Bush Will Stay the Course if Civil War Breaks Out in Iraq

In an interview with ABC News’ Elizabeth Vargas, President Bush acknowleged that his team did not handle Katrina relief as well as they should have, defended the controversial port contract with a Dubai company, and said he was not particularly worried about his low poll numbers. Most interesting to me, however, was this rather meandering answer on the subject of an Iraqi civil war.

VARGAS: Let’s move to Iraq. This has been a rough few days in Iraq since the bombing of the mosque in Samarra. There’s been a lot of sectarian violence. We heard fresh reports of violence again today and reports from Baghdad that the violence in these past three days has been the worst since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. There was a lot of criticism from both the Shiites and the Sunnis of the U.S. military for standing back and not doing enough to stop the violence.

What is the policy if, in fact, a civil war should break out or the sectarian violence continues? Are you willing to sacrifice American lives to get the Sunnis and the Shiites to stop killing each other?

BUSH: I don’t buy your premise that there’s going to be a civil war. There’s no question that the bomber of the mosque is trying to create sectarian violence, and there’s no question there was reaction to it. On the other hand, I had the duty, which I did, to call these leaders, Shi’a and Sunni leaders, as well as Kurdish leaders.

And the response was that we understand this is a moment that we’ve got to make a choice if we’re going to have sectarian strife or whether or not we’re going to unify. And I heard loud and clear that they understand that they’re going to choose unification, and we’re going to help them do so.

The presence of the U.S. troops is there to protect as many Iraqis as we possibly can from thugs and violence, but it’s also to help the Iraqis protect themselves, and we’re making progress in terms of standing up to these Iraqi troops so they can deal with, deal with these incidents of violence.

VARGAS: But what is the plan if the sectarian violence continues? I mean, do the U.S. troops take a larger role? Do they step in more actively to stop the violence?

BUSH: No. The troops are chasing down terrorists. They’re protecting themselves and protecting the people, and — but a major function is to train the Iraqis so they can do the work. I mean the ultimate success in Iraq — and I believe we’re going to be successful — is for the Iraqi citizens to continue to demand unity.

And remember, one of the things that’s lost during this troubled week — and there’s no question it’s a troubled week — was the fact that 11 million Iraqis, about two months ago, went to the polls and said, “We want to have a democratic government.” So there’s still a will of the people there that are interested in a unified government.

Secondly, we’re working with the leaders to form this unity government, and we’ll see how it goes. We’re making pretty good progress though. And I think the bombers really caused the leaders to say, “Wait a minute. We now have got to project civil war or civil strife or sectarian violence.”

And the other side of the equation has got to be to train the Iraqis to fight so that the people feel like there is a unified security force that’s interested in protecting them from a few people who are trying to sow violence and discord.

VARGAS: But there is a concern that when you talk to these political leaders that they don’t wield the real power in Iraq, that it’s the clerics that wield the power and the clerics who are controlling these militias, the militias who were responsible for most of the violence in the last few days.

BUSH: Well, Ayatollah Sistani, who is by far — not by far — is one of the most revered clerics, has made it very clear that this type of violence is not acceptable, and that he calls for a unified government. And matter of fact, many of the clerics have spoken out for a peaceful unified future for Iraq.

And there’s no — look, these are — there are people that don’t want to see democracy, and the reason why is because it defeats their vision of a totalitarian type government from which they can launch either attacks on America or future instability in the Middle East. You’re witnessing this ideological struggle that’s taking place, and Iraq happens to be the battle front for that struggle right now.

And I believe we’re — we will prevail, and the definition of prevailing is an Iraq that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself, an Iraq that is not a safe haven for people like Zarqawi or al Qaeda and its affiliates, an Iraq which becomes an ally in the war on terror.

VARGAS: So let me make sure I understand you. No matter what happens with the level of sectarian violence, the U.S. troops will stay there?

BUSH: The U.S. troops will stay there so long as — until the Iraqis can defend themselves. I mean, my policy has not changed. To summarize it, as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.

And as you know, we’ve reduced troop levels this year, and that’s because our commanders on the ground have said that the security situation in Iraq is improving because the Iraqis are more capable of taking the fight.

VARGAS: And if in fact the violence continues, will the Americans be forced to take a more active role in suppressing it?

BUSH: Well, the Americans are very active right now taking a role in suppressing it.

VARGAS: But as I said at the beginning, there’s a lot of criticism from both the Sunnis and the Shiites that they weren’t doing enough to stop the killing, and it was a lot of killing that happened after the upset attack.

BUSH: Well, I understand the criticism. It’s also difficult sometimes to stop suicide bombers, and — but the Americans are — as well as coalition forces, and more importantly, the Iraqis themselves are patrolling and trying to keep neighborhoods safe.

The original title of the ABC report, as gleaned from Memeorandum, was “Bush: U.S. Won’t Get Into Iraq Civil War.” I certainly do not get that vibe from the answer above, which is the entirety of the Iraq discussion.

Even aside from syntax, this makes no sense: “The U.S. troops will stay there so long as — until the Iraqis can defend themselves. I mean, my policy has not changed. To summarize it, as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.” How does one ensure that “Iraqis can defend themselves” in the context of an Iraqi on Iraqi civil war? Which Iraqis are we going to defend? All of them? Similarly, almost by definition, a civil war would involved the stand up of Iraqi forces–except that they would not be “Iraqi” in the sense of fighting for a unitary state.

On a lighter note, this was pretty funny:

VARGAS: I know you don’t read the polls. You have said that many, many times.

BUSH: So what are you going to do, ask me about a poll?

Yes, it turns out.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Middle East, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. LJD says:

    I would be interested to see the evidence that points so many news organizations to the conclusion that all of these attacks represent ‘sectarian’ violence.

    I would expect the onset of civil war to include more riots, beatings, and shootings, not bombings. Every one in Iraq has a gun. Not every one has a bomb. Further, if you possess a bomb in Iraq, you take the role of terrorist. Are we to believe that the citizens of Iraq are willing to suddenly adopt the tactics of the terrorists?

    I would expect this sort of thing from Al Qaeda. No one doubts their role in the mosque bombing, so why not more of the same? It is a far step from angry demonstrations and marches in the streets to blowing up whatever random person happens to walk by your IED.

  2. Dik says:

    I would be interested to see the evidence that points so many news organizations to the conclusion that all of these attacks represent Â’sectarianÂ’ violence.

  3. fizzix says:

    Also on the humorous side was Ms. Vargas asking him about the chances of a White House wedding. He basically said, “I don’t know about that but any young man expressing an interest in one of my daughters will have to come here to the Oval Office and account for himself.” She asked, “You wouldn’t show him any compassion?” “No,” he replied, “I would show him no compassion.” He looked serious when he said this.

  4. legion says:

    ‘Sectarian’? The impression I’ve gotten is that for some months now, the violence in Iraq has been increasingly Sunnis and Shiites attacking each other, rather than open insurgent attacks on US forces. Since those two are sects of Islam, I assume that’s why they call it ‘sectarian’ violence.

    But what exactly does the President mean by ‘stay the course’? If Iraq moves into full-on open civil war, what exactly does he expect the troops there to do? Take sides? Hunker down in their bases until everyone else is dead? Kill ’em all and let Allah sort ’em out?

    This is suicide.

  5. ken says:

    The funniest part of it was when Bush, with a straight face, explained that he called the ‘leaders’ of Iraq and apparently they told him exactly what he wanted to hear.

    Has it ever occured to him that when you have an army occupying a country the so called ‘leaders’ of that country are in no position to openly disagree with what the head of that army wants?

    It is not that the Iraqis agree with Bush it is just that they do not want to alienate the foreign military forces sitting right in their living rooms.

  6. G A Phillips says:

    Legion, stay the course? Why don’t you listen to the man once in a while . oh, And LJD, BRILLIANT, I’m starting to think you should get your own Am talk show.

  7. legion says:

    GA-Um, I did. Here’s Vargas’ key question:

    VARGAS: But what is the plan if the sectarian violence continues? I mean, do the U.S. troops take a larger role? Do they step in more actively to stop the violence?

    But rather than answer the question directly, Bush proceeds to give an advertising spiel about how our troops are going to continue to hunt insurgents and train the Iraqi military.

    The problem is – that mission makes no damn sense in the context of an open civil war. The Iraqi Army we’re currently trying to put together will either a) dissolve under the competing pressures of Sunnis and Shiites within the service or b) become a death-squad extension of the majority. I see no likely third path, nor do I see any benefit to US interests in Iraq from ‘staying the course’ if this comes to pass.

    And Bush never did address what the US forces might do if the Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence gets worse:

    VARGAS: And if in fact the violence continues, will the Americans be forced to take a more active role in suppressing it?

    BUSH: Well, the Americans are very active right now taking a role in suppressing it.

    What ‘side’ would we support if there’s no longer an identifiable Iraqi government? And what would we do to support it?

  8. LJD says:


    You and Vargas are operating on the assumption that these attacks represent sectarian violence. Perhaps it is your belief in or desire to have a civil war to support your quagmire theory.

    The reason you are seeing more attcks on Iraqis than U.S. pesonnel is not because they choose to wage civil war. Rather, the terrorists see this as a more effective way to disrupt Iraq’s forward progress. They tried it with our guys, but were dying in such large numbers, they had to change strategy.

    I suggest you read the most recent post re: Ralph Peters. You can call it what you will, but there is a lot of truth to it. Try some mil-blogs also. Good information.

  9. G A Phillips says:

    I sort of I see what your asking, but it seems to me that he is saying what were going to do regardless. And don’t get me wrong I like a good military thinker, and sometimes I get the feeling that you are, but don’t you think you might be projecting with a bit of doomsday lens, and let me ask you, what do you think he should have said in response to another reporter trying to get another quote to use against him? and why is it that he must explain all of our military strategies up to the moment every moment of every moment?

  10. legion says:

    But what then is the difference between ‘terrorists’ and ‘people fighting against the original government’?
    If a group of Shiites blows up a Sunni building, it’s sectarian violence. It might also qualify as terrorism, but it’s definitely religious-sect-based terrorism (as opposed to strictly political terrorism, a la AQ groups taking out gov’t ministers to destabilize things). Also, bear in mind the the members of AQ are themselves muslims of one sect or another; that doesn’t go away when they ‘join up’, and makes the entire debate even cloudier.

    I think the conclusion I’ve just talked myself into here is that trying to define a difference between terrorism and sectarian violence (at least in this realm) is utterly pointless – whether they want to kill people to destabilize the US-backed government or to put members of their own religion in power, it’s all bad (and impossible to tell the difference from anywhere outside the terrorist’s own deranged mind).

  11. LJD says:

    It’s much more complex than that. I would say the anti-government ‘dead-enders’ are associated with Al Qaeda, or at least they share common goals. Their actions show that they are willing to blow up anything and any one, up to and including their own mothers.

    The ‘sectarian violence’ that is being sold to us is more like ‘you blew up my mosque, therefore I’ll retailiate’. It is not (yet) occurring widely. The point I was trying to make is that Group #1 is launching attacks to try and get a desired response from Group #2. That being instability, the failure of the government, and the exodus of U.S. forces.

  12. Just to review, the three rules for getting involved in another country’s civil war:

    1. Never, ever, ever get involved in another country’s civil war.
    2. If for some reason you decide to ignore rule #1, pick a side.
    3. Make sure your side wins.

    Alas, Bush appears to be ignoring all three…

  13. Anderson says:

    Bush Will Stay the Course if Asteroid on Course to Impact Earth