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Is the United States Coddling Iraq?


Robert Gates agreed this morning with the premise that the U.S. is not winning in Iraq, but he also said we're not losing. As to why, one theory that's been advance is that the U.S. just hasn't been demanding enough of Iraqi leaders.

In a memo that surfaced this weekend, outgoing defense chief Donald Rumsfeld wrote that the U.S. should consider withdrawing a small number of forces, quote, “so Iraqis know they have pull-up their socks.”

I don't know if it's sock pulling or some other treat of diplomacy, but news out of Iraq today is that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has called for a regional conference among Iraqi's neighbors.

Joining us to talk about it is Dan Murphy, the Middle East correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor.

And Dan, we know Maliki had the public support of the White House. But in a memo from the desk of National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, we saw the doubts that the White House had about him - about his competence, maybe even his intentions. What do Iraq's neighbors think of the prime minister?

Mr. DAN MURPHY (Correspondent, Christian Science Monitor): Well, I mean, you've got to remember that Iran is a different case because they're Shiite. The Dawa Party is Islamist-Shiite Party. They have some things in common. Everybody else are Sunni Arabs, and they're terrified of sort of Shiite hegemony in Iraq.

Countries like Jordan and Saudi Arabia - probably are two of our three most closest allies in the region - are very uncomfortable with him. And they're very uncomfortable with the overall Shiite ascendancy in the country.

PESCA: But it doesn't have to do with his personality or him in particular. It's the sect he comes from and who he represents.

Mr. MURPHY: Yeah. I mean, yeah. If they have doubts, it's the political party and the things he believes. It's not a question of his personal style.

PESCA: One of the arguments put forth recently by American officials seem to reflect an anger or frustration at Iraqis themselves. Here's Trent Lott, senator, on FOX News Sunday. And he's talking about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

(Soundbite of FOX News interview)

Senator TRENT LOTT (Republican, Mississippi): I think we're going to have to be very aggressive and specific with him. And if he doesn't show real leadership, doesn't try to bring the situation under control - if in fact he becomes a part of the problem, we're going to have to make some tough decisions.

PESCA: Senator Trent Lott there, saying that the Iraqis will have to decide what they want to do. Donald Rumsfeld says they have to pull up their socks. What's behind this criticism?

Mr. MURPHY: It's just astonishing. I mean, this whole pulling up their socks argument implies that, as a matter of fact, Iraqis do prefer to live amidst chaos and bloodshed, or that they are lazy or incompetent. And certainly, we share none of the blame for what's gone wrong there. It's just astonishing to me. This fundamental misunderstanding that comments like Senator Lott's imply - that he and people like him have - is that what's going in Iraq is not people being lazy or wanting to live in death and misery.

It's the fact that you have a very sectarian country, where two groups - predominantly the Shiite Arabs and the Sunni Arabs - are playing a winner takes all game for power. They're not interested in compromise. They're not interested in going up. They're working very, very hard to kill each other and defeat each other.

Now, while I agree it would be nice to see them decide that compromise and peace are better, to imply that somehow they're just childish and unwilling to live in peace and that's why there's a problem there, it reflects a profound ignorance, I guess, of Iraqi history.

PESCA: Donald Rumsfeld has also used an analogy of a parent teaching a child to ride a bike. He says we have to take the hand off the bicycle seat. He said that in his leaked memo, and it's quoted in Bob Woodward's recent book, too. Is there anything about that analogy you find apt?

Mr. MURPHY: Well, no. I mean, this thing about Rumsfeld's memo - it's essentially a blueprint for defeat as the administration has been defining it for three years now - basically, pull back and give up. I mean, if you think that Iraq is sort of some ally being stabilized by the steadying hand of America on the bicycle seat - if you believe that, as former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld seems to believe, then you can imagine what it would be like if you took the hand off the seat.

And taking the hand off the seat in that situation, if you buy his assumptions, means that you're going to have more chaos and more bloodshed, and probably more intervention by regional powers around Iraq like Saudi Arabia and Iran.

PESCA: Dan Murphy is the Middle East correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. He joined us from Cairo.

Thanks, Dan.

Mr. MURPHY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.