NDN Blog

More prayer than policy

Intellectually exhausted, politically defeated and personally repudiated, President Bush and his Administraton are desperately trying to figure out what to do in Iraq.  As time goes on it is growing more likely that what they will settle on will be more prayer than policy.  They are going to put a series of things in motion that may work, but will not have a high or even probable likelihood of success, and then essentially just wish for the best.  They simply are no longer in control of what is happening in Iraq and the region, and have made it clear in recent weeks that they don't have the imagination, the humility and the strength to find not just a new path forward but a better one (see my most recent post for more).  

The Times today calls them rudderless.  The Post has yet another story about the intense military opposition to the "surge." A must-read Times op-ed today reflects on the Sunni-Shiite struggle, one that once again reminds us how unlikely it is that whatever the Administration does now will resolve the political and religious struggles that are driving the current worsening of conditions in Iraq. 

It is my sincere belief that once the Administration rejected the ISG recommendation of an intense regional diplomatic initiative they dramatically reduced the possibilty of a "victory" in Iraq and progress in a fraying Middle East.

Joint Chiefs: Bush no longer knows what to do

The Post has an explosive story out this am, one that blows to pieces the rationale behind the Bush/McCain "surge" strategy, and one that confirms that the Administration no longer has any idea about what to do about the mess they've made in the Middle East and Iraq (see my recent post No Way Out for more): 

The Bush administration is split over the idea of a surge in troops to Iraq, with White House officials aggressively promoting the concept over the unanimous disagreement of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to U.S. officials familiar with the intense debate.

Sending 15,000 to 30,000 more troops for a mission of possibly six to eight months is one of the central proposals on the table of the White House policy review to reverse the steady deterioration in Iraq. The option is being discussed as an element in a range of bigger packages, the officials said.

But the Joint Chiefs think the White House, after a month of talks, still does not have a defined mission and is latching on to the surge idea in part because of limited alternatives, despite warnings about the potential disadvantages for the military, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the White House review is not public.

The chiefs have taken a firm stand, the sources say, because they believe the strategy review will be the most important decision on Iraq to be made since the March 2003 invasion.

At regular interagency meetings and in briefing President Bush last week, the Pentagon has warned that any short-term mission may only set up the United States for bigger problems when it ends. The service chiefs have warned that a short-term mission could give an enormous edge to virtually all the armed factions in Iraq -- including al-Qaeda's foreign fighters, Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias -- without giving an enduring boost to the U.S military mission or to the Iraqi army, the officials said.

The Pentagon has cautioned that a modest surge could lead to more attacks by al-Qaeda, provide more targets for Sunni insurgents and fuel the jihadist appeal for more foreign fighters to flock to Iraq to attack U.S. troops, the officials said.

The informal but well-armed Shiite militias, the Joint Chiefs have also warned, may simply melt back into society during a U.S. surge and wait until the troops are withdrawn -- then reemerge and retake the streets of Baghdad and other cities.

Even the announcement of a time frame and mission -- such as for six months to try to secure volatile Baghdad -- could play to armed factions by allowing them to game out the new U.S. strategy, the chiefs have warned the White House.

The idea of a much larger military deployment for a longer mission is virtually off the table, at least so far, mainly for logistics reasons, say officials familiar with the debate. Any deployment of 40,000 to 50,000 would force the Pentagon to redeploy troops who were scheduled to go home.

When the President makes his grand announcement about a "new way forward" in Iraq early next year, it is going to be critical that we judge him not on whether it is a new strategy, but whether it is a better one, one that can plausibly achieve its objectives.  For example, what exactly are the troops going to do in Iraq when they get there? And if this is still a war, as the President describes, who is the enemy and how we will our troops engage and defeat them? Is the enemy the Iranian-backed Shiite militias? The Saudi-backed Sunni insurgents? Al Qaeda itself, a small but growing presence in the West?  Maliki's government, partners with the Shiite militias? The Saudis, who say they will intervene militarily if the Sunni Arabs continue to be targeted by Shiite militias? And if the troops are going in as peacekeepers and not warriors, shouldn't we say that, and admit this is a failed occupation and not a war? 

As has been said by many, there is no longer a military solution to our troubles in the Middle East.  By rejecting the core recommendation of the ISG Report, an enhanced diplomatic track intent on making progress on the political and economic problems of the region, the Administration almost certainly guarenteed that whatever path they followed would be new but not better.

New Iraq study shows dramatic rise in violence

From the Post tonight:  

Violence in Iraq rose across the board this fall to the highest levels on record, fueled by the growth of Shiite militia that have replaced al-Qaeda as the most dangerous force propelling the nation toward civil war, according to a new Pentagon report released this afternoon.

Attack levels reached record highs in all categories as the number of coalition casualties surged 32 percent and the number of weekly attacks rose 22 percent nationwide from mid-August to mid-November, compared with the previous three months, according to the congressionally mandated Pentagon report.

The report documents that U.S. and Iraqi operations to quell violence in Baghdad ultimately failed, with attacks dipping in August before rebounding in September as death squads adapted to the increased presence of U.S. and Iraqi troops.

Meanwhile, Iraqi public fears of civil war grew, while confidence in the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki dropped significantly as Maliki's efforts at political reconciliation have shown "little progress," the report said.

Titled "Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq," the 50-page report is issued quarterly and compiled by the Pentagon at the behest of Congress.

It found that Iraqi civilian casualties rose 60 percent following the rise of the Maliki government in May.

So when folks like McCain propose a surge of American troops in Iraq, something rejected by the Joint Chiefs and Colin Powell, he is really talking about going after the Shiite militias, now an integral part of the Maliki government? I still can't really understand what the goal of the surge is. 

Update: The Times has a story this am about the failing electrical system in Baghdad:

BAGHDAD, Dec. 18 — Over the past six months, Baghdad has been all but isolated electrically, Iraqi officials say, as insurgents have effectively won their battle to bring down critical high-voltage lines and cut off the capital from the major power plants to the north, south and west.

The battle has been waged in the remotest parts of the open desert, where the great towers that support thousands of miles of exposed lines are frequently felled with explosive charges in increasingly determined and sophisticated attacks, generally at night. Crews that arrive to repair the damage are often attacked and sometimes killed, ensuring that the government falls further and further behind as it attempts to repair the lines.

And in a measure of the deep disunity and dysfunction of this nation, when the repair crews and security forces are slow to respond, skilled looters often arrive with heavy trucks that pull down more of the towers to steal as much of the valuable aluminum conducting material in the lines as possible. The aluminum is melted into ingots and sold.

What amounts to an electrical siege of Baghdad is reflected in constant power failures and disastrously poor service in the capital, with severe consequences for security, governance, health care and the mood of an already weary and angry populace.

More evidence elections a setback for Ahmadinejad

The Times has another story tonight on how the initial returns In Iran appear to be a setback for Ahmadinejad.

White House attempts to censor debate about Iran

Follow this developing story at its source, the Washington Note, the blog of my good friend Steve Clemons.

Powell agrees Bush will not offer a better way forward

The Washington Post has a very good story on the former Secretary of State adding his voice to the chorus voicing doubt about the Administration's current thinking on the Middle East:

Former secretary of state Colin L. Powell said today that the United States is losing what he described as a "civil war" in Iraq and that he is not persuaded that an increase in U.S. troops there would reverse the situation. Instead, he called for a new strategy that would relinquish responsibility for Iraqi security to the government in Baghdad sooner rather than later, with a U.S. drawdown to begin by the middle of next year.

Powell's comments broke his long public silence on the issue and placed him at odds with the administration. President Bush is considering options for a new military strategy -- among them a "surge" of 15,000 to 30,000 troops added to the current 140,000 in Iraq, to secure Baghdad and to accelerate the training of Iraqi forces, as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others have proposed; or a redirection of the U.S. military away from fighting the insurgency to focus mainly on hunting al-Qaeda terrorists, as the nation's top military leaders proposed last week in a meeting with the president.

But Bush has rejected the dire conclusions of the Iraq Study Group and its recommendations to set parameters for a phased withdrawal to begin next year, and he has insisted that the Iraq insurgency is not a civil war.

"I agree with the assessment of Mr. Baker and Mr. Hamilton," Powell said, referring to the study group's leaders James A. Baker and Lee Hamilton. The situation in Iraq is "grave and deteriorating and we're not winning, we are losing. We haven't lost. And this is the time, now, to start to put in place the kinds of strategies that will turn this situation around."

Speaking on CBS's "Face the Nation," Powell seemed to draw as much from his 35-year Army career, including four years as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as from his more recent difficult tenure as Bush's chief diplomat.

Last summer's surge of U.S. troops to try to stabilize Baghdad had failed, he said, and any new attempt was unlikely to succeed. "If somebody proposes that additional troops be sent, if I was still chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, my first question . . . is what mission is it these troops are supposed to accomplish . . . is it something that is really accomplishable . . . do we have enough troops to accomplish it?"

Although he said he agreed with Central Command head Gen. John Abizaid that there should be an increase in U.S. advisers to the Iraqi military, "sooner or later you have to begin the baton pass, passing it off to the Iraqis for their security and to begin the draw-down of U.S. forces. I think that's got to happen sometime before the middle of next year."

Before any decision to increase troops, "I'd want to have a clear understanding of what it is they're going for, how long they're going for. And let's be clear about something else. . . . There really are no additional troops. All we would be doing is keeping some of the troops who were there, there longer and escalating or accelerating the arrival of other troops."

"That's how you surge. And that surge cannot be sustained." The "active Army is about broken," Powell said. Even beyond Iraq, the Army and Marines have to "grow in size, in my military judgment," and Congress must provide significant additional funding to sustain them.

Powell also agreed with the study group's recommendation that the administration open talks with Syria and Iran as it gropes for a solution to the Iraq problem. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have explicitly rejected talks until Syria ends its destabilizing influence in Lebanon and support for anti-Israel militants, and until Iran suspends its nuclear enrichment program. The administration has charged both countries with aiding the Iraqi insurgency.

"Do they get marginal support from Iran and Syria? You bet they do," Powell said of the Iraqis. "I have no illusions that either Syria or Iran want to help us in Iraq. I am also quite confident that what is happening in Iraq is self-generated for the most part. The money, the resources, the weapons are in Iraq already."

"Are Iran and Syria regimes that I look down upon? I certainly do. But at the same time, I've looked down on many people over the years, in the course of my military and diplomatic career, and I still had to talk to them."

Sunday papers look at the Middle East

The NYTimes' Week in Reivew section today devotes lots of space to the Sunni-Shiite dynamic in the Middle East, a subject we've been writing about a great deal in recent weeks, and yesterday.    

Their main story talks mostly of Cheney's "Shiite tilt" theory, an idea that seems to be getting the appropriate amount of cold water thrown on it in Washington.  A second piece offers lots of good insight on how to think about Iran.  And a third gives some basic background on the Sunni-Shiite split. 

It is refreshing to see American elites beginning to come to terms with the complexity of finding a better path forward in the Middle East today, a process greatly accelerated by the Iraq Study Group Report.  But at the same time this complexity, and the utter mess our Iraq policy has brought, seems to be causing a dangerous paralysis in the White House.  As the Washington Post reports this am, and has been confirmed in many other stories, our President seems to be rejecting any new thinking on the Middle East, and will end up deciding to ride out his current failed strategy.  

No matter how they dress up this version of "stay the course," progressives cannot for one moment accept a "new path forward" that is not a better one.  All of us need to prepare for what is shaping up to be a major and sustained debate about the objectives of American foreign policy and a new strategy for the Middle East early next year.

More on Iran, a response to the Agonist

Blogger Sean-Paul Kelley has written that my characterization of the Iran-Iraq war in a recent post was inaccurate, and has also taken exception to several of my conclusions about what is happening in the Middle East today.  I will not respond to all his points here today, as many of them are addressed in other recent posts about the worsening situation in the Middle East.  I will however address one very spot-on criticism directly, my characterization of the Iran-Iraq war. 

Looking at it now, it was not the most artfully written part of the post, so let me restate what I was trying to say.   Iraq invaded Iran in 1980.  Iran defended herself, and the two countries went to war.  One of the main reason Saddam attacked Iran was to slow the march of Shia Islam, newly emboldened with the success of the Iranian Revolution in 1979.  Many of the leaders of the Iranian revolution trained at the Shiite religious center of Najaf, in southern Iraq.  Saddam was worried that the the revolution could spread to Iraq, and eventually topple his Sunni-led government.  So while there were many reasons for this conflict, one of the main reasons the war broke out and lasted so long was the Sunni-Shiite tension beneath it all. 

The United States backed Saddam Hussein in this eight year-long war.  Even though Iraqi Shiites fought against Iranian Shiites for eight bloody years, and the Iraqi identity trumped the Shiite one, there can be no question that we sided with the region’s Sunni Arabs in a war against the revolutionary Shiite in Iran.  We too wanted to slow the momentum of the Iranian revolution, one that was virulently anti-American. 

In the Middle East today we are trying to prevent Iraq from becoming a proxy war between the Sunni Arabs and the Persian Shiites and their allies.   Iran has regional hegemonic ambitions.  With the coming to power of Shiites in Iraq, the first Shiite-led Arab government in Islam's history, Iran was given an historic opportunity to weaken the Sunni political hold over the lands where the Shiites live, and where they have been oppressed for more than a thousand years.  In Lebanon, for example, the current efforts of Iran's proxy and ally, Hezbollah, to topple the pro-Western Lebanese government, if successful will strengthen the hand of the pro-Iranian Shiite Hezbollah at the expense of the Sunni-backed government, and further tip the balance of power towards the Shiites in the region.  Sunni Saudi Arabia has become so alarmed at all this that they have made it clear that unless America contains the Shiites there could be a regional Sunni-Shiite war. 

Finally, the stories this week about the Iranian-backed Holocaust denier conference in Tehran is a must-read for anyone trying to make sense of all this.  Calling from the eradication of Israel and holding a conference for those who believe the Holocaust never happened confirms that the current Iranian government is a dangerous, destabilizing and belligerent political force in the Middle East.  It is no wonder the Israels are terribly worried about Iran developing nuclear weapons, and imagine the international reaction if an Israeli leader called for the elimination of an Arab state like Syria.  The Iranians need to be held to the same standard in a fragile and explosive part of the world. 

The Iranian political leadership has repeatedly called for the elimination of Israel.  It is funding and training the most radical Shiite militias in Iraq, who are a critical part of the Shiite-led Iraqi government.  It has funded and built Hezbollah into a regional force which is now trying to topple a democratically-elected government in Lebanon, and provoked a military confrontation with Israel (remember that the Sunni Arab nations of the Middle East backed Israel’s effort to weaken the Shiite Hezbollah, the first time Arab nations has backed an Israeli military action in history).  It funds Hamas, another regional force bent on the destruction of Israel and now currently fighting the more moderate and pro-Western Fatah faction in Palestine.  It has blown off the international community’s efforts to stop their illegal nuclear program.  Its greatest source of income is from oil, and thus has a financial incentive to foster instability in the Middle East to help keep oil prices high. The well-respected Freedom House rates Iran as one of the least free nations in the world today. 

While Iran may not control Sadr, Hamas and Hezbollah, they are political allies, and are working together for a common cause: the weakening of those who have power today in the Middle East – the Sunnis, the Americans and America’s ally, Israel. 

As progressives look to correct the great foreign policy failures of the Bush era, and I for one believe that we must foster some sort of regional peace and reconciliation process that includes all the actors in the region, including Iran and Syria, we cannot view Iran through rose-colored glasses.  No matter what happens in the Iranian elections this weekend, Iran is a nation controled by radicals, has aggressive regional ambitions, has called for the elimination of America's greatest ally in the region, and is looking to alter the ancient balance between Sunni and Shiites.  Iran will be a difficult and destablizing force in the Middle East for some time to come and cannot be treated with kid gloves.   

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