No Comment — March 31, 2008, 8:37 am

Iraq in the Balance

I scanned the Sunday talk shows and was amazed, even by the normally lowbrow standards of these programs, at the infantile level of discussion about Iraq. In concept, the Sunday shows offer a chance to drill down a bit deeper into the facts behind the news—to reach a level of detail that cannot be reached in the daily news broadcasts. For many decades they served that purpose, more or less. Today they have degenerated into extended opportunities for political sound bites, in which even the most idiotic statements rarely go challenged, and in the worst of which (generally on Fox), the punditry whip themselves into a cappuccino froth of distortions and idiocies.

This Sunday, the real standout topic was Iraq. The major game played was explaining how the massive explosion of violence shows that the “surge is working.” It was a classic case of “hammer round peg into square hole, using maximum blunt force.” Senator Lindsey Graham led the way with his Iran-obsessed explanation. Here’s the video:

Interestingly, John McCain broke from the propaganda line by betraying the fact that the al Maliki government’s offensive against the Sadrist groups in Basra came as a total surprise to the U.S. command in Baghdad.

“Malaki decided to take on this operation without consulting the Americans,” McCain told reporters traveling with him in Meridian, Miss. “I’m surprised he’d take it on himself to go down and take charge of a military offensive. I had not anticipated that he would do it.”

Notwithstanding this nugget of truth, the press stuck with their predictable formulas, asking “Is the surge working?” The question should be different, namely, what are the U.S. objectives in Iraq and are they being met, or even served, by these developments? As McCain made clear, things were not going according to plan.

Let’s start by zooming out still further. How have the Bush Administration’s policies affected the United States’ ability to influence conditions in the Middle East generally? Towards the end of the administration of Bush 41, a consensus emerged that the old bipolar world system had collapsed and a new system had emerged in which the United States stood alone as a superpower—the “hyperpower,” as some Europeans framed it—with a historically unprecedented ability to affect matters around the world unilaterally, that is, without consulting or involving allies. The two administrations that followed revealed sharply differing styles. Clinton proved far closer to traditional conservative attitudes. He was hesitant to “go it alone,” generally opting for soft power and the construction of elaborate alliances in which U.S. goals were modified somewhat to bring in a broader block. Bush 43 adopted an approach of historically unprecedented unilateral action in which the value of traditional alliances was played down—indeed, in which traditional allies were publicly ridiculed by his surrogates. He also pushed extremely aggressive use of military force in the Islamic world, first in Afghanistan, where he had broad support from the international community, and then in Iraq, where he did not. Bush’s rhetoric in this process has been inflammatory, and his objectives have been unclear from the start. He began promising nothing less than a transformation of the Arab world, which was to be democratized and Westernized (rhetoric which, of course, played directly into the hands of the Islamicist groups he was seeking to destroy).

Now in the last year of the Bush presidency, a consensus view is arriving around the world that the era of the unilateral world power is ending. Why? There’s a pretty broad consensus on that, too, though you’ll never hear it come across the stage on American television: Bush broke it. He wore down the American military by crafting a force that was (as indeed seniors in the Pentagon insisted from the start) far too small for the functions he envisioned. And by profligate spending on what may be in the end a largely unfunded three-trillion-dollar war, he has dramatically undermined America’s economic position, sending the U.S. economy into a tailspin.

America remains the first among the world’s powers, but Bush’s wrecking crew will shortly allow the emergence of important competitors on the world stage, including the reemergence of traditional rivals: Russia and China. China’s position as an economic force alone is daunting.

All of this means that the use of American power and prestige in Iraq is a vital test. Thus far the United States has achieved military tactical objectives, but its strategic objectives keep changing as the reality of conditions in Iraq sinks in. And whatever absurd blather may appear on American television screens, this constant changing of the goalposts is read by the balance of the world as something very close to defeat.

The Bush White House and its surrogates (sadly including a general in Baghdad who seems increasingly to act as a sock puppet) want to sell the current developments in Iraq as a logical next step, the elimination of Shi’a militia units to allow the Iraqi government to consolidate its control over the country. It then goes a further step in linking the militia units in the crosshairs to Iran, and even labels their attacks on the Green Zone as Iranian provocations. This is a serious distortion. There are ties between the Iranians and many different militia units in Iraq, but in fact the Iranian ties are strongest with the militia units that the U.S. is backing in this contest, not those under the hammer.

The best analysis to be offered up on this topic has consistently come from Anthony Cordesman. He hit the ball out of the park in his op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times, which was the day’s must-read.

Mr. Maliki’s gamble has already dragged American forces part-way into the fight, including airstrikes in Basra. Striking at violent, rogue elements in the Mahdi Army is one thing, but engaging the entire Sadr movement is quite another. The official cease-fire that has kept the mainstream Mahdi Army from engaging government and United States forces may well be rescinded if the government’s assault continues. . .

How will it affect America? If the fighting sets off a broad, lasting, violent power struggle between Shiite factions, most of the security gains of the last year could be lost and our military role broadened. There is also no guarantee that a victory by Dawa and the Islamic Supreme Council will serve the cause of political accommodation or lead to fair elections and the creation of legitimate local and provincial governments. Such an outcome, in fact, might favor a Dawa and Islamic Supreme Council “Iraqracy,” not democracy.

These are exactly the questions which should be asked, and are still largely being ignored in the U.S. media in its stilted and simplistic portrayal of complex and important facts.

Yesterday, Sadr offered another truce. It would be good news if it proved durable, but the fact is that Sadr exercises loose control over his organization, which makes it unlikely that the truce can be easily put into effect. The U.S. objective in Iraq must be the creation of a self-sustaining and friendly government, and that goal has not been advanced, indeed it most likely has faced further setbacks. The U.S.-supported venture has probably actually increased Iranian government influence in Iraq, including inside the government. Tehran sees al-Maliki as a transitional figure, not likely to last long. It is intent on building a solid and broad base of support within the Iraqi Shi’a community, and it seems to be achieving its objectives.

All of this underscores the dilemma facing U.S. policymakers. Not only are their long-term goals unclear, the tactical choices available to achieve them are increasingly questionable. And the long-term outcome looks bleak. At this point the U.S. still has many allies in the region, allies who adhere to America largely because of their very rational fear and distrust of Iran. But the smart money has long labeled Iraq a massive misadventure, wasting precious American resources and lives. Analysts increasingly see waning influence for the United States in the region. That will be Bush’s legacy.

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