Aside from the expected drivel and boilerplate rhetoric, the testimony of Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker before Congress on Tuesday had a few surprises. Yes, we all know the administration’s line: the "surge" is working, all’s well, oh sure, more needs to be done but… etc., etc., ad nauseam. What I sense, however, is a shift away from the alleged "threat" posed by al-Qaeda in Iraq – which doesn’t seem to be much of a factor anymore, according to the testimony of these two principals – and toward identifying the "real" enemy, the actual target of this administration’s latest war plans: Iran.
This came out early on in the general’s testimony, as he laid the blame for the recent violence in Basra at Tehran’s feet:
"The recent flare-up in Basra, southern Iraq, and Baghdad underscored the importance of the ceasefire declared by Moqtada al-Sadr last fall as another factor in the overall reduction in violence. Recently, of course, some militia elements became active again. Though a Sadr stand-down order resolved the situation to a degree, the flare-up also highlighted the destructive role Iran has played in funding, training, arming, and directing the so-called Special Groups and generated renewed concern about Iran in the minds of many Iraqi leaders. Unchecked, the Special Groups pose the greatest long-term threat to the viability of a democratic Iraq."
It used to be that the Sunni "dead enders," as Donald Rumsfeld called them, were the face of the enemy in Iraq. Then the administration very quickly learned that in order to sell the war to the American people, they had to somehow connect it to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Osama bin Laden, and so al-Qaeda in Iraq – a group that never existed prior to the invasion – was given top billing. But what are these "Special Groups" who have suddenly stolen the limelight?
Supposedly they are armed "rogue" elements of the various party militias that have been funded and trained by Iran, and – significantly – Lebanon’s Hezbollah organization, to carry out terrorist activities in Iraq, and, presumably, kill American and Iraqi government soldiers. An elaborate demonology has grown up in the War Party’s circles to buttress this shaky and ill-defined concept: go here, here, and here to examine its many twists and turns. This narrative is a variation on the Israeli worldview, which sees all the various Muslim and pan-Arabist groups in the region as essentially tentacles leading back to the same octopus head.
What it really boils down to, however – and this came out in the hearings, particularly in the questioning by Senators Barbara Boxer and Barack Obama – is the all-pervasive influence of the Iranians in Iraqi politics. This is the administration’s main complaint, and a major talking point of the Crocker-Petraeus dog-and-pony show. Yet this raises an important question: why, after all, should the Iranians be funding terrorist attacks on the Iraqi government, when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is being received in Baghdad with hugs and kisses and our own president has to land in the dead of night, out of fear for his safety?
The current leaders of the Iraqi government spent years in Tehran as the guests of the mullahs – who were funding, training, and providing sanctuary to the exile groups that eventually became the government of Iraq in the post-Ba’athist era. Both the Badr Brigade and the Da’wa Party – the two major components of the ruling coalition – set up headquarters in Tehran before the "liberation" and received (and continue to receive) extensive funding and military aid from the Iranians. So how are they different from these so-called Special Groups?
The answer, quite simply, is that they aren’t all that different. Both are Shi’ite. Both are vying for power. The only difference is that they belong to rival gangs, like the Crips and the Bloods. And that’s why our troops continue to die in Iraq, day after day, along with untold numbers of Iraqis: the wrong gang, by our lights, has the upper hand in Iraq, and if we leave they’ll be in power instead of our chosen thugs.
This hearing underscored why public support for the war has steadily eroded, to the point that 60 percent of the American people want a specific timetable for withdrawal. It has exposed the paucity of the War Party’s arguments, giving even members of the president’s own party, such as Chuck Hagel and Dick Lugar, a platform from which to ask the one essential question everyone at those hearings (except for John McCain and Joe Lieberman) tried to get Petraeus and Crocker to answer, and that is: where does it end? When does it end?
Where it ends is in war with Iran. That has always been the goal of our occupation and the continued deployment of U.S. troops in the region. The purpose of the "surge" is to extend the war, to surge over the border and spill the conflict into Iran, which no doubt awaits "liberation" with bated breath. Then they’ll be dancing in the streets, waving American flags, and greeting us as the Parisians greeted the Allies – you know, the way it was supposed to be the first time around in Iraq. This time, however, the neocons will have their triumph – or will they?
The clear purpose of the "special groups" alarm is to implicate Sadr as an Iranian agent – an irony in that the War Party’s main Iraqi instruments, Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress, turned out to be real Iranian agents, who didn’t hesitate to pass along vital U.S. secrets to Tehran.
Sadr, however, is a horse of an entirely different color: if anything, he’s more anti-Iranian than any Shi’ite leader in the country. For example, he and his fellow Sadrists have steadfastly opposed the scheme pushed by the major parties of the Shi’ite coalition to give the southern (heavily Shi’ite) portion of Iraq – Basra and environs – a large degree of autonomy, thus paving the way for Iranian domination and weakening the central government. The plan would have created, in effect, a "Shiastan," which would be politically and economically dependent on Tehran, but it was effectively scotched by the nationalistic Sadrists.
The big news in Iraq is the rise of the Sadrists as the main opposition party and the focal point of Iraqi nationalism. Sadr’s growing power and influence is the real reason Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered his troops to attack the Mahdi Army: upcoming provincial elections, which Sadr is sure to win in the south, could establish a rival center of power, and Maliki meant to nip this development in the bud.
What he succeeded in doing, however, was elevating Sadr’s prestige even higher, while considerably lowering his own: in the big showdown with the Mahdi Army, the Iraqi "army" reportedly fled in disarray, with a good number of them defecting. Not a very good performance, to be sure, and Maliki’s American sponsors were clearly perturbed that he went ahead with this operation without consulting them first. That’s the problem, however, with these kinds of puppets: they sometimes insist on independent action, and that’s where they fall down.
The underlying current of frustration and bafflement at this administration’s war aims often burst through to the surface at these remarkable hearings. I was particularly struck by Sen. George Voinovich’s comments about America’s impending bankruptcy, which made him sound like a less coherent, more emotional Ron Paul.
Obama, for his part, was flawless: his questions cut right to the heart of the issue. In what should be taught in schools as a textbook case of how to think logically and make rational judgments, Obama demystified the "parade of horribles" with which opponents of the war are confronted – all the supposedly horrific consequences of a U.S. withdrawal. Clearly, as Obama pointed out, we aren’t going to have a fully functioning, multi-ethnic, multi-confessional democracy in Iraq, and there will be a low but tolerable level of violence for some time to come, but – short of perfection – what degree of imperfection will we allow ourselves before we define where the endpoint is?
A clear answer from either Crocker or Petraeus wasn’t forthcoming, and yet Obama framed the question with such clarity that it seemed to answer itself.
The bad news coming out of this hearing is that the administration is trying to build up Sadr as the new Saddam. When John McCain – who used the hearings to pontificate about how failure to achieve "victory" in Iraq would constitute an abandonment of America’s "moral leadership" – averred that recent events in Basra were a setback for the U.S., Crocker replied, “It was, although it is not over yet, Senator." In his opening statement, Crocker also remarked that the "Special Groups" and Sadr were re-merging their forces – another indication that Sadr is the new devil. In Iraq, we have a potentially endless list of enemies – and endless rationales for staying. At the very least, a hundred years‘ worth…
As I’ve pointed out before, the U.S. has no desire to see Iraq emerge as a strongly unified and independent entity: after all, that would preclude our continued presence. What the Americans want is a country in disarray, with no strong leader overseeing the central government, and the various constituencies divided among themselves – all the better to dominate the country, rationalize the U.S. military presence, and prepare for war with Iran.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
I‘ll be speaking in Rockport, Maine, on Monday April 21 at the monthly luncheon of the Mid-Coast Forum on Foreign Relations, at Chez Marcel restaurant in the Samoset Resort. The program lasts from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., including a brief soiree for socializing, my talk – “The Middle East: Turning the Page on U.S. Foreign Policy” – a question-and-answer session, and luncheon. Call 207-236-8288 for more information.
I’ve been blogging up a storm over at the new, completely revamped Taki’s Magazine, where I carry on in ways they wouldn’t think of letting me get away with at Antiwar.com. At any rate, go check out this, in particular. I’m having lots of fun with the graphics.