Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Iraqi Gamble

Gareth Porter has written a provocative analysis of the political maneuverings behind the Battle of Basra, the plans of the Bush Administration, and the relations between Maliki and Iran that needs to be considered. According to Porter,

What Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, did not reveal is that
Maliki was deliberately upsetting a Petraeus plan to put US and British forces into Basra for a months-long operation to eliminate the Mahdi Army from the city.

His thesis is plausible and important if true, but it seems debatable. If this is the real story, then what explains Maliki’s aggressive attack on Moqtada in Baghdad, which betrayed the spirit if not the letter of the Basra ceasefire agreement? However, the debatable nature of Porter’s thesis is precisely the point: it needs to be debated and investigated, not swept under the rug.

Why is this important? It matters both for the future of Iraq and more broadly for the future of both Washington’s confrontation with Islam and for the future role of the U.S. in the world.

Concerning the broad confrontation between Washington and the Moslem world, this would, if true, be a significant piece of confirmatory evidence for the hypothesis that Bush will end his presidency by intensifying his confrontation with the Moslem world. Such a policy--for which U.S. behavior toward Pakistan (at least until their recent election), Iran, Somalia, Palestine, and Lebanon…and now Iraq provide confirmatory evidence—by a lame duck administration would be highly risky. The “this is our last chance” perspective of a lame duck administration easily induces risk-seeking behavior.

Americans will tend to blame Moslems for any ratcheting up of tension by the Administration, locking the next administration into an extension of the war policy, which would go far to solidifying all the dangerous Bush policy innovations (nuclear war threats as normal policy options, claims that preventive war is a morally legitimate form of behavior even in the absence of an immediate and unavoidable threat, the way to deal with the Moslem world is by force, the solution to the oil crisis is to take control of other people’s oil resources).

Cheney and his friends argued in well-known public writings at the end of the Clinton Administration for a fundamental change in U.S. foreign policy. They achieved that goal temporarily. Were the incoming administration locked into an unspoken acceptance of the legitimacy, morality, and appropriateness of this extremist, belligerent policy of brutal military force as the primary approach of the U.S. toward the rest of the world, the norms of Western behavior would be truly shifted – back from the slow post-WWII emergence of the revolutionary concept of egalitarian international law and “America, leader of the free world,” (the moral example) to the 19th century days of unabashed imperialism.

Of course that is reading a great deal into one policy decision to destroy a single militia that appears guilty of many crimes against Iraqis (albeit no more guilty than al-Hakim’s militia that is Maliki’s power base or the Sunnis). Nevertheless, just as Bush had moderate policy alternatives that could have replaced his recent missile attacks on Pakistan and Somalia, he had choices regarding policy toward a faction that was participating in the political process, providing desperately needed local government services, and observing a ceasefire.

Therefore, Washington’s visible military support for Maliki’s attack in Basra and, more significantly, its attack in Baghdad after the agreement on a Basra ceasefire, already constitute strong evidence that the Administration is rigidly maintaining its hardline stance. If Porter’s nicely argued thesis that Bush had actually intended an even larger, U.S.-led battle in Basra is true, that significantly strengthens the argument.

Concerning Iraq in specific, if Maliki did in fact intend to use his own attack to prevent a U.S. offensive, numerous interpretations with implications for Iraqi stability are possible. Porter may be correct in implying that Maliki was trying to save Moqtada, albeit in the process teaching him a lesson, but Maliki’s needlessly hardline rhetoric that did so much to make the ultimate compromise ceasefire look like a defeat for Maliki suggests otherwise. Perhaps he is just starting to think he is actually the ruler of Iraq and doesn’t like the idea of the initiative being in the hands of the occupier. Or, in a slight variation on that point, it may be that Maliki appreciates that he would look somewhat emasculated were he to have victory over fellow Shi’a handed to him by the occupier.

Let’s assume that Maliki does in fact want to defeat Moqtada and unite the Shi’a right now, rather than after the summer ends or after Bush leaves office or after U.S. troops start to leave or after the Sunni Awakening forces get their act together and transform themselves into a unified military force capable of challenging the Shi’a. A quick victory would help to:

  • Solidify Maliki’s tenuous hold on leadership;

  • Prevent the anticipated defeat of Maliki/Hakim forces by Moqtada in the fall elections;

  • Head off the emerging Sunni threat by unifying the Shi’a (although perhaps at the expense of unsettling the Sunni even more);

  • Cement his alliance with Iran, which seems to have been playing both sides of the Shi’ite factional dispute.

This would all constitute a risky plan on Maliki’s part, given the degree of legitimacy Moqtada has as the leader of a geographically and socially cohesive section of the Iraqi population, but as long as Maliki is perceived to be in charge and U.S. troops can be manipulated into playing a support role to guarantee him military superiority, he may calculate that he can exploit America’s military power in Iraq safely and then watch from a position of power as the U.S. military shadow fades away.

Maliki gets the power to dominate his domestic opponents; violence declines, facilitating the departure of U.S. forces. Iran has the satisfaction of seeing its proxies solidly in control of a post-colonial Iraq. More, Maliki carries out his plan of creating a Shi’ite political region in the south, giving Iran a rich playing field for exercising its influence. A satisfying mirage for the heat of summer, indeed.

Unfortunately for Maliki, “mirage” is exactly what such a plan will very likely prove to be. As I discussed earlier,

U.S. occupation destroyed the ethnic unity of Iraqi society, provoked the rise of Islamic militancy, created a power vacuum that was
naturally exploited by all manner of local tough guys, and thereby opened the door for al Qua’ida, which, in its own equally barbaric way, moved as efficiently as the U.S. to take advantage of events to sink its teeth into the carcass of Iraqi society.

An all-out military offensive to destroy Shi’ite opponents and unify Iraqi Shi’a by force would probably exacerbate rather than end these trends started by the U.S. occupation.

  • First, the gamble that Moqtada can be overwhelmed is a risky one.

  • Second, what reason is there to expect the Sunnis, with their new 90,000-man military (albeit it one in fragments rather than formed into an army), simply to sit on the sidelines? Might they not be tempted to aid whichever Shi’ite group finds itself at a disadvantage in order to keep the Shi’a disunited?

  • Third, might the prospect of victory by Maliki, whose reticence to allow the Sunnis to join either the political system or the national army has already produced some evidence of a Sunni tactical recalculation, not persuade the Sunnis to resuscitate their ties to al Qua’ida?

The list of theoretical possibilities could be extended endlessly; more valuable would be a group effort by those concerned to develop a list of impacts that are actually emerging, as evidence becomes available. It is a fateful decision for a government to make the decision to attack its own capital. It is also a fateful decision for the factions dividing one ethnic/religious group in a diverse and disunited society to decide to resolve their conflict through force. The potential long-term consequences of this sudden shift away from compromise merit careful study before all the so-called progress under the surge goes up in smoke.

The point to keep in mind at this early stage of the process is that the extreme complexity of the Iraqi political situation makes calculating the outcome of an aggressive initiative particularly hard. In a complex situation, the more extreme the shift in behavior (short of some “final solution” like genocide), the more numerous the changes, the more rapid the adaptation of all actors in the system, and, thus, the more difficult it will be to predict the outcome. Iraq is characterized at present by:

  • an unusually large number of political parties;

  • an unusual degree of power possessed by these parties as a result of their private militias;

  • an extreme degree of foreign military, intelligence, and financial inputs into the Iraqi political system resulting from the weakness of the Iraqi government;

  • extreme ferment—rapidly evolving factional alliances and tactics;

  • an unusually rich range of significant political perspectives (Ba’athist, federal, confederal, Shi’ite revenge, jihadi, colonial, pan-Shi’ite).

This summer in Iraq is not just going to be hot but filled with surprises...with ominous implications for the far more important conflict between Tel Aviv and Tehran.

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