Thursday, January 31, 2008

Change We Can Believe In!

Lifted from the comments, Minnesota Phats is feeling inspired:

I hear Obama say that he represents the "new politics." He eschews the old mode of tearing down one's opponent rather than reaching out and bringing people together.

So he won't smear his opponent, the disengenous duplicitous Senator from Punjab; whose husband is rumored to have had dishonest business dealings; who is "ambitious" (a characteristic that is so admirable in a man, but sinister in a woman); who is experienced like Rumsfeld and Cheney; and a racist who will do anything to get elected and take us backward to the last century.

I'm feeling hopeful already. I am reassured by the near unanimity in the media gushing over his high minded avoidance of the kind of smarmy nasty attacks that the Clintons are making. When his camp played "99 Problems (but a bitch ain't one)" after he defeated Hillary in Iowa I just had to agree with the reporter who praised his "elegant" campaign.
Well, the song was new. Besides, who you gonna believe, Obama or your lying eyes (and ears)?

The Grown Ups

Melvin Goodman's account of a debate with David Wurmser makes me pine for the Alan "It was all about oil" Greenspan rationale for invading Iraq. Seriously. At least extracting oil from Iraq was...plausible:

Last month, I agreed to debate one of the administration’s leading neoconservative policymakers, David Wurmser, to gain some insight on why George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld chose to go to war against Iraq instead of continuing the successful policy of containment. Wurmser’s comments were far more revealing than any information we have gained thus far from Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld.

...In responding to my comments on the putative reasons for going to war (weapons of mass destruction and the links between Iraq and al Qaeda), Wurmser emphasized that there was never any discussion of WMD or terrorism as a reason for going to war.

Instead, Wurmser argued that the Bush administration believed there were significant geopolitical reasons for going to war and offered a fanciful explanation that broke totally new ground. Wurmser said that Cheney, Feith, and Bolton were convinced that U.S. containment of Saddam Hussein was failing and that the controls to keeping Saddam Hussein from expanding his regional influence were “dying.” As a result, the Iraqi leader was in position to exploit the rising anti-Americanism in the region and to “break out” from the sanctions strategy and the no-fly zones to lead a “rogue coalition of nations to expel the United States from the region” and even “to wage war against the United States.” The failure of the United Nations and multilateralism in general made a compelling case for U.S. intervention, according to Wurmser.

...Wurmser maintained that democratization was the only response to Saddam Hussein’s efforts to create a movement against the U.S. role in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.[emphasis added]

Wow. Just, wow. Saddam was going to lead a coalition of rogue Middle Eastern states in a war against the United States? And, er, which rogue nations would those be exactly? Allies like Jordan? Saudi Arabia? Kuwait? Egypt? Turkey?

Don't even say Iran because, well, because only someone like David Wurmser would say something so absurd. The only real possibility, I suppose, would be Syria, but the combination of Syria and Iraq isn't exactly a coalition - less so, an actual threat capable of expelling us from the region. The Syraqi threat! Ha!

Not to mention the fact that Saddam, you know, wasn't really moved by such grandiose and foolhardy objectives circa 2003. He was more of a survival mode, with a dash of fend-off-regional-rivals thrown in, kind of dictator (they almost always are). Also, Assad has never struck me as the kind to stretch out his neck on the block for something so outlandish.

I prefer to believe Wurmser's rambling is just another in a long line of poorly reasoned, faux justifications offered by neocon policymakers in an ongoing effort to conceal the true reasons for invading. The alternative is just so...bizarre.

One last thought: Can we permanently bury the argument that the Bush administration had to invade Iraq because of the weakening sanctions/containment regime? Think about the basic premises underlying this formulation (assuming, for the sake of argument, that without the sanctions Saddam posed some intolerable threat):

In order to address the failing sanctions/containment policies...

Proposition 1: We have to work with our European partners and the UN to bolster support for continued containment, and possibly smarten the sanctions to lessen the impact on the civilian population.

Analysis: Excessively difficult if not impossible. It'll never work. The stuff of big dreamers and fools. Don't even try it. Even talking about it strengthens the enemy.

Proposition 2: We have to: (a) invade yet another Muslim nation with a light military force; (b) depose leader and ruling regime; (c) occupy that nation indefinitely via a central authority with little indigenous legitimacy despite severe linguistic and cultural barriers, a history of deep-seated mistrust and animosity, a religious doctrine of opposition and an inheritied infrastructure in considerable disrepair; (d) usher in a revolutionary democratic transformation despite a dearth of functioning democratic institutions or history of democratic rule, severe underlying ethnic/sectarian cleavages and theocratic tendencies in the local population; (e) create an absolutist free market paragon despite utter dependence of population on government patronage, lack of underlying independent business institutions and a ravaged middle class/economy from years of sanctions; and (f) collect flowers and candies from population, remove most troops within 6 months, use nation's oil to fund operations and watch as model spreads throughout region creating a chain reaction of democracy and extinguishing terrorism worldwide.

Analysis: Cakewalk.

(h/t Spackerman)

Choose Your Own Adventurers

The American Enterprise Institute recently organized a policy conference to assess the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, and come up with policy proposals for addressing the problem. The new group, called the Afghanistan Planning Group, was headed by Fred Kagan and was comprised of many of the same people that made up the Iraq Planning Group - the AEI group, also headed by Kagan, that produced the now famous surge strategy in Iraq.

You'll never guess what this most recent AEI sponsored Planning Group came up with to cure what ails the Afghanistan mission: a Surge! Bet you didn't see that one coming.

Now, truth be told, sending more troops to Afghanistan is actually a good idea, one that I support. However, there is an obvious underlying context, given the messengers and their track record, that renders this advice fanciful at best, if not outright mendacious. By way of background, we never had enough troops to handle the missions in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and the strain on the armed forces of maintaining even this insufficient status quo has been acute (ie, the suicide rate is spiking) and the consequences will be long lasting (lowering standards, repeatedly, to try to bolster flagging ranks).

Nevertheless, with full knowledge of the difficulties then-facing our armed forces, last year AEI recommended that an enormous surge of troops be sent to Iraq; a bubble to be kept there for an indefinite period of time. Bush responded with a lower number than requested increase - but has recently indicated that he intends to keep troops above the pre-Surge level through the end of his term.

So now AEI also wants to add a few extra brigades to Afghanistan. Sure. Me too. But why stop there? I say ten more brigades. Do I hear eleven? Twelve? Ponies? Going once...

It's a lot easier to call for more troops in a vacuum than to actually locate some to send. There aren't exactly extra brigades just waiting around to be mobilized. They're in Iraq - thanks in large part to the AEI crowd. This is just a microcosm of the larger problem, though. Compromising the mission in Afghanistan was one of the trade offs of invading Iraq when we did. Resources are finite, and Iraq was prioritized. It's nice that Afghanistan has, after about 6 years, once again managed to draw some attention from the AEI gang, but unless AEI and others are willing to advocate for a shift in force size in Iraq - involving a massive withdrawal of troops - calling for escalations in Afghanistan will be little more than hollow posturing in pursuit of exoneration.

For AEI denizens, it's all about having your surge and feigning it too.

One more thought on the set of policy recommendations to emerge from this effort. They include this:

Threatening the Pakistanis with unilateral U.S. strikes into Pakistani territory unless the Pakistanis take the initiative to clear al-Qaida’s safe havens themselves.

Word to the wise: It's bad policy to issue threats that one is not willing to follow through on. Under the most charitable interpretation, then, this is a recommendation to make a hollow bluff that, if called, would damage our credibility. The alternative is truly frightening.

(hat tip to Justin Logan)

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Can He Bottle That?

Clearly, Hillary so closely resembles a neocon and is such a Republican in sheep's clothing that her and Rupert Murdoch are part of a mutual affection society, and have a secret deal in place, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah...

Anyway, Rupert's NY Post endorsed Obama.

Which I take as evidence that Obama and Murdoch have...hey, where's the...why is everyone so quiet?

Anyone? Conspiracies? Corporate stoogism? Secret backroom deals?

But seriously, I very much doubt this will even raise an eyebrow. Nor should it, really. But if the Post endorsed Hillary it would have. Then it would have been evidence of various and sundry villainy on her part.

What I have to do is figure out how to get my girlfriend to give me the Obama treatment. Sigh. Life would be easy.

Notes From Amnesiastan*

Good thing we invaded Iraq in order to counter the threat from al-Qaeda and its allies in Afghanistan/Pakistan:

Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud has told the Al Jazeera television channel that he wants to destroy the White House, New York and London.

In his first-ever television interview that lasted 25 minutes, Mehsud was quoted by the Daily Times as saying: Our primary aim is to finish Britain [and] the US, and to crush the pride of the non-Muslims...

Mehsud was recently chosen the leader of a militant coalition named the Taliban Movement of Pakistan, a collection of 40 groups that have come together to battle the Pakistani army.

As the situation in Afghanistan/Pakistan deteriorates, and as the Taliban continues its resurgence, I thought it would be as good a time as any to revisit this little piece of right-wing demagoguery from back in July 2006:

The latest news reports all seem to agree: Afghanistan is falling apart. Once again, pack journalism is trying to shape our foreign policy…

In a June 27 Daily Telegraph piece on the "Afghan crisis," Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid wrote that "people are being killed at a rate not seen since the 2001 American-led invasion." The Taliban are returning, he continues...Almost all of this picture is misleading…and the journalistic pack seems to be rooting for the wrong side. […]

As for the Taliban, it’s questionable whether there is an organized fundamentalist movement at all any more. […]

Saying that Afghanistan is on the verge of collapse is a prediction that could become self-fulfilling.

You see, things in Afghanistan/Pakistan aren't really as bad as the media says. And if they are, well, they're only that bad because the media said they would be. Yet another variation of the "stabbed if you do, stabbed if you don't" maneuver.

(h/t to Hounshell for the link)

* credit Swopa with the turn of phrase

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Weak Tea

Apparently, the most telling moments of last night's SOTU address came via monitoring the applause habits of Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The Hill offers up an observation that is beginning to attract a lot of attention from some of my favorite bloggers:

Clinton and Obama’s divergent views on the troop surge in Iraq, however, were plainly visible.

When Bush proclaimed, “Ladies and gentlemen, some may deny the surge is working, but among terrorists there is no doubt,” Clinton sprang to her feet in applause but Obama remained firmly seated. The president’s line divided most of the Democratic audience, with nearly half standing to applaud and the other half sitting in stony silence.

This bit of subtle showmanship was taken as definitive, slam dunk evidence of, I suppose, a major divergence on Iraq between Clinton and Obama. Mark Kleiman states:

Tell me again that Obama and Clinton now have the same position on the war in Iraq.

Matt Yglesias adds rather bluntly:

And there you have it.

Scott Lemieux was prompted to flirt with notions of candidate ex-communication:

Maybe this doesn't disqualify her from the Democratic nomination, but being consistently wrong on the most important issue of the Bush era has to create a presumption against your candidacy when you're running against two credible, electable progressive candidates.

As for me, this episode is telling of what I find most frustrating about the Obama campaign, and the bent-backwards benefit of the doubt he gets from people that are supposed to be picking a candidate based on progressive credentials. His rhetoric is compelling - and sufficiently vague so as to allow moderates and Republicans to fill in the blanks along with progressives. But in terms of actual nuts and bolts, he is very close to Hillary - to her right slightly on Social Security, environmental issues and health care, to her left slightly on media/FCC issues and foreign policy.

Nevertheless, he is considered a progressive candidate, whereas she is Republicanesque - not quite "disqualified" but close to it. Like K-Drum, though, I just don't get too excited about stand up/sit down, and find that Obama tends to be "consistently wrong" on Iraq when it counts:

Yes, Obama opposed the war, and he opposed it for good reasons. He deserves a lot of credit for that. At the same time, taking a position when you're watching from the sidelines is a lot different from taking a position when you're in office and have to pay attention to the political winds more closely. So how has Obama done on that score? Let's be honest: since he entered the Senate, Obama has hardly been a leader of the antiwar caucus. In fact, his opposition to the war has been pretty muted and his voting record has been nearly identical to Hillary Clinton's. This strikes me as a more telling indication of what Obama would do as president than a speech he gave five years ago when he was in the Illinois legislature.

What I found interesting, as well, is that the paragraphs in The Hill piece that are before and after the excerpt being cited around the horn didn't seem to make the final cut on any of the posts in question. They are as follows, respectively:

But Obama and Clinton seemed to see eye to eye on Bush’s domestic agenda, sitting firmly on their hands through most of the first half of his speech.

Not surprising, but this closeness, again, belies the progressive/conservative dichotomy that many seek to impose on the race. And then this:

When Bush warned the Iranian government that “America will confront those who threaten our troops, we will stand by our allies, and we will defend our vital interests in the Persian Gulf” Obama jumped up to applaud. Clinton leaned across Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), seated to her left, to look in Obama’s direction before slowly standing.

Should I take this as definitive evidence that Obama is more hawkish on Iran than Clinton? I mean she did stand up eventually but only slowly and after Obama leapt to his feet with enthusiasm. If the reaction were reversed, would she get the benefit of the doubt?

The pressure being applied to Clinton from the left has been a net plus in terms of driving the discourse this primary season. It would be better if Obama were getting an equal share of the nudge because he needs it.

Monday, January 28, 2008

You Probably Think This Uranium Enrichment Program Is About You

Discussing the new/old revelations that Saddam was bluffing about WMD for purposes of keeping his regional rivals at bay, Ilan Goldenberg makes an astute observation:

Saddam was more focused on the neighbors and the regional players on his borders, who represented the most direct threats, than he was on the United States. This pattern repeats itself again and again in American foreign policy. As a global superpower, with military reach that stretches the globe, we consistently view things through the broader geopolitical dynamics as they relate to the United States (In this case the "War on Terror" and WMDs). In that process we tend to miss the trees for the forest. Thinking only big, but never about the details. Most countries don't have the luxury of thinking about broader geopolitical strategy. What they care about is protecting their borders and territorial integrity. That means worrying about your neighbors first.

This doesn't just apply to Iraq. It applies to Pakistan. Why does Pakistan and especially the military and intelligence services have a long history of supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan? It has nothing to do with the "War on terror." It is all based on the one and only thing that truly concerns the Pakistani military - India. The Pakistanis have always promoted friendly governments in Afghanistan - no matter what form the government takes - because the last thing it wants is an Indian ally on its Western border.

This was also one of the tragedies of Vietnam.

I'd add one more country to this list: Iran. From Iran's perspective, Iran has many legitimate reasons to pursue an active nuclear weapons program and, despite some of the more heated rhetoric from domestic Iran-hawks, the list does not include using such weapons against the United States and/or Israel in some sort of terrorist strike.

Consider a few of the facts on the ground so to speak: Iran is surrounded by nuclear-armed powers like Israel to the west, and Russia, Pakistan, India and China to the north and east. Many of the Sunni-dominated nations in the region speak openly about containing Iranian power, and have historically cool relations with the Shiite-majority state. In addition, the United States (whose ruling administration has been overtly threatening toward Iran) has had 150,000 troops in neighboring Iraq, as well as an enormous amount of very expensive, highly lethal military hardware assembled in the Persian Gulf and nearby areas for the past five years.

Rumors of expanding the war to Iran have been rampant during the Bush administration's tenure. In recent months, high ranking White House officials have been been shuttling to and from the region in an effort to shore up support in the region for a larger diplomatic and/or military strategy against Iran.

The view from Iran must be more than a little unnerving. Obtaining the deterrent power of a nuclear weapon would do much to secure Iran's position. Even creating the impression that it has done so - or could shortly - would fortify its position. Yet the tendency toward solipsism that Goldenberg touches on leads far too many observers to interpret Iran's moves through a skewed US/Israeli-centric lens.

Iran's primary animating principle is not to pull off a spectacular nuclear-enabled terrorist attack against the US or Israel. Such a move, after all, would lead to the annihilation of Iran and its people. Iran's flirtation with nuclear weapons - like Saddam's continuing bravado in the face of the Bush administration's bellicosity - has everything to do with self-preservation and regional power-politics and nothing to do with collective, national suicide. Alas, there are more important things to Iranian leaders than landing a blow against the US and Israel. Like, remaining Iranian leaders for example. Also: alive.

As set forth above, the US does play a role in Iran's calculations, but not as much, or in the ways, attributed. Further, our clumsy attempts to roll back Iran's program have been, in some ways, counterproductive in that they tend to increase Teheran's anxiety and strengthen hardliners in that nation's government. There is a way to shift Iran's calculus if the goal is to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. If the most recent NIE is any indication, sanctions and other international pressure can achieve certain positive results.

However, defusing tensions should go part and parcel with any diplomatic pressure via sanctions. Security guarantees would also help to assuage some of Iran's strategic concerns. Unless we approach the situation with an appreciation for Iran's part of the equation, and avoid the tendency to cling to cartoonish Manichean formulations of the world, we will continue to be stymied by our miscalculations.

One of These Days and It Won't Be Long

There are a couple of stories currently circulating that could portend the unraveling of the recent progress in Iraq in terms of the lowered pitch and frequency of violent clashes. First, there is this from the Sadrist current:

Influential members of Muqtada al-Sadr's movement have urged the anti-U.S. Shiite cleric not to extend a cease-fire when it expires next month, officials said Monday, a move that could jeopardize recent security gains. [...]

...U.S. and Iraqi forces insisted they would continue to hunt down so-called rogue fighters who ignored the order. Al-Sadr's followers claim this is a pretext to crack down on their movement.

The maverick cleric has threatened not to renew the cease-fire unless the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki purges "criminal gangs" operating within security forces he claims are targeting his followers.

That was a reference to rival Shiite militiamen from the Badr Brigade who have infiltrated security forces participating in the ongoing crackdown against breakaway militia cells the U.S. has said were linked to Iran.

The political commission of al-Sadr's movement and some lawmakers and senior officials said they were urging him to follow through with his threat, pointing to recent raids against the movement in the southern Shiite cities of Diwaniyah, Basra and Karbala.

"We presented a historic opportunity when we froze the (Mahdi) army," Nasser al-Rubaie, leader of the Sadrists in parliament, told reporters Monday. "But the step was negatively capitalized on."

There are a few threads to this story worth paying attention to. First and foremost, there is a hardline contingent in the Sadrist current that has been opposed to the cease-fire from the start and, even predating that development, have been pushing for a more confrontational stance vis-a-vis the United States, "Baathists" and Shiite rivals. Moqtada, much to the dismay of these hardliners, has decided to try to ride out The Surge, shore up his political position, purge disloyal and heterodox elements from the ranks of his movement and keep his powder dry for the next stage of the game (likely the next round of elections, with the goal of becoming the preeminent Shiite political force in Iraq).

The tension is everpresent and, due to recent events, mounting. The problem for Sadr is that, as usual, his movement is being pinched by his chief Shiite rivals, ISCI and their Badr Corp. militia which has been largely incorporated into the "official" Iraqi security forces. Thus, whereas Sadr was willing to countenance some level of US military/ISCI operations targeting certain fringe Mahdi Army characters and other rogue types, ISCI is overreaching and is attempting to cripple the Sadrist current ahead of upcoming elections - and more generally speaking.

The restive factions within the Sadrist current are gaining support and their cause legitimacy due to ISCI's overbroad crackdown. Increasingly, they are forcing Moqtada's hand. Most likely, Sadr will try to let these publically aired concerns serve as a warning to ISCI and the US to pull back on the throttle, or else. He has done this in the past on numerous occasions to some level of success - albeit temporary. If this most recent gambit does not get ISCI and the US to back off, however, Sadr might have no choice but to call off the cease fire. Either that, or he risks creating a major schism in the Sadrist current with substantial portions opting out of the cease fire for lack of patience. In either instance, the upshot would be an increase in the level of anti-US, intra-Shiite and sectarian violence.

On the other side of the sectarian divide, certain Sunni groups are floating their own admonitions as the flaws underlying the Awakenings/CLC strategy are starting to come into focus.

A crucial Iraqi ally of the United States in its recent successes in the country is threatening to withdraw his support and allow al-Qa'ida to return if his fighters are not incorporated into the Iraqi army and police.

"If there is no change in three months there will be war again," said Abu Marouf, the commander of 13,000 fighters who formerly fought the Americans. He and his men switched sides last year to battle al-Qa'ida and defeated it in its main stronghold in and around Fallujah.

"If the Americans think they can use us to crush al-Qa'ida and then push us to one side, they are mistaken," Abu Marouf told The Independent in an interview in a scantily furnished villa beside an abandoned cemetery near the village of Khandari outside Fallujah...

The Iraqi government fears ceding power to the Awakening movement which it sees as an American-funded Sunni militia, whose leaders are often former military or security officers from Saddam Hussein's regime and are unlikely to show long-term loyalty to the Shia and Kurdish-dominated administration. [...]

This creates a serious problem for the Iraqi government and for the Americans themselves. Though Abu Marouf wants to join the government security forces, he volunteers that he considers the present Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki "the worst government in the world – his army has got 13 divisions, most of which are recruited from Shia militias controlled by Iran."

It is clear that Abu Marouf sees the Shia religious party takeover of government as something to be resisted.

Three months, huh? Not even a full Friedman Unit. And here I thought the Washington clock was faster than the Baghdad clock. Guess there's a Fallujah clock and a Basra clock as well. Good luck getting those synchronized though.

Friday, January 25, 2008

If I Show You My Weak Side, What Would You Do?

Some, er, 'breaking' news hitting the wires today:

Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein kept up the illusion that he had weapons of mass destruction before 2003 because he did not think the United States would invade, an FBI agent who questioned him said.

In an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes"...FBI agent George Piro describes conversations with Saddam in the months after his capture in December 2003.

Piro said Saddam...wanted to maintain the image of a strong Iraq to deter Iran, its historic enemy, from hostile action.

"He told me he initially miscalculated ... President (George W.) Bush's intentions. He thought the United States would retaliate with the same type of attack as we did in 1998... a four-day aerial attack," Piro said.

"He survived that one and he was willing to accept that type of attack," Piro said...

The word 'breaking' earns its scare quotes by virtue of the fact that this story already broke almost two years ago in a highly recommended article in Foreign Affairs. That article - written in reliance, in part, on declassified documents - corroborates Piro's account, and adds many additional layers of detail. From a post on this site discussing that Foreign Affairs piece:

...[T]he article attempts to provide an answer to the question: Why was Saddam so uncooperative with inspectors if he indeed had no WMD? The answer: Saddam didn't think the US would invade Iraq and if it did invade, Saddam didn't think the US would prevail. Thus, he wanted to maintain the perception that he did have WMD - or at least ambiguity around this issue.

When it came to weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Saddam attempted to convince one audience that they were gone while simultaneously convincing another that Iraq still had them. Coming clean about WMD and using full compliance with inspections to escape from sanctions would have been his best course of action for the long run. Saddam, however, found it impossible to abandon the illusion of having WMD, especially since it played so well in the Arab world.

Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as "Chemical Ali" for his use of chemical weapons on Kurdish civilians in 1987, was convinced Iraq no longer possessed WMD but claims that many within Iraq's ruling circle never stopped believing that the weapons still existed. Even at the highest echelons of the regime, when it came to WMD there was always some element of doubt about the truth. According to Chemical Ali, Saddam was asked about the weapons during a meeting with members of the Revolutionary Command Council. He replied that Iraq did not have WMD but flatly rejected a suggestion that the regime remove all doubts to the contrary, going on to explain that such a declaration might encourage the Israelis to attack.

By late 2002, Saddam finally tilted toward trying to persuade the international community that Iraq was cooperating with the inspectors of UNSCOM (the UN Special Commission) and that it no longer had WMD programs. As 2002 drew to a close, his regime worked hard to counter anything that might be seen as supporting the coalition's assertion that WMD still remained in Iraq. Saddam was insistent that Iraq would give full access to UN inspectors "in order not to give President Bush any excuses to start a war." But after years of purposeful obfuscation, it was difficult to convince anyone that Iraq was not once again being economical with the truth.

...I wanted to briefly highlight a couple of passages that touch on an aspect of the Iraq war/WMD story that I have argued on numerous occasions: sanctions worked. Not only did sanctions prevent Saddam from acquiring/re-equipping Iraqi WMD programs, but they also contributed to the severe decay and degradation of his conventional forces.

Another factor reduced Iraq's military effectiveness: sanctions. For more than a dozen years, UN sanctions had frayed the fiber of the Iraqi military by making it difficult for Baghdad to purchase new equipment, procure spare parts, or fund adequate training. Attempts to overcome the effects of the sanctions led Saddam to create the Military Industrial Commission as a means to sustain the military. The commission and a series of subordinate organizations steadily promised new capabilities to offset the effects of poor training, poor morale, and neglected equipment. Saddam apparently waited for the delivery of wonder weapons that would reverse the erosion of his military strength. [emphasis added throughout]

The upshot: sanctions can work (and did with respect to Iraq) and sometimes regimes/nations do actually have a motive to exaggerate WMD/military capacity. Something to keep in mind when assessing the outlandish claims of nuclear progress that Ahmadinejad is known to toss around.

[UPDATE: Reader Ken Almquist makes a very good point in the comments section below:

Gravatar One of the details that the AP report leaves out, but that the Foreign Affairs article includes, is that Saddam wasn't trying to create the illusion that he had WMD at the time we invaded Iraq. At the time of the invasion (1) Iraq was cooperating fully with the inspectors, and (2) the supposedly valuable intelligence that we had shared with the inspectors had turned out to be worthless.

It's unfortunate that the AP left out this detail, because it's a safe bet that the AP report will be used to try to blame Saddam for Bush's decision to invade.

Indeed, Armed Liberal over at Winds of Change seems to be hinting at this very argument. But I'll let him clarify if I'm misreading him.]

We Don't Have Any Real Friends

As reported by the New York Times earlier this week, Sunni Awakening members and Concerned Local Citizen militias are under siege in Iraq. The pressure from incessant attacks and assassinations - and the lack of cooperation from the Iraqi government in terms of incorporating these Sunni militias - could lead to the unraveling of the movement, and a flare up of insurgent activity.

American-backed Sunni militias who have fought Sunni extremists to a standstill in some of Iraq’s bloodiest battlegrounds are being hit with a wave of assassinations and bomb attacks, threatening a fragile linchpin of the military’s strategy to pacify the nation.

At least 100 predominantly Sunni militiamen, known as Awakening Council members or Concerned Local Citizens, have been killed in the past month, mostly around Baghdad and the provincial capital of Baquba, urban areas with mixed Sunni and Shiite populations...At least six of the victims were senior Awakening leaders, Iraqi officials said.

...the recent onslaught is jeopardizing that relative security and raising the prospect that the groups’ members might disperse, with many rejoining the insurgency, American officials said.

It is not so much a question of identifying which group is targeting the Awakening/CLC movement and countering that element, as much as identifying which groups aren't involved - and determining whether we could even attempt to neutralize all of the players given some of their identities. The list of saboteurs is comprehensive:

American and Iraqi officials blame Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia for most of the killings...

Officials say that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia has a two-pronged strategy: directing strikes against Awakening members to intimidate and punish them for cooperating with the Americans, and infiltrating the groups to glean intelligence and discredit the movement in the eyes of an already wary Shiite-led government.

Not surprising, really, considering that the Awakenings/CLC groups are trying to eliminate al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM). Nevertheless, AQM's success in infiltrating and disrupting the Awakennigs/CLC movement could prove exceedingly difficult to overcome considering the fact that part of the overall strategy involves absorbing "reformed" members of AQM - and we are forced with few options other than to "trust" the authenticity of the conversion.

Both Sunni and Shiite officials in Baghdad blame two government-linked Shiite paramilitary forces for some of the attacks: the Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization. Sunni officials charge that militia leaders are involved, while Shiite officials believe that the attackers are renegade members of the groups. Both militias have close ties to Iran and have been implicated in death-squad operations against Sunni Arabs, although the Mahdi militia’s leaders have publicly told their members to abide by a cease-fire.

This implication of government forces is perhaps the most worrisome aspect of this story in terms of obstacles to the success of the Awakenings/CLC movement (more on this below). The list goes on, however:

Citizen guardsmen and Iraqi intelligence officials say they have also captured Iranians with hit lists and orders to attack Awakening members. American military officials say they suspect that Iran’s paramilitary force, Al Quds, is directing the Shiite militias’ attacks against the Awakening movement. But other than finding Iranian-made weapons, which are sometimes used by Shiite militia fighters, American military officials offered no evidence that Iranians were participating in direct attacks. “Right now, the Concerned Local Citizens groups are being heavily targeted by Al Qaeda,” said Brig. Gen. Mark McDonald, who is working with the volunteers. “They’re also being targeted by some Shiite extremist groups.”

It is well within the realm of possibility that the Iranians would seek to target these Sunni forces for at least two reasons: First, Iran would be right to fear the rise of strong Sunni militant groups that could rival Shiite hegemony. Second, disrupting potential progress toward stabilization would also serve to tighten the grip of the "headlock" in which the US is currently caught. However, if, instead, AQM is the main perpetrator of such attacks, one would expect the targets to corroborate. Yet...

American and Iraqi officials agree that Al Qaeda is the major threat, followed by the Shiite militias.

But many Awakening members like Mr. Abbas turn that hierarchy of risk upside down, singling out the Shiite militias. [...]

“Badr is the worst threat,” he said, referring to the military arm of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a leading Shiite political party. The next greatest threat, he said, is the Mahdi Army, the armed wing of the political movement of the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr. Both militias have deep influence in Iraq’s security forces.

Despite their opposition to Al Qaeda, Mr. Abbas says, most Awakening members feel even more alienated from the Shiite government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. “Fifty percent of Al Qaeda in Adhamiya has joined the Awakening,” he pointed out.

It should be noted that the Iraqi government has a vested interest in attributing all blame to AQM, since in doing so, the government could shield some of its more prominent members (ISCI, Sadrists) from suspicion. So the "official" position should be taken with a grain of salt. The US also has an interest in allocating blame in such a fashion for a few reasons: First of all, raising the specter of AQM (or exaggerating its involvement) can be a useful means of maintaining political support for the occupation. In addition, acknowledging the role played by groups like ISCI would make for some awkward PR moments for the Bush administration. Consider: ISCI is our closest Shiite ally (with its leader feted at the White House in recent years), and the largest Shiite bloc in the Iraqi government. We happen to be spending trillions and losing thousands of lives to protect ISCI and the rest of the government.

Further, regardless of image concerns, the US relies on ISCI and the Shiite leadership in very real, logistical ways. In terms of military capacity and indigenous support, the US is not really in a position to target ISCI's militia and Sadr's while fending off AQM and other recalcitrant Sunni insurgent groups that have not bought-in to the Awakenings/CLC paradigm. Given this intractable conflict of interest and incoherence underlying the US relationship with the Iraqi government, and the dizzying array of forces aligned against the Awakening/CLC movement, the relative calm brought on my the Awakenings may be approaching its, er, last throes.

But, you know, withdrawal is not an option.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Who You Calling Sayyed?

I have a guest post over at Newshoggers on some recent Moqtada al-Sadr related developments if that interests you. And what a curious beast you are if it does.

Unipolar Melt

As I have been arguing for years, falling prey to the seduction of "unipolarity," and vastly overestimating its scope and permanence, only accelerates its unraveling. In this, the Bush administration and its ideological enablers have been singularly blameworthy. But the damage has not been limited to the realm of foreign policy necessarily. Bush administration economic policies (including enormous expenditures on multiple wars while enacting unprecedented simultaneous multi-trillion dollar tax cuts), have greatly weakened our global economic position and compromised our fiscal independence.

Blake Hounshell interviewed Ian Buruma regarding his recent trip to the Davos conference (first time back in 8 years), and his observations in comparison are telling:

It's my second time, and it's the complete opposite of the first time, which shows you how perceptions and moods can change. The first time was in 2000, and the mood of the conference then was that the United States was so far ahead of the rest of the world that nobody would ever catch up again, because it was the height of the high-tech boom and all that. And now it's the sort of the opposite, and the U.S. is kind of humble and clearly desperate for money from the Arabs and the Chinese and so on forth... Condi Rice talking about mistakes having been made.

What everybody's talking about in the halls, of course, is the economic crisis. And one of the subthemes is that the West and the U.S. in particular needs to be propped up more and more money from countries that are not democratic. And so the discussion is what the consequences of that are. One of the answers has been that the Gulf States and China and so on should be pressed for more transparency in their financial transactions.

So, just as the dominance of the U.S. was a given in 2000, the so-called shift in power from the Atlantic world led by the United States to a very new world seems to be the received opinion now.

Unsurprisingly, the Republican Party's response to this ever-worsening condition is to...make Bush's tax cuts permanent, cut trillions more dollars in taxes and continue our occupation of Iraq to the tune of a few billion dollars a week for the next ten years. Or hundred years, as needed. Yeah, that should really stabilize our economic condition, and lessen our dependence on foreign subsidization of debt.

And they accuse liberals of being insufficiently enthusiastic in their love of country. With love like that, who needs hate.

The Antidote for Civilization

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to direct your attention to what would make the ideal Valentine's Day Gift, Birthday Present, 50th Anniversary Gift and/or kindling for your fire place in these cold winter months: Alas, it is here. The Poor Man's magnum opus (and the opus will remain all magnumy until Teh Editors writes something else).

Because I am known to roll high and ball hard, I ponied up for the luxe-deluxe bound edition, with the gold leaf trim, diamond encrusted leather cover and author's signature - in blood (though the particular donor is unclear).

I suggest you do the same...

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Let the Cool Goddess Rust Away

Admittedly, I've never been a big fan of Maureen Dowd's catty, substance free columns. I've given her efforts the occasional perusal, but rarely do I feel particularly enriched or stimulated, though sometimes amused. That generalized apathy is turning into disgust, however, after witnessing how her compulsive, pathological animosity for the Clintons is turning her into a serialized killer.

Her latest effort is as predictable as it is banal - though "banal" doesn't really capture the dimensions of the underlying ugliness. The column is replete with her usual psycho-babble, envy and unfair attribution of cynical motive to every statement, maneuver and decision - both real and imagined. She is the print version of Chris Matthews, and their shared and sordid grudge laid bear on a regular basis makes following each an equally odious task.

Speaking of Matthews, his irrational Clinton hatred is only outmatched by his reverence for Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and, oddly enough, the sleep-inducing, or deprived, Fred Thompson (is there a more transparently sexist pundit on the non-Fox cable stations?). Seriously, Matthews still thinks Giuliani is in the fight. I wonder if he's gotten past denial with regard to Thompson yet (some apparently haven't).

Still, the gold standard for this type of fare - both in terms of volume and nastiness - is set by Andrew Sullivan. Roy Edroso says it well, when discussing the recent maelstrom over the fact that the Clintons are, gasp, baring knuckles in a campaign (I know, I know, hard to fathom):
I don't even need to quote him; you know what to expect from him and have known it for years. If Sullivan has nothing else in common with his old rightwing colleagues anymore, he is reunited with and even outstrips them in his reflexive hatred of all things Clinton. I'm not so keen on them myself, but I don't need a fucking drool-cup whenever they come into view. And I must say that Sullivan's current concern for gentlemanly conduct in Presidential contests is a little rich when compared to his far more measured assessment of Karl Rove as recently as 2004:

And the Mary Cheney thing is a brilliant maneuver by the Republicans. Rove knows that most people do find mentioning someone's daughter's lesbianism to be distasteful and gratuitous. So he can work it to great effect, exploiting homophobia while claiming to be defending gays. Again: masterful jujitsu. I tip my hat to the guy. Poisonous, but effective.
Compared to that loathsome episode, what the Clintons have been doing is strictly Marquis of Queensbury stuff, but they'll never get the kind of good-show Sullivan gave Rove because Sullivan is afflicted by what, in other contexts, is commonly called a Derangement Syndrome.
Sullivan has been so unbearable that many of his readers have asked him to regain his composure and perspective - and he pledged to make an attempt to moderate his passionate hatred. As Dana Goldstein illustrates, however, addictions are a hard thing to break:

Andrew Sullivan hit a new low [i]n his Hillary Clinton hatred, calling Richard Nixon Clinton's "mentor." Why, wasn't it less than two weeks ago that Sullivan promised "a new tone" when it came to his treatment of the Clintons? "I'm going to try a little harder to be a little more temperate," he swore.

A temperate blogger might note that in one of her first jobs after law school, Hillary Clinton worked for the House Commission on the Judiciary securing Nixon's impeachment.
Like Roy, sharp-elbowed politics doesn't shock me, nor would I imagine, for a minute, that the Clintons invented the stuff. Nevertheless, there seems to be a bit of collective amnesia with respect to the current race. A few months back, Edwards and Obama were having a difficult time putting a dent in Clinton's lead. At the time, pundits and observers criticized Edwards and Obama for playing too nice. "The only way they could take her down was to go negative," went the frequent refrain. Then, unsurprisingly, the gloves came off and the pair did in fact go negative. They started repeating GOP talking points about the dishonesty and slickness of the Clintons, and were making veiled racist appeals (calling Hillary the Senator from Punjab was a particularly nice touch from the Obama camp). It worked (it almost always does), and the polls narrowed.

Obama, though, gets excused for his negative campaigning because he claims that he doesn't do it, and that he doesn't like the old politics (or himself, I guess, for practicing it). And people accept this uncritically. Instead, the focus is on the dread Clintons - or the "two headed monster" as Dowd puts it in an approving quote of Rupert Murdoch's NY Post (note: I thought Murdoch was a Clinton supporter?)

It's not that I don't like Obama, because I do. I will happily vote for him (or Edwards or Clinton in the general election). The Democrats are blessed with three very strong candidates - a veritable embarrassment of riches compared to the poverty of the GOP field. Still, I'm not going to fool myself about Obama, or claim that he's some exception to the rule. In that respect, the double standards bother me - whether it be in terms of judging proclivities for negative campaigning, or in the application of political tests whereby a politician who is to the right of Clinton on healthcare, Social Security, the environment, energy policy and economic stimulus is championed as a "change" politician and a progressive stalwart, while Clinton is derided as a Republican.

In reality, Obama has positioned himself to the middle and, at times, right on purpose. He invoked Reagan's name deliberately and with calculation. It was no accident. He wasn't praising Reagan overtly, but making a play for independent and Republican votes as he has been doing all campaign - both rhetorically, and through policy proposals. I think it's a pretty good strategy in fact.

Ironically, though, Clinton has been deemed unfair and out of bounds for calling this for what it is - not Obama for the obvious pander. Speaking of which, Obama recently released a Huckabee-like Christian-themed campaign brochure in South Carolina to, similarly, make a play for the applicable constituency. As usual, he gets a pass. I'm sure Clinton will be judged harshly if she raises it as an issue, though.

He doesn't really mean it his supporters argue - but Clinton always does. He's just doing what he needs to do to get elected which is perfectly reasonable. Unless Hillary's playing the same game. I'd say it's surprising, but then, there's so much irrational animosity directed her way, that shock isn't really in play.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah!

Today being the 35th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, like any good little progressive, I'll be attending a special Planned Parenthood event - flush with good music, an open bar for a brief stretch and lots of other treats.

Headlining the concert will be Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah, whose eponymous record was my favorite new acquisition from last year (even if I was a little late to the game).

Got an extra ticket if anyone wants to attend.

The Harder They Clap, the Harder We Fall

Andrew Bacevich has a superb piece in this Sunday's Washington Post that pierces the "success of the surge" narrative and, relatedly, the recurring and currently waxing "victory" meme. The Bacevich article addresses some of the facets of the tendentious surge storyline discussed on this site last week, here and here. To his credit, Bacevich also makes clear that, even if Iraq were to steadily improve from this date forward, "victory" is not a word that should be used to describe the engagement - a point I tried to drive home here. An excerpt from Bacevich:

But how exactly do these sacrifices serve the national interest? What has the loss of nearly 4,000 U.S. troops and the commitment of about $1 trillion -- with more to come -- actually gained the United States?

Bush had once counted on the U.S. invasion of Iraq to pay massive dividends. Iraq was central to his administration's game plan for eliminating jihadist terrorism. It would demonstrate how U.S. power and beneficence could transform the Muslim world. Just months after the fall of Baghdad, the president declared, "The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution." Democracy's triumph in Baghdad, he announced, "will send forth the news, from Damascus to Tehran -- that freedom can be the future of every nation." In short, the administration saw Baghdad not as a final destination but as a way station en route to even greater successes.

In reality, the war's effects are precisely the inverse of those that Bush and his lieutenants expected. Baghdad has become a strategic cul-de-sac. Only the truly blinkered will imagine at this late date that Iraq has shown the United States to be the "stronger horse." In fact, the war has revealed the very real limits of U.S. power. And for good measure, it has boosted anti-Americanism to record levels, recruited untold numbers of new jihadists, enhanced the standing of adversaries such as Iran and diverted resources and attention from Afghanistan, a theater of war far more directly relevant to the threat posed by al-Qaeda. Instead of draining the jihadist swamp, the Iraq war is continuously replenishing it. [emphasis added]

These paragraphs describe one of the starkest strategic defeats suffered as a result of the invasion of Iraq (leaving aside the staggering loss of life and unthinkable human suffering). Whether it be the opportunity to study tactics, techniques and weapons systems, the establishment of networks and cadres of experienced veterans, or the sharp uptick in anti-Americanism worldwide, the Iraq war has been the Christmas gift that keeps giving to bin Laden and his ilk. A fully endowed Jihad University, coupled with a massive PR campaign paid entirely by the US taxpayer (to the tune of a few trillion dollars). That's some sugar daddy.

In a perverse sense, trumpeting the dubious "success" of the surge only ensures that our defeat is exacerbated: the more we insist that we're winning, the more our losses will grow. While the happy surge talk will enable Washington policy makers so inclined to perpetuate the occupation, the longer we do so, the worse the problems highlighted by Bacevich will become. So it is that we are opting for the fleeting gratification of hyping some faux victory over the thankless though crucial task of acknowledging the moribundity of the patient and applying the tourniquet where possible. To paraphrase Henley: every day the vanity of old men and the cowardice of their courtiers deepen our hole.

Iraq war blowback has already been witnessed on the battlefields of Afghanistan - where IED technology and use has spread virally - and in terrorist attacks against Western targets throughout the globe. It will undoubtedly get worse. Nir Rosen recently published a piece in the Boston Review that, with encyclopedic attention to detail, discusses the deteriorating situation within Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and the role played in that downward spiral by radical militants - many of them veterans of the Iraq war jihad, or potential jihadis inspired by Iraq, but diverted to Lebanon while en route to Iraq by terrorist plotters (these Lebanese developments discussed, in brief, on this site here and here).

As Palestinian Salafist preachers’ influence increased, their followers began to train in and out of the camps and new factions started to appear inside the camps. Usbat al Ansar is the largest and oldest of these jihadist groups in Ayn a Hiweh [ed: a refugee camp]. Rougier calls them “a travel agency and YMCA for jihad.” “They are a jihadi group, they must act,” he explains, “so the way of solving the contradiction of being in Lebanon but not fighting Israel or anybody else is by sending jihadists to Iraq and secretly helping groups like Fatah al Islam.” [...]

Abu Salih, whose tattoos suggested that he had not always been devout, had fought in Fallujah in the fall of 2004, staying for about fifty days with between 250 and 300 other fighters of different backgrounds. He said he met Zarqawi there one dark night in Fallujah’s Askari neighborhood. Zarqawi had been very nice to “the brothers” and had cooked for them. “The earth was burned,” he said. “Planes were bombing, but we had cold water, appetizers, grilled chicken.” I asked why he went to Iraq and had not tried to liberate Palestine. “It’s impossible to go fight in Palestine, the Arabs closed the borders, Jordan, Syria,” he said. “Here, if they open the way to fight Israel, many people would go fight.”

Abu Ghassan...had a nine-millimeter Glock pistol on his belt. It made its way to Lebanon when some “brothers” returned from Iraq with large quantities of weapons, and its price in the camp was two thousand dollars. I had seen the Glock pistols that Americans had given the Iraqi police used by Shia militias in Iraq and sold on the black market in Baghdad. An August 2007 report from the Government Accountability Office estimated that 190,000 weapons Americans had given Iraqis were unaccounted for. [...]

As Iraq becomes a less hospitable place for jihadists and foreign fighters, and as there are fewer American targets to go after, these veterans, experienced at fighting the most advanced army in the world, will look for new battles. Andrew Exum, a former U.S. army officer who led a platoon of light infantry in Afghanistan in 2002 and Army Rangers in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been studying militant Islamist groups. “The fighting in Nahr al Barid is, unfortunately, just the first round in what I fear will be a series of battles fought in the aftermath of the Iraq War,” he says. “On Internet chat rooms, we’re seeing militants turn away volunteers to go fight in Iraq and promising the next fight will be in Lebanon and the Gulf. Lebanon, especially, is a magnet for Sunni extremists,” he says. “You not only have a haven for these groups in the Palestinian camps, with security services from rival Arab states competing for their loyalty and attention, you also have two tempting targets: both the pro-Western ruling coalition in Beirut, as well as the opposition, led by a powerful block of Shia parties. How can we not expect these Sunni militants, who have spent the past four years waging war on the Shia of Iraq, to try and carry that fight on to the large, politically active Shia population in Lebanon? Or on to the pro-Western regime that precariously hangs onto power?”

On the other hand, the surge has reduced violence in Iraq to 2006 levels, so it's hard to say.

(h/t to Teh Aardvark for one of the tastiest delicious sidebars around)

Friday, January 18, 2008

A Lot of Strands to Keep in My Head, Man

As someone who has long paid attention to shifting Iraqi political currents, and the potential formation of cross-sectarian political alliances (or vectors) capable of transcending the rampant communalism that pulls Iraq apart, I would be remiss if I failed to mention some recent movement in the ranks. The latest alliance to emerge (fragile and contingent as it is) organizes itself along a different axis than the shorthand frequently resorted to by many observers, myself included: that of Sunni vs. Shiite vs. Kurd. The current groupings are sorted by preference for a unified, centrally controlled Iraq vs. a highly federalized, if not partitioned, Iraq.

Earlier this week, Juan Cole reported:

12 parliamentary blocs have signed on to the memorandum of agreement, including a Turkmen party. They said that the central government should continue to enjoy its prerogatives with regard to administering national resources and expressed "severe anxiety" about attempts to conclude contracts by provinces without coordinating with the federal government. (This point is a slam at the Kurdistan Regional Authority, which is doing oil contracts without reference to the Oil Ministry in Baghdad).

The agreement also calls for the issue of Kirkuk Province to be settled by negotiation rather than by referendum. The Kurdistan Regional Authority wants to annex Kirkuk, but most of the Turkmen and Arabs there don't want that to happen. The Kurds have flooded Kurds into the province, so that they would win a referendum if it were held, but the other Iraqis are dragging their feet, so that the issue has been postponed until this summer and may be postponed further. The problem is that the referendum has the potential for sparking both a civil war and a regional war with Turkey.

The parties signing the agreement also want the al-Maliki government to set a timetable for withdrawal of US troops.

As that last sentence indicates, the proponents of a unified Iraq also tend to take a more hostile position vis-a-vis the United States (and Iran), and thus are frequently identified as "nationalist" despite the narrow, sectarian leanings of some that inhabit this camp. Reidar Visser (who has long suggested that the Sunni vs. Shiite vs. Kurdish paradigm be replaced - or enhanced - by a unified(nationalist) vs. separatist(sectarian) framework) had this to say about recent developments:

...[I]mportant non-sectarian trends are also blooming. The recent agreement by a majority of Iraqi parliamentarians (the coalition is said to number around 150 MPs) to work against radical decentralisation of the Iraqi oil sector and for a negotiated approach (rather than a referendum) to the Kirkuk question represents this kind of important inter-sectarian effort that brings Iraqi nationalists of all shades together, whether they be (Shiite) Sadrists, Sunni Islamists, or secularists. It may even be possible that this kind of nationalist alliance – which is the fruit of a process that started almost as soon as the Maliki government was formed in 2006 – will have better prospects now that a de-Baathification law has been agreed on and no longer will torpedo rapprochement along such lines in the way it has done so often in the past.

Viewed against this backdrop, some of ISCI's recent gambits take on a new light. Perhaps it was in reaction to the challenge mounted against its overriding objective of creating a separate Shiite super region in the south that ISCI decided to explore alliances with Sunni Awakenings groups as discussed in this post. Visser mentions other entreaties:

Still, few issues are clear-cut in Iraqi politics, and some details regarding the recent manoeuvring in the Iraqi parliament as well as in Basra may suggest that the sectarianism/nationalism dichotomy itself could be quite fluid. The Fadila party, which since 2006 has been part and parcel of most initiatives to create a broadly based, non-sectarian alternative to the Maliki government, was conspicuously absent from the list of signatories to the recent anti-federal demands. Indeed, the party has officially issued a statement to the effect that it does not support the initiative, albeit without stating the reason for this opposition. Conceivably this may have to do with the federalism issue, where at least some forces in Fadila are quite pro-federal, but disagree with ISCI on the size of future federal entities. But it also comes on top of a rather sudden calming of the chaotic political scene in Basra. Here, ISCI and Fadila have been at each other’s throat for two years straight, but have recently both signed up to some kind of city-wide truce – although without revealing any details that can corroborate the idea of a real political compromise.

Juan Cole notes that the Kurds are none-too-pleased, and mentions another side of the Fadhila strategy as well:

For their part, the Kurds deplored the statement. The Kurdish independent Mahmud Osman, said that "we were surprised by this resolution." He said that the group's antipathy toward article 140 of the constitution (which calls for the holding of an early referendum on whether Kirkuk Province should accede to Iraqi Kurdistan) "can only be interpreted as an attack on Kurdish issues."

President Jalal Talibani [ed: a Kurd] extended an invitation to the Islamic Virtue Party (IVP) [ed: aka Fadhila] to join the already- assembled 3-party alliance that underpins the current establishment. This invitation was a transparent attempt to detach Fadhila from their new friends and to draw it into an alliance with the Kurds and to entice it to join the forces in favor of a loose federalism rather than a powerful central government.

The problem with these vectors is that they are, thus far, limited in scope and do not yet represent a true, durable consensus on a number of crucial issues. Visser's take on the ostensibly "nationalist" Sadr current is telling:

Similarly, there is unwillingness by some (but not all) Sadrists to accept concessions associated with the Sunnis like the new de-Baathification law. Its recent adoption in the Iraqi parliament was hailed by a few vocal Sadrist MPs, but thoroughly condemned on websites that express a more sectarian Sadrist view such as Nahrainnet, which has highlighted negative reactions to the bill among some of the lower-ranking clergy of the Shiite holy cities.

On the other hand, if Sadrists were that upset with the new law, maybe it wasn't all bad? Not that such sincere anger helps the unifed nationalist front, however. As you can see, a lot of ins, a lot of outs, a lot of what-have-yous.

...and another thing

While I'm tossing off quick hit posts, allow me to note that Blake Hounshell is not the only one who thinks the newly designed FBI "Ten Most Wanted List" logo looks ridiculous (image on the left).

Blake's right when he says:

I mean, it looks like something designed for a low-budget variety show, not for a list that includes the likes of Osama bin Laden.
Seriously though. It's the graphic design equivalent of jazz hands.

For the Most Part

Quote of the day from the Jameson Clan:

Hitchens is like life: nasty, British, and drunk. Fuck him.
All too often...

If I Could be Like...Barbara!

Forget Michael, Barbara is the real Jordan. Check out Erik Loomis' informative and concise bio of one of America's least heralded heroes.

Also: Someone help Loomis out with the spelling of his name. "k"?

Politicians In Bullet Proof Glass Houses

ISCI's leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim is at it again - leveling spirited criticisms at the the Iraqi government for its poor performance. What goes unmentioned by Hakim, of course, is that ISCI is one the largest participants in that underperforming government. As I said before, dissing Peter to praise Paul:

A powerful Shiite politician accused the Iraqi government and legislators of allowing "personal whims" to delay national unity, addressing thousands of worshippers who rallied Friday to commemorate the death of one of the most revered saints.

The criticism in Baghdad by Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of parliament's largest Shiite political bloc, was among the strongest to date ...

Al-Hakim often has suggested he is displeased with the performance of the nearly 19-month-old al-Maliki government, of which the politician's Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, or SIIC, is a major partner. But his speech on Friday was among the strongest criticism to date, suggesting a growing impatience.

Speaking behind bulletproof glass, he called on the government and parliament to "make the issues of everyday life of the people a top priority and not to be completely preoccupied with the political struggle at the expense of the daily concerns of the citizens."

He urged them to pass stalled legislation on provincial elections and the distribution of Iraq's oil wealth, which are seen as vital to bringing Sunnis into the political process and stemming support for the insurgency.

"We are keen to form a national unity government despite the fact that election results allowed us to form a government that does not carry the characteristics of a national unity," al-Hakim said. "What is regrettable is that the national reconciliation process has been subjected to personal whims."

He also criticized government institutions of accepting "corruption and bribes" and called for mechanisms that would "prevent the blackmail of the people."

Politicians speaking behind bullet proof glass houses shouldn't throw stones - or something. There are at least two obvious methods to Hakim's mendacity.

First, Hakim is looking to create the impression of distance between his ISCI party and the enormously unpopular Iraqi government, despite the obvious involvement. In this, he is attempting to benefit from a tactic that Moqtada al-Sadr has long employed to great benefit. But then, Sadr's anti-government posturing tends to be a bit more authentic than ISCI's - even if not entirely accurate given that Sadr's current has long controlled certain government ministries and has enormous influence in legislative bodies.

In addition, Hakim continues to speak of the plight of "ordinary Iraqis" who have been neglected by the current government. Given that Sadr's organization derives much support from its delivery of social services to those Iraqis, Hakim's sudden interest is more than a coincidence. So, with elections in the South looming on the horizon, Hakim is doing his best to loosen the government millstone from around ISCI's neck while attempting to cut in to Sadr's populist support.

There is another possibility. Rumors have been swirling lately (again!) of a potential reshuffling of the Iraqi government that would involve (if David Ignatius' sources are to be believed) a sacking of Maliki with Adel Abdul Mahdi replacing him. Adel Abdul Mahdi is (surprise!) a high ranking member of Hakim's ISCI party. So Hakim's criticisms could be read in this light as well - a bankshot if you will. Even if the putsch peters out, at least Hakim could achieve some re-branding vis-a-vis Sadr in the battle for Shiite hearts and minds.

I'd throw the talk of "national unity" government in this pile as well, since Ignatius' formulation of the latest anti-Maliki alliance includes the participation of Sunni parties. That is one of the ways that Hakim would sell this palace coup to the Bush administration (or better yet, which the Bush administration would use to sell it to the American people). There has also been increasing chatter of Hakim reaching out to Anbar Salvation groups in an attempt to incorporate them into his nascent alliance.

Something to keep an eye out for, even if these rumors don't have a very good track record in terms of arriving at fruition.

[UPDATE: The always informative Reidar Visser on Hakim's dubious rhetoric:

It is deeply ironic that [ISCI's] leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim should use the occasion to claim that the process of national reconciliation in Iraq has been “delayed” by the pet projects of individual politicians: ISCI’s own ideas about a single Shiite federal entity is arguably the clearest possible example of such projects, and Iraqi national reconciliation could have made great strides if this divisive scheme had simply been taken off the table.

Ironic indeed.]

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Hop on Poppies

Sometimes it seems as though the entire nation of Iraq is being subjected to a Job-like series of hardships. The latest in the lengthy parade of horribles:

The cultivation of opium poppies whose product is turned into heroin is spreading rapidly across Iraq as farmers find they can no longer make a living through growing traditional crops.

Afghan[s] with experience in planting poppies have been helping farmers switch to producing opium in fertile parts of Diyala province, once famous for its oranges and pomegranates, north- east of Baghdad. [...]

The shift by Iraqi farmers to producing opium was first revealed by The Independent last May and is a very recent development. The first poppy fields, funded by drug smugglers who previously supplied Saudi Arabia and the Gulf with heroin from Afghanistan, were close to the city of Diwaniyah in southern Iraq. The growing of poppies has now spread to Diyala, which is one of the places in Iraq where al-Qa'ida is still resisting US and Iraqi government forces. It is also deeply divided between Sunni, Shia and Kurd and the extreme violence means that local security men have little time to deal with the drugs trade. The speed with which farmers are turning to poppies is confirmed by the Iraqi news agency al-Malaf Press, which says that opium is now being produced around the towns of Khalis, Sa'adiya, Dain'ya and south of Baladruz, pointing out that these are all areas where al-Qa'ida is strong. [...]

Al-Qa'ida is in control of many of the newly established opium farms and has sometimes taken the land of farmers it has killed, said a local source. At Buhriz, American military forces destroyed the opium farm and drove off al-Qa'ida last year but it later returned. "No one can get inside the farm because it is heavily guarded," said the source, adding that the area devoted to opium in Diyala is still smaller than that in southern Iraq around Amara and Majar al-Kabir. [...]

The growing and smuggling of opium will be difficult to stop in Iraq because much of the country is controlled by criminalised militias. [emphasis added]

One of the concerns voiced in response to the Awakenings + CLC strategy of coopting Sunni tribal/insurgent groups is that by arming, encouraging and sanctioning so many non-governmental militias, Iraq could devolve into a warlord dominated and highly fragmented quasi-state, ala Afghanistan. If the reporting in this article is accurate, the similarites are only growing.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Iran So Far Away...[from us at least]

Greg Gause gives an interesting interview to Bernard Gwertzman of the Council on Foreign relations discussing, mostly, the state of play for Saudi Arabia vis-a-vis Iran and Iraq. Of particular interest, and something that I have been monitoring as part of my ongoing coverage of the effort to enlist Sunni dictatorships (SADDAM) to confront Iran, is Gause's contention that Saudi Arabia is not exactly enthusiastic for a military confrontation per se, since it's their necks that are closest to being on the line:

The Saudis will be very anxious to hear what President Bush has to say about Iran because the Saudis share the American view that Iran is a threat and has to be contained. But they’re very nervous about a direct U.S.-Iranian confrontation because they think they’d be on the front line of that. [...]

To the extent that there’s a fear that the Bush administration might even after the NIE be pursuing a confrontational policy, yes, they want more engagement. But the Saudis are in a situation that is much like the position of our NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] allies during the Cold War. During the Cold War, the NATO allies were afraid if U.S.-Soviet relations became bellicose they would be the battlefield. But they were also afraid if U.S.-Soviet relations were too friendly their interests would be sold out. The Saudis would like to have a peaceful but wary U.S.-Iranian relationship.

Last February I commented on this apprehension, noting:

[O]ne of the key members of that putative pan-Sunni bloc, Saudi Arabia, has recently crossed the picket line in order to engage Iran in common pursuit of a solution to quiet the rampant violence and communal tension in Lebanon. A breach in the supposed "united front" this early in the game doesn't exactly portend well for the long term success of the project.

While roaring birth pangs and roiling conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites, writ large, might sound attractive to certain denizens of the White House, the leaders that reside in the region that is designated to be set ablaze won't likely agree on the aromatic quality of napalm in the morning. At least when it's their houses being incinerated.

Here is Gause on the recent haj invitation extended from Riyadh to Ahmadinejad (also discussed here):

The Saudis are playing a sophisticated game here. They see Iran as a rising power in the region—in Iraq, in Lebanon, and among Palestinians. They fear that Iran [the major Shiite power] will be the ultimate beneficiary of the Iraq war [because of Iraq’s large Shiite population] and so they do want to contain them. But they want to contain and embrace at the same time. They don’t want a direct confrontation with Iran. They had those direct confrontations during the Ayatollah Khomeini period during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and they didn’t like it.

Gause also touches on the tension between the Saudi regime and the Maliki government, hinting at the Saudis' longview, and preferred champion - albeit a longshot (as discussed here, here and here):

They don’t like the Iraq war and they don’t like the results that it has brought about. But they were very worried that if we just left, Iran would completely dominate the new Iraqi state. And so, they very publicly at the end of 2006 called for the United States, as the Saudi ambassador put it, “not to leave Iraq before you’ve fixed it.” But the most interesting development in 2007 from the Saudi point of view is the rise of the Awakening Councils, the tribal and other Sunni groups uniting against al-Qaeda and cooperating with the United States. We don’t have much evidence on this because the Saudis are secretive about such things, but I’m pretty confident that the Saudis have encouraged this with their influence and with their money. And those Awakening Councils are kind of the natural extension of Saudi influence into Iraq. [...]

They certainly have a proxy contest for influence. But at least on the Saudi side I think they are willing to acknowledge that Iraqi Shiites are the demographic weight in Iraq and they are going to be the dominant part of the government. What they worry about is that the Sunnis will be cut out completely and that the Iraqi Shiites who are in the government will be clients of Iran. And they look at Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki as basically a client of Iran. [...]

[Ideally the Saudis would] bring the Iraq war to an end with Ayad Allawi as prime minister. He’s a good Shiite, but he’s not a client of Iran and he’s not a sectarian religious figure. And Allawi’s government would bring in lots of Sunnis. Politically, I’m not sure that could be pulled off. But that’s what they would like.

I tend to agree. The question is, will the Saudis learn to live with Maliki or someone with a similarly sectarian Shiite outlook? Because Allawi ain't happening. If not, will their proxies in Iraq eventually turn their guns on the Maliki government (or its next incarnation)? As Marc Lynch noted in his highly recommended roundup of Arab media chatter concerning Awakening-style developments:

The Jordanian analyst Hassan al-Barari recently reported on a meeting he had with Abu Azzam, identified as one of the leaders of the Abu Ghrayb Awakening. According to Abu Azzam, the greatest threat to the Arab Sunnis is the Iranian occupation, and then the American occupation. The number one enemy was not al-Qaeda as portrayed in the media, he stressed, but rather Iran and its agents. The American occupation was only for the medium term but the Iranians would stay. If the Resistance could not fight the Americans and Iranians together, the logical solution was to align with the temporary American occupation in order to improve the Sunni position to defeat the Iranians.

In this instance, as with the Saudis, "Iranian occupation" and "Maliki government" are functionally synonymous.

Putting the Islam in Islamofascism

I have long complained about the tendency for certain ideological factions to treat all terrorism committed by Muslims as a monolithic phenomenon - be it through use of imprecise language like "Islamofascism" or by conflating groups like al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. The broad brushed approach represents a gross oversimplification that clouds key underlying issues, grievances and opportunities, and thus inevitably leads to counterproductive and inefficient policies. David Shorr was hunting this game with an election-themed post that contains some worthwhile links. A tidbit:

As the US develops a stronger ability to connect with the national interests of others, we will become more effective in combating terrorism. For instance, it is important to see not just one terrorist threat, but many different threats. Not only will we understand better what confronts us, but we will see more clearly which different threats engage the different interests, and thereby support, of other nations. We have learned that when we look at the threat monolithically, it carries an implicit all-ornothing demand that can backfire. Focusing more on the distinct strategies and tactics among terrorists could create new opportunities to forge partnerships with a range of other nations.

Those valid complaints seem like a pale quibble, however, in the face of Paul Cella's defense of Major Stephen Coughln - who was recently dismissed from his post at the Pentagon - and, indeed, Coughlin's own work. The thrust of Coughlin's thesis (warning: pdf) is that the real "underlying cause" for terrorism committed by Muslims is...Islam itself.

So how does one explain the prevailing assumption that Islam does not stand for such violence undertaken in its name with the fact that its laws and education materials validate the very acts undertaken by "extremists" in Iraq?

Cella picks up Coughlin's theme and decries the reluctance on the part of Americans to identify Islam as the problem:

It is my firm view that the most vital problem of American national security, the question upon which hinges our fortune in the war that came to our shores on September 11, in short, nothing less than the most pressing issue before the Republic, is whether or not we will comprehend the ineradicably Islamic character of the enemy.

Are we or are we not a people capable of embracing hard truth about the war that is made against us — the hard truth that the enemy finds his motivation, his inspiration, his justification, his rhetoric, even his strategy and tactics, in the authentic and primitive traditions of the religion of Muhammad? Are we or are we not a people possessed of the fortitude equal to this challenge? As the cliché goes, can we handle the truth?

As Cella continues in comments, while trying to offer a compromise position with a dissenter:

...we are going to have to emphatically leave open the question, are terrorists the weeds in the Islamic garden, or are they the garden itself?

Even uber-hawk John McCain cannot escape unscathed:

We invent new euphemisms to conceal the facts virtually every day; we invent them because, as Chesterton aptly put it, short words startle us while long words sooth [sic] us. Sen. John McCain, for instance, is said to be a hawk on the war on terror. For him the enemy is a comically redundant string of emotional descriptors: “radical Islamic extremism.” My personal favorite is the talent of our sheepish writers for piling on suffixes. The enemy becomes “Islamicism”; whatever is necessary to rhetorically distance him from the Islamic religion as such. The purpose of these lengthy phrases is not to properly identify and understand the enemy; it is to sooth [sic] the distressed conscience of Liberalism.

Yikes. Kind of makes all those evocations of Islamofascism seem quaint. Then again, perhaps we should leave open the question: Is Paul Cella's interpretation of Islam the weed in the garden of those pushing the Islamofascism frame, or is it the garden itself?

(h/t to the Jameson Clan)

Monday, January 14, 2008

What Have You Spun for Me Lately?, Part II

In Part I of this series, I focused on the lessons not-quite-learned by the media/punditocracy, despite their earnest apologies for the shoddy reporting in the months leading up to the Iraq war. Far too many of the same entities/individuals that helped to sell the invasion are failing to abide by the terms of their mea culpas by uncritically repeating the dubious "Surge is a success" narrative - a story-line that could very well lead to the prolongment of our debilitating involvement in Iraq. In this Part II, I want to take a closer look at the recent political "breakthrough" that will be used, tendentiously, to bolster the claim that The Surge has, in fact, delivered "victory."

As if right on cue, Secretary of State Rice took to the press to tout the fact that national reconciliation was now moving ahead "quite remarkably" - now that the Iraqi parliament has passed a law that, ostensibly, eases de-Baathification. The problems with this new law are manifold in both its substance and legislative history/process. First, while the law has passed parliament, it has not been approved by the Maliki cabinet (although I don't foresee this being a major obstacle).

More problematic is the fact that a law that is supposed to signify a major step toward national reconciliation was only passed by approximately one-fourth of the parliament (a bare majority of the 50% of parliament then in session). Further, the law was criticized most vociferously by the Sunni ex-Baathist groups that it was meant to appeal to, and lauded by the Shiite and Kurdish groups that have been most traditionally opposed to easing de-Baathification. In other words, the merits of the law in terms of outreach to the Sunni community is in serious question.

Worse still, the new law may require many ex-Baathists currently employed in government roles to retire, and current and prospective employees to register with the central government - a government replete with Shiite militias notorious for sectarian cleansing (such as those run by US-ally ISCI and the Sadrist current). Some Sunnis fear that this law could ultimately serve as a means to compile lists for further targeting ex-Baathists. Swopa highlights the relevant text:

"It's a good step for many reasons," said Falah Hassan Shanshal, who leads the parliamentary committee overseeing the legislation and is a member of the Shiite party loyal to influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. "First, it condemns all the crimes carried out by the Baath Party and its bloody regime. And this law will allow us to search for and detect every single person who committed a crime against Iraqis."

Nothing quite says reconciliation like knowing al-Sadr's death squads will be taking a close look at your record, eh? Somehow, I don't think either forgiving or forgetting is on their agenda.

Spencer Ackerman adds the appropriate snark:

Welcome back to the world of fake reconciliation. At long last, the Shiite/Kurdish government finally passes a de-Baathification law, only the law is phony. The Sunnis are outraged: one Sunni parliamentarian calls the law "a sword on the neck of the people." But the Shiites throw their hands up and say What do you want from us? It took us over a year of arduous compromise to get to this point. That's as far as we can go!

It's that last, italicized part that I want to focus on, because it neatly encapsulates the overriding agenda of the Maliki government and the ruling Shiite/Kurdish coalition more generally speaking. Far too often, pundits, policymakers and observers are left wondering if Maliki has the "power" to usher in the legislative raft associated with national reconciliation. The better question has always been whether Maliki (or his predecessor Jaafari, or any viable replacement) had the will. In reality, Maliki has always been more inclined to make a show of pushing for reconciliation more than actually setting about to enact such a platform. As Henley put it so colorfully last June:

Look, weak leaders have been fending off strong foreign suzerains for a long time. Very few of them are stupid enough to take the “Why don’t you shove that oil law up your ass?” approach. Instead they declare their pious wish to comply, shrug their shoulders and gesture helplessly in that “You see vhat I have to verk with, Mr. Napier” way of the quack who operates on the Joker in the first Tim Burton Batman movie.

And so we get fake, half-hearted reconciliation from a ruling regime that only recently declared national reconciliation to be mission accomplished already! No more work needed!

In this, Maliki seems to be paying much more attention to the exigencies of America's domestic political scene than we are to Iraq's. He has the situation pretty well calibrated: do enough to provide the Bush team and its allies with a PR coup, while not actually ceding any of the money, power and control thought necessary to actually make progress toward reconciliation.

Everybody wins! (and loses)

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