Friday, December 28, 2007

Singing Hallelujah with the Fear in Your Heart

You know if Justin Logan would post more frequently, I would be in the habit of checking his blog more regularly, and then I could avoid mishaps like missing his link to this high-quality Fareed Zakaria offering [yes, I could just check in with Fareed more often, but blogtopia uber alles and all that]. So just in case you missed Justin and/or Zakaria, here is some trenchant election year analysis - if a few weeks tardy:

For the past few years, America has been alienated from the world. We have all read the yearly polls with the same damning numbers. But on one issue, the United States and the world agree: majorities everywhere expect things to improve markedly after George W. Bush. Whether it's in Europe or Asia, the refrain from politicians, businessmen and intellectuals is the same. "We don't hate America," one of them told me recently. "We hate Bush. When he's gone, it will be a new day."

But will it? The question will be put to the test in a year, when a new president enters the White House. [...]

Ever since the attacks [of 9/11], the United States has felt threatened and under siege and determined to carve out maximum room to maneuver. But where Americans have seen defensive behavior, the rest of the world has looked on and seen the most powerful nation in human history acting like a caged animal, lashing out at any and every constraint on its actions.

At the heart of this behavior is fear. Americans have become scared of the new world that is emerging around them. As long as this atmosphere of fear envelops U.S. politics, it will surely produce very similar results abroad. Washington's real task, therefore, is to combat such unthinking emotion.

Yet the opposite is happening. Republicans are falling over each other to paint an atmosphere of dire threat that requires strong, even brutish action to protect the American people. Democrats, while far less guilty of fearmongering, have been afraid to combat this hysteria.

Consider the top GOP candidates to replace Bush. On the campaign trail, Rudolph Giuliani endlessly repeats his mantra that "we are facing an enemy that is planning all over this world … to come here and kill us." Mitt Romney has explained that while "some people have said we ought to close Guant?namo, my view is we ought to double [the size of] Guantanamo." And John McCain sometimes sounds cavalier about bombing Iran—despite the fact that, if it happened, it would be the third U.S. war against a Muslim country in seven years.

The notion that the United States today is in grave danger of sitting back and going on the defensive is bizarre. Since 2001, Washington, with bipartisan support, has invaded two countries and dispatched troops around the world, from Somalia to the Philippines, to fight Islamic militants. It has ramped up defense spending by $187 billion—more than the combined military budgets of China, Russia, India and Britain. It has created a Department of Homeland Security that now spends more than $40 billion a year. How then would Giuliani go on the offensive? Invade a couple more countries?

Let's hope we don't ever learn the answer to that.

When You Miss the Forest for the Trees, It Makes A Sound

Blake Hounshell rightly suggests that a larger strategic vision is required in the realm of foreign policy in general, and vis-a-vis Pakistan in the present example. What is needed is a framework that appreciates underlying structures, institutions and popular will which would replace the solipsistic, ad hoc, Great Person-type approach undertaken by the Bush team and far too many many predecessor administrations:

In the wake of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, many will want the United States to rush back into the arms of the one known quantity in Pakistan: reliable strongman Pervez Musharraf. It's an understandable temptation—but a dangerous one. As the dust settles, America must be careful to keep its distance from the general, and stand for democracy.

With the country crumbling before our eyes, calling for Pakistani democracy may sound like a roll of the dice...Wouldn't it be safer just to let Pakistan's strongman keep the lid on? After all, we're talking about an Islamic state armed with nuclear weapons.

In fact, Musharraf's autocratic rule is a major part of the problem. For a man who styles himself as a bulwark against extremists, the results have been paltry indeed. The increasingly unpopular general has gone after lawyers and judges with seemingly more gusto than he has against the Taliban and al Qaeda. On Musharraf's watch, al Qaeda has rebuilt its terrorist redoubts in the tribal areas and the Taliban is resurgent on both sides of the Afghan border. Musharraf has become less popular in Pakistan than Osama bin Laden, according to one recent poll. Some bulwark. [...]

The question of who should rule Pakistan, however, was never about just one woman. Nor should it be about one man. Investing U.S. hopes in a single leader who tells us what we want to hear is shortsighted, even risky. It's a mistake the United States has made far too often in its history, most tragically in Iran under the Shah. Instead of hitching its star to any particular individual, America should support the Pakistani people's right to elect their own leaders and hold those leaders—rather than us—accountable if they fail. [...]

Though holding them as scheduled on January 8 would be divisive, free and fair elections will eventually be less risky than many people fear. But continuing to let Pakistan slide into chaos under Pervez Musharraf? That may be the most risky strategy of all. [emphasis added]

It would be remarkable if the Bush administration could actually bring itself to support democracy, even when the electoral process results in the ascension of parties/individuals that are not on the wish list. But that's the true test isn't it. Only supporting democracy when elections yield the preferred outcome is tempting, but it's also a sure-fire way to completely undermine one's credibility as a democrat. See, ie, Hamas.

Further, heavy-handed interference in support of candidates, elected officials and autocrats corrupts the integrity of the process and creates a dynamic whereby our nation becomes synonymous with the applicable agent - for better, though most likely, for worse. As with Musharraf.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

If You Fall, I Will Catch You

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's political fortunes are in peril in Iran:

A sharp rise in inflation has provoked fierce criticism of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — not only from his reformist opponents, but also from senior conservatives who helped bring him to power but now say he is mismanaging the economy.

Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005 on a populist agenda promising to bring oil revenues to every family, eradicate poverty, improve living standards and tackle unemployment. Now he is being challenged for his failure to meet those promises.

Reformists and even some fellow conservatives say Ahmadinejad has concentrated too much on fiery, anti-U.S. speeches and not enough on the economy — and they have become more aggressive in calling him to account.

In a rare gesture, Ahmadinejad admitted last week that inflation existed but blamed it on his predecessors, the conservative-dominated parliament, state-run media and bank managers who misused their power and printed too many bank notes.

"Inflation has its roots in the past," Ahmadinejad said in a televised speech.

His comments were denounced from all sides, with economists and some fellow conservatives saying it is his policies that have led to higher prices. [...]

Even one prominent Ahmadinejad ally, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, reversed his usual strong support for the government and acknowledged that the president has made mistakes. Bahonar, a top behind-the-scenes hard-liner, is believed to have been a key engineer of the election campaign that brought Ahmadinejad to power.

Imagine how low A-Jad's stock would be if the Bush administration hadn't been playing the part of the useful, if unwitting, accomplice in terms of matching base-rallying bluster with base-rallying bluster. It is no secret that A-Jad profits politically from his confrontational style when it is mirrored by Bush administration officials. Sadly, the Bush administration has failed to grasp the wisdom of simply letting go of its end of the rhetorical tug-of-war rope - as Thomas Barnett urged, rather emphatically, more than two years ago.

Given the current electoral calendar in Iran:

The growing discontent comes less than three months ahead of crucial parliamentary elections slated for March 14.

Does anyone doubt that A-Jad will go to the well one more time? The only question is, will the Bush administration fill the bucket?


Publius speaks, you listen. When he's on a roll, it's really a pleasure to read. Nothing to add other than the recommendation.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

How's It Going 2000 Men?

Appropos of nothing in particular, I found this bit about the increasingly wired Grand Ayatolllah Ali al-Sistani to be interesting:

Sistani leads one of the most advanced transnational networks in the region through the digital information superhighway…By spreading his network via the Internet and acquiring increasing amounts of wealth Sistani has become a powerful figure who can bring the Shi‘is closer together across the greater Middle East.

Since 2003, [Sistani’s organization] in Najaf has opened educational (including libraries and publication centers) and information technological facilities in cities like Basra, Karbala, Kufa, Kut, and Samarra. These facilities not only provide books and Internet service, but also offer teaching facilities, where ordinary Iraqis are instructed on religious and even secular matters, including how to browse the Internet for educational purposes. Although for security reasons the centers are still relatively small, Iraqis can also seek the religious advice and the financial support of Sistani’s charitable organization at the centers.

…The Center of Professional Services at Najaf provides training in computer sciences and organizes community competitions for both male and female youth on religious and scientific topics. Besides its community functions, the Global Center of Aalbayaat in Najaf provides intensive computer training services for seminary students and Najaf residents, as well as cyberconferences on religious topics, allowing the students to interact with seminary students from countries ranging from Iran to the United States. A number of Internet centers have been established in cities such as Karbala, Kadhamayn, and Basra.

The Internet has increased the size and the prestige of Sistani’s social organization worldwide. Despite objections by a number of high-ranking clerics in Qom about the possibility of spreading vice through the Internet, Sistani was the first marja‘ to take advantage of cyberspace. Sistani approved the establishment of an Internet center in Qom in 1996 after his son-in-law, Shahrestani, introduced the idea to him, and the center has since been the host domain of a number of religious institutions and clerical websites based in Iran. According to one of his aides in Qom, Sistani and his son-in-law believed the Internet was a way to reach out to Sistani’s millions of followers in an age of globalization. They saw no vice in the new technology but only the ability to spread the cause of Shi‘ism. They saw Islam as the heart of science and the Internet as its capillary.

The Aalulbayat Global Information and Media Center is the most popular computer center in Qom. The center provides one of the most significant and well-known religious websites in the Shi‘i community (, and is the hub for websites dedicated to spreading the word of more than fifty high-ranking clerics, including Ayatollah Ali Khameini, the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic. Sistani’s personal website,, offers the faithful information ranging from news articles about Sistani to answers to practical questions of a religious nature. In fact, in a small office on the first floor of the center, Sistani receives more than 1,000 questions a day concerning issues ranging from personal piety to politics. Most of the questions are forwarded to Najaf, where Sistani replies and his representatives forward the answers back to Qom; the rest are answered by clerics who are personally approved by Sistani at his center in Qom. [emphasis added]

Yeah, but does he blog? What to make of this crop of aspiring Shiite political/religious leaders: Moqtada al-Sadr is allegedly a recovering video game addict, and the venerable Sistani is a pioneer in the use of the Internet to bring the diasporic Shiite community closer together. Kids these days.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Now Is the Time for Your Friendship to End?

Matt Duss wrote yesterday of some of the less publicized - though extremely important - blowback from the Iraq war:

Negar Azimi explains how, rather than continuing to pressure Egypt on human rights and democratic reform, the Bush administration has reverted to supporting Hosni Mubarak's dictatorship, treating it as an ally in the "war on terror" and a bulwark against the growing Iranian and Islamist influence which has resulted from the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Isn't that wonderful? By agreeing to be a recipient of extraordinary rendition detainees, you too can get the heat off your authoritarian regime.

There's no overstating how deeply dispiriting this sort of thing is to Arab political reformers, or how strongly it confirms al-Qaeda propaganda about American methods and intentions in the Middle East. Ayman al-Zawahiri was himself radicalized [ed note: a link to Chez Nadezhda!] by the torture he endured in Mubarak's prisons, and now, after a head fake in the direction of political reform, the U.S. is back to underwriting that torture. Ring, freedom, ring.

Actually, it is US support for these regimes that, in many ways, led al-Qaeda to attack the US in the first place. al-Qaeda's central mission is to overthrow the "apostate" totalitarian regimes in the region (such as Egypt, which is Zawahiri's white whale of sorts) and replace them with a puritanical Muslim caliphate spanning from Indonesia to southern Spain. al-Qaeda determined, however, that it could not overthrow these regimes while they were being propped up by the US government. Thus, the plan was to bloody our nose sufficiently enough (9/11) so that we would either: cut off our support and withdraw from the region - leaving the ruling regimes vulnerable and ripe for usurpation, or overreact in such a way that would drain us of the resources and/or regional leverage needed to continue to provide the vital backing (we didn't go for the former, but Bush's misadventure in Iraq has steered us dangerously close to the latter).

The skewed priorities that lead us to support these regimes with stifled criticisms (from lucrative oil arrangments to cooperation with the torture and indefinite detention of detainees) despite their brutal and undemocratic impulses badly impacts our image in the region (above and beyond al-Qaeda's specific strategy). Matt Yglesias illustrates the dynamic by pointing out how Putin's own support for certain undemocratic yet friendly political forces in neighboring states like Georgia and Ukraine impact Russia's image:

It's widely understood, for example, that insofar as Vladimir Putin backs unpopular undemocratic pro-Russian leaders in the "near abroad" this is likely to make Russia even less popular in Russia-skeptical elements of the population of those countries. The analog of this, that staunch American support for unpopular undemocratic pro-American leaders in the Gulf and in Egypt is a significant source of anti-American sentiment is, by contrast, completely absent from the national conversation.

Going back to the Dussian concept of the "free passes," this report (warning pdf) on the identities of foreign fighters in Iraq compiled by West Point's Combating Terrorism Center provides evidence for what has been obvious for some time: most of the foreign fighters in Iraq hail from the environs of our close friend and ally, Saudi Arabia (41% in fact). Yet, oddly enough (or not), rarely, if ever, is Saudi Arabia mentioned when the Bush administration publicly chastises those of Iraq's neighbors that are said to be interfering in Iraq to deleterious effect. That is usually a list of two: Iran and Syria, or Syran as the neo-kids like to say. I wonder at the explanation for this selective opprobrium.

Contrary to the stridency of the post title, however, I do not believe that the US should completely sever ties to the regimes in question, but we should be doing much more to pressure them to make democratic reforms and provide breathing space so that those nations' nascent and struggling civil societies can grow. At the very least, we should not be backsliding in the ways that the piece cited by Matt Duss describes. In terms of using our leverage more productively, Shadi Hamid and Stephen McInerney give us a good place to start.

(hat tip to Lorelei Kelly for the West Point link)

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Wile E. Mookie

Cernig over at NewsHoggers has a good post up about Moqtada al-Sadr's recent hinting at a decision to extend the cease-fire he imposed on his militia, and what this could mean for Sadr and the Iraqi political scene in general. In Cernig's post, he links to Captain Ed's take on the subject, in which Ed wonders aloud:

For that matter, what do his followers gain [by the cease-fire extension]? When Sadr fled the country, people expected them to drop out in confusion and disgust, but that didn’t happen.

Actually Ed, only some people expected that. The same people that have made a habit of expecting Sadr's impending demise to lurk behind every new development in Iraq. But the Cap'n deserves some credit. He now admits that Sadr has been a "wily" adversary. Also: not dead yet. See, progress. Beep beep.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Our House, In the Middle of Whose Street?

While the passage of an equitable oil revenue sharing law, the reining in of rogue militias and the softening of de-Baathification laws tend to get top billing when discussing obstacles to reconciliation in Iraq, there is another more mundane, if equally indispensable, crisis in need of resolution: the resettlement of over 4 million of Iraq's displaced citizens. This Karen DeYoung article from a few days back does a good job of laying out the parameters of the problem:

When the Iraqi government last month invited home the 1.4 million refugees who had fled this war-ravaged country for Syria -- and said it would send buses to pick them up -- the United Nations and the U.S. military reacted with horror. [...]

"It's a problem that everybody can grasp," said a senior U.S. diplomat here. "You move back to the house that you left and find that somebody else has moved into the house, maybe because they've been displaced from someplace else. And it's even more difficult than that, because in many cases the local militias . . . have seized control and threw out anybody in that neighborhood they didn't like."

The vast population upheaval resulting from Iraq's sectarian conflict has left the country with yet another looming crisis. At least one of every six Iraqis -- about 4.5 million people -- has left home, some for other parts of Iraq, others for neighboring nations. [...]

The question of how to deal with them is posing a complex new challenge for Iraq's government, as well as for U.S. military commanders, diplomats and international aid workers here. U.S. and U.N. officials have been pushing Iraqi leaders to develop programs and policies aimed at addressing the vexing problems associated with returning refugees.

"It's very easy to say, 'Come home,' " said Guy Siri, the U.N. deputy humanitarian coordinator in Iraq. "But come home where, and how?[...]

The thorny issues were evident when the first and so far only group of families was bused back from Syria by the Iraqi government on Nov. 28. According to the United Nations, only about a third of the 30 families returned to their original homes. Most of the rest, finding a new sectarian makeup in their neighborhood or their property pillaged, moved in with already overburdened relatives in other parts of the Baghdad area.

For many Iraqis, the homes they left no longer exist. Houses have been looted, destroyed or occupied. Most Baghdad neighborhoods, where Shiites and Sunnis once lived side by side, have been transformed into religiously homogeneous bastions where members of the other sect dare not tread.

As the article suggests, the loss of homes has taken on a decidedly sectarian flavor, as those fleeing from Baghdad are/were predominately Sunnis seeking refuge from Shiite militias operating with, at least tacit, support from the Shiite dominated Iraqi government. The plight of the aggrieved Sunni ex-Baghdadis, as well as the larger political implications of the population shift, has made the resettlement (some would say "retaking") of Baghdad a central aim of Sunni insurgent groups (some now our partners in the Awakening movement) and Sunni politicians alike. This highly recommended report (warnining: pdf) from Rend al-Rahim Francke (via al-Aardvark) highlights the problem:

To the distress of the Sunnis, Baghdad is increasingly a Shia city, either because Sunnis are being pushed out or are choosing to leave. The geographic area of the capital in which Sunnis are now a majority and feel safe is shrinking. For example, some Sunni parts of Saydiya, a fierce battleground between Sunni and Shia militias, are now Shia controlled. Shia political parties and militias have taken over large sections of the city. Although this control reduces sectarian killing, it is a source of extreme anxiety to Sunni political groups, who fear above all the loss of the capital.

Actually, there are national implications as well according to Francke:

In the past year Sunnis who left Baghdad increasingly were escaping to Jordan rather than moving to safer Sunni areas of Iraq thereby affecting the country’s demographic profile. Their exodus is causing consternation to the leaders of the community, who see their numbers, political position, and leverage shrinking. A major Sunni demand now is not only to halt sectarian cleansing but to create the conditions in which refugees and displaced persons can return to their original homes and restore the former demographic composition of the city.

And, because the problem is not complicated enough, there are other elements at play behind the violent displacements that make the resettlement of displaced persons even more difficult:

Violence in neighborhoods now includes family vendettas avenging former murders and assassinations or revenge killing of former Baathists accused of criminality under the previous regime. The skein of violence is further tangled by the proliferation of gangs that are mini-mafias masquerading as sectarian or political militias. These groups are actually only interested in profit, and they engage in the lucrative trade of killing or evicting residents, looting their homes, and renting the houses to new residents. In the absence of law enforcement, the competition among rival mafias expands the range of targeted violence.

The solutions being discussed - to the extent they are being discussed at all - don't seem capable of defusing the fraught situation. From the DeYoung piece:

"This is a major issue that's probably going to be resolved by new housing construction as opposed to wholesale evictions and resettlements," [aide to Petraeus, Col. William E.] Rapp said. "But we have been asking, pleading with the government of Iraq to come up with a policy so that it's not put upon our battalion commanders and the [Iraqi] battalion commanders to figure it out on the ground." [...]

Seeing the problem as one of new housing construction is an indication of the lowered expectations that have come to characterize many aspects of the current U.S. push for political reconciliation in Iraq. But U.N. and other aid officials argue that the status quo is unacceptable.

"People have papers. There should be a law. Houses cannot just be taken like that; people will not accept it," Siri said.

No, I don't imagine they will. As the hardships faced by displaced Iraqis (either those stranded in Jordan and Syria, or elsewhere in Iraq) mount, Iraq will be left with an increasingly desperate pool of potential extremists/combatants/irritants harboring a deep resentment and comprising nearly a sixth of the overall population (more when you exclude the largely unaffected Kurdistan, leaving Kirkuk out of the equation for now). When viewed at from that angle, resolving this conundrum might just be the sine qua non of stabilization in Iraq.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Krugman v. Obama

Back in October, I took issue with a Matt Yglesias post in which he highlighted some minor rhetorical shifts undertaken by Obama and Edwards, acknowledged that they were motivated by a desire to create perceived distance between themselves and the front-runner (Clinton), but then claimed that the image-conscious wordplay should be a factor in the decision making process when assessing the candidates, regardless.

At the time, I lamented what seems to be a glaring double-standard and knee-jerk hostility when it comes to the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Whereas pandering and certain other campaign exigencies are harped on and magnified as overly-deterministic with Clinton, her opponents' similar shortcomings are quickly forgiven with a sophisticated wink and nod as to the realities of campaigning in the current American political landscape.

Along these lines, there seems to be a tendency on the part of progressive Obama supporters to project their desired positions on to a candidate who has, deliberately, traded heavily in vagueries and platitudes. In terms of more concrete policy positions, Obama has distinguished himself from Clinton only slightly (actually, in terms of Social Security and health care, Clinton is to the left of Obama). Admittedly, the Obama described by many of the bloggers that I greatly admire is an enticing candidate - I'm just not as certain that the real deal is as advertised. On the flip side, Clinton has become a lightning rod for all things that progressives find frustrating about Democratic politicians and politics, and the structural limitations/pressures that interplay with each. Obama, I am constantly assured, is different.

In response to Matt, I wrote:

This type of Hillary-based cynicism is part of a larger pattern in much of the liberal blogosphere, unfortunately...she is consistently denied the benefit of the doubt when she makes what should be obvious pandering speeches to certain constituencies - speeches that are more readily identified as such and explained away when they are made by her primary opponents.

...Remember, she is trying to win an election, not sound the most pleasing notes to the progressive community (would that those two goals not be mutually exclusive).

This doesn't mean she'll be Bush III, however. At the risk of stating the obvious, candidates almost always say things in elections to make them sound more moderate then they really are - especially candidates that are fighting off extremist labels...

I'm not saying that Hillary necessarily has an ideal set of policies - foreign or domestic. But if you're looking for significant differentiation, Edwards and Obama aren't really offering it.

Today, Matt penned another post that fits the pattern. Matt looks at Paul Krugman's discussion of Obama's claim that he will usher in "bold new changes" in America's political sphere. The problem, for Krugman, is that Obama claims he will achieve this transcendence by hewing to a spirit of bi-partisanship and reliance on lobbyists, when it is precisely just such a commitment that undermines the goal of facilitating stark change. After ascribing the motive of petty revenge to Krugman's criticism of Obama (the post is entitled, "Payback"), Matt...brings up Hillary Clinton? Matt may be right that Clinton represents less of a dramatic model for change than Obama, but the differences (to the extent they exist) apear negligible, and certainly don't justify the non-sequitur. Matt wrote of Clinton:

Nobody would appoint Mark Penn to run their political team if what they really wanted to do was lead a bold populist revival.

And yet it is Obama's rhetoric (and proposals) on Social Security and health care that more closely mirror right wing talking points (and policies) - which is what drew Krugman's attention (and Obama's retaliation) in the first place. Matt's post prompted this from Scott Lemieux (who I very rarely disagree with on anything):

I agree with Matt that 1) it was stupid of Obama's campaign to pick a fight with Paul Krugman, but 2) Krugman's point is very misguided. I don't think that Obama's rhetoric about transcending old politics tells us much about how he'll actually govern. Bush in 2000, after all, didn't campaign as a 50%+1 conservative who would increase party polarization in Congress, but that's what he did. Obama's using this kind of rhetoric because 1) it's effective, and 2) he's very good at it.

Actually, Lemieux's argument about campaign rhetoric was the one I was trying to make to Matt re: the Clinton campaign in my prior post. I think Scott's right on this point generally speaking, I just wish more people (Lemiuex and Yglesias included) would be willing to give Clinton the same benefit of the doubt. Scott continues:

What actually matters, however, is the substance of his policies and record, and on that count he's clearly superior to Clinton (especially on foreign policy)...

Maybe I just haven't done enough research, but can someone really make the case that Obama's record in the Senate is "clearly superior" to Clinton's? In terms of policies put forth on the campaign trail, her Social Security and health care proposals are, in fact, superior to Obama's from a progressive point of view (as mentioned above). More from Lemieux:

I also second Matt's point about institutional realities...Given that she generates more hostility from the GOP (despite being more conservative), it seems very unlikely that Clinton is likely to get more accomplished if she's elected.

Talk about damned if you do, damned if you don't. During her Senate tenure, Clinton was criticized frequently from the left for working closely with Senate Republicans, but now that such experience might be considered a plus, it's downplayed or disregarded altogether. That's a stretch, and an all-too familiar one.

In Through the Out Door

Back in June, I criticized Bill Roggio's treatment of the re-branding undertaken by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) - which, post-transformation, became the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). Roggio stated at the time:

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the powerful Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), is under observation overseas for cancerous tumors in his lungs. The SIIC recently changed its name from Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) - dropping the "revolution" from the name in a clear rejection of Iran - and turned away from following Iran's Supreme Leader for religious guidance.

What Roggio failed to note is that the medical observation "overseas" that Hakim was under later became actual treatment for Tehran! More importantly, though, Roggio completely elides the motives that led SCIRI to attempt the image makeover in the first place: It wasn't some souring on Iranian beneficence, but rather the fact that SCIRI's main Shiite rival, the Sadrist current headed by Moqtada al-Sadr, enjoys a decided advantage in terms of nationalistic bona fides which translates into higher levels of support from certani Iraq Shiite populations. The Sadr edge exists for good reason.

Not only was the ISCI party and its Badr Corp militia formed, trained and indoctrinated in Iran (comprised of a group of Iraqi expats who fled during Saddam's many crackdowns, while Sadr's people famously stayed in Iraq throughout, with Sadr's father and uncle being martyred in the process), but ISCI continues to enjoy a close relationship with Iran and actually espouses policies like soft-partition (regional autonomy in the Shiite south) and accommodation with US forces that further alienate nationalist-leaning Iraqis. Sensing the loss of hearts and minds to the Sadrist current due to this conflicting allegiance/lineage, then-SCIRI made a loud public showing of its new, Iraq-centered orientation.

Despite the fanfare, though, little changed in terms of the actual policies supported by ISCI or with its connections to Iran. The PR blitz was obvious, if a bit transparent, though Roggio seems to have accepted it uncritically. In a further display of credulity, Roggio described Sadr as an "Iranian vassal" and "Iran's de facto proxy in Iraq" - inverting the true dynamic. In a more recent piece, Roggio focuses less on hyping Sadr's ties to Iran (coinciding with the US military's own dialing back of anti-Sadr rhetoric) but, nevertheless, continues to uncritically promote the "independent ISCI" storyline:

...groups like the Badr Corps and its political backer the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq broke from the Iranian sphere of influence and integrated with the government...

Yes, that would be the same ISCI whose leader, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim (still receiving his cancer treatment in Tehran), recently chastised the US government for claiming that Iran was arming Shiite militias and sowing chaos in Iran. No, Iran would never arm Shiite militias like Badr Corp. Swopa linked to a story in yesterday's New York Times that further highlights the close cooperation between ISCI and elements of the Iranian government:

A millennium after Najaf first became a magnet for Shiite pilgrims, leaders here are reimagining this city, long suppressed by Saddam Hussein, as a new hub of Shiite political and economic power, not just for Iraq but for the entire Middle East.

. . .And although Najafis will say little about it, Iran is playing a significant role in the plan, helping to improve the city and its holy sites, especially the golden- domed shrine to Imam Ali, the figure most associated with the founding of the Shiite sect, who is said to be buried here.

Money from Iran is financing some of the shrine expansion projects as well as contributing to the construction of a major electrical power-generating plant whose output will be shared between Najaf Province and its neighbor, Karbala, which is also the home of two important Shiite shrines.

The improvement of Najaf plays right into the plans of ISCI and its Iranian patrons for the creation of a rump Shiite state in southern Iraq:

Najaf’s governor, Asaad Abu Gulal, says his mission is to prepare the city to become the premier place in southern Iraq. “If we happen to have a southern region, Basra may be the commercial capital, but Najaf would be the political capital,” he said. “We have the political leadership, and we have the religious authority.”

...the most powerful Shiite Party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, led by the cleric Abdul Aziz Hakim, runs the city. The council has been the most vigorous proponent of creating a semiautonomous southern superregion similar to the Iraqi region of Kurdistan....

In pursuit of self-sufficiency, Najaf is building an airport, an electrical plant to increase the city’s power, hospitals and small refineries to help increase the city’s supply of fuel for automobiles and cooking.

...The role of the Iranians in helping the province is largely unacknowledged by Najaf’s politicians, most of whom are members of the Supreme Council. Although the party’s roots are in Iran, it has forged a strong allegiance with the United States and appears eager to keep at arm’s length — at least publicly — from its former sponsor. Najaf officials said they had refused most of the help the Iranians offered, because they felt it could be too controversial politically.

...Even with much of the construction just now getting under way, the city is already a showcase for the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which controls Najaf’s governorship and Provincial Council. In the relatively short time it has been in power, the party appears to have largely eradicated security problems and erased public signs of strife with the Shiite faction led by the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr. His militia occupied the shrine and battled American and Iraqi troops in 2004. Mr. Sadr remains a formidable populist force elsewhere in the south. [emphasis added throughout]

Sure, all of that might be damning evidence, but ISCI spokesmen say publically that they've made a clean break from Iran. Don't you take them at their word?

Friday, December 14, 2007

Sooner or Later

Steven Simon (who has put forth one of the smartest plans for withdrawal from Iraq (warning - pdf)) takes on the propagandistic claim that the Vietnam war was lost at home - a variation of the stabbed in the back meme that is being carefully cultivated, again, for use against the Left post-withdrawal from Iraq. According to this right-wing historical revisionism, after roughly a decade of military involvement in Vietnam, we were finally on the verge of "winning." But just as our mission was nearing accomplishment, the Left pulled the rug out from under our forces, in effect snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Not only does Simon do a thorough job of debunking this dolchstoss canard, but he puts forth an intriguing counter-thesis: the real lesson to take away from the Vietnam war is not that we left too soon but, rather, that we left too late. By staying around past the point at which our efficacy expired, argues Simon, we reinforced bad behavior on the part of our putative allies, and ensured that once we finally did leave, we would be in a severely weakened position such that maintaining support, even from a distance, was rendered impossible for political and logistical reasons.

Some brief excerpts from a more detailed argument (free registration required):

Furthermore, it became obvious that in Vietnam–as in virtually all counterinsurgency situations–an agreement changing the political conditions that spawned the insurgency was indispensable to a sustainable peace on terms acceptable to Washington and Saigon. Unless that happened, military gains, no matter how audacious, could not be sustained. Yet throughout the U.S. involvement, the South Vietnamese government remained decadent, stagnant, and incorrigible. As historian George Herring has noted, "The United States found to its chagrin that as its commitment increased, its leverage diminished." While there were undeniable counterinsurgency successes in the early 1970s, Saigon was not up to consolidating them by winning the confidence of its citizenry.

Meanwhile, the United States lost public support for the war–not because the American people were pampered, spineless, and lacked tolerance for casualties, but because they were convinced that the American leaders had conducted the war so incompetently and dishonestly for so long that victory could no longer be retrieved. If this sounds familiar, it should: Americans today have essentially the same attitude toward the Iraq War. [emphasis added]

Those bolded sections above are reminiscent of the premature exuberance generated by the military successes stemming from the Surge and the, largely unrelated, Anbar Awakening strategy. Without the far more impactful political reconciliation, those military victories - while laudable - will prove illusory. Yet, as we experienced in Vietnam, our increased level of military commitment has emboldened Iraqi leaders to forego compromise, and declare political reconciliation a dead letter.

Simon lays out the crux of the argument regarding the timing of withdrawal:

The United States government, however, morbidly delayed its exit from Vietnam on the pretext of a fruitless "Vietnamization" process begun under the first Nixon Administration. The period was marked by a fatally incoherent combination of factors: the slow and indecisive withdrawal of American troops, an unmotivated South Vietnamese military (despite an accelerated U.S.-sponsored buildup), and the aggravation of local and regional populations by the increasingly brutal application of U.S. military power. Rather than seriously attempting to induce the South Vietnamese to develop institutions sufficient to sustain the state, the United States kept pressing for a military solution, expanding the war to Cambodia and stepping up the air campaign against the North. Despite effective rural development programs that diminished the insurgency, in 1972 the United States was basically left with what it had at the start: a decadent government in Saigon. In fact, things were worse. Ten years on, the problem was compounded by instability fomented by the war. In particular, the U.S. invasion of Cambodia had hardened the communist Khmer Rouge’s resistance against pro-U.S. Cambodian leader Lon Nol and lent momentum to Pol Pot’s genocidal designs.

Having spent its domestic political capital on Cambodia, the Nixon Administration had little choice in 1972 but to eke out the Paris Peace Accords, under which North Vietnam would observe a cease-fire following a U.S. military withdrawal. But by then Nixon, devoid of popular American support for further engagement in Vietnam, had to negotiate with Hanoi from weakness. The Paris accords required a wholesale American pullout, but they did not require the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) to withdraw from South Vietnam. Its patience exhausted, Congress would not authorize funds to equip the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) with the hardware it would have needed to repel a major NVA offensive. The U.S. military guarantee to South Vietnam came to little more than Nixon’s secret 1972 pledge to President Nguyen Van Thieu that the United States would retaliate militarily if North Vietnam violated the cease-fire–a pledge rendered empty by the 1973 congressional ban on all U.S. military activity in Southeast Asia and its meager 1974 appropriation ($700 million) for South Vietnam. By the end of 1973, Watergate had so damaged Nixon’s standing with Congress that he was powerless to revive any congressional support for U.S. activities in Vietnam. When the decisive offensive came in 1975, the Ford Administration could muster only toothless diplomatic protests. North Vietnamese troops soon overran Saigon, and the South surrendered unconditionally to the North in April 1975 as American helicopters staged an unforgettably shambolic and tragic evacuation.

Even leaving aside historical differences between the conflicts, the Iraq-Vietnam analogy is largely a straw man. Most of those who oppose a continued major U.S. military presence in Iraq have not, thus far, proposed a 1975 vintage withdrawal that would leave the Iraqi government without recourse to U.S. diplomatic or military support to secure its position in the regional political environment or military assistance to prevent state implosion. Indeed, all serious proposals call for robust diplomacy to temper destabilizing external influences and a U.S. quick-reaction force deployed in the region to deter and contain any security crisis in Iraq. That could change, of course. As long as large numbers of U.S. troops remain deployed in Iraq, it is not at all difficult to foresee circumstances on the ground–say, a suicide attack on the order of the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut–that would push opposition to U.S. involvement past the tipping point for measured and prudent compromise. In that event, only wholesale withdrawal, with little consideration for residual help to Baghdad, might satisfy a majority of Americans and their elected representatives. If that happened, American power and influence in the region would dwindle precipitously.

The interests of both Iraq and the United States would be better served by avoiding the type of withdrawal that would be tantamount to abandonment. But as Simon points out, if the US wants to maintain the ability to interdict in Iraq in order to avoid the types of catastrophic outcomes that many fear could result from withdrawal, then we must withdraw while there is still an ample supply of political will, economic resources and military capacity to allow us to help manage the process from afar.

To save Iraq, we must let it go.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Wide Awake in Amara?

When touting the success of the Anbar Awakening around the time of General Petraeus' fateful appearance before Congress in September, the Bush administration began talking up the notion of exporting the Awakening [sahwa in Arabic] model to other parts of Iraq (particularly the Shiite south). At the time, I mostly dismissed this ploy as a bit of misdirection with no real practical applications. After all, how do you capitalize on opposition to a common enemy like al-Qaeda when al-Qaeda is already a despised force in the Shiite south?

Besides, as the recent bombings in Amara illustrate, the current turmoil in the Shiite south is not really a product of al-Qaeda's actions, and more the result of the intense intra-Shiite conflict playing out between Sadr's forces and those of his main Shiite rival, ISCI (formerly SCIRI). So what would the lever be?

A couple of recent articles have exposed my lack of imagination by reporting on how the Shiite model would operate: the common enemy would be the warring Shiite militias themselves, and non-aligned tribal elements would be courted to join with US forces in an effort to vanquish those militias. Each article highlights the considerable obstacles to applying the sahwa formula in the Shiite-dominated territories, albeit from different vantage points.

First, Trudy Rubin suggests that there is opposition from the Iraqi government, which has the ostensibly "legal" means to squash such efforts:

Under U.S. pressure, Iraqi money has just been appropriated for a jobs program, but some U.S. officials worry that it won't be implemented. They fear that disillusioned tribal fighters could be tempted back on the payroll of militant groups.

None of these fears have stopped sheikhs like Ali Hatem from planning the expansion of the sahwa movement....More dramatic, he says fed-up Shiite sheikhs from the south of Iraq, where existing Shiite religious parties are squabbling viciously over power, want information on how to form sahwa movements of their own.

The Iraqi government has said it won't tolerate any sahwa groups in the south of the country, and recently arrested a Najaf politician for suggesting a preliminary meeting.

So certain elements of the Iraqi government - some of which are aligned with the militias that would be targeted by the hoped-for Shiite sahwa - are erecting serious roadblocks. The problems go much deeper though, as illustrated by this excerpt from a piece by Sam Dagher:

[A Sadar spokesman Salah al-Obeidi] says the US military and the Mahdi Army's Shiite rivals are trying hard to force the dismantling of Sadr's militia forming tribal councils across the Shiite south, much like the Americans did in Sunni parts of the country to combat Al Qaeda.

But, the spokesman says, this strategy isn't going to work in the south, where many of the tribesmen's sons are Mahdi fighters. [emphasis mine throughout]

That last bit is worth considering. Whereas al-Qaeda's presence in Iraq had a distinctly foreign flavor (especially in terms of leadership) - and was a recent, almost entirely post-war phenomenon - the Mahdi militia (Jaish al-Mahdi or JAM) is a homegrown force, born out of a religious/social movement that had been percolating in Iraq for decades. Thus, driving a wedge between tribal leaders and JAM types won't be as easy as getting Sunni tribal leaders to turn on a newly introduced, foreign-led force that was overreaching anyway (though the Badr Corp - which was formed, trained and armed in Iran out of a contingent of Iraqi ex-pats - may be a bit more vulnerable). Is there really a strong enough faction of non-aligned tribal leaders that would feel confident enough to move against JAM? I have my doubts.

Even though Obedei suggests that Sadr's Shiite rivals (read: ISCI) are in cohoots with the Americans in pursuit of this Shiite version of sahwa, the reaction on the part of the Iraqi government (of which ISCI is the most powerful Shiite voice) suggests that even if Sadr's rivals would be willing to pursue this course to some extent, their support will be limited, contingent and only guaranteed so long as they can guide the process and determine exactly which Shiite militias get awoken. In other words, ISCI's Badr Corp militia would have to be left alone. And given Badr/ISCI's more tenuous Iraqi roots, they would have to proceed carefully, if at all. That being said, the widespread integration of Badr personnel into official Iraqi security forces (which allows them to shed the "militia" label and don official uniformes) may inspire ISCI to give it a go. We'll see soon enough.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Night of the Living Baseheads

After a somewhat extended absence (by blogospheric standards), Hilzoy is back. [Pause for applause]. Her hiatus broken, she trains her sights on this shallow argument from Megan McArdle on the supposed failure of anti-war bloggers to acknowledge the "good news" coming out of Iraq:

Lately, however, the anti-war side is beginning to sound a lot like the boosters they were so angry at. This is the particular example that caught my eye, but there is an increasingly rich body of blog posts and other writing that are the collective equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and chanting "La la la la la la la I can't HEAR you!

McArdle mostly misses the point. It's not that there is a failure to recognize positive trends, it's just that most anti-war bloggers have been focused on the big picture - focused on the types of things that President Bush and General Petraeus told us were the crux of success: you know, political reconciliation. Hilzoy elucidates through analogy:

[N]oting that political reconciliation has not happened is not the "equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and chanting "La la la la la la la I can't HEAR you!"" It's more like this: suppose I had a friend who insisted that he couldn't kick his crack habit because he was under too much financial pressure, so I agreed to pay his bills for a few months, on condition that he use that time to actually try to quit. Liberal bloggers thought this was a bad idea: my friend had no apparent interest in kicking his crack habit, and thus it seemed pretty likely that I was just throwing my money away. No, I assured them: I have made it clear that my commitment is not open-ended. I've said: it's time for you to perform, and I will judge you now less on your words and more on your performance. I'm not just giving this money blindly; my friend has adopted benchmarks for success, and I plan to hold him to them, though I won't say how.

Now suppose that while I paid my friend's bills, to no one's surprise, his financial problems got better, but he made no effort to stop smoking crack. Liberal bloggers said: well, of course it's good that your friend isn't feeling as much financial pressure, but the fact remains that the whole point of this was to let him kick his crack habit, and not only has he not done that, he hasn't even tried. That would not constitute sticking their fingers in their ears and chanting "La la la la la la la I can't HEAR you!", or refusing to take yes for an answer. It would just be basic common sense. [...]

Megan McArdle may think that liberal bloggers who point out that while the surge has reduced casualties, it has not achieved its stated goals, are just refusing to acknowledge good news. As I've said, I disagree. But conservative (or other) bloggers who point to the reductions in casualties as though they made the surge worthwhile, without asking whether the surge is likely to achieve any lasting improvements in Iraq, look to me as though they were more interested in being able to point to something that looks like success for their side than in the actual outcome in Iraq. But those who go further and belittle people who ask what strategic goals the surge was meant to serve, and whether it is achieving them, are doing something worse.

You see, crack is whack. The rest is well worth the read, as Hilzoy continues to rock the bells of those that boost the dose...

But You Left Out the Best Part...

Atrios flags this story of yet one more battle being fought in the "War on Christmas" (you'll note, "Merry Christmas" was not the preferred holiday greeting, for which there are repercussions):

Four Jewish subway riders who wished other people Happy Hanukkah were
pelted with anti-Semitic remarks before being beaten, New York police and prosecutors said. The incident was being investigated as a possible hate crime.

The four were on a train in Manhattan on Friday night, during the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights, when they were approached by a group of 10 people who offered holiday greetings. The victims responded, Happy Hanukkah and were assaulted by the larger group, police said Tuesday.

Police caught up with the train in Brooklyn and arrested eight men and two women, ages 19 and 20. They were arraigned Saturday on charges of assault, menacing, riot, harassment and disorderly conduct, the Brooklyn district attorney's office said.
But Atrios missed this important detail - itself, further evidence of a wide-ranging conspiracy to denigrate Christmas and all things Christian:

A Brooklyn man whose "Happy Hanukkah" greeting landed him in the hospital said he was saved from a gang of Jew-bashing goons aboard a packed Q train by a total stranger - a modest Muslim from Bangladesh.

Walter Adler was touched that Hassan Askari jumped to his aid while a group of thugs allegedly pummeled and taunted him and his three friends. So Adler has invited his new friend over to celebrate the Festival of Lights.

The two new pals - Adler, 23, with a broken nose and a fat lip, and Askari, 20, with two black eyes - broke bread together and laughed off the bruises the night after the fisticuffs.

"A random Muslim guy jumped in and helped a Jewish guy on Hanukkah - that's a miracle," said Adler, an honors student at Hunter College.

"He's basically a hero. Hassan jumped in to help us."

But Askari, who is studying to be an accountant, shrugged off the praise.

"I just did what I had to do," he recalled. "My parents raised me that way."
Raised you that way in an anti-Christian Maddrassah no doubt. Way to crush the Christmas spirit of those concerned citizens there Hassan.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Toward a Hagelian Foreign Policy?

In late October, Senator Chuck Hagel sent a letter to President Bush, copied to Condi Rice, Stephen Hadley and Robert Gates (as discussed here). In that letter, Hagel made the following points about maintaining international cooperation in the effort to confront Iran's potential nuclear aspirations [emphasis added]:

Unless there is a strategic shift, I believe we will find ourselves in a dangerous and increasingly isolated position in the coming months. I do not see how the collective actions that we are now taking will produce the results that we seek. If this continues, our ability to sustain a united international front will weaken as countries grow uncertain over our motives and unwilling to risk open confrontation with Iran, and we are left with fewer and fewer policy options.

There are growing differences with our international partners. Concerns remain that the United States' actual objectives is regime change in Iran, not a change in Iran's behavior. Prospects for further action in the UN Security Council have grown dim, and we appear increasingly reliant on a single-track effort to expand financial pressure on Iran outside of the UN Security Council.

In keeping with this theme, Kevin Drum recently wondered aloud whether the release of the NIE would actually aid our effort to mount a unified, international front against Iran - now that the military option seemed so remote a danger. Robin Wright in today's Washington Post suggests that this shift could, in fact, be a factor in spurring the process:

The draft of the long-delayed third resolution is still being negotiated, and early versions are often tougher than the final product. But its scope is significantly wider than the two previous U.N. resolutions, even though it does not go as far as the sweeping sanctions the United States took unilaterally in October against the 125,000-member Revolutionary Guard Corps, Quds Force and three banks, officials say.

...The proposal indicates that there is still an appetite for significant new punitive measures against Iran even after the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate last week concluded that Tehran had halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago, according to officials from several countries.

Which prompted K-Drum to remark:

"The international community is not being dissuaded by the NIE," says an unnamed European diplomat. Perhaps so. Or perhaps the NIE is actually making things easier?

Matt Yglesias captures the essence of this dynamic pretty well, in a response to Drum's question:

I'd say probably easier. The fact of the NIE's release seems like a decisive signal that the really nutty war faction inside the Bush administration has been defeated and that policy is being driven by people who are worried about Iranian nuclear activities, but who also have a basic grip on reality. American officials like that are the sort of officials that diplomats around the world are prepared to work with. Foreign officials weren't, however, interested in being used as dupes who were supposed to provide a veneer of cover for an insane military adventure. I bet that if you saw a new administration with a clearer commitment to laying out a path for improved US-Iranian relations, you'd see even more willingness on the part of the international communtiy to contemplate punitive measures if Iran is unresponsive.

The underlying principle is simple enough: the US secures more international cooperation when people see us as acting rationally and responding in a reasonable manner to events around the world. Acting frightening and erratic, or paranoid and hysterical, isn't helpful.

I would guess that the "new administration" Matt envisions doesn't include a certain Rudolph Giuliani anywhere near the Oval Office.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Razing the Tower of Babel

Ned Parker provides a useful corrective to the most recent, and still wildly premature if not delusional, declarations of Mission Accomplished emanating from Republican circles - as well as the notion that devolving power to local nodes will aid in the reconciliation of warring factions on the national level. Parker warns, instead, of a balkanization that could lead to greater conflict down the road:

The U.S. troop buildup in Iraq was meant to freeze the country's civil war so political leaders could rebuild their fractured nation. Ten months later, the country's bloodshed has dropped, but the military strategy has failed to reverse Iraq's disintegration into areas dominated by militias, tribes and parties, with a weak central government struggling to assert its influence.

In the south, Shiite Muslim militias are at war over the lucrative oil resources in the Basra region. To the west, in Anbar province, Sunni Arab tribes that once fought U.S. forces now help police the streets and control the highways to Jordan and Syria. In the north, Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens are locked in a battle for the regions around Kirkuk and Mosul. In Baghdad, blast walls partition neighborhoods policed by Sunni paramilitary groups and Shiite militias.

"Iraq is moving in the direction of a failed state, a highly decentralized situation -- totally unplanned, of course -- with competing centers of power run by warlords and militias," said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. "The central government has no political control whatsoever beyond Baghdad, maybe not even beyond the Green Zone."

One passage from Packer's piece that stood out in light of recent news that the police chief of the southern, predominately Shiite Babel province was assassinated:

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has sought to address the splintering of the country, particularly in the south, where most of Iraq's Shiite population lives. There, Maliki, who is with the Islamic Dawa Party, is working with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the leading Shiite party in the ruling coalition, to try to stabilize cities torn by militia infighting.

"They agree on what needs to be done in the south," said an official from Maliki's office. "This is a test for the government on whether they can establish control in a very volatile area," the official said.

The invaluable Reidar Visser (subscription only) provides some background information on Babel's police chief, Qays al-Ma‘muri, and who could be behind the killing:

...[T]oday is particularly tragic to those who are hoping for the restoration of a non-sectarian Iraq where ethno-religious identities are in the background. For several years, Ma‘muri had stood out as an honest figure of authority in the mixed governorate of Babel, and had fought hard against militias regardless of their sectarian affiliations.

Already, some newswire reports speak of “suspicion towards al-Qaida”. In the absence of further evidence, such accusations should be treated with caution. In several cases of violence in the Shiite-dominated parts of Iraq...vague references to al-Qaida were used by Iraqi government sources to gloss over episodes that clearly featured elements of intra-Shiite conflict.

Instead, it may be worth looking at how al-Ma‘muri’s conflict with various Shiite militias unfolded in the past.

Visser then quotes a May 2006 article penned by Bartle Bull appearing in the New York Times:

“What really makes Babel special is that it is a largely Shiite province in which the Shiite militias - the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigades - have almost no foothold. But they are trying. All Iraq’s police answer to the Interior Ministry, which is held by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq [SCIRI], the main Iranian organ in the country [ed: true, yet underreported]. And the interior minister, Bayan Jabr, has repeatedly tried to replace Babel’s independent-minded provincial police chief, Gen. Qais Hamza al-Maamony. Under heavy pressure from the Americans, however, the minister agreed in January to a moratorium on the replacement of senior police officers until after the formation of the new government.

Nonetheless, according to American officials in the province, General Maamony was recently forced to accept 700 candidates recommended by the ministry - that is, by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution - for the incoming class of the provincial police academy. The police chief, I’m told, plans to spread these recruits as thinly as possible around the province upon their graduation to lessen their impact on the force.

General Maamony and his 8,000 men - especially the provincial SWAT teams, which supply the muscle that the relatively poorly trained and lightly armed regular police often cannot or will not provide - are understandably unpopular with the council and its military wing, the Badr Brigades. And they are equally feared by the Mahdi Army of the rebel Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr.” [emphasis added]

Visser reports that accusations have surfaced in the Iraqi press that Maliki's own Dawa Party could be behind the assassination. Kind of makes you wonder about that close cooperation between SIIC (formerly SCIRI) and Dawa in the South, and just what the combined vision for "stability" entails.

Is it something that any honest observer could describe as a victory for the United States?

Kicking the New K-nowledge

Eric Black connects the dots with respect to the shift in rhetoric regarding Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program that I observed here and here (via Paul Waldman):

Maybe I’m imagining things. You’d have to review a lot of statements and see whether the “knowledge” and “capacity” stuff started earlier. I’ve just spent a couple of hours testing my theory on the White House site that archives Bush’s speeches and news conferences and — while definitely not perfect — my theory is looking pretty good. Before August, Bush often states much more flatly that Iran is “pursuing nuclear weapons,” has a “nuclear weapons program,” is “trying to develop (or ‘get’) a nuclear weapon.”

There are a couple of exceptions (and maybe more that I haven’t found) before August, where Bush uses versions of the more recent language about acquiring know-how or capabilities. But before August, they are the exceptions.

After August, all of the instances in which Bush discussed Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions, he used language that is consistent with my theory. Post-August, Iran has bad intentions and is acquiring dangerous knowledge, but not running an ongoing program to build a bomb. The change is subtle enough that you might miss it if you aren’t looking for it, and as far as I can tell, we all did miss it.

Matt Yglesias has a plausible theory that into question the claim that the NIE was only revealed to the President in August:

Under this theory, Bush would have been informed of IC views some time before August, at which point they just got ignored. Then there may have been some moment when Mike McConnell or someone else important within the intelligence world got upset and said "you can't have people saying blah blah blah" and thus begins the era of what Black calls "Clintonian parsing," language designed to obscure the new facts while technically staying within the bounds of what the new information says.

In either case, though, the NIE does seem to have played a prominent role in how the Bush administration has chosen to frame the Iran issue. The dots may be connected, but it's not exactly a pretty picture.

Friday, December 07, 2007

One to Tango

To some Iraq war boosters, the recent developments in Anbar province represent a panacea of sorts. Not only will the Anbar Awakening movement help to purge most of the extremists that have assumed the label "al-Qaeda in Iraq" (good chance of that, actually), but these Sunni elements will also usher in the long sought-after national reconciliation. That last part is a bit tricky.

The Awakening-as-vehicle for reconciliation narrative suffers from at least two fundamental flaws:

First, many, though not all, of the Sunni militant groups in Iraq (those directly involved in the Awakenings movement, and those on the outisde) don't tolerate the existence of the Shiite led Iraqi government - let alone show an interest in reconciling with it. For these revanchist Sunni groups, the Awakening is either viewed as a means of obtaining money, arms, protection, logistical support and control of local fiefdoms (for those directly involved) or as an impediment to be tolerated, though not antagonized, during the requisite period of regrouping and respite (for those waiting it out on the sidelines).

Second, the Shiite government is equally reluctant to embrace Sunni groups - be they directly involved in the Awakening, or not. In fact, the Shiite led government has mostly rejected efforts to incorporate the local Sunni militias into the official Iraqi Security Forces, has not allotted money for the training and organizing of more such Sunni forces, nor has it bestowed any significant reward on the leaders of the Awakening.

Not exactly the beginning of a beautiful friendship. A story in today's Washington Post (via Blake) illustrates the disconnect between those that are overselling the potential of "bottom-up" reconciliation and the actual state of affairs (this item focusing on Shiite intransigence):

The U.S. military plans to establish a civilian jobs corps to absorb tens of thousands of mostly Sunni security volunteers whom Iraq's Shiite-dominated government has balked at hiring into local police forces.

The new jobs program marks a sharp departure from one of the most highly touted goals of the so-called Sunni awakening, which was to funnel the U.S.-paid volunteers, many of them former insurgents, into Iraq's police and military.

President Bush and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, have said the volunteers have played a major role in the recent downturn in violence and would provide a key element of local security as U.S. forces draw down. Plans to reconfigure the program raise new questions about the permanence of security and political structures the United States has sought to impose on Iraq.

The Bush administration has described the hiring of the volunteers by police forces as proof that Iraqis are beginning to reconcile sectarian differences. Yet the government here has shown only grudging interest in the program, despite constant U.S. pressure. [...]

The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has lagged in hiring the volunteers, more than three-quarters of whom are Sunnis. Sectarian concerns are "still an obstacle. I won't lie to you about that," said Col. Martin Stanton, who tracks the program for Petraeus's command. "They're deeply suspicious of any organized group of Sunnis," Stanton said of the government.

The military still expects some volunteers to be hired as police officers but has concluded that the majority will not be. Fearing that the armed men might return to violence without long-term job prospects, it has decided to divert them into civilian work or send them to vocational training programs. It hopes to persuade the Iraqi government to take over management and financing of the reconfigured program -- which will begin in January with a shift of 500 Baghdad volunteers from security tasks to public works -- by the end of next year.

Right now, Stanton said, the idea of an Iraqi takeover is "still in concept," and the government is "not in any way, shape or form ready to take over these contracts." He added that the military wants to avoid ending up with the Iraqis "dropping the baton in the relay race. . . . We want to make sure they're running and ready to get it before we turn it over."

It's not really a question of being "ready" as much as being "willing." This paragraph also stood out:

Maliki's Shiite advisers had long expressed deep reservations about the CLC program..."It's not so much the ministers that were the problem," said the Western diplomat. "But this Dawa clique of advisers around him were just dead set against it," he said in reference to Maliki's Dawa party.

This misconstrues the problem in a way that is reminiscent of the fanciful notions of sacking Maliki in favor of a different kind of Shiite leader. The attitudes ascribed to Maliki and the Dawa party are not their's alone. SIIC takes the same position, Sistani seems cool to the idea and even the supposedly nationalistic, non-sectarian Sadr doesn't seem particularly enthusiastic. Come to think of it, our strongest allies - the Kurds - have also expressed grave reservations. Not much of a tango really when all you have is one party reluctantly swaying to the beat.

I leave you with some gallows snark from the maestro himself:

The Bushites may have convinced themselves they were just renting our newfound Sunni allies, but Team Shiite's message seems to be, "No, you bought them, so you keep them." Things will get interesting once our government decides we don't want them anymore, and just dumps our freshly trained and armed "concerned local citizens" back out into the street.

What, you don't think the Shiites will greet them with flowers and candies?

And the Walls Have Ears, but the Walls Don't Speak

Checks, balances and oversight are some of the foundational principles of our political and judicial systems. I know, not a particularly novel or penetrating insight, but in post-9/11 America (and with the passage of time in general), it's important to return to the classics in order to refresh our collective memory.

There are good reasons for the introduction of oversight and external checks in the context of law enforcement: we want our executive branch elements (law enforcement officers, prosecutors, elected officials) to be zealous and diligent in pursuit of criminals/wrongdoers, and in serving public safety. These desired traits, however, make executive branch organs particularly ill-suited to ensure the rights and protections of the accused (be they innocent or guilty) and the public in general. In pursuit of their goals, executive actors will seek to maximize the powers and tools available to achieve their laudable goals, but this in turn will greatly infringe on the rights of the public (again, innocent and guilty alike). Not because executives don't value rights, but, rather, because those rights can interfere with their necessary jobs.

And so, because we cherish fragile freedoms, we have created a tension by adding a layer of oversight in the form of codified legal protections (Bill of Rights, etc.) and judicial adjudicators capable of reining in the enforcers of the law. To call on another cliche: it's bad policy to have the same body act as judge, jury and executioner.

The mission of the rights-guarantors is a bit tricky, though, because their duties often put them in the role of protecting potential criminals, criminals and, in the present case, terrorists. Thus, the proponents of enlarging executive power have a built-in advantage: Who is going to side with the murderers, drug dealers and terrorists (leaving aside the fact that the innocent will suffer as well, as long as they are labeled as such)? That is how people like Joe Klein can get sucked into lambasting the Democrats for their efforts to guarantee a modicum of oversight when it comes to surveillance of Americans: a mixture of misinformation and demagoguery goes a long way toward ensuring that pundits err on the side of "toughness."

Further, the executive branch is, by nature, a sympathetic figure for most citizens: these are the police officers, FBI agents, prosecutors and elected officials that are keeping our streets safe. The tough on crime crowd fighting off the perverts and sociopaths. The generous benefit of the doubt given these parties makes it easier for them to sell the public on arguments for scaling back oversight. After all, we can "trust them." Why obect to this? Don't you trust the President when he says he's fighting terrorists? Why do you want to protect Osama's rights? Would you take the word of a drug dealer (accused) over that of an actual police officer?

While some with a deeper appreciation for the nature of power, corruption and conflicts of interest might view those questions with a skeptic's eye, many, if not most, citizens, especially in a time of heightened fear and insecurity, tend to trust the "protectors." Here is a case that illustrates how this dynamic slowly erodes Constitutional protections:

A teen shooting suspect's quick decision to record his interrogation with a hidden MP3 device has played out as a perjury case against a veteran detective and a plea deal for himself, authorities said yesterday.

Testifying at the trial of Erik Crespo in April, Detective Christopher Perino, 42, emphatically stated that he hadn't questioned the then-17-year-old about a Christmas Day 2005 shooting in The Bronx before the kid's mother and aunt showed up at the 44th Precinct station.

But Crespo had secretly pressed record on his MP3 player - a small device used to download music from the Internet - hidden in his pocket and captured the bullying interrogation.

Not only did the Detective question the teen, but he lied about the law during the interrogation in an effort to intimidate the teen into giving a statement without his parents or, more importantly, a lawyer present. The types of claims made by the Detective were so out of bounds that it is almost certain that he would not have taken such a line with a parent or attorney present.

But here's the thing: this interrogation was conducted by a 19-year veteran! Do you think it was the first time he tried to steamroll a suspect in his 19 years on the force? Unlikely. Further, do you think this Detective's actions are an anomoly, an outlier? Again, unlikely. Far too many police officers know that, if confronted in court with accusations of such misconduct, it will be a case of whose word to trust: the upstanding peace officer, or the accused criminal? The cop wins 99% of the time.

The teenagers' rare actions in the present example highlight the need to have all interrogations and interrogation rooms videotaped. That is the way to restrain law enforcement - not relying on self-regulation or trust when the temptation to cut corners is almost too hard to overcome. Speaking of which, it turns out that the CIA thought videotaping the interrogation of terrorist suspects was a good idea. Mona and Matt have some good link roundups - including Cernig's post which drew the ire of Rick Moran.

However, unlike the case of Erik Crespo, the CIA itself was in charge of the recording devices and their output. When confronted with the possibility that those tapes revealed illegal activities such as torture, the CIA chose to destroy them. This is, again, a predictable and human response. Where the executive body is in custody of self-incriminating evidence, it will tend to bury such evidence unless there are legal repercussions - after all, why would it want to weaken it's own powers? Making the present temptation to destry the evidence even more tempting, who will really press for obstruction of justice charges when the subjects being tortured were terrorists (accused)?

Unfortunately, an executive that is allowed to overstep the boundaries of the law with impunity creates two insidious phenomena: First, it sets a precedent for this type of infringement, making it likely that in the future it is recognized as acceptable by the putative oversight bodies. Second, these types of precedents tend to seep into other areas of law enforcement - outside the supposedly "extraordinary" circumstances (sure, accused terrorists are probably the least sympathetic figures, but is there really a higher regard for accused drug dealers? Rapists? Child molesters? Murderers?).

Because the deck is stacked against rights and freedoms, people that know better like Rick Moran should really think twice about being so cavalier with the trappings of democracy that Americans presume to bestow on the benighted masses in foreign locales.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Training Can't Buy Me Love

Ilan Goldenberg on what has become a familiar obstacle in Iraq (outside of Iraq in the present example!):

There have in the past been a number of proposals out there to take Iraqi security forces out of Iraq and train them in a safer environment. This does of course lead to one complication. They don't really want to go back

Numerous Iraqi military and law-enforcement officials brought to the U.S. as part of special intelligence and training programs have run away and are seeking asylum in this country or disappeared altogether, The Washington Times has learned.

Intelligence officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity, say nearly a dozen Iraqis fled military training facilities in the U.S., including a brigadier general who went to Canada with his family earlier this year.

Actually, even when they do go back, the trainees tend to either desert, or gravitate to one or another faction. This gets to the heart of one of the significant strategic flaws behind the policy of keeping US troops in Iraq in order to "train" security and military forces. Iraqis don't necessarily need more training, better training or the relocation of training to some exotic locale. At least, the tweaking of the training process itself will not solve the problem of creating an effective fighting force motivated to defend the nation of Iraq, as distinct from the communal identification that has superseded the notion of nationalism for far too many. The problem is, and always has been, one of motivation and allegiance. Back in 2005, during a guest sting at Djerejian's spot, I wrote this:

...[T]he Iraqis don't necessarily need training as much as motivation and loyalty. The various militias, for example, fight quite well without deserting even though they lack the advantage of superior equipment and advanced tactical instruction. What they do have is commitment and loyalty in spades. The task, and it's a daunting one, is to field an Iraqi army made up of soldiers that are highly motivated, committed to the larger purpose (not just looking for a paycheck), and that owe their allegiance first and foremost to the Iraqi nation - and not to one or more ethnic, sectarian or tribal groups. Given these lofty standards (made less accessible by the polarizing effect of sectarian/ethnic violence), it is easy to understand how the number of stand alone battalions has gone from three to one. This article on the state of the recruitment and training of Iraq's police forces, written by a captain in the US Army, highlights many of the same impediments...

Two years later, and there has been little discernible progress despite the countless hours and hundreds of billions of dollars dedicated to the cause of "training." Which should come as no surprise. Two years from now, we will likely be spinning our tires in neutral still. After all, we cannot generate the will in recruits to transcend Iraq's many civil wars and conflicts any more than we can will the Iraqi people in general to embrace reconciliation and put aside the grievances, fears and objectives that hinder peaceful resolution. Those are our priorities, not the goals, fears and objectives of the Iraqi people themselves.

Which is only human. Americans are by no means immune. After all, our own civil war would not have been averted, or brought to a close sooner, had there been better "training" of the various combatants at any stage of the process. The Confederacy (particularly its officer corps) had military training in spades. But we don't even have to go back so far, or bend the analogy quite so much. We have relevant experience with the futility of this approach as a foreign, occupying force more recently. We familiarized ourselves the same shortcomings of "training" in Vietnam. History repeats, the old conceits.

I'm Mook-ie and I'm Back From the Dead

Why does every new political development in Iraq signify the "death of Sadr" to so many Iraq war boosters? A question I have been grappling with over at Chez Cernig for those that enjoy that sort of thing.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

In Praise of Robert Kagan

No, it doesn't happen very often, but there are times when I am impressed with the intellectual honesty of Robert Kagan (at least relative to those comprising the ideological circles that he tends to travel in). For example, way back in January 2006 - at a time when many Iran hawks were trying to convince US leaders that we could attack Iran via limited air strikes, achieve our goals vis-a-vis that nation's nuclear program and avoid retaliation that would suck us into a larger conflict - Robert Kagan had the courage to speak the truth:

If an air and missile strike could destroy Iran's nuclear weapons program, it might seem the best of many bad options. But the likely costs outweigh the benefits. [...]

The Pentagon can hit facilities it can see with relative confidence. But much of Iran's program is underground, and some of it we don't know about. Even if a strike set back Iran's plans, we would not know by how much. For all the price we would pay, we wouldn't even know what we'd achieved. [...]

Then there is the prospect of Iranian retaliation: terrorist attacks, military activity in Iraq, attempts to close off the Persian Gulf shipping lanes and disrupt oil supplies. Unless we were prepared to escalate, ultimately to the point of taking down the regime, we could end up in worse shape than when we began. [...]

But we shouldn't delude ourselves. Efforts to foment political change won't necessarily bear fruit in time to prevent Iran from acquiring a bomb. That may be the risk we have to take. But if this or the next administration decides it is too dangerous to wait for political change, then the answer will have to be an invasion, not merely an air and missile strike, to put an end to Iran's nuclear program as well as to its regime. If Iran's possession of a nuclear weapon is truly intolerable, that is the only military answer. [emphasis added]

At the time that Kagan wrote this sober assessment, people like William Kristol were actually arguing that if we merely bombed Iran, not only would everything turn out right as mentioned above, but that a pro-US, pro-democracy uprising would erupt to depose the Mullahs. Compare and contrast.

Today, via Libby, Kagan offers more good advice in a column entitled, refreshingly enough, Time to Talk to Iran:

Regardless of what one thinks about the National Intelligence Estimate's conclusion that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003 -- and there is much to question in the report -- its practical effects are indisputable. The Bush administration cannot take military action against Iran during its remaining time in office, or credibly threaten to do so, unless it is in response to an extremely provocative Iranian action. A military strike against suspected Iranian nuclear facilities was always fraught with risk. For the Bush administration, that option is gone. [...]

With its policy tools broken, the Bush administration can sit around isolated for the next year. Or it can seize the initiative, and do the next administration a favor, by opening direct talks with Tehran. [...]

But there is a good case for negotiations. Many around the world and in the United States have imagined that the obstacle to improved Iranian behavior has been America's unwillingness to talk. This is a myth, but it will hamper American efforts now and for years to come. Eventually, the United States will have to take the plunge, as it has with so many adversaries throughout its history.

That last part is important. To the extent that Iran would not accept a real, comprehensive, good faith deal from the US, our position will be stronger if the world is shown this in primetime - so to speak. If Iran really is interested in such a bargain, well then, everybody wins (or should consider it a win). But we have to actually offer such a deal - not some watered down half-measures with bold preconditions and with no security guarantees for Iran going forward. As Blake Hounshell put it yesterday:

...what the [Bush] administration hasn't done is offer Iran a credible package of inducements that includes security guarantees, economic incentives, and so forth. In the words of the NIE, "opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways."

Some suggestions that I find constructive are laid out here. Either way, nothing is lost, as Kagan explains from merely pursuing such negotiations:

Some argue that you can't talk to a country while seeking political change within it. This is nonsense. The United States simultaneously contained the Soviet Union, negotiated with the Soviet Union and pressed for political change in the Soviet Union -- supporting dissidents, communicating directly to the Russian people through radio and other media, and holding the Soviet government to account under such international human rights agreements as the Helsinki Accords. There's no reason the United States cannot talk to Iran while beefing up containment in the region and pressing for change within Iran. [...]

Beginning talks today does not limit American options in the future. If the Iranians stonewall or refuse to talk -- a distinct possibility -- they will establish a record of intransigence that can be used against them now and in the critical years to come. It's possible the American offer itself could open fissures in Iran. In any case, it is hard to see what other policy options are available. This is the hand that has been dealt. The Bush administration needs to be smart and creative enough to play it well.

You see, it's that last sentence that doesn't exactly inspire hope.

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