Friday, July 27, 2007

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

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