Biden Isn't Going To Wait For President Bystander To Fumble Again
There has already been talk inside and outside the Beltway that the Bush Administration would rather push Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki aside in favor of a strongman-type of leader. On the eve of Bush’s visit with al-Maliki in Jordan, a White House memo by NSA Stephen Hadley has been leaked which contains the arguments against al-Maliki, and I’m sure that will make the meeting go smoothly. At a time when the administration and others in Washington have lapsed into blaming the Iraqis for dysfunction, the Bush Administration has returned to its habit of pointing the finger at others for the mess it has created. But as John Burns and Kirk Semple of the NYT noted today, the reality on the ground undermines some of the basic arguments in the Hadley memo, namely the idea that al-Maliki can be prodded to move away from protecting Shiite interests towards an alignment with Sunnis.
Shiites in Iraq are riven by factional rivalries, and there may be opportunities for the Americans to exploit those divisions to create parliamentary realignments. Indeed, some Iraqi leaders have started exploring new alliances to break the political logjam, possibly involving a parliamentary coup against Mr. Maliki. But if Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most powerful Shiite cleric, has been clear about anything, it has been that the Shiites must subordinate their differences to the cause of consolidating Shiite power.
So it is hard to imagine Mr. Maliki approaching Ayatollah Sistani to win approval “for actions that could split the Shia politically,” as the Hadley memo suggests. Shiite leaders, who are tiring of Mr. Maliki, appear to be thinking of replacing him with another Shiite religious leader, and not of sundering the alliance and surrendering the power the Shiites have awaited for centuries.
And as Burns and Semple note, the Americans have declining influence to affect changes in Iraq precisely because of the steps the Bush Administration took in toppling the Hussein regime without a realistic plan for the aftermath.
But if recent interviews in Baghdad with senior American and Iraqi officials are a guide, a bigger problem for the administration in effecting change here may be that the United States, in toppling Saddam Hussein and sponsoring elections that brought the Shiites to power, began a process that left Washington with ever-diminishing influence.
One reason for the declining American influence lies in policies that, for various reasons, alienated the political class, most of them former exiles like Mr. Maliki who rode back to Baghdad on the strength of American military power.
Many Shiite leaders resent the Americans for compelling them to share power in the new government with the minority Sunni Arabs — a policy, the Shiites say, that guaranteed paralysis for the government.
Sunni leaders still resent the American invasion, and the imposition of an electoral process that ended centuries of Sunni dominance. Just as much, they fume over the pervasive influence of neighboring Iran, which backs the Shiite parties.
And secular politicians, marginalized by the Shiite and Sunni Islamist politicians who dominate the government, say they, too, have lost faith in the Americans, for failing to protect Iraq’s secular traditions.
“Politically, their position is weaker in all aspects,” Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish leader, said of the Americans. “They just got weaker and weaker, and many more people who were supporting them are supporting them less.”
And no matter whether or not the Baker/Hamilton report or the Pentagon report recommend a “Go Long” approach of adding more troops in the short run to increase security in Baghdad, our military options are declining as well.
Meanwhile, the faltering of the latest effort to secure Baghdad has exposed the limitations of American ability to change the military equation. The White House memo raises the possibility of using additional American troops to fill what it calls “the four brigade gap” in troops committed to the Baghdad operation in August — a gap caused by Iraq’s new army committing only two of the six brigades it promised.
That shortfall left Americans providing about two-thirds of the 25,000 troops, halting by mid-October the sweeps to clear districts of insurgents and death squads.
But American commanders interviewed said that committing additional American troops could send a signal to Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds that they could continue to quarrel over their share of political and economic power behind an American military shield.In reading the Burns/Semple analysis, it is clear that nearly four years after the invasion the Bush Administration still has no idea what it is doing in Iraq. And as a result, it appears that Joe Biden isn’t going to wait around for Bush to blow off the Baker/Hamilton report, and instead will press ahead with six weeks of hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to examine how the Bush Administration got us into this mess and has continued its own dysfunction up until the present. Biden will use the hearings to insert his solution of a federal government with three regional provinces into the discussion.