Maliki’s Fate and America’s

Another Bush-Maliki videoconference

There’s no surprise in the rising chorus of demands in Washington that Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki be replaced. After all, the U.S. public discussion of Iraq has been fixated on the notion of a troop surge providing cover for Iraq’s political leaders to meet “benchmarks” of progress towards national reconciliation — and it’s long been obvious that Maliki has no intention of doing what Washington wants him to do (a fact that hardly makes him unique among Iraqi politicians). Every time Maliki is pressed on the matter, he snarls that he answers to those who elected him, not to the U.S. The extent to which Maliki rules at all, of course, is questionable, in the sense that there’s precious little acreage in Iraq that could be accurately deemed to be under his control control — as Stalin retorted when it was suggested that the Pope be invited to the Yalta talks on the shape of postwar Europe, “How many divisions does he command?” And in Maliki’s case, the answer is none.

As Nir Rosen makes clear in an interview with Amy Goodman, the Iraqi state has already essentially collapsed, and prospects for putting it back together are grim.

The problem is not Maliki, of course — things were no different under his predecessor, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and there’s every reason to believe that any politician chosen to replace Maliki from within Iraq’s democratically-elected legislature will represent more continuity than change. Peter Galbraith recently offered an eloquent explanation for why the Iraqi political leadership is unwilling to compromise to accomodate the Sunnis, which is the cornerstone of the U.S. plan for national reconciliation.

Unlike the politicians in Washington who seem blithely oblivious in their campaign-trail debates, the Iraqis — like everyone else in the Middle East — are well aware of the limits of American power, and the fact that it is on the wane. The signs are everywhere now, nowhere more so than in the fact that even the regimes most dependent on direct U.S. military support — Iraq and Afghanistan — are simply ignoring the Bush Administration’s injunctions against consorting with Iran.

They know the U.S. has shot its wad, and that it can’t sustain the current troop “surge” beyond next spring. They smell the panic in the discussion in Washington over how and when to pull the troops out, as the underpinnings of American power begin to creak ominously, like that bridge in Minneapolis — in an extraordinary intervention in the Financial Times, recently, U.S. comptroller David Walker compared the U.S. to the Roman Empire on the eve of its collapse, warning that current debt, taxation and expenditure levels combined with infrastructural decay, an aging population and ruinous military commitments abroad have created a “burning platform” for U.S. governance.

Even as Washington was calling for his head, Maliki was in Damascus, cutting new security and economic deals with an Assad regime that, according to the fanciful projections of the neocons at the start of the Iraq adventure, ought to be have been but a memory by now.

Curiously enough, it is in the options now facing that Assad regime that best illustrate the extent of the collapse of Pax Americana in the Middle East. Seeking a readout on the Maliki-Assad talks, I emailed Joshua Landis whose Syria Comment blog remains an absolutely indispensable source on all things Syrian. His explanation:

Syria has reached a decisive moment in its regional politics. As it becomes clear that the U.S. must begin withdrawing from Iraq in the coming year and that the surge was only a temporary U.S. excuse to prolong a losing hand in Iraq, Syria must decide what strategy it will pursue toward a post-American Iraq. Will it side with Iran in supporting a Shiite government or will it side with Saudi Arabia in supporting the Sunni resistance?

It is in this context that we must see both the Maliki visit to Damascus and the Syria-Saudi spat. Syria has placed itself in between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It has not only supported the Sunni resistance leaders but also improved relations with the Shiite dominated government through visits, increased security measures at the border, and by establishing diplomatic relations and an embassy in Baghdad. Syria cancelled a meeting of Sunni opposition members that was scheduled to be held in Damascus a little over two weeks ago. In its place it held a security conference at which Iraqi and U.S. members participated. Saudi Arabia refused to send a delegation or even an observer to the conference, sparking the latest round of Syrian-Saudi accusations.

Maliki is now visiting Damascus in order to lock Syria into a pro-government stand. Maliki is also being attacked by U.S. congressional leaders as an ineffective leader. Some have called for his replacement. He is fighting for his life and recently stated that if America abandons him, “he can find friends elsewhere.” He is turning to Syria and Iran.

Syria was hoping that as the U.S. withdrew from Iraq, Saudi Arabia would seek better relations with Syria in order to create “Arab solidarity” and a united regional front in the face of Iranian penetration of Iraq.

Syria wants to gain Saudi acquiescence for Syria’s role in Lebanon in exchange for Syrian support of Saudi policy in Iraq. This “deal” has not happened. Saudi Arabia and the U.S. are holding firm in Lebanon and continuing to deny any concessions to the Lebanese opposition – Hizbullah and Aoun – which is allied with Syria. Hence, Syria will be inclined to strengthen its pro-Iranian stance and woo the Maliki government away from the U.S. It is in this context that we must understand Damascus’ moves to warm relations with the Maliki government and restrain the Sunni resistance. It is doing this as much to punish Saudi Arabia and the US as to reward Maliki and Iran.

Syria and Iran will try to take Maliki away from the United States. The next few months will be a crucial turning point in regional power politics as all the regional actors jockey for position to exploit and prepare for America’s eventual withdrawal. Syria could go either way. So far, it looks like Saudi Arabia and the US are refusing to woo Syria. They will force Damascus to stick close to Iran.

Joshua’s comments highlight two things:

1) The U.S. has created an intractable mess in Iraq, because steps taken to firm up the only government capable of maintaining majority support mean siding with Iran against Washington’s Arab allies, while the only alternative is essentially to get back in bed with the Baathists and try to once again install a regime of supprression of the Shiite majority — which can’t work, because the mechanisms are no longer in place, and the Shiite majority is risen.

2) The players in the Middle East are already making their calculations on the basis of U.S. retreat. The only alternative to Maliki that might change the dynamic would be for the U.S. to back some form of coup. Juan Cole reports that rumors are rife in the region that this may be precisely what is in the works, but even if it were to happen, it wouldn’t stabilize the situation. It would simply create a new authoritarian regime that the U.S. would have to support against its own people — you know, like that Vietnam business Bush has suddenly discovered. I hesitate to guess that might be why the U.S. refrains from authorizing a coup. Instead, the U.S. will muddle on with the present order, perhaps drawing down its troop levels and relying more on air power to essentially manage the conflict at more or less current levels. Maintaining the present level of civil war may now be all that’s possible with the leverage available to the U.S. acting alone. And, of course, drawing in others who can make a difference would require adopting the more grownup attitude to Iran recommended by the Iraq Study Group, but which the Administration appears incapable of embracing.

Iraq is hardly the only theater in which U.S. power is clearly on the wane. Whether it be the grandstanding of Russia and Venezuela or the more understated (and much more profound) challenge of China to U.S. geopolitical hegemony, encroaching at will now in the traditional U.S. “sphere of influence” of Latin America, sewing up Africa, and so on. A few years ago, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, comprising Russia, China, the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Iran (with observer status) would have been dismissed as a kind of geopolitical sour-grapes club. Instead, it represents a growing challenge to U.S. influence throughout the region. As Dilip Hiro noted recently, “No superpower in modern times has maintained its supremacy for more than several generations. And, however exceptional its leaders may have thought themselves, the United States, already clearly past its zenith, has no chance of becoming an exception to this age-old pattern of history.”

Even U.S. comptroller David Walker makes a similar point, warning “The world has changed dramatically in recent years. The U.S. is currently the sole superpower on earth but that exclusive status is likely to be short-lived. While the U.S. is number one in many things, from teh size of its economy to military might, it faces several big sustainability changes.” Forgive him his understatement, he is after all the head of the U.S. government’s non-partisan Government Accountability Office.

Hardly surprising, then, that Maliki — like all Iraqi politicians — is hedging his bets, assuming a U.S. withdrawal is inevitable at some point, and doing his best to strengthen his position for the conflicts that will follow. I wouldn’t bet on his surviving. Then again, Maliki may also be aware of a corollary to the trend of declining U.S. power most graphically illustrated in the plight of the likes of Mahmoud Abbas in the Palestinian Territories and Pervez Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan (if she continues on the path of making common cause with Musharraf at Washington’s behest): Right now, in many different parts of the world where the U.S. has vital interests at stake, being allied with Washington is less of a boon than it is a political kiss of death.

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