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July 11, 2007

Iraq Government "Center Cannot Hold"
Posted by David Shorr

An earlier post by Ilan highlights the mounting evidence that day-to-day cooperation within the Iraqi government has broken down. Center for American Progress' recent "Strategic Reset" report points toward more fundamental weaknesses, which in turn show why our military presence is past the point of really being able to help matters and must be pulled out sooner rather than later.

Here's the key passage:

Iraq's political transition and national reconciliation are stuck. Iraq's leaders at the national level are debating some of the same issues in 2007 that they have debated since 2003. Iraq's leaders fundamentally disagree on what kind of country Iraq is and should be, and Iraq's political transition has not succeeded in bridging these divides. This lack of political consensus among Iraq's leaders has resulted in a violent struggle for power.

So it's time to stop talking about reconciliation and benchmarks. The reason Iraqi political leaders haven't achieved the benchmarks is that they don't really want to. The constitution and elections were organized on the proverbial "Washington clock" -- as was, of course, the removal of Saddam. Let's look at the implications of this.

First, it doesn't make sense to wait for something that isn't going to happen. The lack of agreement on the basics of Iraqi nationhood and governance gives no political basis for reconciliation. As the CAP report points out, and Ilan amplifies, the approval of an oil revenue law bears no relation to its being implemented.

Second, there just isn't any way for an outside power to help keep the scales balanced in such a complex conflict. Set of conflicts, actually; every region of the country has its own particular civil war, often pittting Sunni against Sunnni or Shi'a against Shi'a. Whatever our military does is bound to either give an advantage to one side, or at least be perceived that way and thereby earn the hostility of another side. Bottom line, we're drawing heat rather than contributing toward a durable solution.

Third, supplying arms to Iraqis will feed the civil war. Even with improved inventory control and tracking, many of the arms we supply will inevitably end up in the hands of insurgents and other militias. It's Vietnam all over again, with hidden allegiances and the pass-through of assistance to forces other than the intended recipients. Remember that recent film footage showing Iraqi soldiers on an arms confiscation mission with Americans and they're talking to each other in Arabic about knowing where the weapons really are (I couldn't find it on the web)?

The CAP repor isn't purely gloom and doom and it has many constructive ideas about working politically at the provincial level and diplomatically with the neighbors. But I found it most notable for its slam dunk case for withdrawal.

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Kimberly Kagan made contrary arguments in today's Wall Street Journal. If one is predisposed to reject the mission -- particularly now, not just at the controversial outset -- logically it makes no sense to continue. That's really the essence of cut and run. On the other hand, if one appreciates that the strategic stakes remain incredibly high, and that the country will collapse into complete anarchy and violence upon our exit, a longer view cautions against a precipitous withdrawal. Reports from the field -- either from military personnel or close access journalists -- paint a wholly different picture from that of the liberal media, and the Baker-Hamililton types. Bush is hurting in the polls, and some post-surge planning is taking place now. Still, it really might pay to wait until September to see the full Petraeus assessment. Otherwise, we're abandoning a mission, with a new strategy, that could still be successful -- thus, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

We could point to a lot of reasons why the political issues facing Iraq in the summer of 2003 are still facing it, in even more poisonous form in the summer of 2007. Mistakes made by the American administration, Iranian meddling with Iraqi Shiite factions, Saudi meddling with Sunni Arab insurgents, and very long memories of the things done to and by Iraqis during the tenure of Saddam Hussein's regime would all find their way onto a list of factors responsible.

I think, though, that we ought to acknowledge directly what most of us suspect. The strategy of Sunni Arab-dominated insurgent groups that has emphasized assassinations of and mass-casualty bomb attacks against Shiite police, government employees and civilians has worked. The insurgents wanted to create sectarian strife severe enough to inhibit cooperate among members of religious factions, and they've succeeded.

You wouldn't have had much of a political reconciliation in South Africa 15 years ago if the apartheid government's army had gone underground to launch mass-casualty attacks against ANC supporters. That has pretty much been what's happened in Iraq over the last four years, during which time not only American politicians here at home but American officials serving in Iraq have railed against Iraqi government leaders sectarianism and factional agendas.

These exist, for sure. But it's also true that the insurgency's tactics have put politicians like Maliki in an impossible position. Reach out to Sunni Arabs, and get grudging public statements of cooperation from parliamentarians with no power while bombs continue to be set off amidst crowds of Shiite civilians; fail to reach out, and get pressured by the Americans and damned for sectarianism by Sunni Arab governments. Under these circumstances one might predict that people in Maliki's position would try to split the difference, by making public statements about national aspiration without really meaning them. And that is precisely what they've done.

Had Sunni Arab insurgent groups not imbued with the most extreme Islamist views done in 2003 or 2004 what a few of them are doing now in Anbar and Diyala provinces -- actively taking up arms against the insurgent groups most enthusiastic about murdering Shiites -- a different series of events might have been possible. But they didn't, and the well has long since been poisoned. It appears that Sunni Arab insurgent groups recognized the limited future that awaited them in an Iraq ruled by a government chosen by majority vote, and sought to prevent such a government from ever becoming established. They succeeded.

I just don't see victory as an achievable prospect at this point. I am one of those opponents of the invasion who for the first 2-1/2 years favored continuing our presence to leave the country better than we found it. I eventually concluded that this is not possible, and the report I cited solidifies this view.

I'm glad to hear about the on-the-ground military successes and believe that they are happening, but I don't believe that they add up to a new security situation or contribute toward a changed political one. It's a bit too easy to portray skepticism about our prospects in Iraq as merely domestic politics or liberal media. For instance, say what you want about John Murtha (and I never favored a withdrawal timeline as short as his), but given his long history of close relations with the military, we must assume that his position is informed by extensive contact with active duty officers.

The point is that if we believe only a political solution will resolve things, supressing the violence and confronting its perpetrators is not sufficient. Even with battlefield successes, Iraq has no working political system for the resolution of conflicts and harmonization of interests. Power is accrued through force of arms, safety is guaranteed by local militias, and there is no broadly supported concept of the Iraqi nation to serve as an alternative.

My perspective isn't they've-always-hated-each-other fatalism, but an assessment of the situation. Of course I wouldn't want Maliki's job; if he and others are working toward reconciliation, my heart goes out to them, but they don't have much to work with at this point. Did it have to be this way? No. But that's the way it is.

I'm not sure whether Zathras and I differ in our analysis. Perhaps the current situation can be traced back to an original Sunni insurgent strategy of sowing discord. I'm sure the US bears a major share of the blame. I also think it would have turned out differently if we had handled the initial post-invasion months differently. But there we are.

I think David Shorr and I agree on our conclusion with respect to the American military commitment in Iraq. That's enough for me.

With respect to analysis I've always had the impression he overemphasized the importance of American mistakes in Iraq, or at least American mistakes made after the CPA disbanded, and underestimated the deep vein of savagery in Arab culture along with the extent to which this was magnified in Iraq by Saddam Hussein's long rule. This has implications for the future, specifically for the degree to which American policy responds to the Iraq disaster by looking for alternative ways to transform Arab society and politics. But that is an argument for another time, seeing that the crucial decision to liquidate the commitment in Iraq has not even been made yet.

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