Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Talented Mr. Maliki

Characterizing the situation in Iraq as a war is at this point a bit misleading. The "Iraq war" has been a nebulous entity, and it stopped being precisely a war right around the time President Bush played dress up on an aircraft carrier. From then on, our military has not been so much waging a military campaign as desperately policing a country on the brink of self-annihilation.

But that campaign's over too, at this point, at least for now. The predominantly Sunni "Concerned Local Citizens" (See earlier pontification here) have driven out most of the Sunni al Qaeda fighters, and the predominantly Shiite Iraqi army has mostly subdued and dismantled the main Shiite militia group, the Mahdi army. If you define the Iraq "war" as a campaign against insurgents and terrorists, then it has been nearly won, for now, and if the US, and in particular General Petraeus had engineered this inter-sectarian housecleaning, there would be pats on the back to distribute.

But though Petraeus' strategy has been eminently wise, you can't lay this whole victory, if that's what it turns out to be, at his feet. No, there's another guy who's been equally responsible: Nouri al-Maliki.

You may remember Mr. Maliki as the bungling, beleaguered puppet who occassionally had to call Mommy Bush or Aunt Condoleezza just to hold onto his job.

Things have changed.

Maliki was acting against the advice of his US handlers when he sent his ill-trained but well-armed soldiers into Basra, launching his campaign against the Mahdi Army, and seen in this light, the apparently rosy situation in Iraq takes on a slightly different hue.

Maliki's defeat of the Mahdi crowd transformed him from a befuddled joke into a lion of a prime minister. More, it proved that Iraq's army probably could handle the majority of remaining insurgent threats (assuming its US allies were not too very far away). But the Mahdi Army itself was at the time under ceasefire orders from its leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, and attacking it seemed a little like poking a hibernating bear. That, I would imagine, is why the US told Maliki not to do it.

No matter now, of course. Maliki did it, and the bear didn't eat anyone. Good times. But what's interesting about the affair is that while this whole bear poking thing was going down, Sadr himself was relaxing in scenic Iran. What makes this interesting is that Maliki is very good friends with Iran.

I'm not suggesting that there was some kind of Iranian-brokered conspiracy between Sadr and Maliki, because even I'm not that paranoid. But what I will suggest is this: The reason the bear was sleeping in the first place probably had an awful lot to do with Iran.

The US used to love accusing Iran of arming insurgents in Iraq, but in so doing it was either missing or ignoring Iran's all-too-obvious strategic interest. Iran wants nothing more than a Shiite-controlled ally as a next door neighbor. That's it. A Shiite-controlled Iraq is immensely valuable to Iran, a buffer between it and the otherwise Sunni Middle East. What's funny about this is that this is the same goal the US has for Iraq; a Democratic Iraq is, after all, a Shiite one, unless sectarian divisions magically break down somewhere along the line.

But the Bush Administration seems oblivious to the natural alliance between Iran and a democratic Iraq. Instead, it harbored a bizarre fantasy that the Iraqi government would feel so indebted to its doting Uncle Sam that it would remain in lockstep with the US agenda, or perhaps that its status as a democracy would bind it to the US. This is stupid for two reasons:

1). These people didn't grow up hearing about the wonders of Democracy. It doesn't mean that much to them. Sectarian allegiances, on the other hand, affected who held power under Saddam, and later who would shoot whom in the street. They carry a tad more weight.

2). The US stormed into their country, fucked shit up, and refused to leave. They are not grateful.

All of which brings us back to our good friend Mr. Maliki, who's proven a very agile political creature. When his main base of support was the Bush administration, he was their man in Baghdad. But now that he has political power of his own, he's shifting away from his US backers. The US, he realizes, is unpopular, and there are elections to think about in Democratic Iraq. Plus, every Bush snub scores him points with Iran, which he would dearly love to be his ally. One senior Shiite politician put it succinctly: "The Iranians will stay in this place forever till the Judgment Day," he said, "and the Americans will withdraw."

The US would surely love to do that - even McCain has used the phrase "withdraw with honor" in referencing Iraq. Which sort of begs the question of what the hell constitutes success in this horrid misadventure? If the US withdraws over the next 16 months, it will have in some sense done its moral duty, doing its damndest to at least mitigate the catastrophe it caused. But on a strateglevel? Bush and John McCain have each painted the Iraqi Democracy as some kind of City on a Hill for the Middle East, which is pretty much the height of ridiculousness. Somehow I doubt the Syrians are looking over at Iraq and thinking, "Man, we need to get in on that action!"

More realistically, we might have hoped to come away with a regional ally, keep some troops stationed there, maybe even get some of that sweet Iraqi crude at a discount.

Instead, we are going to wind up with a government somewhere between prickly and openly hostile, allied with our top regional enemy, Iran. The issue of keeping bases in Iraq has been so politicized on both sides that what should have been a matter of course is now in jeopardy.

Think of it this way: We are Iraq's France. Without the French, the US could never have won its independence. But we just plain don't like those Frenchy bastards, so our politicians use them as a punching bag. The Iraqis just don't like us. Get used to it.

And beyond all this, there is one last chilling possibility: the Sunni Awakening Forces and the Iraq Army could still decide to fight it out. And that would be a war, and a scary one.

But don't worry guys. The surge worked. The shit is to shoe-level. Let's pop some champagne.

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