U.S. Calls a Straw Poll in Iraq: It May Not Like the Result

In the TV gameshow bubble that substitutes for foreign policy discussion on the U.S. presidential campaign trial, there’s a lot of talk these days about how the U.S. is “winning” in Iraq. The evidence to back this claim is a comparative lull in the death rate in recent months, and the fact that Iraqi government forces are taking more casualties than the Americans. Those proclaiming “victory,” of course, are invariably the same crowd that enthusiastically backed the invasion of Iraq in the first place, and their desire for vindication for their part in authoring what all serious analysts agree has been the most catastrophic strategic blunder in America’s history is all too understandable. (Less understandable is the echo of this position by the Washington Post, which claims the U.S. and the Iraq government are “winning the war” and gaining full control of the country from al-Qaeda and rival militias.)

But the suggestion that a shift or fall in the pattern of violence indicates that the U.S. is “winning” in Iraq betrays the same lack of understanding of dynamics in that country as was so evident in the original decision to invade and occupy Iraq.

War, as Clausewitz always told us, is the continuation of politics by other means, and its outcomes are ultimately measured in political terms rather than by body counts. All of those waging war in Iraq — from al-Qaeda to the U.S. and everyone in between — are doing so in pursuit of political objectives. None is fighting just for the sake of fighting, or out of blind hatred. Moreover, in a conflict where one party has massive conventional forces at its disposal while others are combinations of militia and guerrilla units, the rate of tactical engagements doesn’t necessarily signify the balance of forces: If conventional forces are massed in particular areas, guerrilla units will likely lie low or disperse to keep their capability intact for later engagements. Claiming victory on the basis of the number of firefights and body counts is more than a little ridiculous, as anyone remotely familiar with the Vietnam war would attest.

Moreover, everyone knows that the success against al-Qaeda is based on the fact that nationalist Sunni insurgent groups turned on the foreign fighters and made common cause with the U.S. against them. But these groups have never made common cause with the Shi’ite dominated Iraqi government, to whom they are implacably opposed. (Al-Qaeda was never a fundamental aspect of the conflict in Iraq, as brutal and spectacular as its sectarian murders were; it always constituted only a small minority of the overall Sunni insurgency.) And on the Shi’ite side, the lull in violence, and its periodic uptick, is dependent almost entirely on the positions taken by the Mehdi Army of Moqtada Sadr, and by his opponents. Again, here we see an instance where Sadr’s Shi’ite rivals — who are actually closer to Iran than Sadr is — using the U.S. forces in Iraq to attack their own political foes.

Those in the U.S. who want to put a Pollyanna-ish spin on things in Iraq rush to proclaim these developments as signs of a political consensus emerging around the U.S. occupation. Far from it. As critics of the war on Capitol Hill often point out, there has been precious little progress towards the political reconciliation for which the “surge” was intended to create security conditions. Indeed, that’s because while the U.S. remains the dominant military force in Iraq, none of the Iraqi factions accept U.S. political tutelage. On the contrary, they are using the U.S. presence — which they assume will be finite — to best position themselves to trump their rivals once the U.S. has departed. That’s why, when it has come to substantial political legislation favorable to U.S. interests that Washington has pressed for — the obvious example being the oil law, which privatizes Iraq’s oil reserves and opens them to ownership by foreign investors — the Iraqis have politely, but firmly demurred. Laws such as the oil law, of course, run counter to the interests of the Iraqi parties with which the U.S. is in alliance, and where that happens, the Iraqis protect their own interests.

A similar dynamic may be unleashed by new U.S. efforts to get the Iraqi government to sign a security agreement that would keep 50 permanent military bases in Iraq and commit Baghdad (and President Bush’s successor) to accepting an open-ended military deployment in which U.S. forces would be free to pursue their own objectives on Iraqi soil may turn out to be a decisive moment in which all the key stakeholders in Iraq are forced to declare their intentions. And that could prove disastrous for the U.S., because outside of the Kurds, all of Washington’s key Iraqi allies cooperate with the U.S. only insofar as that advances their own interests in the intra-Iraqi political battle. That much is true for the leading parties of the Iraqi government, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and also the Shi’ite Islamic Supreme Council of Abdulaziz al-Hakim, on the one hand, and the various Sunni nationalist and Islamist groups both in the political process and among the insurgents of the “Awakening” groups who fight alongside the U.S. against al-Qaeda, but also oppose the Shi’ite led central government — none of these groups can in any sense be claimed as a strategic, let alone a principled ally of the U.S. Their alliance with the U.S. is purely tactical.

So, now that the U.S. is once again pushing for a political agreement by the Iraqis that many deem inimical to their national interests — and which Iran, the key regional player in Iraq, has deemed unacceptable — we’re suddenly being treated to a kind of snap survey or straw poll among the players in Iraq on the long-term U.S. presence and goals for Iraq. Sadr is out on the streets protesting; Maliki is unhappy and so is SCIRI; Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani seems likely to oppose it by insisting that it be passed by parliament and not run contrary to the principle of Iraqi sovereignty (which it obviously does); Iran is warning of resistance; and the Sunnis don’t like it either. The interests of none of the key players in Iraq run to a permanent U.S. presence, particularly given the fact that the vast majority of ordinary Iraqis oppose it.

Bush is clearly betting that Maliki lacks any option but to sign on, because without the U.S. he wouldn’t remain in power. The problem that it can’t recognize, however, is that being seen to embrace the U.S. will also result in certain political doom for Maliki. Forced to choose, the smart money says he can’t say yes to Bush. Which is why he’ll probably find a way to avoid having to make the decision the U.S. wants him to make.

If the new law is passed in the way the U.S. wants it, to sanctify a permanent U.S. military presence, I’d concede that it’s a sign that the U.S. is, indeed, beginning to win in Iraq. Anything less, however, would confirm my suspicion that surge notwithstanding, Washington is no closer to achieving its political objectives in Iraq than it was five years ago.

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22 Responses to U.S. Calls a Straw Poll in Iraq: It May Not Like the Result

  1. Bush War Crime says:

    Shocking News from Iraq: Maliki Rejected Bush’s Agreement and Wrote His Own
    Submitted by Bob Fertik on June 3, 2008 – 8:55am.

    * Iraq Permanent Bases
    * OutOfIraq

    In the flurry of news stories over the weekend about the status of the crucial Bush-Maliki agreement to keep U.S. troops in Iraq after January 1, the most important fact was entirely overlooked by the U.S. media: Maliki has obviously rejected Bush’s proposal, because he has written his own.

    Chief government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the Iraqi negotiators have a “vision and a draft that is different” from the Americans but that the talks, which began in March, were still in an early stage.

    Interestingly, that shocking news was reported only by Robert H. Reid of the AP, and not by Richard Oppel Jr. and Stephen Farrell of the NY Times. Did “OppRell” (remember “WoodStein” from Watergate?) not know about the Maliki draft, or did they (or their editors or Dick Cheney) not want to tell their readers to continue to “catapult the propaganda”?

    For a weak and dependent leader like Maliki, rejecting Bush’s draft and substituting his own is a huge act of defiance.

    It tells us Maliki wants an agreement with the U.S., but Bush simply wasn’t willing to modify his terms enough to satisfy Maliki’s needs. Obviously Maliki told Bush his terms and Bush said no.

    (When I write “Bush” I should probably write “Cheney,” but for simplicity’s sake I’ll stick to “Bush.”)

    What are the key sticking points in the negotiations? According to OppRell,

    The Americans want to continue to have “a free hand” to arrest Iraqis and carry out military operations, and they want authority for more than 50 long-term military bases, Mr. Adeeb said. He said that he doubted that a security pact along the lines sought by the Americans would pass in the Iraqi Parliament.

    Mr. Abadi, another senior member of Dawa, said Americans were insisting on keeping control of Iraqi airspace and retaining legal immunity for American troops, contractors and private security guards.

    There’s the key word that I keep harping on – full immunity for Americans, even if they steal, rape, kidnap, torture, or murder – all of which has been documented by the U.S. media.

    As with the issue of warrantless wiretapping, full immunity is Bush’s bottom line. That’s why he’s been unable to cut a deal with Congress on FISA: because House Democrats refuse to give him full immunity, due to unrelenting pressure from the Netroots (yay us!!!).

    Immunity is crucial to Bush because he refuses to operate within any laws, and he wants his governmental and non-governmental agents to have the same unlimited power he has.

    (As Andrew Tilghman points out at TPM, Bush is trying to privatize as much as of the occupation as he can. But contractors would be even more vulnerable than soldiers if Americans lost immunity because Iraqi officials would have fewer qualms about arresting non-uniformed Americans, and American employees can sue their employers, unlike soldiers.)

    Unfortunately for Bush, he can’t preserve immunity for Americans in Iraq by himself – he needs Maliki to agree. So for the first time in Bush’s Presidency, he is unable to simply impose his will.

    No doubt he is putting tremendous pressure on Maliki. So why did Maliki take the extraordinary step of rejecting Bush’s draft agreement and writing his own?

    Maliki is conflicted about U.S. troops. On the one hand, Maliki’s government is weak, and so is his military. Without U.S. troops propping him up, he would be unable to defeat Moqtada Al-Sadr’s large militia – at least for now.

    But on the other hand, most Iraqis bitterly resent our presence, even if they are not actively trying to kill us. Maliki, as an elected leader, has to be responsive to the will of the Iraqi people.

    So Maliki wants U.S. troops, but only up to a point. And that’s exactly why his negotiations with Bush over the fine print of a bilateral agreement are stuck.

    Which brings us back to Bush. If Bush wanted to reach an agreement with Maliki to keep U.S. troops in Iraq for a while on terms that were acceptable to Maliki, he could probably find a way to meet Maliki half-way.

    But Maliki is both unwilling and unable (due to pressure from the Iraqi people, the Iraqi parliament, Al-Sadr, and even Ayatollah al-Sistani) to accept full immunity as part of the terms of the agreement.

    So if the positions of Bush and Maliki are fundamentally irreconcilable, will there be an agreement by the crucial deadline of December 31?

    Maliki has the upper hand in his negotiations with Bush. Even without an agreement, he knows U.S. troops will be there to keep him in power. He knows McCain will keep our troops there forever, and even Obama will only remove one combat brigade per month over 16 months and leave a residual force after that.

    So he has no important reason to sign any agreement with lame-duck Bush, and every reason to try to negotiate a better one with Bush’s successor.

    On the other hand, Bush desperately needs an agreement that preserves full immunity after December 31, or U.S. troops and contractors will be subject to Iraqi law. Without an immunity agreement, Maliki would have full power to enforce Iraqi law by arresting a U.S. soldier or contractor any time he wanted.

    Since Bush is desperate and Maliki isn’t, Maliki clearly has the upper hand. That means Bush has a choice: either to agree to Maliki’s document with limited modifications that are acceptable to the Iraqi people, or get no agreement at all.

    Bush’s entire Presidency has been devoted to the idea that Bush never negotiates on key points. But with time running out on his presidency, and with Maliki looking beyond Bush to the next president, it it looks like Bush finally has no choice but to accept Maliki’s broad framework and get the best deal he can on the crucial details, especially on the question of immunity.

    I can’t wait to read what Maliki’s document actually says…

    Update 1: According to Reuters, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh says the Bushevik promise of a agreement in July is officially off the table:

    “I don’t think that we can meet this date. There is a difference in viewpoints between Iraq and the U.S. I don’t think that time is enough to end this gap and to reach a joint understanding … Therefore, we are not committed to July as a deadline,” he told al-Arabiya television.

    So what fantasy date will the Busheviks float next? And when will Congress realize there won’t be an agreement by January 1?

    Update 2: More shocking news: Maliki is discussing the US-Iraq agreement with the leaders of our undeclared enemy Iran!

    Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will visit Iran next week to strengthen political and economic ties between the two countries, Iran’s state-run Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Iraqi ambassador to Iran Abu Heidar al-Sheikh as saying on Tuesday.

    Al-Maliki would discuss with Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the security pact between Iraq and the U.S., al-Sheikh told reporters.

    If anything would send Bush back to the bottle (or was it cocaine? Bush told Scotty he simply can’t remember), this is it.

  2. Y. Ben-David says:

    Tony said:
    All of those waging war in Iraq — from al-Qaeda to the U.S. and everyone in between — are doing so in pursuit of political objectives. None is fighting just for the sake of fighting, or out of blind hatred.

    No blind hatred, huh? Remember all the months of sectarian killings and ehtnic cleansing in Baghdad, where everyone morning something like 50 bodies were being found with their skulls opened by electric drills and their bodies marked with cigarette burn marks?
    The bombs placed in locations where schoolchildren congregated? The abductions and murders of non-political scholars and artists? These things are NOT motivated by hatred? Really?

    Eichmann also claimed he didn’t “hate” Jews, he was merely “carrying out orders”.

  3. Nell says:

    “Those proclaiming “victory,” of course, are invariably the same crowd that enthusiastically backed the invasion of Iraq in the first place, and their desire for vindication for their part in authoring what all serious analysts agree has been the most catastrophic strategic blunder in America’s history is all too understandable. (Less understandable is the echo of this position by the Washington Post”

    Not when you understand that the Post editors also enthusiastically backed the invasion in the first place — and buried Walter Pincus’ and others’ skeptical analyses and reporting deep in p. A22 territory.

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  5. george in Toronto says:

    Washington Poop is not alone in covering up for the Bush Regime lies.
    Crime syndicates are criminal organizations ‘running common businesses’
    Now for a new word to the English-
    Sindicates–Zionists running all the USi media.

  6. Mary says:

    If Iraq gives what Bully Bush wants,then Iraq might as well say GOODBYE to their country!! Then Bully Bush might as well plant the American flag and call it their 51st state.

  7. Ron Harwell says:

    I disagree with your remark where you stated if Bush gets his way on the demands for immunity and fifty permanent bases, then Bush will have won the occupation of Iraq. That is not so–That is merely more blackmail to keep the country; holding hostage an entire civilization for corporate and private interests. History has shown all countries that invaded that land, made deals, enslaved the populace, lied, raped and pillaged were ultimately forced out at great loss. This will be no different. The Iraqi’s want us out. We are occupiers. The war is over. Ultimately, no matter what deal Bush cuts, we will have to leave. The sooner we do that, the better. The sooner we give them back their lives, their country and their way of life– The sooner we negotiate with them, treat them as equals, the sooner we will have one less enemy. This is about oil, always has been. This is about “Us” wanting it and “Us” taking it– Resource wars (Oil, water, minerals, etc.)It’s way past the time to stop this Pax Americana (Which has failed) and rebuild our country’s infrastructure, reputation, and image. We lost Iraq and Afghanistan a very long time ago. We never won the hearts and minds because we don’t know how. We never learned from our own historic mistakes and merely keep repeating them with catastrophic results. Ron Harwell, Miami, FL

  8. Mr. Karon, sir, and excellent commentary.
    Of course W. Shrub demands immunity for his troops and contractors (mercenaries). As stated, he is above all laws and demands his paid killers get the same treatment. He doesn’t want the brought up on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, etc. Just as he fears such a future for himself and his entire criminal administration.
    I am not a “peacenick” nor a left wing kook. I am a former US Marine and a Vietnam veteran. This Iraq mess is even worse than Vietnam. No, the death toll for us is way less, but the way our troops have been abused by our own government makes it worse.
    I am sick to death of the damn politicians telling us to “support the troops” and those idiot ribbons on various vehicles with that idiot slogan. If this government really supported our troops, they would first, not be in an illegal war of choice. They would also get the medical treatment that they have earned by their service in this damn war.
    Our troops have been lied to in ways that are worse than the lies the rest of us have been spoon fed by this administration and the compliant media.
    Yes, sir, I am highly pissed off at the illegal wars of choice of this and all previous administrations.
    Thank you for your time reading my rants.
    semper fi,

  9. spyguy says:

    The US will leave Iraq, make no mistake about it.

    The only thing open to debate is the method. Will the US make an orderly, relatively peaceful withdrawal or will the withdrawal be under fire with lots of American deaths?

    Even a casual reading of 10,000 years of history says the US situation in Iraq is unstable and unsustainable.

    Sure, once the US leaves Iraq, there will be a power struggle, but that is just what happens when any group is finally allowed to determine its own fate. Sure, there will be deaths, but I am pretty sure the number of deaths will be far, far less than everyone predicts. Because most of the ethnic cleansing and power block building has already taken place, under the US noses. Al Maliki is a sure loser and would be smart to leave with the US troops.

    So no matter what McCain says, in the end the US will leave Iraq as a loser, since there is absolutely no way for the US to “win” in any real definition of “winning.”

    I know Americans can’t stand “losers” but in this case they will just have to swallow their overactive pride and face the facts, sooner or later.

    The sooner the US gets out of Iraq, the sooner the killing stops, the sooner the Iraqi oil fields can be rebuilt so full production can be achieved. As long as the US is in Iraq, the oil fields will be held hostage. It is just too easy to sabotage oil infrastructure.

  10. mb says:

    >The sooner the US gets out of Iraq, the sooner the killing stops.

    …That is where your opinion is more positive than most Generals on the field.

    Democrat Congress is the one challenging Iraqis for Oil, and forcing insane policy, with hope of expulsion… Not our troops or Bush.

    You all can say whatever you like, but this action is likely to get many, many, of our Soldiers killed.

    They wanted to go from point A, since 1998…

    And now they want to go from point C to before point A… Like nothing ever happened.

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  16. isumi says:

    Hoping that Irag bring back peachfull to the country the civillian should liveing with out scaring of any fighting.

  17. Do not expect to be in a capitalist world, a better humanity.
    Of course, in this order, each country will protect its own interests.

  18. After all did not walk a socialist or communist regimes.
    Then the problem, not of man. First, the human moral, patient, and should be sharing, if the problem is not the variety of regimes.

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  22. Thanks for finally talking about > U.S. Calls a
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