Powell: Iraq policy must change

Scott CondonAspen, CO Colorado
Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times
ALL | The Aspen Times

ASPEN President Bush could be forced to drastically alter his Iraq policy by the end of 2007, former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told an audience Thursday at the Aspen Ideas Festival.If the violence doesn’t ease between the majority Shiite and minority Sunni Muslims, and the Iraq government cannot oversee the country effectively, then the U.S. must reduce troops levels, Powell said.Political pressure will force the president to “face the situation on the ground” and acknowledge that conditions aren’t what he would like them to be, Powell said.PBS broadcast journalist Jim Lehrer questioned him about Iraq before a standing-room-only crowd in the Benedict Music Tent.Powell said he supported the president’s decision to send troops to Iraq as the only sure way to remove Saddam Hussein from power. He claimed Saddam had the ability and intent to develop and use weapons of mass destruction.But Powell stressed that the Bush administration’s policy has been largely flawed since Baghdad fell and Saddam’s regime was toppled April 9, 2003. The Bush administration wasn’t properly prepared to occupy an Arab country with its deep-seeded and ancient animosities among its people.

“It was the lack of planning for these later phases and the things that got out of control that got us to this point,” he said.Clearly, support for an ongoing U.S. military presence in Iraq at current levels doesn’t exist, Powell said. He pointed to the sweeping Democratic victory in November’s election, the president’s dismal approval ratings and recent calls by key Republican senators to change the Iraq policy as evidence that support has waned.Politics aside, the volunteer army cannot maintain the existing presence in Iraq, according to Powell, a retired four-star general who also served as chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Even with 100,000 additional troops, it would be tough to continue its present mission in Iraq.”You can’t sit there forever on the lid of this sectarian stew,” he said.But he warned that a change in policy will require great care. The U.S. cannot “blow a whistle one morning and [have] all 180,000 American forces just leave,” Powell said.He painted a bleak picture of what could be next for the troubled country. The lid could blow on the civil war and it could become “a test of arms” that “isn’t pretty,” he said. There’s always a threat the violence could spill over to other countries in the Middle East.He advocated maintaining a smaller U.S. force in Iraq, strategic redeployment of troops in the region and intense diplomatic efforts.

“I think we should be talking to Syria and Iran,” Powell said. “You have to talk to people you dislike most in this dangerous world.”Powell’s assessment of Iraq followed an intense panel discussion on Iraq policy earlier in the day among U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein; Gen. Jack Keane, retired; and former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, which recommended policy.They met in the music tent in a discussion that NBC chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell moderated.Feinstein, D-Calif., said Congressional support for the war in Iraq might fail before year’s end: “What’s happening is patience has worn thin,” she said. “I do believe there’s going to be a bellwether that changes this fall.”She drew loud applause from the audience when she noted the troops that are dying are so young and declared, “The time has come for us to challenge the mission.”Keane claimed there is progress happening in Iraq that is going unreported. Sectarian violence is on the decline, he said, and support for al-Qaida is drying up. Keane visited Iraq in February and May, and found improved conditions, such as open schools and markets.

“Progress was relative to what it was before,” he acknowledged. The former general also admitted the mission was “wrong” for 3 1/2 years after the fall of Baghdad.Keane insisted that 2007 will be regarded as a “turning point” if funding for the troops is extended.Hamilton cited the comments by Feinstein and Keane to point out that the military and political timelines are at odds. The military seeks an extension; the politicians have reached the end. Some how, they must be reconciled, he said.Hamilton proposed a centrist position that attempts to salvage the situation in Iraq. That position featured pressure on the Iraqi government to improve its performance, getting Iraq military forces more effectively trained to they can take great responsibility and ease pressure on U.S. forces and increased diplomatic efforts in the entire region.”I do not agree with people who say it’s too late in Iraq,” Hamilton said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is