Cole on Lehrer News Hour & Bush Legacy in Iraq

My debate with Michael Rubin about the Bush legacy in Iraq on the Lehrer News Hour for December 15 is now available at the PBS site, with a transcript and streaming video.

Here are some excerpts from the transcript:

‘ RAY SUAREZ: Professor Cole, let me start with you. Over the weekend, President Bush said, “Our plan is working. Today, violence is down dramatically; Al Qaeda is driven from its safe havens. Sunnis, Shia and Kurds are sitting together to peacefully plot the future of the country.” Is he right?

JUAN COLE, University of Michigan: Well, I wish he were right. It would be so wonderful for the Iraqis if he were right. But virtually none of that is true.

Baghdad has been ethnically cleansed, [of] the majority of it[s] Sunni Arabs. There are lively fights between Arabs and Kurds in the north. Prime Minister al-Maliki is being accused by the Kurds of developing a militia among Arab tribes people loyal to the prime minister that has come into conflict with the Kurds.

Social peace is very far away. Four hundred attacks a month, still several hundred civilians killed every month. Three bombings in Baghdad, wounding nearly 20 people, on the very day that Bush was in Baghdad.

In comparison to the almost apocalyptic violence of a year-and-a-half ago, sure, there is improvement in some of the statistics. But if this were any other country in the world, it would be considered a very serious crisis. . .

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Cole . . . Will Iraq be ready on the SOFA date in 2011?

JUAN COLE: Well, I don’t know whether Iraq will be ready on the SOFA date, but it’s very clear that the Iraqi people want the U.S. troops out of their country.

They were initially approached for a status-of-forces agreement by the Bush administration with no deadline for or timetable for U.S. withdrawal. They were offered a SOFA in which the U.S. would continue to control Iraqi air space, the seas around Iraq, would decide when and where to launch unilaterally military operations in the country, would arrest Iraqis at will.

All of those provisions were knocked down by the Iraqi cabinet, by the Iraqi parliament, by Grand Ayatollah Sistani. So they don’t want U.S. troops there in these kinds of numbers, in this kind of role. And they’ve spoken, really, as a matter of national sovereignty in that regard.

Whether the U.S. withdrawal will allow a resurgence of violence is a question we can’t know the answer to. But it should be pointed out that, while the United States has been there, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, have died in violence. Entire cities have changed their social complexion through violence. There’s been ongoing killing and destruction.

So the U.S. presence has not been a guarantee of social peace in any case.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what have the Iraqis, Professor, concluded about the state of Iraq this many years on? No matter whether they agreed with the U.S. or U.S. strategy or intentions for the region, do they find the country a more livable, safer, freer place, as the president said over the weekend?

JUAN COLE: Well, I don’t think anybody in Iraq thinks it’s safer. Iraq was very dangerous during the Saddam period for anyone who was involved actively in politics. But for people who weren’t, there wasn’t a danger in sending your child to school or in going shopping.

People report on the ground that the wealthy in Iraq still bring bodyguards when they go to the mall. And so, no, it’s not. It’s not safer. There’s social discontents with regard to security.

And, you know, freedom does not consist in simply elections. The elections that have been held so far were such the people didn’t even know the identities of the representatives for whom they were supposedly voting.

So, I mean, I think Iraqis have mixed feelings when you talk to them. Most people were happy to see the back of Saddam Hussein, but they were humiliated by a foreign military occupation.

What being a Muslim Arab has been about in the 20th century was getting rid of European colonialism. Nobody liked to see the analogue of that from America coming into their country.

And I think they feel that the United States made severe errors that exacerbated the situation and caused enormous destruction.

The U.S. has been bombing civilian tenement buildings. It’s conducted large-scale military operations in civilian areas. There have been so many deaths, and few Iraqis have been left untouched by this.’