Bush’s Iraq “Surge” and the Alternative
Feb 8, 2007 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
February 8, 2007
Number 02/07 #04
There are reports that the offensive designed to restore security in Baghdad which is the key component of US President Bush’s plan for a “surge” of 21,500 troops to Iraq may already have begun. This Update is devoted to contributions to the debate about the “surge” idea and alternatives being proposed.
The opening discussion comes from Danielle Pletka, a top American foreign policy analyst who is a senior figure at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. She argues that it is hard to see any of the various resolutions and plans being drawn up as alternatives to Bush’s “surge” bringing anything resembling victory because they do not include any credible means for creating the one pre-requisite for a pullout – security for Iraqis. She points out that insecurity is the major factor in bringing about support for the various militia and terrorist groups. For her full argument, CLICK HERE.
Next up is Middle East scholar Dr. Walid Phares, who looks in detail at both Bush’s plan and the Democrat response and finds more common logic and overlap than most coverage of the debate generally acknowledges. He points out where both sides appear to have reasonable understandings of the strategic challenge faced. Finally, he calls for both sides to acknowledge that they must work together to deal with the genuine Jihadist threat. For his full discussion, CLICK HERE.
Finally, top American Middle East Scholar Prof. Fouad Ajami puts the surge into the context of the kind of society post-war Iraq is becoming. While admitting its many shortcomings, he nevertheless explains the reasons for his belief that it may nonetheless yet be able to establish stability and even something of a multicultural example for other Middle Eastern states. As always with Ajami, it is beautifully written, so to read it all, CLICK HERE.
By Danielle Pletka
Publication Date: February 1, 2007
Members of the US Congress, distressed with the flagging popularity of the Iraq war, have spent the first month of 2007 scrambling to offer the public the exit strategy it seeks. Bereft of a serious and comprehensive strategy for several years, the American public now has a surfeit of offerings from their elected representatives. Competition, in the form of an array of imaginative and realistic ideas, is good. The congressional plans themselves? Not good.
Joseph Biden, Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (both Democrats) initially partnered with a Republican war critic, Senator Chuck Hagel, to offer a non-binding resolution opposing any further infusion of troops into Iraq, calling on the Iraqis to sort out their political woes with “compromises necessary to ending the violence in Iraq”, while focusing on “territorial integrity”, “counterterrorism” and “accelerate[d] training”. For good measure, the senators called for a “regionally-sponsored peace and reconciliation process”. How any of this is supposed to come to pass is entirely mysterious. Ways and means are not discussed.
John Warner, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, along with a hawkish Democrat and a dovish Republican, offered what might be labeled the loyal opposition plan. (Hagel would be unlikely to claim the “loyal” opposition mantle, having vowed to “do everything I can to stop the president’s policy.”) This non-binding resolution urges President George W. Bush to reconsider sending more troops, encourages “political compromises” by Iraqi leaders and, wait for it, stresses “focus on maintaining the territorial integrity of Iraq”, “counterterrorism”, and “training”. A “regional, internationally sponsored peace and reconciliation process” also gets a nod.
In late breaking news, Warner and Levin announced that they are to join forces, though their “compromise” plan is not yet public. But the quest to lead the forces of retreat will not end there. Democratic senator and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has yet to offer her own non-binding resolution, but has stressed a cap on troop levels. Her Illinois rival Barack Obama has chimed in with a slightly bolder (though unconstitutional) ban on additional troops, a phased redeployment (read: withdrawal) and benchmarks for Iraqi politicians that emphasize economic and security goals, and the much-beloved exhortation for political compromise (which Obama labels “accommodation”). Senator Russ Feingold prefers the tougher, but less clearly unconstitutional threat to cut off funds for the war.
Setting aside the likely resolutions in support of President Bush, we can expect more blueprints for Iraq, many featuring daring offers of enhanced training and regional peace conferences. But defining oneself in opposition to (or indeed in alliance with) the president of the United States and advocating more meetings in hotels does not constitute “planning”.
At the root of the failure to devise better strategies is a fundamental flaw: No plan other than the president’s seeks victory. Yes, it is crucial that the Iraqis compromise politically, and indeed, territorial integrity is important. Training the Iraqis is vital if the United States is ever to exit Iraq. And fighting terrorism is America’s top foreign policy priority. But the prerequisite for all these important pieces to fall into place is security for the people of Iraq.
There is no question that incompetence contributed to the manifest lack of security in and around Baghdad. In order to move forward, however, we must learn from those mistakes. Lesson one: If the Iraqi people cannot trust the Americans or their own armed forces to deliver day to day security, they will turn to the militias and tribes and gangs that will. Lesson two: A light military footprint and efforts to propitiate Sunni insurgents and their sponsors encourages violence. As the United States military learned from success at Tal Afar, victory facilitates compromise, and more men mean victory.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is not a great man, nor even a great leader. But he is the democratically elected leader of Iraq. At the best of times, democratic leaders do not compromise with their opponents and abandon their constituents. And these are not the best of times in Iraq. Maliki must deliver services to Iraqi Sunnis and begin to embrace an Iraqi reconciliation process that emphasizes justice over amnesty. He must disband the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigades and the other sectarian militias. But he cannot do those things until the citizens of Baghdad can go to school and work and prayer without risking death.
Some, like Obama, have suggested that it is not worth an American effort “to babysit a civil war”. Ignoring the consequences of a raging civil war inside Iraq (and the ensuing power vacuum, likely terrorist ascendancy, implications for the broader battle against Islamic extremists and more), Obama and others who harp upon the feckless Iraqis and their primitive sectarianism fail to appreciate the currents beneath the Sunni-Shi’ite fighting.
On the surface, Sunni death squads and Shi’ite gangsters appear to be tolerated by their respective communities because alongside the ethnic cleansing, casual crime and occasional kidnapping, these men effectively act as neighborhood watch committees. But any serious review of the ample intelligence regarding these mini-armies reveals a tightly linked nexus with terrorism underpinned by Saudi money, Syrian fighters and al-Qaeda. Towering above these venomous meddlers, the Islamic Republic of Iran pours money and arms to Iraq’s extra-legal militias. The pragmatic Iranians, who are as uninterested in a stable Shi’ite Iraq as they were in a stable Sunni Iraq under Saddam, support both Sunni and Shi’ite killers.
Like the United States, Iraq’s neighbors and the terrorists have stakes in what passes for civil war inside Iraq. Unlike the troop-cappers and conferencers and tribunes of redeployment and training who now dominate the US Congress, they do have a plan. It involves ensuring chaos, undermining democracy and waiting until the benchmarks have passed, compromise is impossible and American will is worn down. And if congress is any indication, they are half way there.
Danielle Pletka is vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at AEI.
Back to Top
By Walid Phares
World Defense Review, January 29, 2007
In short, President George W. Bush’s plan for “redirecting” the Iraq campaign is logical, in line with the war on terror and targets the correct enemies of Iraq, of democracies and of the United States. But the plan needs to fit within a global vision of winning the global conflict with the Jihadists, on a long term policy, win the support of the new Congress, and be well explained to the American people by the various levels of the administration. This is where the beef is: On the other hand, the response by the Democratic-led Congress as stated by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) is also logical, touches sensitive issues if the Iraq battlefield, and lays out the normal outcome of a strategic success: that is the return of the troops. So are the White House and Congress in harmony? We will see. Both have advanced what is essentially logical. The President challenge is to make sure his bureaucracy follows him thoroughly, and the Congress’ challenge is to make sure the American public sees the big picture the legislators are not revealing yet for the future. Let’s wait and see how Washington’s new dual approach will fare in the very near future.
President Bush’s renewed strategy
Following are quick comments on the main relevant points in the President’s speech, immediately after he made his announcements.
1) The description of the foes: It has survived pressures put by overseas and domestic forces on the US to change the rhetoric: Yes the radical Islamists (which I still propose to coin Jihadists) on the one hand and the Iranian Mullahs regime are the combined adversary of both Iraqi democracy and the US, as well as of peace and security in the region.
2) The Baghdad Plan: The suggestion that saturating the capital with as much troops needed to clean up, maintain the strategic security and transfer to the Iraqi forces is by itself logical, if the global commitment is to strategically win the war and not to win a big battle so that troops can be quickly withdrawn regardless of future developments. But the new Baghdad Plan makes sense only if there is a new Iraq plan as a whole. If the so-called “surge” is only to satisfy American pride now, Americans will pay a higher price later in the process. But if the plan is to move the geopolitics of the War forward, the Baghdad step fits the wider puzzle of surging Iraq out of the current equation. So, if the plan is successful, and the city is somewhat transformed into a “security island” and a launching pad for wider circles of Government led offensives all the way to the border, this is a winning vision. And the “ifs” are very important.
3) Embedding: Another commitment is very important and should have been implemented earlier: embedding US units in larger Iraqi forces. General Abizaid has recommended it. Many voices (including modestly myself during the invasion in 2003) have called desperately to perform the embedding at all stages. An Iraqi Army fighting its enemies with US and coalition forces at its core is a winning card in the conflict. But this supposes a strong support by Iraq’s political establishment. Washington cannot immerse its forces within Iraq’s new units and fight along with them, while Baghdad’s politicians criticize the American ally on Arab TV networks. They cannot have it both ways. The President and the Democratic response seemed to have clarified this to the Iraqi Government.
4) Al Qaeda’s objectives: The President description of al Qaeda’s objectives is drawn from reality. Indeed, the organization, its Salafi and Wahabi supporters want to control the “triangle,” and particularly the Anbar province to launch a “radical Islamic empire.” The President shouldn’t be afraid to give it the name al Qaeda uses: a Caliphate.
5) Iran and Syria: Perhaps the most surprising to the political elite in this country ( US ) and in the region, was the clear position towards the Iranian and Syrian regimes and their policies regarding Iraq. While the anti-American camp was beating the drum during the past months, announcing that Washington has completely fallen to the reality of Tehran and Damascus’ “wisdom,” the White House’s new plan shattered these fantasies: no, there won’t be surrender to Ahmedinijad and Assad. Instead the President, naturally and calmly, reconfirmed what military, security and local observers have known all along: Iran and Syria are aiding and abetting the Terror war in Iraq and providing “material support” to the Jihadists. The President vowed the US and its allies would “interrupt and destroy these networks.” This specific announcement is by far the single most important statement. I would even see it as higher strategically than the Baghdad’s surge. For by deterring the two regimes from crumbling the young democracy in Iraq, America will begin seeing and also understanding the outcome of the conflict. The “other steps” announced by Mr. Bush are of the language understood by the Mullahs to the East and the Baathists to the West of Iraq: Deploying a strike force in the Persian Gulf, activating intelligence capacities and installing Patriot systems across from Iran is the only message that would reach the ears of the Pasdarans commanders and get back to Muqtada al Sadr in Karbala. But again, along with these “messages” Washington should be talking to the Iranian opposition as well and at the same time. This is the framework I referred to above: A surge in Baghdad makes sense only if it is part of a surge in Iraq.
6) Turkey: Another smart statement was to inform Ankara that a cooperation between Iraq and Turkey can reassure the “Kemalist” Republic that no chaos will enflame its south eastern provinces, while Iraq’s Kurds will be part of security arrangements. Such a message could calm the concerns of both the Kurds in Northern Iraq and the Turkish secular establishment; however the Islamists elite may have other plans.
7) Tehran’s Nukes and Threats: Pointing out that a nuclear Iran under a “hateful ideology” is not going to be accepted by the region, and by the international community, is another important point. This red line has to be reaffirmed, especially as Ahmedinijad and his HizbAllah allies in Lebanon are waging a war of attrition against the moderates both Sunnis and Shiia in the region. Reminding Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf principalities that a collapse in Iraq and a defeat of the US in the region will be a prelude to an offensive by Iran’s regime against them, is a must.
8) The big picture: Last but not least, reminding Americans and democracies around the world that the War on Terror will be decided by the outcome of an “ideological struggle” between “moderation and extremists” is needed. It is important that the President, Congress but also the intellectual establishment expands its condemnation of the “hateful ideology,” names it and prescribes the medicine: freedom. It was crucial that the speech would indicate that the other candidates to democratic statehood in Afghanistan, Lebanon and Palestine are looking at Iraq’s outcome. Equally important was to predict that Terrorism won’t stop and that victory in the Arab world would occur when democracy will turn the tides, as I will make the case in my forthcoming book this spring.
Finally, by calling on Congress to form a bipartisan committee and by naming a seasoned leader such as Senator Joe Lieberman to work on a new consensus, Mr. Bush did the right thing that is to respond to the American public’s message sent last fall, but also during the elections of 2004: Unity against the Jihadists.
The Democratic Party response
Senator Dick Durbin delivered the Democratic response. Here again, bypassing the traditional and natural partisan styles, many of the Senator’s points were logical. Here is a summarized evaluation:
1) Escalation and “new direction”: While it is true that the US needs a “new direction” in the War on Terror, the “direction” should be in line with a strategic and global response to the Jihadi plans. Hence, the measurement is not about escalation or de-escalation, it is about weakening the enemy and adapting to its mutation. Any strategic analyst would recommend that when the enemy escalates, you should find a solution to the escalation, not dodge it. For the next step of the enemy is to perform another escalation. Iran, Syria, HizbAllah and al Qaeda’s constellation are doing just that.
2) The Abizaid doctrine: Senator Durbin referred to General John Abizaid’s recommendation not to increase US forces unless Iraqis would increase their participation. The argument is not philosophical. General Abizaid didn’t state that increasing the forces is a wrong principle, but suggested (and I agreed with him fully) that this surge has to be part of a clear “Iraqization.” This equation seems to be a common point to the Administration and the new majority in Congress but both parties seem shy to admit that they have a significant analysis in common: that is to ask for an Iraqi commitment to the campaign.
3) The sacrifices: The Senator’s response touched again the most sensitive cord: American lives are being lost and the price is heavy. No one would argue with this ethical, philosophical and human fact. Losing lives (pass 3,000) in any circumstances is painful, whatever the circumstances are. But again, in the wider perspective of a war with a determined enemy, the bigger question is this: Would ceasing the campaign in the region insure full security in New York, San Francisco and Midwest America on the medium and long run? The debate is still raging in the US and worldwide. Arguments are solid and powerful on all sides, but at the end of the day the party I would believe is the Jihadists themselves: They want to destroy America’s national security and the region’s hope for liberty. Until experts in Jihadism prove Bin Laden and Ahmedinijad wrong, the rational approach is to keep liberating, or at least trying to. Any alternative choice should provide us with a full plan as to the protection of the international community from the new menace of the century.
4) The Iraqis must move forward: Perhaps the most powerful statement made by the Senator was to strongly address the Iraqi Government. On this issue, Senator Durbin was right on target: Those who have been “liberated” from Saddam must rise and assume their responsibilities. Mr. Durbin’s words cannot be highlighted enough. Yes, America paid a dear price over the past four years: 3,000 lives and tens of billions of dollars to remove Saddam Hussein and allow the Iraqi new justice system to try him. The US helped the Iraqis vote three times, draft a constitution and form a new army. In this fourth year, it is time for Iraqis to stand. In many interviews in Arabic on Iraqi radios I challenged local intellectuals and leaders to move the front lines of the struggle to Iraqi hands. I have called on Iraqi academics and public figures to visit the United States and talk to its people. It was illogical to see the American debate taking place without Iraqi voices. Senator Durbin touched an important cord: The Iraqi Government must be courageous and disarm the militias. Iraqi leaders are ultimately the only ones “to lead their nation to freedom.” And as the Democratic response underlined “they cannot be calling for 9/11” to secure neighborhoods and Mosques areas. That was the Abizaid vision: Iraqi soldiers fighting for their cities. I often argued that Iraqi sacrifices were being offered in the wrong places: waiting to be recruited in front of police centers; in front of schools, in buses, in the market place. Instead, if the Iraqi people are consenting to offer sacrifices, allow him to offer its martyrs in a battlefield against al Qaeda or the Iranian militias. But at the end of the day, this is an Iraqi decision, and again both the President and the Senators seemed to be united in this regard.
5) US commitment: The Senator’s words were carefully chosen when speaking about US commitment. He clearly announced a strong bipartisan support to the troops: They will be equipped, backed up and well armed. That should go without any doubt. Also, there should not be an open-ended commitment to the Iraqis for a continuous flow of men and women to fight for them, and instead of them. But at the same time, the new Congress must come to realize that the pendulum is not swinging between “fixing Iraq ” and “coming back home.” The world is not functioning like this. The US went to Iraq to face off with a “threat” not to repair a constitution or arrest a Noriega. Our legislators must hold all the hearings, briefings and meetings they can hold to see clearer in this War on Terror. True, it isn’t about WMDs that weren’t found yet but at the same time it is not also about quitting a conflict unilaterally at the timing of the enemy. Both parties need to sit down outside politics and prepare the country to face a threat, which is not going away, just because we hope it would.
— Dr Walid Phares is a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) in Washington, D.C. He was a Professor of Middle East Studies, Ethnic and Religious Conflict at Florida Atlantic University from 1993 to 2006.
Not the stuff of glory, but with a power and legitimacy all its own.
BY FOUAD AJAMI
Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, January 30, 2007
So this government in Baghdad, fighting for its life, has not mastered even the grim science of the gallows, and has no knowledge of the “drop charts” used for hangings around the world. The Tikritis had been much better at this sort of thing. They had all the time in the world to perfect the skills and techniques of terror; they had done it against the background of relative indifference by outside powers. And they had the indulgence of the neighboring Arabs who gave their warrant to all that played out in Iraq under the Tikriti despotism.
Pity those men now hunkered down in Baghdad as they walk a fine, thin line between the yearning for justice and retribution in their land, and the scrutiny of the outside world. In the annals of Arab history, the Shia have been strangers to power, rebels and dissidents and men on the run hunted down by official power. Now the ground has shifted in Baghdad, and an Arab world steeped in tyranny reproaches a Shia-led government sitting atop a volcano. America’s “regional diplomacy”–the name for our earnest but futile entreaties to the Arab rulers–will not reconcile the Arab regimes to the rise of the Shia outcasts.
In the fullness of time, the Arab order of power will have to come to a grudging acceptance of the order sure to take hold in Baghdad. This is a region that respects the prerogatives of power. It had once resisted the coming to power of the Alawites in Syria and then learned to accommodate that “heretical” minority sect and its conquest of Damascus; the Shia path in Iraq will follow that trajectory, and its justice is infinitely greater for it is the ascendancy of a demographic majority, through the weight of numbers and the ballot box. Of all Arab lands, Iraq is the most checkered, a frontier country at the crossroads of Arabia, Turkey and Persia. The Sunni Arabs in Iraq and beyond have never accepted the diversity of that land. The “Arabism” of the place was synonymous with their own primacy. Now a binational state in all but name (Arab and Kurdish) has come into being in Iraq, and the Shia underclass have stepped forth and staked a claim commensurate with the weight of their numbers. The Sunni Arabs have recoiled from this change in their fortunes. They have all but “Persianized” the Shia of Iraq, branded them as a fifth column of the state next door. Contemporary Islamism has sharpened this feud, for to the Sunni Islamists the Shia are heretics at odds with the forbidding strictures of the Islamists’ fanatical variant of the faith.
Baghdad, a city founded by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansour in 762, was sacked by the Mongols in 1258: The invaders put it to the sword, and dumped its books and libraries in the Tigris. In the (Sunni) legend, a Shia minister by the name of Ibn Alqami had opened the gates of the city to the invaders. History never relents here. In a commentary that followed the execution of Saddam, a Palestinian commentator in the West Bank city of Jenin wrote in a pan-Arab daily in London that a descendant of Ibn Alqami (read Nouri al-Maliki) had put to death a descendant of al-Mansour.
These kinds of atavisms cannot be conciliated. The truth of Iraq will assert itself on the ground, but the age of Sunni monopoly on power has passed. One of Iraq’s most respected scholar-diplomats, Hassan al-Alawi, has put the matter in stark terms. It is proper, he said, to speak of an “American Iraq” as one does of a Sumerian, a Babylonian, an Abbasid, an Ottoman, and then a British Iraq. Where Iraq in the age of the Pax Britannica rested on an “Anglo-Sunni” regime, this new Iraq, in the time of the Americans, is by the logic of things an American-Shia regime. The militant preachers railing against the fall of Baghdad to an alliance of the “American crusaders” and the “Shia heretics” are the bearers of a dark, but intensely felt conviction. We should not be apologetic, in Arab lands seething with bigotry and rage, about our expedition into Iraq. We shouldn’t fall for Arab rulers who tell us that they would have had the ability to call off the furies had we had in place a “process” for resolving the claims of the Palestinians, and had we been able to “deliver” Israel. Those furies have a life of their own: In truth, they are aided and abetted by these same rulers in the hope of tranquilizing their own domains and buying off the embittered in their midst.
The Sunni Arab regimes, it has to be noted, are not of one mind on Iraq. Curiously, the Arab state most likely to make peace with the new reality of Iraq is Saudi Arabia; those most hostile are the Jordanians, the Egyptians and the Palestinians. The Saudi monarch, King Abdullah, has read the wind with accuracy; he has a Shia minority in his domain, in the oil-bearing lands of the Eastern Province, and he seems eager to cap the Wahhabi volcano in the Najdi heartland of his kingdom. There is pragmatism in that realm, and the place lives by its own coin. In contrast, Jordan and Egypt present the odd spectacle of countries heavily invested in an anti-Shia drive but with no Shia citizenry in their midst. The two regimes derive a good measure of their revenues from “strategic rent”– the aid of foreign powers, the subsidies of Pax Americana to be exact. The threat of Shiism is a good, and lucrative, scarecrow for the rulers in Cairo and Amman. The promise of standing sentry in defense of the Sunni order is what these two regimes have to offer both America and the oil states.
The Palestinians, weaker in the scale of power and with troubles of their own, are in the end of little consequence to the strategic alignment in the region. But to the extent that their “street” and their pundits matter, they can be counted upon to view the rise of this new Iraq with reserve and outright hostility. For six decades, the Palestinians have had a virtual monopoly on pan-Arab sentiments, and the Arabic-speaking world indulged them. Iraq–its wounds, and the promise of its power and resources–has been a direct challenge to the Palestinians and to their conception of their place in the Arab scheme of things. A seam is stitched in Palestinian society between its Muslim majority and its minority Christian communities. Palestinians have little by way of exposure to the Shia. To the bitter end, the Palestinian street remained enamored of Saddam Hussein. Iraq’s Shia majority has returned the favor, and has come to view the Palestinians and their cause with considerable suspicion.
For our part, the Pax Americana has not been at peace with the Shia genie it had called forth. We did not know the Shia to begin with; we saw them through the prism of our experience with Iran. Moqtada al-Sadr in Baghdad and Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut: This was the face of the new Shiism and we were spooked by it. And we were susceptible as well to the representations made to us by Arab rulers about the dangers of radical Shiism.
This was odd: We had been in the midst of a searing battle with al Qaeda and the Taliban, zealous Sunni movements, but we were still giving credence to the Arab warnings about the threat of Shiism. Nor were the Shia who would finally claim power in Iraq possessed of an appreciable understanding of American ways. Nouri al-Maliki speaks not a word of English; with years of exile in Syria behind him, he was at considerable disadvantage in dealing with the American presence in his country. He and the political class around him lacked the traffic with American diplomacy that had seasoned their counterparts in Cairo, Amman and the Arabian Peninsula. Without that intimacy, they had been given to premonitions that America could yet strike a bargain, at their expense, with the Sunni order of power.
We held aloft the banner of democracy, but in recent months our faith in democracy’s possibilities in Iraq has appeared to erode, and this unnerves the Shia political class. President Bush’s setback in the congressional elections gave the Iraqis legitimate cause for concern: Prime Minister Maliki himself wondered aloud whether this was the beginning of a general American retreat in Iraq. And there was that brief moment when it seemed as though the “realists” of the James Baker variety were in the midst of a restoration. The Shia (and the Kurds) needed no deep literacy in strategic matters to read the mind of Mr. Baker. His brand of realism was anathema to people who tell their history in metaphors of justice and betrayal. He was a known entity in Iraq; he had been the steward of American foreign policy when America walked away, in 1991, from the Kurdish and Shia rebellions it had called for. The political class in Baghdad couldn’t have known that the Baker-Hamilton recommendations would die on the vine, and that President Bush would pay these recommendations scant attention. The American position was not transparent, and there were in the air rumors of retrenchment, and thus legitimate Iraqi fears that the American presence in Baghdad could be bartered away in some accommodation with the powers in Iraq’s neighborhood.
These fears were to be allayed, but not put to rest, by the military “surge” that President Bush announced in recent days. More than a military endeavor, the surge can be seen as a declaration by the president that deliverance would be sought in Baghdad, and not in deals with the rogues (Syria and Iran) or with the Sunni Arab states. Prime Minister Maliki and the coalition that sustains his government could not know for certain if this was the proverbial “extra mile” before casting them adrift, or the sure promise that this president would stay with them for the remainder of his time in office.
But there can be no denying that with the surge the landscape has altered in Baghdad, and that Mr. Bush is invested in the Maliki government as never before. Mr. Maliki’s predecessor–a man who belongs to the same political party and hails from the same traditional Shia political class–was forced out of office by an American veto and Mr. Maliki could be forgiven his suspicion that the Americans might try this again. It was known that he had never taken to the American envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, and that he fully understood that American officials would rather have other Shia contenders in his post–our old standby Ayad Allawi, the current vice president Adel Abdul Mahdi, both more worldly men at ease with American ways. So if this is America’s extra mile in Baghdad, it has to be traversed with a political leader whose abilities and intentions have been repeatedly called into question by American officials.
This marriage of convenience may be the best that can be hoped for. Mr. Maliki will not do America’s bidding, and we should be grateful for his displays of independence. He straddles the fence between the things we want him to do–disarming the militias, walking away from Moqtada al-Sadr–and the requirements of political survival. We have been waiting for the Iraqis to assume responsibility for their own affairs and we should not be disconcerted when they take us at our word. The messages put out by American officials now and then, that Mr. Maliki is living on borrowed time, and the administered leaks of warnings he has been given by President Bush, serve only to undermine whatever goals we seek in Baghdad.
With Saddam’s execution, this prime minister has made himself a power in the vast Shia mainstream. Having removed Ibrahim Jaafari from office last year, the American regency is doomed to live with Mr. Maliki, for a policy that attempts to unseat him is sure to strip Iraqis of any sense that they are sovereign in their own country. He cannot be granted a blank check, but no small measure of America’s success in Iraq now depends on him. If he is to fall, the deed must be an affair of the Iraqis, and of the broad Shia coalition to be exact. He may now be able to strike at renegade elements of the Mahdi Army, for that movement that once answered to Moqtada al-Sadr and carried his banners has splintered into gangs led by bandit warlords. In our concern with Moqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army, we ought to understand the reluctance of Mr. Maliki’s ruling coalition to take on the Shia militias. The terror inflicted on the Shia–an unrelenting affair of the last three years–makes it extremely difficult for a Shia-led government to disarm men who pose as defenders of a community still under brutal siege.
Boldness and despair may have come together to carry forward this new drive in Baghdad. Fear of failure often concentrates the mind, and President Bush’s policy could yet find its target right as the skeptics have written off this whole project in Baghdad. Iraq has had its way of meting out disappointments at every turn, but the tide of events appears to be working in the president’s favor.
There is a “balance of terror” today between the Sunni and Shia protagonists. More and more Sunni Arabs know that their old dominion is lost, and that they had better take the offer on the table–a share of the oil revenues, the promise that the constitution could be amended and reviewed, access to political power and spoils in return for reining in the violence and banishing the Arab jihadists. The Shia, too, may have to come to a time of reckoning. Their old tormentor was sent to the gallows, and a kinsman of theirs did the deed with the seal of the state. From the poor Shia slums of Baghdad, young avengers answered the Sunni campaign of terror with brutal terror of their own. The old notion–once dear to the Sunnis, and to the Shia a nagging source of fear and shame–that the Sunnis of Iraq were a martial race while the Shia were marked for lamentations and political quiescence has been broken for good.
The country has been fought over, and a verdict can already be discerned–rough balance between its erstwhile Sunni rulers and its Shia inheritors, and a special, autonomous life for the Kurds. Against all dire expectations, the all-important question of the distribution of oil wealth appears close to a resolution. The design for sharing the bounty is a “federal” one that strikes a balance between central government and regional claimants. The nightmare of the Sunni Arabs that they would be left stranded in regions of sand and gravel has been averted.
This is the country midwifed by American power. We were never meant to stay there long. Iraq will never approximate the expectations we projected onto it in more innocent times. But we should be able to grant it the gift of acceptance, and yet another dose of patience as it works its way out of its current torments. It is said that much of the war’s nobility has drained out of it, and that we now fight not to lose, and to keep intact our larger position in the oil lands of the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf. This may not be the stuff of glory, but it has power and legitimacy all its own.
Mr. Ajami is a 2006 recipient of the Bradley Prize, teaches at Johns Hopkins and is author of “The Foreigner’s Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq” (Free Press, 2006).