Before Dan Senor joined Fox News as an analyst, he spent the first 15 months of the Iraq war in Baghdad as a senior adviser and chief spokesman for Paul Bremer, the administrator of the Iraq Coalition Provisional Authority. Senor, who recently married NBC weekend "Today Show" co-anchor Campbell Brown, has worked with the Bush White House and remains a staunch supporter of the Iraq war. I talked to him Thursday by telephone from Washington, D.C.
Are things getting better or worse in Iraq in terms of our being able to extricate ourselves with honor anytime soon?
I don’t think we should extricate ourselves anytime soon. I think that would be a mistake. I think there are two trend lines in Iraq right now. One is quite positive and one is murky and complicated and not nearly as positive.
The positive trend line is the political process. There is no doubt in less than three years you have had three elections in Iraq. Tens of millions of Iraqis have turned out to vote, and they have been Kurds and Shiites and Sunnis and Christians and men and women. It’s quite impressive, and anyone who tells you that the Arab-Muslim world isn’t capable of democracy, or that there’s something in the Arab-Muslim DNA that precludes them from participating in a democratic process, all they need to do is look at Iraq, which turns that conventional wisdom on its head.
The security situation, however, isn’t nearly as positive. The insurgency is resilient. You have a problem with these sectarian militias that have been filling the security vacuum in parts of the country. By filling the vacuum, they often wind up making the security situation even worse and more complicated. The fundamental challenge is, can we secure the country so there is enough space for the political leaders — who are elected by the Iraqi people and the intelligentsia and the elites — to build the necessary institutions for Iraqi democratic independence? That’s what is unknown now — whether we can create that secure space. That’s why I don’t see anytime soon that we can depart, because we would take an insecure situation and make it even more insecure.
Did Zarqawi’s death have a real effect in Iraq, and did it help the U.S. in any real ways?
Yes. It helped the U.S. in fundamental ways. These terrorist organizations thrive under leadership that is typically personified by cults of personality. The persona of the leader of a terror movement is important for two reasons. One, it is important for recruitment. It is important to have a charismatic, ever-present leader to recruit, and Jordanian intelligence shows that he was personally involved in recruitment from foreign countries like Syria and Iran. The persona of the leader is important for intimidation. Many of the tribal leaders and local leaders of some of these Sunni towns talked specifically about being personally intimated by Zarqawi, and that’s why they were sitting on the fence or passively supporting the insurgency.
Secondly, terror organizations are paranoid in terms of their secrecy and their distrust of outsiders. The leadership around Zarqawi, the lieutenants, are now going to be doubly paranoid because it’s clear that someone within their orbit was the one who provided the intelligence to lead U.S. forces to Zarqawi’s safe house. So that makes it even harder for them to operate. They have to be even more risk averse.
Thirdly, getting him was important because we were able to access this quote-unquote "treasure trove" of intelligence. So for those reasons, his capture has operational significance.
There is a move coming to try to snuff out the violence in Baghdad, where 1,500 Iraqis were killed last month, not counting car bombs. What will it take to tame that violence?
We will not be successful in Iraq if we aren’t successful in Baghdad. If we cannot secure Baghdad, we can forget about the rest of Iraq. It’s not only the governmental and political capital of the country, it’s the media capital, it’s the financial capital. Six million Iraqis live in Baghdad. What we need to do is effectively turn all of Baghdad into one big Green Zone. …
I lived in the Green Zone. It works and is basically secure for a few reasons. One, there is a disproportionate concentration of coalition forces there. There are check points every 10 feet, basically. Two, you get the impression that there is no room for anarchy in the Green Zone. It is a part of the city that is under strict law and order control, which is a stark contrast to the rest of the city, where you kind of feel that anything goes. So effectively, what is important — and they may be doing this, it remains to be seen — is to take the lessons learned in the Green Zone and expand them to the rest of the city. …
If we can secure Baghdad and cut or reduce the weekly or daily carnage, it will send a signal to the entire country that we are serious about staying and serious about winning.
How long do you think U.S. troops will have to stay in Iraq? Isn’t it pretty obvious that some troops will be there essentially forever — in the same way we are in South Korea?
I think it’s impossible to make that projection three years into the conflict. I really do. I think we will be there for years, not months. How many years, I don’t know. But I think it would be irresponsible to think in terms any less than years.
Again, it’s way too early in this effort to get a sense of that. We don’t even have to think about that now. We have an agreement with the local Iraqi government and the United Nations that allows us to have well over 100,000 troops there, and temporary bases, and a real presence, and moderately permissive rules of engagement.
What is the biggest lesson that your experience in Iraq taught you about nation-building or nation re-building?
One is, the institutions in Iraq that have been most successful are those that involved very direct, very aggressive and very visible American engagement. The institutions that have failed, by and large, are those where we had a very hands-off attitude, where we came with this very naive attitude — "It’s up to the Iraqis. The Iraqis are in control of their destiny. Let them be in charge." The Iraqis are not in control of their destiny, and we should have disabused ourselves of that notion very early on. They have a big role in influencing their destiny, but so do we.
When you say institutions, you mean …?
Security forces. You’ve got two examples, one Iraqi security force that has been successful and one that has been unsuccessful. The Iraqi army by and large has held together. It is basically a multi-ethnic security force that has remained unified, where a majority of the Iraqi soldiers are loyal to a unified national government. In the midst of some of the country’s biggest crises, including the sectarian flare-ups of a few months ago, the Iraqi army has basically held together. That was an army that was built from scratch — by recruiting Iraqis who had served in the old security services, but who were recruited to serve in a new army that was built from the bottom up and under direct control of American forces.
Contrast that with the Iraqi police force, which was the exact opposite. We basically just called back the old Saddam Iraqi police force and hoped that by putting it under new management it would perform and let the Iraqis just basically control it. The Iraqi police force has been completely infiltrated by sectarian militias. The Ministry of Interior, which has oversight over the police force, has been infiltrated by sectarian militias, and a lot of the sectarian violence today is being played out by people in Iraqi police uniforms. And that was an institution where we really tried to go overboard to respect Iraqi sovereignty and it’s turned into a little bit of a mess.
And one other thing: This idea that Iraqis don’t want us there and we need to bend over backwards to be respectful of that is also disconnected from reality. Iraqis like to blame us, they like to complain about us, but they don’t want us to leave. Iraqis feel more secure, by and large, when we are engaged and assertive and present. That’s probably why the president’s trip to Iraq was so important this week, because it demonstrated American assertiveness, American engagement, American commitment. Iraqis want to know that we are not going to abandon the country.
You still have no second thoughts about the invasion of Iraq — that it was worth the cost.
Look. It is something I think about every single day. And certainly every day there is news about Americans getting killed and Iraqis getting killed. It is something I wrestle with. But given the alternatives and given the options and given what we knew at the time, I don’t see a scenario where we could have left Saddam Hussein in power and basically left the Middle East untouched and hoped that the region would transform by itself into a more democratic place where dictatorial governments are held more accountable. That doesn’t happen by itself and it would have been naive to think that we could have just sort of turned our back and hoped that the region would improve and pose less of a threat to the United States.
Based on your experiences, what makes you confident that if and when the U.S. pulls out, that Iraq will be able to govern itself?
Two things: One, you can’t have a democratic society without three important elements. One is the buy-in from the average citizen. And the average citizen has demonstrated over and over (in three elections) that they want a democratic society where leaders are chosen by the citizenry and are held accountable by them.
Two, you have to have the political intelligentsia and cultural elites committed to a democratic process. And they have demonstrated that over and over, even under tremendous political strain. When there were efforts to provoke major sectarian tension, the two institutions that actually hung together were the national government — the political leadership that was comprised of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds — and the national army. So the leaders are committed.
Three, you need institutions. The institutions — the sort of checks and balances — are the shock absorbers of a civil society. And they are what prevent leaders who get elected through the ballot box from taking that power and being abusive with it. And there are things like a Constitution in Iraq, which is one of the most progressive in the region, let alone the world, that has given a lot of rights to women, to minorities. … Those sorts of institutions become more and more entrenched in Iraqi society. Iraqis begin to feel a sense of ownership about them, and they are not going to let go of them so quickly.