Saturday, March 29. 2008
I suppose we should have known we were in for big trouble last week (March 24, to be exact) when Frederick Kagan announced, "The civil war in Iraq is over." The Surgemeister has never been right yet, but even by his standards this is pretty spectacular. With Dick Cheney and John McCain touching base in Iraq recently, with General Petraeus due for a DC dog and pony show on how the Surge has brought peace and prosperity to Baghdad, with the withdrawal promised back at the start of the Surge on indefinite Pause, it looks like all the planets were aligned to tug Kagan's brain even further than usual out of orbit.
I've read a few theories about why Maliki decided to lapse from his well established habits of do-nothingism to pick a war with the Sadr faction of Iraqi Shiism that brought him to power, but I haven't read anything convincing. Most likely the orders came from Washington, given how readily everyone from Bush on down fell into line, with US air power and tanks already taking over much of the fighting. But why Washington would push for a plan like this is hard to fathom. You'd think they'd be happy just to leave well enough alone and try to play out the clock, leaving the mess for the next administration. But that line of thinking assumes they're conscious enough to realize they're fucked and there's nothing much they can do about it. Since they have done something about it, we need to focus on dumber lines of reasoning, since clearly they're not smart enoguh to stay clear of this mess.
One question is whether they think they can effectively defeat Sadr. One problem is that the military damage they do manage to inflict will be self-limiting: the more dominant they are, the more they will drive the Mahdi Army underground into a protracted guerrilla war. Their chances at a military rout of a well armed, popularly supported, and increasingly decentralized movement are vanishingly small. The far bigger problem is political: it's inconceivable that US-backed Maliki unleashing war in Shiite neighborhoods will do anything but boost the Sadr movement's legitimacy as the only credible force willing and able to stand up against the US and their Iraqi cronies.
Any way you slice it, this sure looks like a losing move. So why? Here you have two basic choices. On the one hand, you can guess that the US thinks it can win this war, because the idiots-in-chief always think they can win everything no matter how often they're proven wrong. With Bush and Cheney, it's hard to dismiss this possibility no matter how stupid it looks. On the other hand, it's doubtful that Maliki is that stupid, which raises the other option. It's possible that Sadr, working behind the scenes of his cease fire, was on his way to putting together some sort of alliance that could send the US packing and Maliki into hiding. That might make one desperate enough to wage a preemptive strike, even if the prospects of it working for long were slim -- and with the US time is especially important.
As you'll recall, the US occupation was on the ropes back in spring 2004, with the US fighting Sadr as well as the Sunnis, and losing spectacularly on both fronts, but more dangerously with Sadr backing the Sunnis. The US backed off, making deals with both sides, most of all to keep them separate. Sadr, for his part, hurt himself immensely when he sat by idly while the US punitively destroyed Fallujah after the 2004 election. His sectarian Islamism and fanatical anti-Baath stance undercut his appeal as an Iraqi nationalist, and that's kept him on the sidelines ever since. But nobody else's in a position to do what needs to be done. Right-wingers like Fred Barnes have been saying all along that sooner or later the US has to take out Sadr. For them, later is coming sooner now -- hitting Sadr later in the election may be too much, and waiting until the election's over may be too late. They may figure this is the best chance they're going to get, so caution be damned.
One side effect of the siege that we're already seeing is the shutdown of Iraq's remaining oil exports, pushing pump prices up to soon-to-be record levels. Presumably that's not the reason, but Cheney may find the synergies gratifying.
Glenn Greenwald: Fred Kagan on Monday. The Kagan quote and more, including several updates.
Fred Kaplan: Warlord vs. Warlord. An early attempt to sort out what's happening in Basra. I like the parenthetical line: "The lively blogger who calls himself Abu Muqawama speculates that Bush officials have embraced ISCI because, unlike Sadr, its leaders speak English." ISCI is the former SCIRI -- founded, trained, and armed originally by Iran, but close to the US occupation, unlike Sadr's group, which is wholly based in Iraq with no foreign entanglements. This points to the sort of shallow reasoning the US specializes in, even though it leads to all sorts of insane confusion about which bad guys Iran must be backing even though Iran's real allies in Iraq are actually our so-called good guys.
Patrick Cockburn: Iraq Implodes as Shia Fights Shia. Another report:
Cockburn notes that Sunnis seem to be supporting Maliki, seeing the Mehdi Army as little more than a death squad. This suggests Sadr hasn't made much progress in forming a united anti-US front. His short-sighted failure to do so is what allows the occupation to carry on, despite its destruction and unpopularity.
If these events prove anything, it's that the argument that the US has any sort of moral obligation to stay in Iraq to fix or at least steady things that it wrecked is completely at odds with the actual US presence in Iraq. Balancing conflicting forces and nudging them toward some sort of political compromise might be desirable, but that's not part of the skill set Bush et al. have brought to the country. They persist in picking sides, backing favorites, working out longstanding grudges. They think force works, and they see politics as just another means to extend their force. If it was ever going to work, you'd think you'd see some sign by now. As this proves, there is no such sign.