Return to Transcripts main page


Where ISIS Was Born: Iraq's Long Road To Hell. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired June 25, 2016 - 20:00   ET


[20:00:23] FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: In Baghdad today, bombs go off on average every 12 hours. The awful routine that follows each bomb looks hauntingly familiar to Americans who watch the Iraq war play out on television. Familiar except for this. After many bombings, Karim Wasfi plays his cello. He's the conductor of the Iraqi Orchestra. Sometimes he plays the Iraqi national anthem.

"My homeland," they sing. Life and hope are in your air.

GEORGE W. BUSH, 43RD U.S. PRESIDENT: I, George Walker Bush, do solemnly swear.

ZAKARIA: George W. Bush had a dream.

BUSH: So help me God.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Congratulations.

ZAKARIA: A vision where Saddam would fall, the people would rejoice, and Iraq would become a stable democracy. A beacon of hope breaking the endless cycle of tyranny and extremism in the Middle East.

But if you think this is just history, it isn't. Many politicians want to send more troops back into Iraq and into Syria as well. It's the only way to defeat ISIS, they say. But will another American intervention be more successful than the last one? This time it's crucial that we understand how the Iraq war went so terribly wrong.

Go back to the beginning of the story. It's tempting to ask what if. What if there had been someone who could have warned us what would happen if we invaded Iraq? In fact, there was one man who did just that.

DICK CHENEY, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Once you got to Iraq and took it over and took down Saddam Hussein's government, then what are you going to put in his place? That's a volatile part of the world and if you take down the central government in Iraq, you could easily end up seeing pieces of Iraq fly off. It's a quagmire.

ZAKARIA: That's right. Dick Cheney predicted Iraq would be a quagmire. Flash forward to 2003, now Vice President, Cheney appeared on "Meet the Press" with the late Tim Russert.

CHENEY: From the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will in fact be liberators. TIM RUSSERT, "MEET THE PRESS" FORMER HOST: If your analysis is not correct and we're not treated as liberators but conquerors and the Iraqis begin to resist, particularly in Baghdad, do you think the American people are prepared for a long, costly and bloody battle with a significant American casualties?

CHENEY: I don't think it's likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe we will be greeted as liberators.

ZAKARIA: So what changed Dick Cheney and why was George W. Bush so determined to go to war in Iraq?


CHENEY: It is just one of those awful moment.

RICHARD CLARKE, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COUNTERTERRORISM CZAR: 9/11 pushed him and Cheney into a very dark place.

I think it meant for George W. Bush, I have to prove that we're a tough guy. I have to prove that we can reshape the Middle East. Otherwise, the rest of my administration, various terrorists groups and tin pop dictators are going to take advantage of me.

ZAKARIA: Richard Clarke was in charge of counter terrorism in the White House on 9/11. It was that very night, Clarke says, when the Iraq war really began.

CLARKE: On the night of 9/11, we all meet in the situation room in the east wing, in the bunker. And Rumsfeld is there straight from pentagon which is still on fire at the time. And the President is there. And in that conversation, Rumsfeld starts talking about invading Iraq while the pentagon is still burning. The president, he said, you know, Saddam, Saddam. Find -- go back, look at everything. Find whether or not Saddam was involved.

ZAKARIA: So even as the fires of 9/11 still burned.

[20:05:02] BUSH: And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.

ZAKARIA: One of the most disastrous chapters in the history of American intelligence began, building a case to go to war against Saddam Hussein, even though he had nothing to do with The 9/11 attacks.

CLARKE: When you want to believe something and you say to the world, give me intelligence that says this, they will give you intelligence that says that.

ZAKARIA: Information was gathered fast. Many sources of Iraqi intelligence were barely vetted.

CLARKE: 9/11 changed everything.

ZAKARIA: And it changed Americans. CROWD: USA. USA.

ZAKARIA: George Bush rode a powerful wave of patriotism. American flags were everywhere.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To run out of probably 600,000 flags in a period of two couple days is just incredible.

ZAKARIA: The President's approval rating soared. And Republicans, Democrats and even journalists rallied around him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: George Bush is the President. He makes the decisions and, you know, it's just one American, wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where.

ZAKARIA: Americans did line up. Just three months after 9/11 the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan, against the Taliban who had sheltered Osama Bin Laden. Despite grim predictions from experts, the Taliban were toppled. Bolstering the Bush Administration's confidence and the nation's trust in it. So at the White House, the focus turned back to Iraq. The finding a justification for war.

BUSH: You can't distinguish between Al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror.

ZAKARIA: As the months went on, the rhetoric grew increasingly frightening.

BUSH: We cannot wait for the final proof. The smoking gun could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.

ZAKARIA: And there was a constant drum beat of one phrase, weapons of mass destruction.

CHENEY: Saddam Hussein's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction poses a grave danger.

BUSH: Saddam Hussein is a homicidal dictator who is addicted to weapons of mass destruction.

ZAKARIA: Not everyone was buying what the administration was selling. Though the majority of Americans supported the war, huge anti-war crowds filled the streets of New York, an opposition in Europe was fierce.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Police said 100,000 Marched in Paris alone.

ZAKARIA: France and Germany, among others refused to back the White House.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, he's Bush's bitch.

ZAKARIA: But Britain's Tony Blair Stood by George W. Bush.

TONY BLAIR, FORMER U.K. PRIME MINISTER: It's important we hold to the path that we've set out. ZAKARIA: And in this country, there were many experts who believed in George Bush's vision, that deposing Saddam Hussein could be the jolt the Middle East needed, that democracy was possible in Iraq. The final push to war came in February 2003.

WOLF BLITZER, LEAD POLITICAL ANCHOR: We're about to see a major historical event unfold live on television.

ZAKARIA: When secretary of state Colin Powell presented a powerful and persuasive case against Saddam to the United Nations.

COLLIN POWELL, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: We have firsthand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails. Ladies and gentlemen, these are sophisticated facilities. For example, they can produce Anthrax and much aligned in toxins. In fact they can produce enough dry biological agent in a single month to kill thousands upon thousands of people.

ZAKARIA: Everything you just heard Colin Powell say is not true.

POWELL: Leaving Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few more months or years is not an option.

ZAKARIA: There is no clear evidence that anyone knew it then but there were no mobile biological weapons factories.

POWELL: Let me turn now to nuclear weapons.

ZAKARIA: There was no nuclear weapons program, no weapons of mass destruction, period. It was a catastrophic failure of intelligence. Six weeks later, America went to war.

BUSH: My fellow citizens, at this hour American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.

[20:10:06] ZAKARIA: Operation Iraqi Freedom happened fast. Faced with a lightning U.S. led attack, Iraq's vast army melted away. Baghdad fell in less than three weeks, Saddam Hussein and his sons disappeared.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: U.S. intelligence officials say Saddam could be injured or even dead.

ZAKARIA: There was wild celebration in the streets. It looked as though George Bush's dream was going to come true. And then, all hell broke loose. Just weeks after Saddam was toppled, Iraq was in chaos, no one was in charge.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What happened to my country? Fighting, killing, stealing.

ZAKARIA: Virtually every government building was looted. Iraqis carried off everything they could find, electricity was out all over the country. Massive piles of garbage went uncollected.

PETER GALBRAITH, FORMER U.S. DIPLOMAT: There was an opportunity to win the hearts and minds and that was completely lost.

ZAKARIA: Children roamed the streets.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My school is closed, and my destiny is minute by minute lost.

ZAKARIA: Schools were closed indefinitely.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have to study. We have to study. You invade us. It's our country.

ZAKARIA: Gas lines were miles long in an oil rich country.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are three top priorities here, number one, water. Number two, water. Number Three, water.

ZAKARIA: Running water had been cut and in an increasingly desperate situation, rage boiled over.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who responsible all of those? I ask you. I ask all the world Why? Why? You don't know. I don't know. Who knows? Who knows? Who knows?


ZAKARIA: Back in Washington.

UNIDENTIFED MALE: Good afternoon. Given how predictable the lack of law and order was ...

ZAKARIA: Reporters confronted Donald Rumsfeld about the chaos.

RUMSFELD: It is a fundamental misunderstanding to see those images over and over and over again if some boy walking out with a vase and saying, "Oh my goodness, you didn't have a plan." That's nonsense. They know what they are doing and they're doing a terrific job and it's untidy and freedom is untidy and free people are free to make mistakes.

ZAKARIA: But the biggest mistake was this. Despite Rumsfeld assurances, it was clear. The United States did not have a plan for Post War Iraq.

As the chaos grew deeper, so did the divide between Iraq Sunni's and Shiites with no one in charge, Iraqis clung more tightly to what they knew, to members of their own clans and sects. Other Muslims began to look like the enemy. The seeds of civil war were zoned.

BUSH: Our country will be sending one of our -- the best citizens.

ZAKARIA: Enter Paul Bremer, two months after toppling Saddam, the president dispatched him to Iraq to try to clean up the mess.

BUSH: Mr. Ambassador, thanks for taking this honor. I'm proud of you. Good luck to you.

ZAKARIA: Good luck indeed.

GALBRAITH: He had never been to Iraq. He had never served in the Middle East. He had never served in a conflict situation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is indefinite seats.

ZAKARIA: And wait until you see what he did when he got to Iraq. That's next on the "Long Road to Hell".



UNIDENTIFED MALE: They're killed by now.

ZAKARIA: In May of 2003, Presidential Envoy Paul Bremer landed in a city that was spinning out of control.

PAUL BREMER, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ENVOY TO IRAQ: The city was on fire. All of the ministries had been looted. Police stations all over the country had been destroyed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: George Bush promised to keep people of Iraq safe.

ZAKARIA: Saving Iraq was up to a man who had never served in the Middle East, who spoke no Arabic and who had been given three weeks to prepare for his mission.

GALBRAITH: The only significant organization he had run was being ambassador to The Netherlands. It was astounding.

BUSH: Thank you for taking this honor. I'm proud of you.

ZAKARIA: Right away, within just a few days on the ground ...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We got to get moving.

ZAKARIA: ... Bremer issued two orders widely considered to be among the most calamitous ...

(Audio Gap)

GALBRAITH: They were disastrous.

ZAKARIA: The first was a decree, barring all members of Saddam's Ba'ath Party from holding government jobs.

BREMER: The Ba'athists will use their power to oppress the Iraqi people will be removed from office.

GALBRAITH: Several hundred thousand Iraqis who were the people who were the most advantaged to have had the best education, all these people lost their jobs.

ZAKARIA: And then, Bremer fired Saddam's army. A huge force of young Iraqi men mostly Sunnis turned out into the chaotic streets. Of course, they still had their guns.


ZAKARIA: General David Petraeus was fighting the Iraqi insurgency.

PETRAEUS: I said your policy is killing our troops. You've literally cast them out of the one institution that was actually respected in Iraq and now they have no future.

ZAKARIA: Many critics have pointed to Bremer's two orders as the reason for the Iraqi insurgency. Some say they even led to ISIS.

GALBRAITH: Many of the people who are today with the Islamic state on the military side are people from that army.

[20:20:04] ZAKARIA: Who approved the order? For years members of the Bush administration have pointed fingers at each other but for the first time Paul Bremer gave me a clear answer to the question.

Why does office have variously kind of pinned the blame on you?

BREMER: Not the president.

ZAKARIA: Not the president but ...

BREMER: No, the president hasn't.


BREMER: Yeah, well, he approved them.

ZAKARIA: He approved them?


ZAKARIA: George Bush has never taken clear responsibility but Bremer said, the idea to fire a Ba'ath party members came from this man, Doug Fieth was a key aid to Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon.

BREMER: The degree was drafted and was ready to be signed before I left. In fact, the day before I left under Secretary of Defense Doug Fieth showed me the draft and said we're going to issue this tomorrow.

ZAKARIA: Paul Bremer says de-Ba'athification was your idea.

DOUGLAS FEITH, FORMER UNDER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR POLICY: No, de- Ba'athification was something that was discussed inter agency for first months. And the decision was made that some degree of de- Ba'athification would be required. Ultimately Bremer, set up the mechanism for how the de-Ba'athification would be organized.

ZAKARIA: But it sure a status like everyone's pointing that meaning to say, everybody else.

FEITH: It does. A lot of the allegations are inaccurate. ZAKARIA: Doug Feith also played a key role in the original mistake. The false Prewar Intelligence that led to war. His office was tasked with looking at intelligence, some of which the CIA did not deem credible.

FEITH: Good morning.

The problem with the CIA was that it was sloppy over and over again.

ZAKARIA: Remember the intelligence George Bush asked for on the night of 9/11?

CHENEY: The president asked me "Saddam, Saddam, find -- go back, look at everything. Find whether or not Saddam was involved."

ZAKARIA: Doug Fieth found some of what the president was asking for. A 2007 pentagon investigation was highly critical of what he found and how he found it.

The inspector general report says that effectively that your office was cherry picking evidence and that that was inappropriate.

FEITH: No, the inspector general never said that. What the inspector general said, if you want to get into that, was develop, produce, and disseminate alternate intelligence assessment of the Iraq Al Qaeda relationship which will inconsistent with the consensus of the intelligence community, that for sure. Yes, we disagreed with the intelligence community.

ZAKARIA: So did Dick Cheney, he was quick to blame the CIA.

CHENEY: When George Tenet sat in the oval office and the president of the United States asked him directly, he said, "George, how good is the case against Saddam and weapons of mass destruction?" And the director of CIA said, "A slam dunk Mr. President, it's a slam dunk."

ZAKARIA: There has been no formal process to hold anyone accountable for the terrible misjudgments of the Iraq war. But one former administration official says there were more than just mistakes.

CLARKE: I think if you look at the technical definition of some war crimes, I think the United States committed war crimes.

ZAKARIA: There have been calls for war crime trials in England against Former Prime Minister Tony Blair. George Bush's staunch ally and partner during the war. Blair is the only person we spoke to for this program, who took responsibility for Iraq.

BLAIR: I can say that I apologize for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong. I can also apologize by the way for some of the mistakes and planning and certainly our mistake in our understanding of what would happen once you remove the regime. But I find it hard to apologize for removing Saddam. I think even from today in 2015, it is better that he's not there than that he is there.

ZAKARIA: Coming up next, the men who want to go back. DONAL TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You got to fight them. You got to fight them.

ZAKARIA: And the enemy we could face.

UNIDENTIFED MALE: Muhammad's army will come back in the future. Insha Allah.



ZAKARIA: 12 and a half years after George Bush's dream began.

BUSH: We will bring freedom to others and we will prevail.

ZAKARIA: Iraqis are running for their lives. Tens of thousands of them desperate to escape ISIS and many more are fleeing Syria.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're running now with these migrants and refugees.

ZAKARIA: All of them on a dangerous journey to reach Europe, to reach safety.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We hope to get Germany.

ZAKARIA: Governments, they are struggling with how to handle the gigantic numbers. Some are closing their borders or worse.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Put it over here, hold on.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. I can nail that tear gas now. They're chanting (inaudible).

ZAKARIA: The risks, the refugees take have become heartbreakingly clear. But still, they come because for many, the alternative is this.

The most dangerous band of thugs the world has ever seen.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people.

ZAKARIA: The beheadings, the mass murders, the rape and enslavement of women.

[20:30:00] All of it was born of the rage and chaos that have crippled the country since America first went into Iraq.

CLARKE: If it were not for the American invasion of Iraq, and the subsequent disbanding of the Iraqi army by the United States, there would be no ISIS.

Now this is Camp Bucca.

ZAKARIA: Indeed the seeds of ISIS grew at an American prison in the Iraqi desert. During the insurgency, the most dangerous Jihadis were locked up at Camp Bucca. In 2004, one of them was Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi, the future leader of ISIS.

ALI SOUFAN, FORMER FBI AGENT: He wasn't considered from everything that we know now, a high-level detainee. And he was allowed to lead prayers, he was allowed to give religious lessons.

ZAKARIA: That's right. The U.S. not only had al-Baghdadi in its custody, he was actually allowed to teach Islam to fellow inmates.

By 2014, al-Baghdadi's ISIS was declaring itself a caliphate, an Islamic state, and across the world, young Muslims heard the call.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm your brother in Islam here in Syria. I originally come from Canada.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Please all believers come who can make it come.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking foreign language).

TRUMP: We want to get ISIS.

ZAKARIA: All of it has led to angry calls from the presidential campaign trail.

Donald Trump is urging combat. Here he is on "60 Minutes."

TRUMP: With ISIS in Iraq you got to knock them out?

You got to fight them, you got to fight them.

SCOTT PELLEY, "60 MINUTES" HOST: On the ground?

TRUMP: If you need you're going to have to do it, yes.

PELLEY: Troops on the ground?


ZAKARIA: But go to war, where? How? The Obama administration has struggled to fight ISIS without actually going into ground combat. 3,500 troops are on the ground training Iraqi forces.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The Iraqi army abandoned its position.

ZAKARIA: The same forces who had famously run from battle when confronted by ISIS.

GALBRAITH: the Iraqi army outnumbered is 20 or 30 to 1 in Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, and basically surrendered it without a fight.

ZAKARIA: Perhaps the most important question is, does it make sense to go to war again in a country that at may not even be a country anymore? Listen to the people who know Iraq well.

GALBRAITH: Iraq doesn't exist except lines on a map.

RICHARD HAASS, FORMER DIRECTOR OF POLICY PLANNING STATE DEPT.: Most Iraqis no longer see themselves as Iraqis. They seem themselves as Shia or they seem themselves as Sunnis or they see themselves as Kurds, and U.S. foreign policy, like it or not, probably has to adapt to a post-Iraqi era. I keep saying the Rand McNally era of the Middle East has probably seen its day.

ZAKARIA: The map tells the story. Take a look. Up here in the north is Kurdish area, autonomous, largely self-governing called Kurdistan. South of Baghdad are Shiite areas, they comprise the majority of the country. In the middle, this large swath, one-third of Iraq which then spills into Syria and Sunni land. This is where is has taken control, this is what it has turned into a de facto Islamic State.

Iraq ends here but only on maps. The border between Iraq and Syria, drawn arbitrarily by the French and British after World War I, has become meaningless. Disaffected Sunnis inhabit most of this area and the Islamic State now controls large swaths of it as well. So any boots on the ground fight against is would likely have to be in both Iraq and Syria. A chaotic picture.

All of which leads back to one question. Can we fight ISIS in Iraq? When there really is no Iraq left.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: At the end of the day Fareed, we can't put that country together.

ZAKARIA: And as Iraq falls apart, the blame game escalates. President Bush or President Obama.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R) SOUTH CAROLINA: The person I blame is Barack Obama, not George W. BUSH.

ZAKARIA: When we return, the finger pointing versus the facts.



ZAKARIA: What put Iraq into precarious position it's in now? Was it the beginning, Bush's invasion, or the end, Obama's withdrawal?

BERNIE SANDERS, (D) U.S. PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We are here because of the disastrous blunder of the Bush-Cheney era which got us into this war in Iraq in the first place, which then developed the can of worms we're trying to deal with right now.

GRAHAM: When it comes to blaming people about Iraq, the person I blame is Barack Obama, not George W. Bush.

ZAKARIA: The American public is evenly split. 44 percent say it's Obama's fault, 43 percent say it's Bush's.

BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: The war in Iraq was unwise.

ZAKARIA: President Obama has said he was opposed to the Iraqi War from the start. And when he ran for president in 2008, he made an important pledge.

OBAMA: When I am commander-in-chief, I will set a new goal on day one. I will end this war.

ZAKARIA: Less than four years later, a little slower that be he originally hoped, the last American combat soldier left Iraq.

Bush Administration Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith says Obama's withdrawal bolstered both Iran and ISIS.

[20:40:00] FEITH: The thing that gave them the greatest opportunity was when President Obama decided to quit. And we killed our influence in the country.

ZAKARIA: Obama official Anthony Blinken says there's a hitch in Feith's argument, it wasn't Obama who set the withdrawal.

ANTHONY BLINKEN, DEPUTY SECRETARY OF STATE: In 2008 President Bush negotiated a status forces agreement with the governor of Iraq. And it provided that the United States and its forces would leave Iraq by the end of 2011.

ZAKARIA: Many of the participants in the process say the Obama administration didn't try hard enough, because at the end of the day, President Obama just wanted to get out.

BLINKEN: At the end of the day, the Iraqis wanted us out. That's what happened.

ZAKARIA: Those Iraqis were led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He had come into office promising to heal the country's sectarian divide. Instead, he inflamed it. Maliki met frequently with David Petraeus, when the general commanded all coalition forces in Iraq.

PETRAEUS: I'd love to have tested the proposition of 10,000 troops, and a three or four star operational commander might have given us the influence necessary to dissuade Prime Minister Maliki from some of the highly sectarian actions that he took.

ZAKARIA: 10,000 troops, a plan to leave a force of that size had been floated in Washington and Baghdad. It was a plan that never came to fruition.

PETRAEUS: I don't know whether 10,000 troops would have given us the leverage. I actually -- I suspect it might not have, but I would have liked to have tested the proposition.

ZAKARIA: It was never tested, some experts say because of Prime Minister Maliki. The New Yorker's Dexter Filkin reported that after Iran made sure Maliki was re-elected prime minister in 2010, Maliki then turned around and did a favor for Iran. He promised to expel all American forces before 2011 was over. Now back in 2006, it was George W. Bush who put Maliki in office in the first place, so does Bush bear the blame?

Richard Clarke made a point earlier on in which he tells us what he thinks.

CLARKE: If it were not for the American invasion of Iraq and the subsequent disbanding of the Iraqi army by the United States, there would be no ISIS. And ISIS is a direct outgrowth of the American invasion.

ZAKARIA: But Clarke's former colleague Douglas Feith sticks to his guns.

If today you knew what we know about what has happened in Iraq, would you going back have invaded Iraq? What's your answer?

FEITH: I think that the only meaningful way to approach that is to ask whether President Bush, knowing what he knew at the time, made the right decision, and I think he did.

ZAKARIA: Tony Blair, when he was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, was Bush's most public partner on the Iraqi War.

BLAIR: Of course you can't say that those of us who removed Saddam in 2003 bear no responsibility for the situation in 2015.

ZAKARIA: But Blair still wonders what was the alternative.

BLAIR: We have tried intervention and putting down troops in Iraq. We've tried intervention without putting in troops in Libya. And we've tried no intervention at all but demanding regime change in Syria. It's not clear to me that even if our policy did not work, subsequent policies have worked better.

ZAKARIA: Bush or Obama? Well, maybe there's another party to blame for the sad state of Iraq and the region.

HAASS: What's happened in the Middle East is in part the result of things we've done like the Iraqi War and things we haven't done like Syria or things we've done like Libya. There is -- any number of acts of co-mission (ph) and omission which historians will rightly take the United States and others to task for, but what's missing from this analysis is also local responsibility. This is a deeply flawed part of the world that never came to terms with modernity.

ZAKARIA: Next on credit. George W. Bush is rightly lauded for the one somewhat shining moment of hope in the entire Iraqi debacle. Inside the surge, when we come back.



ZAKARIA: The U.S.-led war in Iraq was filled with bloody and deadly violence. But there was a period of hope, a time when the bloodshed and violence abated. That brief period had its beginnings in some of the darkest days of despair.

January 10th, 2007. President George W. Bush goes before the American people to talk about the war effort.

BUSH: It is clear that we need to change our strategy in Iraq. The most urgent priority for success in Iraq is security.

ZAKARIA: Almost exactly a month later, General David Petraeus arrives in Baghdad after being named the new U.S. commander in Iraq. He had already done two long tours of duty in country. But what he sees this time around, almost four years after the war started was disturbing and different.

PETRAEUS: The first day -- full day in command I was traveling around Baghdad to see the situation there, which frankly was really, really quite horrifying. I had known these neighborhoods as thriving, bustling, prosperous areas.

[20:50:00] And in some cases, you know, they're completely blown up, people had moved out. In one case, it was almost metaphorical. There was literally tumbleweed blowing down this empty road.

ZAKARIA: The president had decided Iraq needed an influx of American troops to secure the peace. Petraeus had a plan to do just that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you mind if I ask what you do for a living?

ZAKARIA: And it started with this.

PETRAEUS: The only way to secure the people, the only way to ensure the security is to live with them, to be in the neighborhood 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

ZAKARIA: The general says this tactic was the exact opposite of what the United States had been doing in the prior months, pulling out of the cities and towns and neighborhoods of Iraq and retreating to massive U.S. bases.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's go. Move it.

ZAKARIA: In Petraeus's parlance, the new policy was, once the town was cleared of its malevolent forces, the next step was to hold it with American troops staying there in the town amongst the Iraqi civilians to make sure that the bad guys didn't come back. The other interesting innovation of the early surge was even more controversial. He needed to find a way to stop the Sunni insurgents from killing American troops and Iraqi civilians. They were an open rebellion against the government.

PETRAEUS: We had to give them incentives to support the new Iraq.

ZAKARIA: The idea was to give the Sunnis a piece of the pie.

PETRAEUS: They, you know, Iraq has a bounty of energy resources and water, the land and the two rivers, great farmland. It has incredible natural blessings, and they want to have their share of that. ZAKARIA: Petraeus and his commanders quickly turned that around by hiring those Sunni militias to work for them. The militias would now be paid to protect the very same groups of people they had been killing.

PETRAEUS: We made the shakes each with contractors and we were in contract with them for fixed site security just as we did with international security firms.

ZAKARIA: Those tactics and many others made the military surge work.

PETRAEUS: I think during the 19 1/2 months that I was privileged to command the multi-national force in Iraq violence went down by 80 or 85 percent. I meant it was incredible.

ZAKARIA: It was incredible until it stopped working, which it did as the United States began pulling back.

Coming up, my thoughts on the lessons of America in Iraq.



ZAKARIA: I've taken you down memory lane in this last hour, reminding you of all the choices made and their consequences.

So what do I make of it all? Well, let me first be honest with you and tell you what I made of it all at the time. I was in favor of the Iraqi War. I believed that a modern democracy in Iraq could be a new model of politics for the region, a middle ground between repressive dictatorships and Islamic fanaticism, and I never believed that Iraqi or Arabs were somehow genetically incapable of self-rule.

Now I did urged the U.S. needed to send in many troops than it did so that it could maintain order. I urged a U.N. mandate to provide greater legitimacy and avoid the image of an American occupation of a Muslim Middle Eastern country. I worried that Iraq's sectarian divisions would pull the country apart. But it doesn't change the fact that I did support the decision to topple Saddam Hussein's regime.

Some good came of it. Saddam was a gruesome dictator who killed hundreds of thousands and plunged his country into wars. Iraq is now more free and open than almost any other Arab country, despite its struggles. Kurdistan is a real success story, an oasis of stability, modernity and tolerance. But in the end, the Iraqi War was a failure and a terrible mistake, causing geopolitical chaos and humanitarian tragedy.

Millions of Iraqis were displaced. At least 150,000 civilians died, in addition to the almost 4,500 brave American soldiers. Some argue that one can overlearn the lessons of Iraq. Sure, but my caution about a larger American intervention in Syria or elsewhere derives not just from Iraq. Consider this. The United States replaced the regime in Iraq and gave the new one massive assistance for a decade. The result, chaos and humanitarian tragedy. Washington toppled the regime in Libya, but chose not to attempt nation building in that country. The result has been chaos and humanitarian tragedy. Washington supported a negotiated removal of the regime in Yemen and the election that followed, but generally took a back seat. The result? Chaos and humanitarian tragedy.

The reality in that part of the world is that many of its regimes are fragile, presiding over weak institutions, little civil society and often no sense of nationhood itself. In that situation, outside interventions, however well-meaning, might not make things better. Sometimes they can even make things worse. Could Iraq have turned out differently and set a different pattern? If a stable functioning democracy had been established in the heart of the Middle East, could it have been a model for the region, a third wave between dictatorship and Islamic radicalism?

Well, if America had made all the right decisions, who knows? But it didn't. And as a result, we will never truly know. Thanks for watching. I'm Fareed Zakaria.