In Iraq, defeat stares us in the face. Efforts to “Iraq-ize” the campaign to crush the Sunni insurgency have the U.S. war effort sinking under the weight of its own implausibility, and American policymakers are flailing around in search of an alternative. As U.S. casualties mount and the specter of civil war materializes into a bloody reality, political support for the war on the home front is rapidly evaporating: a whopping 63 percent now say the invasion of Iraq “was not worth it,” and even the troops in the field are coming around to the opinion that the best policy is to cut our losses and get out.
To circumvent this growing demand for withdrawal, the War Party has come up with a number of alternate plans, all of which involve a continued U.S. military presence. Andrew Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, has advocated what might be called the “downlow” strategy: withdraw to secure bases and attempt to protect the Iraqi civilian population from the consequences of spreading sectarian violence.
Seymour Hersh has reported that the plan now gaining favor is to keep a lower profile on the ground, while escalating the air war – with the idea that the Shi’ite-dominated central government and its supporters in the field would essentially act as spotters for U.S. warplanes, much as the Kosovo “Liberation” Army was used to home in on Serbian targets during Clinton’s Balkan adventure and the “Northern Alliance” was utilized as the eyes and ears of the Americans during the initial stages of the Afghan war.
Now we have another entrant in the “win the war” sweepstakes: Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow in defense policy with the Council on Foreign Relations, tells us that the imposition of the Vietnam model on the Iraqi situation has led to a fundamental error. That error is based on a misperception of the insurgency as a nationalist uprising against the occupation, when in fact what is occurring is an inter-communal civil war pitting sectarian ethnic and religious groups against each other in a struggle for dominance. Nationalism, in Biddle’s view, has little to do with it: it is, at best, a secondary factor, when the real issue is Sunni fear of Shi’ite hegemony – and retribution enacted by the latter against the former.
This misperception has led the U.S. into a strategic cul-de-sac. According to Biddle, the solution is not to help the Iraqis stand up so we can stand down, but precisely the opposite:
“Critical departures from the current strategy are also necessary. First, Washington must slow down the expansion of the Iraqi national military and police. Iraq will eventually need capable indigenous security forces, but their buildup must follow a broad communal compromise, not the other way around. If the development of the army and the police gets ahead of the agreement, the forces will either exclude the Sunnis and be effective but divisive or include the Sunnis but be weak. The latter result would mean lost effort and perhaps lives, but the former would probably be worse, because it would jeopardize any constitutional power-sharing deal that may emerge from Khalilzad’s efforts. This dilemma leaves Washington with no choice but to continue providing enough U.S. forces to cap the violence in Iraq.”
What this means, in effect, is that it is time to start tilting toward the Sunnis. If the Shi’ites continue to defy U.S. efforts to shape the political landscape of postwar Iraq, then we must play the Sunni card, employing force if necessary:
“Second, the United States must bring more pressure to bear on the parties in the constitutional negotiations. And the strongest pressure available is military: the United States must threaten to manipulate the military balance of power among Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Kurds to coerce them to negotiate. Washington should use the prospect of a U.S.-trained and U.S.-supported Shi’ite-Kurdish force to compel the Sunnis to come to the negotiating table. At the same time, in order to get the Shi’ites and the Kurds to negotiate too, it should threaten either to withdraw prematurely, a move that would throw the country into disarray, or to back the Sunnis.”
The idea is breathtaking: after years of propaganda directed at the alleged moral depravity of the Sunni-based Ba’athist regime, which – we were told – killed millions and was on a par with Hitler’s Nazis, Biddle wants the U.S. to consider an Orwellian turn-on-a-dime. As poor old Winston Smith put it:
“At this moment, for example, in 1984 (if it was 1984), Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia. In no public or private utterance was it ever admitted that the three powers had at any time been grouped along different lines. Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. But that was merely a piece of furtive knowledge which he happened to possess because his memory was not satisfactorily under control. Officially the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.”
One big problem with Biddle’s proposal is that it overlooks the difficulties of selling such a strategy at home, where support for the war has waned practically beyond the point of no return. While the oppressed and blissfully ignorant “proles” of Orwell’s future dystopia were kept in a state of permanent indifference to the daily depredations of their rulers – partly through terror, partly on account of a limitless supply of “Victory gin” – the American public is still a few notches above that level of mental and moral degradation. They are bound to be confused and even disturbed when told that yesterday’s ruthless killers are today’s noble allies – and some may even find in it reason to doubt the president’s contention that we are fighting for “democracy” in Iraq and “freedom” the world over.
On the ground in Iraq, too, this pro-Sunni turn would have a devastating effect, for, in spite of Biddle’s contention that this war isn’t about “winning hearts and minds,” as in Vietnam, what little support for the U.S. presence as still exists would quickly evaporate. And without that support – especially from leading Shi’ite clerics, such as the Ayatollah Sistani – the U.S. military presence would be completely unsustainable. Alignment with the Sunnis would further isolate the U.S. and empower anti-American Shi’ites led by Moqtada Sadr, whose nationalist opposition to the occupation (in spite of his sectarian allegiance) is supposedly “the exception that proves the rule” when it comes to Biddle’s thesis. In this case, however, the exception may very well become the rule if we try to “coerce” the majority Shi’ites into conforming to our plan for the Iraqi polity.
However, Biddle’s strategy, as irrational and counterintuitive as it appears, does make a certain amount of sense. Seen in light of the looming confrontation with Iran, an alliance with the Sunnis against the pro-Iranian Shi’ite parties that dominate the central government in Baghdad is not only sensible: it is inevitable. Biddle’s proposal paves the way for the U.S. to pivot from the present intervention to the next.
The second phase of the Great Middle Eastern War pits us against a new set of enemies: not only the Iranian-dominated party militias in Iraq, but also Lebanon’s pro-Iranian Hezbollah, or “Party of God,” and the Alawite regime in Syria (where the Shi’ites are a small minority). As a strategy for winning a military victory over the Iraqi insurgency, Biddle’s gambit makes little sense: as the strategic framework for a regional war, however, its apparent irrationality is at least somewhat ameliorated.
If we are moving toward war with Iran and its Syrian ally, then it is perfectly logical to change course and try to rehabilitate Iyad Allawi, the “ex”-Ba’athist official whose party, the Iraqi National Accord, was soundly defeated in the recent elections for National Assembly (despite large amounts of U.S. taxpayer dollars funneled into his campaign coffers). As a strategy to advance the grand design of the War Party – “democratizing,” i.e., subjugating, the entire Middle East – Biddle’s scenario is persuasive.
It is also indicative of a point I made here: that the debate over the war is becoming increasingly polarized between two diametrically opposed alternatives, withdrawal and escalation. The Bush administration’s Iraq-ization program essentially tries to straddle the fence between the two: withdraw, but not now, and no deadlines or timetables, please. Biddle, however, poses a fresh alternative: expand the war, and start taking on the Shi’ites. That this is premised on the likelihood of a future conflict with Tehran seems obvious, even though the word “Iran” appears nowhere in Biddle’s essay – a strange omission, to say the least, albeit a telling one.
We must either get out, or escalate the war. There are no other alternatives. To keep Baghdad, we must seize Tehran. The neocons urge us “Faster, please!“, but they needn’t worry: we will soon get up to speed by means of a logical progression. One intervention leads us, ineluctably, to another, and – in the case of war with Iran – to far greater and more destructive conflict.
This is why the cautious proposals of a gradual drawdown proposed by some ostensibly pragmatic critics of the war are, in the end, eminently impractical. The accelerated tempo of the developing conflict will soon outpace such half-measures. As I have said before, we are on the Middle East escalator, and it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Only a massive rebellion by the American people – an outpouring of militant antiwar sentiment – can stop the War Party.
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