A Plan B for Iraq?

Rumsfeld and Saddam in happier times: Washington
backed the Baathists to stem Iranian influence

It must be hard for anyone reading the daily media in the U.S. to comprehend the political catastrophe that has befallen the Bush administration’s Iraq plans. Most of the reporting occurs within the frame — or is it a vacuum? — of a carefully designed constitutional process aimed at achieving consensus and the necessary ethnic, religious and political balances to create a stable democracy. And so, we’re told, “some Sunnis” oppose the new draft constitution, but that they’ll express their opposition at the hustings in October’s constitutional referendum, and perhaps in December’s parliamentary election. In other words, the comforting assumption is being generated (by a machine that has generated all the comforting assumptions and Iraq “turning points” that have proved so fallacious until now) that at least we now have a political process. And, as any NGO democracy worker will tell you, the process is even more important than the outcome. So the reporting focuses on questions like will the Sunnis muster a majority no-vote in the three provinces in October’s referendum that would veto the constitution, or will the limited time to register voters mean they wait till December to vote their own representatives into the National Assembly after boycotting last time.

But such questions assume the Sunnis accept the game as it’s currently defined. And they very clearly don’t. Moreover, the Bush administration is plainly aware of that fact, which is why you have the rather comical spectcale (Saturday Night Live’s “Rafsanjani” trick phone call to the first Bush White House in reverse?) of the President of the U.S. making a personal phonecall to the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Iraq’s most powerful elected politician and also Iran’s most powerful ally in Baghdad, in order to implore him to do more to bring the Sunnis on board. And clearly having no impact at all.

Of course if you were simply following events from within the narrative frame of the process as defined by the U.S.-bequeathed Transitional Administrative Law, you might be wondering why the administration is going so far out of its way to accomodate an element that accounts for no more than 20 percent of Iraq’s electorate. The answer, as we all know, is the insurgency, and the fact — admitted now by administration officials all the way up to Condi Rice — that it won’t be defeated or dimmed unless it is isolated from a broad base of Sunni support.

The administration also knows that as things stand, the constitution and the October 15 referendum are more likely to strengthen than to weaken the insurgency, and increase rather than diminish the possibility of a full-blown civil war.

The current process as defined by the TAL can’t resolve the deadlock: Even if the Sunnis turned out en masse to nix the constitution (and if they could muster three provinces, possibly with the support of Moqtada Sadr’s base in Baghdad, although that may be a long shot), the result would simply be new elections to an assembly that would draft a new constitution draft. But while Sunni participation would ensure more directly elected representatives, their 20 percent slice of the electorate means they wouldn’t rise above their current minority status, and the resulting constitution wouldn’t look much different from the current draft. Another roll of the electoral dice would, in all likelihood, produce the same impasse.

But like the administration officials who emphasise the centrality of Sunni participation in containing the insurgency which has crippled the transition in Iraq, the Sunnis themselves clearly understand quite well that their leverage far exceeds what electoral muscle they can bring to the polls. They run a very competent insurgency, led by well-trained Baathist military and intel personnel, which has proved more than capable of keeping both the Americans and the new government off balance, and demonstrated the potential to dramatically destabilize Iraq’s economy and society for the foreseeable future.

Even more important, though, is the Sunni awareness of their place in the geopolitical equation, and the support on which they can call from the wider Arab world. We’re not talking Zarqawi, here — the extremist jihadis are a small minority of the insurgency, by the most educated accounts, whose presence is certainly useful to the neo-Baathist leadership with which they share short-term tactical interests, but not long-term strategic goals. We’re talking about the neo-Baathists themselves, who understand exactly why they had U.S. support in their confrontation with Iran in the 1980s, and have held secret talks with U.S. officials in which they’ve emphasized their shared hostility to Tehran and its influence in Iraq as a basis for cooperation.

This element knows the U.S. must now be blanching at the outcome of a simple majoritarian democratic process in Iraq — the majority of Iraq’s electorate has put Iran in the driving seat in Baghdad. (Too late, perhaps, Bush may be recognizing the wisdom of those like Brent Scowcroft, General Anthony Zinni and Colin Powell who pretty much described the present scenario in warning him against Iraq at a time when the President preferred to heed the wild fantasies of the neocons and Cheney’s ideological incontinence.)

Whether via simple majoritarianism, or by federalising Iraq to the point that the Shiites of the south create their own mega autonomous region over the country’s most bounteous oil fields, outcomes that marginalize the Sunnis represent a dramatic geopolitical setback for the U.S. because they expand and consolidate Iran’s influence. (You don’t hear Tehran complaining about the new constitution; on the contrary they’re enthusing about its endorsement in October.)

The U.S. supported Saddam in the 1980s, in concert with most of the Arab world, to curb Iranian influence and what was perceived, in Arab capitals, as Persian encroachment. But Bush’s invasion of Iraq has done more than eight years of mass suicidal “human-wave” assaults by Iranian infantry to secure a foothold for Tehran in Baghdad. The insurgent leadership knows that Washington can’t be happy with that outcome; that’s why they’re offering cooperation against what they see as Iran’s proxies in Baghdad. But you may have noticed that the Shiite leadership aren’t remotely interested in accomodating the Sunnis, refusing to back down from their demands that Baathists not be allowed into government. (And much of the Sunni leadership served in the Baath party apparatus at some level.)

So, Bush is in a bind. You wouldn’t know that to listen to the increasingly idiotic rhetoric coming from administration officials in order to reassure the American public that progress is being made. Bush tells America that leaving Iraq would weaken American interests. He neglects to mention that going into Iraq has already done that, on almost every front around the world. I suspect the Iraq invasion will be studied years from now as a colossal strategic error that ended a sutained period of U.S. hegemony (and I use that word advisedly, in the sense of referring to a process by which a dominant power manages to articulate its own narrow interest as the general interest of everybody else — today the idea of “U.S. leadership” is just a wishful phrase tossed around by Bush speechwriters, in the real world where “leadership” implies a following of likeminded powers, it has ceased to exist.)

But, essentially, to resolve his Iraq dilemma — the war is costing more than $5 billion a month, and there’s no end in sight — Bush needs a deal with the Baathists. But he can’t get that without alienating the new Shiite and Kurdish ruling class he has created in Baghdad. In fact, his inability to influence the Shiites in the constitutional process suggests that he won’t get far without some back-channel compact with Iran over the shape of things in Iraq. Not something the Baathists would tolerate. But right now, there may be no way out of the Iraq quagmire without somehow managing to do both. (Maybe there’s simply no way out of the Iraq quagmire…)

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