Friday, April 27, 2007

And Everyone's the Same, and On and On

I might have to begin making a series out of the "Here's a better question..." formulation. At the very least, this is the second installment, following up on my previous effort (see Swopa here, riffing off of that post with more trenchant analysis, as usual). Today's episode comes courtesy of Juan Cole [emphasis added]:

Nationalist young Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Wednesday condemned the US plans to build a wall around the Adhamiya district of Baghdad, calling it "evil" and warning it would reinforce sectarianism. Al-Sadr has a pan-Islamic rhetoric, but at night his Mahdi Army goons murder Sunni Arabs in the street. It remains to be seen if he is capable of reining in his goons and actually put together an anti-Coalition alliance of both Shiites and Sunnis.

A better hypothetical would be, "It remains to be seen if Sadr has any desire to rein in his goons and actually put together an anti-Coalition alliance of both Shiites and Sunnis." Actually, it doesn't really remain to be seen, absent a dramatic transformation of Sadr that just isn't in the cards. Even entertaining the possibility that Sadr would pursue a unified Shiite/Sunni agenda at this time shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the objectives, tactics and strategies of Sadr and the myriad other players currently occupying Iraq's political mosaic (if such a possibility existed, it was probably only circa the first siege of Fallujah, but has since disappeared).

Sadr is a Shiite partisan who wants to secure power, influence and economic resources for himself and his particular constituency - just like every other major Shiite leader/faction operating in Iraq (SCIRI, Dawa, Fadhila, Chalabi, etc.). Same goes for the other sects/ethnic factions attempting to impose their respective agendas via the ubiquitous barrels of guns (Sunni ex-Baathists, al-Qaeda types, Kurds, Allawi, etc.). It is a rotating and intricate spider web of armed competition for the oldest motivations in the book: money, power and respect.

Sadr uses the "nationalist" and "anti-occupation" rhetoric to secure his base of support. Heck, he might be a true believer of sorts for what it's worth - which isn't much. Other Shiite and Kurdish groups use US forces - and the "democratic" process - to help achieve their ends. The Sunnis mostly appeal to religious authority - invoking jihad - as well as the inspiration provided by, alternatively, avarice, fear, vengeance, injustice and deprivation.

But Sadr is not a "nationalist" in the truest sense of the word. His view of "nationalism" is Shiite-centric, with his own particular conception of "Shiite identity" - and by extension, "Iraqi identity" - taking precedence. Similarly, Sistani (also erroneously described as a "nationlist" by many onlookers), is the apex of the Shiite-centric firmament. Above all, Sistani wants to guarantee lasting, if not permanent, Shiite control over Iraq. He is not inclined to let the unique opportunity afforded by the clumsy US invasion elude him. Sadr plays but one part in Sistani's grand design, and the two Shiite leaders have solidified a close and symbiotic relationship as a result (at least for now).

That is why Sistani, very early on, seized on the notion of "democracy" and wrested the process from the Americans. In "democracy," Sistani recognizes the vehicle needed to deliver him to the promised land by virtue of the Shiites' numerical (and thus electoral) superiority. But he is not a "democrat" in the sense that he espouses enlightened views of liberalism, minority rights and restraint on the excesses of majoritarianism. Quite the opposite. In Sistani's view, such democratic principles should remain subordinate to the larger goal of Shiite dominance.

Any talk about Sistani pushing for "reconciliation" and normalization between the warring factions misses this crucial point. Sistani would accept an armistice, I suppose - as long as such an accord was based on his terms (read: no Baathists in power, Shiite control over the government's major institutions, and a generally disempowered Sunni population). But Sistani is not pushing for a compromise. Evidence of this can be found in the governing style and platform of the Shiite-led Iraqi governments. The same governments that owe their position to the Sistani-devised and enforced united Shiite political slate.

Why is it, do you suppose, that the Bush administration has recently pulled back on the throttle with respect to efforts to fill out the ranks of the Iraqi army and security forces? These institutions, notionally under the control of the "state of Iraq," were heavily infiltrated instruments in the hands of the various warring factions - who almost always are willing to capitalize on the largess and naivete of the occupying powers.

Worth noting: both Sadr and Sistani, within a week of each other, came out against the recent attempt to pass laws relaxing the scope and harshness of de-Baathification. In addition, neither Sadr nor Sistani (nor SCIRI and Dawa - nor the Kurds for that matter), have shown any inclination to pursue the equitable resolution of any of the other major political stumbling blocks forestalling broader rapprochement (assuming the Sunnis would go for that in the first place, which is not a given). Interesting behavior for a couple of "nationalists" looking to broach ethnic/sectarian divisions, no?

That is not to say that there are not tensions and infighting on the Shiite side of the ledger (and Sunni and Kurdish sides as well). After all, each sub-group is trying to secure as much of the aforementioned power, influence and economic resources as possible - even where such gains are to be made vis-a-vis their putative co-ethnic/sectarian "allies." The grabbing hands, grab all they can.

Don't be fooled by the shifting alliances, intrigue and gamesmanship on display, though. There will be rumors and reports of shocking splits and nascent alliances that will, in the end, return to the farcical ether from where they were conjured serving no purpose other than the murky designs of the rumor spreaders themselves. Until each of the major groups (Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni) feels secure enough in their respective positions, the infighting will be kept at a manageable level and the cross-ethnic/sectarian outreach will be stunted. The larger problem is, though, that each of the factions' efforts to attain and consolidate the desired secure position is fueling the civil war and related violence from Kirkuk, to Anbar, to Basra in the South. They're still stuck in the fight for superiority mode.

Against this backdrop, praise for the enlightened efforts - or democratic bona fides - of the "Iraqi government" seem foolish and detached from reality. That same government is comprised of several of the aforementioned warring factions, and has consistently and relentlessly pursued a narrow, self-serving agenda. By hitching our wagon to this government, we have become, at best, an irrelevant spectator and at worst, a tool wielded by opportunistic Iraqi groups.

In search of an alternative, we are left casting about aimlessly for some non-existent Iraqi majority movement that is secular, liberal, enlightened, pro-American and, above all, not based in communalism. No doubt, there are many Iraqis that would embrace such a political movement of inclusion, but many of those same Iraqis have, in a pattern of negative self-selection, chosen to leave the chaos behind and join the stream of refugees heading for the exits. Riverbend included. Even under the best circumstances, though, it would remain doubtful that this political movement would have the numbers and mandate to overcome the power and influence of the current array of actors.

In the meantime, we cycle through a series of plans, strategies and tactics that range from embracing Shiite dominance at the expense of the Sunni population, to courting certain Sunni resistance groups in order to use as leverage to gain concessions from a dominant and uncompromising Shiite majority. We are precluded from pushing too strongly in either direction, or from helping one side to vanquish the other.

Unrestrained support of the Shiite factions in their effort to score a decisive victory over their Sunni rivals would cause a surge in al-Qaeda's popularity (as the mostly Sunni Arab world watches us partake in the slaughter of their brethren), and further alienate and anger our Sunni allies in the region (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, etc.). Those same Sunni allies have taken on an extra degree of importance as of late, as a result of our ulterior goal of counterbalancing the suddenly ascendant Iran. More incoherence and contradicting goals.

Speaking of which, leaning too heavily on the Shiite factions would push them further into the arms of Iran - a reality, the parameters of which, we are just beginning to appreciate. The Iraqi Shiites don't necessarily need us, as we're not the only potential patron in the neighborhood. Further, escalating hostilities with the Shiites just isn't logistically feasible. If we are currently unable to defeat a Sunni insurgency representing roughly 20% of Iraq's population, the odds of defeating a Shiite insurgency comprising approximately 60% of Iraq's population are equivalent to a snowball's chances at longevity in Hades.

Whether you view our herky-jerky, often contradictory and incoherent attempts to forge stability from the raw materials in Iraq as a noble effort to improve the lives of the Iraqi people - or some necessary prerequisite to securing the acceptability of our permanent military presence and access to oil - it is well past futile. The various Iraqi factions recognize that in the end we will leave one way or the other, and they will remain. They can wait us out, or play the game within the parameters set, as necessary. And so they do.

As Petraeus is fond of saying, there is no military solution in Iraq, only a political solution. The Surge, he admits, will not itself overcome any of the fundamental challenges facing Iraq. He's right. The Surge's main justification is that it will lead to an abatement of the violence, and in that period of calmness, the various factions can better forge a modus vivendi acceptable to all.

But the major impediment to forging a broad-based, political accord in Iraq is not necessarily the steady violence. That is a symptom, not the pathology (though it does exacerbate the pathology, somewhat, in a reinforcing loop). The underlying cause of the violence lies in the fact that each side is pursuing competing goals, and no side has the desire to make concessions or abandon their armed component. The Surge won't change that calculus.

It's time to get out of Dodge.

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