A Surge Of Distortions

By Daniel Larison

Speaking of the "surge," I heartily recommend my TAC colleague Kelley Vlahos’ post on the "surge"-as-Republican loyalty test, but I would just add that there is nothing terribly new about this test.  From the moment that the plan was announced, it became an article of faith among the tiresome enforcers of movement and party purity that any elected Republican who expressed any doubts or qualifications of support, no matter what they were, were to be denounced and targeted for primary challenges.  Hugh Hewitt was only the most vocal and obnoxious of the movement conservatives who insisted on applying this strangest of litmus tests in the wake of the ’06 electoral debacle in an effort to make the GOP more or less unequivocally a party identified with the Iraq war and with nothing else

Back then, even such reliable pro-war Senators as John Warner and Sam Brownback were chastised for advocating surrender, and it was during this phase when Chuck Hagel (who had voted to authorize the war and had kept his complaints about the war muted until the midterms) was declared to be persona non grata at the White House.  Even Romney’s modest wait-and-see approach for most of 2007 was turned into a liability for him on the eve of the Florida primary, when McCain shamelessly lied about what Romney’s position had been.  Something that I think most analysts of the recent debate over the "surge" have missed is why McCain is sticking so doggedly to arguing over who was right a year and a half ago: it was his use of the "surge" to break Romney in the primaries that paved the way for his nomination, and I expect that he believes that he can ride this issue all the way through the general election by using it just as unscrupulously against Obama as he did against his main primary rival.  The press will allow this to happen, because it is now commonly accepted wisdom that "McCain was right about the surge," which somehow gives him license to distort his opponents’ views while officially retaining credibility on matters of national security. 

Cross-posted at Eunomia 

Poor Conditions

By Daniel Larison

The American Prospect has assembled a number of assessments of the reasons why violence in Iraq has declined relatively over the past year and a half.  Lost in the frequent back-and-forth over whether John McCain understands what the "surge" was or whether he knows when the Anbar Awakening happened (answers: apparently not and no) is the more basic point, made here by Matthew Duss, that the Anbar model has succeeded for the time being by pursuing the opposite of a sound counterinsurgency:

The "Anbar strategy" which is the center-piece of the surge violates a central tenet of counterinsurgency doctrine in that it does not redirect political authority toward the central government [bold mine-DL]. The deals that have been made are between Sunni tribal militias and U.S. forces, not the Iraqi government. There are still an estimated 90,000 Sunni militia members expecting government jobs, and little sign that the Shia-controlled Iraqi government intends to provide them. It’s true that security is a prerequisite for state-building, but if that security only comes at the expense of the legitimacy of the state we’re supposedly trying to build, then we have an entirely new problem on our hands.

This is one reason why the fabled "bottom-up" reconciliation–which was never a reconciliation at all, but a temporary alliance of convenience that avoided reconciling disaffected Sunnis to the Baghdad government–has never been a promising way to establish an enduring political settlement.  This is significant for a couple of reasons.  First, the "bottom-up" reconciliation became a standard line of war supporters when it became clear that reconciliation at the level of the national government was not forthcoming and was unlikely to be for a long time.  Focusing on this was, first and foremost, an attempt to change the subject and ignore that the political goals of the "surge" had always been unrealistic, which was what had informed the views of so many of the plan’s opponents and which is the key reason why the "surge" on the administration’s own terms has not succeeded.

Meanwhile, the horrific attacks in Baghdad and Kirkuk offer a reminder why so-called "conditions-based" withdrawals are forever subject to revision and why timetables that can be revised by such contingencies are meaningless.  Tying withdrawal to conditions in Iraq places U.S. policy at the mercy of the worst elements in Iraq, which gives these elements every incentive to persist in trying to sow discord and engage in spectacular acts of violence.  Besides being seized on by war supporters as evidence that Iraq is not yet stable enough to permit a U.S. withdrawal (after having cited these same sorts of attacks last year as proof that the "surge" was working and terrorist groups were becoming desperate), they expose the position of contingent withdrawal to one of the strongest criticisms against it, which is that it allows American policy to be dictated by whichever group wishes to foment chaos and disorder.  If the Iraq policy debate is "converging" towards a "conditions-based" withdrawal consensus, in the wake of these latest bombings this is the equivalent of saying that there is a consensus for remaining in Iraq more or less indefinitely.  Both candidates have committed the U.S. to ensure an elusive Iraqi stability that we have so far been able to advance only by undermining its long-term chances, which is to say that they have committed our forces to remain there for the foreseeable future. 

Cross-posted at Eunomia      

“More Realistic”

by hilzoy

Patrick Appel noted this story earlier:

“Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told a German magazine he supported prospective U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s proposal that U.S. troops should leave Iraq within 16 months.

In an interview with Der Spiegel released on Saturday, Maliki said he wanted U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible.”

The Spiegel interview is here:

“SPIEGEL: Would you hazard a prediction as to when most of the US troops will finally leave Iraq?

Maliki: As soon as possible, as far as we’re concerned. U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.

SPIEGEL: Is this an endorsement for the US presidential election in November? Does Obama, who has no military background, ultimately have a better understanding of Iraq than war hero John McCain?

Maliki: Those who operate on the premise of short time periods in Iraq today are being more realistic. Artificially prolonging the tenure of US troops in Iraq would cause problems. Of course, this is by no means an election endorsement. Who they choose as their president is the Americans’ business. But it’s the business of Iraqis to say what they want. And that’s where the people and the government are in general agreement: The tenure of the coalition troops in Iraq should be limited.”

Transcription error? Reckless and unrealistic assessment by someone who hasn’t spent enough time on the ground? We report; you decide.

In all seriousness, Spencer Ackerman has a good analysis of the background (expletives altered):

“When those negotiations [on the terms of a continuing US presence in Iraq] began, the U.S. reportedly presented the Iraqis with terms so breathtaking that they’d embarrass Lord Curzon. Bush wanted unilateral control of Iraqi airspace; legal immunity for all U.S. troops and contractors; the unilateral right to arrest and detain any Iraqis his commanders desired, and for unspecified periods; and several military bases. When Maliki indicated discomfort over acting like Gaius Baltar on Occupied New Caprica, Bush gave another indication of his “friendship and cooperation” — blackmail.

All this came in a political context that Bush was either unattentive to or dismissive of. Despite spotty media coverage in the U.S., the deal prompted a massive backlash in Iraq, where basically every organized political force not part of Maliki’s government rejected it. Maliki’s allies were likely to lose the looming provincial elections already; now he had given them the albatross of clear collaborationism. And something similar was at work in the U.S.: the candidate with a clear and consistent history of opposition to the Iraq war won the Democratic primary, while the Republican candidate backed an endless occupation that he said might last a hundred or even a thousand years.

Maliki has read the tea leaves and evidently realized what the rest of us considered obvious: that the only one demanding that he turn Iraq to permanent foreign domination is a president thoroughly discredited in his own country who’ll be out of office in a few months. That president’s replacement might very well decide on a unilateral withdrawal from Iraq, abrogating any deal Maliki was strongarmed into signing, at which point the U.S. would essentially be cutting Maliki off. Oh motherf*cking sh!t, Maliki surely thought, if I sign this deal, my people will run my body through the streets and hoist me from a f*cking lamppost. Not that the electricity works, but still.“

It will be interesting to see how McCain responds. Thus far, he has not been forced to explain what he would do were he forced to choose between his view that withdrawal in sixteen months, with or without a timetable, would be a disastrous move that could lead to “horrendous violence, ethnic cleansing, and possibly genocide”, and this earlier statement:

“Let me give you a hypothetical, senator. What would or should we do if, in the post-June 30th period, a so-called sovereign Iraqi government asks us to leave, even if we are unhappy about the security situation there? I understand it’s a hypothetical, but it’s at least possible.

McCAIN: Well, if that scenario evolves, then I think it’s obvious that we would have to leave because— if it was an elected government of Iraq— and we’ve been asked to leave other places in the world. If it were an extremist government, then I think we would have other challenges, but I don’t see how we could stay when our whole emphasis and policy has been based on turning the Iraqi government over to the Iraqi people.”

Now, perhaps, he will.


Amusing note from Joe Klein Karen Tumulty (oops):

“Curious. The White House apparently just emailed the Reuters story linked above to its entire press list, with a subject line: “Iraqi PM backs Obama troop exit plan – magazine.” This hit my emailbox at 12:59PM, with the sender listed as “White House Press Releases.””

Saddam And al Qaeda

Eli Lake’s parsing of the report here. His points are well taken but they do not amount to a convincing rebuttal of the fact that Saddam was not in any formal relationship with al Qaeda, and did not have the WMDs to empower them in the way that Mr Lake and many others insisted was the case in 2002 and 2003. Of course, Saddam was characterologically capable of doing almost anything. He was in many ways his own weapon of mass destruction. But we now know – and a few said so before the war – that the "mass" in that description was simply unfounded.

He was always going to be a headache. The notion that he was easily containable and not a potential threat doesn’t persuade me. But he wasn’t as big a threat as we thought; and no Saddam headache would have been worse than the nightmare we are now trapped in. I’m afraid that’s the truth. Advantage: Jihadism.

Petraeus: The Surge Has Failed

He has done amazingly with security and is clearly an American hero for rescuing a botched invasion. Those of us who believed his metrics and worried about his ability to deliver with the troops he had available have been disproved by events. But the critical, central goal of the surge, according to its architects and the president, was to create a space for Iraqi national reconciliation. It hasn’t happened:

Iraqi leaders have failed to take advantage of a reduction in violence to make adequate progress toward resolving their political differences, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said Thursday.

Petraeus, who is preparing to testify to Congress next month on the Iraq war, said in an interview that "no one" in the U.S. and Iraqi governments "feels that there has been sufficient progress by any means in the area of national reconciliation," or in the provision of basic public services.

He thinks there’s still time for action. But as violence stabilizes and even grows in some places, and as the surge peaks or declines, the window is narrowing. And what then?

O’Hanlon On Iraq

He is arguing for a middle way between Obama’s and McCain’s campaign positions:

Democrats and other war critics should not be arguing for an unconditional and rushed departure, as the congressional leadership and Obama are generally doing. Nor should supporters of the war be arguing for a largely open-ended commitment regardless of Iraqi performance, as the Bush administration and to some extent Sen. John McCain seem to favor. McCain, the GOP nominee, has been vindicated in his support of the surge, and his resolute commitment to success in Iraq is admirable. Yet it is better that Iraqis also hear a U.S. message of tough love, not only what has essentially become an unconditional promise of assistance. Democrats can provide such a melded approach. If Iraqis do their part, we help; if not, we leave.

But here is the critical caveat:

Those who say Iraq will be better off once we leave underestimate the typical duration of most nation-building efforts (a decade or more) as well as the fragility of Iraq’s new institutions and the freshness of sectarian wounds that have only begun to heal.

My emphasis. So how do we provide a real message of tough love if the Iraqis know and we know and they know we know that a decade more is about the minimum required to construct something like a non-failed state in Iraq – and even then, it is a highly dubious project?

That’s why this is so hard: because the middle ground is far more expensive and open-ended than anyone has so far explained candidly to the American people. It seems to me that those who favor withdrawal need to be honest about the conflict that would follow and argue how we can live with it, or play it to our advantage. And those who insist we should stay until Iraq exists as a unitary non-despotic country have to be honest about the decades-long effort this will require. Maybe then we can conduct this debate more intelligently. And that’s one more reason to hope the primary season won’t stretch into the summer. The bigger debate between McCain and Obama is one we all need.

$3 Trillion

And all we got was this lousy photo-shoot?


Ahmadinejad’s visit with the Shiite government of Iraq is a useful reminder of what the permanent Iraq occupation means: an expansion of the power of Iran in the region, even as its nuclear bomb aspirations continue, and the slow emasculation of the US. Of course, the visit has inflamed the Awakening forces and widened the gulf that separates Sunni and Shia Mesopotamia:

“I think Ahmadinejad is the most criminal and bloody person in the world,” said Emad Abbas, a university student in Samarra. “This visit degrades Iraq’s dignity, and it proves that Iraq is occupied twice, once by the United States and once by Iran.”

In Kirkuk, where Sunnis are fighting efforts by Kurds to control the city, tribes and political parties rallied against the visit. “How can we tolerate this?” said Salman Abdullah Al-Hamad, an Arab tribal leader in Kirkuk. “Today we live under the regime of the clerics. The Iranian revolution has been exported to Iraq.”

But no worry: the US will spend more billions and deploy 100,000 troops for decades if necessary to make Iraq safe for the Iranian mullahs and keep oil prices lower than they would otherwise be for Chinese industrialists. Bush is the gift to our enemies that keeps on giving.

(Photo: Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty.)