton Gibb. From there, President Kennedy appointed me to the Policy
Planning Council where I was responsible for most of the Islamic world
and took part in a wide range of studies and actions. I was head of the
interdepartmental task that helped to end the Algerian war and was a
member of the crisis management subcommittee that dealt with the Cuban
Missile Crisis. Through my work on Egypt, President Nasser gave me an
opportunity to visit, travel extensively in and meet the senior
officials in Yemen and then Crown Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia afforded
the same opportunity for me to meet with the Yemeni Royalist guerrillas.
During that period, I also visited Viet Nam where former Vice President
Henry Cabot Lodge allowed me free rein to talk with all the American and
Vietnamese officials. Drawing these first-hand experiences together and
reading widely on others, I made an extensive study of guerrilla warfare
on which I lectured at the National War College. After four exciting and
informative years in government, I resigned, partly because of the Viet
Nam war which I opposed and (unpopularly) predicted we would lose, and
became professor of history and founder-director of the Middle East
Studies Center at the University of Chicago.
While at Chicago, I co-chaired (with Evgeni Primakov who later became
Russian prime minister) a Pugwash committee on peace in the Middle East,
twice lectured at the Soviet Academy of Sciences in Moscow and
participated in various study groups at the Council on Foreign Relations
in New York. In 1967, I also became president of the Adlai Stevenson
Institute of International Affairs where I participated in a number of
studies of guerrilla warfare including those of David Halberstam and
Neil Sheehan who both began their books on Viet Nam there.
Over the next few years, I often visited Iraq and wrote several books
(/The United States and the Arab World, The Elusive Peace: The Middle
East in the Twentieth Century, /etc.). I visited Iraq a few days before
the invasion and discussed with Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz how it
might have been avoided. I then reported at the School of Advanced
International Affairs in Washington what I thought could have
accomplished the purposes of the American government while preventing
the tragic events that followed the invasion. Obviously, I failed.
But as I read and heard what was being reported, I was appalled by the
lack of understanding of Iraq by almost all journalists and most
officials. With one outstanding exception, a former student of mine,
Ambassador Hume Horan, no one even in Paul Bremer’s administration knew
Arabic and had a sophisticated understanding of Iraq. So I wrote a
primer on the subject entitled /Understanding Iraq/. After reading that,
Senator George McGovern, whom I have long admired as a man of rare
integrity, suggested that we write together the book that laid out
clearly and succinctly how we got into Iraq, what happened to us, the
Iraqis and our position in the world when we did, how we could extricate
ourselves with the least possible damage to ourselves, Iraq, and our
reputation, and what will happen if we do not. That project became /Out
of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now/ (Simon & Schuster, October
2. Of the insurgencies you have studied, which ones provide the most
relevant experience for the situation in Iraq? What do we learn from them?
Obviously, all insurgencies are somewhat different because they arise in
countries with different cultures and experiences. However, there are
persistent themes. Let me tick off a few:
The first is that most are directed toward getting foreigners to leave.
That was true of our own insurgency, The American Revolution; it was the
main theme in the Spanish /guerrilla /against Napoleon, the Philippine
Insurrection against us, the Irish struggle against the British, Tito’s
war against the German occupiers of Yugoslavia, the Vietnamese war
against the French colonialists and subsequently against us, the
Algerian war of national independence against the French, the Afghan and
Chechen wars against the Russians and a number of others – the twentieth
century produced a remarkable array of guerrilla wars!
A second theme is that insurgencies seem to follow a more or less set
pattern. They usually start very small, often with only a dozen or so
determined men and women. Such groups are too small to conduct guerrilla
warfare so they usually begin with terrorism. Then, if they are
successful enough to gather more followers, arms, and money, they
gradually move toward larger forms of combat, eventually acquiring the
wherewithal to conduct guerrilla warfare.
That form of combat is usually very difficult to counter because the
guerrillas are elusive. Napoleon, fighting the Spanish guerrillas lost
almost as many men (about 300,000) as in his much better known invasion
of Russia (400,000). This stage of insurgency is a bit like ju-jitsu: it
uses the numbers and power of the occupying power against itself. But it
is usually not satisfactory to the insurgent leaders: they want to move
toward parity with the armed forces of their enemies so they put aside
as fast as they can guerrilla tactics and structure and organize
themselves into formal armies. That was what George Washington did in
our Revolution and what Tito did in his.
At that point, the leaders often turn on the guerrillas and suppress
them. That is what Eamon De Valera did in Ireland and Ben Bella did in
Algeria. They can do this because they or their movements have
accomplished the fundamental aim of the insurgency, getting rid of the
foreigners, so that many of their supporters are satisfied and want to
return to normal life. That, I believe, could be critical in Iraq once
the Americans leave.
A third theme arises from this. It is that without popular support,
insurgents are powerless. Mao Tse-tung reflected this in his famous
analogy of the fish and the sea. The actual combatants are the fish;
they must be supported by the people, the sea, or they die. Viet Nam is
a powerful example of the failure of “counterinsurgency.” There (and in
Iraq today) America is attacking the “fish.” We have about 16,000 of
them in prisons today and have killed an unknown number of thousands.
These figures multiplied describe what we did in Viet Nam. But, the
“sea” keeps on producing more “fish.” We were so frustrated there that
we tried (as did the Russians in Afghanistan) to destroy the country.
Neither the Russians nor we could do it. What Viet Nam should have
taught us is that the only way to end the war is to get out.
The fourth theme is one that is most often either overlooked or
downplayed. It is that insurgency is /not about military combat so much
as about politics/. I have a shelf full of books that dwell on weapons,
tactics, even uniforms of combatants, but very few observers have
grasped the central point that all successful guerrilla leaders have
known: either the people are brought aboard politically or the movement
The last theme I will mention here directly pertains to Iraq but is also
demonstrated in Algeria: when the insurgency and the counterinsurgency
last a long time, both the natives and the foreigners become brutalized.
Pushed further, societies implode. Algeria, nearly half a century after
achieving independence still has not recovered its civic “balance.” That
process is now at work in Iraq. It is a wounded society and will take a
generation or so to return to “normality.” The longer we stay, the
harder it will be. And, let us not forget, the costs to us will also
rise as we have discussed in /Out of Iraq./*/
3. When I wrote about "Out of Iraq," the book you wrote with Senator
McGovern and mention your view on violence subsiding after the
occupation ends, perhaps with a brief spike in violence, the common
critical reaction I get is -- "yes, but this is no longer an insurgency.
It is a civil war and when we leave it will escalate. The Shia'a
majority will punish the Sunni minority, they will be supported by Iran
and the Sunni by Saudi Arabia. Thus, this civil war will escalate into a
regional war." I expect that civil wars are not an uncommon bi-product
of occupation because very often the occupying power uses people from
the occupied country to help control the population, i.e. divide and
rule. This can easily develop into a civil war. Do any of the
insurgencies you study provide lessons for the type of sectarian war we
are seeing in Iraq? How do you think the end of the occupation will
impact this internecine warfare?
*Of course no one knows exactly what will happen when we leave. It would
be as naïve to suggest that the next day all would be sweetness and
light as it was when the Neoconservatives told us the Iraqis would greet
us with flowers in their hands. There will be a difficult and bloody
period. We have not been able to stop it with about 150,000 troops in
However, we argue that, based on what is known of other insurgencies,
once the major irritant – us -- is removed, conditions can be created
for a healing of the wounds. To encourage and promote that process, we
advocate a careful program including a “stabilization force” under the
UN working /for/ the Iraq government to police the major facilities
(roads, hospitals, schools, banks, factories, etc.). This force would
not engage in counterinsurgency and would have a limited mandate so the
things that have made an American presence unacceptable will be lessened.
The civil war, which of course, is already going on cannot be
immediately stopped. We recognize that. If we look back at Viet Nam, we
see that it was extremely bitter during the American period. As Neil
Sheehan pointed out in his excellent /A Bright and Shining Lie/, during
the Tet Offensive it involved in just a few days the death of about
3,000 people of whom some where shot, others beheaded and still others
buried alive. In short, it was as bad as the worst of Iraq today. In
Algeria, during the last week of the war, when I was in Algiers city,
some 16,000 people were summarily executed. Then, when the the French
out of Algeria, the terror abated and then stopped. The consensus on
Viet Nam was that there would be a national bloodbath when we pulled
out. There was a painful period. Many people were killed and more were
imprisoned or otherwise harmed but there was nothing like the bloodbath
that had been predicted.
It is unrealistic to think that the Iraqis will be more gentle than the
Algerians or the Vietnamese. But, equally, there is no reason to think
that they will necessarily be more bloodthirsty. Much will depend on
when and how we get out.
We stress in our book that much will depend on the Iraqi government. The
present government is certainly regarded as an American creation and
will have trouble containing the violence. We believe that there will be
an interval between an American withdrawal and the emergence of some
sort of consensus. That is the dangerous period. My hunch, based on
other insurgencies, is that the current government will lose control and
be replaced over a year or so but that during this period there will be
stages during which the UN-sponsored stabilization force can ameliorate
the worst and gradually, as a new, more broadly supported government
begins to take over, restore an acceptable degree of order. Local
militias, to the degree that they can be encouraged to work within their
own neighborhoods, will be beneficial. Perhaps most important, as the
public works projects we call for take hold, the socially destructive
high rate of unemployment (as much as 50% in much of Iraq) will decline,
and as exiles begin to trickle back to rebuild public health, etc.-- the
various parts of the program we have outlined – piece by piece, people
will demand that the gunmen stop shooting. Without public support, they
will become vulnerable.
We are realists and know how hard it will be to coax the genie back into
the bottle, but there is no other way. The longer we stay, the harder
will be the process. So we have laid out what we believe is /the best
possible means, given the very difficult situation the American invasion
and occupation has created/. It will certainly not be perfect, but we
have sought to mobilize every possible means to ameliorate the current
tragedy and work toward a better future. As I have said, other
insurgencies suggest that once the central aim, getting rid of the
invader, is achieved, enough people want a return to normal life that
there is something with which to work. Today, and as long as we stay,
there is not.
The idea that when we leave, Iraq will be invaded by Iran, Syria, Kuwait
or Saudi Arabia is a red herring. None of those countries would have
anything close to the capacity we have. And none of them would be any
more successful. There is every sign that their leaders realize this.
Moreover, their history and recent policies suggest that they have no
such idea in mind.
4. Your exit proposal contains many parts. If various parts are not met
is exit conditional or will exit proceed no matter what happens
regarding reconstruction funds, a stabilization force or other aspects
of your proposal?
*If our exit is conditional on the Iraqis doing what we want them to do,
they will keep on fighting. Our intention must be clear and definite if
we want the war to wind down. The best we can do is to make possible (by
helping to finance) what we think are intelligent moves (e.g. hiring a
stabilization force while building a national police force) and by not
helping to finance those that are counter-productive (e.g.
reconstituting a national army which so often in the past has suppressed
moves toward peaceful and representative government and empowered
dictators). Most of the proposals we make will serve the healing
process. We would hope that whatever Iraqi government emerges will see
merit in them, but we Americans must give up the idea that we can tell
them what to do. We cannot if we want the war to stop.
5. It seems that the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Working Group is going to
advocate that a bit less than half the troops leave in a short amount of
time (with the timing currently unspecified). This also seems to be the
position of many leading Democrats -- start a withdrawal process this
year, but without any discussion of actually completing the withdrawal.
What does your experience show you about these types of middle ground
approaches when the occupying country is not ready to face the reality
of defeat, but at the same time is not ready to increase their
involvement in the occupation. Any lessons? What do you think of this
*Compromise positions always appear attractive. They seem more sensible,
more realistic, less dangerous. They protect reputations. They proclaim
progress. But consider one episode in our past when we opted for this
“solution.” We were in the quagmire of Vietnam in 1968 and things were
bad. The Tet offensive had shown that we could not win the war. So what
to do? The compromise first Johnson and then Nixon chose was gradually
to cut back our troops as some now advocate for Iraq. But, the Viet Nam
war kept going until our last people left from the roof of a Saigon
building in helicopters four years later. During those years, almost
21,000 Americans were killed and over 50,000 seriously wounded.
Our plan would, among other things, halt the killing of Americans which
surely will continue, and probably grow, if we just scale back. Is this
a perfect solution? Obviously not. Is it better than any known
alternatives. Yes, we think it is.
6. Before the recent mid-term election a Bush Administration official
asked "How would [the Democrats] force the president to withdraw troops?
Yell?" The Democrats can yell, i.e. hold hearings that show how bad Iraq
is, how poorly managed an occupation it has been, all the mistakes that
have been made or pass resolutions calling for withdrawal. But, all this
will amount to nothing if the president decides the U.S. is staying. The
only real power the Democratic Congress has to direct the withdrawal is
the power of the purse. This power seems to be something the Speaker of
the House and the Majority Leader have taken off the table. Should it be
a power Congress uses? Is there any other way for Congress to really end
*In the American system, the key role of the legislature, of course, is
to fund or not fund what the executive wants to do. The power of the
purse is its ultimate power. It is a crude power and few legislators
will wish to use it except as a last resort.
The legislature, however, has a second, more subtle and ultimately more
important role. It is to act as the school for the public. It has the
authority to demand and make public information, the lack of which was
extremely detrimental to America in recent years. Such information may
be considered something like a text book for the public; the legislature
can use it to conduct “school.” This is what Senator William Fulbright
did during the Viet Nam war. He educated the Congress and the American
public. Something like what he did is needed now.
It is also enormously important that the press play a role in this
educational process. It was a long time in doing so in Viet Nam and has
been particularly inadequate on the Iraq.
But the buck stops with us, the citizens: no other agency, neither the
Congress nor the press, is going to do our job for us. We have the
obligation to inform ourselves. Sadly, we are more inclined to watch
sports or soapbox opera than the (few) intelligent programs of thought
and information available on radio or TV. Worse, our school system
produces young people who do not even know where other countries are,
much less anything about their politics, culture or aspirations. As the
Roper pollsters found, after three years of the Iraq war, few young
college students could even find it on a map.
A president can, at least for a time, obscure or deny objections to any
policy, as Johnson did and as Bush is doing. But, let us be honest: we
get the government we deserve.
7. What should the anti-war movement be doing to make sure this war ends
as quickly as possible?
*The key factor in the protests against Viet Nam was the draft. By using
only the “volunteer army,” the Bush administration has avoided most
protests. Few American families have to worry about having sons and
daughters incapacitated or killed unless they choose to put themselves
in harm’s way. So new recruits are increasingly drawn from those who
seek to escape from deprived backgrounds.
The Administration has also shrewdly lessened the pain of the war’s cost
by huge borrowings abroad which enabled it to cut taxes. The public so
far does not seem to care that also cut were social services which had
made our society more humane, more fulfilled and stronger.
Initially, it sought to shield us from disturbing sights like coffins
containing our dead which were virtually sneaked into the country. The
public also seemed willing to have the true horror of war masked or at
least cleaned up for it. Television programs show combat just like we
know it from the movies, not as it really happens in filth, blood and
pain, because, as one TV executive put it, “Americans don’t want their
breakfasts spoiled with obscene pictures.”
So what to do? There is no easy answer. But a first step is to face the
realities: we have had over 2,800 young men and women killed. There
would have been many more but for the superb medical technology we have.
Well over 20,000 have been wounded of whom about half will never
recover. And additional 40,000 or perhaps many more have suffered severe
psychological damage and about an additional 50,000 have received severe
or multiple concussions. Thousands more will develop cancer or have
malformed children as a result of the explosion of depleted uranium
shells (which as the noted biologist, Dr. Hans Noll has informed me),
generate an extremely toxic form of uranium oxide in the form of U3O8.
Dr. Noll says that “there is persuasive evidence that most of the Gulf
War Syndrome is caused by the neurotoxicity of U3O8 and not by
post-traumatic stress disorder, as claimed by the Pentagon.” The victims
will pay for these effects for the rest of their lives – and so will tax
payers. I find that Americans do feel the pain when hit in that most
sensitive of organs, their pocket books. When I have mentioned to
audiences around America the costs estimated by some of our very best
economists, between $1 and $2 /trillion/, that got the attention of even
the most bellicose.
We have a long way to go.
William R. Polk
669 Chemin de la Sine
F-06140 Vence France
fax: +33-493 24 08 77