It should come as no surprise that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s disastrous offensive against the Mahdi Army of Moqtada Sadr in Basra has had the exact opposite effect of that intended — strengthening rather than weakening Sadr, and making clear that he, and the Iranians, have far greater influence of Iraq’s future than does the Iraqi government or the U.S. That’s because Maliki’s shared the fate of pretty much every similar initiative by the Bush Administration and its allies and proxies since the onset of the “war on terror.”
The pattern is all too common: The U.S. or an ally or proxy launches a military offensive against a politically popular “enemy” group; Bush and his minions welcome the violence as “clarifying” matters, demonstrating “resolve”, or, in the most grotesque rhetorical flourish of all, the “birth pangs” of a brave new world. Each time, the “enemy” proves far more resilient than expected, largely because Bush and his allies have failed to recognize that each adversary’s power should be measured in political support rather than firepower; and the net effect of the offensive invariably leaves the enemy strengthened and the U.S. and its allies even weaker than before they launched the offensive.
Recent examples would include
* Last year’s U.S.-orchestrated Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in order to drive the Islamic Courts Union out of Mogadishu. This operation, based on the narrowest U.S. concerns to apprehend a handful of Qaeda men, was blithely oblivious to the reasons why the residents of Mogadishu might actually support the Islamists for having established a predictable social order after vanquishing the extortionist warlords with whom the U.S. was in league. So the offensive, like Basra involving U.S. Special Forces, scattered the Islamists, but they’re coming back. The Ethiopian occupation, and the Somali government it is meant to support, are simply not tenable without the political support that the Islamists continue to enjoy.
* Last year’s disastrous U.S.-backed coup attempt in Gaza in which security forces loyal to Fatah warlord Mohammed Dahlan sought to militarily eliminate the democratically elected Hamas government, provoking the counter-coup in which Hamas took full security control over Gaza. The U.S. and Israel followed up with a collective punishment regime targeting ordinary Gazans in the hope that they could be starved into turning on Hamas; the result has been to strengthen the Islamists, particularly after they blew a hole in the border with Egypt and with it in the Bush strategy.
* The summer 2006 Israeli campaign — at U.S. urging — to militarily eliminate Hizballah in Lebanon, which not only produced a military debacle for Israel but gave Hizballah a major political boost, effectively killing off the misguided U.S. strategy of seeking a zero-sum victory by one half of Lebanese society over the other.
* The 2004 U.S. campaigns against Sadr’s forces in Iraq, and the siege of Fallujah and its Sunni insurgents in the same year.
* The campaign against the Taliban in southeastern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan.
In all of these instances, the lesson is clear: overwhelming force may be an effective tool against a criminal gang, but against an armed movement rooted in popular sentiment and support, it usually has the opposite effect. The Bush Administration has had plenty of experiences of this lesson, and plenty of time to digest it, but, apparently, to no avail. Instead, Maliki has weakened himself, perhaps fatally, while Sadr once again emerges as the Iraqi politician most likely to go the distance.
And, of course, the U.S. position in Iraq has been further jeopardized by antagonizing the most powerful community in Baghdad.
An equally important lesson from Basra, though, was that it took Iran — in fact, by a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander on the U.S. list of most wanted terrorists to rescue Maliki and the Americans from a very nasty situation once their offensive had stalled and the Sadrists had joined the battle elsewhere in Iraq. Not only does this affirm the reality that Iran’s influence is considerably greater in Iraq than that of the U.S. — Tehran was able to resolve the Basra standoff precisely because it has backed both the Supreme Council, which dominates the Iraq security forces and also enjoys U.S. backing, as well as the Sadrists. The idea that the U.S. can stabilize Iraq while in conflict with — or even on terms opposed by — Iran is now a pipe dream.
To the extent that the U.S. mission in Iraq includes the notion of rolling back Iranian influence, the U.S. is in for a long, and ultimately futile mission. And the idea that it can remake the political landscape there or anywhere else through the application of force is a dangerous delusion.