Iraq Policy and Political Theater Come Under Review at Kennedy School

September 18, 2007
Robert O'Neill

A panel of Kennedy School experts offered a clinical dissection of Iraq policy Tuesday after a week of heady political theater in Washington focusing on the success of the U.S. troop surge.

The discussion followed the appearance on Capitol Hill last week of the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. The general’s much anticipated report indicated troop levels could be cut over the coming months to their pre-surge levels, about 130,000, but that those decisions should depend on conditions in the country.

University Professor and former dean Joseph Nye lead a panel that included Graham Allison, former dean and director of the Belfer Center; Linda Bilmes, lecturer in public policy and author on an influential study on the cost of the Iraq war; Tad Oesltrom, a retired Air Force general and director of the National Security Program; Sarah Sewall, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy; and Clay Shaw, an Institute of Politics fall fellow and former Florida congressman.

Offering a breadth of opinions on the issue, panelists seemed to unite in describing a situation with fewer and fewer strategic, political, diplomatic and economic options.

The reduction of troops in coming months would be driven not so much by success on the ground as “by the organizational gravity of the decisions that were made previously given how many combat brigades exist,” argued Allison.

Those troops would also be torn between a mission of counterinsurgency and a greater “overwatch” role, Oelstrom said.

Few panelists seemed to hold an optimistic view for the future of Iraq.

“I see the fragmentation as already occurring and the real question is how to manage the consequences of that,” Sewall said.

The financial costs of the war are also enormous, Bilmes said, with the U.S. having spent or committed to spending over a trillion dollars.

However bad the current situation may be, the alternative – a U.S. pullout – would be “unthinkable,” argued Shaw. A minority among the panelists, he described himself as cautiously optimistic. “But that’s what I said before I lost the last election,” he quipped.

To watch a video of the event, visit the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum archive.

Photos: Martha Stewart

Forum particpants image

(L-R) Tad Oelstrom, director of the Kennedy School's National Security Program; Sarah Sewall, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy; and Clay Shaw, IOP Fellow and former Florida congressman.

Forum moderators image

(L-R) Joseph Nye (Moderator) Harvard University distinguished service professor, and Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center.

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