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What Exactly Is Washington Surging for in Iraq?

By Reidar Visser (http://historiae.org)

11 January 2007

The speech by President George W. Bush to the American nation on 10 January 2007 may have been his last chance to bring radical change to his Iraq policy.

As such it was a relatively unremarkable affair – a slight rephrasing of old goals, with some italics, bold types and imperatives added here and there. The key element in the “new policy” will be an infusion of some 21,500 US troops, to be deployed mainly in Baghdad (to deal with sectarian violence) and, to a lesser extent, in Anbar province (to fight al-Qaida and the Sunni-led insurgency). There will be an increase in financial aid as well, but Bush’s key focus during his speech was on the military aspect. To the leader of the world’s sole remaining superpower it must have been a sobering experience to have to address the nation in order to reposition six army brigades.

The political component of the new package was the least developed part of Bush’s speech. This may have to do with the ideological support base for the “surge”. Neo-conservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute have in fact promoted the view that political settlement in Iraq can follow only after a restoration of security. At any rate, there was nothing new in the “benchmarks” listed by Bush: Iraqi draft laws on oil revenue distribution, provincial elections and de-Baathification have already been in the pipeline for some time. If anything, Bush’s comments regarding the constitutional revision process – “establishing a fair process for considering amendments to the constitution” – sounded even more tentative than recent comments by the Iraqis themselves. (Under the Iraqi constitution the committee for constitutional change was supposed to have completed its work within four months of its appointment in October 2006; this was however abruptly changed to a one-year deadline – apparently in violation of the constitution.)

This lackadaisical approach to political reform in Iraq is alarming. In today’s Iraq, a surge without a credible political component will be like pouring oil on fire. During the past year, sectarian forces have been boosted to such an extent that today, out of each American tax dollar earmarked for national reconstruction in Iraq, a significant portion effectively goes to financing sectarian infrastructure instead. Only political reform – or more precisely, constitutional amendments that can recreate a sense of balance in Iraqi politics – can break this vicious circle. Of course, the United States cannot impose solutions on the Iraqis in this matter. What was never tried though was to negotiate a package with the Iraqis as equal partners, where obligations for both sides could be included – for instance as a timetabled, conditional surge. Bush also shunned a more multilateral approach, involving engagement with neighbouring states – as advocated by the Iraq Study Group, NGOs like the International Crisis Group, and Iraq’s former defence minister, Ali Allawi. Instead there will be more of the same: Washington will end up trying to nudge the Iraqis towards reform by way of backroom dealings and through pressure behind the scenes.

The one hopeful element in Bush’s speech was his declared belief in “reconciliation” between Shiites and Sunnis and coexistence in Iraq generally. He is to be commended for this stance, which serves as a healthy antidote to what has become an unfortunate side effect of the anti-war campaign in the United States: the increasingly widespread fallacy that violent sectarian conflict in Iraq is endemic and has gone on for centuries. Bush has invested much symbolic capital in the vision of a unified Iraq, and on this theme his message resonates well with ordinary Iraqis as well as with people in the wider Arab and Islamic worlds.

However, due to the relatively vague character of the “benchmarks” in the new policy (and the fact that these matters are mostly internal Iraqi affairs) Washington will inevitably exercise its influence through informal means – and the Bush administration’s exact interpretations of abstract terms like “coexistence” and “reconciliation” will become doubly important. Two scenarios seem possible. On the basis of developments in Washington towards the end of 2006, one could get the impression that Bush was aiming for a cleaning up of facades rather than a thorough process of reconciliation in Iraq. Under this scenario, Washington would back selected Iraqi partners in a “moderate coalition”, effectively creating the Shiite politician Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim as baron of Iraq south of Baghdad and possibly anointing an Iraqi Islamic Party figure to a similar capacity in the Sunni west. At some point, the US would install Adil Abd Al-Mahdi, their long-time favourite, as prime minister, while at the same time lending support to his Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Badr brigades to suppress any political unrest by Sadrist elements or other discontents (SCIRI successfully quarantined some of its military wings in 2006 to avoid confrontation with the Americans). The process of reforming the constitution would be completed, but, in a reflection of the increased power of SCIRI, with minimal and symbolic adjustments only.

In a bullish prediction for this scenario – made from Washington’s point of view – by the time of the 2008 presidential elections, violence in Iraq could have come down to a manageable level (because much of it would be camouflaged as violence by US-supported “good” militia against elements defined as “terrorists” such as the Sadrists), the oil sector would be open to foreign investment, and US bases to guard against any al-Qaida resurgence would have been approved by the Iraqi government. In short, this could have functioned as a “Nigeria plus” situation (controllable internal violence coupled with government ability to deliver oil to the market) and victory could be declared in time for the elections. More realistically speaking, however, this kind of strategy would probably backfire. It severely underestimates internal complexity in the Shiite camp – including Sadrist resentment of SCIRI dominance, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s consistent refusal to be part of any kind of carve-up of Iraq to benefit foreign interests, and Basra resistance to Baghdad control of the southern oil resources (whether by SCIRI, or by other Shiites, or by anyone else). At the same time this is a strategy that probably exaggerates SCIRI’s independence from Tehran, and it involves unrealistic expectations regarding Sunni preparedness to act as a compliant “ethnic minority”, fenced in inside a Bantustan in western Iraq.

The second scenario is that of Washington lending support to a genuine process of national reconciliation in Iraq. Perhaps the leaked National Security Council memo by Stephen Hadley (November 2006) which favoured scenario number one was simply a hoax intended to prod Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki into a more energetic mode (in which case those Shiite and Sunni factions that rushed to emulate Washington’s blueprint will have roundly stultified themselves). This approach would mean engaging in dialogue with a greater number of Iraqi political factions, across sectarian boundaries, and including moderate factions in circles previously demonised by Washington – like the Sadrists. It would involve creating a perfect atmosphere for a thorough revision of the constitution and its subsequent adoption in a referendum across Iraq’s governorates. (This is the one act that still has the potential for achieving what thousands of US marines and billions of dollars in micro-loans cannot do: bringing closure to a period of internal conflict. Conceivably, fatwas from Sunni and Shiite clerics could help.) Not least this strategy would demand some serious discussion with SCIRI, to establish whether it wants to be a sectarian party or is interested in playing a leading role in national reconciliation in Iraq. Perhaps more than any other factor, SCIRI’s megali idea in the federalism question has upset the centre in Iraqi politics. It was this issue that prompted liberal Baghdad media to show their sectarian colours, and it is the completely novel idea of a Shiite super-region that evokes fears of “foreign” meddling and “Safavid” or “Iranian” domination. If SCIRI could realise that the party might also stand to benefit from a system of smaller units (Basra, Middle Euphrates etc.) this would do much to assuage the fears of the Sunni community (who have in fact moved on this issue: many now accept the idea of Kurdistan as a region along with single-governorate federal regions in the rest of the country.) In that kind of perspective, the many capable politicians of SCIRI could take the lead in a process of truly profound national reconciliation in Iraq – a policy that ultimately would be in Washington’s best interest too.

Members of the Democratic Party are now discussing how to react to Bush’s speech, and are focusing on troop numbers – which is understandable. Nevertheless, there now appears to be an unprecedented willingness on the part of the Iraqi government to do something about sectarian violence (including that perpetrated by Shiite militias), and also to be serious about national reconciliation. Instead of cutting off funding at this stage, might it not be a more useful idea for the Democrats to concentrate their power of oversight precisely on those reconciliation issues? If a bipartisan focus on Iraqi national reconciliation emerged in Washington, a completely new dynamic in US–Iraqi relations could follow – with increased opportunities for US politicians to make sure that American money is invested in Iraqi nation-building and does not end up in militia coffers. George W. Bush’s surge seems to be one small step in that direction, but there is ample space for a constructive role by the new masters of the US Congress as well.

See also:

Marginal comments on the Iraq Study Group report and the transcript of George W. Bush’s 10 January speech at Lapham’s Quarterly

“Other People’s Maps”, a historical background essay published in Wilson Quarterly (winter 2007) as part of the feature “One Iraq or Three?”


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