Sense and Stubbornness

The meeting in Jordan between President Bush and Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki – unless the private discussions were a whole lot more frank and productive than it is reasonable to believe they probably were, based on public statements and background briefings – may stand one day as a symbol of the eternal fecklessness of the Bush administration. What was deemed to be an important get-together to reassess honestly what’s working and what isn’t in Iraq, and what has to be done turned into a comic-opera farce.

It may be that Larry Diamond, a scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University who spent time in Iraq as an official of the Coalition Provisional Authority and wrote an excellent book about his experiences, was exaggerating when he told me before the postponed meeting that it was "like dancing on the decks of the Titanic as the ship is going down." If he was exaggerating, however, it wasn’t by much.

Consider the great debate over whether the chaos and violence afflicting Iraq today amounts to a "civil war." The president says it doesn’t, and the Wall Street Journal, in an editorial this week, wrote that "by any reasonable definition, a ‘civil war’ implies at least two militarily strong factions with a popular claim on political leadership. Neither of those conditions exists in Iraq."

Many scholars of the subject see things differently, putting forward two main criteria. "The first," as a New York Times story this week put it, "says that the warring groups must be from the same country and fighting for control of the political center, control over a separatist or to force a major change in policy. The second says that at least 1,000 people must have been killed in total, with at least 100 from each side."

Most scholars, using those criteria, identify at least 100 civil wars since 1945, and agree that Iraq fits the bill. However John Keegan, the British war historian, has a more restrictive definition, including set-piece battles fought by people in uniforms, by which criteria there have only been five "genuine" civil wars since the 1600s.

But whether the Iraqi situation is legitimately called a "civil war" seems almost an exercise in semantics. Those who are trying to resolve it might be grateful to be facing something as simple as a civil war with two or even three identifiable factions.

Instead of two strong factions, most experts have estimated that there are 23 armed militias in Baghdad alone. Each government minister and dozens of tribal leaders have their own personal defense forces. Some two million Iraqis, of a total population of around 27 million, have fled their homes. About 1.5 million Iraqis are now refugees in Jordan, a significant burden on a country of only 5 million, which may explain some of King Abdullah’s concern about Iraqi conflict becoming a regional conflagration.

To complicate matters, according to Mr. Diamond, Mr. al-Maliki "is not the decisive actor. The violence is too decentralized and his authority is too weak." To further complicate matters, Mr. Maliki’s tenure in power may depend on the continued support of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a fiercely anti-American demagogue whose volatile militia (which he may or may not actually control completely), the Mahdi Army, is responsible for much of the violence in Baghdad.

Mr. Diamond thinks there’s a slim chance of something resembling success if an international coalition including the U.S., the U.N., the European Union and the Arab League push hard for all the Iraqi factions to get together and broker a broad political deal while eschewing and trying to control violence. Once such a deal is in place, the entity that emerges could start talking with Syria and Iran.

However, the administration – well, make that the president himself, as the recently leaked Nov. 8 Stephen Hadley memorandum that might have instigated al-Maliki’s calculated snub, suggests that some in the administration are capable of coming close to seeing things as they are on the ground – perhaps in anticipation of the upcoming Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report due next week, is taking pains to make it clear that no early troop withdrawal or discussions with Iran or Syria are likely. And this president is a notably stubborn person, seeing sticking to a course when others recommend changing it as virtue rather than folly.

In the process of "reassuring" Iraqis that there will be no timetable or "graceful exit" – does this mean he prefers a graceless exit or recognizes that graceless is far more likely? – President Bush let slip his true attitude. All concerned are careful to claim they recognize the full sovereignty of the Iraqi government. But when the Bushlet declared that al-Maliki is "the right guy for Iraq," apparently under the impression that his gut instinct is and should be the guiding criterion, he made it clear that in his view he should be the "decider" regarding the correct leadership for this theoretically sovereign nation.

The other issue on which the two claimed to have reached agreement also underlines the fact the Iraqi sovereignty is more myth than reality. In addition to more resources – presumably toys like helicopters, artillery, more rifles, and perhaps more waterboards – Maliki also made it clear that he would like – please, boss, please – to have more Iraqi commanders in command of Iraqi military units. Apparently after all this time of training U.S. officers still command most "Iraqi" military units. Some sovereignty.

The meeting was also notable in that both leaders are severely weakened in their own countries – Bush by the triumph of the Democrats in a midterm election that was mostly a referendum on his conduct of the Iraq war and al-Maliki by his inability (or is that unwillingness?) to control various violent Shia militias. So the meeting in Jordan was a little like two falling-down drunks far gone in their cups trying to hold one another up and reassure the bartender and bouncer that they’re fine, just fine, no reason to cut us off.

Bush may talk as if he’s the decider – and in terms of U.S. troop levels he still is, unless the Democrats act more forcefully than I expect once they take actual control of Congress in January. But in fact, the United States has little leverage left. For starters, while everybody has a theory or prospective scenario, nobody really knows whether sending more troops or threatening to leave would be more effective at quelling the violence or inducing whatever responsible parties are left in Iraq to deal with the various militias. And nobody in Iraq takes the administration especially seriously any more. Years of making it clear that you live in a denial-prone fantasy world into which unpleasant realities are not allowed to intrude will do that.

Regardless of whether the Bush administration, like a petulant bully on a grammar-school playground, deigns to talk with the thugs leading Iran or Syria before they give in to all his demands, there’s just a chance that Iraq’s neighbors will move to quell violence in Iraq. Regardless of their religious or factional sympathies, all these regimes, including Saudi Arabia, still viewed by many Americans (especially people like Jim Baker who grew up in the oil industry) as friends or allies, fear uncontrolled unrest. So they might get together and impose a settlement on Iraq. It would quite likely be an imposition from which decent people would want to avert their eyes, but it just might achieve a modicum of stability.

Count me skeptical as to whether al-Maliki will meet his own non-deadline of June ’07 for Iraqis being ready to assume more responsibility for their own country. And though his own party would prefer, as one Washington GOP operative put it to me, to see Iraq in the rear-view mirror in ’08 rather than still on either side of the vehicle, count me skeptical as to whether Bush will order a serious – in the 10s of thousands – drawdown of U.S. troops soon.

We shouldn’t abandon pressure from as many quarters as possible to start bringing U.S. troops home beginning now. But it is also important – perhaps much more important – to press home what seem like clear lessons for the future. The U.S. should think twice about initiating military activity in countries it doesn’t understand. Trying to occupy a country and bestow democracy top-down where there are no democratic traditions or institutions is harder than we thought, and might be impossible.

Iraq was a war of choice, not necessity. The aftermath should lead us to make more cautious, better-informed and better-planned choices in the future – and perhaps to consciously decide to eschew overseas interventions unless situations pose a reasonably immediate danger to the United States itself – not to ill-defined U.S. "interests" overseas, but to the United States itself.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).