Mindful of the American public’s sharply declining enthusiasm for squandering more blood and treasure on his failed Iraq enterprise, President Bush is once again adopting his administration’s preferred prophylactic strategy for spinning the slow moving disaster. Thus, his warning on Wednesday that insurgent violence will increase ahead of next month’s constitutional referendum. Just as he warned that it would increase before the handover of sovereignty to Iyad Allawi last year, and also in the runup to January’s election. Perfectly true, of course, but that’s not the point: The purpose behind the spin is, firstly, to convey a message to the American public that although the situation looks out of control, it is, in fact, evolving according to expectation. There may be bloody chaos breaking out all over Iraq, but we told you it would. More importantly, this particlar trope of spin subtly suggests that reaching the said political milestone — handover of sovereignty, election, referendum — will somehow turn the tide against the insurgency and end a military mission that costs America $5 or $6 billion a month, as well as scores of dead and hundreds of wounded. And therein lies the basic fallacy of not only of the spin, but also of the U.S. exit strategy in general. That much has been proved at each of the previous “turning points,” after which violence actually increased, and it’s simply wishful thinking to imagine that holding the referendum — even if the bulk of Sunnis vote in it — will end the insurgency.
No wait, say the administrations Pollyannas, led by Condi Rice: Look, the Sunnis are starting to participate in politics. Of course they are; they’re participating in politics, also, when they build Improvised Explosive Devices and detonate them alongside U.S. convoys. You’d have thought the Secretary of State might be familiar with Clausewitz’s dictum that war is the continuation of politics by other means. Administration spinners might like to spin the insurgency as the work of religious nihilists without any political agenda, but it’s widely accepted among even U.S. military analysts that the al-Qaeda element makes up no more than 5 percent of the insurgency, while its main leadership are Baathist operatives who certainly have a political agenda — which they have attempted to negotiate over with the Americans — and who are engaged in a marriage of convenience with the jihadists as long as their interests coincide, but whose long-term objectives are quite different.
So, Sunni nationalists are certainly calling on their supporters to register and participate in the referendum, but to do so in order to reject the new constitution. In other words, the Sunni political parties are asking their supporters to take the same message to the polls as the Sunni insurgents take to the streets with the tools of violence — a rejection of the new, U.S.-authored Shiite-dominated order in Baghdad. Indeed, the Baathist insurgent commanders have actually offered, in secret talks, to negotiate a new political arrangement with the Americans, on the basis of their long-term shared interest in curbing Iran’s influence.
It may well be that the Sunni nationalists choose to wage this battle on two fronts — at the polls, and in streets. (Or more than two, actually, because they’re also a lot stronger on the diplomatic front than might be obvious, with most of the Arab League states hostile to the prospect of a Shiite-dominated polity in Iraq.) They may also decide, however, that the terrain of electoral politics is too skewed against them given the short time available to register their supporters and organize a consensus in their ranks, and also the slim chances available to them to stop the process via the ballot box, in which case they might simply order another boycott. But even if they participate and the referendum passes the new constitution, the Sunni nationalists are unlikely to accept it as the last word.
The political process is not the binary opposite of civil war. Instead, the same conflicts are played out in the legislature as are waged by the gunmen of the various militias. The dominant political voices in politics are those of communal nationalists, from each of the three major communities, who are pursuing communal rather than national political interests first and foremost. And each of these retains an armed capability to pursue the same objectives — the Sunni insurgents fight the Americans, the new Iraqi security forces and often Shiite and Kurdish civilians; the only really effective units of the new security forces are essentially militias of the Kurdish and Shiite parties loyal to their party leaders rather than to a new state; and rival factions among these main elements have also been known to trade fire — Iraqi insurgents against foreign fighters in some instances, or Moqtada Sadr’s Mehdi army vs. SCIRI’s Badr corps, and so on. There is quite simply no national army. And there is no significant “national” Iraqi army ready to replace the role being played by the Americans — the U.S. general in charge admitted in Congress this week that the number of Iraqi units capable of acting independently of U.S. support had actually fallen from a pitiful three battalions to only one.
So, President Bush is correct that violence will intensify in the coming months. But he’s wrong that the referendum will somehow turn the situation around. The new constitution has actually sharpened the division among Iraqis, and the referendum can’t alter the basic political arithmetic of the new, Shiite-dominated order in Baghdad, which the Sunni nationalists find intolerable. The insurgents has very successfully sabotaged Iraq’s reconstruction, and they know that elections can’t do much to hamper their ability to maintain that success. Successful elections may in the minds of the Bush administration be a moral repudiation of the insurgency, but they’re unlikely to constitute even a tactical, never mind a strategic setback. The Bush spin relies on the public and/or gullilble journalists accepting the idea of a basic opposition between people engaging in a political process and people engaging in low-intensity warfare. Instead, what you have in Iraq is a contest over the distribution of political power, which is being waged with ballots and with bullets.