Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Little Drummer Boy

My promiscuity continues unabated this week and next as I'll be chipping in as a guest blogger at Political Animal in order to fill the void left by Kevin Drum's absence. Relax, he's only on vacation. He'll be back soon enough, and Political Animal will return to its previous high standards. But for now, let's trash the joint (I kid Kevin, I kid).

Friday, May 23, 2008

Thanks, But We Can Take It From Here

Reacting to the story that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is beginning to take a more militant stand in opposition to the US occupation, Kevin Drum asks, "Why now?" I briefly mentioned some of the possible motivations in my post on the Sistani story (as did Cernig and Matt Duss), but Juan Cole offers a good summary of some of the more compelling speculation.

To reiterate (as Cole himself does), this is only plausible speculation and there is no way to know Sistani's motivations for sure. What is known for sure, however, is that Sistani's shift on this topic (or, perhaps, willingness to vocalize an unchanged position) is a severe setback to those that envision a 100 year presence in Iraq - complete with massive permanent bases, theme parks and luxury hotels:

So, the questions are, "why" and "why now?"

I can only speculate, since Sistani isn't issuing communiques that would explain what is on his mind. But let us look at the context.

First, Sistani was under a lot of pressure from his Shiite followers to denounce the US siege, blockade and aerial bombing of the civilian district of Sadr City in East Baghdad, which went on for weeks. People were actually lacking in food. And, apartment buildings were incinerated. The full horror of the siege was carefully kept from the American public, but the Shiites of Iraq knew about it all right. I think that the brutality of the US intervention against the Shiite masses, and the risk that his silence would produce a backlash against him in favor of Muqtada al-Sadr, may have helped impel Sistani toward this militancy. Aerial bombardment of civilian areas as a tactic has increased significantly this spring.

Americans tend to dismiss the aerial bombardments, in which civilians are often killed, as the cost of doing business in a war zone. But many Iraqis really, really mind these killings and you can only imagine what Sistani thinks of them. Likewise, while the incident of the US soldier using the Qur'an for firing practice only happened recently and wouldn't be the impetus for Sistani's new militancy, such desecrations have occurred before and the hatred of Islam by US military figures like Gen. Boykin is well known.

This is an extremely important point, and one that I have tried to make in the past. It is much easier to rationalize the "regrettable necessity" of collateral damage from a safe distance. Somehow, the arguments are less persuasive when your friends, loved ones and neighbors are the collateral. And no, that's not an Arab thing either.

Another point made by Cole has to do with the paucity of coverage regarding the actual levels of violence attendant to the Sadr City assault. The fantasy being for many Americans that if it doesn't show up in the American media, it didn't happen. You can see the adjunt to this outlook in the reaction to many news stories from Abu Ghraib to the recent Koran desecration story.

There is actual anger from war supporters at the media for reporting these events, with claims that reporting by the Western media sows hostility to the US presence. One problem: the Iraqi people, um, know what's happening in Sadr City, Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere in Iraq even if it doesn't appear on a CNN scroll. The US military, after all, had to formally apologize to a Sunni tribe for the Koran desecration. How did that Sunni tribe find out? Wolf Blitzer? Obviously no. Yet some claim that CNN acted against the best interests of our troops in Iraq by letting Americans know what the Iraqis already knew.

But I digress:

Second, as Steve Chapman points out, the American Right is clearly trying to get up a war on Iran by rather fantastically painting it as a "threat". Sistani is an Iranian, born in Mashhad in 1930, who resided there until late 1951. He does not like the Khomeinist system of government. But since Sistani has seen what Bush's tender mercies have done to Iraq, he must be alarmed by the idea that Washington might bestow the same "liberation" on his native land. Obviously, the US is in a worse position to attack Iran if it lacks Iraq as a base, and one way of forestalling Cheney's mad bombers would be to try to force the US out of Iraq.

Third, PM Nuri al-Maliki has several times expressed the conviction that the Iraqi army could handle Iraq by the end of 2008. If he is telling Sistani that, and Sistani believes it, then the Grand Ayatollah may feel that there is increasingly no down side to multinational forces leaving Iraq. Al-Maliki's campaigns in Basra, Sadr City and Mosul were probably intended as a demonstration that the Iraqi army can handle the country on its own. The intrepid Leila Fadil reports from Basra that al-Maliki has in fact achieved greater security and trade in Iraq's ports through his Assault of the Knights operation. When al-Maliki and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim feel strong enough domestically, their first order of business will be to vastly reduce American military influence. They represent the Islamic Mission (Da`wa) Party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (founded by Ayatollah Khomeini), after all. There is likely a limit to this marriage of convenience.

Sistani also follows American politics, and he knows that the US is transitioning away from Bush, so he may see an opportunity to push the new administration in a different direction.

While Sistani's shift is a big story, it shouldn't exactly be a startling revelation. Sistani, and the clerical establishment in Najaf, as well as our putative allies (ISCI and Dawa), will eventually want us to leave when they feel secure in their own new-found position of hegemony. What did you expect? Their religious, cultural and political traditions aren't amenable to long term interference and occupation by Western powers (not many cultures are, in fact).

Just think, some people actually thought Chalabi was going to swoop in, take control of Iraq, normalize relations with Israel, build a pipeline from Iraq to Haifa and open up the country to a Western capitalist free for all. Did I mention, some of those people were actually intimately involved in the selling, planning and implementation of the Iraq war. Heh.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Better Make Those Flowers and Candies "To Go"

Wow. This is pretty big news (via the indefatigable Cernig):

Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric has been quietly issuing religious edicts declaring that armed resistance against U.S.-led foreign troops is permissible — a potentially significant shift by a key supporter of the Washington-backed government in Baghdad.

The edicts, or fatwas, by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani suggest he seeks to sharpen his long-held opposition to American troops and counter the populist appeal of his main rivals...Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia.

But — unlike al-Sadr's anti-American broadsides — the Iranian-born al-Sistani has displayed extreme caution with anything that could imperil the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. [...]

In the past, al-Sistani has avoided answering even abstract questions on whether fighting the U.S. presence in Iraq is allowed by Islam. Such questions sent to his Web site — which he uses to respond to followers' queries — have been ignored. All visitors to his office who had asked the question received a vague response.

The subtle shift could point to his growing impatience with the continued American presence more than five years after the U.S.-led invasion.

It also underlines possible opposition to any agreement by Baghdad to allow a long-term U.S. military foothold in Iraq — part a deal that is currently under negotiation and could be signed as early as July. [...]

Al-Sistani's distaste for the U.S. presence is no secret. In his public fatwas on his Web site, he blames Washington for many of Iraq's woes.

But a more aggressive tone from the cleric could have worrisome ripples through Iraq's Shiite majority — 65 percent of the country's estimated 27 million population — in which many followers are swayed by his every word.

A longtime official at al-Sistani's office in Najaf would not deny or confirm the edicts issued in private, but hinted that a publicized call for jihad may come later.

"(Al-Sistani) rejects the American presence," he told the AP, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment to media. "He believes they (the Americans) will at the end pay a heavy price for the damage they inflicted on Iraq."

Yeah, those permanent bases, that 100 year slumber party...we might want to consider a change of plans. Opposition from both Sadr and Sistani is deal breaker territory - especially when you throw in a good portion of the Sunni population as well.

Now Sistani is old, and reportedly infirmed, but I wouldn't bank on his successor changing that tune. Consider this: Sistani is moving in this direction, at least partially, because of public sentiment and Sadr's ability to capitalize on his anti-American stance. Opposing the American presence is popular. That's not going to change any time soon.

Sistani also expressed his gratitude for the toppling of Saddam:

"Changing the tyrannical (Saddam Hussein) regime by invasion and occupation was not what we wished for because of the many tragedies they have created," al-Sistani said in reply to a question on his Web site.

"We are extremely worried about their intentions," he wrote in response to another question on his views about the U.S. military presence.

Or not. Back to Sadr:

In perhaps another sign of al-Sistani's hardened position, he has opposed disarming the Mahdi Army as demanded by al-Maliki, according to Shiite officials close to the cleric.

Disarming the Mahdi Army would — in the views of many Shiites — leave them vulnerable to attacks by armed Sunni factions that are steadily gaining strength after joining the U.S. military fight against al-Qaida.

Guess he's trying to repair the hit he took when he refused to condem the bloody assault on Sadr City. Cernig makes a very good point as well:

Sadr now has a free hand from Sistani as long as he plays nice with Maliki.

I think that's right, and Sadr is acting on it. Recent reports of the Iraqi government's increased presence in Sadr City - and the warm reception offered by the locals - is being misinterpreted by all the usual suspects (Sadr's dead! Again!). The assualt on Sadr City certainly strengthened Sadr vis-a-vis Sistani, as described above and predicted in this post. The willingness to allow government troops into Sadr City is consistent with the terms of the truce, especially because the tradeoff is supposed to be less US military presence.

Further, Sadr has been very deliberate in his rhetoric as of late to make clear that the Sadrist current is resisting the occupation, and does not wish to fight the Iraqi government. So welcoming Iraqi government troops makes sense (as long as those troops abide by their end of the truce's bargain and don't indiscriminately target and/or arrest Sadrists).

As Cernig mentioned, this position fits well within the religious guidance issued by Sistani. We should really be making our way to the exits.

Matt Duss is also on the beat.

All Those Dirty Words...

Noah Pollak places the cart before the horse and yells "gotcha" from the saddle:

Why is McCain allowing himself to be dragged into a debate about presidential-level diplomacy, when the more important question — and the question whose answer is more politically favorable to McCain — is whether diplomatic engagement will actually get anything accomplished? McCain should be asking Obama what concessions he realistically thinks he’s going to get from the Iranians upon going hat in hand to Tehran.

Matt Yglesias makes it a teaching moment:

The problem here is that, once again, we see hawks not understanding what diplomacy is...[T]hink of diplomacy as a kind of bargaining. Like you might do at a yard sale or something. Diplomacy doesn't exist at one end of a spectrum of coercive measures -- we try war, we try sanctions, we try diplomacy -- any more than bargaining operates on a smooth continuum with robbery. The point of bargaining with a vendor is to see whether or not it's possible to find mutually acceptable terms that improve both parties' positions. In terms of diplomacy with Iran, the idea isn't that Obama's steely gaze would force concessions out of the Iranians, the idea is that we might be able to give Iran something Iran deems more valuable than weapons-grade nuclear material, and in exchange we would get verifiable disarmament.

The "something" here would presumably be some form of security assurances plus an accommodation to Iranian interests in Iraq, along with Teheran and Washington laying out a pathway to gradual normalization of relations in exchange for an end to Iranian support for terrorism and Palestinian rejectionist groups. Would it be possible to strike such a deal? Maybe, maybe not. But the purpose of a negotiating session would be to find out by attempting to do the bargaining rather than having five more years of back-and-forth blog posts speculating about the possibility. The general theory of diplomacy is that rational actors should, through negotiations, be able to achieve positive-sum settlements rather than negative-sum conflicts. It's always possible that your would-be negotiating partner will prove irrational (as George W. Bush did when he rejected Iranian peace overtures several years back) and the process will fail, but it's worth attempting in good faith. [emphasis added]

Um, yeah. The best way to find out what you can get through negotiations is to, you know, negotiate! Pollak's other main argument is that we've been trying the "Obama approach" with respect to Iran's nuclear program and it hasn't worked.

From 2002 to 2006, the EU-3 (Germany, France, the UK) and the IAEA attempted to dissuade the Iranians from their nuclear program through high-level diplomacy and when that saga of fruitlessness was finally handed over to the UN Security Council, Russia and China saw to it that the only sanctions passed would illustrate nothing more than the ambivalence and impotence of the international community.

Notice anything missing from that equation that Obama could bring to the table? How about the direct involvement of the US government in the bargaining process? Further, how about the involvement of a US government that is actually willing to take negotiations seriously and consider making significant concessions and compromises, as outlined by Yglesias above?

Which is all the difference in the world. Iran's not going to make a deal unless it gets what it wants from the US. To the extent that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program, it has something to do with its fear of the US. Not unfounded or irrational I would say considering the shared history between the two nations.

Now maybe Iran will ask for too much. Maybe not. But we won't know until we ask.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Plan C!

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously quipped, "freedom is untidy" in response to questions about the looting and chaos that erupted in Iraq post invasion. In some sense, he was right, though not in the sense that he intended - that freedom leads to lawlessness. Freedom and democracy, or at least elections, are messy in that they can yield unpredictable results in terms of ruling regime.*

This is a lesson that the Bush administration has been slow to learn. It has repeatedly failed to recognize, willfully or gullibly, that elections themselves are no guarantor that a given preferred candidate will prevail. Shockingly, foreign constituents don't always see eye to eye with the Bush team, and sometimes even elect parties/leaders that the Bush team is at odds with. Frequently in fact.

This pattern of disappointment and surprise was duplicated in a series of elections in Iraq in which the Bush team expected, each time, a strong showing for Chalabi and Allawi (the former couldn't muster enough votes for a single seat in parliament). Then, against the advice of Israelis and its Palestinian allies alike, the Bush team insisted on holding the Gaza elections that were supposed to marginalize Hamas in favor of Fatah. Hamas won big of course, an outcome that surprised few - except the Bush administration. Later, the administration neglected building relationships with the eventual victorious candidates/parties in Pakistan under the assumption that Musharraff would perform well enough to hold on to power via the ballot box. Wrong again.

In Iraq, one of those messy, unpredictable events is looming on the horizon yet again. A prospect that must, by now, strike fear in the hearts of Bush administration policy makers. The background goes something like this: The Sunni Awakenings/CLC groups, whose recent cooperation with US forces against al-Qaeda in Iraq has greatly reduced violence, have been demanding a voice in the political apparatus (they have none due to their prior boycott of elections). In fact, they have threatened violence and a resumption of hostilities if they aren't given a voice - via elections, or otherwise.

So the Bush administration has been pressuring the Iraqi government to hold regional elections out of fear that security gains will melt away if it loses its Sunni allies. Problem is, our strongest Shiite allies in the Iraqi government, ISCI and Maliki's Dawa party, have been steadily working to put off regional elections (including vetoing the most recent legislation) because those parties fear they will lose considerable ground to the popular Sadrist current (which also sat out the last round of regional elections in some areas).

The Bush team wishes to prevent a Sadrist ascendancy mostly due to that group's opposition to the occupation and its position on foreign oil investment. Quite a pickle. So what to do? To its credit, the administraiton is not repeating its past mistakes in terms of collecting/manipulating data that predicts victory for their candidates despite the preponderence of countervailing evidence. Instead, the Bush administration has, at last, developed an appreciation of empirical evidence and adopted a proactive approach.

First, it supported a military campaign to expel the Sadrists from Basra, and weaken their position in Sadr city. While successful in some limited sense, no military campaign can really defeat the Sadrists absent truly horrific levels of violence (it is a political/religious/social movement that numbers in the millions, deeply ingrained in Iraqi society with a decades' long history, and a centuries' long tradition). Disruption is possible, perhaps enough to keep the Sadrist trend and its militia away from the vote casting/gathering/counting process, and that might help ISCI/Maliki manipulate the results in their favor.

Not wishing to take any chances, however, there has been recent talk of banning the Sadrist trend from participating in upcoming elections because, get this, that group has a militia. Problem is, um, which political groups in Iraq don't have militias. Perhaps sensing the weakness of that justification, and fearing the widespread backlash that would result from de facto disenfranchisement, a third path has emerged, or re-emerged (which will likely rely on gains from the first prong above):

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says provincial elections due later this year will be staggered over several days to ensure the safety of voters and prevent the rigging of results. [...]

A statement by al-Maliki's office quoted him as saying in a meeting Sunday with the U.N. chief envoy in Iraq Staffan de Mistura that his government is "determined" to create a "suitable" climate for the vote to ensure its "integrity."

Yeah. Just give the Maliki more time to count the votes to "ensure" the proper outcome. As Juan Cole observes, many Iraqi political groups remain unconvinced by Maliki's new found commitment to electoral integrity:

Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that a political fracas is brewing over the provincial elections now scheduled for November (I had thought, October?). Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had announced last Sunday that the government will hold the elections for provincial councils over several days so as to guarantee their uprightness, to ensure that they are not interfered with, and to guarantee the safety of the voters.

Umar Sattar reports from Baghdad that Iyad Allawi, leader of the Iraqi National List and former appointed PM, has expressed doubts about whether the elections will be fraudulent.

Also, Salim Abdallah of the Iraqi Accord Front [Sunni fundamentalist] said, "The Front would prefer that the elections be held in all the provinces on the same day if it is desired that their probity be guaranteed. But the government is the decider in setting the election dates, according to the election law that it presented to parliament." He worried that the results of the election in one province might affect those in another province if they were not held simultaneously. He said he hoped that the United Nations would be deeply involved in the holding of the provincial elections, and that Iraqi military forces would be careful to remain neutral.

Speaker of the Iraqi parliament Mahmud al-Mashhadani also came out against holding the elections over several days. He argued that it would be easier to arrange security through curfews if the elections were held on the same day throughout the provinces.

Iyad Allawi sent a letter to several governments and to the UN, expressing his fears that the elections may be fraudulent.

Now who said the Bush administration doesn't learn from past mistakes?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Friends Like These

Prolonged military occupations breed resentment and hostility amongst the occupied population. That is not a particularly piercing insight, but then as Fred Kaplan observed, the Bush administration "has violated so many precepts of International Relations 101 that clichés take on the air of wisdom." Speaking of which:

Monday, Iraq's largest Sunni Arab party said it rejected an apology made by the U.S. military after an American sniper used a Quran for target practice. The unidentified soldier was disciplined and removed from Iraq, the military said Sunday.

The Iraqi Islamic Party called the shooting of Islam's holy book a "flagrant assault on Muslim sacraments" and that the "apology alone" was not enough. It said the U.S. military should impose the "severest punishment" on the soldier to ensure others do not repeat his act.

The Quran, with 14 bullet holes and graffiti marked on its paged, was found on May 11 by Iraqis near a former base outside the town of Radwaniyah, west of Baghdad.

On Saturday, the top U.S. commander held a formal ceremony apologizing to Radwaniyah's Sunni tribal leaders, vowing the act would not be repeated.

Paul Bremer (unintentionally confirming his inability to grasp basic human nature and its political ramifications) recently claimed that using the term "occupation" to describe the US presence in Iraq was "in many ways more important" in terms of generating opposition to the US presence than the many inevitable, if regrettable, provocations of the occupying army/political authority. The belief that good marketing can overcome the facts on the ground is a particular affliction of the Bush administration, and its contingent of Mayberry Machiavellis.

However, as Juan Cole points out while commenting on the Koran desecration incident mentioned above, the marketing message isn't even that good - or at least, there are key elements that work against each other:

The incident crystallizes the contradiction in Bush administration policy, between promoting Islamophobia among Americans while attempting to cultivate Muslim allies abroad.

Fareed Zakaria neatly summarized this conundrum:

This is the [Republican] party's dilemma -- it wishes to spread liberty to people whom it doesn't really like.

The Boys with the Arab Trap as I termed it. Even Rich Lowry can see the cracks in the facade:

Bush’s emphasis on the inherent hunger for freedom is powerful. It clothes his foreign policy in an undeniable idealism. It puts his liberal opponents in a tight spot, because it is awkward for them to object to the kind of sweeping universalism they have always embraced. It might be simplistic, but that is often an advantage in political communication.

The problem with Bush’s freedom rhetoric is that it appears to not be true.

That is a problem, isn't it.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Straight Pony Express

I was so leaning towared Obama, but this platform is hard to beat. Behold, John McCain's plan for victory, whisky, sexy:

"By January 2013, America has welcomed home most of the servicemen and women who have sacrificed terribly so that America might be secure in her freedom," McCain said in prepared remarks he was to deliver in Columbus, Ohio.

"The Iraq war has been won. Iraq is a functioning democracy, although still suffering from the lingering effects of decades of tyranny and centuries of sectarian tension. Violence still occurs, but it is spasmodic and much reduced," McCain said.

The Republican senator said that although the United States would still have a troop presence in Iraq, those soldiers would not need a "direct combat role" because Iraqi forces would be capable of providing order.

The usual liberal doom and gloom purveyors have, as expected, been whining about how McCain's platform amounts to nothing more than a fantastical wish-list, not an actual plan. Ponies, etc.

"Fools," I say. You have fallen ever-so-haplessly into McCain's trap. McCain has already explained, in painstaking detail, how he will achieve these modest outcomes. For example, he laid out his comprehensive strategy at a closed door fundraiser in 2006:

"One of the things I would do if I were President would be to sit the Shiites and the Sunnis down and say, 'Stop the bullshit,'" said Mr. McCain, according to Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi, an invitee, and two other guests.

What do you have to say about his plan now Mr. Wonkypants? Come to think of it, 2013 is a conservative deadline.

Not that he needs anything other than the Bullshit Doctrine, obviously, but I've put in a request to the McCain camp for comment on whether their candidate would also be employing the Glenn Reynolds Field Manual (to be taught at West Point next semester):

It's a war. The way to win it is, well, to win it.

Or, as Reynolds elaborated in a Reason Magazine interview some months later:

3. What should the U.S. do in Iraq now?


Heh. Indeed. Obama is so toast.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

He Feels Your Pain

This is...just...well...unbelievable:

For the first time, Bush revealed a personal way in which he has tried to acknowledge the sacrifice of soldiers and their families: He has given up golf.

"I don't want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the commander in chief playing golf," he said. "I feel I owe it to the families to be in solidarity as best as I can with them. And I think playing golf during a war just sends the wrong signal."

Oh for fuck's sake. Hundreds of thousands of people are dead. DEAD!!!! Families torn apart. Widows. Orphans. Brothers without brothers, sisters sisters. Hundreds of thousands of people are maimed for life: blind, deaf, missing limbs, psychologically scarred, and this man thinks he has sacrficed because he stopped playing golf for a few years? Yeeeeaaarggghhhhhhhh!!!!!

As you most likely have come to expect, it gets worse:

Bush said he made that decision after the August 2003 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, which killed Sergio Vieira de Mello, the top U.N. official in Iraq and the organization's high commissioner for human rights.

"I remember when de Mello, who was at the U.N., got killed in Baghdad as a result of these murderers taking this good man's life," he said. "I was playing golf - I think I was in central Texas - and they pulled me off the golf course and I said, 'It's just not worth it anymore to do.'"

Great story with one minor flaw: it's a lie. Bush played golf at least as late as October of 2003, some two months after he supposedly swore off it. Further, there are medical reasons (muscle tear and sore knees that caused him to give up running for a span) that might have forced him to take a hiatus at the time regardless.

And as Brad Le Roque points out, Bush might have "“sacrificed” playing golf, [but] he still managed to set the all-time presidential record for vacations back in 2005."

Yeah, but he needed all those vacation days. Think of how stressful it was for him to persevere in the face of a life without golf. Now I know what Laura was getting at when she scolded the nation by pointing out about the war:

No one suffers more than their president and I do.

Rumor has it, she gave up macrame.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

What if We Called It a 100 Year Slumber Party?

In a recent interview given to Al Jazeera, Paul Bremer discusses his tenure as head of the CPA in Iraq and some of the problems associated therewith. One of the more curious, though telling, passages comes as Bremer explains how one word supposedly proved detrimental to the Bush administration's efforts:

In my view, one of the more unfortunate aspects of having lawyers involved in the project was they determined that under international law, we became an occupying force and that was confirmed by the UN security council resolution.

I used to say to the Iraqis it is also not very fun being an occupier, especially for an American; I always thought it was an unfortunate term.

There was nothing I could do to change the noun, occupation. When Iraqis raised their concerns with me all I could do is sympathise and say "I understand you’re problem but there it is, it’s the international law."

The political ramifications and psychological ramifications I think were in many ways more important because of the implication to the Iraqi’s that we were an occupying and not a liberating force.

For many Iraqis they were delighted we had thrown out Saddam Hussein and his cronies. But they wake up the next day and hear that we’re occupying them and look out the door of their house and see Americans in tanks… I think it had an important, negative political ramification.

This would be a shocking claim if it were not put forth by a member of an administration whose officials boast proudly of their ability to "create [their] own reality." However, the contention that the use of the word "occupation" and not the actual reality of being occupied by a 150,000 strong army had any measurable impact on our mission (hint: it was the tanks outside the doorway, not the semantics used to describe them) reflects a flawed way of thinking that has led to mishap after mishap for the Bush administration.

Throughout its two terms, the Bush administration has taken the position that America's image in the world (particularly the Muslim world) has been suffering not because of our implementation of wildly unpopular policies, but rather the lack of an effective communications strategy to explain these policies, and American ideals, to the target population. As Fred Kaplan observed:

You've probably never heard of a State Department official named Price Floyd...but his resignation-in-protest, late last March, is as damning a commentary on President George W. Bush's foreign policies as any of the critiques from retired military officers. [...]

[Floyd] explained his reason for quitting...Basically, he was tired of trying to convince journalists, here and abroad, "that we should not be judged by our actions, only our words." [...]

Shortly after the terrorist attacks, Bush hired Charlotte Beers, a prominent advertising executive, to be undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. She spent nearly a year producing a slick documentary, which preview audiences greeted with howls and catcalls, before hightailing it back to Madison Avenue. After Beers came Margaret Tutwiler, James Baker's can-do press aide during the presidency of Bush's father, who, it turned out, couldn't do this job, either. Then came Karen Hughes, Bush Jr.'s own former spin-master, who embarked on two disastrous trips to the Middle East early on in her tenure and has lain low ever since.

The problem wasn't Beers, Tutwiler, or Hughes personally. Rather, it was the assumption that led Bush to believe that they were qualified for the job to begin with—the assumption that public relations is a synonym for diplomacy.

The logical extension for one that espouses this way of thinking is to make the facially absurd claim that the Iraqi people would be more amenable to the upending of their society, and the continued presence and interference of our military, if we only had a better way of marketing the situation. In a sense, the reliance on this spin-based strategy of policy making is a product of the Bush administration's infamous preference for the political over policy, reinforced by the domestic electoral success produced thereby (until recently at least).

Foreign audiences, of course, are far less receptive: it's harder to convince someone with slick branding and scare tactics when their neighborhood is burning. Even staunch Bush supporter Richard Lowry was forced to concede this dichotomy:

Bush’s emphasis on the inherent hunger for freedom is powerful. It clothes his foreign policy in an undeniable idealism. It puts his liberal opponents in a tight spot, because it is awkward for them to object to the kind of sweeping universalism they have always embraced. It might be simplistic, but that is often an advantage in political communication.

The problem with Bush’s freedom rhetoric is that it appears to not be true.

Yes, I could see how that would be a problem. Especially when you're trying to convince people whose houses you're searching, whose family members you're arresting (and torturing) and whose relatives you've bombed that you're not really an occupying power, just a guest who brought over some democracy, whisky, sexy for the slumber party!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Silence Kit

Matt Duss passes along news that the Sadrist trend is tightening the rope that binds Sistani to the Maliki government, in all its sagging popularity and misdeed:

An aide to Muqtada al-Sadr has lashed out at Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most revered Shia cleric, for keeping silent over clashes that have killed hundreds in Baghdad. [...]

Speaking at Friday prayers, Sheikh Sattar Battat, an aide to al-Sadr, said he was "surprised" that al-Sistani had failed to condemn the violence.

We are surprised by the silence in Najaf where the highest Shiite religious authority is based," he said, referring to al-Sistani.

"For 50 days Sadr City is being bombed ... Children, women and old people are being killed by all kinds of US weapons, and Najaf remains silent."

Battat said the al-Sadr movement has not seen any "reaction or fatwa [religious decree] from Najaf" criticising the government assault on Shia fighters in Sadr City.

"For us this means that Najaf accepts the massacre in Sadr City," he said.

As Duss observes, Sistani's acquiescence will likely play to Sadr's advantage:

One of the central elements of the elder Sadr’s program (and now of Muqtada’s) was a distinction between the “silent clerics” (represented by Sistani and the Najaf establishment) — bookish sorts who stay remote from the lives of their people — and the “speaking clerics” who take part in the suffering and struggle of the Shia, as Sadeq did. And here the “silent clerics” once again stayed silent while Shia were crushed in Sadr City, of all places, while medical care, food, and shelter are being doled out in Muqtada’s name. It doesn’t require any math to see that Sadr benefits politically from this.

Not just politically, but religiously as well - to the extent the two are separate. Such a strengthening of Sadr vis-a-vis Sistani is, in my opinion, a shame for reasons beyond the silent/speaking distinctions set forth above (though, obviously, I am not an Iraqi and thus should not get a vote). Babak Rahimi has an excellent summary of some of Sistani's religious views, and how he espouses a brand of theology that can co-exist with liberal democratic traditions (at least, moreso than Sadr's):

Like his father, Sistani is an adherent of a democratic Shi'i tradition that dates back to the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1906 to 1911 and continued with the Khatami reformist movement (1997–2005). [...]

Sistani’s insistence on recognizing Islam as a fundamental component of the Iraqi constitution is not intended to make Iraq an Islamist state based on juridical sharia strictures, but rather to limit the total secularization of the constitution, which would deprive a Muslim country of an “authentic” national identity based on its Islamic heritage.

Sadr, on the other hand, is much more amenable to vilayet-e faqih, or an Iranian style rule by clerical jurisprudence that pays less regard to individual rights. However, our continued assault on the Sadrist trend has been backfiring and increasing his popularity at the expense of religious leaders like Sistani that we should be acting to empower. Shockingly enough, military actions in densely populated areas leading to massive civilian casualties aren't very well received in the target population.

Sadly, the strategic thinkers in the Bush administration seem incapable of devising a plan to empower favored factions that doesn't involve the employ of self-defeating brute strength. It would be better if, instead, we adopted some of that fancy counterinsurgency doctrine that Petraeus is supposedly implementing.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Toll the Bell for the Polls, Part III

Well, this is one way to influence the outcome of elections in Iraq I suppose (refer to Part I and Part II for background):

Iraqi security forces, after more than of 40 days of intense fighting, on Thursday told residents to evacuate their homes in the northeast Shiite slum of Sadr City and to move to temporary shelters on two soccer fields.

The military's call indicated the possibility of stepped-up military operations and came as Iraqi security forces raided a radio station run by backers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr. In the southern port city of Basra, militants launched rockets that struck a coalition base, killing two contractors and injuring four civilians and four coalition soldiers.

Sadr City has been a battleground since late March, enduring U.S. airstrikes, militia snipers and gunbattles between U.S. and Iraqi forces and the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to Sadr.

Already some 8,500 people have been displaced from the sprawling slum of some 2.5 million people, according to the Iraqi Red Crescent. For weeks, food, water and medical shortages have affected about 150,000 people, aid agencies said.

Two soccer fields in east and northeast Baghdad are expected to receive some 16,000 evacuees from the southeast portion of the city where the fighting has been most intense.

The BBC offers one version of the grisly death toll:

In the last seven weeks around 1,000 people have died, and more than 2,500 others have been injured, most of them civilians.

Back to McClatchy:

In most of Sadr City, people haven't had food rations for more than a month and a half, and the Red Crescent has distributed thousands of food packs, 100 tons of flour and supplied four tons of medical supplies to the two main hospitals.

Wonder if this hospital was on the receiving end of those supplies:

IRAQI soldiers yesterday detained dozens of policemen and closed down a hospital suspected of treating Shiite militiamen in a Baghdad stronghold of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.

Or maybe this one?

A major hospital in Baghdad's Sadr City slum was damaged Saturday when an American military strike targeted a militia command center just a few yards away, the U.S. military said. [...]

The rocket strike near Sadr Hospital injured 30 people, shattered the windows of ambulances and sent doctors and hospital staff fleeing the scene, hospital officials said.

So let's recap the scene: the US military and its Iraqi "allies" are laying siege to a sprawling neighborhood in Baghdad housing roughly 2.5 million Iraqis, launching air strikes, artillery attacks, tank shells and other assorted ordnance, shutting down hospitals and bombing others, cutting off the supply of food and walling off entire sectors of the embattled region, causing a refugee crisis by their actions - and now actually pursuing a policy with the intent of creating a larger refugee crisis!

For what reason: because a majority of residents in these regions support a political movement, and militia, that oppose our presence. Can't have that. Because we have to keep 150,000 troops in Iraq to safeguard the Iraqi people. After all, whose gonna set up the tents in the refugee catch basins we so magnanimously helped set up to receive the overflow from our relentless assault on political movements that would make it harder for us to stay in Iraq. To safeguard the Iraqi people.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Get thee to a Library...

or study, or some other comfortable nook where you do your reading, dear reader. The reason? The Pentagon has recently released all the documents that it was forced to give to the New York Times in connection with the rent-a-general/pre-war propagnda story. There's a lot of documents, but there's bound to be some absolutely juicy nuggets nestled in those hills of pulp.

If anyone finds anything, feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email. I can offer you fame and glory, or the utmost anonymity. Bonus points for anyone that tracks down O'Hanlon related payola. Happy hunting!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

I'm a Reasonable Man, Get Off My Case

Kevin Drum is an eminently reasonable man, and a blogger who, unlike me, doesn't wander into the reeds donning tin foil armor on too many occasions. Still, in this post, K-Drum is being overly circumspect even by our respective standards:

So why the sudden spate of stories sugesting that Iran supports only the Mahdi Army, and implying that its support is increasing? There are two options, I guess: (a) because it's true or (b) because it's in somebody's interest to feed this storyline. It's pretty much impossible to say which is more likely, though.

It's that last sentence that stands out like a sore, but even, hand. Impossible to say if the Mahdi Army is the only group in Iraq receiving Iranian support? Really? Despite ISCI's historic and long lasting ties, and the fact that some members of its militia, the Badr Corp., are still receiving pensions from the IRGC? Regardless of the fact that Iranian operatives detained by US forces in Iraq were nabbed at ISCI's headquarters, and were in Iraq on the invitation of ISCI's leadership?

Even worse, Kevin seemingly performs the impossible in the preceding sentence:

Of course, Iran probably is supplying arms to the Mahdi Army. But they've been doing that for a long time, and they also provide support to the Badr Organization, which is allied with the Iraqi government. [emphasis added throughout]

Perhaps it was just sloppy syntax, and Drum meant that the hard to determine part is whether aid to the Mahdi Army is increasing? He has certainly earned my benefit of the doubt. His post from yesterday is far more incicive in terms of exposing holes and dubious reporting associated with the above described Sadr/Iran narrative.

So I'm open to the more innocuous explanation, and the possibility that I'm overreacting. The more interesting, and indeed murky, line of inquiry leads to just whose interests are served by pushing this transparently doctored storyline. But that the storyline is false is a given.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Not Nir Enough

If you only read one thing today (not written by me that is, I mean, let's not get carried away people), you should read this piece from Nir Rosen. I don't necessarily agree with everything he says, but it's a long post and he covers a lot of ground. There is, however, a refreshing display of actual knowledge. Fancy that.

Memo to media outlets large and small: More Nir Rosen, less Michael O'Hanlon. Actually, I'd settle for just more Nir Rosen. I'm not greedy.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Toll the Bell for the Polls, Part II

In Part I of this series, I discussed the primary objective behind the stepped-up assault on the Sadrist movement in Iraq; an assault that has already resulted in a predicted spike of US casualties (51 in April) and an unthinkable level of suffering for the Iraqi people (liberation never felt so good!). Not to mention the implementation of a corrolary policy of walling off, separating and collectively punishing densely populated neighborhoods of Baghdad. Brandon Friedman has a good summary of the uptick in violence (as well as a collection of experts tut-tutting the anti-war crowd for refusing to concede that the Surge had resulted in victory, the end):

On the Iraqi side, 925 people were killed in Sadr City in April alone. Most of these were civilians. As Sadr City is six square miles in size, that represents roughly 150 deaths per square mile in that section of Baghdad during the month.

As argued in Part I, this is what we hope to gain in exchange for all this death and destruction:

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...enough that Iran's main ally in Iraq, ISCI...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...

The Sadrist current represents too large a social phenomenon to actually defeat or eradicate, but short term disruption is feasible. Why, then, is the goal of weakening the Sadrists in the short term, and helping ISCI ahead of the upcoming elections, so important to the Bush administration? There are at least three reasons:

1. Sadr opposes a prolonged US occupation/permanent bases. The Bush administration obviously values those objectives highly and is in a scramble to come to an agreement on a long-term security/status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government. In pursuit of this, the Bush team wants as much ostensible legal and popular legitimacy buttressing this agreement as possible (even if in appearances only). Keeping Sadr down now, and increasing Maliki's mandate (at least de jure if not de facto), is vital.

2. Sadr opposes heavy foreign involvement in the oil sector. What, did you really think this had nothing to do with oil?

The third prong is more controversial:

3. Sadr opposes the fragmenting of the Iraqi state into semi-autonomous sub-regions.

I say "controversial," because I'm not convinced yet that this is important for the Bush administration. At the very least, though, the Bush administration would be willing to endorse such a plan in return for cooperation from ISCI and Iran (who both favor such a break-up of the state - actually ISCI is the only non-Kurdish group pushing for fragmentation). Which reminds me, the pivot here is that ISCI is more amenable on all three fronts, and so ISCI is the horse we're backing with all the firepower in our arsenal. Despite ISCI's obvious ties to Iran.

Speaking of Iran, their relationships with ISCI and the Sadrists, respectively, are germane to recent developments. ISCI (whose political wing and militia were formed, funded, trained and indoctrinated in Iran by the Iranian regime) is Iran's main proxy in Iraq. Yet the Iranians have also been willing, at times, to fund and arm the Sadrists for at least a couple of reasons: First, the Iranians recognized early on that the Sadrists were too powerful to simply ignore, dismiss or quash, so the better to cultivate influence and goodwill. Second, the Sadrist foot soldiers could provide a useful lever against the US presence in Iraq when necessary.

That being said, Iran does have a strong interest in ensuring the same outcome in upcoming elections as that sought by the Bush administration: namely, a big ISCI/Dawa victory and a poor showing by the Sadrists. That's because the Sadrist movement's political agenda/rhetoric (nationalistic, at times anti-Persian and staunchly opposed to the creation of a Shiite super region) is more hindrance than benefit to the Iranians - as opposed to the Sadrists' capacity to field an anti-American militia which can still come in handy.

Thus, Iran would be reluctant to sever ties with the Sadrists completely or cooperate in their annihilation (that's a pretty big chip to simply discard). And, again, Iran likely realizes that vanquishing such a large movement is very difficult to pull off. Further, participation in such a massive purge/massacre might spark a severe Shiite nationalist backlash (endangering Iran's position in the Shiite south). But short term disruption is feasible and, at the moment, very desirable.

So with US and Iranian objectives in a rare moment of alignment, reports like these begin popping up:

Iran voiced support on Monday for Iraq's prime minister in a crackdown on a Shi'ite militia but blamed U.S. forces for civilian deaths in the fighting.

The Islamic Republic also said the United States, its old foe, had requested a new round of talks on improving security in Iraq and Tehran was considering it. [...]

Analysts say Tehran and Washington, despite their mutual accusations, may still have a shared interest in a stable Iraq.

And then the counterpunch:

Sadr spokesman Salah al-Obeidi (al-Ubaydi) in Najaf bitterly attacked Iran, accusing it of seeking to share with the US in influence over Iraq. He pointed to the Iranian's regime's failure to condemn the long-term mutual security agreement being crafted by the Bush administration and the al-Maliki government. Al-Obeidi's angry denunciation suggests that Iran is backing PM Nuri al-Maliki and his current chief ally, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim against the Sadr Movement of Muqtada al-Sadr.

Note how the long-term security agreement issue comes up in this context. Today, more interesting - though underreported - news regarding maneuvers related to the recent shock! on the part of the Iraqi government at the discovery that Iran has been funding Shiite militias (ISCI was particularly scandalized). Most major outlets, like the New York Times, are reporting that the Iraqi government is sending a contingent to forcefully confront Iran on its aid to the Sadrist current. The truth, however, lies elsewhere:

We have it on the excellent authority of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq itself (ISCI, formerly SCIRI, aka just the "Supreme Council") that its leader Abdulaziz al-Hakim took a phone call from President Bush yesterday afternoon, after receiving a visit from ambassador Crocker and special ambassador Satterfield. And following the meeting and the phone call he convened a meeting of United Iraqi Alliance (the Shiite bloc that once included Sadrists and Fadhila, but now includes only the Supreme Council and the Dawa Party), which he also heads. (As RoadstoIraq, which first called attention to these events, noted: "Bush-Hakim are up to something").

Then this morning the New York Times reports that a delegation of senior Dawa and Supreme Council people was sent yesterday to Tehran for talks. The delegation included Hadi al-Ameri, head of the Badr Organization, the military wing of the Supreme council. (Interestingly, the NYT didn't identify Hadi al-Ameri as head of the Badr Organization, merely calling him a "senior member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a Shiite party in Mr Maliki's coalition.")

So: Bush calls Hakim; Hakim convenes the Shiite coalition; and a delegation including the Badr Organization head is sent to Tehran. And the NYT this morning, leaving out the Bush phone-call and the resulting UIA meeting, spins the events like this: "American officials supported the trip, but portrayed it as the brainchild of Mr Maliki." [emphasis added]

Brainchild? The last time we heard about Maliki birthing his own ideas was when US and Iraqi forces carried out an assault on Basra that was long planned for by US military officials. But I digress. What stands out is the identity of the members of the Iraqi government team: ISCI members, Dawa members and other individuals identified as close to the Iranians. Are we really to believe that ISCI is going to Tehran to draw a line in the sand in a stand-off with its long-time and primary benefactor? I'm guessing, no.

This looks more like coordination and cooperation with respect to the shared objective of ensuring strong showings for ISCI/Dawa at the expense of the Sadrists in the next round of elections. With Bush and Crocker in on the discussions, I'd guess the long-term security arrangement and the Bush administration's acquiescence with respect to (if not active support for) the Shiite super region as the underlying quid pro quo. In exchange, Iran would continue to look the other way as Sadr City burns, while tightening the spigot on its support for the Sadrists.

At least that's my take.

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