The “New” Iraq

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss? George W. Bush announced his next phase plans for Iraq to the nation last night, sending “over 20,000” additional troops, many of whom will be dispersed in Baghdad neighborhoods. On its face, Mr. Bush’s plans seems likely to increase the pace of American casualties, unless all those troops do nothing but guard their own bases.

The Congress-controlling Democrats jumped out in front of Mr. Bush’s announcement to state their opposition to any increase in the number of American troops in Iraq. Meet the new Congress, NOT the same as the old Congress. With the exception of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) very few members of Mr. Bush’s party are speaking “surge” soundbites for the media. The already-underway 2008 presidential campaign is influencing the positions of Mr. McCain, Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Barack Obama (D-IL) and a host of lesser-knowns in each party. Mr. Bush’s rush to deploy the first of the “surge” troops before Congress has the chance to weigh in will further poison an already-difficult relationship between the Oval Office and Capitol Hill.

Whatever Mr. Bush desires for Iraq – I’m sure his real desire is that he had listened to his father and never invaded in the first place – the reality in Iraq is about the vengeance of the Shi’ites. That was the message of Saddam’s hanging on 30 December. Of course, that cell phone video was meant to be leaked, so the majority Shi’ite community would know Saddam died with his ears full of contempt from his opponents and so Iraq’s five million Sunnis would be assured their era is over and paybacks will not be denied.

There was a message for Mr. Bush and the U.S. military in the Saddam video too: You can leave any time you want. Iraq belongs to the Shi’ites now and it will be run as the Shi’ites see fit – a ruthless, Iran-style regime. The Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi army and police forces and the Shi’ite militias are now strong enough to control everything south of Kurdistan. The U.S can choose to keep whatever number of troops it wishes in Iraq, but the Shi’ites will from now on just consider them to be in the way and running the risk of being killed.

That’s an immature position, but then Iraq’s Shi’ites are politically immature, by international standards. I doubt they care. They know they are sitting on huge reserves of oil and gas; those reserves will lubricate international relations, regardless of Shi’ite behavior.

This puts the Bush administration in a bind. While it formally transferred ruling authority to the Shi’ite-led government over a year ago, Mr. Bush undermined Nouri al-Maliki’s authority Wednesday night by dictating how U.S. and Iraqi forces will behave and prescribing the reversal of “de-Baathification” policies. On the other hand, standing by and doing nothing would have amounted to complicity to Shi’ite authoritarianism; pulling U.S. troops out will probably lead to ethnic cleansing inside Iraq and certainly to a massive freak-out by the Saudis and Jordanians.

The lesson here is one George Bush has heard for over four years but he always refused to listen: Saddam Hussein, brutal though he was, posed no threat to the United States and invading Iraq served no interest of the U.S. government. The invasion and occupation did serve the everlasting detriment of tens of thousands of dead and wounded U.S. military and their families and the Iraqi people may be worse off than they were before. Maybe they’re a bit better off. Either way, it’s a matter of one or two percentage points at most.

Little insight is needed to know Mr. Bush is faced with a buffet of bad options, but is there any way forward? If there is, it begins with diplomacy, a skill the Bush administration has never learned and until now has openly disdained. If there’s an aspect of the Bush Iraq plan that needs a “surge” it’s diplomacy. Getting John Bolton out of the UN was a good first step; it’s one that should not have been forced on Mr. Bush by Congress. Next step: Condoleezza Rice must go as secretary of state. She, like her boss, has always acted like a bully; it’s far too late for her to start fresh. She should join Donald Rumsfeld in the failed secretaries club. Mr. Bush should turn to someone in whom the nation and the international community can have confidence and he should listen to that person’s advice. Maybe another member of his father’s circle, or maybe – Colin Powell.

Perhaps the smartest move at this point would be to invite Mr. Powell back into the administration and this time, his views should be treated with respect. It would send a powerful signal and for Mr. Powell, give him a shot at redeeming himself for having made that dreadful, misleading presentation to the UN Security Council four years ago.

© Mark Floegel, 2007

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