It may be hard to swallow but the Iraq Study Group may have done the Bush Administration a big favor.
The fact that the ISG Report was so defeatist and so pessimistic about the future in Iraq means that any significant improvement to the security situation will greatly exceed expectations engendered by the report, thus giving the President a modest but welcome success.
Of course, achieving success will depend mostly on the ability of the Iraqi government to address the tangled web of political problems that are fueling much of the violence. But it is significant that the effort to cobble together a new coalition – more broadly based than the current Shia dominated regime – will continue despite the resistance of the iconic Ayatollah al-Sistani.
The old man may have given up on the United States already which could explain his failure to give his blessing to the plan to marginalize Muqtada al-Sadr by booting him out of the governing coalition. If Sistani is looking to the day that Americans are no longer in Iraq, he may see the Iranian dominated SCIRI as a bigger threat to Iraqi sovereignty than the ambitious nationalist warlord al-Sadr in which case, he will need the Mahdi Militia to fight off the expected lunge for power by the Badr Organization, the military arm of the SCIRI. Or, he may simply hate the idea of reducing the power of Shias in any Iraqi government. Regardless of his motives, his approval may not be required in order for a new government to begin taking the steps necessary to dramatically reduce the violence that threatens to destroy the Iraqi state.
And the problems faced by any new government will be formidable. If you only read one thing today, read this piece on Iraq from StrategyPage.com. A sample:
There are several wars going on in Iraq. The most violent one is the war against Sunni Arabs. This community, which was about twenty percent of the population in 2003, is now fifteen percent, and dropping fast. Most of those Sunni Arabs that could afford to get out, already have. Those that remain are either too poor, or too stubborn, to leave. The stubborn ones are the Sunni nationalists who, for personal or altruistic reasons, do not want Iraq run by its majority population, the Shia Arabs.
Another war is Irans attempts to dominate the country. Iran is doing this through Shia Arab factions it has influenced, or bought. While the majority of Shia Arabs oppose Iran pulling strings in Iran, there is a realization that Iran is a natural ally against Sunni Arab efforts to put Iraqi Sunni Arabs back in charge of Iraq. This, oddly enough, is where the United States come in. Iraqi Shia Arabs look to the U.S. as a guarantor of Shia Arab dominance in the country. The U.S. is expected to keep both Iran, and foreign Sunni Arab, influence from interfering in Iraq.
Islamic radicals, both Sunni and Shia, are also at war with infidels (non-Moslems) and less devout Moslems…
Warlordism is alive and well in Iraq, as it is throughout the Arab world. But in most countries, the tribal and religious factions have been disarmed, and kept in check via favors or fear (or both.) That’s what Saddam did, and with Saddam gone, all the factions got their guns and went into business for themselves. Some of these private armies are there mainly to protect a criminal enterprise. Most of the criminal gangs have political wings, since the gangsters want to make money, not war, and are willing to pay off the government. But the criminals will fight to keep their loot. Some of the gangs provide support services for terrorists (making bombs, transporting weapons and people, whatever). The most notable warlords are those that lead political militias, but even these groups have “business” units that engage in extortion (or “taxes”) and theft (often of oil). Fighting the gangs is a war that can wait, but it will eventually have to be fought.
Viewed in this context, one can immediately see how military force can only be part of any solution to the violence in Iraq. There must be corresponding political moves by the Iraqi government that will mitigate the anger of the Sunnis while blocking the militias from walking the streets and enforcing their will with impunity. This is an extremely tall order for any Iraqi government, no matter how it is constituted. And all of this is happening in the shadow of the ISG Report that many Iraqis and neighboring states see as a defeatist document that will mean the precipitous withdrawal of American forces. Arnoud de Borchgrave:
“WatchingAmericadotcom” conveys a bleak picture of how the rest of the world views the 79 recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group (ISG). Whichever way you slice ‘em and dice ‘em, the report’s 104 pages spell failure. Some of its harshest critics in America say they’re a recipe for surrender. Abroad, they’re seen as a tacit recognition of defeat.
From Buenos Aires to Berlin and from Brussels to Beijing, ISG was a devastating indictment of a multibillion-dollar boondoggle. In Tehran and Pyongyang, the two remaining capitals in the “axis of evil,” and in Damascus, axis of lesser evil, cliches bristled about paper tigers and giants-with-feet-of-clay. That is precisely why President Bush is not about to accept ISG’s findings. Mr. Bush sees himself as a lone Winston Churchill figure from the 1930s railing against his somnolent colleagues as they appeased Adolf Hitler. And like Churchill at the end of World War II, he was not elected to preside over the dissolution of the American empire.
Reinforcing Mr. Bush’s gut feeling recently was a paper by Gen. Chuck Wald, recently retired as EUCOM commander, and Chuck Vollmer, President of VII Inc, which does strategic analysis for the Pentagon. “With the entry of Iran into the equation,” they wrote, “the next phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom could possibly include… a major invasion of Iran and pro-Iranian forces against Western forces in the region and Israel, and/or a global energy crisis.
“Rather than planning withdrawal from Iraq,” says the Wald-Vollmer paper, “we may be better served to plan for repositioning in this strategically important region. While withdrawal may be necessary in Iraq, withdrawal from the region would precipitate a global balance-of-power shift toward the Iran-Russia-China axis, which would be very detrimental for the energy dependent West.”
It is a continuing mystery to me why, if the stakes are as high as the President says they are in Iraq, that there has not been an urgency to the deliberations on what to do to change the situation on the ground. The President is proceeding as if the situation is stabilized and he has all the time in the world to come to some kind of decision. Instead, the blood shed has increased dramatically since our elections, the government of Iraq has sunk deeper into chaos and ineffectiveness, and our enemies in Syria and Iran grow bolder by the week. I realize Bush wants to achieve some kind of consensus within the Administration, but time’s a’wasting.
As if to underscore this point, it appears that al-Qaeda in Iraq is planning something spectacular. Counterterrorism Blog:
In response to yesterday’s audio message from Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, commander (or “emir”) of the Al-Qaida-led “Islamic State of Iraq”, Al-Qaida and its Iraqi insurgent coalition partners have announced the start of a “Mighty Raid on the Soldiers of the Crusaders and Apostates.” A statement circulated today by fighters loyal to the “Islamic State” declared, “We are at your service, Our Emir” and indicated that “new strikes by the legions of mujahideen—at their head, the Martyr Brigades, the Anti-Aircraft Brigades, the Assault Brigades, and the Fixed Weapons Brigades—are in progress targeting the fortresses of the crusaders and apostates.”
While the statement did not list any specific targets, there are general ongoing concerns about Baghdad’s international zone, otherwise known as the “Green Zone.” Only two months ago, the U.S. military announced that it had dismantled an Al-Qaida cell in Baghdad that managed to infiltrate the high-security Green Zone and was “in the final stages” of preparing to launch suicide bomb attacks.
A large, successful attack in the Green Zone will only make matters that much more difficult for the President. And the sooner his Administration can come to an agreement on what to do next, the better.
I don’t know if anything we do over the next few months will make a difference in Iraq. I know that we have to try. It’s not bluster or grandiose posturing to admit that things are bad and getting worse, but wanting to alter course in order to try and address the problems that have arisen as a direct result of our invasion and occupation. Many war opponents are accusing Bush of not facing up to reality and advocate withdrawing now before any more soldiers or civilians suffer as a result of our blunders in Iraq. But if, as the President has said time and again, the stakes are too high in Iraq to fail, then Bush would be a poor commander indeed if he threw in the towel now.
If the best that can be achieved is to exceed the lowly expectations engendered by the ISG Recommendations, I would take that over a precipitous and humiliating withdrawal. But time is running out. And sooner or later, our efforts will have to be seen as accomplishing something positive if the continued sacrifice of blood and treasure can be justified.