Things really are coming apart so quickly in Iraq that some blogging appears to be in order. No sooner had we noted that Washington’s Arab allies are pushing it hard to remain engaged and protect the Sunnis then the Washington Post reports (thanks, Pat!) that the State Department has been pushing for the U.S. to abandon its efforts to draw the Sunni insurgents into a new political order because that is alienating the Shiites — and as I noted below, it’s untenable for the U.S. military to remain in Iraq if it is at odds with two thirds of the population. The proposal to ditch efforts to draw in the Baathists is attributed to Philip Zelikow, which makes the fact that he resigned last week all the more intriguing.
It’s not hard to imagine that the bomb-Iran faction of the Administration is having none of this cozying up to the Shiites business, and Dick Cheney’s huddle with the Saudi king last weekend would certainly have been about mobilizing an alliance of Sunni regimes to push back against Iranian influence both inside Iraq and beyond.
Zelikow is right, of course: The U.S. has alienated the Shiites to the point that its plans (see Hadley entry below) for remaking Prime Minister Maliki as a new interdenominational strongman under U.S. tutelage seem preposterous. Instead, far more likely is that Maliki will move in the direction demanded by Moqtada Sadr of calling for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. President Bush said at his press conference in Amman on Wednesday that the U.S. would keep its troops in Iraq as long as the government wanted them there, and one has to wonder how long that will be. Maliki notably stressed that Iraqi forces would be ready to take control of Iraq’s security by June 2007 — that’s years ahead of when U.S. military commanders believe they’ll be ready, and years ahead of when they’ll actually be able to protect the country’s sovereignty (never mind suppress the insurgency). So one has to assume that statement is for the consumption of his own political base, the Shiites, who are now overwhelmingly in favor of getting the U.S. out.
Amid these wildly divergent proposals from Washington (between Hadley’s smoke-some-of-this prescription for Maliki — ditch the Shiites — and the State Department’s course correction — embrace the Shiites, f*** the Sunnis — there is, shall we say, rather a lot of daylight) comes the much awaited report of James Baker’s Iraq Study Group. But a body that in its final week of deliberations was taking testimony from that esteemed Iraq expert John Kerry is plainly more about creating a consensus on Capitol Hill then about making nimble strategic adjustments.
Is that a civil war in your pocket?
Indeed, the shallowness of the debate in Washington on these questions is pretty shocking, helped along by the edutainment media, who spent most of the past week locked into a narcissistic debate on whether they should call it a “civil war”. (For the record, I think there are far too many different things going on in Iraq — an anti-occupation guerrilla war, a Shiite-Sunni power struggle, an Arab-Kurd struggle for control over territory, intra-Shiite power struggles, assorted criminality and regional struggles, to make a single label such as “civil war” at all meaningful. But the nomenclature is hardly worthy of the attention it received this week.)
For all the expectation that has surrounded it, the word is that the Baker group’s findings are not exactly earth shattering. They will, we are told, recommend that the U.S. slowly, although with no timetable, begin withdrawing combat troops, hoping to have only advisers present by January 2008. (Surprise! That’s an election year, after all…) They will also advocate a more grownup approach to regional diplomacy than the adolescent Bush-Rice combination has been willing to countenance.
The premise of the “phased withdrawal” being envisaged is that Iraq’s politicians are hiding behind the presence of U.S. troops to save them from the consequences of not following the U.S. plan for national reconciliation. Start pulling the troops out, the reasoning goes, and the Iraqis will be spooked into getting their act together and stopping their internecine war.
It’s a false premise, because it takes at face value to claims by Iraqi politicians that they really, really want to all just get along. Plainly, Maliki isn’t just struggling with the logistics and authority issues that preclude him from doing what the U.S. wants him to do — it’s a political choice. He’s part of a Shiite alliance whose goal is to consolidate Shiite power in Baghdad. That’s the goal for which it was elected, which makes one wonder whether Stephen Hadley was born yesterday when he writes ominously of the suspicion that building Shiite power may be what Maliki is really up to. (It’s like these fools in the Bush Administration didn’t realise that they lost the Iraqi election, and forgot to check what the winners actually stand for…)
If the U.S. begins withdrawing, the Shiite government will move to launch an all-out assault on the Sunni insurgency and its social base, which is the Sunni community. That’s what Maliki means when he tells Bush to take off the shackles and let him deal with the problem (by giving him command of the Iraqi security forces, which remain entirely under U.S. command). And that’s what the Saudis are warning about when they threaten to back the insurgency, which presumably they’re already doing. (See below). The idea that the Shiite-led government is going to start implementing the U.S. program for national reconciliation because the U.S. is moving to leave is an epic exercise in wishful thinking.
So, the much-anticipated Baker report will, in the words of the Financial Times, almost certainly “come too late, given the speed of deterioration on the ground in Iraq.” The paper correctly notes that Bush is unlikely to be shaken very far from his conviction that to talk to Syria and Iran is to reward bad behavior — and he’ll be under strong pressure from the Cheney camp egging on his most infantile, belligerent side — which suggests that the prospects for a move toward grownup diplomacy are grim. I have to find myself agreeing with the neocon ideologue Danielle Pletka, quoted in the story (even if we’d have entirely different ideas about what should be done:
“A lot of people think the Iraq Study Group will come up with a report that is all things to all people in Washington,” said Danielle Pletka, a neoconservative critic of Mr Bush at the American Enterprise Institute. “My hunch is that it will end up being nothing to most people. What we need most is clear leadership from the White House and we are still not getting that.”
Indeed, this Administration appears endemically incapable of of grasping the reasons for its spectacular policy failures in Iraq, Iran, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Afghanistan, North Korea and more — much less of pursuing a reality-based salvage operation.