A New U.S. Option in Iraq: Panic!

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.

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14 Responses to A New U.S. Option in Iraq: Panic!

  1. Pingback: A New US Option in Iraq: Panic! :: Newstack

  2. Jorge says:

    Based on our own political calendar, I LONG AGO predicted that the U.S. would leave Iraq in mid-2007. (I also believed long ago that Iraq had no WMD, although I was very surprised that some were not planted after the fact.) Little did I think we would be leaving because we were being thrown out.

    This makes my previous prediction/strategy – and disagreement with Tony – all the more plausible – the U.S. will have to side or threaten to side with the Sunnis, even if it means upsetting Maliki.

    Leaving when the Iraqi government wants us to leave is tantamount to handing the country over to Iran and the Shiites, who will likely slaughter the Sunnis who remain. Will the U.S. stand idly by while this happens? That is hard to imagine. Even if one doesn’t respect Bush’s policy – I don’t, we can’t just let our national prestige run into the ground like that. Vietnam was different in that it didn’t involve our life blood – oil. This time, it’s for keeps.

  3. Alex Morgan says:

    @Jorge… I don’t think abandoning Iraq to the Shiites necessarily means Iran would be somehow in charge.

    You cannot underestimate the ethnic and historic factors. Iranians are Persians. Arabs in general don’t trust Iranians. And historically, there is quite a bit of mutual resentments between Iran and Iraq.

    I don’t see the Iraqi Shiites simply doing the bidding of the Iranians. In fact, Sadr himself, despite visits to Iran is on the whole distrustful of the Iranians. The Shiites alignement with Iran is purely a matter of opportunism for both sides. Iran is happy to arm and finance Shiites in Iraq in some bid for influence and possible leverage against the Americans, and Shiites are happy to accept. But that only goes so far. As soon as the Americans are out, the Shiites will reassert their independence from Iran. No doubt there will be factions which are indeed closer to Iran (Badr), but that’s a minority of Shiites.

    It’s a free-forall. Everybody is jokeying for position with the Americans on the way out. The Shiites too – and they are using the Iranians as much as the Iranians are using them.

    Regardless of who wins of course, it seems quite certain that they won’t be particularly friendly to Americans.

    What a mess. Bush is so talented. The Iraqi population (and tjhe Iranian) were on the whole well disposed to America (apart from the fundamentalists and religious fanatics). Bush has managed to make the Iraqi population hostile to us, and we’ll pay for that for quite some time. We’ll see if Bush attacks Iran (bombs)… that would turn the Iranian population hostile. That Bush is quite a cut up. The most destructive president in the last 100 years – destructive to American interests and well-being.

  4. Jorge says:


    Thanks for the info, but even with that I am not comforted.

    Basically what you are saying is that the Shiites are against us. And if that’s the case, then it is all the more imperative for the U.S. to side with the Sunnis. Even Bush himself said, “Who’s not with us is against us.” Thus, if the Shiites are against us, they must not be with us. And after 300 billion dollars and 3000 lives plus 20,000 more injured, the U.S. government isn’t about to hand over Iraq to someone who is not with us.

    I’m not suggesting this is the best strategy, but when you consider the American options, it is the one the U.S. government is most likely to embrace in the long term.

  5. Alex Morgan says:


    I doubt we have any real allies in Iraq… meaning whole communities, not just individuals or towns. The closest are the Kurds, but even there, they’ll be our allies only as long as we provide protection to them while they carve out a homeland for themselves out of Iraq. If we push the one-state solution in Iraq too strongly, we’ll lose even the Kurd allies.

    Fact is, what will happen is that eventually we’ll have to leave Iraq. It is not sustainable to occupy the country. We are bleeding people and treasure, we are training future generations of terrorists, we are underminig whatever’s left of our credibility, we are limiting our options to deal with other countries and other conflicts as long as we are bogged down in this hopless venture. We simply cannot sustain this level of engagement indefinitely – even the military is under considerable strain. Something will have to give.

    What will happen is that we’ll disengage. Maybe not under Bush, but under whatever the future administration will come about.

    I don’t believe we can simply leave “advisors” behind. Those will be a soft target. We may try to hang on to the gigantic bases we’re establishing in Iraq, but I suspect that is not sustainable either. Some folks say “well we stayed in Japan and German post WWII”, but we *defeated* those countries and poured much more in them than just military. We never defeated Iraq, and never established security. Is there precendent for abandoning huge sunk costs of bases? Cam Rahn base in Vietnam comes to mind.

    I think the end game is a wholesale withdrawal. Probably by 2010 there’ll be no official American presence in Iraq… if things go really south, there may not even be diplomatic relations, so that fancy new bunker-embassy will be just one more white elephant left behind as a symbol of hubris, ignorance and bad judgment.

  6. Jorge says:


    I appreciate your analysis, but I think the stakes are too high for us to leave in the manner you describe.

    I never believed in this war, but it isn’t about whether we should have gotten in or not at this point. It is about where we go from here.

    Unlike Vietnam, this isn’t about philosophical differences. This is about leaving the country in complete shambles. At least the Viet Cong had a vision. NO ONE in Iraq has a vision about what the country will become after we leave.

    The choice, ultimately, is Maliki’s to make. He’s either with us – with providing Iraq a future – or with Sadr. We need to help him make that choice one way or another. Once he has made his choice, we can work with him or against him. Then and only then will the lines be drawn. Then and only then will there be movement towards resolving Iraq.

    I know I’m sounding like the administration, but I don’t think the administration has even gotten to where I already see this thing going. But they will. And it will get to this point. And the sooner it does, the better off we’ll all be.


  7. Srinivasan says:

    Haliburton folks and oil cartel must be doubling up in laughter on their way to banks reading about our innocent talks on way forward and resolving iraq crisis. things cant get sinister than this.
    Over course of time U S will have made enemies and terrorists out of whole of middle east that will make osama look like Larwood of bodyline series (Tony can explain this since he knows cricket). Instead of trying to forment approach that will make Middle east more hospitable this administration is bent on formenting enemity and supplying each side with enough arms to fight each other. Might be it is the arms dealers who have joined the haliburton club for making millions out of this situation and hence now U S instead of trying to make things good at iraq is trying to leverage iraq situation to make increeased arms supply to middle east to cater to hankering of new recruits to cheney club. Either this or this administration is too dumb to have learnt any lessons from afghanistan fiasco which gave birth to osama and is still fighting out.

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  14. Tablet says:

    The choice, ultimately, is Maliki’s to make. He’s either with us – with providing Iraq a future – or with Sadr. We need to help him make that choice one way or another. Once he has made his choice, we can work with him or against him. Then and only then will the lines be drawn. Then and only then will there be movement towards resolving Iraq.

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