SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Kaplan, in a recent publication, the US National Defense University described the Iraq War as a "major debacle." According to the latest statistics, 500 insurgent attacks are still taking place each week. Still, you are convinced that there is a "learning curve" for the US Army in Iraq. What exactly has been learned?
Kaplan: One attack is one too many. But a while ago there were 500 attacks a day. So empirically, the situation has improved -- whether measured in terms of Iraqi cilivans killed or American soldiers attacked, insurgents captured or the number of intelligence tip-offs. The political situation, admittedly, remains a disaster. These tactical improvements are not a sufficient condition for true progress, but a necessary one. They came about because the American operational concept has shifted 180 degrees.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How exactly?
Kaplan: We've gone from essentially fighting World War II, with big unit sweeps, liberal expenditure of firepower and alienation of the population to trying to secure and protect the population and engage in tribal diplomacy. Al-Qaida has also overplayed its hand with the tribes. These days, the US military is much closer to the population and one result is a huge spike in intelligence. This strategic reversal was brought about by General David Petraeus. However, having wasted four years making things worse, naturally the American public is exhausted. So this new strategy, as fruitful as it is, will not be given time to work.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Was the increase in US troops at the start of 2007 also partially responsible for the progress you describe?
Kaplan: This is the subject of fierce debate in the US -- because to ascribe progress to the "surge" means to say that George W. Bush did something right. I think it is impossible to disentangle the progress that comes from the tribes switching sides, from the new American strategy, from the fact that Shiite radical Muqtada al-Sadr has stood down and the surge. My sense is that the influx of 30,000 new American troops holds the least explanatory power. Most important were the tribes. And their switching sides predates the surge.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: General Petraeus said that insurgencies usually last 10-12 years. How sustainable are the successes you have pointed out?
Kaplan: That depends on the American presence. We have probably seen the worst of the Sunni insurgency. But were the Americans to leave in the next two years, we would be back to square one immediately. The country would come apart at the seams and we would be seeing a civil war. Iraqis don't trust one another, parties and ministries are run by sects and not by functionaries.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You spent almost two years, on and off, in Iraq -- with the US Army, but also with the new Iraqi Army. While the US administration seems to maintain that the better the Iraqi Army gets, the earlier and the more US troops can leave, there are also reports about incompetent Iraqi units and Iraqi soldiers fleeing the battle fields.
Kaplan: That was the thinking before Petraeus took over. I take a somewhat more generous view of the Iraqi Army than a lot of people do. There are very good units today, and the Iraqi Army is probably the one Iraqi institution with a national ethos. There is not as much sectarianism as one would think -- whereas the police are problematic in this regard. And the interior ministry forces are essentially horrible.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In 2003 you co-published a highly influential book that helped make the case for an Iraq invasion. It was considered to be an outspokenly neo-conservative piece of analysis. Since then you have chosen to leave the ivory tower and spend some time in Iraq on the ground. What were your motives?
Kaplan: I don't want to sound pompous, but I think it is important that when one makes arguments of consequence that he go and see what those consequences are. Having championed the war, I wanted to see the products of my own argument. I felt an obligation to stay with the story. After the invasion the story changed of course: from whether or not to invade to the war itself. So I decided to cover the war and had some very vivid experiences in the process that really altered my thinking. Before the war, Iraq was an abstraction, an idea. Once you have seen the place you can't help but be much more cautious with the ideas that you put on the table.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In your book, you write that getting rid of Saddam Hussein and installing a democratic government in Baghdad shouldn't be too tall an order for the US. But today the prospect of the democratization of Iraq seems more difficult than ever. Why didn't Iraq ever become the showcase that the neocons wanted to create for the entire Middle East?
Kaplan: This is the $64,000 question. If one says that you can't democratize Iraq because they are Iraqis or Arabs, one is really taking a step into outer space in the sense that you then have to embrace arguments about culture and pursue a certain relativism that I am not ready to embrace. We have to remember that there were also those who said that the Japanese and the Germans and the Catholics of South America could not be democrats. I still believe that all cultures are capable of democracy and liberalism. Everybody wants to be free. But obviously, in Iraq this assumption ran into a wall. Now why is that? One camp in the US argues it's the implementation and the American incompetence that doomed the enterprise. Others, and mostly Iraqi liberals, say: No, you could have done everything in the world and Iraq would still be a mess because the Iraqis, as a result of their specific history, are not ready for democracy. So whose fault is it -- the Americans' or the Iraqis'? I think both. I also think that the Iraq experience has set back the cause of idealism in American foreign policy and the willingness of Western countries to intervene for humanitarian reasons. Take Darfur: I think it's because of Iraq that nobody wants to intervene there. So on the whole the effects have been huge and overwhelmingly negative. I don't see anything good that's come from this war, I'm afraid.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: There is a famous dictum that a neocon is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. But what do you call a neocon who has been mugged by reality like yourself?
Kaplan: The prefix neo in neoconservative was usually added to signal that there were still certain elements of liberalism like the Wilsonian drive outside or the belief that at home the government has in fact certain functions to perform. So being less "neo" and more conservative today makes me much less idealistic and much less optimistic about man's capacity to change and to improve the world. I am more inclined now to a Hobbesian view of the world and to the view that this condition cannot be changed.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But couldn't one of the lessons of Iraq also be to still believe in democratization -- while at the same time believing that invasions are probably not the right way to spread democracy?
Kaplan: That could be one lesson. But the democratization of Iraq was never the main reason for the invasion, even though that may have been the rhetoric. We went to war in Iraq because after 9/11 the threshold was lower to take on what we thought was a threat by Saddam Hussein. On the other hand, I also don't subscribe to the opposite argument that we should leave democratization to the market or that trade with China will somehow make them a liberal state. I still think there has to be some degree of human interference. And that pressure may have to come from the outside. But it doesn't have to be the military.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So for the record: Was the Iraq war a mistake?
Kaplan: Yes. Knowing what we know today, definitely. I know this is political poison in some quarters, but respect to reality demands this answer. However, this is a completely different question from whether or not having invaded Iraq we should stay or leave. On this I am equally clear: We turned this country upside down and we have an obligation to put it back together again. No matter how long it takes.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Iraq war was percieved as the one chance the neocons had in our time to prove that their theories were right. Is neoconservatism already a historical footnote?
Kaplan: The near-term argument here is that if John McCain wins the presidential election, neoconservatism will have been vindicated. Because by voting him into office, people will have tacitly given their endorsement to that sort of foreign policy. His advisers are the very people we are arguing about. The second argument is that, even if Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton win, they can't completely escape certain ideas that could be described as neoconservative. Because in the course of American history, what we refer to as eoconservatism today is really just a shorthand for the practice of combining power and idealism in foreign policy. It's very difficult to escape these boundaries. The question is only how much you stress the one and how much the other. Looking at it from this angle, the difference even between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush is not huge. There's something essentially American about what we today call neoconservatism. Or to put it differently: Iraq set things back. But to extrapolate too much from Iraq would be as if after Vietnam one had said that anti-communism was discredited and we should stop fighting the Cold War.
Interview conducted by Yassin Musharbash.