Thursday, April 03, 2008
It now appears that the fraught operation in Basra last week was the brain-child of none other than Nouri al-Maliki (Cheney conspiracy theorists despair.)
First things first. Initially, I objected to the fact that Ilan Goldenberg (and many others) were accepting, without skepticism, the initial Bush administration spin that it wasn't notified in advance - at all - of the Basra assault. Goldenberg stated:
You'd think installing the guy and having 150,000 troops there to underwrite his government would at least buy American forces a heads up. You'd be wrong.
Marc Lynch stated in a post that Barry links to:
Did the United States have advance notice of Maliki's decision to attack Basra?...Eric Martin, like many others, is skeptical, pointing to reporting prior to the offensive and to the timing of Cheney's visit, as well as to the incentives for both the Iraqis and the Americans to pretend that it was an Iraqi initiative. It is very hard to believe that they would or could actually initiate such a high-risk offensive without consulting the US. On the other hand, several people in a position to know have now told me that as far as they knew the US in fact did not have advance notice.
So, again, the issue was that the Bush administration was claiming no advance notice, and some (though not Lynch it should be pointed out) were accepting this self-serving spin as fact without pause.
Curiously, the New York Times piece cited by Barry does not provide evidence that the Bush administration was, in fact, kept in the dark. Instead, it quotes Bush administration sources to the effect that Ambassador Ryan Crocker was told about the offensive three days before launch, and Petraeus two days before. Thus, even if we take these still self-serving statements by Bush administration officials at face value (a dubious endeavor given that all government officials embellish, and the Bush team has had a particularly egregious track record), even they are admitting to receiving advance warning or, as Ilan put it, a "heads up."
As for Barry's claim that the New York Times article proves the Basra operation was "Maliki's brainchild" and, thus, those claiming Cheney had a role should despair, I'm not so sure. First, some background:
Part of my initial skepticism of the Bush administration's "in the dark" storyline was based on the fact that a couple of days after Cheney visited (March 18) the head of the ISCI party, ISCI dropped (March 21) its veto of the regional elections law (the initial veto was due to concern that ISCI would lose ground to the Sadrists in those regional elections since ISCI is overrepresented due to the boycott of the last round of regional elections by the Sadrists). ISCI dropped its veto on the same day that Crocker was told of the impending Basra assault (according to the Times article). Days later (March 24), the Iraqi government undertook a massive operation targeting the Sadrist current in the Shiite south (the very region that is the focus of ISCI's electoral concerns).
The "Cheney conspiracy theory," as Barry derisively terms it, was never that Cheney came up with a plan to attack Basra on his own. Rather the theory was that Cheney indicated that the US would assist in, or at least bless, an assault on the Sadrists in Basra in exchange for ISCI's withdrawal of its veto. Thus, even if the attack was "Maliki's brainchild" that does not refute the theory that Cheney offered our blessing to Maliki's plan as a quid pro quo.
What we do know is that ISCI did withdraw its veto shortly after Cheney's visit with Hakim. We also know that the US did in fact bless and assist the assault and its aftermath. What is not known is whether or not our blessing/assistance was offered as an inducement to ISCI. I wonder what the competing theory is? Was it Cheney's ability to convince Hakim of the virtues of free and fair elections?
Further, even if it is true that Crocker and Petraeus weren't tipped off until a couple days after the Cheney visit, that does not negate the Cheney theory. Cheney is a skilled bureacratic infighter. One of Cheney's favorite tactics (and, during his tenure, Donald Rumsfeld's as well) is to make bold moves without informing other branches of the administration - those branches most likely to resist the policy in question and/or try to kill the policy through press leaks. In particular, Cheney and Rumsfeld cut Colin Powell and the State Department out of the loop with some frequency. Are we to believe that now that Condi Rice (also kept in the dark as NSA) is head of the State Department, Cheney has found religion such that he would never give Maliki the greenlight without telling Rice/Crocker? Or is it that Cheney won't act without cluing in Gates? Color me unconvinced.
Finally, even the "Maliki brainchild" claim assumes too much. For starters, we are once again relying on anonymous Bush administration and military sources and treating their statements as gospel. But even granting that ex arguendo, consider this from the same Times piece:
The article claims that Maliki grew impatient and went ahead with the assault without preparing the field according to the US military plan. If that's true, then the assault itself wasn't "Maliki's brainchild," but rather the timing.
There has been growing concern with the Iraqi government about the disorder in the city. In recent weeks, Lt. Gen. Mohan al-Fireji, a senior Iraqi commander in Basra, proposed that additional forces be sent.
Prompted by this suggestion, a detailed plan was being developed by American and Iraqi officials, which involved the establishment of combat outposts in the city and the deployment of Iraqi SWAT teams, Iraqi Special Forces and Interior Ministry units, as well as Iraqi brigades. [emphasis mine throughout]