Thursday, November 30, 2006

Overactive Imagination

There's literally so much valuable commentary in Mark Danner's piece in the New York Review of Books (a tripartite review of Suskind's One Percent Doctrine, Woodward's State of Denial and James Risen's State of War) that I've been putting off commenting on it by virtue of how daunting the task of summarizing this work has seemed. I still don't know how to do it justice other than to say that it is quite simply must read material. Do yourself a favor.

For me, Danner's piece fills in many of the blanks, and provides explanations to many of the nagging inconsistencies in the overall narrative - stubborn loose ends that have stuck out like the untied shoelaces of closure.

Chief among them, Danner examines the cleavages in the White House that formed around the notion of what should be the ultimate purpose of the war: for some (Rumsfeld, Cheney), invading Iraq in a lightning quick, in-out, operation was a means of reasserting America's might in a part of the world that was in desperate need of a reminder. This passage from Woodward's book quoting Henry Kissinger captures this thinking well:

"Because Afghanistan wasn't enough," Kissinger answered. In the conflict with radical Islam, he said, they want to humiliate us. "And we need to humiliate them." The American response to 9/11 had essentially to be more than proportionate-on a larger scale than simply invading Afghanistan and overthrowing the Taliban. Something else was essential. The Iraq war was essential to send a larger message, "in order to make a point that we're not going to live in this world that they want for us."

For others (Bush, Wolfowitz) there was a more ideological, if misguided, belief that we should dedicate time, resources and manpower to a nation-building, transformative effort that would send democratic dominoes tumbling outward from Iraq with all their supposed terrorism-eradicating characteristics.

While the revelation of the existence of these disparate objectives, even so high up the chain of command, might not be new, Danner is able to cull his sources in order to show how this tension caused some of the most obvious, and regrettable, mistakes of the occupation. It doesn't take much to see how the two opposing missions would require vastly different means, tactics, strategies and associated planning. Unfortunately, the leaders in charge never did come to a consensus or settle on one version, and the result was a schizophrenic approach that in the end guaranteed failure for all.

One such result was the lack of a postwar plan for governance. Risen's book, as excerpted by Danner, has some of the relevant details:

the Pentagon believed it had the silver bullet it needed to avoid messy nation building-a provisional government in exile, built around Chalabi, could be established and then brought in to Baghdad after the invasion.

This so-called "turnkey operation" seems to have appeared to be the perfect compromise plan: Chalabi was Shiite, as were most Iraqis, but he was also a secularist who had lived in the West for nearly fifty years and was close to many of the Pentagon civilians. Alas, there was one problem: the confirmed idealist in the White House "was adamant that the United States not be seen as putting its thumb on the scales" of the nascent Iraqi democracy. Chalabi, for all his immense popularity in the Pentagon and in the Vice President's office, would not be installed as president of Iraq.

Though "Bush's commitment to democracy was laudable," as Risen observes, his awkward intervention "was not really the answer to the question of postwar planning." He goes on:

Once Bush quashed the Pentagon's plans, the administration failed to develop any acceptable alternative.... Instead, once the Pentagon realized the president wasn't going to let them install Chalabi, the Pentagon leadership did virtually nothing. After Chalabi, there was no Plan B.

An unnamed White House official describes to Risen the Laurel-and-Hardy consequences within the government of the President's attachment to the idea of democratic elections in Iraq:

Part of the reason the planning for post-Saddam Iraq was so nonexistent was that the State Department had been saying if you invade, you have to plan for the postwar. And DOD said, no you don't. You can set up a provisional government in exile around Chalabi. DOD had a stupid plan, but they had a plan. But if you don't do that plan, and you don't make the Pentagon work with State to develop something else, then you go to war with no plan.

In addition, Danner's review provides an explanation for the decision to send in Jay Garner with only a skeleton crew of advisors, with limited resources and mandate, to oversee the entire reconstruction effort (Rumsfeld remained opposed to nation building up through the invasion and the aftermath itself, and DOD was calling the shots with the White House cut out of the loop in many respects). This bit from Woodward's book is a frightening look at just how out of the loop the White House was, to the extent that they didn't even realize it:

There are two chains of command, Powell told the president. Garner reports to Rumsfeld and Franks reports to Rumsfeld.

The president looked surprised.

"That's not right," Rice said. "That's not right."

Powell thought Rice could at times be pretty sure of herself, but he was pretty sure he was right. "Yes, it is," Powell insisted.

"Wait a minute," Bush interrupted, taking Rice's side. "That doesn't sound right."

Rice got up and went to her office to check. When she came back, Powell thought she looked a little sheepish. "That's right," she said.

Then, of course, come the fateful decisions to disband the Iraqi army and undertake a policy of far-reaching de-Baathification (policies that came out of the blue, alarmed many involved in the process, yet whose ultimate authorship was denied and passed around so frequently, no opponent knew where to direct the complaints).

The chain of command, as we know, goes through Rumsfeld, and Garner gets on the phone and appeals to the secretary of defense, who tells him- and this will be a leitmotif in Woodward's book-that the matter is out of his hands:

"This is not coming from this building," [Rumsfeld] replied. "That came from somewhere else."

Garner presumed that meant the White House, NSC or Cheney. According to other participants, however, the de-Baathification order was purely a Pentagon creation. Telling Garner it came from somewhere else, though, had the advantage for Rumsfeld of ending the argument.

That is just a taste, however. The main course is much more satisfying. Danner's is a careful anatomy of a catastrophe, finally bringing together under one roof much of what is probably known to many, and much of what is not, in a finely woven narrative. Again, go read.

Mook to C7, Check

Moqtada al-Sadr proves that he knows a thing or two about how the game of chess is played. In response to a possible intra- (and inter-) sectarian alliance forming at the behest of the Americans in order to clip Sadr's wings a bit, the Mookster is making his own move toward consolidation and fortification.

Radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is building an anti-US parliamentary alliance to demand the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, some of his party's lawmakers have told AFP.

Earlier on Thursday, Salih al-Agaili, a member of Sadr's parliamentary group, said the bloc now hoped to persuade more lawmakers to follow their suspension, adding that some have "started contacting us to take a similar position. We are holding talks with them."

He did not name the groups but said they would soon declare their intentions. "We are endeavouring to form a national front inside parliament to oppose the occupation," Agaili said.

He stressed that the minimum condition for Sadrist deputies to rejoin the government would be "a timetable for the withdrawal of US forces." [...]

Earlier this year, Sadr supporters claimed they had recruited 100 members of the 275-member parliament who wanted to send home the 150,000-strong US force backing Maliki, but this was never put to the test in the chamber.

I don't know how successful Sadr will be in this attempt to create a broad united front in opposition to the alliance being amassed against him, or whether it is yet one more bluff intended to frighten his opponents. But betting against Sadr hasn't been a lucrative endeavor these past three-plus years. He tends to cover spread.

That, and it seems a signal characteristic of the Bush administration to get caught flat-footed when an adversary actually has the gumption to, you know, do something other than sit there like a stooge and take it. A surprisingly common, "no one could have seen that coming" reaction to all-too-predictable counterpunches (see, ie, the formation of an Iraqi insurgency, Iranian interference in Iraq, Shiite assertion of power in contravention of Chalabi-as-king dreams, Sistani's election demands, etc.).

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

...Came Tumbling After

The domino theory in action, via Matt Yglesias, reprinted in full (but please, follow the links):

Nawaf Obaid, adviser to the Saudi government and managing director of the Saudi National Security Assessment Project in Riyadh and an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, speaking strictly for himself says that unless the USA finds a pony in Iraq soon, we'll be looking at Saudi intervention in the civil war: "Options now include providing Sunni military leaders (primarily ex-Baathist members of the former Iraqi officer corps, who make up the backbone of the insurgency) with the same types of assistance -- funding, arms and logistical support -- that Iran has been giving to Shiite armed groups for years."

As GFR notes this would, in essence, entail Saudi Arabia throwing its lot in with al-Qaeda as a means of fighting Iran and various Shiite groups. Meanwhile, the United States -- if we listen to the hawkish right -- will be at war with both sides!

George W. Bush. A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius.

The Mook, The Chief, His Strife and Its Lovers

Prior to Bush's meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki today, Moqtada al-Sadr's political wing threatened to pull-out from the ruling coalition - effectively bringing down the government - should that meeting go ahead as planned. At least part of Sadr's motivation for making such a brash threat may be his perception that the Maliki-Bush meeting would result in (or add momentum to?) a budding alliance of various actors seeking to rein in Sadr's considerable power and influence.

Despite Spencer Ackerman's suggestion (which I seconded) that Sadr's ploy was deft political maneuvering, Swopa had his doubts:

While some usually incisive observers believe Mookie's defiance is smart political move, I think he's at risk of having to play cards he'd rather keep in reserve. Certainly his overall strategy of gradually increasing his "insider" influence in the government while maintaining a rabble-rousing public stance as an "outsider" has paid off enormously over the past three years -- but does he really want to bring the entire government down in a Samson-like protest?

Today, Sadr answered Swopa's question with a "no." Actually, it looks more like a "maybe." As this AP report indicates, the Sadr faction has "suspended" its participation in the government, but has not yet withdrawn so the government itself still stands.

Lawmakers and cabinet ministers loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have suspended participation in parliament and the government to protest Prime minister Nouri al-Maliki's summit with U.S. President George W. Bush.

A statement issued Wednesday by the 30 lawmakers and five Cabinet ministers said their action was necessary because the meeting constituted a "provocation to the feelings of the Iraqi people and a violation of their constitutional rights." The statement did not explain that claim.

So for now, it appears that Maliki called Sadr's bluff, and Sadr blinked. But it is unclear whether events on the ground will force his hand even further. There are ominous signs that the anti-Sadr forces (whoever they may be) are continuing their efforts, as the Sadr controlled Health Ministry came under attack again today.

Gunmen opened fire on Iraq's Shi'ite-run Health Ministry building in central Baghdad on Wednesday, for the second time in a week, officials in the building told Reuters as gunfire sounded in the background.

Deputy Health Minister Hakim al-Zamily said two mortar rounds exploded nearby and gunmen continued to fire on the building as security forces attempted to repel them. He said the raid was much more limited than last Thursday's attack, when five people were wounded in hours of clashes at the ministry.

Something to keep an eye on.

[UPDATE: I see that the Washington Post lede (via Blake at TAPPED) reads:

Bloc Led by Shiite Cleric Quits Iraqi Government

Quits? Interesting choice of words, because the opening paragraph repeats the AP's characterization of the move as a suspension of involvement, not an all out abandonment. Presumably, there is a difference in suspending one's involvement and quitting. The former denotes a temporary condition, while the latter is final. Unless I'm getting tripped up by the semantics. Wouldn't be the first time.]

[UPDATE II: Swopa agrees with my reading of "suspended involvement" to not mean "quit."]

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Through a Frosty Plate Glass

The rumor mill is churning into overdrive ahead of the Baker-Hamiltion commission report due out in a few weeks. Although the unveilling of the final report will most likely end up being an anti-climactic event, the recent trips to the region by Cheney, Hadley and Bush himself (tomorrow), have lit the fires of conspiracy that seem to always find such ample supplies of tinder in that part of the world.

Earlier, I brought you what Jim Henley described as the "everyone-but-Sadr coalition" rumor. But since Jim didn't find that one to his liking, I thought I would offer a selection of the other specials of the day.

First, Badger at Missing Links serves a heaping plate of Sunni triple layer cake. Piecing together press reports from the region, Badger offers some speculation about an imminent tilt toward the Sunnis [emphasis mine throughout]:

The Iraqi newspaper Azzaman prints a curtain-raiser on tomorrow's the Bush-Maliki meeting in Amman that makes it appear Bush will be "choosing" among a number of points on the Sunni-Iraq wish-list, and will be pressing Maliki to implement some of these on his own, or face serious is clear that Azzaman thinks this meeting will support a major pushback by Sunni opponents of the Maliki regime.

American president Bush will be selecting tomorrow in Amman the solution that observers are calling the final one from a basket of options that has been presented to him by [the Baker group] and by a policy that has been evolved by national security adviser Stephen Hadley since his [Hadley's] visit to Baghdad last month as a solution to the question of Iraq, and there are six options: [First], issuance of a general amnesty to all of the resistance groups, and an expansion of the National Reconciliation program; [second], shutting down the de-Baathification agency; [third], including former Baathists in government and paying them conpensation for the last four years; [fourth], disbanding the militias and turning over the leaders that have been involved in crimes to the courts for trial; [fifth], freezing the law relating to establishment of federal regions; and [sixth], set a policy for the fair distribution of oil [revenues] to the people of Iraq.

In the same vein, the writers says King Abdullah, who met with Harith al-Dhari (head of the Sunni-opposition Association of Muslim Scholars) on Monday, wants to bring al-Dhari "within the environment of the talks with Bush", and although he doesn't suggest exactly what al-Dhari might do, the suggesting does give a further unmistakable Sunni/resistance-oriented tone to this.

Badger then turns to a piece in Al-Quds al-Arabi by Abdulbari Atwan to match up the Sunni tilt mentioned above with the ultimate end-game - and it does not pertain to Iraq alone. According to Atwan, the recent "breakthrough" in Israeli-Palestinian hostilities should not be chalked up to mere coincidence.

In a nutshell, Atwan says the 1991 [Gulf] war was accompanied by a promise to the Palestinians of an international conference to solve their problems (the Madrid Conference), which however produced nothing for them; and the 2003 attack was preceded by the famous Bush promise of a sovereign contiguous state for the Palestinians by 2005. In other words, these promises are attempts to rally Arab support ahead of major wars. While the two prior cases (1991 and 2003) involved support from both the Sunni-Arab regimes and the Shiite-Iranian regime, this time the situation is a little different. The pattern is going to be Sunni support for an attack on Shiite Iran. [...]

The "logic" that is suggested in these two articles is a consistent one. It is the season of gifts to the Sunni Arabs, and this is not out of a sudden welling-up in the heart of the Americans of good-will and remorse for their past tribulations. For the Iraqis, it is a harbinger of a decisive move to Part II (back-the-Sunnis) of the American divide-and-conquer strategy, and for the region generally it is a harbinger of war and the spread of the Sunni-versus-Shiite wave of destruction to the whole region.

Heading in the exact opposite direction, however, is some information from anonymous sources contained in this Washington Post article that tells of a Shiite tilt (as reported by Laura Rozen some time ago):

...[A] senior U.S. intelligence official said the situation requires that the administration abandon its long-held goal of national reconciliation and instead "pick a winner" in Iraq. He said he understands that means the Sunnis are likely to bolt from the fragile government. "That's the price you're going to have to pay," he said.

The United States also needs to reexamine other basic assumptions, he said. To be effective, for example, the Iraqi security forces -- including army and police -- should be roughly doubled from the current goal of 325,000 to about 650,000, which would require about three years of recruiting and training, he said. The expanded military, he added, would probably become overwhelmingly Shiite and Kurdish -- an outcome that many Sunnis fear.

Enough to make your head spin, huh? Nevertheless, there's something here for everyone :

First, we're teaming up with Sunni insurgents, SCIRI and Maliki (with Iran's blessing?) in order to cut Sadr down to size. Alternatively, we're giving gifts to various Sunni regimes and insurgent groups (possibly withdrawing support from Maliki and Shiite interests in Iraq), as well as orchestrating an Israeli-Palestinian rapprochment, in order to smooth the way for an attack on Iran. Or, finally, we're going to back the Shiites to the hilt in order to once and for all put down the Sunni resistance in Anbar (this might be related to the first rumor, and constitute part of the price paid to Iran for Sadr's head, but this would probably negate any possible Sunni support for that).

I report, you decide.

The Near Abroad

Part of the problem with serving many blog masters is that different blogs get different posts - though I tend to cross-post alot (and usually forget to drop a note to the reader to that effect). Sometimes TIA is the exclusive venue, other times, not so much.

Also, there are varying levels of discussion in the comments sections at the various locales. Along these lines, Nibras Kazimi and I went several rounds in a spirited back and forth over at American Footprints regarding my post below on his apparent civil war flip-flop (he took umbrage).

Then, because I decided that I hadn't yet antagonized enough people, I wrote a post that was somewhat critical of Spencer Ackerman (who I have the utmost respect for) which was not cross-posted over here.

Just a head's up if you care to follow along.

Just Cuz You Feel It, Doesn't Mean It's There

As far back as mid-October (and again here and here), I waded into the reeds of Iraqi political intrigue with speculation regarding a potential subterranean accord between Maliki (and by extension Dawa), SCIRI and the US in an effort to rein in, or contain, the burgeoning power and influence of Moqtada al-Sadr - as buttressed by his formidable Mahdi Army militia.

There seemed to be subtle movements in this direction, high level meetings between Maliki and SCIRI, pressure from American interests and provocative Iraqi political decisions that foretold of such a flanking maneuver. Sadr could also prove an effective sacrificial lamb to throw in the pot in an effort to garner some level of Sunni cooperation in stabilizing Iraq.

One of the stumbling blocks for Maliki to act in such a confrontational manner, though, remained Sadr's integral presence in the UIA coaltion that appointed Maliki to his post (with Sadr himself playing a prominent, if not kingmaker, role in the process). Blake cites an article that offers a theory on how Maliki might shore up the political support needed to take on the most controversial Shiite figure in Iraq today:

Specifically, the United States wants Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt to work to drive a wedge between the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, and the anti-American Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army has been behind many of the Shiite reprisal attacks in Iraq, a senior administration official said. That would require getting the predominantly Sunni Arab nations to work to get moderate Sunni Iraqis to support Mr. Maliki, a Shiite. That would theoretically give Mr. Maliki the political strength necessary to take on Mr. Sadr’s Shiite militias.

It's an interesting gambit, but as with most Bush administration flirtations with solutions that reside beyond stubborn adherence to wishful thinking, this probably amounts to too little too late. It would have been a stretch even if given a go earlier, to be fair. But now, consider some of the logistics. From an article in today's Washington Post:

In a reflection of the growing new dimension of civil strife, a senior U.S. intelligence official said yesterday that the militia of radical Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr has grown eightfold over the past year and now fields 40,000 to 60,000 men. That makes it more effective than the Iraqi government's army, the official indicated.

The Iraqi army has about 134,000 men, but about half are doing only stationary guard duty, the official said. Of the half that conduct operations, only about 10 battalions are effective -- well under 10,000 men.

Sadr is so powerful that if provincial elections were held now, he would sweep most of the south and also take Baghdad, said the intelligence officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his position.

Theoretically, US forces could provide the counterweight to the Mahdi Army's strength in numbers, but an offensive against Sadr's militia would result in substantial US casualties at a time when the American public's appetite for such is at its nadir. Further, as Blake mentioned and Spencer and Matt flesh out in more detail, rank and file Shiites are drawn to Sadr due to his ability to provide security and vital social services. This could create a ripple effect of support for Sadr that extends beyond his closest cadres. Said Matt:

Why wouldn't you support Sadr? He has a fairly effective armed force at his disposal that's willing to protect Shiites who show their loyalty. Wouldn't you want to work with such a force? Maliki would be insane to side with Iraq's American occupiers, its Sunni population, and foreign al-Qaeda types in fighting the Mahdi Army, the Shiites' own self-protection service.

Iraqis of either stripe are right now caught between a guy with a gun trying to kill them and another guy with another gun trying to kill that first guy. Choosing sides isn't going to be difficult.

And Spencer:

Future generations of military leaders, who are going to have to consider the aftermath of occupying foreign countries, should remember how Sadr became the strongest Shiite political figure there is: he immediately began providing for the most desperate Shiite slum in Baghdad, struck an ardently anti-occupation pose that blended religious fervor with the rhetoric of national unity, and formed an army that did what the occupier couldn't in terms of providing security. If you lived in Sadr City, and you heard the government talking about disarming the Mahdi Army, you would read this as the collaborators' attempt to leave you vulnerable so the Americans can crush you.

To reiterate, I am most certainly not saying this anti-Sadr coalition will be able to come to a meaningful pact (the constituent parties are a motley assortment of competing interests), or that, even if there is an agreement reached, they will be capable of neutralizing Sadr and his considerable grassroots support, but Maliki may indeed be "insane" enough - or desperate enough - to try. The Americans seem intent on making him walk that plank with veiled threats of coups and strongman solutions prodding him along.

Sadr recently launched a countermeasure by threatening to pull out of the UIA coalition government if Maliki were to meet Bush in Amman next week (perhaps sensing the substance and purpose of that meeting). This, cleverly, casts Sadr as the true enemy of the occupation at a time of increasing Shiite disenchantment with coalition forces, while portraying Maliki as the lackey of the Americans if Maliki doesn't yield [ed note: see Swopa's post below on why this may not be so "clever"].

We will likely know more about Maliki's intentions vis-a-vis al-Sadr, and whether or not Maliki thinks he has enough Sunni political support to shore up his coalition government, if and when Maliki meets with Bush over Sadr's threat. And how Sadr will choose to respond.

[UPDATE: Noticed, as I was finishing this post, that Swopa has more. His usual aromatic blend of snark and insight:'s hard to keep track of how many people would have to be convinced that they're successfully double-crossing everybody else in order for this scheme to work. The now-exiled Baathist kingpins of the resistance and SCIRI (through its Badr Corps) have been doing their best to murder one another since at least the 1980s, and now they're supposed to form the backbone of a new governing partnership, with the blessing and friendly support of the United States? Uhhh, right.

Even better, this plan requires al-Maliki to put his fate into the hands of not only the Baathists but his longstanding political rivals in SCIRI, who manuevered aggressively several months ago to land one of their own leaders in Maliki's job but failed -- an attempt that could well be revisited quite soon if Maliki is hoodwinked persuaded into distancing himself from al-Sadr's faction. (Given that Mookie isn't exactly the most savory of allies either, though, this strand of the plot has a tiny foundation of logic to it.)

It isn't the most promising alliance ever conceived of for sure. But, then, this is the Bush administration we're talking about and they've never felt bound by such plebian constraints as "reality" and "empiricism." That being said, stranger things have happened.]

Monday, November 27, 2006

King of the Hill?

I've long contended that the following quote is the quintessential exemplar of reality-defying support for President Bush:

It must be very strange to be President Bush. A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius, he can't get anyone to notice. He is like a great painter or musician who is ahead of his time, and who unveils one masterpiece after another to a reception that, when not bored, is hostile.

-John Hinderaker
July 28, 2005

I don't think that Victor Davis Hanson can really steal the crown from Hinderaker (such a marvelous effort, that), but this entry at The Corner is at least worthy of consideration:

And there really will come a time, believe it or not, when a future American President baffled and paralyzed by the latest insanity from the Middle East-whether an Iranian nuke or a Syrian invasion of Lebanon or another Middle East war or the usual assassination and killing of Americans-will ask former president George Bush II for advice, as a then fawning media will look back to his past "toughness" and "determination" when under fire. That seems unhinged now, but it too will come to pass, as they say.

Don't get me wrong, Hanson might be right that future Presidents will ask Bush for advice on Middle East issues at some point. It's just that I'm quite sure that if any do seek out Bush's counsel, it will be so that they can do the exact opposite of what he advises.

Call it a variation of the William Kristol Principle

(hat tip Brad DeLong)

Back to the Beginning

Nibras Kazimi has been promoting a rather out-of-vogue concept recently, namely that Iraq is not currently embroiled in a civil war. Here is Kazimi decrying the rise of the "academic mercenaries" who are feeding off of the the violence in Iraq [emphasis in the original]:

The policy debate on Iraq is turning more and more bizarre; now it is the “civil war experts” chiming in on what they think is going on in Iraq. Enter Monica Duffy Toft on today’s Op-Ed page of the Washington Post...

[Toft's] whole thesis is based on this assertion: “Most scholars and policy analysts accept that Iraq is now in a civil war.” [...]

I think that Professor Duffy Toft is jumping the gun. It is a sad fact of public life that “intellectualism” is a market commodity, and that various groups of experts are constantly trying to seek out new niches for media appearances and book deals. Now, we have a whole host of “civil war” and “ethnic strife” experts stampeding towards the “Iraq Is No More” limelight. This will only further distort whatever picture emerges out of Iraq...

Despite Kazimi's objections, I tend to side with Toft, and the consensus view, that Iraq is engaged in a low-level civil war. Now, the only areas of disagreement seem to revolve around the level of intensity one ascribes to that civil war, and the extent to which one believes its ferocity would wax or wane post-withdrawal of US forces.

Not for Kazimi, however. He - like Ralph Peters - is sticking by his story, one that was admittedly more fashionable months ago, as the Right and other assorted war supporters were trying to convince the world that it was their eyes that were lying.

The most curious thing about Kazimi's current position, however, is not its counterintuitiveness. Rather, it's that it stands in stark contrast to previous observations made by...Kazimi himself, back in January of this year. Said Kazimi then - perhaps striking the pose of an academic mercenary [emphasis mine]:

I can’t shake the feeling that Iraq went from a state of civil strife to one of civil war without anyone, least of which the Iraqis themselves, realizing it. ...The Shia leadership, ensconced within multiple layers of security details, seem to have missed that the street-level refrain that used to say “give us the signal to fight” has shifted to “go f*ck yourselves, we’ll do this on our own.”

I hear of happy-go-lucky Baghdadi kids—groups of six or seven—organizing themselves into mini-militias. One such group that I know of, killed a militant Sunni preacher in Hai Al-Jami’a last week. Only last year, these guys obsessed about the latest hairstyles and the fanciest cell phone models. Recently, they’ve resolved to kill before getting killed.

What is going on? If this isn’t civil war, then what is the proper technical term for it? I fear that no one can control it at this point—not Sistani, not Badr.

And after the bloodletting subsides, how do you bring a ‘nation’ back together?

Kazimi elaborates on his contradictory, somewhat anachronistic views at a Hudson Institute event held last week (roughly 50 minutes into the presentation). During his presentation, Kazimi claims that in March he arrived at the conclusion that civil war "would" erupt as a result of the Askiraya Shrine bombing in late February of 2006, but that he was wrong in predicting that eventuality. Further, that the perpetrators also believed that such an act would cause civil war to break out, and lead to tens of thousands of deaths.

Interestingly, the rate of civilian casualties has increased since that event and the current levels reported by Iraqi officials, as well as the UN, would put the total since that date in the 25,000-30,000 range. Perhaps Kazimi meant in the immediate aftermath though. Nevertheless, Kazimi's claim that the Askariya bombing changed his outlook on the civil war issue is belied by the observations, excerpted above, that he made in early January of 2006 - almost two whole months before the Askariya incident. Unless Kazimi has broken the code on the space-time continuum.

Kazimi never does elaborate about just what conditions have changed since January (worse across every indicator of civil war, including the number and nature of attacks and related body count) to account for his reversal of opinion. In fact, he doesn't even really acknowledge a "reversal" as such, just that his prediction of an eventual civil war was premature and incorrect - even though his January piece was less prediction than description.

His argument against the use of the term "civil war" to describe the nature of the violence in Iraq hinges on his claim that the Iraqi government has not dissolved, nor has the government broken ranks into separate sects. Aside from the fact that immediately preceding this description of a unified, non-splintered government, Kazimi discusses certain violent factions of the Sadr movement (a group in the ruling coaltion) that are pursuing ulterior agendas (more here), his is an unworkably narrow set of criteria for classifying civil wars.

Only where the government has dissolved can a nation be considered to be in a state of civil war? How many historical examples of civil war would that narrow frame yield? How useful is it then? I'll side with this analysis instead - even if it was the product of a dreaded "academic."

At the end of this Academic Mercenaries post, Kazimi says this [emph. original]:

Sadly, there is very little oversight and accountability within the ranks of irresponsible academics. Ditto for journalists with a clear and petty bias.

I wonder if standards of oversight and accountability, and an acknowledgment of bias, should apply to think tank denizens and columnists of the New York Sun as well?

Friday, November 24, 2006

A Return Trip Through Your Wires

Juan Cole excerpted an email from "a professional who used to be in Iraq but now is in a nearby country." Cole's correspondent passes along some rumors concerning the recent infiltration of the Green Zone that I mentioned earlier this week. Says Cole's e-mailer:

Another friend, a Sunni sheikh of the Shammar tribe noted to me that thousands of former officers are prepared to assault the G[reen] Z[one]. It is no longer a matter of can they do it, they are only mulling over the timing. The breach of the Green Zone security the other day was a test of their ability to get in, and not a real attempt at a coup, though it is reported as such.

Obviously, this account is to be taken with a grain of salt. But if true in any significant sense, then we could be closer to the nightmare scenario that Suzanne Nossel wondered about. Any such spectacular attack would likely increase the already considerable political pressure on the Bush administration and the reeling GOP to find an escapte hatch from Iraq post-haste.

One of the problems with the dithering, indecisive approach of Bush and the denialists that he insists on surrounding himself with, is that if a singular event such as a massive attack in the Green Zone were to occur, any chance at executing an orderly, measured, and strategically deft withdrawal might be scrapped in favor of a hurried rush to the exits.

Bush might be stalling for the next administration to take the yoke, or waiting for the Baker-Hamilton commission (or his own internal review) to point the way to the pony express, but militant Iraqi factions seem less concerned with extending him this courtesy. Recalcitrant to the end those Iraqis.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving

Blogging will likely be light to non-existent over the next couple of days as I recharge the battery with copious helpings of turkey and the like. See you after the weekend. So much to be thankful for.

Have a good one.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Carping Diem

It was George Santayana who said: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." But what fate awaits those that re-write the past to their liking?

That is a question that Spencer Ackerman might pose to Mark Moyar who recently penned a factually dubious account of Vietnamese strongman Ngo Dinh Diem. According to Moyar's version of history, Diem was "a highly effective national war leader" who "experienced an upsurge in prestige" after his 1963 crackdown of Buddhist sectarians and otherwise "saved" his country. As Ackerman noted:

This is a Marine Corps University professor describing Bizarro Vietnam. What upsurge in "prestige" did Diem enjoy after supressing the Vietnamese Buddhists? From his wife? His brother? If Diem was such a "highly effective national war leader," why did the Viet Cong increasingly snatch his territory?

Despite what Moyar describes as Diem's "political acumen and force of personality," he was eventually done-in by a coup inspired by a conspiracy of myopic "American officials and journalists." Right on the cusp of total victory, it would seem from Moyar's hagiography.

Shortcomings aside, Moyar's piece does offer a possible answer to the question of what fate befalls those that re-write history: they are doomed to continue re-writing future events so as to make them conform to their prior re-writes. Oh what a tangled web we weave.

Witness, for example, this counterfactual assessment of the loyalties of the Iraqi army:

In Vietnam as in Iraq, the only strong force not beholden to the sects was the army...

The Iraqi army is not infiltrated, influenced and corrupted by sectarian loyalties? Really? One of Maliki's first statements as prime minister expressed his intention to fold certain militia elements into the army. Every indication is that he has succeeded - at least with respect to SCIRI's Badr Corp.

Moyar's conclusions might also be news to citizens of Iraq who have grown to distrust any Iraqi in uniform (police or army) for fear of what sect or other ulterior interest they represent. In fact, not long ago, Iraqi's were instructed by the Ministry of Defense via the below excerpted message to adopt this position of suspicion as standard operating procedure:

The Ministry of Defense requests that civilians do not comply with the orders of the army or police on nightly patrols unless they are accompanied by coalition forces working in that area.

In Moyar's rosy fabrication of Iraq, though, the Army is a force of nationalism, not beholden to any sectarian interests. Riiiight.

Not surprisingly given Moyar's dubious grasp of events, the recommendations he offers for Iraq based on his poorly constructed Vietnam analogies are of nominal value. The historical lesson Moyar seeks to draw is as follows:

Just as Diem established himself because Eisenhower let him participate unhindered in a Darwinian struggle, we should give Mr. Maliki the chance to restore order as he sees fit, provided his government does not try to suppress the insurgency through wholesale violence against Sunni civilians, as some fear it will.

If we pull back our troops temporarily and let Mr. Maliki deal with Iraq’s problems using Iraqi forces, we will be able to determine more quickly whether he can save his country as Diem saved his in 1955. We will see whether he has the political skills to cut deals with local leaders, the support of enough security forces to suppress those who won’t cut deals, and the determination to prevent the obliteration of the Sunnis.

The problem is, as mentioned above, Maliki's government is comprised of groups with militias. The army and police are heavily infiltrated with the armed factions of Maliki's constituents - and this is the result of deliberate policy choices. Other than some minor confrontations with Sadr (more today), Maliki will not take advantage of his "unfettered" access to the full panoply of military options to go after Shiite militias because they are he.

Quite the contrary, every inch Maliki takes away from Sadr, he likely concedes to SCIRI in exchange for their support in this internecine chess match. But at the end of the day, it amounts to little more than swapping one militia's influence for another's.

Further, this plea for removing restraints on Maliki is essentially an argument for the US tilting in favor of the Shiites in an effort to neutralize Sunni insurgents that I cautioned against recently.

When that strategy fails, or worse still explodes in regional war, the next generation of Mark Moyars can wax revisionist about the great Nouri al-Maliki and how we was this close to saving Iraq, and would have succeeded if it weren't for those traitorous journalists and weak-kneed types in the Pentagon.

They'll have to labor long to bend events to fit this narrative, but hey, revisionism is hard work.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Ray of Light

For those trying to find a competing rhythm to drown out the incessant beating of the war drums vis-a-vis Iran, Ray Takeyh makes like John Bonham for a day. He penned a trenchant editorial in the LA Times that punches holes in some of the most over-heated scaremongering emplyed by the faction clamoring for war with Iran. After placing some of Ahmadinejad's more hyperbolic comments in a historical context that makes them seem much more mundane and predictable - compared both to former leaders in Iran, and the rest of the world - Takeyh explains the proliferation rationale for the rational actor:

What's more, Iran's pursuit of the bomb has less to do with the destruction of Israel than with deterring a United States that has invaded two states that border Iran in the last five years. This is a moment of heightened tension between the U.S. and Iran, with the Bush administration routinely calling for a change of regime in Tehran, so perhaps it's not so surprising that the Islamic Republic feels it requires a deterrent capability to ensure both regime survival and territorial integrity.

This is true, but it is also true that nuclear weapons would confer a certain level of prestige on Iran, increase its regional stature and influence and serve as a deterrent to potential regional adversaries beyond the United States (see, also, Saddam's nuclear ambitions). Combined with Takeyh's observations, all very good reasons for Iran to push for a nuclear weapon.

Yet, at the same time, all extremely bad reasons for Iran to promptly, upon attainment, use one against Israel, or, worse still, give one away to a terrorist group. Not only would Iran instantly lose all of the aforementioned gains (the deterrent factor would be reversed completely, replaced by certain annihilation - and annihilation has been known to interfere with one's level of prestige, or ability to project influence), but it would represent a most peculiar way to treat the culmination of an investment of countless amounts of time, money, diplomatic capital and other frictions and costs.

Playing the yin to Takeyh's yang is Joshua "There's No Such Thing As Leo Strauss" Muravchik, whose own LA Times editorial entitled, Bomb Iran, leaves little to the imagination. But just in case the reader failed to glean the essence of Muravchik's column from its blunt title, he offers a near eponymous repetition in a concise opening paragraph that reads, simply:

We must bomb Iran.

OK Josh, tell us what you really think. The rest of the piece reads like a standard issue parade of horribles that will, allegedly, flow from Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon: some real, some imagined and some just bizarre.

As an example of the latter, in making the case that Iran's sponsorship of terrorism poses a risk that Iran would perpetrate a nuclear attack against the US via one of its proxies, Muravchik cites Iran's support for Palestinian and Lebanese nationalist groups that employ terrorism against Israel. Perhaps sensing the lack of direct connection from Iran to the US in such a dynamic, Muravchik resorts to a spurious claim that that Iran is on the verge of taking over al-Qaeda.

I kid you not. Muravchik actually claims that the the rulers of the most prominent Shiite country in the world would become the putative head of the Salafist, Sunni al-Qaeda. The organization that rabid Shiite murder Abu Musab Zarqawi called home would be under the thrall of its new Shiite masters. Or something.

Not content with the fear factor quotient represented by the "Shiite control of al-Qaeda" fantasy, Muravchik presses it further: imagining the entire Muslim world under the control of Shiite Iran - a Muslim world whose unified power would parallel that of....Hitler's Germany. Sigh. Stop me if you think that you've heard this one before:

If Iran's reach were limited to Shiites, it would be constrained by their minority status in the Muslim world as well as by the divisions between Persians and Arabs.

But such ethnic-based analysis fails to take into account Iran's charisma as the archenemy of the United States and Israel and the leverage it achieves as the patron of radicals and rejectionists. Given that, the old assumptions about Shiites and Sunnis may not hold any longer. Iran's closest ally today is Syria, which is mostly Sunni. The link between Tehran and Damascus is ideological, not theological. Similarly, Iran supports the Palestinian groups Islamic Jihad and Hamas, which are overwhelmingly Sunni (and as a result, Iran has grown popular in the eyes of Palestinians). [...]

Russia was poor and weak in 1917 when Lenin took power, as was Germany in 1933 when Hitler came in. Neither, in the end, was able to defeat the United States, but each of them unleashed unimaginable suffering before they succumbed. And despite its weakness, Iran commands an asset that neither of them had: a natural advantage in appealing to the world's billion-plus Muslims.

Where does one begin? Perhaps Iraq - that living testament to the stubborn resolve of those "old assumptions" about Shiite and Sunni animosity. In fact, there is a far greater risk of a massive, regional Sunni-Shiite sectarian war than that the entire Muslim world will soon organize, in common under Iran's banner.

Practically speaking, it should be noted that our policy of isolating and ostracizing Syria is pushing Syria (with few other places to turn) ever closer to Iran. If this marriage of convenience between two otherwise unlikely allies is a cause for concern, perhaps we should pursue a strategy of peeling Syria away from Iran instead. Further, as Takeyh notes, a general reconfiguration of our posture in the region could help to dissipate the unnaturally high levels of support that Shiite Iran currently receives from radicalized Sunnis in the region:

So then, why has Ahmadinejad persisted in his contemptible denials of the Holocaust and his repeated calls for the eradication of Israel if, in fact, they are more bluster than anything else? As a cagey politician, Ahmadinejad appreciates that his incendiary denunciations actually enhance his popularity in the Middle East. The carnage in Iraq, the failure to broker a peace between Israel and the Palestinians and the Arab rulers' inability to stand up to Washington have generated a popular clamor for a politician willing to defy the U.S. and Israel.

This same combination of frustration and want of a champion also pushes Osama's approval ratings to artificial heights (many ostensible supporters applaud his defiance, but reject the underlying political vision).

While lacking in the "muscular" - if ephemeral - gratification of "shock and awe" bellicosity, a well crafted diplomatic entreaty with Syria and other regional players, combined with a strategic realignment, could, in the end, achieve the goal of removing a potential Iranian ally and weakening Iran's broader support (thus containing Iran's pan-Muslim appeal) with far less bloodshed, at a vastly cheaper cost, with less likelihood of disastrous retaliation and other negative repercussions.

At that point, I would be comfortable taking our chances with the prospect that Iran will come to rule al-Qaeda.

Or, on the other hand, bomb Iran.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Best Friends Forever

Swopa (Laura, Spencer, Kevin, et al) adds a wrinkle to the potential for Iran and the US to find common cause in Iraq going forward (discussed in my prior post): Namely, that the US may be preparing to back Iran's favored Shiites in a joint attempt to once and for all neutralize the Sunni insurgent groups. (As an aside, I imagine this would render any potential deal with Syria dead on arrival, as it could not justify cooperating with such a plan, or otherwise crack down on its Sunni population's participation in the conflict.)

This development would, of course, have the potential to kill Osama via a crushing overload of joy. Keep in mind that Osama is trying to harness the force of a civilizational conflict between the Muslim world and the West in order to destabilize the "corrupt, apostate" Sunni regimes in the region and replace them with pure, Salafist regimes ala the Taliban. Osama hopes to radicalize the Sunni population, rally them to his cause, and spearhead a region-wide series of revolutions that would result in a unified caliphate stretching from Southeast Asia to Southwestern Europe.

If the speculation cited by Swopa, et al, pans out, Osama would be afforded imagery and accounts of an all out, no holds barred Shiite/US alliance vanquishing a once-dominant Sunni population. The scenes of death and destruction would be graphic. The blame would shift to the Sunni regimes with friendly ties to the US. The narrative would be compelling. A true propagandist's coup, making the Christmas gift of the Iraq invasion itself appear a mere stocking stuffer.

It would set the passions of neighboring Sunni populations ablaze with ferocity. There would be little chance to contain the sectarian conflict within Iraq's borders. A larger regional war would likely catch a fire, with all its destabilizing permutations. Al-Hayat (via the Badger) suggests that there are nascent signs already:

With the rise in the ferocity of separation, particularly in Baghdad, which has witnessed in the recent period of time campaigns of Shiite-Sunni separation (in particular neighborhoods respectively), the head of the Iraqi Accord Front [Sunni; 44 seats in parliament], Adnan Dulaimi, in a speech he delivered in Amman on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, called on the Sunni people to rescue Iraq from the Persian incursion, before Baghdad becomes a Safavid city.

It's one thing to try in vain to tamp a sectarian war as it rages, it's another entirely to pick sides without reservation - deploying our full arsenal in support of one faction. We've flirted with this in the past, and in some ways our posture now resembles such a role, but in other crucial ways, the Sunni population views us as a bulwark between them and the Shiite militias. We will have abandoned all semblance of neutrality.

The most compelling argument for maintaining a troop presence in Iraq is our ability to prevent the widening of the conflict. This would serve the opposite purpose. We would be better served by getting out now.

Swopa mentioned something else, though, that reminded me of some speculation on my part back in early October about the subterranean movement toward an alliance between Maliki (and his Dawa party) and Hakim (SCIRI) in their effort to contain and neuter firebrand upstart Moqtada al-Sadr. Said Swopa:

Just to be clear, the shape of the deal seems to be this: The U.S., Iran, and the Shiite-led government in Iraq all recognize that the situation there is dire, and there's not much room for playing games any more. In exchange for at least a nominal diminishing of gangster-cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's power (perhaps by taking away some of his faction's ministries), the U.S. will send more troops to try to contain violence in Baghdad -- even if this means boosting the clout of the SCIRI party (which is just as brutally theocratic and even more explicitly backed by Iran than Sadr's Mahdi Army, but which the U.S. has oddly seen as being more amenable to cutting deals).

It'll be interesting to see how "nominal" the diminishing of Sadr ends up being if this route is taken. I think it's plausible to speculate that Sadr could end up being the sacrificial lamb, or the fig leaf maintained by the US in its attempt to preserve the illusion of even-handedness in the impending sectarian conflict. If Iran signs on to the plan to marginalize Sadr, which already has willing participants in the US, SCIRI and probably Maliki, Sadr will have a tough time withstanding the weight of that alliance.

Perhaps the above "alliance" is why Dennis Ross and Vali Nasr appear so confident that the Bush administration will open negotiations with Iran.

While I favor negotiations with Iran with respect to Iraq, and other regional concerns, forging a common bond with Iran around the subject of targeting Iraq's Sunni population would make even the cold shoulder approach more attractive.

We will, in effect, become yet one more of Iran's proxies in Iraq (to the extent we aren't already) - unleashing the exact worst case scenario that justifies our continued presence.

That's one marriage of convenience that I'd just as soon see never consummated.

You and I, Collapsed in Love

I'm not sure why, exactly, Kevin Drum thinks it's bizarre that Iran would prefer that the US maintain a troop presence in Iraq. To be fair, it is peculiar to see US and Iranian objectives aligning in such a fashion, but once you get past this initial mini-shock, the mutual appeal of such a policy is quite predictable.

If there's one regime that has benefited most by our invasion of Iraq, after all, it is Iran. Their empowerment and influence in the region have increased dramatically via the annihilation of their most meddlesome nemesis and next door neighbor - Saddam Hussein. Adding to their blessings, Saddam's perpetually hostile Baath regime was replaced by a relatively compliant/friendly Shiite-led government.

Beyond issues of Shiite ascendancy stemming from the toppling of Saddam, our continued presence in Iraq is appealing to Iran for three major reasons: First, from a logistical perspective, our continued military commitment in Iraq limits our ability to pursue similar regime-changing adventurism in Iran itself (in addition to giving Iran a geographically convenient and target rich theater for retaliation should the US seek to pursue military airstrikes against Iran).

Second, the longer the US bleeds in Iraq - both money and lives - the more discredited the Bush doctrine becomes and the less likely it is that Bush (or any successor) will be able to muster the will of the American populace for another such endeavor (again, in Iran).

Third, and this one is likely a more recent development than the preceding two, Iran is legitimately concerned that the current levels of instability and chaos in Iraq would only get worse should the US pull out. This would threaten the gains made by Iran in having a stable, Shiite controlled-Iraq, and could lead to a broader regional Shiite/Sunni confrontation (this, by the way, is the worst possible outcome among the endless parade of horribles).

So you get statements like this one cited by Drum:

On Tuesday night, Tehran's English-language news channel featured commentary from political scientist Pirouz Mojtahedzadeh, who called for the U.S. to remain in Iraq until it has established a strong, stable central government capable of providing adequate security.

And this from an article appearing on Eurasianet:

Iran is working quietly but feverishly to prevent the total collapse of order in Baghdad and the hasty departure of US forces. Some policy experts in Tehran say a full-blown civil war in Iraq would constitute a “catastrophic development” for Iranian geopolitical interests. [...]

From Iran’s standpoint, Iraq’s current situation represents a two-pronged challenge: one, Iranian officials are eager to prevent a widening of sectarian violence between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims; and, two, Tehran does not want to see a precipitous departure of US troops in Iraq.

As recently as September, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that the “unwanted guests [US troops] must leave the region as soon as possible.” But as Iraq careens toward civil war, Iranian officials, along with the leaders of other Middle Eastern states, seem to have publicly softened their rhetoric concerning the US military presence.

“Iranian leaders are as terrified of a hasty US departure as everyone else in the area. They just pretend otherwise,” said a political scientist in Tehran who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In that respect, perhaps I'm being unfair to Drum. The shift in "official" (or acceptable) rhetoric emanating from Iran is noteworthy. This is compelling evidence that Iran is growing nervous about its own ability to corral the djinni back into the bottle (again, our tracks are parallel). In light of this, Iran is giving every indication that it would be willing to negotiate (and more importantly coordinate) with the US on certain issues of stabilization. This presents an opportunity to better the situation in Iraq.

Don't get me wrong, I'm as dubious and skeptical as the most hardened cynics about the likelihood that the Baker-Hamilton commission (ISG) will play the role of deus ex machina in Iraq. Not gonna happen. The most likely outcome will be political cover for the Bush administration (or its successor?) to eventually admit defeat and withdraw - perhaps after the much talked about "surge" of 20,000 troops that appears imminent.

But if the ISG could at least succeed in making the case that negotiating with Syria and Iran is a must, and the Bush administration could somehow break with its pattern and take this good advice, then there is room for some gains to be made.

I'm not talking "ponies", but a cooperative Iran and Syria could help to rein in some of the violence and mayhem. Even if they just halt the downward spiral of attack and retaliation, I would consider that an accomplishment. When you're drowning, the ability to tread water should not be undervalued. Especially if the swimmer (the Bush administration in the present case) has every intention of staying in the drink. This is made particularly crucial if the drowning victim has the potential to drag down so many others into the whirlpool.

The pessimists argue that Iran's ability to intervene in a productive manner at this point might be limited. As evidence, some point to the fact that the Mahdi army itself has begun to splinter as more radical, violent factions break away because Sadr is increasingly viewed as overly docile and conciliatory. The formation of these groups has led to two lines of speculation:

Nibras Kazimi claims that Iran is creating/funding those splinter groups because Iran wants to further its influence over the Mahdi militia, and perhaps proceed with efforts at sowing chaos where Sadr himself might not want to go. Others are suggesting that the splinter groups are an indication that Iran, and Sadr to some extent, have lost control of their respective constituencies.

It's hard to say which is correct, but in some ways it doesn't matter. Engaging Iran, and ensuring their cooperation, would help under either scenario. If evil mastermind Iran is behind the radical splinter groups, they could simply compel those groups to back off if we strike an acceptable deal. If Iran is not behind the radical break away factions, Iran could still use its influence with its more loyal proxies (SCIRI and Sadr even) to marginalize and neutralize the rogue groups - with our help of course. It would be in the interest of Sadr to consolidate control, SCIRI to neutralize rival, loose cannon factions and the US to take out such troublemakers.

In that limited sense, a troop surge could have some positive effect if certain preconditions were met. If such a surge were prefaced by a cooperative framework forged with Iran and Syria, as well as fruitful negotiations with certain Sunni insurgent groups amenable to power sharing arrangements, our influx of troops could be useful in terms of fighting back the insurgent/militia groups that aren't playing ball. I acknowledge the rather significant hurdles represented by the "ifs" in that paragraph - not the least of which involves garnering the cooperation of Iran and Syria (though peeling Sunni insurgent groups away ain't exactly a can of corn either).

In a circular fashion, Syria, Iran, and even some Sunni insurgent groups, might be more willing to strike such deals if we started heading for the exits. Syria and Iran wouldn't have any more incentive to create chaos in order to keep us tied down (we'd be leaving anyway), nor would they be able to bleed us of any more blood and treasure. On the flip side, they would be faced with the prospect of finally having to reapply the lid to the cauldron that they have tried to keep boiling (not that it has required much effort on their part, or relied on them for initial impetus).

The Sunni groups might be more open to discuss settlement, too, if they believe they will face the full force of the Shiite government forces without us around as an intervening factor.

Whether it comes before a troop surge aimed at marginalizing and picking off the radical splinter groups/recalcitrant insurgent factions, or after we begin our withdrawal from Iraq, engaging Syria and Iran is a must. That feat alone will not save Iraq (not by a long shot), but without Syria and Iran on board, there is little hope of finding salvation, or mitigation, elsewhere. The same could be said for our attempts to reach out to Sunni insurgent factions willing to move in constructive directions.

Just because these attempts to staunch the bleeding will not be perfect, does not mean they are not worthy of pursuit. When engaging in damage control, it is pointless to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Infirmed

Sorry about the light posting these past couple of days, but a combination of illness and work (which in this day of blackberries, email and internet connections continues to harrass even those attempting to convalesce at home), has left me kind of spent.

Oh, and I've been trying to juggle the new obligations at The Road to Surfdom. I've got a post up there from yesterday if you care to take a look. Otherwise, I'll try to get something up tonight or tomorrow, assuming death doesn't take me first. In which case, I expect jonny to step in and deliver a stirring eulogy, and then publish all of my unfinished drafts for posterity's sake. Actually, scratch that last part - though eulogy still required.

I appreciate your patience. Be back soon.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Buy One, Get One Free

In a post last month, I highlighted three memes that were gaining favor amongst Iraq war supporters as a means to explain away their errors in judgment, and deflect responsibility for associated failures. One such narrative went as follows:

Second, and picking up steam as of late, is the blame the Iraqis brand rationalization. The marketing campaign claims that the Iraqi people are too petulant, violent, rapacious, vindictive and inherently uncivilized to accept the gift of 'shock and awe' liberation that George Bush magnanimously imposed on them. If only Iraqis were more appreciative of Bush's invasion, they might have the decency to get in line as the supply side embracing, pro-US/Israel ally we expect and deserve. Our noble effort, and its humble messenger, have been betrayed. This product fits well, is multi-purposed (can be used to sell the next war of "necessity," if not liberation, given the inherent Muslim/Arab nature), and it is augmented by feelings of superiority/exceptionalism and highlights of religious and ethnic discrimination.

Noted "moderate libertarian" Glenn Reynolds seems to be hopping on board with both feet - complete with an eye on the "next time" rationale. Responding to a reader whose e-mail read, in part:

The ball is in the Iraqis' court. We took away the obstacle to their freedom. If they choose to embrace death, corruption, incompetence, lethal religious mania, and stone-age tribalism, then at least we'll finally know the limitations of the people in that part of the world.
Law professor Reynolds added:
...[It's] true that if democracy can't work in Iraq, then we should probably adopt a "more rubble, less trouble" approach to other countries in the region that threaten us. If a comparatively wealthy and secular Arab country can't make it as a democratic republic, then what hope is there for places that are less wealthy, or less secular?
"More rubble, less trouble"? Now that is a catchy slogan. To his eternal credit, Reynolds is even linking up to the "uncivilized Arabs" with the "not brutal enough" storyline with the call for "more rubble."

Just think of all the cross-marketing potential. Somewhere fake Iraq war opponent, and faux Iran dove, Michael Ledeen's heart is aflutter.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Take My Hand and Off We'll Stride - In Praise of Righting the Course

While I think it is safe to say that the American public issued a stern rebuke of the Iraq war and its conduct, I'm not so sure it was as clear an endorsement for an immediate withdrawal - to hell with the consequences. Even if it was, cognitive dissonance is a formidable force - and even if our minds seem made up at the moment, we are not immune to a relapse, or the embellishing blur of euphoric recall.

As we have been learning, slowly, Iraq is a no-win situation. We have unleashed mayhem and strife that has assumed it's own momentum. Any resolution of our involvement in Iraq will require painful choices that lead to intense human suffering. Stay, or go, Iraq will burn for some time more. The main debate now should center around the question of how to contain the fire. It is an exercise in damage control that offers little in the way of feel-good posturing.

Perhaps Iraq would be best served by the commencement of a plan for full withdrawal - even if the logistics are phased out over a number of months still. Maybe, instead, a strategic redeployment of troops designed to lessen their footprint/provocative qualities, coupled with a stabilizing strategy engineered via a regional framework that involves cooperation with Iraq's neighbors (Syria and Iran included - which would make some normalization a prerequisite) would lead to more favorable results. Further, Iraqis aside, which path best serves our own interests?

Deciding on the optimal policy will necessitate sober analysis. A truly healthy, efficient and productive policy making apparatus, however, requires a dialectical approach to such complex questions - one in which competing ideas can be argued, debated, tested, challenged, amended and modified. But it was exactly this type of policy-making process that was so sorely lacking in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, and one that in many ways is still absent from the White House. Dissent was crushed, differing opinions ignored and ideological conformity was favored over expertise.

This is where I see the Democratic victory on election day coming in. Not in the sense that the Democrats should immediately jump out in front of the dialectic themselves with their own pre-conceived plan, and bang the drums for withdrawal regardless of sound counter-arguments or legitimate warnings. Not only would that represent a breakdown of the process in a mirror image of the Bush administration's own shortcomings, but it would open the door for the Republicans to pin the tail of defeat on the donkey of the Democratic Party. The Cunning Realist put it thusly when discussing the prospects for a change of course under Gates:

Read more »

Thursday, November 09, 2006

If Tantalus Felt Schadenfreude

Way back in August of 2004, on the eve of the presidential election, I wrote a post arguing that it might be better if Bush, and not John Kerry, prevailed. Allow me to explain this apparent heresy, and in so doing, pardon the uncouthness of quoting myself:

I'm just wondering if there is really something worth winning come November, or if the mess created by George Bush's four years would be best left to him, forever enshrined as his legacy and his alone. I admit, these thoughts drift in during my weaker moments when spiteful urges hold sway over my more altruistic nature, but there is a method behind my flirtation with madness.

Aside from the gaping economic/fiscal wounds that Bush had already inflicted on the nation (tax hikes would have to be enacted, and painful decisions taken), I was primarily concerned with the way the eventual Iraq disaster would be spun should Kerry step in mid-stream and preside over what would be the final acts of the tragedy. Just as the Left had become a useful scapegoat to explain away the strategic error, lack of foresight and arrogance that led to our defeat in the essentially unwinnable Vietnam conflict, so too, I feared, would Iraq be pinned on Kerry and the Democrats:

"You see, it was all going well, and we were on the verge of pulling off exalted victory, but then Kerry won, and in typical liberal fasion, proceeded to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory."

The Left in America has been struggling for thirty years to shed the yoke of Vietnam that was unjustly thrust around its neck. Iraq would take longer, and add more faux evidence to support the Vietnam-era narrative. A popular misconception thus doubley supported would be exceedingly difficult to deconstruct.

Mind you, if I thought that Kerry could really have managed to avert the catastrophe currently embroiling Mesopotamia, I wouldn't have even toyed with these blasphemous ideas on what is only an inconsequential, sparsely read blog. But even at that comparatively early date, the die in Iraq was all but cast. Since then we have been relegated to the status of spectators to a car wreck unfolding in excruciatingly slow motion.

This brings me, in my typically roundabout fashion, to something Matt Yglesias said in reference to the new nominee for Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, and how the Democrats should handle the confirmation process:

I forgot to say what I actually think Dems should do about Gates. My initial read -- subject to revision as we learn more -- is that they should take advantage of the presence of some hard-core wankers in their caucus. Blocking Gates is problematic. Giving Gates a seal of approval is also problematic. So...let Gates come to the floor and let him be confirmed by 49 Republicans plus some combination of Lieberman, Ben Nelson, and Dick Cheney. That way Bush gets to keep running Bush's war Bush's way on Bush's say-so and Bush gets to keep reaping the blame when things keep going poorly. [emphasis added]

I know this must sound like a deeply cynical game to play, and one that is both callous and opportunistic, but I think Matt is right. At this point in time, it's not a question of Gates, Rumsfeld, Eisenhower, Churchill or any other historical/mythical figure. Bush is going to do what he wants, the important decisions won't be left up to the Secretary of Defense and even if they were, the situation is just about beyond anyone's ability to repair.

If we are impotent to save Iraq, let's at least not take a bullet for Bush. It's his bed, let him lie in it. Which might amount to the most hollow sense of Schadenfreude ever registered in the human psyche.

Right Back At Ya Karl!

Noted without much need to comment, other than to say, it's official:

Republican Sen. George Allen conceded defeat Thursday to Democrat Jim Webb, sealing the Democrats' control of Congress and the political downfall of a man once considered a White House contender.

Allen chose not to demand a recount after initial canvassing of the results failed to significantly alter Webb's lead.

Right back at ya Karl:

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Suburban Cowboy

Both NBC News and the Associated Press are calling the Senate race for Jim Webb (D) over George Allen (R). According to the AP, the official tally has Webb with a 7,236 vote lead. That is a recount-proof margin for all intents and purposes. This gives the Democrats a Senate win that I really considered beyond their reach. Unbelievable!

I feel a sense of optimism and renewed faith that is really quite exhilirating. It's been a while since I've experienced this level of political satisfaction (try 1992 probably, when Clinton won - 1996 was nice too, but I was expecting the Big Dog to trounce the irascible Dole).

There's also something poetic about the last race to be called - that George Felix Allen, an unreconciled racist with a shameful, unrepented past, would turn out to be the linchpin. In a way, the Allen race was microcosmic of the larger GOP meltdown. Allen was done in by his hubris, his arrogance and his inability to fully conceal what pathologies were lurking beneath. It was his Freudian slip, what Edgar Allen Poe might have called his Imp of the Perverse, that delivered those extra 7,000-plus votes to Jim Webb.

You see, racism just doesn't sell quite as well as it used to. Sure, it might have been used effectively against Ford in Tennessee, but that brand of hate can't quite deliver with the same consistency as it did in the days of Willie Horton and Philadelphia, Missisippi. Even the attempt to play up the nativist fear of immigrants sort of backfired when the GOP got a gander at the size of the counterprotests. The racist demographic is on the wane. Not only is it not guaranteed to work in the local race in question, but the rest of the nation gets to see, up close and personal, what your go-to pitch is. And it ain't pretty.

The same can be said for much of the rest of the agenda promoted by the Republican Party during the reign of George W. Bush - as he has operated under the tutelage of the infamous Svengali, Karl Rove. In both campaign rhetoric and policy implemented, they have resorted to proud gay-baiting, reactionary anti-science measures, debasement of the environment, a war on reproductive freedom that is losing its luster even in the bible belt, racist innuendo and a political strategy that rests on the notion that it actually makes sense to alienate just under half of the country's population (leaving you with no cushion for those political rainy days).

Bush succeeded in fooling the moderates and independendents with his "compassionate conservative" subterfuge in 2000 - all the while sending the proper nods, winks and verbal signals to the base. Even still, Gore won roughly half a million more votes.

Maintaining such a gambit becomes increasingly difficult when forced to actually go about putting the ulterior, less compassionate plan into practice. If it wasn't for the boost that the war on terror provided, Bush likely would not have been re-elected. Even with 9/11 and an active war, Rove had to pull out all the contemptible stops in 2004 to win the rematch.

Six years on, the curtain has been yanked back to reveal too much of the shadow. Katrina intruded, Schiavo interrupted, torture thrust itself into our livingrooms in technicolor, there was a persistent strip mining of the Bill of Rights - as well as the Appalachians - and the civil war in Iraq dispelled the last remnants of well-intentioned well-wishing. Yet, in an inverted sense, that tragic civil war seemed to lessen the degree of the less destructive domestic version stoked by Rove and his predecessors. Americans were united in their recognition of the disaster that neoconservative foreign policy has wrought.

Don't even get me started about the economy, the polarization of wealth and the fiscal robbery.

With such able - if accidental - instructors in the Bush GOP, I do believe that the American body politic is coming to realizations about what a free, liberal, diverse and productive society should look like, and how our country should comport itself on the world stage. It's not that the fight is over. Not by a long shot. There will be setbacks, regressions and constant resistance. There is also an incredible mess to clean up, structures to tear down and courses to right. And we still don't have the White House. It's just that now, I can really feel the wind at my back. Makes it a bit easier to go to work.

Instant Upgrade

It should come as no surprise to anyone around these parts that, generally speaking, if Michael Rubin is upset about a policy or policy maker, I'm happy. Ezra Klein over at TAPPED hunted down these Rubin ruminations on the new pick to be Secretary of Defense.

Rather than inject a "new approach" to U.S. strategy, the Baker-Hamilton Commission's recommendations resurrect the old. In May 2001, Hamilton co-chaired an Atlantic Council study group that called on Washington to adopt a "new approach" to Iran centered on engagement with Tehran. And, in 2004, Baker-Hamilton Commission member Robert M. Gates co-chaired another study group that called for a "new approach" toward Iran consisting of engagement.

As Ezra snarked:

So the new Secretary of Defense doesn't favor launching ill-advised and counterproductive wars on Middle Eastern countries? That's, uh, terrible.

Music to my ears. Maybe Gates even knows a thing or two about the diplomacy of breaking headlocks, ending wrestling matches and, as Nell Lancaster might say, the great Bart Simpson-Nelson Muntz armistice.

Ouch, It Burns!

It's official (sort of?). The Associated Press is reporting that the Montana race has been called, and Jon Tester (D) is the winner over Conrad Burns (R)! That means that at the very least, we're looking at a 50-50 split in the Senate. Even then, the Democrats would only be denied a 51- 49 majority if a possible Virginia recount goes against Webb - who is the leader at the moment.

This could get very, very interesting. By the way, today rocks.

Rum Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

BREAKING NEWS: Donald Rumsfeld will be stepping down as Secretary of Defense.

Speculation about his eventual replacement here and here.

This move is long overdue even if, at this point in time, the gesture will have a greater symbolic significance than its impact on actual operations. Maybe I'm wrong though. Maybe this is the first step toward the Baker Plan Escape Hatch.

We'll know more when the replacement is named. For the love of all that's holy, don't do it Lieberman.

[UPDATE: OK, all that's holy loves me back. It won't be Lieberman. Instead, we get one of Bush Sr.'s guys, Robert Gates (director of the CIA under Bush the elder), who is also a member of the Baker-Hamilton commission. This could signal a change of course in Iraq. Can't say for sure, but it does have all the trappings.]

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Leave of Absence

For all you TIA election watchers who, like me, are feeling a little giddy tonight because the debate has shifted from how many seats the Dems might manage to steal in the House and Senate, to whether or not the Dems will actually seize control of both bodies (if you had told me two months ago, I would have given you a patronizing smile), I'll be doing a little live blogging of the midterm election Aussie-side over at Road to Surfdom.

Stop by if you're feeling restless. Tips and updates welcome in the comments section.

Syria? Nah.

As I argued in a previous post, there is a most peculiar dynamic being played out in the Iraq theater between Iran and Syria on the one hand, and the United States on the other. In that earlier work, I used the metaphor of a wrestling maneuver known as a headlock to describe the painful stalemate, and counterproductive stubborness, locking in all parties involved.

To put it simply, Syria and Iran have used their influence, geographical advantage, infrastructure and other assets in an attempt to complicate our mission in Iraq. To be clear, I am not suggesting that the Iraq endeavor would be proceeding smoothly without the interference of that country's two neighbors, and I am wary of those that would point to the meddling of Syria and Iran in order to justify military confrontation with either nation. That would only extend the parameters of the current disaster.

There is ground to be made up in terms of stabilizing Iraq, however, if we could engage a cooperative Iran and Syria rather than a hostile version of each (admittedly, the benefits would have been greater earlier on in the occupation, but we must make do with the situation as it now stands).

By way of background, once we moved into Iraq, Syria and Iran figured (correctly in my opinion) that they were next on the list of regimes-to-be-changed. Like any rational actor, each regime decided that it would be better to tie the US down in Iraq rather than stand idley by waiting for their number to be called. As part of this strategy, Iran has been inciting a measure of controlled chaos through various armed factions, and Syria has been lax in policing its borders and reluctant to crack down on insurgent elements residing within those same borders.

Thus far, the Bush administration's response has been to try to cajole each adversary through harsh language and hollow threats. Iran and Syria have been, predictably, unpersuaded. They will not cease their meddlesome activities in Iraq until the United States offers each security guarantees and other concessions. Think of it this way, it is as if they each have us pinned to the wrestling mat, and we are promising them that as soon as they let us up, we're going to take them out. Then we have the chutzpah to complain loudly that they're not letting us up so that we can proceed to dismantle their regimes.

But it gets worse, because it is in the long term interests of both Iran and Syria to have a more stable, peaceful Iraq. In other words, they may actually want to let us up. There is room to explore the common interests, and forge a workable policy of cooperation, if we could just get past the utter fear of diplomacy that pervades the current White House. We must at first agree to actually open diplomatic negotiations with each nation (what Fred Kaplan would call, International Relations 101), and then, pursuant to those negotiations, we should remove the threat of regime change from the equation (assuming we get fair value in return).

In that earlier piece, I cited an article in Foreign Affairs by Vali Nasr that set forth some of these ideas. Said Nasr in brief (the article has much more):

Still, Iran will actively seek stability in Iraq only when it no longer benefits from controlled chaos there, that is, when it no longer feels threatened by the United States' presence. Iran's long-term interests in Iraq are not inherently at odds with those of the United States; it is current U.S. policy toward Iran that has set the countries' respective Iraq policies on a collision course. Thus a key challenge for Washington in Iraq is to recalibrate its overall stance toward Iran and engage Tehran in helping to address Iraq's most pressing problems.

Foreign Affairs is, once again, housing words of wisdom within its covers, this time from Volker Perthes who opines on the tale of two Syrias: one of potential, the other of stalemated reality. The implications extend far beyond Iraq (as is the case with Iran as well):

Western leaders should indeed take this opportunity to reengage Damascus, recognizing that Syria is a major player that can be ignored only at the risk of continuing turmoil. By taking into account legitimate Syrian interests, they could persuade Assad to work constructively with the Lebanese government and with international efforts to stabilize Lebanon, withdraw support from forces trying to undermine an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, and prepare his own country for diplomatic reengagement and eventual peace with Israel. All this would also separate Syria's agenda in the Arab-Israeli conflict from that of Iran. [...]

There are a number of things that Syria could do to help improve stability. It could, among other things, agree to the exchange of embassies with Lebanon. More important, Syria could help settle the dispute over Shebaa Farms (an Israeli-occupied strip of land that Israel seized from Syria in 1967 but is now claimed by Lebanon) by signing an international agreement that recognizes it as Lebanese territory. Regionally, Damascus could use its influence on Palestinian parties to encourage them to resume a constructive dialogue on forming a national unity government in the Palestinian territories. It could also work with the government in Baghdad to improve security in Iraq; Syria has been a haven not only for Iraqi insurgents but also for the fortunes of former Iraqi officials. [...]

Syrian officials have made clear what they want in return for cooperating with the West on regional issues. They want the United States to stop ostracizing Syria and threatening the Assad government with "regime change," they want to establish a role for Syria in the region, and, most important, they want to regain their Israeli-occupied territory through a renewed peace process.

That seems like an acceptable price to pay if the Bush administration and other Iraq war supporters are to be believed when they claim that Iraq is the central front of the war on terror, and that failure and/or premature departure would lead to ruinous consequences. Or, in the alternative, we can continue to isolate, ignore and ostracize Syria and Iran in hopes that the cruelty of the diplomatic cold shoulder inspires them to collude in their own demise.

In other words, we could stay the course. And we all know how well that's been going.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Somewhere, Over the Rainbow

In an administrative note, I've recently agreed to help out Tim Dunlop by agreeing to a regular guest spot at what is the finest Australian blog currently in the game: The Road to Surfdom (I preemptively reject any accusations of bias just because I'm now a member of the RTS Oz Mafia).

Big Media Tim will be splitting his time with a new project called Blogocracy which, incidentally, happens to be an extension of one tentacle of the Rupert Murdoch media empire.

Go visit Tim when you get the chance. His insights and analysis are an asset to us all. It is a sign of positive change when people like Tim Dunlop are rewarded for their hard work, honesty and courage.

But between you and me, the man can't really handle his Guiness as well as yours truly.

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