Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Toll the Bell for the Polls, Part I

Anthony Cordesman surveys the lay of the land (pdf) in the era of all-out war with the Sadrists in Iraq and games out the possibilities. Of the three, none is overly promising, even if certain outcomes are preferable to others. They are, according to Cordesman:

First, Maliki can win, defeat Sadr’s militia—the Mahdi Army, or Jaish al Mahdi (JAM)—and marginalize the Sadr movement. Second, Maliki can provoke Sadr into open violence and a new form of insurgency. Or, both sides become locked in a lingering intra-Shi’ite power struggle that mixes violence with political power plays.

Cordesman is using strained definitions of "win" and "defeat" when contemplating the first scenario. A recent Reuters piece clarifies the matter somewhat, echoing points that this site has been making for some time:

Ultimately, say experts, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki may never be able to defeat the popular cleric by force, and his attempt to do so could make Iraq far more unstable at a time when U.S. troops are reducing in numbers.

"I think the threat should be taken very seriously indeed," said Reidar Visser, editor of the Iraq-focused website historiae.org and an expert on southern Shi'ite Iraq.

"The Sadrists represent a strong popular movement with deep roots in Iraqi society, and it is entirely unrealistic to deal with them through military solutions alone."

Even Cordesman hedges and pares back his notions of winning and defeating:

The practical problem is that it is much easier to provoke an ideological and political movement with even the most successful tactical attacks than it is to defeat it as a religious and political force. Iraq’s poorer and more religious Shi’ites will not disappear no matter how good the military gains are against the JAM. They will be a major political force in any future elections regardless of whether Sadr survives, Sadrists are allowed to run, or the elections are fair or partly rigged. No one in Iraq goes quietly into that great night.

So what, then, would count as victory? The answer drains most meaning out of the word: disrupt the political and military wings of the Sadrist movement sufficient enough that Iran's main ally in Iraq, ISCI (aka SIIC), can prevail in upcoming elections (only). In other words, the US will be aiding and assisting in the undermining of the democratic process that it supposedly invaded Iraq to promote as an example throughout the region:

One can question the impact of a Maliki victory from the perspective of democratic theory. Virtually all experts agree that the Sadrist movement probably has more mass support among Shi’ites than the combination of Dawa and SIIC. In some mix of local and provincial elections that was held on the basis of ideal democracy, Sadr would win significant strength in Baghdad and the south, and do so with as much legitimacy as any other populist demagogue.

More practically, it is hard to dismiss the possibility that the fighting that began on March 25 has been directed largely against Sadr precisely because he was becoming an increasingly better organized political force and more of a threat to Dawa and SIIC leaders who gained power more because they rode the US-led invasion into power than because of real popular support.

Would making a mockery of the democratic process in such a transparently hypocritical fashion be worth it for the US? All things being equal, there are some legitimate reasons to prefer ISCI/Dawa over the Sadrists (a topic I will examine in greater length in Part II). But all things aren't equal (nor is the basis for the preference overwhelmingly compelling).

For one, as mentioned above, any realistic conception of "victory" is inherently fleeting: the Sadrists might be shut out of the next round of elections, but they cannot be marginalized indefinitely. Reuters notes:

"The provincial elections are ahead and if the Sadrists were banned from participating, wide-scale confrontation is looming," said Iraqi university professor Saad al-Hadithi.

In addition, continuing to publicly promote democracy and claim it as the driving force of our foreign policy while working tirelessly to unravel democratic results when they don't meet our preferences greatly tarnishes our image and undermines our ability to encourage democratic growth (see, ie, Gaza, Pakistan, etc.).

Most importantly, though, continuing the massive assault on the Sadrist movement (besieging neighborhoods that house over 2 million Iraqis) will result in higher casualties for Coalition forces and, to a much larger extent, Iraqis - both militants and civilian bystanders alike.

All of those considerable and hefty costs will be incurred for the short term electoral gain of some tentative allies in Iraq that will, under ideal circumstances, result in the following net gain - according to Cordesman:

If this "best case" scenario occurs, it would almost certainly increase the prospects of the US staying in Iraq and have some impact on the November elections in the US. It would, however, be as much the "fog ahead" as the "way ahead."

And that's the best case scenario.

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