It’s no accident that Brett McGurk ’99 sounds skeptical about the U.S. involvement in Libya.
As a senior official in the Bush administration closely involved with issues in Iraq and Afghanistan, McGurk, currently a scholar-in-residence at Columbia Law School, is well-versed in the many hazards of regime change.
“If [Libyan leader Moammar] Gadhafi were to go tomorrow, that doesn’t really solve the problem,” McGurk told participants recently at the Charles Fabrikant Colloquium in National Security Law and Policy. “You need a political strategy to accompany any military intervention. What comes after Gadhafi? Nobody has really said.”
McGurk had a close-up view from both Washington and Baghdad of the many policy missteps in Iraq. He served on the National Security Council, first as director for Iraq, and then later as a Special Assistant to President Bush and Senior Director for Iraq and Afghanistan. He also served as a senior Iraq advisor during the first year of the Obama administration and again in Baghdad over the last quarter of 2010.
McGurk led the U.S. on negotiations in 2007-08 with the Iraqi government that set the stage for a withdrawal of American forces and laid the foundation for bilateral relations between the two countries. He said getting to that point was “very difficult.”
McGurk, who is writing a book about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to be published next year, said even getting to that point meant undoing some strategic failures. They stemmed, in part, from the failure to appreciate that Iraq’s unique and violent history ran counter to assumptions about stability after Saddam Hussein was removed.
“There was a failure of organization at the top and a failure of strategy,” McGurk said, during a conversation moderated by Associate Professor Matthew Waxman.
That helped lead to the insurgency, which built up steam in 2004 and led to a rising tide of opposition in the U.S. to continued Iraq involvement, he said. Bush decided to “double down” on the war effort with a surge in troops in 2007, accompanied by a change in leadership at the Pentagon and the military command in Iraq. McGurk said the surge, which was credited with reducing violence in Iraq, was overdue.
“We had taken on a major endeavor without the investment of resources to achieve the objective we set out,” McGurk said.
McGurk emphasized the situation in Iraq remains tenuous, and called for American troops to remain there beyond this year, when all U.S. forces are set to be withdrawn.
Overall, however, McGurk remains “sanguine” about the endgame in Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot spots that are putting U.S. foreign policy to the test.
“Every situation must be treated on its own merits,” McGurk said. But he is encouraged by what he views as President Obama’s “humility about America’s ability to direct change in the world.” Sometimes, he says, “the United States must lead, but we’re living in a transitional era, so we must expect and prepare for unintended consequences.”
The Charles Fabrikant Colloquium in National Security Law and Policy, led by Professor Waxman, addresses contemporary national security issues, such as civilian versus military trials for terrorism suspects, oversight of covert CIA activities, electronic surveillance and foreign intelligence collection, and presidential war powers.
The colloquium is part of the Roger Hertog Program on Law and National Security, which focuses on the role of domestic law in national security matters from the perspective of both lawyers and policymakers.
Pictured left to right: Professor Matthew Waxman, Dean David M. Schizer, Charles Fabrikant, and Brett McGurk.