Monday, July 30, 2007

London Calling, Yes I'll Be There Too

I'm off to London later today, and will be gone until Sunday. You'll just have to make do with the million other better blogs in existence until my return.

Don't let George and the Gang start any more pointless wars while I'm away. I'll see what I can do with Gordon Brown when he gets back.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Great Salvation

In recent days, we learned that the Bush administration is pursuing security arrangements with Iran to contain certain Sunni combatants in Iraq. This revelation was followed closely by a rather forceful denunciation of Saudi Arabia's efforts to target and weaken the US-backed, armed and funded Maliki government in Iraq by funding Sunni insurgents. This created the impression that the Bush administration was putting a premium on stability in Iraq, and the wider region, by accepting Iran's newfound gains and making appropriate accommodations.

That impression, however, was tethered to the logic of homo sapien. Today brings news that the transcendental Bush administration is also planning on stepping up sales of advanced military assets to....Saudi Arabia. The reality-based mind, it reels.

The Bush administration is preparing to ask Congress to approve an arms sale package for Saudi Arabia and its neighbors that is expected to eventually total $20 billion at a time when some United States officials contend that the Saudis are playing a counterproductive role in Iraq.

The proposed package of advanced weaponry for Saudi Arabia, which includes advanced satellite-guided bombs, upgrades to its fighters and new naval vessels, has made Israel and some of its supporters in Congress nervous. Senior officials who described the package on Friday said they believed that the administration had resolved those concerns, in part by promising Israel $30.4 billion in military aid over the next decade, a significant increase over what Israel has received in the past 10 years.

But administration officials remained concerned that the size of the package and the advanced weaponry it contains, as well as broader concerns about Saudi Arabia’s role in Iraq, could prompt Saudi critics in Congress to oppose the package when Congress is formally notified about the deal this fall.

In talks about the package, the administration has not sought specific assurances from Saudi Arabia that it would be more supportive of the American effort in Iraq as a condition of receiving the arms package, the officials said. [emphasis added]

This comes via IOZ, who has this to say about the overall strategy:

Anyway, this all falls under my own maxim: Don't listen to what they say; look at what they do. In this case, category Say is "prevent a wider regional war" and category Do is "pour billions of dollars worth of arms into the fragile, quarrelsome, precarious neighbors of an escalating civil war ever percolating under an American occupation." The Congresscrats make oppositional noises on this one, but like their howler monkey counterparts, they're much smaller than their voices. Never dangerous. Timid. Easily spooked.

Even under the most charitable reading - that it is designed ensure some sort of regional balance of power that would deter wider conflict - the strategy is deeply, deeply misguided for the reasons IOZ points out and more. The Saudis are arming and funding Sunni insurgents currently, and those same insurgents are attacking our soldiers (and the Iraqi government they are defending). They want to confront Iran, and have been doing so already via proxy in Iraq - much to our dismay as our soldiers have been getting killed in some of that cross-fire, and Iraq has been destabilized generally speaking.

So then, how will increasing the capacity of the Saudis to wage war foster peace in the region, since it is clearly not peace that they are pursuing with their current, lesser capacity? Reminds me of something I saw Matt Duss quote recently (in the context of us arming both internal factions of Iraq's civil war):

Blackadder Goes Forth :

Blackadder: You see, Baldrick, in order to prevent a war in Europe, two super blocs developed: us, the French and the Russians on one side, and the Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea was to have two vast, opposing armies, each acting as the other's deterrent. That way, there could never be a war.

Baldrick: Except, well, this is sort of a war, isn't it?

Blackadder: That's right, there was one tiny flaw in the plan.

George: Oh, what was that?

Blackadder: It was bollocks.

I see a similar, smallish flaw in this plan. Of course, that's assuming a less cynical strategic aim - which I do assume. If the plan is to "cauldronize" the region to the delight of "doves" like Michael Ledeen, than this is a deft move.

Neither option should instill confidence, though.

(h/t to Henley)

Friday, July 27, 2007

Tested Your Mettle on Doe Skin and Petals

Dana Goldstein points out:
Via Salon: It's fascinating/typical that only two GOP candidates, Ron Paul and John McCain, have agreed to participate in the GOP version of the YouTube/CNN debate we all enjoyed so much this week.
To which Ezra Klein adds:
The GOP candidates want to stay away from the YouTube debate because they're afraid of even mildly uncontrollable settings. It's rather remarkable, actually, that the media, who relies on candidates entering unscripted settings in order to make news/give reporters some to write about don't exhibit some class solidarity and direct one-tenth the scorn they heaped on John Edwards haircut towards the GOP's cowardice and unwillingness to speak before the voters in an even mildly unpredictable setting.
Actually, I think Ezra misses the larger point: If the GOP candidates can't handle a face-to-face with YouTube, how are they going to stand up to Osama bin Laden and the terrorists? Think about it.

[UPDATE: And then Josh Marshall made me look like a plagiarist.]

Exactly Where We Are, at the Centre for Holy Wars

While the Bush administration's foreign policy in the Middle East has frequently suffered from bouts of gross incompetence and conceptual incoherence (or is it brief periods of remission from such chronic conditions?), the attempt to gloss over the fundamental paradox of empowering an Iran-friendly, Shiite dominated government in Iraq, while simultaneously attempting to contain Iranian power, deserves a seat at the head of the table. It was as if none of the "vulcans" or other foreign policy luminaries populating the upper echelons of the Bush administration stopped to consider the role that Saddam played as a check on Iranian hegemony (that being one of the reasons that we supported Saddam with money, arms and equipment back in the days of that black and white, moral stalwart, Ronald Reagan).

And so the Bush team was left scrambling to resurrect SADDAM (Sunni Arab-Dominated Dictatorships Against the Mullahs) in the aftermath of the war - by seeking to weave together the various Sunni based dictatorships as a dubiously termed "moderate" counterbalance to Iran. Funny thing happened on the way to re-animate Frankenssein though: the Sunni leaders and their American counterparts couldn't resolve the fact that the Americans wanted to defend, empower and further entrench the Iranian-leaning Iraqi government, while the Sunnis wanted to tear it down. The Sunni regimes have a point: How do you counterbalance Iran while simultaneously serving as their proxy military force in Iraq?

With this tension as yet unresolved, it was interesting to see that the US may be leaning the other way now on the sectarian see-saw, as news broke earlier this week of a tentative security agreement between Iran and the US centered around combating Sunni al-Qaeda elements in Iraq. I can't imagine that this revelation has made the artists formerly courted for SADDAM particularly enamored of the Bush administration. The New York Times weighs in on some of the machinations (and provides further indications of a rift forming between the Saudis and the Bush administration centered around these issues):

During a high-level meeting in Riyadh in January, Saudi officials confronted a top American envoy with documents that seemed to suggest that Iraq’s prime minister could not be trusted.

One purported to be an early alert from the prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, to the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr warning him to lie low during the coming American troop increase, which was aimed in part at Mr. Sadr’s militia. Another document purported to offer proof that Mr. Maliki was an agent of Iran.

The American envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, immediately protested to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, contending that the documents were forged. But, said administration officials who provided an account of the exchange, the Saudis remained skeptical, adding to the deep rift between America’s most powerful Sunni Arab ally, Saudi Arabia, and its Shiite-run neighbor, Iraq.

Now, Bush administration officials are voicing increasing anger at what they say has been Saudi Arabia’s counterproductive role in the Iraq war. They say that beyond regarding Mr. Maliki as an Iranian agent, the Saudis have offered financial support to Sunni groups in Iraq. Of an estimated 60 to 80 foreign fighters who enter Iraq each month, American military and intelligence officials say that nearly half are coming from Saudi Arabia and that the Saudis have not done enough to stem the flow.

One senior administration official says he has seen evidence that Saudi Arabia is providing financial support to opponents of Mr. Maliki. He declined to say whether that support was going to Sunni insurgents because, he said, “That would get into disagreements over who is an insurgent and who is not.”

That quote is so emblematic of the semantical games played with respect to the war in Iraq, and the "War on Terror," where depending on your usefulness/friendliness to US interests you can either be terrorist or freedom fighter, despot or moderate. But that is a subject unto itself. Back to the regularly scheduled program:

The accounts of American concerns came from interviews with several senior administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they believed that openly criticizing Saudi Arabia would further alienate the Saudi royal family at a time when the United States is still trying to enlist Saudi support for Mr. Maliki and the Iraqi government, and for other American foreign policy goals in the Middle East, including an Arab-Israeli peace plan.

The Bush administration’s frustration with the Saudi government has increased in recent months because it appears that Saudi Arabia has stepped up efforts to undermine the Maliki government and to pursue a different course in Iraq from what the administration has charted. Saudi Arabia has also stymied a number of other American foreign policy initiatives, including a hoped-for Saudi embrace of Israel. [emphasis added throughout]

So, to summarize, the formidable foreign policy braintrust housed in the Bush administration not only got flat-footed by the discovery: (a) that Iraqi Shiite groups exiled in Iran during much of the 1990s actually had ties to...Iran; (b) that with an ascendant, majority Shiite population (and with powerful clerical leader in Sistani), such Iran friendly parties would come to power democratically post-Saddam; (c) that an Iranian friendly government in Iraq (supported by the US military) would be one of the central points of contention for a potential Sunni coalition formed for the purpose of countering Iran; but, alas, also (d) that the Sunni coalition might find it difficult to cooperate and ally with Israel while conditions for the Palestinian people remain so dire.

They truly are the trigger happy gang that couldn't shoot straight

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Runnin' Things...It Ain't All Gravy

You might think working for Iraq's senior Shiite religious authority - and understated powerbroker extraordinaire - would be a plum assignment. You would, however, be wrong:

A former aide to [Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani] was killed Thursday in a drive-by shooting in the holy city of Najaf south of Baghdad, security officials said.

Kazim Jabir al-Bidairi was shot dead by two gunmen in a car as he drove in the Wafa area of northern Najaf at 11:30 a.m., according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.[...]

The officials had no immediate word on the possible motive of the assailants, but al-Bidairi was the third person linked to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to be killed in two months.

Swopa, and his lidless eye, caught the two prior assassinations of Sistani-linked individuals. As with those two episodes, this incident seems like the handiwork of Sadr's forces (though that is by no means certain). So what to make of this emerging pattern, assuming it is in fact a result of Sadr-Sistani tensions?

On the one hand, it could signify a deepening schism between Sadr and Sistani - a possible preview to a putsch by Sadr in an effort to dominate the Shiite political/religious scene. This may or may not involve the eventual assassination of Sistani himself. All indications are that Sadr - the consummate Mr. Inside Out-ski - has been consolidating power and deftly positioning himself as the preeminent political force to be reckoned with.

Attempting to usurp Sistani, however, would be a maneuver fraught with danger and would undoubtedly result in massive intra-Shiite bloodletting. Because the costs are so high, and Sadr's position still so precarious (Sunni and US forces nearby), I tend to doubt such a play is in the works. But then, history is riddled with examples of costly overreaching by those lusting for power and suffering from hubris (see, ie, invading Russia). The familiar delusions of invulnerability and preordainment could be casting their spell as well.

There are, as usual, alternative explanations to consider. First, it should be noted that Sadr's forces had specific beef with al-Bidairi. From the article:

Al-Bidairi worked as a senior administrator at al-Sistani's office before August 2004, when he was given charge of a security force assigned to protect Najaf's Imam Ali shrine after months of fighting between U.S. troops and a Shiite militia loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The Mahdi Army militiamen took refuge in the shrine during the final stages of the fighting.

A fire that destroyed al-Sadr's office near the Imam Ali shrine in August 2005 was blamed on that force and al-Bidairi was arrested by police for his alleged role. He was released several months ago as part of a deal with families of the fire's victims and has since started a business organizing visits by Iranian pilgrims to Najaf.

So this particular incident could have been simple payback. Along these lines, it's worth pointing out that al-Bidairi was no longer in the employ of Sistani when he was gunned down - so it might not have been such a direct swipe against Sistani.

Further, these skirmishes could be little more than politics by other means, so to speak. It would not be the first, and certainly not the last, time that "misunderstandings" between rival Shiite sects were cleared up violently. Keep in mind, two of the largest factions that actually share power in the Shiite coalition government (the Sadrists and SIIC) are periodically fighting throughout much of the Shiite south. That is an odd dynamic to say the least (must make for some awkward moments in parliament). As Sadr once said of these ongoing battles:

"What happened with the Badr organization [SIIC's militia] and the Mahdi Army in many parts of Iraq is the result of a sad misunderstanding," he said. " We have held discussions to stop this being repeated."

Thus, these particular assassinations could simply be the byproduct of the rotating mobile of Shiite political intrigue - discussions if you will. When you're jockeying for power, some riders inevitably get thrown from their horses. While this is the most likely explanation, the stakes involved makes this friction something worth keeping an eye on.

(hat tip to the friendly neighborhood hogger)

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Exit Signs are Flashing, Dead Ends They Won't Come to Life Anymore

Documents captured after 9/11 showed that bin Laden hoped to provoke the United States into an invasion and occupation that would entail all the complications that have arisen in Iraq. His only error was to think that the place where Americans would get stuck would be Afghanistan.

Bin Laden also hoped that such an entrapment would drain the United States financially. Many al-Qaeda documents refer to the importance of sapping American economic strength as a step toward reducing America’s ability to throw its weight around in the Middle East. - James Fallows, The Atlantic
“[T]here is more respect to be won in the opinion of the world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant and unpromising objectives.” - George Kennan, testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 1966

To Mute Nero

While President Bush fiddles with the “extravagant” and the “unpromising,” Baghdad burns. Caught in that inferno are millions of Iraqis, over a hundred and fifty thousand American soldiers and tens of thousands of other foreign and domestic personnel. Sacrificed on that pyre are this nation’s treasured resources and good standing - costs so staggering that they defy an accurate accounting.

Some point to the ongoing tragedy and potential for further bloodshed as reasons why we can't disengage, but these concerns - while perhaps well intentioned - fail to comprehend the limitations of our power to rectify the damage we have wrought. We cannot, through force of will or arms, save Iraq from the conflicts embroiling it. The past four-plus years should serve as a useful instructive to anyone that has yet to appreciate this lesson (though history has myriad examples with which to tutor the nonbeliever). The political agendas of the various competing Iraqi factions are separate and opposed to our own in many respects. Other than opportunistic marriages of convenience, we have no allies in Iraq, nor can we force any groups to align with us. For the foreseeable future, the civil wars will play out until the various sides are exhausted enough to view the adoption of political means as preferable, and concession and compromise as necessary. We cannot make that choice for them - and are in fact stoking the violence ourselves.

While we can't save Iraq by staying, we may be able to help by withdrawing. At the very least, we can stop the hemorrhaging of US assets and blood. Therefore, it is our moral responsibility to begin exploring and crafting a sound policy for military disengagement. I am not operating under any illusions with respect to President Bush's willingness to adopt such a plan. Still, a detailed plan for withdrawal will be a necessary and useful adjunct to the political pressure that is mounting - and a useful response to an all-too-frequently shallow press corp intent on depicting the war's opposition as rudderless and unserious. A viable plan will give us a road map to go along with a slogan.

If we build it, they will come. Home.

The Quick and the Dead

Former Army Officer Phil Carter laid out one of the more intriguing plans for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. According to Carter, the bulk of this feat could be accomplished in a mere matter of weeks – spearheaded by an “invasion in reverse” whereby our troops would follow the same path south that was taken northward during the initial invasion (fighting all the way if necessary, and abandoning/sabotaging what assets couldn't make the journey). While Carter’s plan has a certain neatness and pace that is appealing, a slower, more deliberate withdrawal would better serve our long-term interests. Such a gradual approach could motivate the various Iraqi groups to make a last-ditch effort to establish a less destructive modus vivendi, while giving us an opportunity to help out many of the Iraqis caught in the crossfire. Therefore, we should follow a timeline that will see all U.S. forces withdrawn from Iraq over the course of 10-14 months, while we hew to the road map set forth below.

The first step should be to encourage a new round of provincial elections. In the last local elections held in January 2005, the Sunni parties boycotted in protest. Thus, many predominately Sunni areas now have Shiite’s in charge of local government. It is important to reverse this dynamic and give Sunnis a greater sense of empowerment. These elections would help to establish a more widespread Sunni political representation that can begin to craft a unified voice with Sunni insurgents - who have, promisingly, begun forming a new political front. Such an alignment of political and armed wings is one of the requirements for eventually forging viable power-sharing arrangements (excluding the al-Qaeda inspired/affiliated combatants).

The next step should be to offer our assistance to any internally displaced Iraqis that wish to move to less hostile environs within Iraq. While some may view this proposal as encouraging ethnic cleansing, the fact is that violent ethnic cleansing is currently taking place in Iraq regardless. While we haven’t been able to prevent that, our assistance to Iraqis who wish to move voluntarily could provide a safe and organized evacuation as an alternative to the current haphazard flight under threat of violence – with Iraqis forced to abandon valuables and pay exorbitant amounts of money for transportation and resettlement.

Next, we must offer asylum to those courageous Iraqis who risked their lives, and the lives of their families, in order to cooperate with coalition authorities. Currently, the Bush administration is offering a paltry handful of visas to these imperiled Iraqi citizens. Instead, we should offer visas to the thousands of Iraqis who will be increasingly vulnerable post-withdrawal due to the stigma they carry as “collaborators.”

While the extent to which Iraq’s neighbors are interfering in Iraq to foster instability and violence is a matter of much debate, there is less controversy surrounding the notion that neighboring regimes could play a very constructive role in terms of preventing a spread of the violence from Iraq, and encouraging the various warring groups to find a sustainable model for conflict resolution. The prospects for coordinating and marshaling such a regional framework are not exactly promising, but we may enjoy a few advantages.

Even troublemakers like Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran have an interest in keeping an Iraqi civil war from erupting into a regional war that would likely suck each party in at staggering costs in terms of lives lost and economic resources chewed up. Those can be powerful motivators - especially when the competing interest of seeing us drained of resources and weakened becomes moot due to our imminent withdrawal. We should try to capitalize on the insecurity and fear that our withdrawal could instill by encouraging the cooperation of interested parties. The ability to use this final bit of leverage is part of why withdrawing in a deliberate fashion is preferable to the lightning approach outlined by Phil Carter.

Of course, obtaining the cooperation of nations like Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia will come at a cost above and beyond what each would perceive as the benefit of containing the neighboring conflict. Iran might seek non-aggression assurances, normalization of relations and possibly some sort of concession on their nuclear program. Syria would also likely push for normalization, an end to the UN tribunal investigating the assassination of Rafik Hariri in Lebanon and possibly the return of all or some of the Golan Heights. These demands may prove to be too bitter a pill to swallow for this or a subsequent administration (Israel as well in terms of Golan), but if the results of regional war following our withdrawal from Iraq are as dire as predicted, then it might be time to hold our noses on at least some of those demands.

As a necessary counterpart to the regional framework, the U.S. should court the United Nations and other capable NGOs in order to enlist their support in handling the potential refugee crises (setting up catch-basins along Iraq’s borders), and as possible contributors to peacekeeping missions down the road when a defensible peace materializes.

Regardless, and in tandem, we must re-dedicate ourselves to restarting the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. This is a lynchpin to so many of our efforts in the region including, but by no means limited to, gaining the support of Iraq’s neighbors. Progress on this front would also help to lessen the impact of the propaganda victory claimed by al-Qaeda upon our departure. Positive momentum in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict would diminish one of al-Qaeda’s most powerful recruitment tools, and help to lower the temperature in the region generally speaking at a time when widespread escalation of conflict is a paramount strategic concern.

Ain't No Half-Steppin'

Now that we’ve looked at some measures that should be taken, let’s turn to the “what not to do” list. First and foremost, we should not leave troops behind to continue to train Iraqi forces. The Iraqi military and police forces are organs of the Iraqi government, which itself is dominated by combatants in Iraq’s civil war. There isn't any substantial Iraqi military or police force that is fighting for the exalted concept of “Iraq the nation,” nor can we train them to espouse such an outlook. Thus, we would be training and equipping soldiers who would be engaged in the very civil war that we are trying to end, and at enormous cost, for we would need to leave behind a large presence of troops to support and protect the trainers.

Proponents of leaving behind a residual force in Iraq also claim that these troops could defend Iraq from incursions by its neighbors. This argument is transparently weak. Which of Iraq's neighbors would we supposedly be deterring? Most of the perimeter nations (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria) do not possess a military capable of seizing foreign territory - or an economy that could handle conquest. And in case any one failed to notice, the Iraqis don't seem to take to kindly to foreign interlopers. Are we really to believe that where the US military has failed in terms of establishing a sustainable presence in Iraq, the Jordanian or Syrian army will succeed?

One possible rejoinder would be that Iran could attempt such an aggressive annexation, and that it's military might have the muscle to succeed. Aside from the fact that a cash-strapped Iran could ill-afford the expense (and will have influence/access through its Shiite allies regardless), we can dissuade such an act by sending a very clear message that any foreign power (other than us) that tries to infringe upon Iraq's territorial integrity would receive a healthy dose of shock and awe.

The only other credible military threat would be the Turks, who might feel pressed to cross Iraq's northern border to take on the Kurds more than the current round of shelling. However, our presence is not preventing the Turks from encroaching on Kurdistan today, so there's no reason to believe we will serve as such a deterrent in the future. In response, some have suggested putting a residual force of troops in Iraqi Kurdistan itself. This, however, would put us in a lose-lose position where we would get further entangled in intractable, unwinnable local conflicts of dubious strategic importance to us.

This same cost-benefit analysis should also be applied to plans to leave behind a large embassy staff and/or al-Qaeda hunting teams. In each case, the active forces would need re-supply, support and protection troops. Thus, missions that would only require small units to handle discrete objectives would end up requiring tens of thousands of troops in ancillary roles, thus ensuring that our overall troops presence would remain at unsustainable levels. A better proposal would be to work with neighbors like Jordan that may allow us to house clandestine garrisons that could partake in limited anti-al-Qaeda activities when needed, and keep the bulk of forces over the horizon. As for the embassy, manning that post will have to wait for a time when protecting it will not require such a muscular presence in a country where exactly such a presence has been the source of much pain to us and the Iraqis alike. Beware of any and all plans that call for a continued military presence in Iraq.

Finally, some observers have put forth plans for partitioning Iraq (including soft partitions) which would entail separating Iraq into three separate countries divided along ethnic/sectarian lines with Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish regions (or three distinct regions with a very weak central government in the case of a “soft partition”). The benefits of such a plan remain doubtful at best due to the fact that the scarcity of resources, and the respective claims to dominion over all of “Iraq” which are adding fuel to the civil wars, would not be remedied by such a partition (with the relatively oil-poor western region going to the already aggrieved Sunnis). A formal partition could actually harden attitudes and set up future wars, with states fighting for the same limited resources being vied for in the current civil wars. Not to mention that, regardless of the merits, such a major decision should be left to the Iraqis and not be imposed by an outside occupier. If the Iraqis so decide, we should provide assistance.

I Grow Weary of the End

These are not perfect solutions to the Iraq quagmire, but there are none out there. All options will lead to violence and suffering for the already beleaguered Iraqi people, and negatively impact our interests - even and especially escalation or simply remaining in Iraq. Some would point to the above suggestions and argue that withdrawal will not compel Iraq's warring factions to pursue peaceful resolution, or get Iraq's neighbors to contribute positively. To the extent those arguments have merit, though, they would apply even if we keep troops in Iraq for the next decade (which could cost upwards of $5-10 trillion dollars and 10,000 more lives). Even if this last gambit fails, we can avoid the economic costs of remaining in Iraq and the enormous strain on our all volunteer army (not to mention the diplomatic costs, blight on our image and distraction from other important foreign and domestic exigencies).

We must confront the fact that we lack the lever with which to pry victory from the clenched jaws of defeat. With this in mind, we must not make the perfect the enemy of the less calamitous. It is better, in the end, to liquidate our unsound position than to cling to any remnant of this failure for fear of acknowledging what it is.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Time to Take Fredo Fishing

If we're talking impeachment - and we are - then we should recognize that Alberto Gonzales is the low-hanging fruit of impeachable Bush administration officials. Consider this: his popularity amongst Republican legislators is lower than either Bush or Cheney (at least publicly), his crimes are more apparent (serial perjury, violation of DOJ rules) and there is probably more willingness to take on a low level administration official rather than the President or Vice President amongst both Dems and Republicans. Thus, there may be a better chance of actually getting a conviction with Gonzales. Even if not, it would be an ideal push to get the impeachment train moving, and putting the Bush administration on notice that the legislative branch is watching.

At the very least, forcing Gonzales to the forefront of the media circus would be a great way to stamp the legacy of the Bush administration on the collective minds of the American people. As Andrew Cohen points out, Gonzales is an ongoing liability (via the Big Blue Satan):
Forget about the politicization of the Justice Department. Forget about the falling morale there. Forget about the rise in violent crime in some of our biggest cities. Forget about the events leading up to the U.S. Attorney scandal and the way he has handled the prosecutor purge since. Forget about the Department's role in allowing warrantless domestic surveillance. Forget about the contorted and contradictory accounts he's offered before in his own defense.

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales deserves to be fired for his testimony Tuesday alone; for morphing into Jon Lovitz's famous "pathological liar" character (or maybe just one of the Marx Brothers) as he tried to dodge and duck responsibility before the Senate Judiciary Committee not just for his shameful leadership at Justice but also his shameless role in visiting an ailing John Ashcroft in the hospital to try to strong-arm him into renewing the warrantless surviellance program. Can anyone out there remember a worse, less-inspiring, less confidence-inducing performance on Capitol Hill? I cannot.

No reasonable person watching Gonzales' tragically comedic performance Tuesday's on Capitol Hill-- especially his miserable exchange with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) in late morning-- can any longer defend his appalling lack of competence, courage and credibility. And no one who hears him say that he is what's best for the Department right now should forget that on the eve of his testimony (and a few days after he urged his subordinates to work diligently to regain their morale) the nation's top law enforcement official reportedly left work early to go for a bike ride Monday afternoon-- at about 3:50 p.m.

I am running out of words to describe how inept this public servant is and how awful is the message our government sends to the nation and to the world by allowing him to continue to represent us.
Seriously Democratic lawmakers: Start here. It's blindingly obvious.

Jiric Marley

If some enterprising young techster found a way to do blog post mash-ups, this contribution from Jim Henley would track quite nicely with my post on the Kurdistan Dodge™. Jim can handle the vocals, the background music's all mine.

Now all we have to do is get this song into the Ipods of our policymakers. Hmmm, where's MC Rove's DJ when you need him?

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Last Temptation of George

I see that the neocon's most fervent hawk in dove's feathers - Michael Ledeen - is at it again. Here, Ledeen takes Michael Gerson to task for his lack of bellicose recommendations for addressing Iran and Syria:

No surprise, then, that Gerson has no stomach for forceful action against the Syranians. He's for sanctions-plus-hard-bargaining.

Forceful action? Beyond sanctions and hard bargaining? I wonder what that could mean. Most observers whose analysis is tethered to logic would conclude that Ledeen favors a military strike on Iran - with Ledeen, presumably, having the stomach for something more forceful than sanctions. If confronted on this, however, Ledeen and his supporters will do their best to repair and patch Ledeen's dove costume - much as they did with his former advocacy for all out war with Iraq which has been magically transformed into opposition by him and his apologists.

More important than Ledeen's con-man mendacity, though, is the disturbing possibility that Mark Steyn might be right about where Bush's gastro-intestinal proclivities reside in relation to a potential war with Iran. I've long argued that even the Bush administration realizes the ultimate folly of opening up a second front with Iran at this juncture (while our commitments in Iraq leave us so vulnerable), and thus would abstain (albeit ruefully). Much of the military brass is reported to have reinforced this point with threats of mass resignations and the like (not to mention the presence of Robert Gates who appears to recognize the stakes).

Still, an increasingly weakened yet petulant and stubborn Bush might lash out in irrational and self-destructive ways in order to reaffirm his potency in the final months of decline - even ways that cautious observers would have ruled out precisely because they were such obvious mistakes.

It doesn't help to have warmongering cheerleaders like Steyn, Ledeen, the Podhoretz father/son tandem, William Kristol, Michael Rubin, Irwin Stelzer, Paul Gigot, Gertrude Himmelfarb (not to mention the entire Cheney wing of the White House), etc. filling Bush's head with pleasant-sounding and exculpatory Manichean drivel about history's judgment, Divine judgment and the ultimate vindication of The Good (embodied , naturally, by Bush's foreign policies). These paeans amount to little more than a gussied up war cry intended to play on Bush's weaknesses, isolation and insecurity. Nevertheless, such bromides can prove a tempting elixir for a leader like Bush in such a desperate and disheartening position.

In other words, confidence in the belief that Bush will ultimately refrain from committing such an enormous blunder vis-a-vis Iran is predicated on his ability to make rational decisions, concede the limitations of his power and reject the advice of Dick Cheney et al. Those odds should make us all more than a little nervous.

(hat tip to Matt Y)

Friday, July 20, 2007

It Is Time

I think this story about the most recent assault on the Constitution by the Bush administration provides a nice segue for me to highly, highly recommend the PBS special by Bill Moyers on the subject of impeachment in which he interviews John Nichols of The Nation and Bruce Fein of The Washington Times (links and associated information here).

Fein and Nichols make a devastatingly persuasive case for beginning impeachment proceedings against Bush and Cheney. Enough to bring me over the edge that I have been approaching for some time. I admit to some timidity around the topic of impeachment. This has mostly been out of fear of what the process might do in terms of distracting focus from other key legislative efforts, knowledge of how time consuming it can be and a resignation to the fact that after all such effort was expended, all that would result would be a switch from Bush to Cheney. But, in the end, the precedent to be set is more important - and the message to future administrations that there will be consequences for ignoring and violating the Constitution. Bruce Fein discusses the stakes, and the possibility that there may be a work-around for the Cheney for Bush swap:
There's always going to be a political element, Bill. But in the past, there's always been a few statesmen who have said, "You know, the political fallout doesn't concern me as much as the Constitution of the United States." We have to keep that undefiled throughout posterity 'cause if it's not us, it will corrode. It will disappear on the installment plan. And that has been true in the past. When we had during Watergate Republicans and remember Barry Goldwater, Mr. Republican, who approached the president and said, "You've got to resign." There have always been that cream who said the country is more important than my party. We don't have that anymore.
Speaking of the impeachment bank shot, this is right on the mark:
BILL MOYERS: This is the first time I've heard talk of impeaching both a president and a vice-president. I mean, this-- as you saw in that poll, more people want to impeach Dick Cheney than George Bush. What's going on?

BRUCE FEIN: Well, this is an unusual affair of president/vice-president, where the vice-president is de facto president most of the time. And that's why most of people recognize that these decisions, especially when it comes to overreaching with executive power, are the product of Dick Cheney and his aide, David Addington, not George Bush and Alberto Gonzalez or Harriet Miers, who don't have the cerebral capacity to think of these devilish ideas. And for that reason, they equate the administration more with Dick Cheney than with George Bush.

BILL MOYERS: Bruce, you talk about overreaching. What, in practical terms, do you mean by that?

BRUCE FEIN: It means asserting powers and claiming that there are no other branches that have the authority to question it. Take, for instance, the assertion that he's made that when he is out to collect foreign intelligence, no other branch can tell him what to do. That means he can intercept your e-mails, your phone calls, open your regular mail, he can break and enter your home. He can even kidnap you, claiming I am seeking foreign intelligence and there's no other branch Congress can't say it's illegal--judges can't say this is illegal. I can do anything I want. That is overreaching. When he says that all of the world, all of the United States is a military battlefield because Osama bin Laden says he wants to kill us there, and I can then use the military to go into your homes and kill anyone there who I think is al-Qaeda or drop a rocket, that is overreaching. That is a claim even King George III didn't make at the time of the Revolution.
A few excerpts can't do justice to their respective arguments. Go read the transcripts or watch the video if you can. And then we can all play doctor:
JOHN NICHOLS: You are seeing impeachment as a constitutional crisis. Impeachment is the cure for a constitutional crisis. Don't mistake the medicine for the disease. When you have a constitutional crisis, the founders are very clear. They said there is a way to deal with this. We don't have to have a war. We don't have to raise an army and go to Washington. We have procedures in place where we can sanction a president appropriately, do what needs to be done up to the point of removing him from office and continue the republic. So we're not talking here about taking an ax to government. Quite the opposite. We are talking about applying some necessary strong medicine
The Bush administration is not letting up, slowing down or paring back its overreaching ways. They are only becoming more aggressive and more monarchical. The legacy that will be left, if uncorrected, will serve to greatly undermine the Constitution for generations - if not permanently. Each successive administration will have the precedent of the Bush administration to use as justification and, more importantly, starting point for further infringement. There is only one way to restore balance.

Impeach Bush and Cheney now. Gonzales too. I say that in all seriousness, and after a careful deliberative process that has evolved, perhaps too slowly, over the past few years.

Upon this Tidal Wave of Young Blood

Fester, one of the other insightful bloggers at the Newshogger site (there's a stable), recently crunched the official numbers from Iraq to reveal the sad fact that even the recent downturn in violence in Anbar Province represents only a nominal victory. Unfortunately, the statistics have more impact as talking points than strategic indicators:

The level of violence in Iraq is extraordinarily high and this immense level of violence has provided a skewed reflection of progress when measured against previous levels of violence that were sufficient to bring about complete US and Iraqi government strategic mission failure. I bring this point up because there is the predictable, routine bleating of triumph from the warbloggers that are pointing out the fact that attacks against US forces are down in Anbar Province. So let's look at the tape and pull up the recently submitted report by the Pentagon to Congress.

The relevant page is #23 with the following quote: "Attacks in Anbar have dropped from 35 per day in the previous reporting period to just under 26"...[...]

The official statistics are saying that the 'dramatic' improvement in Anbar Province in reducing attacks per day in the single province to 26 [but 26 attacks per day] is more than the number of attacks per day needed in June 2003 across the entire country to force the fragmentation of primary group loyalties and destroy the ability of a modern state to function. Remember there are eighteen provinces, and going back to the DOD report, there are at least five provinces with the same or greater number of attacks per day on average per province greater than the nation wide number of attacks per day in June, 2003.

Reducing the level of violence by 10% nationwide is a positive step in reducing suffering, but it does nothing to further anything that vaguely resembles a US strategic goal. Reducing the level of violence by 25% is a positive step in reducing suffering, but it does nothing to further anything that vaguely resembles a US strategic goal. Reducing the level of violence by 50% nationwide is a positive step in reducing suffering, but it does nothing to further anything that vaguely resembles a US strategic goal.

To have a chance in hell of accomplishing any US strategic goals, the level of violence in Iraq has to decrease by 80 to 90% to return to the June, 2003 levels. Everything else is, unfortunately, statistical noise within a very negative trend line. [emphasis added]

Which is yet one more argument as to why we must remove all of our troops from Iraq over the course of the next 12-18 months. Even the recent progress from the great redemtive Surge - touted as a paradigm shifting success by the pathologically pollyannish - is little more than statistical blip amidst a series of roiling civil wars/insurgencies. We just don't have the means, resources and leverage to bring the levels of violence far enough down to create stability and progress.

It is a tragedy, yet it is one that we are now essentially powerless to avert. The way we could have avoided it was to, you know, not invade in the first place. Please keep that in mind the next time you hear the distant rumble of the drums of war growing louder.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Christmas Gift Season?

Kevin Drum peruses an editorial in the increasingly hawkish (mindless species) Washington Post and takes the authors to task for "shameless dodgery":

If Pakistani forces cannot — or will not — eliminate the [al-Qaeda] sanctuary, President Bush must order targeted strikes or covert actions by American forces, as he has done several times in recent years. Such actions run the risk of further destabilizing Pakistan. Yet those risks must be weighed against the consequences of another large-scale attack on U.S. soil. "Direct intervention against the sanctuary in Afghanistan apparently must have seemed . . . disproportionate to the threat," the Sept. 11 commission noted. The United States must not repeat that tragic misjudgment.

This is a shameless dodge. "Targeted strikes" and "covert actions" are nice buzzwords, but they won't eliminate or even seriously dent al-Qaeda's sanctuaries in Pakistan and the Post knows it. Only continuous, large-scale strikes and troops on the ground have the slightest chance of doing that. If this is really what the Post supports, they should have the backbone to say so.

Not only would those "targeted strikes" and "covert actions" not achieve the goal of seriously hampering al-Qaeda's capacity to operate in the region, but as Blake Hounshell astutely notes, such tactics would actually prove a boon to al-Qaeda at a time when its image is slipping among the local population:

The Post is reacting to increasingly dire warnings coming from the U.S. intelligence community saying that al Qaeda has reconstituted itself in the federally administered tribal areas of Pakistan. But the benefits of direct U.S. action have to be weighed against the strategic costs. Right now, Pakistani President Musharraf has a mandate to go after extremists: The militants holed up in the Red Mosque called for an Islamic revolution, but the Pakistani public mostly cheered as Musharraf's security forces took them down.

This is why al Qaeda's Ayman al-Zawahiri has repeatedly urged his followers to concentrate on the jihad in Afghanistan and avoid attacks in Pakistan. Zawahiri, who watched his previous organization get destroyed in Egypt during the 1990s, likely understands that the escalating campaign of terrorist bombings in Pakistan will strengthen Musharraf's hand still further. But al Qaeda would enjoy a propaganda bonanza if the U.S. started seriously mucking around in the tribal areas. And then there's the small problem that even the United States likely doesn't have the ability to sneak into the tribal wilds of Pakistan with a compact strike force, kill the bad guys, and make a clean getaway without anyone noticing. This ain't the movies. Better to give the Pakistanis the time to do it themselves. [emphasis added by not praktike]

Which leads me to believe that the Bush administration will be ordering "targeted strikes" and "covert actions" in Pakistan shortly.

Better than a Painted School

You want some honest, realistic good news from Iraq? Here it is (courtesy of the ever-vigilant Cernig):

Seven of the most important Sunni-led insurgent organisations fighting the US occupation in Iraq have agreed to form a public political alliance with the aim of preparing for negotiations in advance of an American withdrawal, their leaders have told the Guardian.

In their first interview with the western media since the US-British invasion of 2003, leaders of three of the insurgent groups - responsible for thousands of attacks against US and Iraqi armed forces and police - made clear that they would continue their armed resistance until all foreign troops were withdrawn from Iraq, and denounced al-Qaida for sectarian killings and suicide bombings against civilians.

Speaking in Damascus, the spokesmen for the three groups - the 1920 Revolution Brigades, Ansar al-Sunna and Iraqi Hamas - said they planned to hold a congress to launch a united front within the next few weeks and appealed to Arab governments, other governments and the UN to help them establish a permanent political presence outside Iraq.

This is good news because it is essential that the Sunni insurgents forge a political presence that can, eventually, lead negotiations on an effective power-sharing arrangement with the rest of Iraq's major factions (think Sinn Fein and the IRA). Further, the exclusion of al-Qaeda type elements is a necessary and constructive step (those espousing al-Qaeda's worldview would not likely be amenable to any negotiated settlement, nor could they be counted on to live up to any should they initially accede).

The best possible outcome here would be for this political front to gather and unite the lion's share of Sunni resistance groups such that it forms as unified and non-factionalized a voice as possible. If the Sunni resistance's political front can speak for, and bind, the vast majority of the armed wing, then effective negotiated settlements will be made more possible. This, despite the fact that even with these conditions satisfied, it is likely that some period of increased conflict may play out regardless before negotiations become attractive enough to the various combatants.

A useful corollary to these political developments would be for the Iraqi government to hold a new round of provincial elections (which is one of those elusive benchmarks). In the last local elections held in January 2005, the Sunni parties boycotted in protest. Thus, many predominately Sunni areas now have Shiite’s in charge of local government. Expanding the Sunni political presence, at the same time that the resistance gains a political voice, would at least set the stage for the curtain call, even if such a resolution remains many bloody acts away.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the good news.

[UPDATE: More analysis from the Aardvark:

These moves by the major insurgency factions over the last several months don't fit well within the preferred American narrative. Their actions are not motivated by the 'surge', but rather by the belief that the US will soon leave. Their hostility to the Islamic State of Iraq/al-Qaeda does not translate into support for the United States or the current Iraqi government. They vow to continue armed struggle until the US forces leave, and to stop the violence when they do. And they have clear demands for changes to the Iraqi political system on behalf of Sunni interests - demands which may be unacceptable to other Iraqis in their current form but at least offer a starting point for real political talks. These factions have been articulating these positions very clearly and consistently for several months now. But they repeatedly seem to be marginalized or discounted because they don't fit the American narrative, in which al-Qaeda is the primary enemy and most Sunnis and insurgency groups are switching to the American side. I really hope that American officials don't really believe their own propaganda and are paying attention to the really significant developments on the Sunni side - because if not, then the political resolution which everyone seems to agree is needed will never be achieved.


Wednesday, July 18, 2007

When the Power Runs Out, We'll Just Hum

Fighting along the Turkish/Kurdish border is escalating.

The Iraqi government said Turkish artillery and warplanes bombarded areas of northern Iraq on Wednesday and called on Turkey to stop military operations and resolve the conflict diplomatically.

The claim occurred amid rising tension and Turkish threats to strike bases of the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK, which has been launching attacks against targets in Turkey from sanctuaries in Iraq.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told The Associated Press that the morning bombardment struck areas of the northern province of Dahuk, some 260 miles northwest of Baghdad.

Col. Hussein Kamal said about 250 shells were fired into Iraq from Turkey. He added that there were no casualties on the Iraqi side of the border.

Keep this in mind when you here proponents of continuing the occupation (or leaving behind a residual force) mention our centrality in staving off regional conflict. As I mentioned in a previous post:

[W]e currently have over 160,000 troops in Iraq, and we have not been able to cool down the recent tensions between Turkey and Kurdistan. A larger conflict is poised to erupt.

Yet one of the rationales given by those who support maintaining a residual force of some 50,000 soldiers in Iraq for several decades is that such a vastly reduced contingent could prevent a larger regional conflict (in addition to performing its training and al-Qaeda hunting duties). Someone has to explain to me how 50,000 troops are going to be able to accomplish these rather prodigious feats when 160,000 appear unable to greatly alter the tragic arc of events.

Still waiting for that explanation.

Also, can we stop talking about Kurdistan as a viable destination for any such ill-advised residual force? We would be putting ourselves in a massive lose-lose situation - stuck, hapless, in the middle of a conflict that would pit a NATO ally against our potential patrons (and part of the country we just "liberated"). If we side with our NATO allies, the Kurds won't be the most hospitable of hosts. Yet if we side with the Kurds, we would alienate a country that is far more essential to a wide range of US interests - beyond its NATO status even.

Neither side would really accept neutrality either, especially inaction from such proximity. This counts moreso for the Turks, who we would be relying on to provide routes of re-supply for our Kurdistan garrisoned troops (already a shaky proposition given Turkey's likely anger at our decision to move north regardless). If not for the Turkish routes, the re-supply would have to run through Iran (uh, not gonna happen), or up through the entire expanse of Iraq (where we would have just left due to the difficulty of occupation).*

Not to mention the fact that our presence would likely inspire the Kurds to overreach in connection with controversial issues like the status of Kirkuk - and even PKK-related activities in Turkey and/or Iran.

Come to think of it, it would be such a colossally bad decision that I fully expect the Bush administration to make it. Kurdistan, here we come.

*Another possible re-supply route would pass through Syria, but under the current state of relations, reaching such an accord would be near impossible. If relations improve, however, it's possible. Big "if" though.

Bet on the Cat Herder

Swopa traces the arc of the yo-yo of Iraqi politics - commenting on the news of Sadr's most recent return to parliament after his most recent boycott, as discussed in this post:

The news was broken first by the Arabic newspaper Azzaman, which put it this way:

The row between Moqtada al-Sadr and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has subsided, thanks to the country’s top Shiite Cleric Ali Sistani.

Sistani, who resides in the Shiite city of Najaf, has mediated a settlement between the Shiite rivals.

This would be more typical of how factional politics in Iraq has gone the past few years. The U.S. pressures Sadr, who balks publicly, and the SIIC and Da'wa parties flirt with forming a new coalition that excludes Sadr and ties them more closely to the Kurds. Then Grand Ayatollah Sistani knocks the various Shiite leaders' heads, says, "C'mon, you knuckleheads, stop arguing and stick together"... which they do, and the barely-United Iraqi Alliance limps forward to its next adventure. [emphasis in original]

True. This cycle will likely be broken some day, but betting against a collapse of the UIA would have made you pretty rich over the past few years. Especially considering all the exaggerated rumors of the UIA's imminent demise, which would have led the bookmakers to offer some pretty sweet odds.

It should be noted that the US has been trying to isolate Sadr from the rest of the Shiite establishment for some time now (breaking up the UIA's stranglehold of the government in the process would no doubt an ancillary goal - the easier to impose US imperatives on a less unified political front). As a result of US efforts, Maliki and his constituent Dawa Party have felt considerable pressure to move decisively against Sadr - which they have only done in fits and spurts, but never going all the way. While Dawa has hesitated, SIIC (formerly SCIRI) has been far more receptive to such schemes, which is no surprise considering the frequently fierce competition between SIIC and Sadr's cadres in the South.

Sistani, though, has been adamantly opposed to such a break with Sadr which he rightly realizes would dilute Shiite power and political domination. In addition to wrecking the political unity that Sistani himself set in motion with the UIA slate, alienating Sadr would also cost the Shiites a very potent enforcer/deterrent just in case of a schism with occupation forces.

Despite the other persistent exaggerated rumor - that of Sistani's demise as a political force - it is Sistani who continuously prevails over the dictates of the US, and the temptations of SIIC. That's impressive.

Thus, betting against Sistani would have also been a losing proposition. Thus far at least. For now, though, I'd let it ride on the Grand Ayatollah.

Slamming a Dog's Body on the Ground Until Dead

Jim Henley's right. Michael Vick can go to hell. Seriously.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Look Who's Back....Again

It appears that - yet again - the UIA was able to avert an internal fragmentation as the bloc of legislators headed by Moqtada al-Sadr returned to Parliament today. If you recall, this is the second time Sadr has split with the Iraqi government in a noisy public display. It is also the second time he has come back. Each time the reaction to the schism was exaggerated.

Despite the tense back and forth between Maliki and Sadr that played out in a war of words over the past couple of weeks (to go along with increased fighting between the Mahdi Army on one side and SIIC/Iraqi government troops and US forces on the other), Sadr's Current and Maliki's government have been making nice in recent days.

In other news, Al-Hayat reported on the developments of the latest feud between Prime Minister al-Maliki and the Sadrist Current. According to the paper, Sadrist officials had claimed that al-Maliki “submitted an apology (to the Current), admitting that his statements (against the Sadrist Current) were erroneous.” As a result, Sadrists continued, their organization is preparing to end its boycott of the parliament.

Shortly afterwards, a Maliki advisor denied to the media that the Prime Minister had apologized to the Current. In any case, al-Hayat predicted, the Sadrists may return soon to the floor of the parliament, the decision was made –on principle – the paper said, after an “important” meeting in Basra joining the high cadres of the organization.

While Maliki denies that he issued the apology (most likely to placate the Bush administration), there have been other indications that the suspended alliance has resumed in earnest.

One of al-Maliki's close advisers, Shiite lawmaker Hassan al-Suneid, bristled over the American pressure, telling The Associated Press that "the situation looks as if it is an experiment in an American laboratory (judging) whether we succeed or fail."

He sharply criticized the U.S. military, saying it was committing human rights violations and embarrassing the Iraqi government through such tactics as building a wall around Baghdad's Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah and launching repeated raids on suspected Shiite militiamen in the capital's slum of Sadr City.

He also criticized U.S. overtures to Sunni groups in Anbar and Diyala provinces, encouraging former insurgents to join the fight against al-Qaida in Iraq. "These are gangs of killers," he said. [emphasis added]

Once again, Sadr's brief, self-imposed Parliamentary exile has served the dual purpose of clarifying the stakes for all parties involved, and buttressing Sadr's anti-government bona fides (a nice reputation to be augmenting when the government in question is so unpopular - especially when you also get to participate in and reap the spoils of said government). With the US forces pursuing a new strategy of arming Sunni militants, it is understandable that the Shiite bloc is reconsidering the extent to which it wants to alienate and target Sadr and his rather sizable militia.

Sadr, for his part, will likely seek a bounty for his cooperation - along with some level of agreement on the cessation of the violence targeting his cadres. Hence, the reference by Maliki's aide to the human rights violations being committed pursuant to raids on Sadr's stronghold.

The underlying symbiotic dynamic between the various Shiite players is why I generally don't get too excited about rumors of Sadr forming alternative political blocs with Sunni ex-Baathists and Allawi, or of Maliki and the rest of the UIA forming their own alternative blocs that exclude Sadr. The UIA needs Sadr, and Sadr needs the UIA. Even if they each try to occasionally outmaneuver the other, gain leverage and then deploy countermeasures. Even if they might eventually war with each other for contested power and wealth.

Fighting such an internecine battle now would be premature and self-destructive, and the recent US turn toward the Sunnis has made Sadr more valuable than ever. As Swopa noted:

If the American military is willing to battle Sunni guerrillas and help arm a Shiite-dominated military/police force, then the Shiite government is amenable to us hanging around. If we're going after Shiite militias and giving guns and money to Sunni tribal militias (including insurgents), then it's not surprising that they're a lot less enthusiastic.

As always, the continuing Shiite alliance is contingent on SIIC and other Shiite elements abstaining from overreaching vis-a-vis Sadr in their rivalry for the oil and shrine riches in the south of Iraq. The US is pushing for greater confrontation, but when push comes to shove, the Shiites will look after their own interests, and not ours. At least when the two don't line up.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The .7% Doctrine

Juan Cole relieves me of my blogging duties with respect to the recent reports breaking down the nationalities of foreign fighters detained in Iraq by US forces.
Ned Parker of the LA Times reports that of 19,000 "insurgents" held by the US military in Iraq, only 135 are foreigners.

Think about that when you hear Bush say that the US is fighting "al-Qaeda" in Iraq or that "al-Qaeda" would take over Iraq if the US left. The foreigners just are not that important to the guerrilla war. Only .7% of detainees are foreigners, and unless they run faster than Iraqis, that is likely their percentage share in the "insurgency," too.

The US is fighting Iraqis in Iraq, who are nationalists of various stripes, whether religious or secular. They are Sunni. They haven't given fealty to Bin Laden and are not "al-Qaeda."

So you'd think after all the ink spilled on Iranian and Hizbullah contributions to the troubles in Iraq, that they'd be prominent among the foreign fighters, right? Wrong. It is not clear that the US has any Iranians at all in custody. There was a big deal made at the NYT about one Lebanese Hizbullah guy who may have been a freelancer.

So if they aren't from Iran, where are they from? Saudi Arabia--- 45%! Only 15% are from "Syria and Lebanon," and I'll bet you that all but one of those are Sunni. 10% are from North Africa, which is only about 14 guys. North Africa is Sunni. [...]

Foreign "al-Qaeda" is almost irrelevant to [the insurgency]. Iran is entirely trivial to it. The Baathist, Allawi-dominated Syrian government is trivial to it. The Lebanese Hizbullah may not be involved at all, as an organization. Certainly it is not involved in any significant way.

Which country is providing a lot of foreign suicide bombers? US ally Saudi Arabia. Has any general or Bush administration official called a press conference to denounce Saudi Arabia? No. Has Joe Lieberman threatened it with a war? No. Everything is being blamed on Iran because powerful American special interests want to get Iran, regardless of the facts.

There isn't any significant cadre of foreign "al-Qaeda" fighters in Iraq if this is all we could capture. They can't take over the country because they are such a tiny group. Everything Bush and Cheney have said about the nature of the war and the supposed dangers of a US withdrawal is transparent falsehood.

One thing to add, which Cole references today in a follow up post discussing the breakdown of foreign fighters held by the Iraqi Interior of Ministry - not US forces (upshot: there are more Egyptians and Sudanese, less Saudis detained by the Iraqis).

Although [the Iraqis] briefly detained some 461 Iranians, they let all of them go. Presumably these were pilgrims to the Shiite shrines who for one reason or another fell under suspicion.

Perhaps they were pilgrims, but perhaps not. It should matter little in terms of our overall outlook regarding our continued involvement in Iraq (and possible actions vis-a-vis Iran). Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that some or all of those 461 Iranians briefly detained by the Iraqi government were in fact agents of Iran assisting Shiite elements in Iraq. That is by no means an outlandish notion.

Even assuming the validity of that premise, though, the insurgency itself is still a domestic, almost entirely Sunni phenomenon. The Iranians weren't in the country to assist the Sunni insurgents, and if they were, why would the Iraqi government targeted by those same Sunni insurgents release their Iranian adversaries? Which brings me to the second, and perhaps more important point: the Iraqi government let them go! All of them.

Thus, even if we assume that Iran is sending over agents into Iraq (they are), there is very little evidence that these agents are participating in the Sunni insurgency (which has resulted in the vast majority of US casualties). Further, the Iranian presence would be at the behest - or at least with the blessing - of the Iraqi government that our soldiers are fighting and dying to protect and empower.

To the extent that we have an issue with Iran's presence and influence in Iraq, we have an issue with the same Iraqi government whose military we're arming, training and defending at mind-boggling costs across a wide variety of categories.

A Day Late, and 98 Cents Short

Alright, I may be a bit late to the David Wiegel/James Kirchick back and forth, but I have two cents to throw into the kitty regardless.

Kirchick takes aim at Wiegel and Yglesias for claiming that Joe Lieberman is a warmonger, and that Lieberman's recent Iran-bashing amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill (which passed 97-0 in the Senate) and related media blitz were part of a campaign to push this country closer to war with Iran.

But then, Kirchick closes his post with this:

The near-unanimous support for [the Lieberman] amendment brings to mind the unanimous support for the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act. That act stated that "It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime." Whatever one thinks about the wisdom of the Iraq war, keep in mind that regime change in Iraq was the official, bipartisan policy of the United States government years before it became fashionable for journalists to write tiresome, 5,000-word articles linking Ahmed Chalabi, PNAC and Paul Wolfowitz.

First of all, "regime change" was the desired outcome. There were, however, considerable differences in the actual policies that were adopted (and could be adopted) to achieve regime change. President Clinton, despite the passage of the Iraq Liberation Act ("ILA") and the impassioned please from the PNAC crowd (many of whom later formed the backbone of the Bush administration), opted not to invade Iraq to achieve regime change. See, also, USSR (former).

In fact (as pointed out by one of Matt Y's commenters), the ILA specifically rules out the use of military options (other than providing arms and training to dissident groups):


Nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize or otherwise speak to the use of United States Armed carrying out this Act.

Thus, claiming that the ILA gave "official, bipartisan" cover for the Iraq war is disingenuous. Sadly, that bipartisan cover came somewhat later - albeit with less consensus - via the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002. The AUMF passed by a margin of 296-133 in the House (86 Democrats voted for the bill, 126 against) and 77-23 in the Senate (29 Democrats in favor, 23 opposed).

Despite Kirchick's dubious grasp of the historical record, though, he has a point that the ILA (in conjunction with continued air strikes in Iraq) helped to set the bellicose tone (or maintain it's background drone), and chart a course that made war with Iraq more likely - a war that has turned out to be an unmitigated disaster.

However, if Kirchick is trying to throw off the scent of Lieberman et al as "warmongers" vis-a-vis Iran, this is a curious way to go about it. Pointing to the similarities between the ILA (which greased the skids for the eventual Iraq war) and Lieberman's Iran-focused amendment shouldn't put any minds at ease. Quite the contrary. It should serve as a warning to us all that those clamoring for more and wider war are seeking to lay a legislative groundwork that will facilitate the next foray - just as the ILA preceded and assisted the last.

Which is one of the points that Wiegel and Yglesias were trying to make when Kirchick decided to jump into the fray and, oddly, help prove their point.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

I Sit at My Table and Wage War on Myself

The likes of David Ignatius suggest that even if we begin withdrawing troops from Iraq, we should leave behind a large residual force that would, among other tasks, continue to train Iraqi security forces. Here's a brief snapshot about how productive an exercise that's turning out to be (via the artist formerly known as praktike):

A previously undisclosed Army investigation into an audacious January attack in Karbala that killed five U.S. soldiers concludes that Iraqi police working alongside American troops colluded with insurgents.[...]

The U.S. "defense hinged on a level of trust that … early warning and defense would be provided by the Karbala Iraqi police. This trust was violated," the report dated Feb. 27 says.

The information is contained in an investigative file made available to USA TODAY and authenticated by the Army.

The attack has drawn special scrutiny from Pentagon officials because of the unprecedented breach of security and the insurgents' tactics.

The investigation reveals several new details about the assault, including:

•Iraqi police suddenly vanished from the government compound before the shooting started.

•Attackers, evidently briefed on how U.S. forces would defend themselves, bottled up more than three dozen soldiers in a barracks and headquarters complex using a combination of smoke and fragment grenades and satchel charges to blow up Humvees.

•Gunmen knew exactly where to find and abduct U.S. officers.

•Iraqi vendors operating a PX and barbershop went home early.

•A back gate was left unlocked and unguarded.

The article goes on to mention speculation that elements of the Iranian Quds force collaborated with the Iraqi security forces in question. Ultimately, though, it matters little. The operative fact is that the Iraqi security forces that we are expending lives and money training are willing to turn against us in large numbers when the opportunity presents itself.

This isn't the first such incident, nor will it be the last. Tragically. The levels of infiltration and split allegiances are endemic and unavoidable.

Does someone want to explain to me, then, why we should leave behind a residual training force to train security forces of dubious loyalty and reliance? - a training force that would then require an even larger support and force protection contingent that would all prove attractive targets for our putative allies and obvious enemies alike.

File Under: A COIN Toss for Hearts and Minds

From IraqSlogger:

In an apparent bid to apply pressure on Mahdi Army fighters, US forces have completely cut off electricity to the Baghdad district of Kadhimiya, al-Melaf reports in Arabic on Wednesday.

The measures are an attempt to pressure the residents of the district to expel members of the Mahdi Army in Kadhimiya and to turn them over to US forces, al-Melaf writes.

A few thoughts. First, aren't we supposed to be shifting to counterinsurgency tactics en masse. Does this type of collective punishment fit in to COIN doctrine? Regardless, I'm very skeptical of the efficacy of collective punishment in this context (any context really, but this one in particular). Consider the fact that most Iraqis outside of Kurdistan want US forces to leave, think US forces are increasing the levels of violence and instability and support attacks on US forces. On the flip-side, the Mahdi Army, and its putative leader Moqtada al-Sadr, enjoy very favorable popularity ratings.

Against that backdrop, we're going to cut the power off for an entire neighborhood in the middle of July (rumor has it, the heat might make the residents a wee bit uncomfortable) - banking on the fact that the locals will decide that the Mahdi Army is to blame for their hardships. Let me repeat that: they're supposed to side with us, and risk harm by "expelling" Mahdi Army members, because we cut off their power. Because they were already so disposed to viewing our soldiers in a positive light. This will surely help.

Did I mention this:

The Mahdi Army has assumed much of the security responsibility for the Kadhimiya district...
On the other hand, George Bush is rather insistent that we're a good country, and surely many Iraqis will be swayed by his determination, so this one's a COIN toss.

The Trojan Dromedary

David Ignatius nervously checks his watch, waiting on a train that left the station about 12 months ago, and assures the reader that it's coming round the bend:

Leaders on both sides endorse the broad strategy proposed in December by the Iraq Study Group: a gradual withdrawal that shifts the American mission to training, force protection, counterterrorism and border security.

I've already rebutted the notion (here and here) that a vastly reduced force could accomplish the broad and troop-intensive objectives of training, counterterrorism and border security as spelled out in the new, old plan (as well as the strategic flaws in pursuing each from an in-country position). Further, we shouldn't be "training" civil war combatants in the first place - so please, can we cross that one off the list permanently?

Jim Henley, to his credit, takes aim at the curious mission sticking out like a sore thumb in the middle of the other fingers of intervention:

But you’ve got to love the idea of “force protection” as a main mission. The US military could stay in Iraq for the purpose of trying to keep its members from being killed for being in Iraq. There’s a stirring cause. I know a much more effective “force protection” plan, which I call “get the hell out.”

This is what they’re down to: inertia. The “bipartisan” compromise the Ignatiuses of the world envision is that we stay in Iraq so that we can stay in Iraq. Because if we pulled out of Iraq, well, we wouldn’t be there any more.

By the way, that neat little "force protection" requirement would necessitate a relatively large troop presence even if we started paring down our list of missions for the residual force to carry out (and each such paring would further call into question the purpose of keeping troops there in the first place). For those reasons, and the reasons set forth in the prior posts linked above, the Suzanne Nossel/Charles Kupchan proposal calling for a residual force of 20,000 troops to "focus on containing al Qaeda's ability to carry out terror attacks and assisting with socio-economic reconstruction and humanitarian efforts in more peaceful parts of Iraq" is fatally flawed. [ed note: I prefer the Lawrence Korb plan from the same piece].

How could we accomplish those feats, and re-supply and protect the forces tasked with accomplishing those feats, with a mere 20,000 troops? Each such proposal is a camel's nose nuzzling under the edge of the tent. If you let the nose in, the body will follow.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

We're Still Winning!

Rich Lowry, who back in May of 2005 brought us this memorable cover - and cover story - about how "We're Winning" in Iraq, is back with a bag full of crackers for pollyanna and the Bush administration parrots:

The surge has succeeded in reducing sectarian killings in Baghdad and civilian casualties overall, but at the cost of increased U.S. casualties and without the Iraqi legislative accomplishments that were established as “political benchmarks.” Those benchmarks shouldn’t be fetishized. The reason that they were considered so important is that they were thought necessary to entice Sunnis away from the insurgency. Instead, the Sunnis have swung our way anyway, in reaction to al Qaeda brutality and to our strength.

By any measure, this is significant political progress — so significant, in fact, that no one even considered making it a “benchmark” at the beginning of the year. [emphasis added]

Here, Lowry gets the overall strategy considerably jumbled.

The "benchmarks" - to use his shorthand - are "considered so important" because they represent political concessions that could, potentially, woo Sunnis away from the civil wars and insurgencies that are rendering Iraq a failed state. They are supposed to offer a vehicle for political reconciliation that will bring combatants into the political process and away from violence, and help to forge a tripartite modus vivendi between the Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites. Without such a political reconciliation, there is no hope for any "victory" in Iraq. General Petraeus has said as much repeatedly.

However, instead of discussing The Surge (and associated political developments) using these criteria, Lowry focuses on how certain Sunni insurgent groups have "swung our way" - meaning they have been willing to work with us in targeting our mutual enemy: those groups that identify themselves using the "al-Qaeda" franchise.

The problem is - and this is why this development does not represent "significant political progress" - that the same Sunni groups that are willing to work with us to go after al-Qaeda are still committed to waging war against the current Shiite/Kurdish dominated government, and to eventually rejoining the fight to eject us from Iraq. They are partaking in a temporary marriage of convenience with us, but the alliance is not a lasting one, and it does not accomplish the goal of bringing the various Iraqi factions together.

Lowry goes on:

The U.S. political argument over benchmarks is shot through with bad faith anyway. Would the advocates of retreat really have a different position if the Iraqi parliament had managed to pass an oil-revenue-sharing law already? Unlikely.

That depends. The current petroleum law being discussed is bitterly opposed by the Sunnis. So, if it were passed over unified Sunni objections, no, that wouldn't help the political reconciliation process. Passing laws that Sunnis vehemently oppose won't encourage them to opt for the political process over the military one, but rather push them further into armed resistance.

Along these lines, the various benchmarks should not be viewed as course-changing phenomena on their own. There is no magical, intrinsic quality that makes their enactment redemptive. The only worth of the various benchmarks is in their ability to deliver the desired end-game of a peaceful modus vivendi.

Now, if the political benchmarks can be implemented and the implementation can lead Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds to forge a political bond and cease fighting, then at least this advocate of withdrawal would have a different position (assuming our continued presence would be required after such a political resolution, which is not entirely clear).

Those are two enormous "ifs," though, and neither has a very good chance of breaking the right way, let alone both. Faced with those prospects, it's no surprise that Lowry would rather talk about some unrelated event that has actually occurred, and pretend that the deus just exed from the machina.

(via this somewhat popular guy)

So, Like, Therefore I Am

Both Cernig and Fester over at Newshoggers were sharing a bottle of TIA label 151, and in their drunken stupor saw fit to tag this blog with a "Thinking Blogger Award." I appreciate the gesture, even if they're both suffering from morning after regrets.

In addition to spending the prize money, and making a series of public appearances across New Jersey the country, my duties include selecting five other bloggers to infect with this meme. There are really too many to choose from, and I'll try to leave some of the bigger guns off the list because, well, they don't need the money or the publicity (Matt Y, Kevin D, Josh M, Laura R, Blake H, blue and orange satans, etc). So if I don't mention you, it's only because you're so rich and famous already (or, like the gang at LGM, have already been tagged six times with this one - showoffs).

First up would be Swopa at Needlenose. The original recipient of the "-damus" suffix for his predictive abilities, his play-by-play on Iraq has been non-stop illumination. Some have critiqued him for being cynical and lacking in moral judgment, but it is precisely the lack of sentimentality and cheerleaderism that allows him to call them as he sees them. Which he does quite well.

Next I'll go for a bank shot since they both share the same masthead: Hilzoy and Publius at Obsidian Wings. Two of my favorite writers in the 'sphere - who both share the ability to breakdown complex concepts into plain language and imagery (even for those of us who pretend that we don't need such layman speak). When they're on (which is quite frequently), it's a pleasure to read [Notwithstanding Publius' utter lack of taste in music].

In the interest of diversity (sort of), I'm going to select my favorite libertarian in the whole wide world of blogs: Jim Henley. His blog is a daily read, and his perspective is one of the more thoughtful and intelligent that I've come across. When he's cooking, his posts are like food for the brain (with an eclectic menu that spans from Hayek to the X-Men to Elvis Costello). Unqualified Offerings is also a nice portal/filter for some of the finer libertarian contributions in the 'sphere for those of us that don't have a million hours to peruse everything [Having Mona as a contributor is always a serious plus - so consider this a second bank shot].

More diversity (hey, I'm a multi-culti liberal, what did you expect). My favorite conservative and one time blog host Greg Djerejian still offers the best right of center fare around. Although work, marriage and a newborn have selfishly taken Greg away from his blog for extended periods, when he has the time, he's always worth the read.

Last but not least, I'm going with The Editors. No one makes me laugh harder or more frequently. The brilliance, though, is in the underlying commentary. Being that funny about the world of politics ain't easy, and it requires a depth of knowledge and penetrating insight. Also, a solid grasp of photoshop (see, ie, Broderella) and a generous application of the Fiend Folio.

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