Mr Bush, this is the way I see it

June 29, 2007

Richard Rose was one of a select group of academics invited to the Oval Office to share their thoughts on the 'challenges in Iraq'. Here's what happened

The call to the White House came out of the blue. It was a nondescript e-mail captioned "An invitation"; the sender's address was Having worked Pennsylvania Avenue for 35 years, I knew the initials meant National Security Council, Executive Office of the President.

The invitation was straightforward: "I am writing to invite you to a small group discussion with President Bush at the White House on May 30. From time to time the President meets with outside experts who can participate in a live and off-the-record discussion focused on an issue of importance.

In the proposed session we are inviting you and three or four other experts in divided societies who, we hope, would be willing to share their perspective on what their research has to say about the current challenges in Iraq." After expressing regret that travel expenses could not be paid, since most of those invited could walk to the White House from their downtown Washington offices, I was politely asked whether a meeting a fortnight hence would work for me. It did.

Iraq certainly qualifies as a problem worth thinking about, and I certainly was an outsider, never having published anything about Iraq or the Middle East. That was just the point. The invitation came because I had written two books about a divided society, Northern Ireland.

I googled the NSC source of the invitation, Peter Feaver, and found he was on leave from a chair at DukeUniversity, North Carolina, where he had published five books on security issues and civil-military relations, with major university presses. He had worked at the NSC for President Clinton as well as Bush, and was now identified with arguing that the President needed to convince the American people that the war in Iraq was winnable. This was hardly my view of Iraq but the meeting was not about supporting a particular cause. At no point did he or anyone else ask what my views were (against the war from before the start) or my politics (a Truman Democrat).

A follow-up e-mail made clear what to expect: prepare a three-minute answer to the question: what are the most important insights from my research about conflict societies that the President may not already have heard and what lessons could be drawn from it that would be relevant to Iraq right now? The key words were "right now", that is, the problem as it actually is rather than what you would have done in 2003 (not gone to war) or what you would do if you became president in 2009 (hope the strife had ended).

A lifetime of public speaking has accustomed me to timing my remarks. Thus, I was not frustrated by condensing into a few minutes thoughts expressed in a million published words about Northern Ireland and millions more about how regimes fall and others attempt to fill that void. Being at home in both English and American, I adapted my words but not my thoughts to the audience at hand, speaking in hard-hitting one-liners rather than in the indirect discourse of mandarin English.

When the day came, I turned up at the White House gate 20 minutes early.

The security guards were far more polite and efficient than those at airports and promptly ushered me to a West Wing waiting room to meet other group members, all senior scholars. Two were specialists on conflict resolution in Africa, two Arabic speakers familiar with Iraq, and another an expert on constitutions of divided societies.

Walking into the Oval Office was like entering a living room rather than an office - except for a battery of NSC staffers ranged on one side to take notes. The President shook our hands, thanked us for coming, motioned towards two large sofas, offered us a choice of a cola or water, and then asked us to share our thoughts with him.

When my turn came, I proceeded on the principle of Ernst Dichter, a Viennese refugee turned marketing consultant. He advised the makers of the first American cake mix to leave something out, such as an egg, so that a housewife could feel ownership. I left out Iraq, on the assumption that the President would see the relevance of my parable about Northern Ireland. It went like this:

"A divided society can be a stable society - provided that, in Max Weber's terms, there is a state with institutions that have a monopoly of violence and can protect its borders from foreign incursions.

"When the authority of a divided society is successfully challenged, it fragments. The state collapses and there is competition in violence between multiple and competing factions." I quoted what John Hume once said to me:

"When they shoot politicians, they always shoot their own side."

"The British Army found itself trying to defend a state that didn't exist and was thus caught in a crossfire. Troops from the outside can support a civil power but cannot substitute for it.

"It takes time for armed groups to exhaust their hopes that violence serves their ends and consider a political settlement. In Northern Ireland it took 38 years."

The glimmer of good news in the parable was also the bad news - peace and stability is eventually achievable - but warring Iraqis will do more to determine when and how this happens than will outsiders, such as decision-makers in Washington.

We were told to expect a wide-ranging and free-flowing discussion - and this forecast was accurate. After the President made several references to the importance of liberty, I reminded him that Isaiah Berlin was not only in favour of liberty but also of order. The place to talk about liberty was not in discussions about a land lacking order but when he next saw President Putin. When the conversation became too academic, the President even began leafing through a book of mine that I had given him that ends with a chapter about America's victory over Iraq in Kuwait, a victory that left his father riding the crest of a wave - after which there was only a one-way option: down.

The President listened far more than he spoke and when he did it was to make simple points that many critics dodge, such as: we had to do something after 19 young people blew up 3,000 Americans. At one point he remarked that he never wanted to be a war president. I looked at the busts of two great war leaders behind his chair, Churchill and Lincoln, and thought but did not say that Churchill had the far easier war, for it united his country and after six years ended in victory. By contrast, Lincoln fought a civil war at the cost of half a million lives in a country whose population was then little more than Iraq today. And the peace was lost because federal troops could not control the states that they occupied in a futile attempt to reconstruct the South.

Was it worthwhile? The President seemed to think so, for the meeting ran over its scheduled time. What did my insights add? An emphasis on the paramount need of a state worth killing for. If I were being vain, I might claim that his criticism the following week of Putin for suppressing liberty was due to my influence. But I doubt that he needed my intervention to say that.

Only after leaving the Oval Office did I realise that my parable had been understood. The President asked me one question that no one else ever had: what would have happened had the British not sent troops into Northern Ireland in 1969? My answer about Ulster was simple: there would have been fighting and deaths but fewer people would have been killed before a new state was established.

Richard Rose is director of the Centre for the Study of Public Policy, Aberdeen University. He is author of The Post-Modern Presidency: George Bush Meets the World (1991).

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